Reykjavik Travel Blog

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I don’t remember how we came up with the idea of going to Iceland in January.  Unlike Jordan, who at 14 suggested that we take a family vacation to the island, I hadn't placed Iceland at the top of my destination list.  My friends and I wandered across the idea over a long lunch one day, and soon we were investigating airfare and browsing tourism pages.  We found a good deal on an airfare-hotel package, the Midweek Madness special (Laura Bruckmann: “Madness is right.”), and we booked it.  Our peers, who spent their vacations in Aruba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Florida, gave us skeptical looks on hearing our plans; to our surprise, no one asked if they could join us.  But we knew they had the wrong strategy: the ideal vacation is fun and also makes you happy to come home  it’s "my goodness, Boston is just so light and warm this time of year!" versus "Can’t we stay in Florida forever?"

As it turned out, the weather in Iceland did not make us miss Boston.  Iceland is in fact warmer on average during the wintertime than either New York or Boston (though is much colder than either during the summer).  The temperature never dropped below freezing during our trip, and we had highs up to 45.  The forecast before we left showed that we would have rain every day in Iceland, and this was true, but it was the kind of rain that keeps everything looking perpetually damp rather than the soaking, interfering-with-your-plans kind.

My Nordic coadventurers -- Nick and Eric -- and I arrived at Keyflavik Airport at 5:30 am local time, after a 4 1/2 hour flight from Boston and a long wait at Logan (all the other passengers, perhaps experienced IcelandAir flyers, understood that the check-in time three hours prior to departure was a joke).  We boarded a bus to our hotel in Reykjavik, approximately 45 minutes away.  The bus had very small seats -- these Icelanders must be a diminutive people.  Dawn was still several hours away, but on the way in we could make out the outline of Reykjavik, a sprawling city that houses approximately 2/3 of Iceland’s 300,000 people.  We spotted several KFCs -- the international appeal of this restaurant baffles me -- one lonely McDonalds, and a surprisingly large number of gas stations.  We tried to figure out how much a gallon of gas cost in dollars, but the double conversion of currency and measurements made our groggy brains hurt, so we gave up.

We hadn’t been able to sleep much on the plane -- there was of course a crying baby -- so we were delighted to find when we reached our hotel that our rooms were ready and that we could grab a few hours of sleep before daylight.  One nice thing about having only 6 hours of light a day is that we could sleep almost whenever we wanted to.

We rode our hotel shuttle into the center of town around noon, and set off on an architecturally-themed walking tour of the city.  Perhaps to compensate for perpetually grey skies, buildings in Reykjavik come in all colors.  While a bright yellow or purple building in an American city would look silly, Reykjavik has the critical mass of color necessary to make it work.  We noticed a similar phenomenon with Reykjavik’s numerous modern style buildings -- in many cities, a Frank Gehry creation of metal and glass sticks out like a sore thumb against old brick and stone structures, but modern architecture is at home in Reykjavik.  It’s prevalent enough that a modern building is not an aberration, and with all the colors, there’s less uniformity to be disturbed.

Near the end of our walking tour, we came to the Hallgrimskirkja Church, a huge concrete construction that the guidebook claims was built to resemble basalt pillars -- I think it also may be the tallest building in Iceland.  We took an $8 elevator ride up its tower for a stunning view of Reykjavik -- one of the few times that paying Icelandic prices seemed worth it.  I will try not to complain too much about the prices in Iceland, except to say that everything is three times more than what you would pay in the United States, except alcohol, which is only twice as much as you’d expect.  Reykjavik is the third most expensive city in the world, after Oslo and Tokyo.  You could spend a large portion of a day (I’m afraid we did) walking around gawking at price tags: “I can’t believe they pay $30 for a paperback book!  I can’t believe they pay $5 for a cup of coffee!” 

After lunch, I decided it was time to get our obligatory educational/cultural experience over with, so we headed to the Icelandic National Museum.  The boys were more excited about this destination than I was, as it contained many exhibits concerning the Vikings, who are very manly historical figures.  In the first of many such episodes, the women at the information desk at the museum assumed that Nick, who is blond, was an Icelander and began speaking to him in Icelandic.  He did not correct them, and I believe they were left with the impression that he was a mute Icelander.  In contrast, only one person during our trip took me for Icelandic, and she was drunk.  I preferred to approach everyone with a “hello!” and get it out there right away.

