Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Iceland - The Land of Fire and Ice

View of Reykjavik
Over the last couple of years, I've come across few places that really took my breath away. These are places that I'm still not entirely sure I visited, and often look back at my pictures wondering if they are Photoshopped.  I am happy to add to that list the glaciers in Iceland.  Massive chunks of ice bigger than you can imagine, but not as sturdy as you might hope, especially when you are walking across one.  But, before I get into that, I will start from the beginning of course, and build up the suspense.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon a Living Social coupon for a 4 day trip to Iceland.  Since it included flights and looked like an incredible deal, I booked it.  That morning, I was chatting online with my friend and told her about it.  Within moments, she wrote back saying that she and her boyfriend wanted to go too.  The next day, all four of us were confirmed and heading to Iceland!  I like to consider myself a online coupon connoisseur; however, I never booked an entire trip with a coupon like that! I had my doubts on how it would go, but we received all of our travel information on time and had plenty of time to plan our free day activities with a small tour company called GoEcco.  We were set to go!  (this is my plug for Living Social because they were incredibly efficient and reliable the entire trip)

Glacier Lagoon
Fast forward to last week... My friends arrived in Boston a few days early to enjoy the sites and by Wednesday night we were all packed and sitting in the Boston Logan airport for our red-eye to Reykjavik.  I'm pretty sure we must have said "We're going to Iceland!" about 20 times before getting on that IcelandAir flight.  We had a minor hiccup with checking in, but was able to resolve it pretty quickly and had an entire row to ourselves for stretching out and sleeping over the next 5 hours.

Day 1  - Exploring Reykjavik

Shopping in Reykjavik
Upon arrival, we all cleared customs without a problem and found our tour group waiting in the baggage area.  In total, there was around 25 people on our tour, but our tour guide, Snorri, was very personable and made it seem like a smaller group.  We piled all of our belongings into the bus and hopped aboard.  The drive from the Keflavik airport to Reykjavik was through some pretty desolate areas.  My first impression of Iceland was not promising... we passed an abandoned military base that had been converted into student housing, and a whole field of lava rocks.  Fortunately, once we got closer to the city, everything changed and I was starting to see the charming fishing village I was hoping for.  Our hotel, the CenterHotel Plaza, was ideally located right in the middle of all the action!  We were within walking distance of bars, shops, the music hall, and the harbor.  I don't think we could have found a better location.  Since our hotel was coordinated with the tour, check in was easy and we went straight to our rooms.  At this point, I abruptly remembered where I was.  The room was small, but clean.  There were two twin beds and a tiny little bathroom.  I was easily able to get the beds "converted" to a full size bed with the help of housekeeping, but it was not very immaculate. I have been spending too much time in nice American hotels, so that was an adjustment.  We quickly ate at the hotel included breakfast buffet and had a few hours to rest before our walking tour of the city.  The buffet was average, but they did have some delicious granola bars that I sneaked into my pocket each day for a snack later on.

Sun Voyager Sculpture
Two hours and a short nap later, I hopped in the shower so that I could feel refreshed for the rest of the day.  This was my very first experience with the authentic Reykjavik smell - a weird combination of farts and rotten eggs.  All of the hot water is geothermal water straight from the earth and it has quite a distinct smell of sulphur.  Even after 4 days there, I still was not used to it, but it made for a funny fart joke whenever someone would wash their hands or shower.  After a proper sulphur shower, I bundled myself up and was ready to explore.  Fortunately, the weather the entire trip was actually milder than Boston.  We averaged 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit the entire time.  Coming from the low 30's at home, I had no problem being outside for extended periods of time.  Over the next 1.5 hours, I learned a bit about the history of Iceland and got my barrings on where things were so that I could come back later and check them out.  I highly recommend taking a walking tour of wherever you are visiting on your first day (either with a company, or on your own with a map).  It makes it much easier to navigate around later.  Since Reykjavik is fairly small, we had no problem finding our way. 

