Oh, Iceland. When I went in late June for the fledgling Secret Solstice Festival (the first was held in 2014) it was my fourth trip to the tiny island nation of 350,000 in the North Atlantic. It won’t be my last. You see, I’m an unabashed Iceland fetishist. Seriously, just ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you how borderline obnoxious I am about Iceland. Constantly spamming their Instagram feeds with photos from there, on top of imploring them — and others, including random people I meet within minutes of meeting them — that they should really, really go to Iceland.
“If you’re traveling to Europe, fly Icelandair because they allow you to do a stopover in Iceland for up to seven days,” I’m known to tell people. “Just carve out like 48 hours during your trip and check it out. I swear, there’s no place like it on Earth. It’s like being on another planet. You can thank me later.”
I know something about this. It’s how I first became hooked on Iceland, how the wee little nation adorned with freakishly breathtaking scenery first set its hooks in me. I was flying to Paris for a friend’s wedding and right around the time I was going to book my ticket and I read something about the stopover thing. It didn’t hurt that Icelandair’s fares to Europe are usually among the cheapest of any airline flying in and out of the U.S. So I took the plunge and booked a stopover that was to last almost exactly 48 hours — my flight in to Reykjavik landed at around 7am on a Saturday morning and my departing flight to Paris left at around 7am on Monday morning. Little did I know that I would barely sleep at all during those 48 hours. And it wasn’t because I was on any kind of drug-fueled bender or something. Rather, I just couldn’t get enough of Iceland and I wanted to use every moment I had available to me to take it in. I caught up on sleep when I got to Paris, which is saying something on its own. Obviously, 48 hours was not going to be enough, so I’d returned a couple of times after.
But this Iceland trip I took in June — man, this may have been the best one of all.
Secret Solstice takes place — as you might have guessed — during Iceland’s summer solstice. This year’s solstice featured 96 hours of straight daylight, and the whole experience was bizarre and disorienting in the best possible ways. You really haven’t lived until you’ve gotten up at 2 am to go to the bathroom and the sun is shining in through your window and drunken Icelanders are kicking a soccer ball around on the street outside. I’d long wanted to experience this extreme daylight event (I’d already experienced nearly 24 hours of straight darkness in Iceland a couple of years back during the winter) and centering a music festival around it in one of the world’s most unique places is a minor stroke of genius on behalf of the festival’s founder. (Side note: If prolonged daylight isn’t your thing, the Iceland Airwaves Festival coming up in November is a great time to go as well.)
That all said, here are some thoughts/feelings I’d like to share about Secret Solstice, and about Iceland, arguably my favorite place on the planet.
— In a modern world overflowing with music festivals, probably the best thing this festival has going for it is it’s ridiculously eclectic lineup — its headliners ranged from Slayer, to Stormzy to Bonnie Tyler to Steve Aoki to Gucci Mane, and also included a host of local Icelandic artists (more on that shortly) — and, more significantly, the unique-to-Iceland venues attendees of the festival are able to catch shows at. Case in point: on the Saturday of the festival I attended an electronic show inside of a glacier featuring Grammy Award-winning DJ/producer Dubfire, and on the Sunday of the festival I attended a show featuring a handful of lovely Icelandic singer-songwriters inside of thousands-of-years-old lava tunnel.
While both of these two music festival events were experiences that I will probably count as standout memories for the rest of my life, the one of the two that struck me as the most remarkable and unforgettable was the “Into the Glacier” show. The “venue” (an ice cave/tunnel inside of a damn glacier!) that it was held in took about 5 hours to reach in total from Reykjavik — 4 hours or so on a bus, and another hour or so in a giant snow jeep-type of vehicle that climbed us all up the side of a snow and ice-covered mountain.
Once we descended down into the long, winding ice tunnel that led in the heart of the glacier, we found an open bar and thumping music and a cave dedicated to dancing and partying. It was everything you’d think it would be, and it was inside of a damn glacier!
— Another thing that made this year’s Summer Solstice Festival so interesting was that it just so happened to coincide with Iceland making its first-ever appearance in the World Cup. If you’ve never visited a tiny nation of soccer fanatics at the precise time of a first-ever World Cup appearance, I highly recommend it. It was quite an experience. The whole country was on fire with excitement and anticipation, and the festival even halted its schedule to show a match on the big stage for festival-goers. And yes, there were Viking thunderclaps that went down before, during, and after the match on the festival’s main grounds.