After spending approximately six hours on foot in Reykjavik, we were ready for dinner.  We had earlier passed a poster with a picture of Bill Clinton, which upon inspection turned out to be an advertisement for a vegetarian restaurant.  The advertisement read something like this, “Clinton ate here while he was in Reykjavik.  Okay, so he didn’t, but his health would have been better for it.  Other stars eat here though.  Where the stars eat you are safe.”  Amused as we were, we hadn’t thought about eating there until we saw in our guidebook that they had an early-bird special of 1000kr (16 USD) before 6.  We ventured in, and were shown the day’s choices -- they looked unappetizing, but we all said it would be fine.  So we sat down, Nick with soy cheese lasagna, Eric with cauliflower curry, and me with a bean patty concoction.  We ate quietly.  Irrationally (I attribute it to the jet lag), I felt entirely responsible for this situation, which I imagined to be quite dire.  I have dragged these boys to Iceland in January and they are now eating pricey rabbit food for dinner.  They are only finishing it because they are starving, which is because I have been making us walk all day, and they hate me. 

I perked up when we left the vegetarian place in search of dessert before catching the shuttle back to the hotel.  I like a mission, and there is none better than a dessert quest.  Walking along the main street, we found that most of the bakeries had closed up for the night, but we pressed on until we came to a convenience store of sorts called Texas.  Eric is from Texas, so we took it as a sign.  When traveling, people tend to do a lot of reminiscing about previous traveling, and sometime the day before, Eric and I had been discussing how we pined for a brand of ice cream bars we had both discovered in Spain, the Magnum.  And what did they have inside this convenience store but a whole case of Magnums, including my favorite, the Magnum Blanco.  So there we stood, at Texas in a Reykjavik plaza, eating Magnum Blancos.

After a long night’s rest and large hotel buffet breakfast the next morning (we ate well at the breakfasts, since they were included in our package deal -- you have to take advantage of anything free in Iceland), we picked up a rental car at Hertz.  We wanted a four wheel drive, in case we hit bad roads or bad weather, and we got a Suzuki Izara.  Hertz told us to check it for unnoted damage before we left, but since it was pitch black at 8 am, we were able ascertain only that it had all four wheels.

I drove us out of Reykjavik.  No sooner had we navigated our way out of the city than we entered a dense area of fog in the hills outside Reykjavik.  We were supposed to be following Road 1, the “Ring Road” that more or less follows the coastline around the entire island, but by the time we saw the signs for Road 1 left at the fork, I was already following it to the right.  The fog got worse, and it started to rain.  We slowed to a crawl.  I could see no farther than 30 feet in front of me, guided by the reflectors along the side of the road.  Once in a while, a reflector would be missing, which really freaked me out.  We were climbing hills and following curves, with no idea what kind of drop might lie to the side of the road.  We crept along for probably 20 minutes, when we descended from the hills and the fog vanished instantly.  We breathed sighs of relief, I unclenched my grip on the wheel, and we set about finding our way back onto the main road -- which fortunately was not as difficult as we feared.  

The dawn came slowly, and as the sky lightened, we saw that we were driving through pretty, pastoral country -- except for the distinctive Icelandic horses on the plains (described in every single tour book as the “versatile and docile Icelandic horse”), it could almost have been Kansas.  After a while we entered an area in which tall rock formations -- some plateaus, some pointy -- protruded from the flat landscape.  Many of these rock formations, it turns out, are homes to the fosses (Icelandic for waterfall). 

Our first foss was Seljalandfoss -- a tall, skinny foss, notable because you can walk behind it.  I hesitated to do this, because my friend Mike, who spent a year in Iceland on a Fulbright, told me that you can get very wet doing this if the wind blows the wrong way.  But Nick went and said it was really neat, so I followed him behind the water.  It was really neat, and we only got a little bit damp, and were well dried in the warm car before our next stop, Skogarfoss.  Skogarfoss is a bigger foss than Seljalandfoss, and legend has it that a treasure is buried beneath the falls.  It was at Skogarfoss that we saw the only other tourists we would encounter the entire day.  Somewhere between the two fosses we tried to venture off down a road to a popular summertime glacier (Reykjavik residents have wild parties out there on the glacier during the light-night months) but we were met with an “impassible” sign.  The sign did not look new, and I sensed the guys suspected that the road was not in fact impassible that day, but I had had enough driving adventures that morning, and we turned back.