Lobster Soup at Saegreifinn
Lunch on Thursday was at Saegreifinn, or the The Sea Baron restaurant.  As advised by our guide, we ventured to the trendy harbor area past a few art galleries and cafes to get our first taste of Iceland.  As displayed on their sign out front, the restaurant is well known for their lobster soup.  We all got a bowl of soup as well as a few seafood kebabs/skewers to try.  One of the more exciting varieties was whale!  We were served a big basket of delicious bread with our soup while our kebabs were being grilled.  There were massive chunks of lobster meat in the soup, but the broth was lacking the wow factor for me.  It was definitely very good, but I think some spices or maybe even a little bit of a thickening agent would have helped it from being so brothy.  The lobster chunks were yummy!  Soon thereafter, our kebabs were brought out.  The whale was cooked to what looked to me like medium or maybe medium rare.  In my opinion, they tasted a lot like steak though the guys in our group were convinced we were eating liver.  I only had a little bite because I don't like when my food bleeds all over my plate.  Overall, I think our first real dining experience was a success!  The next few hours we explored the city shops and landmarks including Solfar, the Sea Voyager (viking ship) Sculpture, along the harbor, Harpa Concert Hall, and the lovely Hallgrímskirkja church sitting at the top of a hill with an incredible view of Reykjavik. We did not make it to Perlan, which is pretty far away, or the Settlement Exhibition, though I did see it from outside.

The Harbor
Around 6pm we met our group in the lobby of the hotel for happy hour and a welcome drink.  There was an interesting range of ages, from early twenties to retirement years.  I guess visiting Iceland intrigues many people!  That night, we had dinner reservations at Grillmarkadurinn, or the Grill Market.  I made these reservations weeks in advance because it is a popular restaurant and that fills up quickly.  We all decided to seize the day and try the tasting menu.  8 courses for an equivalent of $70 USD is not a bad deal!  Plus, tips are not expected in Iceland, so there are no additional charges, except alcohol of course. In theory, 8 courses seems manageable as long as they are small.  These courses were not small, and I'm pretty sure we ate at least 3 loaves of broad before the apps even came out.  They have a delicious fresh bread served with butter and Icelandic lava salt.  Wow!!  You can bet that I bought some of that salt to bring home with me! Course after course came with new tastes and textures.  There was a good mix between meat and seafood including the most delicious salmon I have ever had.  

Separation of North American and Eurasian Plates
We also had another whale dish, this time pan seared and incredibly tender.  I definitely liked it better at that restaurant over the first one.  By the time the 6th course came out, I could not eat anymore.  I left it to the men to finish the plates, until dessert.... Think of the most interesting platter of chocolate dishes, sorbets and ice creams and that was what we had.  I think I actually licked the spoon that came in the dish of caramel sauce.  I highly recommend this restaurant and making reservations online in advance!  I am salivating just thinking about it!  By the time we left the restaurant, it was well after 10 pm.  Three hours of eating put us all over the edge and we barely made it back to our beds before collapsing into a deep sleep.

Day 2 - Golden Circle Tour

Famous Hot Dogs of Iceland
The next day, we had some free time in the morning to sleep in, eat breakfast, and prepare for our day tour of the Golden Circle.  The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route in South Iceland covering about 300 km looping from Reykjavík into central Iceland and back.  The three primary stops on the route are the national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss (meaning "golden falls"), and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. (Thank you Wikipedia).

Before getting back on the bus, I detoured for a quick lunch at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for the best hot dog in town.  I am not typically a fan of hot dogs, but since this place was both advertised for on the IcelandAir flight and pointed out by our guide the day before, I decided to try it.  After eating this famous frank, I can still say that I am not a fan of hot dogs.  I heard that hot dogs are the Icelandic national food.  That makes me very sad for them, because this is not something I would proudly claim.  The dog costs about $2 USD and comes with an untoasted bun, ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish.  My biggest problem is that it is just a boiled hot dog.  It is not plump, juicy, or grilled.  You can put the most wonderful condiments on a burger patty from McDonalds, but it will still be a greasy mess.

