An adventurous (and slightly anarchic) guide to exploring Iceland

Posted by for Travel

When it came to choosing someone to write a travel story for her Stylist guest edit, Adwoa Aboah had only one person in mind. Her sister, artist and model Kesewa Aboah, had just spent a month in Iceland creating art and exploring the country – and she came back with some very funny stories…

Everyone thought I was crazy to go to Iceland for a month in winter. I’d never been anywhere cold on holiday but I wanted to see the Northern Lights so I was like, ‘I’m going’. I found an art residency in Ísafjörður in northern Iceland where you get somewhere to live and a studio to work in and went by myself. Then, three weeks in, I met up with my friends for a girls’ weekend in Reykjavik.

Things always go wrong when I travel. This time my card got swallowed, my sewing machine blew up because I forgot to buy a converter for it and I had to car pool to Reykjavik because my flight from Ísafjörður was cancelled. I sat in the back of the car for six hours with two huge strangers – at 5ft 11in, I’m not exactly small so we were really squashed up. That was a long ride.

Northern Iceland is a beautiful place but not somewhere tourists usually go; it’s incredibly remote and the landscape is quite surreal. Ísafjörður is a tiny town set between two mountains on a spit of land in a fjord. The 2,600 residents are lovely, really welcoming, but they were like, ‘Why did you come here in the middle of winter? That’s odd’.

Kesewa Aboah in Iceland
Travel tip: If you’ve forgotten a hat, just wrap a towel around your head

I’m an awful cook so I ate breakfast and lunch pretty much every day in this wonderful veggie café called Heimabyggð where they made their own bread and had a really good halloumi open sandwich. For dinner I’d go to Húsið or Edinborg Bistro for a meal and have a glass of wine with the bistro owner. 

My work was delayed because of my exploding sewing machine, but that meant I got to hire a car for a couple of days and explore the surrounding country. There was ice all over the roads so even though you could go 90km/h, I stuck to 70km/h and people would honk because I was too slow.

I went climbing in the mountains and found an amazing, discreet hot pool in the middle of nowhere. It was wonderful. I also went to a lovely hot pool in Bolungarvík, a nearby village, but all these old men climbed in and you could see they were thinking, ‘What is this girl doing here?’ But I made some local friends and they called me a Valkyrie, a Viking woman. I was so proud of that.

Kesewa aboah in a shallow hot pool in iceland
Not quite the idyllic hot pool Kesewa was expecting 

I met my friends in Reykjavik but things still kept going wrong. I’d heard about a hot pool that was off the beaten track so I told them we should go. It was meant to be a 30-minute walk through the snowy mountains, then you could relax in a beautiful hot pool.

We all set off but it was a disaster. I was wearing trainers, one of my friends didn’t have gloves, another didn’t have a hat or a scarf and my other friend had boots with smooth soles which meant she kept slipping over. It was windy, freezing – the average temperature in Reykjavik is around 1-2°C in winter – and we were walking and walking. Each of us had moments when our sense of humour failed, so I tried to keep the morale up because I had made them spend all their money coming to visit.

Ninety minutes later, we got there. The hot pool was more like a stream but we needed to warm up so we changed and got in. The water was tepid and so shallow you had to lie flat to get it to cover you. It was like lying in a bath you’ve left to go cold. In the end, we just sat there laughing.

We also visited The Icelandic Phallological Museum. It was so funny and kitsch. They have a huge sperm whale penis, an elephant penis and a human one. It’s where I did most of my souvenir shopping. I bought my sister a penis keyring, her boyfriend a willy warmer (is that inappropriate?), and a giant, carved penis bottle opener for myself. It stands proudly on my shelf in my bedroom until I have my own home to use it in.

So that’s what a sperm whale’s penis in a jar looks like

The food in Iceland was amazing, especially the fish. On a couple of evenings we went to Messinn where they grill a whole fish for you and serve it in a pan with different sauces. Then we went to this fun bar called Prikid. It turns out Icelandics really like hip hop, so we had a big night of dancing followed by a hangover brunch the next morning at French bistro Snaps, which saved us.

My friends headed home and I went to back to Ísafjörður for a final week of work. On my last night there – after a whole month – I finally saw the Northern Lights. I thought they’d just be a streak of colour going through the sky but they were so alive and cheeky; they kind of play with you, almost like a spirit. They were such an amazing sight, I cried a couple of tears. The most beautiful end to a magical trip.

Affordable accommodation in Reykjavik

Iceland’s capital can be expensive, but you don’t have to blow your budget to stay there.

  • hotel-reykjavik-centrum

    HOTEL REYKJAVIK CENTRUM

    On the outside, this four-star hotel set on one of Reykjavik’s oldest streets has a nostalgic guesthouse feel, but inside, each of its 89 rooms are distinctly chic and modern. The location is perfect for exploring Reykjavik’s museums, shops and restaurants.

  • Kex hostel

    KEX HOSTEL

    Housed in a former biscuit factory (‘kex’ means biscuit in Icelandic), this contemporary hostel offers a variety of dorms and private rooms, all furnished with vintage and salvaged items. The pub downstairs serves simple Icelandic dishes – handy on a chilly evening.

  • HLEMMUR SQUARE HOTEL AND HOSTEL

    Situated in Reykjavik’s only art deco building, this is a luxury hotel and hostel, dreamt up by hotelier Klaus Ortlieb, who has worked at Claridge’s, Mercer Hotel Soho and Chateau Marmont. Think comfy rooms, pops of colour and cool artworks.

We’re celebrating Stylist’s 10th birthday in 2019 – and to honour the occasion, we’ve asked 10 of our favourite women to guest edit an issue of the magazine. Adwoa Aboah is our second star guest editor; see everything from her special issue here

Photography: Getty, Kesewa Aboah, Kex Hostel, Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, Hlemmur Square Hotel And Hostel

Share this article