Culture for children, by children, with children
Iceland is an extreme place. It's a place where explorers test themselves to the limit. It's a place where stag and hen parties drink themselves silly. It's a place where politicians meet to make world changing decisions. But is it a place for families? Kirstie Pelling found out when she took her three children to Reykjavik for the annual Children's Cultural Festival...
In so many senses the youngest country on earth is a temperamental toddler at a grown ups' party. The ground is volatile and explosive. The weather is moody and unpredictable. The economy is up and down. And the people are expressive, to say the least.
It's no surprise then, that this bubbly youngster is a great destination for families...
Man walks cat in basket under balloons, Reykjavik
If you are looking for a family friendly break then you should consider Iceland.
Why? Well, for a start, it's cheaper than it used to be. When the currency devalued, value for money shot up for foreign visitors. There are great discounts for families; children travel free on buses and have cheap entrance in museums. And the Icelandic people value simple pleasures. You won't find a wealth of expensive theme parks here. Aside from the Blue Lagoon (a milky blue outdoor health spa which predominantly seems to have been created for the tourists to break the journey to the airport), geothermally heated swimming pools are inexpensive, plentiful, and well-supported by locals. At Nautholsvik thermal beach, you won't get hassled about a sun lounger. And there are walks galore, on a raft of strange terrains including black beaches, volcano rims, and glaciers.
Humpback whale in Iceland
A playground for all
Families in Iceland believe in spending time together. It's part of the culture. And Dora Magnusdottir, Marketing Manager for Visit Reykjavik, says part of the offer for visiting families is getting out into nature together, without spending huge amounts of money on theme parks and man-made attractions, “You have to embrace what you see. The core idea for family tourism is simplicity.”
A large proportion of the 2nd annual Reykjavik Children's Cultural Festival involves families doing everyday things. During our week in Reykjavik we join scores of families playing board games simultaneously in City Hall. We bang drums and send pulses of happiness around a circle made up of big and small people. Granddads make fairy tree houses with excitable grandchildren, and Mums get gluey with daughters, creating glittery costumes for rod puppets. Families with older children join in workshops based on Bjork's Biophilia album. And in Reykjavik Library we step into a giant book together, and make paper boxes for a wall display.
Puppets made at Reykjavik Children's Festival
Contemporary music for curious children...
The festival revolves around the oldest theatre in the city, Iðnó, which has been turned into an 'Adventure Palace' for the week, offering art workshops, dance lessons and concerts. At a concert by the Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra, the kids aren't just welcome, they roam around the musicians as they play bursts of Mozart.
And the Chamber Orchestra doesn't just cater for children, it plays about with the catering. At the entertaining concert Laur and Karaoke, members of the orchestra strap plastic cups around their heads like artificial beaks and gargle water. They squash oranges. They encourage us to bite, to a beat, on fresh carrots. Surprisingly it all adds up to an interesting and catchy tune.
Outside Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavik at night
Contemporary music making with members of Reykjavik Chamber orchestra, Reykjavik Children's Festival
A city of culture
But culture in Iceland isn't a pop up, once a year event. It's ever present. In Reykjavik, you can spend the morning at some of the many city art galleries or if you’re more adventurous check out the unique Icelandic Phallological Museum (look it up!), then spend the afternoon with waxy characters depicted founding the world’s first parliament or being burned at the stake at the bizarre Saga Museum. The bars and cafes are quirky too. Have a latte while choosing a bag of volcano dust to take home at the quirky Volcano House Cafe. Or, read a book from the on-site library while waiting for your washing to finish at the Laundromat Cafe.
A centre of nature
But enticing as the indoor attractions are, it's the wildlife that really grabs. Icelandic horses are made for family riding. They are short, stocky, and as placid as a horse gets. It's a good job they are made that way, as nine year old Cameron insists on “yee haw-ing” his way around the hills surrounding Laxnes Horse Farm. Later “yee haw” turns into “whoah,” when the horse decides to take him up on his command.
Family Adventure Project at Gullfoss, Iceland
The variety of activities for a family is vast. We travel to Gulfoss waterfall to see the rainbow that curves across the barren rock in the sunshine, and we explore the Atlantic rift at Thingvellir National Park. We go whale watching and raise our adrenaline levels chasing around the boat to see a humpback.
Gullfoss waterfall, Iceland
Inside the rift, Thingvllir National Park
If you have a bigger budget and older children, you can do some really extreme things. You can race around in a jeep in search of the latest volcanic eruption. You can snorkel between continents and walk in lava tubes. You can ride a skiddoo on a glacier. And if your budget can stretch to taking a day trip to Greenland, then I'm really envious.
Feeding the family
Even having a meal in Iceland is a cultural experience and a chance to question your family values. Do you eat the creatures you've just viewed? Is eating the puffins more ethically dodgy than having roast chicken on a Sunday? Is there any place at your dinner table for traditional Icelandic dishes like rotting whale meat? Perhaps that's a subject for the boys. Ours were very engaged in this part of the debate; they love rotting things.
An accessible cultural education
Reykjavik is more like a town than a city. We don't have a car but easily get around on foot and by bus. By the end of our stay we feel we've covered more subjects in a week than the children do in a whole term at school. But without any effort. And how many cities don’t feel like an effort?
Kirstie Pelling is co-founder of The Family Adventure Project, a blog and website that aims to inspire families to get out and about, to adventure and have fun together. You can get in touch via Twitter @familyonabike and Facebook.
Photos courtesy and copyright The Family Adventure Project