ICELANDAIR REVIEW: NEWARK-REYKJAVÍK, SAGA CLASS

REVIEW BY RON BERNTHAL

In 2014 more than one million people visited Iceland, three times the country’s population, and figures were expected to increase by another 76% in 2015. Needless to say, this large increase in business and leisure travel to Iceland has helped the country’s economy, which was shattered in the 2008 worldwide recession, when Iceland’s banks and economic institutions were rocked with deep losses. Today, Iceland and its major air carrier, Icelandair, are enjoying the success that comes when a country’s various elements – scenery, cuisine, fashion, design, safety and a modern infrastructure – have become of-the-moment trends among millennial travelers.

Founded in 1937, Icelandair was a fledgling airline when it was founded in 1927 in the small town of Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland. In 1940 the company moved its headquarters to the Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, and has been the country’s major airline since then, benefiting greatly recently from Iceland’s tremendous increase in passenger traffic from North America and Europe, its biggest international markets. Icelandair’s pioneering low-fare services across the North-Atlantic commenced in 1953, opening up the country to adventurous travelers, including many young backpackers, who discovered Iceland’s amazing glaciers, waterfalls, and mountain scenery.

Early Loftleidir flight crew before it merged with Icelandic Airlines (courtesy Icelandair)

Americans actually constructed the present international airport in Iceland in an area called Keflavík during World War II, when the U.S. Army Air Forces desired an airfield in Iceland capable of operating heavy bombers and fighters. Construction began in 1942 and by March, 1943, service for transatlantic military flights was started. At the end of the war the airport facilities became a refueling stop for the international flights between North America and Europe, and when the U.S. military withdrew in 1947, the airport was handed over to Iceland and renamed Keflavík Airport, and operated by both countries for transiting civil and military flights.

One of the first international flights on Icelandic Airlines (photo Icelandair)

The U.S. military returned to Keflavík in 1951 under the auspices of NATO (Naval Air Station Keflavík) and the joint operation continued until 2006, when the military installation was handed over to the government of Iceland. Because Iceland has no military of its own, there were some protests against keeping a NATO presence in the country, but now that the airport has been expanded, and the new terminal complex is dominated by international departures and arrivals, the NATO-base issue has become moot.

Fortunately, Kefkavík Airport’s 10,000-foot-long, 200-foot-wide runways are long enough to support any type of aircraft, so there was more than enough space to harbor several international flights that had to land in Iceland on September 11, 2001, when the U.S. government ordered all domestic airports to shut down for security purposes.

My first flight to Iceland was in 1973, when I purchased one of Icelandair’s very affordable round-trip flights from New York to Luxembourg, with a stop-over in Iceland. The airline still offers stopovers in Iceland on flights to more than 20 European destinations from the U.S., up to seven days stopover in one direction are permissible with no additional airfare. I returned to Iceland in 1993 for a newspaper travel story, and this year, in mid-March, to cover DesignMarch, the country’s annual Iceland Design Festival in Reykjavík, the country’s capital.

My flight started at Newark International Airport, with check-in for Icelandair’s non-stop evening flight to Reykjavík at their priority check-in line in Terminal B. For Saga Class passengers the boarding pass allows entry into TSA’s premium ticket lanes, and admittance to Lufthansa’s business class lounge, which Icelandair arranges for its Saga Class passengers. The Lufthansa in EWR’s Terminal B is somewhat small, with about 25 seats, and space for 12 smaller seats computer-style tables. Free WiFi is provided for lounge guests. A hot and cold buffet and self-service bar is also available.

Boarding began at 7:15 pm, and a separate lane was available for Saga passengers. The B757-200 on this flight has three sections (Economy, Economy Comfort, Saga) seating 183 passengers with a 3×3 configuration in economy and 2×2 seating in Saga class for 22 passengers. Although the Saga seats were not full-recline, they do have 40” pitch with ¾ recline, and seat-back entertainment screen with a full menu of movies, TV shows, games and flight information. Shortly after stowing gear in the overhead an amenity kit was provided, a Spanish cava was served, and soon after that, at 7:45 the aircraft departed the gate. After a relatively short wait, Icelandair’s flight 622 to Reykjavík lifted off at 8:00 pm, just five minutes behind schedule.

Service aboard Icelandair Saga Class (photo Icelandair)

Dinner was a nicely baked salmon (possibly Icelandic) with vegetables and desert, accompanied by a dry white wine from France. After watching a movie and a short nap, I heard the flight attendants moving about the cabin serving croissants, juice and coffee, announcing to the passengers that we would be landing in Iceland shortly. As we began our early morning descent towards the airport I was anxious to look out the window, eager to see the terrain from the air, but of course it was still winter in Iceland, the sky quite dark, with drops of rain on the window, and the only lights visible were streetlights in the small villages that hug the rocky coastline near the airport.

