Iceland, revisted

I don’t feel like I ever gave our trip to Iceland the space in this blog that it deserves. It was an incredible adventure and one of the most spectacular, unique landscapes I’ve ever seen. Before we went (now almost two months ago…), we laughed at all the guidebooks that described it as “otherworldly,” but discovered that it was so true. The photographs don’t seem to quite capture it.

Using the journal I kept, I’m going to very briefly go over what we did each day. I’m not going to be very descriptive, but will list what we did…  I think the photographs will do a much better job, so check out the album on Picasa. Some of the photos don’t look very sharp, possibly because I uploaded them at a much smaller size than the actual file size. If you zoom in they look a bit better. There are only 143 photos in the album; we took over 1,000.

Day One

1) We landed at 6:40am and arrived at the hotel, Hotel Plaza, around 8:30. We showered, dressed, and immediately headed out. It was a drizzly, rainy day.

2) We bought Skyr (an Icelandic yogurt, which tasted a lot like Greek yogurt) and ate it at tables in our hotel lobby.

3) We went to the Tourist Center, which was right next to our hotel (!), and bought Reykjavik Welcome Cards, which got us admission to a number of museums, geothermal pools, and unlimited bus fares.

4) We were so exhausted we headed back to the hotel for a one hour nap. Overnight flights and five hour time differences are pretty tiring…

5) We walked around the city and ate lunch at a vegetarian restaurant Grænn Hostur.

6) We went to The National Museum.

7) We went to the Laugardalslaug thermal pool. Before entering the pools you are required to shower naked, but there aren’t any individual stalls. I showered naked alongside lots of female Icelanders of all ages. I was amazed by how unconcerned they all seemed with walking around naked, even teenage girls. It seemed very healthy — no shame of one’s body! We sat in the two warmer pools, including one that is shallow enough so you can lay down. We also went down the water slide. From what we read and observed, the thermal pools seem like such a huge part of Icelandic culture. Lots of friends and families sat in the pools and talking. It seemed like almost everyone was involved in conversation while they relaxed. There are seven public pools in Reykjavik alone, and well over 100 throughout Iceland (quite a few for a nation of 300,000 people!). Even when we were driving “in the middle of nowhere” later in the week David and I would spot public pools!

8) We had an amazing dinner at Á næstu grösum, another all-vegetarian restaurant in Reykjavik. It is one of the best restaurants we’ve ever been to, and relatively inexpensive (food was very pricey in Iceland!). They had a series of different dishes offered each night and you could get the special (with dishes selected for you), or your choice of two, three, or four different dishes. They piled your choices onto a plate, then gave you salad. They also had unlimited delicious bread with hummus and/or chutney.

9) Our first day was so full. We were EXHAUSTED!

Day Two

1) We had breakfast at the hotel. WOW! So much food. We’ve never had a buffet breakfast this incredible before! Tables and tables of food. We made veggie sandwiches with eggs, ate some cookie biscuits with jam, and lots of orange slices.

2) We walked to the water and went along the Harbor Walk. We went by a lot of shops in downtown, but most were closed because it was Sunday. We went to the bus stop.

3) We took the bus to the Zoo. It was small and very kid-oriented, but mildly interesting.

4) We took the bus to the Reykjavik City Museum, an outdoor museum with numerous historic buildings that had been moved there, including farmhouses and a church. It was closed (though large signs proclaimed it was open seven days a week…), but we read signs that were outside and peered in windows. Looked really neat, wish we could have really seen it! There were beautiful views of the city. It was an hour until the next bus came.

5) We went to a grocery store in downtown, Bonus, and bought some snacks. Then we headed back to the hotel and booked the Golden Circle Tour. We went with Iceland Horizon because we’d read spectacular reviews online and desperately wanted to avoid Reykjavik Excursions (a huge, very corporate tour company). IT WAS SUCH A GOOD DECISION! (More on that tomorrow.) We rested for awhile.

6) We went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. We bought bread covered in chocolate at the market next to our hotel for dessert. We watched some of the Olympics (not a lot of coverage of it in Iceland) and headed to sleep.

Day Three

1) We got up early and ate breakfast at the hotel. David was running late, so I left a little bit before him. I had a very scary elevator experience. The extremely strong wind (you could hear it howling throughout hte hotel) evidently caused the elevator doors to open on the wrong side. I got stuck in an office building next door. The problem is that in order to exit the building you needed to have your eyes scanned, or have a key. The building was locked from the inside and there was no way for me to get out. I didn’t have my phone and couldn’t figure out how to take the elevator back to the hotel (the doors didn’t open that way again). I banged on the doors to get out and ran up and down the stairs looking for someone, but it was early. Finally, on the top floor, I found a woman who had arrived at work a couple of hours early. She seemed pretty shocked to see me. Like almost every Icelander we met, spoke English perfectly. She said something similar had happened to two tourists over the summer. She got me out of the building.

