Love the layover: Iceland

[My story about Iceland tourism first appeared on NBC News)

You’re not imagining it if it seems like everyone you know is either planning a trip to Iceland – or just got back.

The Nordic island nation – population 350,000 – has seen tourism numbers explode from under 500,000 in 2010 to 1.7 million in 2016, with more than 2.4 million tourists expected to visit this year.

Iceland’s stunning glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, lava fields, geothermal pools and geysers have always been there, of course. But it took global news coverage of the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, cameo TV and film roles for Iceland’s scenery and some quirky tourism campaigns to really grab the world’s attention.

“At first it was crisis communications,” said Inga Hlin Palsdottir, Director of Visit Iceland and Creative Industries at Promote Iceland, “Our tourism industry was having difficult times after the 2008 recession and in 2010 things were just beginning to pick up. Then the volcano starting erupting right before the peak summer tourism season.”

Iceland’s tourism industry and the government banded together to try to save the summer season, eking out a tiny 0.1 increase that year. They continued to work together, with a focusing on raising Iceland’s profile as a year-round destination and getting tourists to venture outside of Reykjavik.

“Before Airbnb was even booming, we had locals invite tourists to their homes. Then we asked tourists to rename Iceland, because the country really doesn’t have that much ice,” said Palsdottir, “Now we have the Iceland Academy,” which is a series of short, offbeat videos on everything from “How to Eat Like an Icelander,” to the essential “How to Avoid Hot Tub Awkwardness.”

Now music fans want to see where Björk, Of Monsters of Men and Sigur Rós came from. TV and film aficionados want to see for themselves the Icelandic scenery that appears in hits such as HBO’s fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones,’ and the movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’

And going somewhere where there’s a great chance of seeing the Northern Lights is on the bucket list of almost every traveler.

Foreign and local tour operators have greatly expanded schedules and itineraries throughout Iceland and the inventory of hotel rooms and vacation rentals have grown.

Courtesy Promote Iceland

Helping to fuel in the influx of visitors from North America is the increase in air service to Iceland, especially by Wow Air and Icelandair, two Reykjavik-based airlines that route their flights through Iceland and offer passengers the option of an Iceland stopover for no additional airfare charge.

Wow Air flies to Iceland from ten North American cities, while Icelandair serves 13 U.S. airports (Philadelphia services starts May 30; Tampa services kicks off September 7) and five in Canada.

“Who doesn’t love a two-for-one deal?” said Pauline Frommer, Editorial Director of Frommer’s guidebooks and, “Most travelers are jazzed by the idea of getting to see an additional destination on their way to Europe – and one that hugely popular right now.”

Icelandair, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, has been promoting its stopover option since perhaps the early 1950s or mid-60s, said airline spokesman Michael Raucheisen, “We’ve always encouraged passengers to come experience Iceland for a few days, fall in love with it and come back for a full trip. And that model has worked well over the years.”

For passengers who don’t choose to stopover, Icelandair has two planes offering flyers a taste – or a tease – of the Iceland experience.

The carrier’s northern lights-themed plane was introduced in 2015 and earlier this month the airline launched a glacier-themed plane (named for Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier) that has images of the glacier hand-painted on the exterior and, inside, ice-blue lighting and headrests, cups, napkins, lavatory décor and even airsickness bags with a glacier motif.

Volcano closes airports; but doors are open in Denver

If I could fly somewhere this weekend, I’d choose Iceland for the chance to see for myself what that volcano is doing. But since the ash has caused the worst disruption in air travel since 9/11, that’s not going to happen.

Photo courtesy Craig Murphy, via Flickr

OK, so Iceland, and pretty much everyplace else in Europe, is out.

But if I could fly anywhere in the United States this weekend, I’d choose Denver.

There’s no volcano erupting there, but this weekend the city is hosting Doors Open Denver – a free event that offers a look inside dozens of buildings around town that are usually closed to the public.  My column on this week, Welcome! The Door is open, includes a run-down of half a dozen cities that host this sort of event, but here’s a preview, along with some photos that didn’t make it into the posted story.

(Photo by Gregory Thow)

Billed as a celebration of the city’s built environment and design, the 6th annual Doors Open Denver takes place April 17-18 and includes 80 to 90 buildings around town that are usually off-limits to the public. This year’s theme is adaptive re-use so you’ll get to see many old buildings being used in creative new ways.

This year, participating sites include the city’s old main post office, which has been turned into a high-security federal courthouse; a restored mansion that serves as the Colorado Governor’s Residence; a theater in a former mortuary; a Yellow Cab garage that now houses businesses and residential units; and the Historic Sugar Building, which was built in 1906 as the headquarters for the Great Western Sugar Company and now houses office and retail space, and two original Otis cage elevators.

One sure-to-be-popular site is the Daniels & Fisher Tower, which was once the tallest building in Denver. The Italian Renaissance Tower has a restored lobby with marble floors and walls and a 17th floor boasting a giant clock-face and a balcony that offers great 360-degree views of the city, the surrounding plains and the mountains.

(Courtesy: Gregory Thow)

More doors opened
If you can’t make it to Denver this weekend, don’t worry. Doors at many other usually off-limits locations will soon be opening in cities throughout North America, including Toronto, New York, Chicago, and in Lowell, Mass.

May 13-15 are the dates for the 9th annual Doors Open Lowell event, which will feature everything from reclaimed and restored mill buildings to a 1920’s classical revival Masonic Temple with curious chambers and meeting rooms, and the subterranean space that once housed giant turbines for a power plant that ran a local mill.

During Doors Open Toronto, held on May 29-30, 150 buildings of architectural, historic, cultural and/or social significance will be open to the public. Highlights include: Toronto’s City Hall, which offers self-guided tours of the Rotunda, the Council Chambers and the Observation Deck, and the five-story red brick Toronto Flatiron Building, which pre-dates New York City’s famous Flatiron building by about ten years. Also open to the public will be the Canada Life building, which has a weather beacon and a 17th floor tower room offering a panoramic view of downtown Toronto and Lake Ontario, as well as the restored circa-1920 Canon Theater — once the largest and most elegant vaudeville and motion picture palace in Canada.

Mark your calendars: New York hosts Open House New York on Oct. 9-10, with more than 200 sites participating throughout all five city boroughs, including the Woolworth Building, Radio City Music Hall and the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, which is accessed not by a door, but by a manhole.

(Courtesy Jeffrey Donenfeld)