The flight landed at 6:00 am local time, I gathered my belongings, walked quickly to the passport windows, fully staffed and with no lines, and within fifteen minutes I had picked up my rental car right outside the terminal and was on the highway to Reykjavík, 30 miles away. By the time I reached the outskirts of the city the sky was becoming eerily brighter, no sun yet, but a faint orange glow appeared above the city, illuminating the snow covered landscape and the cozy house lights of early rising Icelanders.

Snowy streets and colorful houses in historic district of Reykjavik.

Each aircraft in the Icelandair fleet is named after 16 Icelandic volcanos, including Eyjafjallajokull, Heklaaurora, and Helgafell. Passengers boarding an Icelandair plane can see a plaque with the name and illustration of the volcano the aircraft was named after.

For information on non-stop flights to Iceland from North America contact:

Icelandair
www.icelandair.us

101 Hotel, Reykjavik


(Hotel photos courtesy Design Hotels™ )

101 Hotel, Reykjavik
www.101hotel.is

My flight from the U.S. landed in Iceland at 6:00 am local time. I gathered my belongings, walked quickly to the passport windows, fully staffed and with no lines, and within fifteen minutes I had picked up my rental car outside the terminal and was on the highway to Reykjavík, 30 miles away.

For most of the 45-minute drive the sky was black, with sleet blowing sideways across the road, but by the time I reached the outskirts of the city there was a ribbon of fuchsia on the horizon and a delicate glow of light appeared above the city, illuminating the snow covered landscape and the cozy kitchen lights of early rising Icelanders having breakfast before leaving for work.

Arriving at the 101 Hotel in the center of Reykjavík is the perfect ending to the overnight flight, and a perfect beginning to a work week at Iceland’s annual DesignMarch Festival. The 101, named after Reykjavík’s downtown postal code, was Iceland’s first design-driven, upscale boutique hotel when it opened in 2003, quickly becoming popular with visiting film and music celebrities, and the growing number of affluent millennials who have recently discovered Iceland’s stunning scenery and vibrant culinary scene. The 101 Hotel is a member of the prestigious Design Hotels group.

I check in at the reception area near the front door, which, like the entire 38-room property, is a beautiful example of Nordic minimalism. The lovely art objects on the white walls, colorful flowers on the front desk, and the warmth of a wood burning fireplace in the lounge give the first floor area the feel of a private, upscale Icelandic home.

My third floor room is surprisingly, and fortunately, available for early check-in and the heated oak floor in the room and the King bed with a fluffy white quilt cover are, at 6:45 am, the most important amenities I could imagine. In the dawn light, outside the large windows, is Arnarhóll Hill, a city park where a statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, known as Reykjavik’s first settler in the year 874, overlooks the modern Harpa concert hall, and the sea and the mountains beyond.

A few hours later, after washing up in the large, free-standing, glass-enclosed shower, I notice the other beautifully designed amenities in the room including the Electrolux mini-bar, Plexiglass night tables, sleek black work desk and swivel light, SONY DVD, Bose speakers and i-Pod docking station. The square, white ceramic sink and claw-foot bathtub are placed in front of the window in the open-plan bathroom area. The décor of the rooms, and all the interior public areas, is a blend of black, white and grays with, of course, the heated oak floors throughout the property.

The books on the shelf in my room have lots of new art and design titles, as well as Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, a classic novel of Icelandic life which won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in literature. Sitting in Iceland’s compact and beautiful capital city, with snow-covered Mount Esja on the other side of the bay, seems like perfect place to start chapter one.

The 101 Hotel has a long, glass-roofed bar/restaurant called Kitchen & Wine on the ground floor, serving chef-prepared breakfast items and lunch and dinner menus with locally caught fish, a delicious langoustine soup, Icelandic lamb, salads, burgers and light snacks. On the lower level is a small workout room and mini-spa with steam bath, Jacuzzi and plunge pool. Of course there are also hundreds of outdoor public pools, in Reykjavík and throughout the island, where locals and visitors swim year-round in the warm, naturally flowing geothermal waters that heat the homes, schools, businesses (and fill the swimming pools) of the country.

Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Center , located five minutes walk from 101 Hotel. (photo Iceland Tourism)

Although the exterior of the 101 is a typical, somewhat bland, five-story Icelandic façade, a former office building, the interior of the property is so wonderfully designed, with splashes of color against white walls and black furnishings, with subtle indoor lighting and a quiet elegance, it becomes difficult to get up the momentum to go outside. But, of course, the outside is where Iceland really opens up and sparkles, the 101 Hotel is for when you are ready to go home at night.

Ron Bernthal