2) David, the owner of Iceland Horizon, picked us up at around 8:30 for the Golden Circle Tour, a full-day tour. (It was still dark. It started to get light at around 9am while we were there.) David is British, but has lived in Iceland for 10 years. He was an outstanding guide. He was knowledgeable, friendly, and entertaining. Can’t recommend him, and his company, enough!!

3) We picked up two other young couples for the tour, one couple was from Boston, the other from England. It was such a small group, which was fabulous. There wasn’t any waiting around for stragglers, and we got to have lots of conversations.

4) This was a full-day tour (8:30-4:00 or so), but I’ll go through it pretty quickly (even though it was truly incredible and I could go on and on). The first stop on the tour was the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station. Renewable energy sources (geothermal and hydro) power 100% of Iceland’s electricity and approximately 80% of its total energy.

5) Next on the tour, we stopped at a huge crater. It was so windy!

6) We then stopped and explored Gulfoss, a huge, stunning waterfall in Southwest Iceland.

7) We then went to see geysers (including Geysir, the one after which all others are named!). We didn’t get to see Geysir erupt (it erupts once a day), but we did see Strokkur go off a number of times since it erupts every 2-3 minutes.

8) We stopped on the side of the road to see and touch Icelandic horses. They were small, so friendly, and had beautiful/charming manes. Iceland has very strict laws to protect the breed — no horses that leave the country may ever come back in.

9) The last stop was Þingllevir, the historic meeting place of the Icelandic parliament (beginning in 930!) and the place where the North American and Eurasian plates meet (and are drifting apart). The drive there was on a dirt road with lots of potholes, and didn’t seem to be well-marked. The tour guide, David, told us this was a typical Icelandic road. We also learned that this was an extraordinarily mild winter and that normally everything would be buried under snow.

10) When we got back, we went to the Tourist Center next to our hotel and rented a car for the next two days. We also got some more information about the South Coast.

11) We had dinner at the veggie place we ate dinner at the first night, Á næstu grösum.

Day Four

1) We ate breakfast at the hotel, then checked out. Our car was dropped off at 9. We drove on Ring Road, the road that goes completely around Iceland, with the plan of exploring the South Coast.

2) Our first stop was at Seljalandfoss, a waterfall. It was really icy and beautiful. We walked around for quite awhile, sliding on the ice.

3) The next stop was Skógafoss, another waterfall. We explored the fall from the bottom, then climbed an absolutely enormous staircase, which wound up a humongous hill, to the top of the waterfall. We went on a hike up top. There were beautiful views of glaciers and more waterfalls.

4) We went to the Folk Museum, Skógafasn, located in the small town of Skógar. It was started by a man who collected Icelandic artifacts for 70 years. We also explored traditional farm houses from various time periods.

5) Our next stop was Vik. From how it looked on the map, we imagined it being a small city or a large town. We also imagined eating a late lunch there. When we arrived, we discovered a town of 300. There was one very small grocery store, where we bought some Skyr. It was the most populated area we’d driven through since leaving the Reykjavik vicinity. We walked along the black sand beach. It was cold, but so beautiful. We saw Reynisdrangar, a row of spiky basalt sea stacks. We then got back on the road.

6) We stopped along the roadside after noticing piles and piles of stones for miles. We were confused & intrigued. For awhile we speculated about how they’d gotten there and why. At the top there were two picnic tables and an information sign, along with thousands more piles of stones. The sign said that in 894 a man’s farm was destroyed by the first recorded eruption of the volcano Katla. To wish him luck and to show goodwill, people who passed put a stone on the land. The tradition continues today. It was breathtaking — there were stones as far as we could see. It was absolutely stunning. It made me smile and feel so good. There was so much positive energy and kindness. We each put a stone on a pile and headed back on the road.

7) We pulled over to explore crazy looking rocks. They turned out to be lava fields covered with thick moss. We played on the moss for awhile–it felt like jumping on pillows–racing each other and jumping around. It was incredible. One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is the total lack of encounters with other people. Here we were, running and playing on the side of one of Iceland’s main roads, for almost half an hour, and not a single car drove by. I couldn’t even tell you how far the nearest farm house was. There are only 300,000 people in all of Iceland and 65% live in Reykjavik or the greater Reykjavik area. England is a bit larger than Iceland (by ~10,000sq miles), but has 50 million people. It felt so remote. The landscape in Iceland is also so different from what I’m used to–there were virtually no trees. (We saw one patch of around 50 trees the entire time we were in Iceland.) We could see to the horizon in one direction and to the mountains and glaciers in the other.

8) We arrived in Kirkjubæjarklaustur (try saying that!) and checked into our hotel, Hotel Geirland. The hotel’s restaurant was closed because the chef was sick. We went to the only other restaurant within at least an hour (Vik?). We ate vegetable risotto at the Icelandair Hotel. It was really good–they put sour cream in the risotto. It was snowing.

Day Five

1) We ate breakfast at the hotel (so many huge, complimentary breakfasts!).

