Flights from the USA to Iceland typically arrive at KEF very early in the morning.
Though KEF is often referred to as “Reykjavik” airport for marketing purposes, it is actually 45 minutes outside the capital in the city of Keflavik. There is a smaller city airport that handles short flights from Reykjavik proper, but that is irrelevant to most international visitors except, perhaps, those from Greenland.
“Very early” on my two flights to Iceland meant before 6 am. At least in June unlike March, this was after sunrise.
Food & transport from the airport
KEF is a fairly nice airport. It is modern and well designed. Though it could use more water bottle filler fountains. Iceland, however, is a tiny island nation with a population of just a few hundred thousand people.
Keflavik isn’t New York City. This isn’t a 24 hour kind of town. Even Reykjavik itself, where the majority of the nation’s citizens live, doesn’t offer too much for the tourist before 8 or 9 am.
Sporty types who don’t suffer jet lag so badly could take a lovely walk or hike. Nature, in June, is open 20+ hours per day.
The wrong way to arrive: witless & unprepared
On our first visit, the kids and I rode the FlyBus from the airport to our hotel. Naturally, our room wasn’t ready yet just past 8:00. After all, typical check in times are in the early afternoon.
We sat in the lobby staring dumbly at the poor receptionist, and she did get us into our room by about 9:30 am. It was a miserable first couple of hours in a new place, however.
A typical Icelandic pastry, according to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor
The kids were too tired to even go in search of pastries when the receptionist suggested a bakery nearby!
Better alternative: ready to meet bodily needs
Having a much better idea of what to expect upon arrival, I planned more wisely for our second trip to Iceland. Of course, it helped that it was just me and my now teenaged son. He’s reached a stage of offering more help than he requires, especially when it comes to schlepping heavy luggage about.
I was going to rely upon public transit options again, but decided on a rental car at the last minute.
We could have reached a public pool via mass transit and reasonable walks, but it would have been one nearer our lodging and after taking the FlyBus away from the airport.
Rental car freedom
The forecast called for chilly days (in the low 40’s F) and plenty of clouds and rain… in mid June.
There was also a museum I’d wished to visit on the first go ’round that remained just as difficult to access without a car. It was so tantalizingly close to the airport… but the city bus only ran from there back to Hafnarfjördur and Reykjavik every two hours. Missing it would mean a very expensive taxi ride, in the ballpark of the auto rental cost, or an unacceptably long wait.
If I found myself so exhausted from the flight that I couldn’t drive safely, I determined we would nap in the car for an hour or so before leaving the grounds of the airport. I felt better having a backup plan in place, even one in which I felt like a bit of a vagabond.
Even if you dislike driving a strange car in a foreign country, it is pretty manageable in Iceland. Traffic is light, eliminating the thing I hate most about driving near my suburban home in the USA.
Icelandic drivers rank, en masse, somewhere in the middle of the pack I’ve experienced worldwide for road manners; they aren’t as courteous as Oregonians, but behave less aggressively than New Yorkers. There’s none of the insanity of Rome or Israel.
While road signs are in Icelandic and can throw you for a loop, most turns on major roads are roundabouts, so you can just keep circling while your
child navigator figures out the way, or rely upon the GPS who will mangle the Icelandic language for all s/he/it is worth so you can enjoy a good laugh while you are circling the rotary for the fourth time.
Between Iceland’s major airport and capital, road conditions are good. Consider that “possible weather events excepted,” of course, but, even in Iceland, those are somewhat less risky in June.
Breakfast at KEF: not many options
I’d already determined from my online research that buying an espresso and sandwich or pastry on site before heading out would be our likeliest spot for a very early breakfast. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts branded cafe after customs at KEF arrivals, co-located with a convenience store.
Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t open until 8:00. The people of New England will be outraged when they learn of this. Dunkin’ Donuts is bizarrely popular where I live.
Joe & the Juice was doing a brisk business, though, and it was also quite near the car rental kiosks. A turkey and pesto sandwich (hold the mozzarella for DS’s lactose intolerance) helped kick start our groggy metabolisms. Yeah, the espresso helped a bit, too! A packaged caramel muffin proved a necessary adjunct for the voracious teen.
The museum was only 15 minutes or so from KEF, but it didn’t open until 8 am. Even taking our tiiiiiiiiime at the airport, we would be at least an hour earlier than the door opened. Plus, I knew I’d feel grungy and sore after sleeping in a cramped Icelandair Economy seat.
Note: the seats have really gone downhill on Icelandair between Boston and Keflavik. I think this was the worst seat I’ve ever had for legroom. I was disappointed, remembering this otherwise nice airline as much, much better a few years ago!
Does jet lag wash off?
The solution was the local pool, Reykjanes Swimming Center/Waterworld. It was only about ten minutes from the airport, and that includes time spent driving around a construction project that barred the GPS’s suggested route. Note: this is easy driving, too, with very light traffic. I hate using rental cars, but hardly minded it, even jet lagged, stiff and sore, and in a city I’d never visited before.
Americans, take note: this is more like your local YMCA pool than the “Waterworld” name might imply. Yes, there is one waterslide and a children’s activity room indoors, but both of those were closed during our 7 am visit. The facilities were quite nice and up to date, but nothing like a theme park.
There are a few major benefits to hitting the pool first thing. For me, having a chance to wash my hair before sightseeing was a big one. My morning shower is an integral part of my waking up ritual. It helps me to feel like myself.
Next in importance to me is having somewhere to go before I can check in to my hotel anyway. I’m not a skulker or “see what I can get away with” kind of a person. I’m careful and rule abiding. I don’t want to nap by the side of the road or in an airport, but I’m also not up to much more than a good nap after a night flight.
Visiting an Icelandic city pool offers a great insight into what regular, everyday life is like for people here. It isn’t just hardcore lap swimmers and toddlers taking lessons like I’d see on a weekday morning at my local YMCA. Icelanders are socializing and meeting up in the water.
There were more retirees represented than any other age group at this hour and in this neighborhood, though.
The abundance of cheap geothermal energy from the volcanic activity underfoot means outdoor pools are heated to comfortable temperatures no matter how cold the air temperature is that day. In addition to a moderately warm heated pool (cooler on the lap swimming side), there have been multiple hot tubs (locally translated as “hot pots”) at each facility I’ve visited as well.
Waterworld had three: 36-39 C in both shallow and deep varieties and 41-43 C with the deeper sitting depth.
I believe there was also a cold plunge pool, but the object I guessed to be such wasn’t labeled with a sign and there was no temperature posted to help me confirm my guess. One guy climbed into whatever that was, however.
Having traveled with so much discomfort up front that I failed to raise my arms high enough for the TSA
cancer inducer body scanner to clear me as a terrorist threat, I was less than limber upon arrival. I spent every minute past the safety briefing of my too-short-for-a-night’s-sleep five hour flight in fitful sleep, but it wasn’t restorative. I struggled to reach my feet for the required soapy shower before going into an Icelandic pool.
At that point, the hot pots offered unmitigated bliss.
While our two night stopover in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland, was designed primarily to ease my travel related pain and jet lag (i.e., it wasn’t intense or highly scheduled), I do believe that hitting the pools provided a soothing balm to both of these maladies.
Warm water is obviously going to ease joint pain. So does reducing one’s experience of gravity due to buoyancy, of course. But the effect upon jet lag was just as profound and somewhat less expected. I suppose the combination of light exercise and being outdoors under the sun in the morning explains most of it.
Read more about what foreigners should expect at an Icelandic public swimming pool, especially for those of us with mild mobility impairments who wonder about handicapped or otherwise accessible accommodations in the facilities.