The nice thing about Reykjavik, they say, is that it’s really close to Iceland. It’s a cheeky adage making light of the fact that the capital traditionally acts more as a springboard into this island nation’s supernatural landscape.
In fact, many visitors here regard it merely as the starting and stopping point of the legendary 186-mile (299km) “Golden Circle.” The popular driving route winds its way through three of the country’s most memorising natural wonders: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. First-timers certainly won’t want to miss any of it. Fjords, fumaroles and black sand beaches, it turns out, are even more exceptional IRL than on social media.
Enjoy a beer bath at the elegant bathhouse of The Reykjavik Edition
But I came here to immerse myself in Icelandic culture, which, to me, meant New Nordic cuisine, beer bath spas, and Björk, of course. Thanks to a relatively recent reimagining of the downtown harbour front, I was able to experience each component of this transcendent trifecta within steps of one another.
The Reykjavik Edition is integral to that evolution. Opened in November of 2021, the property now exists as the city’s first and only luxury hotel: a markedly modern rectangular installation housing 253 guest rooms along the edge of a wharf.
Winds in excess of 50 miles (80km) per hour had delayed my deplaning by an hour after an already rough landing at Keflavík Airport, but memories of any such unpleasantness melted away as I ventured into the The Reykjavik Edition’s minimally-appointed, below-ground bathhouse. Design enthusiasts would delight in the Larch wood and white marble cladding the walls, or the basalt stone at their feet. My gaze, however, was firmly affixed upon the spa lounge’s centrepiece: a bonafide bar. “By day, it serves a selection of healthy post-workout smoothies,” explained Lena Heize, spa director. “Come evening it transforms into the ultimate pre-party pamper spot.”
To emphasise the point, the space serves multiple aperitif-style cocktails designed to be enjoyed in the thermal plunge pool. “Blessing of the Sea God” was a standout, commingling crowberry liqueur with fresh citrus, aquafaba, collagen, and wasabi for a rare, sour style of refresher. Off the draft line I sipped a hazy pale ale custom brewed for the hotel by local darling, Lady Brewery. Next to it on tap was Gull Light, a ubiquitous Icelandic lager that’s free of gluten, along with a non-alcoholic wheat ale from Borg Brugghús.
For Icelanders the concept of combining shvitz and sprits is pretty much customary. And despite having heard as much, it remained a welcome novelty to actually experience it. (Five years ago, a remote northern region of the country made international headlines when it started offering soaks in wooden tubs filled with hot water, malt, hops and yeast.) The so-called “Beer Bath” remains a reliable attraction for locals and tourists alike. Crowds also flock to the in-water bar at the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. In April of 2021, a downtown facsimile called the Sky Lagoon opened, clinging to the cliffs of Kársnes Harbour. A full service swim-up bar was central to its design, featuring beer, wine and spirits, and giving literal meaning to the term watering hole.
“There’s no cucumber water, there are no contrivances; this is the relaxing, informal equivalent of a frothy beer at the ballpark — Northern European style,” according to Brandon Crisler. He was so inspired by the local liquid culture that he co-founded a blue-hued citrus liqueur named after the country’s most famous natural baths. Lagoon Bay will be available in the US later this year. “For the seasoned traveller, it’s the perfect light afternoon aperitif ahead of a long Friday or Saturday in downtown Reykjavik. Honestly, there’s nothing better.”
As for me, even though I was already submersed in a steamy tub, my evening was only heating up. Through the hotel lobby, I had a dinner reservation at Tides, where Gunnar Karl Gíslason was working in the kitchen. The chef is something of a celebrity around these parts after earning Iceland its first Michelin star back in 2017 at Dill. Here he plates more of the “Modern Icelandic” cuisine that made him famous, only with a focus on hyperlocal seafood and game, roasted atop open flames.
Among the chef’s preferred pairings du jour was a roasted potato soup, with fried rye bread and brown butter, which he recommended alongside the restaurant’s specially-brewed IPA. I was thoroughly impressed with the way things were going but not at all prepared for where they would end up: a colleague showed up with an extra ticket to the Harpa Concert Hall directly next door. Headlining the venue was Björk — backed by the string section of the Iceland Symphony.
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com.
(Credit for the hero and featured image: Nikolas Koenig)
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