This is a God dream. Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam," the opening track to The Life of Pablo, plays in my headphones as my plane descends into Keflavík International Airport. It’s hours till sunset, so it should be close to pitch black outside, but instead it’s blindingly white, thanks to a combination of never-ending sunlight and ice that won't melt fast enough. Stepping out into this sunshine when it's the middle of the night is what I imagine dreaming is like, what stepping into that bright light at the end is like. I try to imagine Kanye, who landed at Keflavík a few weeks earlier, listening to his own album. I've seen those lights every night since I've left Iceland, and they're every bit as bright as the ones that illuminate Los Angeles.
In the last decade, Iceland has become as omnipresent in pop culture as New York or L.A. A location scout’s dream, it has featured as prominently as a character in films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Oblivion, and Game of Thrones. Then of course Kanye accompanied Kim there for her sister Kourtney's 37th birthday celebration, no doubt inspired by the fact that the previous year, Beyoncé famously celebrated Jay-Z's 45th birthday there. While filming Thor: The Dark World in Iceland, Tom Hiddleston fell in love with Reyka vodka (I did too). Justin Bieber fled to Iceland to take a reprieve from paparazzi and film his "I'll Show You" video.
My trip to Reykjavík was for the Secret Solstice, otherwise known as the Midnight Sun Music Festival. With an unusual array of headliners, including Radiohead, Of Monsters and Men, Deftones, Die Antwoord, and even Sister Sledge, it was far from the typical U.S. festival, and I didn't know quite what to expect... but the combination of different artists is what made the event such a surprise. You haven't fully lived until you’ve heard Icelandic millennials singing "We Are Family" at full volume. And every musical act made a point of mentioning how fucking excited they were to be in Iceland, how much they've always wanted to visit.
The festival itself sounds a lot like all European music festivals. They are much better organized than American ones, not to mention cleaner and usually safer. My hotel was within 10 minutes of the festival grounds, and there was no encouragement to camp out in a hot, dusty desert without amenities. Which is ironic, because the weather and landscape in Iceland is kind of perfect for that. I'd much rather be sleeping in a tent in the grass among fabled elves and trolls than with the actual human ghouls who flock to the desert for Coachella or Burning Man.
The theme of Iceland is "clean and efficient." Since the most famous person to come out of the country is Björk, and since the country is so small that everyone assumes all Icelanders went to high school with her, I played into the tourist stereotype and asked everyone I met if they knew her. No one did, except for a random woman who accosted me on the street because she was shocked to see a black American who works for MTV News wandering around Iceland — "You're a tall black guy with shoes!" "Oh, thanks?" "You don't see that around here." (Remember, y'all, European racism isn't really "racism"; they're just "fascinated" by black people.)
But the main celebrity in town is Jon Olafsson, the "Richard Branson of Iceland," as I was told multiple times. Olafsson runs the water company Icelandic Glacial, which (no joke) is literal untouched water from the Ölfus Spring. Ölfus Spring which continues to replenish itself. I even drank from a waterfall (the one where Bieber filmed his music video!), and at no point did I think I'd die or come across a dead body from a mob hit like I might if I drank from a river in Los Angeles. Everyone casually threw around knowing Olafsson as a means to get into the VIP section at the festival or to skip lines for long-ass events like Radiohead. It's the Icelandic equivalent of "I'm with the band."
Oddly enough, there's a distinct lack of paparazzi or flurry surrounding celebrities themselves. A tour guide shared with me that someone like Tom Cruise could walk into a restaurant here and be relatively unaccosted by people. It's Icelandic nature to be respectful, but they also just don't have the obsession with celebrity culture that the United States or the U.K. has. The only reason we really know about Beyoncé or Kanye's trips to Iceland is because they documented them themselves, Beyoncé via a few sparse Instagrams, Kanye and the Kardashian clan via Snapchat. At one point, Kanye posed on top of a glacier and looked relatively... warm.
I, too, got to spend time with a glacier — inside one, in fact. I've never wanted to attend a rave in my life, but who could pass up a party inside Langjökull, the second-largest icecap in Iceland? I wore my best neon orange Adidas to fit in, and spent the night huddling in a corner, freezing. Outside, it was warm enough to wear jeans and a cardigan, but inside a glacier is actually cold as hell. But the bright neverending sunlight kept me warm the next day when I went on a snowmobiling excursion atop the same glacier. Surprisingly, it's easier than driving a car, and there's nothing like speeding toward the horizon, seeing nothing but white snow ahead of you.
