Once upon a time, on a grey-skied, bone-chilling, sleeting spring morning in 2018, this Minnesota woman (and the Icelandair jet in which I sat) landed on a slick runway at Keflavík airport on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland. After months of planning, I was finally about to embark on my inaugural visit and spend 7 days on a self-drive tour discovering and exploring the island.
I was excited, of course, but looking back? I had not a clue as to what was about to happen to me!
And what was that, you may ask?
I was about to fall hopelessly for the Land of Fire and Ice, that’s what!
And not only did I fall, but I. fell. HARD.
Iceland was not simply just incredible, in my eyes.
It was more than that.
Iceland felt like home.
And yet, my time in Iceland eventually came to an end. And so, holding my broken heart in my hands, I boarded a plane for Minneapolis, cried all the way home, and vowed to return, as soon as humanly possible.
But what could I do in the meantime? When my world had been turned upside down, and I now missed Iceland every moment of every day?
Well, for starters I began following all things Iceland obsessively on social media. Stalked Iceland webcams. Cheered for the Icelandic National football team. Even decided to take up learning Icelandic!
I became a raging, passionate, shameless Icelandophile!
(A title that still holds for me today. Strong.)
But as far as returning to Iceland, well, that was going to have to wait a while. Time…and money…and kids…let’s just say there were some obstacles to overcome!
So, I did the next best thing to returning to Iceland! I decided to go to Gimli, Canada this past August for Islendingadagurinn, the Icelandic Gimli Festival in Manitoba!
But what does Gimli have to do with Iceland, exactly?
Quite a lot, actually!
SO WHERE IS GIMLI? AND WHY GO THERE?!
Gimli is an hour’s drive north of Winnipeg situated along beautiful lake shoreline in Manitoba, Canada. And though small with a population just shy of 7,000, it’s a place with big Icelandic heart!
After all, the first settlers from Europe to make a home in Gimli and the surrounding area were Icelanders. Immigrants from Iceland began settling in Manitoba in 1875, in an area that would later be deemed “New Iceland”, when the Mount Askja eruption and other difficult living conditions compelled Icelanders to seek a new life abroad.
As a result, Manitoba today has the largest settlement of Icelanders anywhere outside of Iceland! Some 26,000 people with Icelandic ancestry reside in the area, and festivals such as the yearly Gimli festival cater to the area’s proud Icelandic roots.
Yes, Gimli, Manitoba is super duper Icelandic!
But once I did, it was obvious what needed to happen next: we had to go!
ON OUR WAY!
You know this Iceland lover was serious as a heart attack about going to Gimli when I hardly flinched at spending a hefty sum to obtain expedited passports for our children so we could cross into Canada! I mean sure, providing a birth certificate is still an accepted means for gaining entry, but passports just felt like a critical safety net for such a highly anticipated trip.
I wanted to be sure nothing kept us from the Gimli festival.
We were GOING, people!
And so, we headed out at crack-o’-dawn-o’-clock on a Friday morning this past August with everything we needed: passports in pockets, Icelandic flags in hand, and a whole lot of giddiness in our hearts.
Let’s do this, fam!
Part of the fun of this trip was that it was uncharted territory for our kids, this whole hopping-the-border thing! We were all so psyched to be on foreign soil after driving 5 hours from the Twin Cities, we promptly got out of the car after passing through Canadian customs in order to make it picture official:
Once in Canada, my crew enjoyed looking for little clues that we weren’t in America anymore, like observing that the speed limit signs were in kilometers, not miles, but for all intents and purposes the initial drive beyond the border felt a little like driving through Iowa: lots and lots (and lots) of flat land!
Though to be fair, fewer cows!
Still, the anticipation reached a fever pitch as we made our way ever closer to Gimli:
We were getting closer! As we did, we passed fields upon fields of sunflowers, a nice unexpected perk after all that…Iowa-ness:
And then, it happened!
After an 8.5-hour drive and a click of our ruby heels, the eagle(s) officially landed:
Minnesotans arrived in Gimli!
WELCOME TO GIMLI!
We were finally in Gimli, and I couldn’t wait to bask in its Icelandic glory! At this point it had been over a year since my fateful, life-changing trip to Iceland, so I was long overdue for some Nordic love! Naturally, then, I wanted our initial stop in Gimli to be a spot that would confirm without a doubt that we were indeed in a land rich with Icelandic ancestry.
So where to first?
Viking Park, of course!
Viking Park, with its accompanying Viking statue, is the #1 top rated attraction and “thing to do” in Gimli. I think you can see why!