At one of the fosses my camera troubles began.  I was using my new digital camera, which I had purchased with Westlaw RewardsPoints -- an incentive system that Westlaw has set up so that law students will learn to prefer their legal research service to LexisNexis.  The camera is actually pretty decent, and it didn’t even exhaust my supply of RewardsPoints, so I shouldn’t complain, except…it began, on its second day of usage, to tell me that it was low on battery.  I had brought an extra pack of batteries to Iceland, but I had left them at the hotel that day, certain that the camera wouldn’t be running low after only a dozen pictures.  To conserve its battery, I couldn’t check the pictures after I took them, so an unfortunate number are out of focus, and I had to buy new batteries at the next town.  (Learning the hard way once is apparently not enough for me; the next day as well I forgot the extra batteries at the hotel and again had to buy new ones.  Later, when I was on my fourth set of Double A’s, Nick remarked, “Free Westlaw camera, brought to you by Duracell.”)

After a bit, we turned off the main road and drove down to the coast at Dryrholaey.  I think this may have been my favorite stop of the trip, though there are at least three other contenders.  The scenery there was just breathtaking.  As we drove in, we passed through an expanse of frozen lagoons, in muted, pastel colors, with snow-capped mountains off in the distance.  When we arrived at the shore, I felt like we had stepped into a black and white world.  The cliffs and the sand were black; the surf pure white, and the sky grey.  The only color visible was the sandy colored grass on the tops of the cliffs in the distance.  From another spot, we could see a cove with greenish blue water and a long black sandbar.  There were tire tracks on it, so I thought maybe we could get down there on foot, but the tide was in and had cut off the path.  We walked around for a while, perhaps longer than the guys would have liked, but hey, I’d gone to a Viking museum the day before.

We pulled into the town of Vik for a late lunch (hotdogs) at the Esso station.  Before I hear any of you, particularly my father, say, “Paige, you don’t go to Iceland to eat hotdogs at an Esso station!” let me say that that’s what you DO on an Icelandic roadtrip, especially when you are on an American budget.  At this point we had a decision to make.  The next point of interest -- Skaftafell National Park and its glacier -- was two hours away, as was sunset.  We really wanted to see a glacier, but this would mean that we would make the five-hour drive back entirely in the dark.  We sat outside the gas station mulling our options -- we weren’t the most decisive trio -- until Nick announced that he was driving east until someone told him to stop. 

As we drove out of Vik, we began to see areas of ice and snow, but the road remained clear.  We entered an area of black, flat land -- probably lava, I don’t know -- crossed with streaks of snow and ice.  This, even more than Dyrholaey, was truly a black and white world.  I imagine this is what the surface of the moon looks like.  We couldn’t help but repeat the obvious as we drove along: “weird...”  Sometimes we would cross ponds or broad glacial rivers, with black silt banks -- the bridges across these always narrowed down to one lane, so you had to watch for headlights across the other side before crossing (“Does it cost THAT much more to build a two land bridge?” we wondered).  We also saw occasional pools of blue ice, glowing eerily by the side of the road.  We never figured out what makes them and the glaciers blue.

That portion of the drive was made even stranger by the almost complete absence of any type of settlement.  We had come across a section of map where individual farmhouses misleadingly got their own labels, and we passed only a handful of other motorists on the road.

We got to Skaftafell and the glacier about 4:30, just before the sun set.  The glacier is called Vatnajokull -- literally “water glacier” -- and it is the largest in Europe.  What we saw of it was really one of its tongues protruding through a mountain pass -- just the tip of the iceberg, if you will.  From the parking lot, there was a path maybe half a mile long leading to the glacier area -- it seemed to me that the glacier was so big that we walked and walked and it never got any closer.  Nick actually walked up all the way and touched it, but I didn’t have quite enough confidence in my city boots for that, and Eric hung back as well taking pictures.  On the walk there were posts that showed where the edge of the glacier had been in points during the 20th century, and it had retreated a huge amount.  I don’t know if this is typical for glaciers, and would like to know what’s causing it, but it can’t all be global warming, because there was a lot of movement even early in the 20th century.

It was almost dark when we returned to the car for the drive back to Reykjavik.  We intended to stop at a recommended restaurant for dinner on the way back but found it closed, as was every other restaurant that we passed along the road.  We sheepishly found ourselves back at the Esso station in Vik, but you can’t say we didn’t try. 

