Sitting on an airport shuttle bus, bundled up from head to toe, bleary-eyed from a long, overnight flight and my body clock is all out of sorts. It’s 7 in the morning in Iceland but feels more like 7 at night.
There’s not a single ounce of sunshine in the sky just yet. This country, on the southern edge of the Arctic Circle between Greenland and Norway, is on the verge of its winter and the sunshine doesn’t last long (only about 8 hours a day at the beginning of November.) As the bus pulls away from the Keflavik International Airport and begins the 45 minute ride into the capital city of Reykjavik, my adrenaline starts to flow and reality sets in.
This trip is a “twofer.” I’ve come to explore a country filled with an abundance of geothermal springs, massive glaciers, towering mountains, the famous Blue Lagoon, black sand beaches and active volcanoes. But the real motivation to hop on a plane and trek so far north: Iceland Airwaves! It’s an annual festival that draws music enthusiasts, artists, bands and DJs from around the world.
This year, some 8,000 festival goers descended on Reykjavik for Airwaves, with more than half traveling in from other countries. But the giant party has certainly evolved since first launching in 1999, when fans packed a single airplane hangar to rock out to the sights and sounds.
Now the festival has exploded into one of the premier showcases for new music, spread out across multiple days, in dozens of venues around Reykjavik. You can catch an American indie-rock band in the lobby of a hostel, then walk four streets over to a hole-in-the-wall pub and experience a live DJ, spinning records with heart-thumping bass, as a laser light show streaks across a crowded room of people dancing.
Airwaves spans five days and starts every year in late October. Rolling Stone magazine has dubbed it “the hippest long weekend on the annual music festival calendar.”
It has drawn giant names like Iceland’s very own and perhaps most well-known celebrity, Björk, to bands like Florence and the Machine and Of Monsters and Men. They play in 30 minute sets to give attendees the most bang for their buck – you can literally catch more than a dozen acts per day, if you play your cards right and map out your schedule to a “T.”
Plus, there’s an app for that. Their interactive smartphone app gives fans instant access to schedules, venue locations, maps and bios on all the artists.
For the most part, everything is clumped fairly close together in Reykjavik itself, so you can easily walk from spot to spot, all while taking in the beautiful sights of Iceland’s most populated city, where modern art sculptures line the brick streets, while popping in to some outstanding restaurants and enjoying some tasty local fare.
Perhaps the biggest draw of this high-octane festival is its setting. Most people tack on a few extra days, either prior to the start of Airwaves, or on the tail end, to allow for some astounding sightseeing.
If you travel all this way, you’ve just got to. Renting a car and getting around is simple (just beware of the volcanic ash danger, rental agencies inform you how the beautiful black ash can really do a number on your vehicle’s paint job because it’s so gritty and abrasive.)
A short drive from Reykjavik into central Iceland, you can find yourself in what’s known as the “Golden Circle.”
There are three primary stops: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss and the Haukadalur geothermal area. Þingvellir is home to the country’s largest natural lake, the spot where the Icelandic Parliament was founded and where you can physically see the separation of tectonic plates from the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates. Gullfoss, meaning Golden Falls, is a breathtaking waterfall that measures nearly 105 feet-tall in a canyon of the Hvítá River. Hearing the roar of the icy water is something to experience.
Haukadalur is where you can see some of the most active geysers on the island. Strokkur erupts every 5 to 10 minutes and Geysir sends scalding water more than 100 feet into the air about 5 times a day. If you’re patient enough, you can get one of the eruptions on video.
The group I traveled with decided to be extra adventurous. We took full advantage of our rental car and made the long drive across the entire southern coast and partially up the eastern coast. Dotted with more majestic waterfalls, goats grazing on steep mountainsides and fields of lava rock as far as the eye could see.
We stopped off at Jökulsárlón, a large glacial lake, situated at the head of the Vatnajökullglacier and flows into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat ride through the lagoon, with blue icebergs floating all around us, was simply incredible.
Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip was getting to witness the rare Northern Lights show. We decided to overnight in an area known as Skaftafell. It’s literally out in the middle of nowhere, and luckily the clouds had cleared, which made for a perfect backdrop to see the brilliant green lights come and go across the starry, night sky.
The next day, on our way back to Reykjavik, it was time for a little snowmobiling. We hopped on the machines and sped up the Mýrdalsjökullglacier, where we took in some of the most miraculous views from the freshly-driven snow. Words can’t quite describe what it’s like to stand on top of a glacier; seemingly worlds away from the hustle and bustle of any city and just take it all in. Wow.
Packing my suitcase and preparing to head home, I’m reminded of how blessed I am to have the ability of traveling the world and experiencing new cultures. Then as I sit on that same shuttle bus and make the journey back to the airport in Keflavik, I sift through the extraordinary images shot by Fox News photographer Eric Barnes, and can only smile. I think to myself, this experience was everything I had hoped it would be and so much more.
If you love music, enjoy the outdoors and you’re looking for your next big adventure – Airwaves is the place to be. Takk (translation / thanks), Iceland, until next time.
Casey Stegall joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 2007 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Dallas bureau. He previously served as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.