Nature & Nurture: Warm & Very Gay-Friendly Iceland
When most Americans think of Iceland - that is, when they think of it at all - they probably conjure up visions of an ice-covered, barren, isolated, primitive place. That, and maybe Björk.
Before my recent visit there, I admit that I didn't know what to expect. What I discovered was a profoundly beautiful landscape unlike anything I've ever experienced.
But even beyond the incredible natural wonders, the Icelandic people were a revelation. Many countries advertise themselves as friendly, but the universal warmth and friendliness made this one of the most memorable trips I've ever taken.
Iceland is especially suited to the gay tourist. It's probably the most welcoming and accepting culture in the world. Its overall attitude can be seen in the fact that the first out-gay head of government anywhere in the world is the current prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurardóttir.
But what's even more interesting is the reaction of her fellow Icelanders. When she was voted into office in 2009, her sexual identity was not only a non-issue, it also wasn't even discussed. It only became important when the rest of the world's media focused on it. The subsequent local media coverage was thus a bemused reaction to the fact that we in North America and Europe found it important.
In recent decades, Iceland has been ahead of the curve on gay issues. It decriminalized same-sex activity back in 1940, legalized same-sex unions in 1996 and marriage in 2002. (The prime minister is married to a popular children's book author.)
Many attribute this laissez-faire attitude to the insular nature of the thinly populated island. With only 319,000 people, 120,000 of whom live in the capital, Reykjavik, this is a country where not only does everyone seem to know everyone else, but also they're nearly all distantly related, according to recent studies of the population's genealogy. This has resulted in a kinship that's especially striking for people in a nation as diverse as the United States.
Because of the intimacy of the population and the island's relative isolation, Iceland hasn't been subject to many of the ills that bedevil the rest of the world. This has created an idyllic society that the rest of us can only envy. Iceland has no standing armed forces - no army, no navy, no air force.
The prime minister's "mansion" is a relatively modest dwelling in Downtown Reykjavik, notable mostly for its being so unnoticeable; there are no police or other obvious security presence. When our group visited City Hall, we marched right in - no security checkpoints, no metal detector.
So Near & Yet So Far
On the map, Iceland looks as isolated as a country can be. It’s the farthest substantially populated area in the North Atlantic (the nearby giant island of Greenland has so few people it hardly counts). The nearest populated land mass is Great Britain, and even there it’s several hundred miles from the furthest-out Scottish islands.
The surprise is how accessible it is for Americans. Icelandair offers regular daily flights from New York’s JFK, and Seattle. It just added Boston and will begin flights from Denver in May. It also has flights on a seasonal basis from Orlando, Washington, D.C. (Dulles) and Toronto.
From JFK, the flight was only a few hours - short enough that people often take a long weekend vacation. When I landed in Reykjavik, I saw someone I recognized from my gym in New York who coincidentally was seated next to me on the flight home. He had gone with a friend just to go horseback riding.
What makes Iceland especially inviting for Americans is the universality of English. Everyone in Iceland learns Icelandic, an ancient language that, thanks to its long-time isolation is the purest form of Old Nordic, as well as Danish (until the Second World War, it was part of the Kingdom of Denmark, as Greenland still is, and maintains strong ties to the Mother Country). But thanks largely to the ubiquity of American popular culture, everyone in Reykjavik speaks near-perfect English.
The trip itself was a pure joy. Icelandair has long been famous as one of the lowest-cost international airlines anywhere.
Way back in the ’70s, I was one of many Americans who enjoyed the ultra-low cost flights on the airline’s predecessor to Europe. It was then known as the "hippie highway" because of its popularity with cash-strapped young people. Today, the airline maintains that tradition of amazingly low fares compared to other European-based airlines.
As for the weather, even though the northernmost tip of the island is inside the Arctic Circle, the winters are surprisingly mild thanks to the ocean currents. I was there in February, and the temperature was only a few degrees lower than when I left New York.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t get cold; it’s just that it doesn’t get bone-chillingly cold very often. The summers, of course, are much warmer, and the pleasantly mild temperatures are a huge draw for those suffering from hot, humid days.
Bathing in the Blue Lagoon
The reason for my trip to Iceland was to partake in "Rainbow Reykjavik," a gay weekend series of events that included visits to the island’s natural wonders. The participants were a truly international crowd that included gay men and lesbians from Germany, Norway, Sweden, France and Denmark.
Upon landing at the airport, I made the 40-minute trip into Reykjavik. Although relatively small, this charming capital city boasts several world-class hotels that can hold their own with accommodations in any European capital. I stayed at the Hilton, which had beautifully appointed rooms, a gorgeous (and well-stocked) bar, and a restaurant.
