Stylist’s editorial assistant Moya Lothian-McLean tastes home-grown goodness in Reykjavik
Turns out I’ve never been cold. Not properly cold anyway, not the Icelandic chill that has me safely bundled into four knitted layers including a down-lined coat (courtesy of a worried Scandinavian boyfriend: “You don’t understand. You’ll need it,”) and gazing with wonder at a staggeringly beautiful snow-capped monochromatic landscape. My nose is taking a beating from the wind but it’s worth it; the guided tour of Reykjavik I’m on has briefly deposited our group on the seashore, if craggy, weathered rocks can be described as such. For the first time, mountains are planted squarely in front of my eyes and they’re stunning. “I heard Bjork lives in that cave,” says one joker, pointing to a distant outcrop. With all the magic of Iceland taken into account, it’s a real possibility.
The stop is part of a tour provided by Reykjavik Excursions (re.is) that offers a comprehensive introduction to Iceland’s ancient capital, now one of the ‘cleanest and greenest’ urban settlements in the world. It’s a far cry from the smoggy bustle of London I’ve left behind for my three day escape; Reykajavik’s unpolluted purity makes it the perfect destination for a Spring refresh (although visitors in June and July get to experience 24 hours of sunshine which sounds equally appealing). Led by a guide who revealed a haunting soprano voice under the imposing baselled arches of our first destination, the country’s largest place of worship, Hallgrímskirkja Church- we’re introduced to the central tenets of Icelandic culture. One of which is, I learn, making the most out of fairly little.
Icelanders are the first to admit their land is not naturally fruitful. On one fascinating foodie stop, cheese experts at famous local deli Burid (burid.is) taught my group that prime natural export Skyr, is literally lifesaving; after a miniature ice age in the 1300s, farmers were unable to grow grains so Skyr (a mild dairy product similar to strained yoghurt made from goat, cow or sheep milk) allowed the remaining human population to survive. Such an unfriendly environment doesn’t suggest a rich food scene but Reykjavik is a must for anyone who cleans their plate so fast they miss the chance to Instagram their food (guilty) or supports sustainability. The City Council has pledged to reduce the city’s food waste by 20% in 2017 and a nationwide ban on McDonalds helps hammer home the message: home-grown only please.
Omnom Chocolate is the first bean-to-bar business in the country producing small-batch artisan chocolate in amazing flavour combinations (try the Spiced White + Caramel blend at cocoarunners.com, £8.95, it’s a revelation). Located on the site of a former petrol station, it’s an unlikely but fun destination and the chocolate is a favourite of Iceland’s former First Lady.
To continue the assault on my palate, I popped into the highly recommended traditional Café Loki for a small taste of fermented shark and stewed fish. Delicious but also eye-wateringly expensive, setting me back about 4261 krona (£30). Turns out economic infrastructures supporting an excellent social welfare system are pricey for outsiders. #Whoknew?
Luckily, I could gorge myself on local sustainable cuisine for relatively little back at base. The newly opened Canopy by Hilton in Reykjavik is a hotel that fully understands the surge of interest in immersive experiences. Nightly complimentary food and drink tasting sessions at the bar with Reykjavik artisans enabled me to snack on delicacies and sip inventive cocktails while chatting to staff, all who possessed a deep knowledge of Reykjavik’s cultural hotspots and were able to direct me towards the gems.
For night owls not put off by temperatures regularly dipping into the minuses (in winter the sun sets at 4pm) partying is a year round fixture. In August, you can take part in Reykjavik Pride, Iceland’s biggest festival in full sunlight (last year the city’s main street was daubed in rainbow colours to mark the occasion) but in winter, as I discovered, Icelanders are still serious about having fun.
Lebowski Bar, dedicated to all things The Dude, was sparsely populated when we entered at about 9PM but absolutely packed with folks from all different walks by the time I began belting along with the 80s pop playlist at midnight.
We then wobbled our way to the welcoming and wild Kiki Queer Bar; a tiny sweatbox located at the top of a flight of creaky wooden stairs. It’s an LGBTQ venue which is equally hospitable to heterosexual party people and where I felt misguidedly confident enough to present a surprised audience with an enthusiastic Beyoncé routine (Crazy in Love, did you even need to ask?). I stayed long after my group had called it a day, dancing with a crowd of typically lovely Reykjavik natives, rolling back to collapse happily under my plush Canopy charcoal duvet in the wee hours.
Despite a sore head, I was determined to stop off at the famed Blue Lagoon before flying home (admission from £40, bluelagoon.com). As a sufferer from persistent eczema, I wanted to test the healing properties of one of the world’s 25 official wonders for myself. Dawn broke in properly cinematic fashion as I submerged myself in deliciously warm aquamarine water, for once fully present, my phone having been abandoned at the locker room (although dedicated selfie takers could hire waterproof cases). Utter bliss – until I smeared on a mud mask so cold I was hit with brain freeze through my face. It’s true though- the Blue Lagoon with its mysterious silica really does heal all ills - my eczema plagued hands were the best they’d been for a week afterwards. So now I have the perfect excuse to go back.