Want to know what the opposite of a party inside a glacier is? On Saturday I became one of the few people to experience the world's first concert inside a volcano. Though calling it a concert is pretty loose — it was just Chino Moreno of the Deftones playing a three-song acoustic set — it was still a monumental event. And pro-tip: A volcano will not be even slightly warm if it's been dormant for something like 4,000 years. It's actually every bit as freezing as being inside a glacier. The nature of celebrity is such that Moreno was helicoptered in with a few VIP guests, whereas I, who managed to charm my way onto the guest list, had the pleasure of hiking up the volcano to reach the venue. Then a thunderstorm and massive winds threatened to knock us all off, so I did manage to get some VIP treatment after the concert, when the Coast Guard flew us back to the Secret Solstice Festival. (This was mainly so that Moreno could perform with the Deftones later that night; I'm sure otherwise we'd have all been drinking wine in that volcano until morning, waiting for the storm to subside.)
Then again, Icelanders are very friendly. Friendly enough to helicopter you from atop a volcano in the middle of a storm. So friendly, in fact, that during a sold-out Radiohead concert, it's easy enough to make your way to the front row of the crowd with a simple "excuse me." This was my first time seeing Radiohead, and they played a two-hour set, and maybe there's something about braving God's elements only to be soothed by music, but goddamn did it feel transcendent. After Prince's death, I saw Beyoncé in concert two times — she's the only living artist I know of who can put on a show as rollicking and moving as the Purple One. But after seeing Thom Yorke so excited to be in Iceland (he said it a few times) and rocking out to the new album (A Moon Shaped Pool) as well as classics like "Paranoid Android," "Creep," and "Karma Police," I might have officially joined the Radiohive. (Is that a thing? It is now.)
And I haven't even mentioned the whale meat. A coveted travel destination is only as good as its food, and Iceland has that pretty much down. Apologies to the vegans, but the whale meat at Apotek Restaurant is one of the best things I've eaten in my entire life. Grilled like a steak, sweet to the taste, it wouldn't be out of place stuffed inside a tortilla outside of a taco truck in Los Angeles — and if it were, I'm pretty sure there'd be lines around the block. It's even more amazing compared to the fermented shark that's one of the country's goddamn national dishes. To give you an idea of how that meal works: The fermented shark at Café Flora is served in tiny cubes, and you eat it while knocking back a shot of Brennivín — a schnapps that tastes an awful lot like vodka. This is because fermented shark is horrible — Anthony Bourdain considers it the grossest thing he's ever eaten. But everything else is just so good. There's a variety of fish at the famous Fiskmarkaðurinn restaurant and plenty of drunk food downtown, like the hot dog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. I kid you not, one of the best dishes to eat in Iceland is a fucking hot dog, which is made with lamb, unlike the American kind. Maybe you need to be really drunk to appreciate it, but I happened to be, and they were so good I had three. Slather that thing in ketchup, mustard, and fried onions and have yourself a ball.
The drunk night that led me there began at Kiki, the only gay bar in Iceland. A throwback discothéque with a rainbow painted on the outside, it's where American and European culture are thrown together in one beautiful mess. Where else can you hear Beyoncé and Rihanna alongside Icelandic Eurovision singers like Greta Salóme and Yohanna, and have people dancing to them with the same intensity? The never-ending sunlight necessitates black curtains for bars, and the makeshiftness of it all helped contribute to the atmosphere. It's almost Brechtian, putting on the guise of a gay bar in such a way that you are compelled to intellectually think about the fact that you're in a gay bar. Coming only a week after celebrating Pride in Los Angeles, and the night after the Orlando massacre, it also reminded me that Iceland isn't some far-flung destination. It exists within our world, within our culture, and as much as Americans have now made it a part of their vacation destinations, there's also a very real community of people there who connect to us as well. A drag queen interrupted the evening to dedicate a performance to her friend who died that night in Orlando, and this country with its perpetual sunlight really did feel like a dream.
My final hours in Iceland were reserved for the Blue Lagoon, a spa built around a hot spring that offers facial mask treatments as a bonus. It has become a tourist trap, but also, Beyoncé had a photo shoot there. I repeat: Beyoncé had a photo shoot there. She had a private Instagram session with Jay-Z because they rented out the entire lagoon, but even if you're not an A-lister, if you sit in the hot springs and sip from a glass of prosecco with your eyes closed, it's easy enough to drown out everyone else. Put on a clay mask and live your life like Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter for once.
Iceland is going to be a preeminent travel destination for a long time, given its blend of food you can't get anywhere else, fun nightlife, gorgeous natural landmarks, and the most important people in movies, television, and music claiming it as their go-to place to luxuriate. It's like a cool night drive in Los Angeles, only with fresh air to breathe and the flashbulbs of the paparazzi and the vainglorious nowhere in sight. When Iceland was founded, it was under the faith of the Norse gods who lived in Valhalla. You can reach Valhalla by dying in battle, but little did they know that Iceland would become a gods' haven itself. This is a God dream. This is everything.