Ask Alaska's international jet-setters to list what European countries they've visited. England? France and Italy? Maybe Germany and Spain, too? Alaskans have historically been limited by a few seasonal flights to Europe or else handicapped by the airport hopscotch across the U.S. en route to European capitals. But new seasonal flight service could be the golden ticket for those who would love to spend more time exploring the world – and less time getting into and out of the Great Land.
Icelandair will add Anchorage to its lineup of U.S. destinations beginning May 15, touting Alaska's largest city as its newest "North American gateway." Europeans will find flights from Reykjavik, Iceland to Anchorage are about seven hours over the top of the globe. That's less than half the 21-hour flight from London to Anchorage. Iceland will actually be a closer destination than Houston, Tex., which is an eight and a half hour nonstop flight.
The Reykjavik service will give Alaskans a lesser-known passport stamp to Europe. But there's more: Keflavik International Airport connects Iceland to more than 20 destinations from Scandinavia to the U.K. and continental Europe, Icelandair announced last year during the Alaska service rollout. And Icelandair offers a free stop in either direction when traveling from Anchorage to Europe.
Alaska has long enjoyed strong ties to the tiny Arctic island nation, a "Land of Fire and Ice" that is best known for its volcanoes, hot springs and glaciers. Iceland like Alaska offers some of the same natural wonders that attract travelers to Alaska, including the wintertime lure of dancing northern lights. But it's the subtle differences, coupled with its fabulous hot springs, spas and geysers, which make Iceland a worthwhile travel indulgence for Alaskans who take advantage of their new connection to Europe.
Where to stay in Iceland
A bustling city of about 200,000 (that's half of the country's population), Reykjavik's relatively small size makes it one of Europe's most accessible capitals. From the international airport, take a bus into Reykjavik; I rode aboard Reykjavik Excursions, big roomy coaches with free WiFi Internet on each bus. Once in town, you'll transfer to shuttles that service the city's wide selection of hotels, guest houses and hostels.
I opted for the Reykjavik Marina Hotel, located in the old harbor. Any fisherman or harbormaster would love this place. When I arrived from the airport, work was under way on a huge ship at the dry dock, just outside the hotel's front door.
The Reykjavik Marina offers a beautiful breakfast spread with hothouse-grown cucumbers, tomatoes, lox, cheeses, meats, fresh-made bread and other local treats, all of which was delicious.
Tip: Book ahead for about $120 per night. The best rates are nonrefundable, 90 days in advance.
On a budget? The Reykjavik Backpackers Hostel rents dorm-style beds for as little as $32 per night.
Stop by the local visitors bureau and get a Reykjavik Welcome Card for 24, 48 or 72 hours. With the card, you can ride the bus for free, visit the local thermal pool and gain free access to eight museums in the downtown area. The 48-hour card costs $28. I took advantage of the bus service and the thermal pools at Laugardular.
Geysers and hot springs, steam baths and spa treatments
Here's the best-kept secret about Iceland: the entire country is one big spa.
If you only spend a day or two in Iceland, be sure and visit Blue Lagoon, a huge natural hot spring with temperatures between 98-102 degrees Fahrenheit that's located between Keflavik and the capital of Reykjavik. About an acre in size, Blue Lagoon features a massive geyser and waterfall that you can stand underneath while water pounds out the travel stress. Mineral-rich seawater gives the lagoon a cloudy blue color much like glacial silt muddies many Alaska streams.
Options include a massage, fancy lunch or some drinks in the lagoon! Travelers can also relax in a steam bath or sauna. Book a roundtrip bus ticket from the airport to Reykjavik, with admission to the lagoon about $63 per adult.
The thermal pools, located in downtown Reykjavik, are not as exotic as the massive Blue Lagoon, but if Laugardular is wanting for luxury, the pools compensate with variety. At least a half-dozen hot tubs operate at different temperatures, along with a sauna, steam bath and Olympic-sized pool -- also heated.
The incredible Gullfoss Waterfall on the nearby Hvita River counts among Iceland's most photographed sites. When I visited earlier this winter, it was raining sideways and blowing about 40 knots. Spray from the falls left an icy, white sheen coated on the river valley.