That statue is just the epitome of cool!
Although relatively new (the park was built in 2017, though the statue itself, designed by Gissur Eliasson, was erected in 1967 for Canada’s 100th anniversary), Viking Park is indisputably a top Gimli highlight. With the statue’s towering presence and the park’s location near the gorgeous Lake Winnipeg shore, you simply cannot find a more picturesque spot in all of Gimli!
After checking out Viking Park, it was time to hit another cornerstone of the town with a stroll down to none other than Gimli Beach!
Gimli Beach & Harbor
It’s difficult not to be immediately taken by Gimli’s surrounding beauty, as it is located right on the shores of Lake Winnipeg! The Icelanders had incredibly good taste when they decided to set up shop around here, as you simply cannot find a prettier beach or body of water.
And I come from the Land of 10,000 Lakes! That’s sayin’ somethin’!
Yes, if Gimli isn’t a quintessential “beach town”, I don’t know what is! Imagine this being your backyard playground:
Simply beautiful, right?!
The Icelandic settlers knew exactly what they were doing when they decided to make this home!
Smart folks, those Icelanders!
Gimli Main Street and About Town
A stroll through town after walking the beach continued to give us clues to Gimli’s Icelandic roots and past. One fun stop was Gimli’s General Store, which was originally constructed in 1899 by Hans Petur Tergesen of Akureyri, Iceland. By 1920 Gimli’s General Store was one of the best stocked general stores in the surrounding area. Tons of Iceland-related books, apparel, and souvenirs can be found here!
New Iceland Heritage Museum
The New Iceland Heritage Museum is a small but well-done museum located in downtown Gimli and one that I would definitely recommend to any first-time visitor looking to learn more about the history of the area and the life of the Icelanders who settled there. There’s also an impressive accompanying gift shop selling woolen goods, jewelry, apparel, and other Icelandic- and Gimli-related merchandise.
A solid stop all around!
AND NOW, WE FESTIVAL!
The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, a yearly four-day festival held in early August, has been celebrated since 1890! The festival was originally located in Winnipeg until it was moved to Gimli in 1932. More about the festival and its history can be found here.
So, after a get-our-bearings tour of Gimli, it was time to dig in to the festival fun! It’s why we made the trip, after all!
First up on the docket? Viking Village!
The Viking Village
To get a “feel” for what Viking life looked like back in the day, a Viking Village is erected during the festival. We learned that the volunteers running the village and demonstrating aspects of Viking life, from tool-making to yarn-dying, were actually living in the makeshift tents during the festival, lending an air of authenticity! The Viking volunteers also ate in the village; all the pots hung over open fires were actually cooking up delicious food for the village participants:
After checking out Viking Village, it was time to mosey on and see what else the festival had to offer.
A Sandcastle Contest to End All Sandcastle Contests
A festival of any sort wouldn’t be complete in Gimli without making use of the fantastic beach right in the center of town! When we arrived in early morning, dozens of people were already hard at work concocting their creations.
And these competitors were committed! Folks went about creating their masterpieces with shovels in hand and a merciless gleam in their eye! Many had brought pails filled to the brim with rocks, shells, sticks, and fronds…all “tools” for whipping up their artistic visions.
Though I’m not sure who won, all the creations were imaginative and impressive:
From there it was time to get serious! I may or may not have driven 8.5 hours north to an entirely other country in order to participate in this festival activity alone!
And what activity is that?
Why, I came to Get Dinged!
During the festival, one can become an “honorary” Icelander by completing a series of tasks in quick succession while wearing traditional Icelandic “garb”. Think furs, Viking horns, and perhaps even a sword (for good measure, naturally!).
The first task? Eat a piece of dried fish, a favorite snack of Icelanders:
Next step? Wash it down with a shot of Brennivín, a clear, distilled schnapps considered Iceland’s signature liquor:
And the final task?
Say ‘Islendingadagurinn’ three times fast and roar like a true Viking! Really let it come from down deep in your belly!
Now, I’ll be honest. I was really nervous to do this! I had come all this way! What if I couldn’t pass this (completely legitimate and highly scientific) test?!
My delicate Icelandic street cred hung precariously in the balance!
Luckily, it was no thang at ALL for this gal!
As such, I can now proudly proclaim myself an honorary Icelander!
Hey! What can I say?!
If the shoe fits!
As someone who is constantly on the hunt for anything and everything Icelandic, I can tell you that finding Icelandic alcohol in stores near me is a near futile endeavor! In the Twin Cities metro, it is difficult (nay, impossible?!) to find Icelandic beer or spirits such as Brennivín.
