It was meant to be a trip to Sweden to help my husband and his siblings trace their roots, but when my sister-in-law learned that we would connect through Iceland, she suggested we take a few days there to check it out. Why not? It turns out that Icelandair offers a layover in Reykjavik of up to a week without additional fees. The only catch was that we would arrive in Iceland at 6 a.m. To make our jet lag as tolerable as possible, we would need to join the local time zone immediately and stay awake for the rest of that long day. Happily, there was plenty to keep us busy.
Our kind taxi driver, Siddi Kristinsson, took us into Reykjavik, about a 45-minute drive from the Keflavik International Airport, while he told us about the surrounding lava fields and explained that geothermal resources in Iceland make the electricity there the cheapest in the world. We passed an American factory that makes aluminum from raw materials they ship to Iceland because melting them there is so inexpensive. He continued to point out important spots as we wound through Reykjavik to the harbor where our apartment awaited.
After dropping our luggage, we were ready for our first Stay Awake Day adventure. My sister-in-law is a horsewoman and has always wanted to learn how to tolt — a gait specific to Icelandic horses — so that was our first stop. We joined a prebooked tour just a block from our apartment at a popular meeting point. Unfortunately, it was not well-marked, so there was some confusion with our first pickup. Once we knew the system, however, it was quite smooth. Buses are not allowed in many small downtown streets, so this arrangement allows tour operators to meet visitors in an organized, less-congested way.
The sun rose low overhead during our ride across the lava fields on an unusually clear day. Because of the country’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, the sun rises and sets in different places and to different heights throughout the year. Some days it is up for only four hours. Others it is up for 20 — sometimes tempting sly golfers to sneak games into the wee hours of the morning.
The horses we rode are not to be called ponies. Ever. It is a matter of pride with the Icelanders who have bred these animals from the stock originally brought to the island by Viking settlers. They are rugged and small and have the unique and smooth gait called tolting that sits just between a walk and a trot. Competitions are held to see who can tolt the farthest without spilling a mug of beer. Some in our company preferred to enjoy a gentle walk, so the guides split us into two groups of walkers and tolters.
One clever guide eyed up my sister-in-law’s well-worn boots and recognized her as a seasoned rider who needed to switch into their Icelandic footwear. The horses in Iceland are not vaccinated, so the owners are very cautious about cross-contamination with foreign animals. Icelandic horses are also never permitted to travel out of the country. If one leaves for a show or exhibition, it must never return.
After our ride across the lava fields, we were driven back to the Reykjavik Harbor, where we hopped onto a boat bound for whale-watching and grabbed sandwiches and snacks at an onboard cafe. We were fortunate to have calm seas and a bright-blue sky for our adventure. As we motored into the bay, our guide explained that a tell-tale sign of a nearby whale is a flock of birds diving into the water. The warm water of the North Atlantic Ocean meets the cold water of the Greenland Sea just off the coast of Iceland and creates an abundance of food for hungry birds and sea life. Where birds are dining, it is likely whales are at the feast, too.
We weren’t disappointed. En route to the feeding grounds we watched for birds while white-beaked dolphins leapt and played in the bow wake of our boat. Soon we could see minke whales slipping through distant water. One swirled up near the surface, rolled over and dove deep, showing us its big white belly as it went. And then, just as we turned back to the harbor, a humpback whale demonstrated how it earned the name by hunching its back out of the water before a dive down to find more dinner.
Bleary-eyed and ready for bed, my family pushed on to a surprise dinner I had planned for them. A nearby pub bore our family name — nearly. Its spelling was one letter off from ours, but it was exciting enough to bring smiles to my weary crew. It turns out that COVID-19 had ended the Frederiksen Ale House’s dining options, but the pizzeria next door was happy to deliver light sourdough-crusted pies to us there. It was just what we needed to reach the 6 p.m. target we had set for our Stay Awake Day.
Iceland’s surprises weren’t quite complete, though. Despite sleeping for the better part of the next 12 hours, a few of us woke in the night to hydrate and peek out our fourth-floor windows over the harbor. Wouldn’t you know, the unusually clear skies over Reykjavik were filled with glowing green swirls from the northern lights. Welcome to Iceland.
When You Go
Book an apartment: www.airbnb.com.
Go tolting: www.ishestar.is.
See the whales: www.specialtours.is.
Stop over a while: www.icelandair.com.
Toast the town: www.facebook.com/frederiksenalehouse.
Hire a guide: Book Sigtryggur (Siddi) Kristinsson or his partner, Gutti, by emailing them at email@example.com.