— In case you were wondering, the weather in Iceland can vary wildly at all times, even in summer. You’ll look out your hotel window and it will be sunny and then you’ll get dressed to go out and suddenly it’s cold and raining. This literally happened to me a couple of times on this trip. It’s plum crazy. When I was there in June it was a little cooler than usual for summer — low 50s, high 40s on most days. So be sure to pack a light jacket and a hoodie or two if you go during this time of year. You truly never know what you’re going to get.
— Another unique offering of this festival is its million dollar VIP ticket. Here’s what it entails:
With just one golden ticket up for grabs, the princely priced pass gets roundtrip pick up via private chartered business jet for six people, as well as luxury accommodation for the entire festival week including an exclusive private party with a Secret Solstice headline artist. Other standout benefits include daily pampering with luxury spa access and a personalized glam squad, private dining with prominent Icelandic chefs in unique Icelandic locations, chartered helicopter tour over the stunning landscape of southern Iceland across volcanoes and glaciers, horseback riding, catered World Cup viewing parties, 24/7 access to personal drivers, sledding across the world famous Langjökull glacier, complimentary gear from 66North, and all the usual VIP perks like priority festival and backstage access, an on-site fully-stocked private lounge, and plenty more.
So if you’ve got a million bucks laying around to spend on a music festival, you should maybe consider this?
— I was quite struck by the diversity of represented at Secret Solstice. I met cool, fun people of a range of ages who were there from all corners of the globe — Australia, China, Russia, Panama, Malaysia, Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Japan, Brazil — and just about every European country imaginable. I even met a cool-ass couple from New Orleans who live about a 1/4 mile from me that I’d never met who travel around the world with a plastic owl named “Whooty” that has its own Instagram page. I’ll probably watch a Saints or Pelicans game or two with them this year. So on top of everything else, I made new friends at this festival, from near and far.
— While all of the headliners that I saw put on good shows, I was most impressed by the Icelandic artists who performed at the festival. In short, for a country of just 350,000 people, there’s a lot of good music being made in Iceland by some fantastic, truly talented performers who sadly don’t get much attention outside of their home country. My favorite of them all were probably Reykjavíkurdætur, a relentlessly energetic and entertaining all-female hip-hop group. I kind of want to be friends with this crew. They seem fun as hell, and the Iceland recommendations they gave us pre-festival were pretty damn ace.
Another I liked, and who I actually got to know a little bit, was Arnór Dan Arnarson, who performed at the festival as the frontman for the band Agent Fresco. He’s a Denmark native now living in Iceland performing music. He was extremely gracious and kind to me and a lady friend of mine, regularly inviting us over to his apartment for Icelandic beers and hot dogs (hot dogs are a big deal in Iceland). He recently released a rather stunning video to a new solo single he put out — “Stone by Stone” — and the quality of the music and the video I think speaks to what I said previously about the vast depth of musical and artistic talent that’s sort of hidden inside this country.
— Now that we’ve got most of the good about this festival out of the way, let’s get to the bad — at least according to me, and a few other people who have expressed their displeasure with the scourge of “cashless” music festivals. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, a festival going “cashless” does not mean you can only use credit/debit cards at a festival. No, a “cashless” festival is typically one in which the only way you can buy merch or food or booze or anything else is by loading money (usually through a festival’s app) onto a plastic card or wristband which is then scanned by vendors each time you want to make a purchase. This becomes a problem when you’re at the festival and run out of funds on your account and have to load more money — mobile phone service at music festivals is typically spotty at best, and in most cases my phone is a useless brick, as it was on the main grounds at Secret Solstice. There’s also the issue of loading money that eventually goes unused. Do you think festivals that go cashless refund this money to attendees? Of course they don’t, or at least not without having to go through a bunch of hassle in order to get your money back.
I think NME’s Jordan Bassett summed up “the tyranny of the cashless festival” best recently:
In general, a cashless festival means you can’t use your own cash or bank cards on site, and must instead stick some money on the event’s own card or wristband. How much money, you ask? A question to which no-one in history has ever known the answer. Cashless systems have caught on across European festivals over the last couple of years and I can tell you from bitter, personal experience: they absolutely fucking suck.
