Gluten-Free Travel - Iceland
Going to Iceland was like visiting another planet. Landing at midnight only made it more surreal since the airport is far removed from Reykjavik (about 45 minutes). Driving on a pitch black highway you wonder if there are actually any people living in Iceland and then the occasional car or two will drive by and confirm that you are indeed in a place inhabited by humans. On the way into Reykjavik you’ll pass the occasional sign noting Town of Elves or Town of Vikings, which I found quaint. Other than that it’s miles of nothingness in all directions. The goth in me loved this on many levels.
We arrived at our hotel in Reykjavik starving around 1am, only to find that the hotel wasn’t offering any type of room service at that time. Bummer. We ended up hoofing it to a 10-11 (equivalent to a 7-11) a short walk away to see what we could scrounge up for food. I seriously have never enjoyed a pre-packaged iceberg lettuce and tomato salad so much in my life. Thank goodness they sold balsamic vinegar and avocados!
In the morning we barely made it on time to the breakfast buffet and I was seriously almost in tears when the woman told us the buffet had closed. Luckily she let us in, perhaps sensing the desperation and hunger in our eyes. Iceland hotels are big on buffets for breakfast, which can pose an issue for gluten-free folks wary of cross-contamination. I threw caution to the wind and chowed down on scrambled eggs, a heaping pile of bacon, roasted potatoes and tomato slices. This was to become a staple breakfast of mine for the duration of our vacation, though I didn’t know it at that point. For those who can enjoy dairy, it’s good to note that Icelandic yogurt Skyr is plentiful and available everywhere. If you’re looking for something guaranteed to be gluten-free and filling for breakfast your best bet would be the yogurt.
Our next stop was the very tiny and remote town/village of Vik on the east side of the island. From Vik you can get to many of the cool sights on the east side of the island including Jökulsárlón, the Black Sand Beach, Skagofoss, and Skaftafell. We only had one day to do it all, but we managed to get it done and had a blast.
Vik is not really known for its plethora of culinary options so unless you want to hit up the equivalent of a diner or a gas station for food, your best bet will likely be at your hotel. Our hotel, Icelandair Vik, had a lovely if not incredibly expensive restaurant. Honestly though, it was only super expensive for dinner because I accidentally ordered the wrong bottle of cava which ended up costing us $70 (ouch)! The food itself was delicious and they were very knowledgeable about gluten-free needs. They even offered a small gluten-free selection during the breakfast buffet the next day with cookies and cereals.
We left Vik and stopped at the awesome Black Sand Beach on our way back to Reykjavik. It was like a mini-typhoon that day, but we loved it so much. Skogafoss was also on the way back to Reykjavik, so we stopped in to take in the spectacular waterfall and climb the stairs to the overlook at the top. It’s an incredible view and a must-see for anyone visiting Iceland.
We toured the Golden Circle the next day and didn’t have time for lunch, but heard great things about sushi in Reykjavik from fellow American hotel guests and decided to check out Sakebarrin for dinner. I’m so glad we did because it was delish! I know sushi and Iceland sound like they don’t mix, but if you think about it, Iceland has some incredibly fresh fish and whatever is not local they fly in (just like everywhere else). I had the San Francisco and Devil rolls, both were amazing and full of flavor. I'd recommend giving the spicy tuna roll a pass, I wasn’t impressed by it and found the taste to be a little strange. I feel like Sakebarrin is more about trying the fancy rolls than trying to stick with old favorites anyway.
The next day we lounged at Blue Lagoon in the morning, which is an absolute must. It’s a little off-putting driving in, considering you pass a few geo-thermal plants on the way in (which the lagoon water is from), but all of your cares are washed away once you get in the water. Plus, there is a swim up BAR! I was a little unsure about the whole thing considering it was hovering somewhere around 50 degrees (F) and raining the day we went, but once you are in the water, you don’t notice what is going on with the weather outside at all. Plus, the weather is so unpredictable in Iceland that for about an hour the clouds started to part and the sun peeked out for a few minutes.
They certainly did not disappoint, for $10 you get a hot bowl of rice noodle soup with tons of beef brisket and yummy herb accoutrement. I’m pretty sure it isn’t gluten-free (I’m fairly certain this particular style of soup has soy sauce in it), but I took the chance and ate it anyway. It was so incredibly flavorful and delicious! I never had anything like it before and the closest comparison I could make is Vietnamese pho, which has similar flavor profiles, but this Thai version had a much more intense umami flavor.
For dinner, even though we weren’t really hungry, we went to Gandhi, an Indian restaurant. The food at Gandhi was good, though incredibly pricey for the portion size. They have the standard favorites like Tikka Masala, Tandoori meats, Paneer, plus a few others. I highly recommend the papadam, which was awesome and HUGE. We ordered the Chicken Xacuti and the Prawns Piri Piri to share. I was skeptical it would satiate my hunger given the tiny dishes that emerged from the kitchen, but it ended up being just enough food, so I guess my American eyes are just used to seeing more.
Our final day in Reykjavik, we went BACK to Noodle Station to have one last bowl of that amazing soup. It was still yummy, though not that mindbendingly amazing wonderfulness we experienced on our first day. I’m still trying to figure out how to make this soup at home. More to come soon!
At the airport I was delighted to discover they have a variety of options for food and most of it was actually good. I got a beet salad prepared to order for me and was able to make modifications without an issue. The place I went to, though similar to a deli, behaved as though they were a high end restaurant with the quality of food they served and the attentiveness they gave each order. I was super impressed that they put so much care into the food, especially since something similar at an airport in the states would net you a soggy salad make with iceberg lettuce.
It really seems as though Icelandic people put a lot of care into everything they do, including their native airline. Icelandair is a delight to travel on, especially if you have kids! Every child gets a little package of goodies incuding a blanket you can keep and stuff to color with. Plus, kids get a special meal free of charge. On the way out my little one enjoyed a pizza and on the way back she had a sandwich. That kind of treatment goes a long way to making travel a lot more pleasurable for families. Adults also get a complimentary blanket and pillow to use, which is nice considering most airlines don't offer that anymore. Kudos to them!
If there are three things I can sum up about Iceland, it would be:
- It rains… a lot. When it is sunny (for some strange reason) you marvel at what that bright globe in the sky is, as if you’ve never encountered it before in your life.
- I’ve heard that Icelandic people are supposed to be friendly, but in my experience they are expressionless. I don’t know if this is because Iceland also happens to be the top consumer of anti-depressants in the world, thus rendering the population unable to feel emotion or if it’s because they hate tourists. Perhaps both?
- The food is monotonous save for a couple of gems. Gluten-free specific food is hard to come by, though most everyone seems aware of the restrictions associated with gluten-free eating.
That said, something about the remoteness and untapped beauty of Iceland really captivated me. I live my life in the hustle and bustle of New York City, but there is something to be said for disconnecting from it all and enjoying nature. If only I had seen the Aurora Borealis!