Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

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The Northern Lights, seen from Iceland. (Shutterstock)
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Godafoss Waterfall in Iceland. (Shutterstock)
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Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 June 2019

Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

  • The Icelandic capital is unlike anywhere else in Europe
  • The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

DUBLIN: Reykjavík looks like no other European capital, but Iceland is like no other European country. It is of course, technically part of Scandinavia, but the country is very different from the likes of Sweden and Denmark. Its capital is beautiful, dotted with picture-postcard wooden houses and surrounded by some of the most spectacular countryside on the planet. It’s also filled with creative, quirky locals, and despite being no bigger than a town, has a whole host of culinary and artistic diversions.

The experience you have here will depend greatly on the time of the year you go. Travel in the winter months, and you will get almost total darkness, bitter cold and, of course, the glorious Northern Lights. Travel in the summer and you can expect only a few hours of darkness every night, as well as perfect weather for walking.

For a glimpse of Iceland’s prolificacy during the boom years, take a stroll to Harpa — the massive glass concert hall on the waterfront which opened in 2011. There are regular concerts held there, but it’s worth taking one of the daily guided tours, to hear the ill-fated history of the building as well as soak up some spectacular views. 

Although Iceland is starting to question the wisdom of unfettered tourism, Reykjavík is a very breathable city. Most of the buildings are wooden and no more than three stories high, which gives the place a frontier-town vibe. Its size means it’s perfect for walking, and one of the best routes is from the city center to Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic, spaceship-like church on the edge of town. The church is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; take the lift to the top (73 meters up) where spectacular views of the city and surrounding coast await.

Back in the city center, head to Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Amid the overpriced tourist tat (any shop that sells stuffed toy puffins), there are some wonderful handmade goods on offer in Kirsuberjatred, on Vesturgata, including jewelry, baby footwear and sustainable bowls made of (yep) radish paper.

Although Iceland’s food culture hasn’t reached the heights of its Scandinavian neighbors further east, there is plenty to choose from in the city center; everything from hole-in-the-wall burger joints to tapas-style restaurants to high-concept Icelandic cuisine. We recommend Dill, the first Icelandic restaurant to receive a Michelin star, which focuses on New Nordic cuisine (try the dried puffin and trout).

It’s also worth getting the ferry to Videy Island, which only takes five minutes from the pier at Skarfabakki. The island is small, windswept and beautiful, and features an outdoor art gallery. Chief among the exhibits is the “Peace Tower,” created by Yoko Ono, which features the message “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages. Back on the mainland, take the waterfront path that heads northwest out of the city towards the iconic lighthouse on Grotta Island. The spectacular Esja mountain range looms across the bay, and provides a spectacular backdrop, as do the regular pieces of public art along the route.  

Iceland is rightly proud of how it has harnessed the geothermal energy that exists below its surface, allowing citizens to access free, unlimited hot water. You too can enjoy this natural bounty at Laugardalslaug, a series of rock pools in Laugardsalslaug Park at the eastern edge of the city. It features an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, waterslides and numerous hot tubs and steam baths.

If you want to go further afield — and you should — there are numerous day trips that give a glimpse of the country’s otherworldly scenery. The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

Iceland is known for its spectacular terrain, and even the 45-minute journey to Keflavik airport passes through breathtaking volcanic landscapes. The Reykjanes field is dotted with mud pools, steam vents and hot springs. If you have time, stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. It’s relentlessly popular (1.5 million tourists per year) and not cheap ($40), but its huge geothermal pools are the perfect way to wind down before a long flight.

Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

Updated 16 August 2019

Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

  • Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons
  • The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation

UPHAM, New Mexico: Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.
The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.
Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for paying customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.
From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.
Earthen tones help ground visitors on the first floor. The social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic’s more lofty mission.
Company officials, offering the first glimpse of the facility Thursday, say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.
Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.
Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.
There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.
Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.
“You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, ‘Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?’” he said.
Munoz says New Mexico’s anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as anchor tenant.
At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin’s rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.
Behind the spaceport’s signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.
There’s also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic’s carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.
Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its carrier plane had landed in New Mexico and its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin.
Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.
“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” Mackay said.
Branson will be among them. About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.
That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.
The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.