One minute I’m walking out of the subway station near Little Italy in Montreal, the next minute I’m flat on my back in the middle of a busy city sidewalk. It happened so fast. Ice is tricky like that.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t stare at your phone while walking in Montreal in the middle of winter.
After a quick assessment on the ground—back, neck and head are OK, ego certainly bruised, camera erect in hand a la that guy at a baseball game shagging a fly ball one-handed while protecting every ounce of that cold, costly Bud in the other—I threw my head back and took in the sky. Blue, clear, empty. Peaceful and quiet, unlike the bustling city street around me. After that moment passed, I looked at my wife who was doubled over in laughter. There was no face to be saved. This was going to be a story she will tell for the rest of our lives. What more could I do but laugh and accept my public shame?
The funny thing about going heels over head at the beginning of the trip is that I’d end up reversing that perspective entirely by the end. This is the story of how the sky bookended a recent trip to Montreal and Iceland.
A Montreal winter, I read before the trip, would tame even the most cold-hardy American soul. I won’t speak as anyone with any experience in that realm. I’m from New Orleans, after all. I didn’t even own a winter coat until I was 30 years old. Knowledge in hand, I did go prepared for Montreal’s worst and survived, despite the aforementioned shabby snow legs.
Lesson No. 2: Layers are your friend.
So how does one stay warm in Montreal during winter? The locals actually take to the outdoors—sledding down hills, running, fat-bike-riding, hiking, and Nordic walking in Parc Du Mont Royal.
Also, eating. Montreal has no shortage of good eateries. Culturally-diverse, too, as you might expect for a large city with a long history.
- For Breakfast, Pâtiserie Au Kouign Amann. Get the namesake. Cash only.
- For Lunch, Porchetta. In Montreal’s Little Italy near the Jean Talon Market. Order the first sandwich on the menu and don’t look back.
- For Dinner, Khyber Pass. Afghani restaurant. Bring your own wine and make reservations because you don’t want to miss this meal. Or Arepera Du Plateau. Venezuelan restaurant. Put your name on the white board waiting list outside the front door.
- For Craft Beer & Gastropub Fare, Dieu du Ciel. Cozy space with mood lighting and chalkboard menus. Great local beer selection and plates for sharing.
- For A Late Night Snack, Dirty Dogs. Montreal’s award-winning poutine.
Lesson No. 3: Eat your way through Montreal.
You could do a lot worse than Montreal as a jumping-off point for Iceland. And four days in Montreal is enough time. It’s a city. There’s enough to do to make four days seem different. More than four days, though, and everything would begin to feel the same. That goes for pretty much all cities, by the way.
Now, forget everything I just said about Montreal.
Iceland is an animal. It’s wild and beautiful and dangerous and intoxicating. Weather forecasts, for one, are a lie. Don’t waste your time looking at them. Expect variation, on an extreme scale. As one Icelandic farmer told me, the weather is “quite flexible” anywhere on the island. He’s damn right. The difference is insane from one geography to the next, and can (and will) change quicker than you can open a weather app.
Eating in Iceland is expectedly different than, say, Montreal. You could eat your way through Iceland, too, if you wanted. There are enough good restaurants and unique foods, especially if you’re staying in Reykjavik.
But why waste all that time on dining in Iceland? For this leg of the trip, eating was secondary or tertiary or maybe even further down the priority ladder than that. I did lose six pounds on this vacation, and I’ve never lost weight on a trip.
Besides the time sink, food and alcohol are insanely expensive in Iceland. Six-pack of beer at the state-owned liquor store? $28. 12-inch pizza with four toppings? $35. Luckily, the attractions are free. Maximize your time sightseeing, exploring trails, and gazing at waterfalls by doing quick meals. Come prepared with what my wife called “hiker’s lunches”—protein bars, jerky, Doritos, candy bars—for midday sustenance.
Lesson #4: Eat less in Iceland, explore more.
Save your time and money on breakfast and lunch, and then splurge on a sit-down dinner after a long, maximized day of appetite-augmenting exploration. A few suggestions:
- In Reykjavik, we liked Mikkeller & Friends (ambitious pizzas), Frederiksen Ale House (great bar snacks, happy hour draft specials) and Stofan Cafe (if a sit-down breakfast is a must).
- Outside Reykjavik, we liked Hamborgarafabrikkan (gourmet burgers in Akureyri), Suður-Vík Restaurant (make reservations) and the greasy burger and fries served at the efficient grocery store/gas station/deli counter Samkaup Strax in Reykjahlíð.
The food and local craft beer in Iceland are good. When you’re not pounding the pavement, you will eat and drink well. The locals are friendly and accommodating, too. Iceland is a beautiful country in many ways, not the least of which is its physical beauty.
Spend at least a week here. Stay in short-term rentals; it’s an AirBNB paradise in Iceland. Rent a car, drive around the island on the “Ring Road,” and stop often along the way. Stand in awe. Have a loose itinerary and don’t fret about being on schedule. If you do it right, you won’t be on time for anything here. There’s too much to see that you can’t plan for, and you should spend the time seeing those unplanned things.
- Waterfalls in the North: Goðafoss, Dettifoss, Selfoss. Most travelers stay on the south side of the island, within the footprint of the capital. Go to the north. It’s under-rated and worth the added travel time. These are arguably the most majestic waterfalls in the country.
- Kirkjufjara Beach & Dyrhólaey Arch. If you’re in the south, head to the black sand beach near Vik. Most of your time here should be spent at the lighthouse overlooking the beach. It’s one of the best views on the island, and is particularly great at sunset.
- The East Fjords, from Egilsstaðir to Höfn. One of the best areas to explore on the east side of the island because it’s one of the least trafficked. Most tourists traveling from Reykjavik stop on the southern side of the island at the glacial lagoons. Keep going east and you’ll find a dramatic landscape that seems untouched by humanity.
An embarrassment of riches. Beauty on top of beauty. Exploring Iceland is a love affair. The head over heels kind.
An Iceland Gear Guide
Gear up for your trip to Iceland with these tried-and-true suggestions for the lightest of travelers.
- Deuter Hiking Backpack | My wife and I packed all our clothing for the two-week adventure in this one backpack. (Pro tip: Do laundry on trips.) With room to spare in the bag for all the little take-home souvenirs, honestly. And it fits in overhead bins, so no lost luggage or bag fees.
- Teva Arrowood Mid Hiker | These were the only shoes I brought on this trip, and they performed admirably. Admittedly a little weak on ice and snow (or maybe that was just me), but overall a comfortable, versatile hiking boot. (J&T Review)
- REI Quick Dry Towel | Carry your own towel because the commercial Nature Baths in Iceland will charge you to rent one. Also, you never know when you’ll come across a hot spring worthy of a quick dip.
- SIRUI Traveler Ultralight Tripod | For photographers aiming to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, a light-carry and collapsible tripod for your aurora-capturing device.
- Helly Hansen Odin Vertical Jacket | You need a jacket that can withstand extreme winter weather, which means you need a jacket made by people who live in the extreme north.
All images of Montreal and Iceland were taken by Michael McNeil. He is the founder of Man & Place, a collaborative project set up for cultural geographers to share stories about people and places through photographs and story-telling. Michael is a cartographer and lives in Slidell, La., with his wife Sarah and two dogs, Zulu and Zola.