WOW Air’s trips from St. Louis to Iceland begin May 17

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Wow! You’ve got to go to Iceland. WOW Air starts service May 17 from Lambert International Airport and with flights starting as low as $99, getting across the pond has never been more affordable and, frankly, more fun.

Founded in November 2011, this economical airline serves 36 destinations across Europe, North America and Asia, but thanks to WOW Air, Reykjavik, Iceland, has captured my heart. The northernmost capital on the planet with a population of approximately 123,000, Reykjavik is nestled on the breathtaking coast of the north Atlantic. This small, charming city is lined with shops and restaurants that cater to the international traveler and boasts an awe-inspiring surrounding landscape – think Denver with glaciers and volcanoes set on the ocean. Plus, with average summer temperatures in the mid-70s, it’s a great place to escape the Midwestern heat without freezing your face off.

reykjavik // photos by allyson mace

Lodging in Reykjavik is plentiful, whether you choose a trendy boutique hotel or something larger, like a Hilton. Nature lovers can opt for a spot outside the city, but the edgy, art deco Hotel Borg is a great city option. The hotel features 99 individually decorated rooms with modern, artsy furnishings, as well as a first-class spa.

After checking into the Hotel Borg, our food adventure began. One of the most surprising things about Iceland is how incredibly fresh the produce is despite being flown in or grown in greenhouses. The cuisine tends to be heavier than we’re accustomed to in the States, but some of the restaurants presented heavy fare like lamb in a surprisingly light and refreshing way.

clockwise from top left: sumac's menu, chef-owner thrainn freyr vigfusson, sumac interior, beef cheek tagine // photos by allyson mace

Of all the restaurants I visited, Sumac Grill & Drinks set the bar high with its beautiful, modern finesse given the heartiness of Icelandic cuisine. The octopus was most notable, but the lamb was a close second. What impressed me most was the tasty amount and diversity of food coming out of the 6-by-6-foot open kitchen.

mat bar // photo by allyson mace

After our delectable meal, the chef-owner Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson filled me in on the food scene and recommended we try MatBar next. (The camaraderie between the chefs in Reykjavik is remarkably similar to the fellowship among St. Louis chefs.) This new restaurant featured slightly heavier dishes with many items utilizing micro greens and radish greens, which lent spring flair to the heavy, complex courses we encountered.

clockwise from top left: apotek, duck & waffle, apotek interior, dillagin cocktail // photos by allyson mace

At Apotek Kitchen + Bar, conveniently located right next door to the Hotel Borg, we were treated to the best cocktails in town. Gin drinks are always lovely, so I tried the Dillagin featuring dill-infused Beefeater gin, mango liqueur, lime, sugar and bitters – refreshing and light but with enough booze to get the job done. The restaurant also had outstanding food with standout dishes including the tiger shrimp salad and rack of lamb.

After a nice stroll around town, I spied a craft beer house, MicroBar, a more casual one-stop shop to taste the local brews. I tried the Borg Skuli, a smooth red ale with fruity aroma and hint of caramel, as well as the Borg Brio, a creamy Pilsner-esque brew.

jamie’s italian inside the hotel borg // photos by allyson mace

Last but not least, we had a great daily complimentary breakfast at Jamie’s Italian inside the Hotel Borg, which was decorated with gorgeous oval ceiling murals and rustic decor. A chalkboard inside featured a quote from Jamie Oliver himself: “Since I was a teenager, I’ve been totally besotted by the love, passion and verve for food, family and life itself …”

allyson mace with chef kari thorsteinsson

The top spot in town goes to the Michelin star eatery, Dill. Unfortunately, we were unable to dine at Dill – hello, two-month wait list – but thanks to chef Thrainn at Sumac, we got to meet Dill chef Kari Thorsteinsson and for a sense of what the restaurant is about. The young and talented chef spoke of the simplicity and eclectic combinations of his dishes ingredients. Foodies in search of unique, you need to eat here! It’s a must for me next time I visit Iceland.

You may be more familiar with Iceland than you think. The country’s stunning landscape provides the perfect backdrop for fantasy and sci-fi films and TV. HBO’s mega-hit series “Game of Thrones” is filmed here, as was the Tom Cruise movie “Oblivion.” If that gets your imagination going, take it even further at the Mink Viking Portrait Studio, a photo lounge where you can geek out and transform yourself into a Viking or “Game of Thrones” character.

Once your Nordic transformation is complete, enjoy some nightlife, which is pretty intense in Reykjavik. Drinking and dancing never get old, so that’s what they do literally all night long – or all day long, depending on the time of year. Between mid-May and mid-August, you might get three hours of twilight, but it never gets fully dark; however, the opposite is true in the winter, when the sun may shine for five hours at most, so plan your trip accordingly.

clockwise from top left: gullfoss waterfall, 4-foot snow tires, snowmobiling on the langjokull glacier, strokkur geyser // photos by allyson mace

Aside from myriad activities to keep busy in the city, the outskirts of Reykjavik offer bountiful excursions and enchanting views. Once we left the city, the landscape became alien thanks to the diverging North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the two plates move 2.5 centimeters apart each year due to new crust created from magma pushing up from the mantle. Steam raises from the earth, while black lava rock reforms the once-flat terrain.

One of the most popular tour packages for exploring the country is The Golden Circle, a trip from Reykjavik to the center of Iceland and back. Presented by Reykjavik Excursions, tour stops included the Strokkur Geysers, Gullfoss Waterfall and snowmobiling on the Langjokull Glacier.

The snowmobile tour begins in a giant, military-grade truck with 4-foot tires. The ride to the glacier was entertaining in itself as we motored through waist-deep snow on nonexistent roads. Once we reached the mountaineer’s base camp high up on Langjokull, we shimmied into giant snowsuits. After a five-minute tutorial on how to operate a snowmobile, we were on our way for an hour trip across the glacier. At the halfway mark, we explored the landscape and took in the tranquility of the humbling glacier. The return trip was just as fun as we zoomed back the several miles to the base camp.

the blue lagoon geothermal pools // photo by allyson mace

Other excursions include whale watching, volcano tours and Northern Lights tours, which are most popular between December and February and are nothing short of breathtaking. The Blue Lagoon geothermal pools are a natural wonder. The water is hot tub temperature and brilliantly blue. The pools are known for their pure white silica mud, which leaves your skin as soft as the day you were born. Snow-capped mountains surround the pools as you swim in lava-heated spring water.

If Iceland was never on your bucket list, it should be now. With WOW air’s one-way fares as low at $99, what have you got to lose? I can honestly say “wow” has a whole new meaning to me now. 

Allyson Mace is publisher and founder of Sauce Magazine.