Me by one of the streams caused by moving plates
Our first stop on the tour of the day was at the national park Þingvellir.  The interesting fact about this location is that you can actually see the cracks or faults caused by the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates!  Every year, they get a little further apart. This movement causes all sorts of grumbling in the earth awakening volcanoes, geysers, trolls, elves, and who knows what else.

The next stop was the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur.  Geysir was the first geyser known to modern Europeans!  This is where the English word geyser came from.  Geysir has not erupted for a while, but the more reliable Strokkur erupts every 10 minutes or so.  There are also plenty of other "inactive" geysers in the area that are just pools are hot water waiting for the next earthquake to wake it up.  There are signs everywhere warning tourists not to touch the water because it is incredibly hot, but I did it anyways because I am a rebel.  It's true, it is hot.

Geyser explosion!
The last stop on our Golden Circle tour was the Gulfoss waterfall.  This is a more of a double waterfall as it has two big drops. The coolest thing about waterfalls in Iceland is that the water freezes as it falls so the side that collects all the mist ends up looking like a frozen mass.  This is an excellent photo opportunity, but I was not nearly as impressed as I was by the geysers.  Growing up in PA, I made several trips to Niagara Falls and found that to be more impressive.  

Gulfoss Waterfall
Though our tour of the Golden Circle was over, we were not done for the day.  On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at Laugarvatn village for the Fontana Steam Baths for some geothermal bathing.  After switching into my swimsuit, I made a mad dash out the door into the first sauna I saw.  The nice thing about this bath house is that there are a set of saunas and pools all ranging in different temperatures, so if one is too hot or too cold for you, you can just move to the next one.  I found the first pool to be way too cold, but the second one to be perfect.  (Three bears moment, anyone?) The hot tub that held the hottest water actually made my legs go numb, so I spent most of my time floating around in the one that was better for me.  I was a little disappointed in the size of the baths, and if you end up going to the blue lagoon first, I'd suggest skipping Fontana.  If you do Fontana before Blue Lagoon, you should be okay. Also, the towell here is not included in the price, so make sure you bring your own or borrow one from the hotel and don't spend an additional $4 on a scratchy towel.

Little Geysir
After a few hours of bathing, we went for dinner at the nearby Lindin restaurant.  Based on the reviews online, this was supposed to be a very good restaurant to come to when you are in the area.  Based on my own experience, that was not the case.  I'm not sure if it was because we were a group or if maybe the owner had a bad day, but several of us actually got yelled at for being too loud and ordering too many drinks at once (we all only ever ordered 1 drink at a time).  He complained that his ears were sensitive to noise, which is weird to have a restaurant where you want people to come and talk and buy your food.  A light dinner was included in our tour, which consisted of a bread basket and all you can eat lamb soup.  The soup was good, but not very filling... I guess that is why it was a light dinner.  For dessert, I ordered the chocolate moose with raspberry sauce and white chocolate foam.  That too left a lot to be desired.  Overall, dinner was okay, but nothing in comparison to the Grill Market the night before!

We all napped on the bus ride back since it was too cloudy for the northern lights and were ready for a night out on the town! After a quick change, we walked along the main road in search for some nightlife.  The first stop was definitely a local bar because as we walked in, no one paid any attention to us.  In fact, there all appeared somewhere out of it and quite possibly on drugs.  We did not stay there very long before deciding to move on... The next stop was The Lebowski Bar on Laugarvegur .  I was told by a friend to come here, so I knew this was more promising than the first place.  Though I am not a fan of the movie, I do really enjoy white russians and ordered myself one within moments of entering the bowling themed bar.  In fact, they had an entire drink menu of variations on the White Russian, too bad there were all nearly $15.  