In the morning, I was treated to what had to be the finest breakfast spread I’ve ever experienced anywhere, a vast array of prepared meats, eggs, breads, cheeses, fruit and anything else you can imagine. At the front of the line were small cups and a giant bottle of cod liver oil - a local product, since cod is one of the island’s mainstays.
The daily quota of Omega 3 oil is one of the many contributions to the health of the locals, who have the highest longevity in the world for men, third longest for women.
After breakfast, we were whisked to one of the natural treasures for which Iceland is world famous, the Blue Lagoon. Condé Nast Traveler has rated this vast geothermal spa the finest natural spa in the world, and once you’ve experienced it, you’ll understand why it is the most-visited destination in Iceland.
The lagoon is a huge expanse of water a few feet deep that is, like everything else in Iceland, heated by the geothermal waters that run under the whole island.
Yes, I said everything: Iceland is the only nation in the world where every home, office, school, church, factory, farm - every dwelling - is heated naturally. You can see the pipes running throughout the countryside. No one needs a boiler. It is one of the major reasons why Iceland is considered the "greenest" country on the planet.
The reason for the popularity of the Blue Lagoon is the healing propensity of the water as well as its striking beauty. Rich in silica, sulfur and other minerals, the spa attracts locals and tourists year-round.
Upon arriving, you enter through a modern building where you are given a locker, towel and bathrobe. After changing, you have the delicious pleasure of walking on several feet of ice-cold ground through the pure, cold air, which is the perfect preparation for jumping into the soothing water. Once in, you just ... relax. Believe me, it’s a feeling like I’ve never had before, like being in a giant isolation tank, only here you’re surrounded by mountainous countryside. All around you are families, couples and individuals just leisurely drifting.
Without leaving the water, you can purchase a small cup of minerals that you spread on your face as a facemask; or, you can just scoop up some of the minerals that are conveniently spread around the spa. You can also buy drinks while in the water. And yes, the water is naturally pure aqua blue. I hated leaving the Blue Lagoon (I confess to being the very last person on the bus), but I had yet to experience Reykjavik, and the evening beckoned.
A Culinary Destination
Until relatively recently, with the advent of air travel, Iceland was indeed an isolated outpost, with most people either shepherds or fishermen. Thanks to modern transportation and the vast greenhouses that dot the countryside, the cuisine in the capital’s restaurants rates with fine dining anywhere, but with a local flavor.
Not surprisingly, the specialties are lamb and fish. Sheep can be seen grazing lazily over the broad expanse of grass-covered lava-enriched ground, and there are a lot of them: On most of the island, they far outnumber people.
As a result of being raised naturally, with no antibiotics or other artificial nutrients, and thanks to careful breeding, the lamb is considered the finest in the world.
The other specialty, fish, come to the city’s restaurants literally "fresh off the boat"; you can actually see chefs at the quay getting the day’s catch from the fishing boats.
There is plenty of cod, of course, prepared in a variety of ways, including as a ceviche. As for the North Atlantic salmon, it is so tender it literally melts in your mouth.
We had lunch at Pisa, where the Italian-based cuisine is blended with local ingredients. As at the hotel breakfast, the most remarkable aspect of the meal was the quality of produce. The greens and fruits were as fresh as you’ll find along the Mediterranean or in Latin America.
Dinner was especially spectacular as the setting was Harpa, the enormous new concert hall overlooking Reykjavik Harbor. Completed less than a year ago, it was initially controversial because of its cost when the country was still recuperating from a banking crisis.
Since then, it has been warmly embraced as the nation’s cultural center, and the structure itself ranks with the Sydney Opera House, New York’s Lincoln Center and London’s Barbican Centre as one of the finest performing arts complexes in the world.
There are a handful of restaurants in Reykjavik that offer puffin, the fatty, cute, duck-like birds that populate the island, and whale meat, for those so inclined.
At Harpa, the participants in Rainbow Reykjavik were treated to a concert by a local singer, a lesbian who resembled (in looks, if not voice) Iceland’s most famous export, Björk. This gave a pretty good sampling of the local gay culture, which is flourishing.
Although necessarily small, the gay scene in Reykjavik is very active. Since this is a small city in a thinly populated country, there are few gay bars, and the gay scene freely mingles with nightlife overall. In fact, you could almost say that Iceland represents one of the vanguard "post-gay" societies, inasmuch as no one really cares about the particular orientation of a bar or club. The intermingling here is free and open.