2) We drove to Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon. We stopped in the glacial outwash (a sandur), Skeiðarásandur, to run on the side of the road. It’s difficult to describe the wide open space with no one else around.

3) It was a spectacular drive, during which we encountered very few other cars. We arrived at Jökulsárlón and were totally blown away. We climbed on the ice and huge rock piles next to the lagoon, admiring the blue color of the icebergs. We watched seals playing on the ice and in the water. We spent quite awhile exploring.

4) We drove to Vatnajökull National Park, Europe’s largest national park. The very jolly, friendly man at the desk gave us a recommendation for a walk that would take us close to the glacial tongue. More breathtaking sights!

5) We drove back to Reykjavik, stopping in Vik for snacks. To give you an idea of the distance, if we’d driven straight from Jökulsárlón (our furthest point east, and much of the way across Iceland) to Reykjavik it would probably have taken around seven or eight hours. When we go back to the city, we checked into our new hotel, Hotel Skjaldbreid, which was on Laugavegur Street, the main street in downtown.

9) We ate dinner at Santa Maria’s, a Mexican restaurant. It was really good!

Day Six

1) We ate breakfast at the hotel. David caught a cold and it was pretty bad, but he’s a trooper. We went back to our hotel room, pretty exhausted from the day before. We went out around 11:15 to explore the shops. I got an Icelandic wool scarf.

2) We had lunch at Ectasy’s Heart Garden (Kaffihúsið Garðurinn), another all-vegetarian restaurant.

3) We went to the contemporary art museum, Hafnarhüs.

4) We walked along the harbor. We found all these origami paper boats, with girls’ names written in black cursive, in small frozen puddles of water, place on rocks all along the harbor. I was fascinated and loved imagining who had created this and why! I spent quite awhile photographing and running from one to the next.

5) We got hot chocolate and a chocolate chip cookie at a cute cafe by the hotel.

6) We came back to the hotel and made plans for the next day. We then had dinner at a pizza place, Gamlasmiðjan. There was cream cheese on our pizza! One of the guys working struck up a conversation with us. He said he’s been to the US many times. Before Iceland’s economy crashed, he used to go 2-3 times a year and would do all of his shopping there because everything was so dirt cheap. (We still found that in spite of the economic collapse in Iceland, that things are much, much cheaper in the US, aside from hotels. Food, clothing, toothbrushes… most everything was pricier. We can’t believe how expensive things must have been several years ago.)

Day Seven

1) We rented a car and headed towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, passing the small towns of Bogarnes and Akranes. We got a little lost and ended up on a mountain pass and dirt road which was clearly not suitable for our tiny car. The wind was so strong I was afraid it was going to blow off the road. When we finally reached the tip of the peninsula, the famous Snæfellsjökull glacier was completely obscured by fog, and we couldn’t find much to do around the base. We decided to keep driving along the north shore of the peninsula, where we drove by picturesque towns and stunning coastlines.

2) Even though this excursion had a disappointing start, it was redeemed by our stop at the Berserkjahraun lava fields.The gloriously weird Berserkjahraun lies halfway between Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur. The lava flowed some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and is young enough to retain all kinds of convoluted shapes, with fascinating color and textural contrasts in the rock and thick mosses” (Frommers).

We followed these directions: “The best Berserkjahraun scenery, however, is south of Route 54, where the lava looks like a stormy sea frozen in time. Three access points lead from Route 54; the westernmost and easternmost are marked as Route 558, and the one in the middle is unmarked. The roads are heavily rutted but passable in regular cars” (Frommers).

Following the remote dirt road out, we then parked our car and ran across the seemingly endless moss-covered lava. We explored the lava fields for quite a long time. The texture of the moss covering the lava field is such that you can climb up really steep parts without using your hands–your feet just stick. We were in total awe and how cool it was.

3) Instead of heading back to the main road, as we headed back, we decided to stick to the dirt road. It seemed endless and we had no idea, really, where we were. There were virtually no signs and we didn’t have much of an idea how far we were from where we were going. It had also started snowing. At times it felt a little concerning because there was no one–and nothing–anywhere near us. Eventually, every once in awhile (every 20 minutes or so?) we’d pass a farm.

4) That night, when we got back to Reykjavik, we went back to our favorite restaurant, Á næstu grösum, for a third time.

Day Eight

1) We packed up early and got a Netbus to the Blue Lagoon, a ritzy spa with a geothermal pool that holds seawater. “At each time the lagoon holds six million liters of geothermal brine all of which is renewed in 40 hours. Blue Lagoon’s guests actually bathe between two continents as the Euro–Asian and American tectonic plates meet at the Blue Lagoon.” It was very relaxing and beautiful!

2) We ate lunch at the Blue Lagoon and then got back on Netbus for the airport. Time to leave…


1 Response to “Iceland, revisted”

  1. Mom Says:

    I’m glad you posted this! I’d like to look at your photos again with the written commentary. What an incredible trip.