The drive back was long, but largely uneventful.  As we came closer to settled areas, we passed more cars -- and we noticed that an unusually large number of them -- I would say maybe a third -- were driving with only one headlight.  We cooked up several theories for this:  Maybe it was an Icelandic superstition.  Maybe they only screwed one in so that if it burned out somewhere in the deserted areas, they could switch to the other one.  Maybe there was actually only one car with one headlight driving around and around very fast on the Ring Road -- though this theory was defeated when we passed two one-lighted cars in caravan.  When we entered the hills outside Reykjavik, we hit a patch of fog as bad as the first (here we really wished that everyone would drive with all their lights).  I found this second foggy incident less harrowing than the first, possibly because we had done it before, or possibly because I was not driving.

We rested well after our Icelandic tundra adventure, and we enjoyed a lazy morning the next day.  We had tea and hot chocolate in a cozy little café on Reykjavik’s main street (Reykjavik is just bursting with cozy cafes -- in fact I think one of them is actually named Café Cozy), and then we strolled around town for a while.  The pond at the city center, which had been frozen over a couple of days ago when we arrived, had almost entirely melted, and let me tell you that swans look much more graceful swimming than they do slipping and sliding on ice.  

We grabbed lunch at a sub shop in one of the plazas.  Each of the subs was called Something “Boat,” and my friend Mike had warned us that the Head Boat was made from lamb’s head meat (How much meat does a lamb have on its head?  Does that mean brains?) -- so we avoided that one.  After lunch we joined up with an organized bus tour of the Golden Circle -- a collection of popular tourist sites outside of Reykjavik.

Our first stop along the Golden Circle tour was Pingvellir -- it’s first letter is actually not a P, but looks sort of like one, and it’s as close as I can come to typing it correctly on my standard English keyboard, as Icelandic has two unique letters, both of which are variations of the “th” sound.  We were never sure how to pronounce anything in Icelandic, as the letters used to represent the sounds in Icelandic words did not seem to remotely correspond with the sounds we are used to hearing associated with those letters.  We once asked the lady at the tourist information booth to pronounce the name of Reykjavik’s main street, Laugavedur.  We expected her to say something like “lah-gah-vay-dur,” but as Eric noted, none of those sounds came out of her mouth. 

Anyhow.  Pingvellir is the site of Iceland’s first parliament, which was also the world’s first parliament.  Our guide said, “England likes to say that they have the mother of all parliaments.  That’s fine with us.  We have the grandfather.”  Pingvellir is also the place where the North American and European plates meet -- you can see the divide.  This seems like a strange coincidence -- surely they didn’t know about plate tectonics back in the tenth century?  My guess is that they located the parliament at that spot not because of its geological significance but because it is exceptionally beautiful.  We were there at exactly the right time: the sun was already low, so it was reflecting golden light off the nearby glacial lake, and there was an incredible sunburst through the clouds.  Looking out in another direction, there was a waterfall flowing over dark cliffs into a river beneath.  In yet another direction there was a quaint church, and snowy mountains in the distance.  I captured what I could with my camera, but it was really a 360 degree view.  If that weren’t enough, looking down directly in front of me were deep, crystal-clear pools filling some of the cracks in the divide: tourists had tossed coins into some of the pools nearest the path, so I added my 10 kronur and a wish.

Next on the Golden Circle tour were a big crater with water at the bottom (Bjork once gave a concert from the pool on a floating platform), and Gulfoss, which I guess you might call the Niagra falls of Iceland.  Gulfoss means “golden falls,” but it was white and silver, and partially frozen, the day we were there.  We had seen the summer postcards, and I much preferred our wintertime view.  At the gift shop/restaurant near Gulfoss, we sampled Icelandic lamb soup, which tasted exactly like beef stew, but at least I tried something authentically Icelandic once on the trip.

Our last stop, which we came to at twilight, was Geysir, for which all other geysers are named, and its less dramatic but more reliable “sibling” geysers.  Geysir, which only erupts once a day or so, did nothing but steam while we were there, but its Little Brother geyser -- comparable to Old Faithful, but more frequent and not quite as tall -- erupted six times for us, twice with back-to-back eruptions. 

The bus dropped us back at our hotel, where we ate dinner.  The guys decided to go for the $55 dinner buffet, but I opted to order off the menu, not because it was much cheaper but because as you know, I am not an adventurous meat or fish eater, and the selections looked, well, odd.  Our waiter carefully explained each dish to us, emphasizing that the lamb was genetically pure, just like Icelandic people.  There was one tray of delicacies that he thought it best not to tell the guys about until they had tried them, but they insisted on knowing.  Eric did venture to eat one selection from that tray, which we understood to be bird cheek.  He chewed it very slowly, with a puzzled expression, like he didn’t know what to make of it -- in fact, I think he was still trying to form an opinion about the bird cheek the next day.  Our waiter was very nice and let me go up for the dessert portion of the buffet for free.  “I think he’s stolen your heart,” said Nick.  “Well that’s the way to do it,” I said.