For such a small city, Reykjavik has a happening club scene that could stand on its own against some of the better-known European cities. Like Madrid, Barcelona and New York, the scene here starts later than in most places. You can walk the streets at 11:30 p.m. and they will be nearly deserted; at 2:30 a.m., they’re packed. There are dance clubs that fill up on Saturday night, and you can make a full night of it if you want. The major (OK, essentially the only) gay nightclub is Trúnó, a nice-sized multi-storied club and café that plays some great House music and, not surprisingly, is popular with young Icelanders of all stripes.
As part of the Rainbow Reykjavik program, a local historian treated us to a tour of the city with an emphasis on gay events. Even more than other places, the LGBT history of Iceland is pretty sketchy up until the latter part of the 20th century. Partly, this is because the island was so isolated and life was pretty primitive. Even so, we found out some fascinating and fun facts about gay men and even a well-known lesbian couple in what we Americans would have called a "Boston marriage."
The gay rights movement came to Iceland slowly, but once it got here, it proceeded with a bang. The "Stonewall" of Iceland, as it were, occurred in the early 1980s, when the Parliament was forced to take up a debate about the national broadcast service refusing to allow the word "gay" on the air, let alone air any LGBT-related programming. The ridiculously antiquated provision was struck down. One of Reykjavik’s central squares became the site of gay-rights rallies celebrating Stonewall. At first, there were only a tiny handful of people, led by the daughter of a powerful politician. Today, Gay Pride is one of the island’s biggest celebrations (see below for more information).
The nation, as noted above, has made rapid strides in recent years, attributable to its close-knit nature; it’s said that everyone knows someone who is gay. The historic elevation of the prime minister put the cap on the struggle for equality. Today, it’s simply a given. Oh, and the current mayor Reykjavik has celebrated Gay Pride by dressing in drag. See if the mayor of a major U.S. city would try that one!
Rainbow Reykjavik, which is sponsored by the local tourism board and Icelandair, is a reflection of the open-armed, welcoming nature of the populace. At the end of the article is a list of the upcoming LGBT events in Iceland, which, for such a small country, is remarkable.
The Northern Lights
Anyone who travels to Iceland for any reason - whether to participate in a planned gay event, or even just a long flight layover - is going to have to experience the natural beauty of the place.
The wonders of nature from the landscape to the sky are, in a word, incredible. Iceland had long been the Number One city on my personal "bucket list" of must-visits just because of what I had read and heard about its natural wonders, and I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.
On the night of the concert, we followed reports from outlying farmers and fishermen that the weather conditions were optimal for viewing the Northern Lights. In such an intimate country, tour guides and others in the capital rely on an informal network connected by telephone calls rather than any sophisticated system of observers.
So we piled into the bus and drove several miles outside of Reykjavik until we reached a small fishing community. There, we went outside, which was the first and only time I experienced any bone-chilling cold, with sheets of ice raining down. It was fun - for a few minutes. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the lights, probably the most beautiful natural occurrence anywhere. But we were privileged to see, in an otherwise-perfectly clear sky, a strange cloud-like formation take place. Under other conditions, this would, indeed, have turned colors.
As it was, it stayed white. But the otherworldliness of seeing that "cloud" amidst the northern stars made the long, late-night trip into the countryside worthwhile.
The Golden Circle
The next day, we experienced the "Golden Circle," the wonders of nature that are readily accessible from Reykjavik. Visitors can hire a tour guide, take one of the many bus tours, or hire a car. I’d recommend the last, only because it will allow you to visit these sites on your own time and add casual side trips. Major car rental companies are all represented in Reykjavik.
Iceland is a very young island, still very much in formation. This means a great deal of geological activity, as the world very much experienced two years ago, when a volcanic eruption caused havoc on trans-Atlantic flights and especially intra-European flights because of the wind carrying the ash toward the continent.
Much of the landscape of Iceland has a very strange, dreamy quality. The land itself is bumpy and covered with light moss, a result of lava from the many active volcanoes. The famous Icelandic horses, with their stolid bodies and thick manes, are not just there to impress tourists, although horseback riding is one of the country’s major draws, along with the spectacular rock climbing; in many places, the horses are the only way to get around, the land defying any all-terrain vehicle excepting maybe a tank, although there are modern roads now everywhere, including a ring road around the entire island that can be traversed in two days.
Iceland’s main (probably sole) contribution to the English language, geyser, comes directly from Geysir, the oldest-known geyser in the world.
Currently, it goes off every eight to ten minutes. There are also a series of tiny eruptions around Geysir, and the earth itself is literally bubbling with steaming hot water.
The Continental Divide
In terms of sheer number, Iceland is unparalleled for its waterfalls. Dettifoss, in the northeast, is the largest in Europe, although there are ones closer to Reykjavik.
