In 1968 it was easy to “experience” a slice Iceland without large crowds on a 48 hour stopover. The tour companies developed the “Golden Circle,” a day tour that take you to a waterfall, geothermal area with a geyser, the place where the North American and European plates are separating (also the site of the world’s first parliament in 930 CE). You could add a historic church and volcano crater and still make it in a day. Today there are a LOT more visitors, they come from cruise ships and a much expanded Icelandair network coming from cities all over the UN and not just New York, and going to many more European airports.
You can still do the Golden Circle but it is crowded, there are lots of buses, and lots of gift shops, snack bars and other diversions from the things you have come to see.
Iceland had developed other possibilities to experience Iceland. If you are here a week you can drive completely around the island. If you are in the North, you can do the “Diamond Circle” with waterfalls, geothermal areas and other attractions.
And of course, you can walk around Reykjavik and enjoy the city as we did.
But Iceland has created “experiences” that are easy to access. I call them Ersatz Iceland. Ersatz comes from the German word “substitute.” We attended two of them, Sky Lagoon and Perlan.
Sky Lagoon is new, built during the pandemic. It is an artificial lagoon filled with geothermal heated water. It does not have the sulfuric smell of some of the natural springs. The exterior is a turf covered building. One review says it looks like the lair of a Bond villain. Once inside the lagoon looks like a natural rock lagoon, with caves and bays. Along the back edge it is an “infinity pool” making it look like the lagoon is one with the ocean beyond. There are views of mountains and a big glacier in the distance.
The appeal if the “traditional bathing ritual.” The word “ritual” put me off. I envisioned sitting in a circle, beating a drum and chanting from inscriptions on ancient runestones. It was more interesting than that. It was a seven-step process. Swim in the lagoon, take a dip into the cold plunge, go into a sauna that has a glass wall looking out over the bay, mountains and glacier beyond, walk into a room with a cool mist (my favorite after the hot sauna), an exfoliating scrub with salt and oils, a steam bath and finally a shower to wash off the salts. After the 7 steps it was back into the pool where you could swim to a bar for a drink. (We just had a glass of water.) The brochure says allow two hours. We spent a lot more time than that there. We knew it was not traditional but being only 15 minutes out of town it was worth the time and the relaxing indulgence we needed.
Perlan natural history museum with a lot of “experiences.” The site originally had six hot water tanks in a location high enough to provide good water pressure to a 10 story building at sea level. Four of the tanks are still being used. One has been converted into a glacial ice cave, with levels of real ice and silt. The other tank is a planetarium where the Aurora is guaranteed. Since I’ve seen the aurora many times in Alaska I wondered if I would enjoy the ersatz experience. I did. As well as experience the aurora the show included spacecraft pictures of the Aurora on Earth, Jupiter, Saturn and one of Jupiter’s moons along with pictures of solar flairs and a good explanation of the Aurora.
Perlan has a glass dome with a restaurant (where we had a late lunch) and a 360 view of Reykjavik, a “volcano” eruption experience, and a 10 meter cliff with stuffed nesting sea birds. There are even binoculars to do bird watching. The museum had a good exhibit on melting glaciers, including a 10-year timelapse movie of the retreat of Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. It also had a big screen where you can point at a scene and make something happen, like calve a glacier or unleash a Jokulhlaup (a glacial outburst flood.) A zipline was advertised but we couldn’t find it. Either it hasn’t been installed yet or it’s been removed. Perlan is one of the best natural history museums I have seen.
And then there were the sunsets.