Life within the confines of a cashless festival follows a cycle that comes in three tedious waves. First, you queue for an endless, incredibly boring age to load your money onto the hateful thing. A day later, when you’ve accidentally rinsed a couple of hundred quid on a pulled pork sandwich, three beers and packet of cigarettes, you must re-join the queue for many, many more hours in order to top up the wristband for a second miserable time. “I won’t repeat my foolish mistake,” you tell yourself. “I’m going to double the amount I’d normally load onto this evil electronic tag so I never have to watch my life ebb away like this again.” Oh, my friend – my defeated, naïve friend – you have walked, blindfolded, straight into a nightmarish purgatory of your own making.
Because the punchline to this long-winded joke is that, at the end of a weekend defined not by hedonism but by sums and admin, you are left with a choice: trudge from the site, leaving behind the £60 left over on the wristand, or join a final, snaking, beleaguered queue to have it returned.
So yeah, if there’s one single thing I would change about Secret Solstice if I could, it would be to just let me use my own money and cards to make purchases. The “cashless” festival movement feels like a shameless cash-grab that’s cloaked in good intentions. Kill it, and kill it with fire.
— In conclusion, a few words about Iceland, in general, for those who have never been:
1. The food is not that great, though it’s better than you may have heard. It’s gotten better in the last few years. It is, however, a little expensive. Most locals only go out to eat for special occasions. Personally, the last couple of times I’ve been I’ve stayed on the eastern part of town at Hlemmur Square hotel and Kex where there’s some good, cheap-for-Iceland Asian food closeby — there’s a great Thai market called the Mai Thai Bistro and Market that serves fantastic pad thai and curry dishes, a good noodle/ramen place called Noodle Station, and across the street from Hlemmur Square is a decent food market (Hlemmur Square Food Market) that has a good Vietnamese joint as well as some other solid offerings. There’s also a decent pizza place and a fish and chips truck nearby too. All in all, this little area has a cluster of decent, reasonably priced food options where I usually grab something and bring back to my hotel to eat. Any time I’ve gone to a sit-down restaurant I’ve usually been disappointed because the cost outweighs the quality of the meal. Just know up front that you’re not going to Iceland for the food. (Added bonus: there’s a penis museum is in this same Eastern area of town as well, and you MUST visit the penis museum and watch the documentary on it (The Final Member) before of after.)
2. Most Icelanders — and I’m talking people who were born and raised there — are not really all that friendly, to be honest. They’re not dicks either, mind you. They just tend to sort of, well, tolerate you if you’re a tourist/foreigner. They’re just nice enough, somewhere right down the middle between friendly and dickish. It’s a little vexing as to why this is, but my theory is that for hundreds of years Icelanders had their nation almost entirely to themselves — tourism has only really become a thing there in the past ten years or so, after the country needed to generate revenue in the wake of a financial crisis — and so now the influx of foreigners is kind of annoying and off-putting to them to some degree, but necessary at the same time, because tourism floods the country with money. So most relationships you’ll have with the locals are entirely transactional ones — they have a good or service you need, and they want your money. Rarely is any Icelander going to ask you deep, penetrating questions about your life and the place you come from. I just don’t think they give a shit. For hundreds of years they existed happy on their little island and just wanted to be left alone in peace. But then suddenly everything changed a decade or so ago and suddenly they had to invite and entice the outside world to come in. And I’m sure it hasn’t helped that the recent influx of tourists has driven up the costs of some things like hotels and dining out. My impression is that they want you to come, enjoy yourself, spend your money, and then go back to where you came from. And personally, I’m fine with that. I totally get it. It’s cool. I plan to be back many more times.
3. As I mentioned earlier, the weather is weird, and a lot of the time it downright sucks. Get over it. You don’t go to Iceland for the great weather.
So, to summarize Iceland, the food and the weather kind of suck, the people are mostly pretty meh, but it’s arguably the most beautiful place in the world and you’ll have one of the most spectacular times of your life there. And going in summer for Secret Solstice Festival is a pretty damn good time to go.
Uproxx was hosted for the festival by Secret Solstice for a portion of our time in Iceland. You can read our policy on hosting/press trips here.