When people ask me what was the most spectacular thing I experienced in Iceland, I don’t hesitate to answer the Continental Divide. It was even more dramatic for having been so unexpected.
Honestly, I hadn’t heard about this profoundly historical site, although I certainly knew about the tectonic plates that divide Europe and the Americas.
As geology students know, the earth was once one giant landmass. Over several millennia, it broke apart. Perhaps the most obvious point of reference on a world map is the South American bulge largely formed by Brazil that fits very neatly into Western Africa.
Iceland sits atop the two giant plates that make up the Old World (Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia) and the New World (North and South America, the Caribbean islands). For historic reasons, it’s considered "Europe," although it could as easily be considered as part of North America.
Its geographic position is the reason why it is considered the linchpin in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and why 50,000 U.S. troops - one-third of the island’s then-population - were stationed here during the Second World War.
What’s truly fantastic, in every sense of the word, is that here is the only place in the world where you can actually witness the tectonic plates. The Continental Divide is literally a rift in the earth that varies from a few feet to an entire valley, and from several feet down to hundreds of feet.
Due to seismic activity, during our visit we could only straddle the divide via a small footbridge, but the sensation of standing atop two continents gives one a sense of the earth’s wider history unlike anything else. The Divide gives one a "God’s-eye view" of the earth’s history.
The Phallological Museum
Any description of a trip to Iceland would be incomplete without a description of what has to rank as one of the quirkiest museums in the world. This was not an official part of Rainbow Reykjavik, but most of us managed a visit to this museum, located near the heart of Reykjavik.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum is the only museum in the world entirely dedicated to that supreme evolutionary spiral of the mammalian world, the penis. Yes, you heard correctly: This is the museum of the penis. Run by Hjortur Gisli Sigurdsson, a singularly odd duck, the museum displays 280 penises of all shapes and sizes found in Iceland, from the giant whale to the tiny field mouse. Actually, the museum cheats a bit, because there are several examples of penises from other countries as well, including several generously donated by men from other Scandinavian countries. There are several cultural artifacts from primitive tribes throughout the world. One of my favorite exhibits was a series of bronze-cast penises from one of Iceland’s Olympic teams.
The museum includes a gift shop, where you can buy items ranging from a phallic keychain to a woolen penis-and-testicle cover.
Not surprisingly in a nation dominated by sheep, wool is far and away the most popular item to bring back home. Iceland is integrated into the European Union, although not a member, largely because of conflicts with Britain over fishing rights (in the ’70s, the two countries engaged in a "fishing war," which was more of a skirmish).
The currency is the krona, which was relatively stable compared to the dollar when I visited. This translated to prices being roughly equivalent to what one would pay in the States. Thus, a good quality, zip-up sweater with the traditional zigzag pattern around the collar would run somewhere around $60 - inexpensive when one considers the craftsmanship and especially the quality of the wool.
Since these sheep have to be especially hardy to survive and thrive in the harsh climate of the northern countryside, the wool is of a thickness and grain seldom found elsewhere. Caps, socks, gloves and coats are also popular tourist items.
The Icelandic Gay Agenda
• IGLA 2012 Championships.
Anyone looking to travel to Iceland should definitely consider May 30 to June 2, when Reykjavik hosts the International Gay & Lesbian Championships. Teams from all over the world will participate in water-based events. Aside from the obvious eye candy of all those athletes in Speedos, there are many events around the capital related to the championships. Go to the IGLA website for more information.
• Reykjavik Gay Pride.
Go to the the English-language website for information about the Pride festivities, which take place this year from Aug. 8 to12. Last year, 90,000 people attended. In Iceland, a giant party is something that everyone enjoys, so expect an event not dissimilar to Divers/cite in Montreal, where non-gay participants party alongside the LGBT ones - and no one cares. Will the mayor once again dress in drag to lead the march? One can only hope.
• Bears on Ice.
The name pretty well describes the event. For four days beginning Sept. 6, bears from all over Northern Europe will descend on Reykjavik. Co-sponsored with a Nordic-wide organization best known for their BearAware parties in Copenhagen, this marks the eighth year for Bears on Ice. Visit Scandinavian Bear Events and this website for updates.
• Rainbow Reykjavik.
After a highly successful launch, this event is returning next year from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, with an extended program until Feb. 5. It will include a trip to Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle, plenty of culture and nightlife, food, and camaraderie with an international array of gay men, lesbians and their friends. Go to the event website for information and updates.
For tourism information on all things Icelandic, go to Pink Iceland, an LGBT travel agency founded and managed by a local lesbian couple. They can help you book your trip and provide anything you need in the way of accommodations, transportation, etc.