 We were intending to take the shuttle to the city center to participate in Friday night Icelandic tradition of “runtur” -- going out at night -- but we missed the shuttle and had to call a cab.  Our cab driver, it turned out, had spent a year in North Dakota as an exchange student during high school (sure, send the Icelandic kid to North Dakota! He won’t mind!), and he seemed very friendly, so I asked him our one burning question: what was up with the one headlight thing?  He laughed and said the only explanation is that people are lazy and the cops won’t pull them over for it like they will in America.  

We walked up and down Laugavedur searching for the hot spots, but it was only 11:15 and thus too early by Icelandic standards for partying.  I think the boys were content to walk around until it became late enough, despite the fact that Nick wasn’t wearing a coat, but I was not, and I insisted that we park ourselves somewhere.  We settled into a table by the window at a café (all the cafes become bars by night on the weekends), had a drink, and people-watched for a few hours.  Through our people-watching we found out that the style among young men in Reykjavik is to wear blazers over a dress shirt or t-shirt, that big wheel cars (think monster trucks, practically) are very hip, and that runtur is an all-ages event (well, teens to middle aged at least).  We also saw a guy get stood up, and we felt very bad for him.

Sometime around 1:30 or 2 we decided to move along, and we joined the throngs of people in the street.  We didn’t have a specific destination -- I had wanted to try a Viking beer, so when we saw a bar with a huge Viking beer sign, we went in.  The décor was sort of grungy, gothic maybe, and the people were a total mix -- the place just didn’t quite fit into any category I could think of.  The music was like somebody’s iPod on shuffle.  We heard Baba O’Riley by The Who (I immediately thought back to House’s air keyboard number in season one), followed by Sweet Child of Mine (to which the Icelanders loudly sung along), Hotel Yorba by the White Stripes, something by Death Cab, the Rolling Stones, Weezer, and as we were leaving, I could hear the beginning of Love Cats.  The Viking beer, by the way, was very good.

The next morning, after not nearly enough sleep, we checked out of our hotel and boarded a bus for the airport, via the Blue Lagoon.  We had been looking forward to the Blue Lagoon our entire trip, because you see pictures of it EVERYWHERE in Iceland.  The Blue Lagoon is a humongous geothermal spa in a lava field in the middle of nowhere.  The water there is actually first used in a geothermal power plant to generate steam before being discharged into its pools.  Its silica content and blue-green algae give the water a milky blue color, and combined with its location in the lava fields and the constant steam given off in the cold by the warm water, the effect is absolutely otherworldly.  We were there on a dark and cloudy day, so it was even more surreal.

Because Icelanders don’t like to put chlorine into their geothermal pools, they are very big on washing thoroughly before entering the pool, and they post helpful little signs with pictures that highlight the areas you should remember to wash.  Duly cleansed and soaking wet, I ran out of the locker room into the freezing cold and into the warm Lagoon.  As we explored different areas of the Lagoon, we found a lot of variance in the water temperature -- you have to watch out for unexpected hot spots, but the cooler areas allow you to stay in for a long time.  We were in for almost three hours, with a quick stop in the sauna.  We saw a lot of people swimming around with silica masks on their faces, so we tried just picking up some silica from the bottom of the Lagoon and applying it, but it was kind of dirty and it made my face hurt.  Later on, we saw people getting the silica from little boxes on the side of the Lagoon, so we tried that and it was much better.  We washed it off under a warm waterfall.  The whole experience was wonderful and relaxing -- and totally bizarre.  My only complaint about the Blue Lagoon is that it seems to have permanently altered the structure of my hair -- at first I thought it was just silica residue, but two washes later and I can hardly get a comb through it.  I’m about to seek professional help, but am not sure what kind of explanation to offer. 

Well, that's about it.  After drying off, we hopped back on our bus to the airport and had an uneventful flight home, no crying babies even.  As we neared Logan, the pilot announced that it was an unbelievable 54 degrees, foiling our grand plan to come  home and gloat about how much warmer it was in Iceland.

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photo by: MadeleineGL