Reykjanes Peninsula - A view from our expert author

Reykjanes doesn’t feel like planet earth, but then neither does much of Iceland.

Stark and almost uninhabitable, the Reykjanes Peninsula was overlooked as a fruitless wilderness until the American military thought it was the perfect place for a top-secret naval base. Perhaps the constant comparison of Reykjanes to the moon reaches back to bored military housewives who saw lunar living as a metaphor for life on the base. Most likely, their kitchen window granted enough of a view of pseudo-craters and pyroclastic flow for it to be convincing. Reykjanes doesn’t feel like planet earth, but then neither does much of Iceland.

Whether you’re on a quick stopover, exploring Iceland in depth, or if you’ve got a spare day at the end of your trip, Reykjanes is a surface worth scratching beneath. Nowhere else captures the same curious beauty and bleak mood of this peninsula’s empty places. There is great hiking to be done, a magnificent coastline to explore, and pure heat bubbling up from the depths. Reykjanes is also ideal for winter travel – it’s close, convenient, and compact. It’s also warmer than the rest of Iceland and there’s rarely any snow because it all gets blown away.

Rocky coast near the Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland by TTstudio, ShutterstockThe rugged, rocky coast near the Reykjanes peninsula © TTstudio, Shutterstock

Reykjanesbær is Iceland’s mini megalopolis that combines the towns of Keflavík, Hafnir, and Njarðvík into one dynamic community of 12,000 souls. That makes it the third-largest city in Iceland after the capital (not counting the suburbs) and Akureyri. As the heart of it all is Keflavík, a very functional town with row after row of perfect square blocks lined with two-storey concrete homes painted gaily in contrast to the lifeless lava mounds beyond. The harbour still serves as an active shipping and fishing port and continues to grow along the seashore.

Like so many ports in Iceland, Keflavík was founded as a fishing station by the Hanseatic League. It went through the same ups and downs of a Danish trading post, except in 1799 when the next town over (Básendur) was demolished in a tidal wave. Business in Keflavík doubled and from the consequent boom comes the remaining historic homes in the town centre. Otherwise, Keflavík went relatively unnoticed until World War II when the Allies needed a very flat piece of ground for an airport. After the war, the Americans handed the base over to the newly independent Icelandic government, but then quickly took it back. The Cold War demanded a close watch over the ‘trans-Atlantic tier’, and for the next 50 years Keflavík was home to NASKEF (Naval Air Station Keflavík). And so Keflavík grew into its own modern military town, unlike any other in Iceland.

Keflavík is the gateway into Iceland: home to a thriving immigrant community, it also has one of the youngest populations in the country.

This was an important era for Iceland and Reykjanes, and for better or worse, the NATO base waged a huge influence on Keflavík. No visitor can deny the American footprint that infiltrates Keflavík today: city planning, fast-food restaurants, and suburban gardens. Likewise, thousands upon thousands of Americans came and lived here, learning to love or hate Iceland based on the years they spent in the drizzle of Hafnargata. The base finally closed in 2006 and despite the decades of protests against foreign military presence by Icelanders, it seemed as though everyone was a little sad to admit the end of an era, especially the businesses in Keflavík.  

Now home to the country’s airport and a major shipping centre, Keflavík is the gateway into Iceland. The town is home to a thriving immigrant community and one of the youngest populations in the country. It’s also the first impression most travellers get. Take it all in with a grain of salt. Keflavík is Iceland at its very tamest.

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