So, you best believe that I was thrilled to discover the Vingólf “beverage garden” at Islendingadagurinn offering up some traditional Icelandic beer! And given that we were enjoying the festival on a weekend that was as hot as hell’s doorstep, a cold brew (and one from Iceland, no less!) never tasted so refreshing!
Running for (Icelandic) Bling!
New to Islendingadagurinn this year were newly initiated running races! One could sign up to participate in a fun run, 5k, or 10-mile race. I took one little look at the bling one could earn by participating and I was all in.
Sign. Me. Up!
Can you blame me?! Just look at that beauty:
So, being downright medal-determined, I got up ridiculously early on Sunday morning and ran my very first Canadian 5k through the streets of Gimli as the sun rose to usher in another day of Islendingadagurinn! Then, after what ended up being a glorious run on an absolutely gorgeous morning, it was time to eat back all the calories I had burned (plus extra, for good measure) at the festival pancake breakfast!
With my killer new bling proudly about my neck, thankyouverymuch
OTHER FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS
There was truly something for everyone at Islendingadagurinn, from golf and beach volleyball tournaments to an Icelandic fashion show and parade. Not to mention plenty of live music, craft stalls, and business vendors. A full festival weekend all around!
I’m so grateful we made the trek to Gimli for Islendingadagurinn. It was a weekend full of adventure (let’s drive to a completely different country!) and new experiences (dried fish, anyone?!), all because I have a relentless desire to keep living my love for Iceland…whatever that may look like and wherever that may take me!
And one final word on Islendingadagurinn. The festival holds a poem and short story contest each year: the winners receive a small cash prize and the opportunity to read their winning submission during the festival event, “Music and Poetry in the Park.” Submissions are encouraged to be related to the year’s festival theme, which for 2019 was “Take a Viking Voyage.”
I submitted a poem, and though it didn’t win, I think it tells you everything about my love for Iceland and what it means to me. Why I packed up my family and took them to Gimli for Islendingadagurinn and why, this December, I’m returning once again to the Land of Fire and Ice.
I do these things because Iceland?
Iceland has my heart.
I Left My Heart in Iceland
By Mary Kujawski
I left my heart in Iceland.
I left it there, but where?
Could it be in Reykjavík, where I traced the colorful streets with my feet?
Walked the harbor-hugging curve of the North Atlantic, breathed
in the budding birch trees and damp soil sitting heavy
upon the air as I stood at Tjörnin pond, its surface still as glass?
Or at Svörtuloft lighthouse, perched high above the Snæfellsnes coastline?
An orange beacon rising resolute against the angry, frothing sea?
Where fitful clouds darted across the tortured sky, casting
grey shadows and quiet secrets across the barren lava fields?
Could it be at Mount Helgafell, burrowed amongst a crop of stones?
Where wishes were whispered into the wild air and
wind-whipped tears stained wet my cheeks, the lone white church below
the horizon catching my dreams as they fell from my lips?
Or nestled in the green bosom of Reykjadalur Valley?
Where hot breath rose from cracks in the Earth and I walked
muddied trails along the spine of the dragon, sank into the river
to submerge in its lifeblood, a slow heat wetting my skin anew?
Could it be floating in the waters of the Silfra fissure?
Submerged in shades of blue and solace, where the current
carried me belly down and dreamlike, the steady drumbeat
of my pumping blood the only sound inside its frozen womb?
Or lying tumbled and tousled in a pasture in Hvolsvöllur?
Where we rode kind-eyed and wild-haired gentle giants into
the mountain-encircling meadow, chickens and sheep at our heels,
their calls echoing out into the sacred silence?
Could it be hiding shyly behind Gljúfrabúi’s curtain?
Buried behind a gaping wound in the outcrop, where the stream
runs smooth over rocks and water falls loose like tendrils spilling,
the mist encircling me, kissing me damp on the mouth?
Or caged in ancient ice at Jökulsárlón lagoon? Where aquamarine
gemstones gleam under the Icelandic summer sun and ink-drenched
beaches glitter with crystals and jewels, my chilled breath trailing
behind me like a fog-laden footpath while we danced upon its cool waters?
The truth is I have left my heart everywhere in Iceland…
Deep in the crevassed scars of Sólheimajökull glacier
and swimming with whales in the city harbor,
cradling the rim of Grábrók crater like mother with child
and clinging tightly to the midnight-black ribs of Vatneshellir cave.
Yes, it is so. I have left my heart in Iceland.