The last stop of the night was The English Pub.  I think this was appropriately named for the decor.  I had my token cider of the evening while we all sang along to old music and swayed in our seats.  When it came time for round two, one of the guys I was with decided to try his luck on the beer wheel.  Basically, there is this giant roulette looking wheel on the wall that you can spin for 2000isk and try your luck for the grand prize of 10 beers.  There are also quite a few spots where you don't win any beer, so it is a gamble.  Despite the women's protests not to do it, he proceeded without us... and of course, he won the 10 beers.  10 beers is a lot of beer for 4 people to drink, so we were sufficiently buzzed when they were all gone. You can bet that late night eating led us directly back to the hot dog stand where I watched everyone devour multiple hot dogs around 3 AM.  (That may seem late to you, but we were not adjusted yet to the time difference, so it was still like 11PM to us). 

Day 3 - Private Tour to Jökulsárlón 

Moss Covered Lava Field
Saturday was a free day from our group tour, so we arranged for a private tour for the four of us along the southern coast of Iceland and to the Glacier Lagoon with GoEcco. Not too many companies do this tour in one day because it is a long drive, so we had limited options.  We pretty much stuck to their Glacier Lagoon Winter Day Tour itinerary, but opted out of the swim and added a short glacier walk.   The picked us up from the hotel around 9 AM in an old family van that left us all skeptical right away.  Not only was it old, but it smelled of smoke.  Our tour guide also decided to bring his girlfriend along for the day, which was odd, but worked out well because she was very nice and helped me work my camera later that evening.  Some background information on our guide... Meet Jonas, the company owner and an artist waiting for his big break.  In the meantime, he runs this little tour company and accepts deposits via paypal, but prefers the remaining amount only in cash.  Sounds a little sketchy, but he did get us to all of our destinations.

Hello puffin!
On our way to the east, we drove past Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 causing massive air travel delays.  The sky is all cleared up now, but there are still remnants of ash on the ground. It has been over 300 years since someone died in a volcano eruption in Iceland, but that doesn't mean they are not scary!  The photos looked pretty terrifying.  Our guides did not have much to add other than when it erupted he took his van up to collect ash on some canvas so he could paint how he was feeling.  We did find a sign that we could read to get some information on what it was like.

The first official stop was Skogafoss, a waterfall off of Ring Road in southern Iceland.  This is a pretty classic waterfall and drops about 60m.  Again, it was very cool seeing this waterfall in action in the winter.  All of the snow and frozen water was piled up on one side from where the wind would blow the mist.  Also, there was a path and a small staircase (only 400 steps or so) leading to the very top so that you could look at the waterfall from the top down. 

Further along the way, we drove through the largest lava field in the world. It was very weird to look at as it went on for what seemed like miles in every direction.  On top of the lava rocks, a thick moss has been growing for years making it seem very "the hills have eyes" creepy.
Black sand desert

Several miles later and well into the highlands in Iceland, the moss covered lava fields completely transformed into the incredible black sand Desert of Skeidarasandur.  The highlands are situated above 400–500 meters and are mostly an uninhabitable volcanic desert.  At this point, I was convinced we had traveled through at least 3 countries because the landscape changes so drastically from one stop to the next.  The weather also changed at each stop from sun to rain to wind to hail... Our guide said there is a saying about Iceland that if you don't like the weather, you should wait 10 minutes.  I definitely experienced that first hand.

I apparently didn't take good notes because I know that at some point we also went to a nearby beach where the waves were scary big and the wind was blowing like crazy, so I refused to bring my camera.  Out in the water there were these large basalt columns sticking up like black water sculptures.  At this point, I started to get more annoyed with our tour guides as they were not telling us anything.  They would drop us off from site to site without much background information and then walk away from us. I should have bought myself a book on Iceland; lesson learned.