Nearby, you'll visit the ever-active Strokkur geyser, which erupts every five to eight minutes. My quest for the perfect photograph left me soaked and freezing in the high, winter winds. Teeth chattering, hands numb but spirit not yet broken, I asked our guide, Gudmundur "Gummi" Eyjolfsson, what was next.
Thankfully, he answered "hot springs, of course," and took us to Fontana Hot Springs, about 15 minutes from the Strokkur geyser.
Sigurour Rafn "Siggy" Hilmarsson is the third-generation managing director at the spa. "When my grandparents came here in 1929, the workmen erected some tents right over the hot spring to relax after a day's work," he said. Even now, the wood-framed building that houses the steam bath sits directly on top of the spring itself. The only way to control the temperature is to prop the door open!
Adjoining the geothermal baths is a series of pools and including a dock that goes out over the adjacent lake. Live a little, soak until you sweat in the hot pools, and then run without thinking for the lake. Jump!
Siggy prides himself on serving up some of the best local food around. He takes bread dough, like his grandmother did before him, and puts it in a Dutch oven. Then he goes by the shore of the lake where the water is bubbling, digs a hole and buries the oven for 24 hours. When he returns, the bread is warm and ready to serve. He tops it with fresh-smoked trout caught from the lake. "This food is as local as you can get," he boasts. Don't worry about a swimsuit or a towel. All of Iceland's hot springs and thermal pools offer suit and towel rental.
Since I visited in the winter, "Gummi" wanted to scout for northern lights. Before heading out, he suggested we stop along the south coast of the island to see the black sand beach and take in some local lobster. His favorite restaurant, Fjorubordid, serves up a delicious lobster (langostino) stew to fortify travelers for the frosty evenings.
If you want to get an overview of what it's like to live on top of two shifting tectonic plates, take Icelandic Mountain Guides' trip around the "Golden Circle." The first stop is at Thingvellir National Park. See the rift valley, a product of two tectonic plates underneath Iceland that have been ripping apart -- creating the valley floor -- for the last 3,000 years.
The Golden Circle Tour is a popular day trip in Iceland, particularly if you're in a rush. But Gummi recommends one of the "Super Jeep" tours (http://www.icelandrovers.is/DayTours/), where he drives guests cross-country in a modified four-wheel drive vehicle. The "jeep" we drove in was a modified Land Rover Defender, complete with 44-inch tires, a snorkel kit for river crossings, extra lights, a beefed-up undercarriage and all sorts of manly bells and whistles! Gummi boasted that the vehicle had 612,000km on the original engine. The rigs also are equipped with two-way radios for self-drive convoys across the glaciers.
Iceland climate and Alaska flight considerations
Truthfully, because of the Gulf Stream, Iceland's climate is very similar to Juneau's: somewhat soggy and mild during the winter. The hours of daylight are simllar to Fairbanks (about 66º north latitude).
Icelandair offers a $666 roundtrip fare from Anchorage to Iceland in May. Fly Anchorage to London for $1,096 and take advantage of the Reykjavik layover, and Icelandair delivers two trips for less than Delta Airlines' Anchorage-London flights, currently about $1,459 roundtrip.
Currently, Alaska Airlines frequent flyers can earn and redeem miles on Icelandair. Between Anchorage and Iceland, travelers can burn 50,000 miles for a coach ticket, or upgrade to "Saga" class for 75,000 miles. To Europe, it's 60,000 miles for coach and 80,000 for "Saga." Aside from the cushy seat on the 757s, Saga passengers also have access to the Saga Lounge at Keflavik International Airport. There's a full spread of delicious hot and cold entrees, as well as a full self-serve bar.
It's a really big deal to have over-the-top air service between Anchorage and Europe. Condor has flown the summertime route betwen Anchorage and Frankfurt for more than 10 years. Both Condor and Icelandair are uniquely-situated to bring European vacationers to Alaska for a great adventure. It's up to us to return the favor on the backhaul. Let's go see Europe this summer!
Sea Baron Restaurant (http://saegreifinn.is/). Just across the street from the Reykjavik Marina Hotel, the Sea Baron serves a variety of local foods in an informal atmostphere. I chose the minke whale kabob, with the lobster stew. Delicious.
MicroBar (http://www.facebook.com/MicroBarIceland). I was referred by some locals who said this pub serves up the best microbrews in Iceland. Try the "drive through," a selection of each of eight local brews.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.