In my opinion, our next two stops were the coolest. We passed by two large glaciers, Oraefajokull and Vatnajokull.  We were able to take a small road up to an access path to one of the glaciers and explore it on foot.  With a pool in hand and an eye on the ground, we gingerly walked out onto the glacier while looking out for cracks.  From the top of the ice, you can hear the water running beneath it.  Our guide actually thought it would be funny to through a large boulder through one of the cracks so that we could hear how long it took to splash in the running water below.  It was not as funny as he thought and we all immediately walked away from that area.  We also got a chance to explore an glacial cave!  While we were in the cave, we were told that two guides had died while on glacial excursions in the past, and both times were while they were in ice caves... yeah, so I did not stay very long in there. 

Before leaving the site, our party stood at the edge of the glacial basking in it's wonder when we all heard a big roar and cracking noise from something breaking off somewhere... We did not stay around to figure out exactly what it was. This is one of the stops where I was very glad we had a guide.  I don't think any of us would have had the courage to walk out on the glacier alone, and if we had it most likely would have been one of us falling through that crack and not the boulder.

Glacial cave
Finally, after almost 9 hours in and out of the car, we reached Jökulsárlón and the Glacial Lagoon!  This was the whole reason we took the tour!  The scenery was pretty incredible with large chunks of ice floating in the lagoon.  You could actually see them swaying in the wind.  Weirdly enough, there was no railing or anything preventing you from jumping into the lagoon along with the ice chunks.  Most of the other attractions had some type of safety measure in place.  Also in the lagoon were seals!  I did not see any because I must be way too slow, but my friend did!  On the other side of the lagoon, where it opens to the black sand beach, even more pieces of ice rest along the shores where you can touch them, sit on them, and explore them even further.  All of the ice chunks had a wonderful shade of teal blue.  According to the internet, the blue shading happens when the ice which has compressed all the gas inside so much that the apparent color is blue from light scattering, much like a blue sky.  Nonetheless, it makes for incredible pictures!

On the long ride home, we were able to stop at Seljalandsfoss.  Typically, the highlight of this stop is that you can actually hike behind the waterfall.  Unfortunately, we didn't get there until well after dark and only stayed for a moment and a quick picture.  I would have liked to come here in the day and would probably make that adjustment to any future itinerary
Glacier pieces on the sand
Around 10:30 PM and a little ways away from Reykjavik, our tour guide pulled the van over to the side of the road.  Off in the distance, the Northern Lights were starting to form!  I did not expect this to happen because it had been a cloudy day and it was also a full moon.  Typically a full moon causes too much light in the sky and you can't see the lights.  It was only a minor formation at first and so we jumped back into the car to continue along.  Only a few minutes later, well pulled off again because they started to form even better and brighter than before.  Over a 20 minute period they morphed into a dancing streaks of light taking up the entire sky.  We even got to see them change color into reds and light purple for a few minutes.  The entire time I was convinced aliens were landing and we were about to get abducted!  I can't even explain how bizarre that experience was!  Think beam me up scotty, but literally across the whole night sky! It really was a great way to end our last full day in Iceland.

Aurora Borealis lighting up the night sky!

Day 4 - The Blue Lagoon and Airport

The Blue Lagoon
The best way for me to end a trip is to find a few minutes to relax and take it all in.  There was no better way to do this than with a visit to The Blue Lagoon.  This is a geothermal spa near the airport with incredible rejuvenating milky waters.  Unfortunately, all of the spa appointments were booked in advance, so if you want to get a massage, plan for it by sending them an email and confirming your appointment before you get there.  I had a good soak before having to go back to the airport.  You can bet I bought some spa products to bring home with me!

Overall, we had a wonderful trip!  The weather was perfect and we really saw a lot.  The Living Social part of the tour was well organized and punctual.  The GoEcco part left a lot to be desired from the guides, but we did get the see everything we wanted to see and I wouldn't trade that for anything!  If you're interested in any in depth reviews, you cannot look at my Yelp page because Iceland does not have Yelp!  They do have TripAdvisor, so I may have to setup an account there. 


  1. I love reading your blogs!
    Aunt Debbie :)

  2. After reading this it will definitely have to go on my bucket list. How awesome!

  3. I can't believe you ate a whale! lol but I glad you had a good time. Love Aunt Chia