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Trip Report Chillin' in Iceland: An Overly Verbose Reykjavik Report

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It so happens that every once in a while I have to make Frog Soup. As the story goes, the way to go about this is to put your frog in water and turn up the heat gradually, for if you put your frog into warm water right away, it will find a way to jump out, the sneaky bastard. In early October the economic collapse of Iceland and the concurrent thud of the koruna piqued my interest for our annual kid-free jaunt, an interest met with pure puzzlement from DH, who tossed out a few other ideas as we went on with our lives. A week or so later, I'd mention the Blue Lagoon. A few days more, the Golden Circle. Still resistance: "In January???" Then, come late November, as the koruna swooned to 141 (from a once-stratospheric 62), I noted that Icelandair was having a package fire sale, and a beer was $5 instead of $11.

That soup was nice and tasty. The whale wasn't bad, either.

Day One:

On a wicked-cold Sunday afternoon we loaded up our bags, said our goodbyes to my folks and our three-year old and seven-month-old, and headed for Logan airport, where a creepily empty Terminal E awaited. After a beer (or two) and a slight delay we boarded the Icelandair 757, happy to discover the flight was only about 1/3rd full, then unhappy to discover that the flight was only four and a half hours – this after taking Tylenol PM. Oops. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised to discover touch-screen video systems at every seat, and even more surprised to note that all the stewardesses (and the native Icelanders returning home, witness the orange 66º North jackets) were raven-haired and pale – here's me equating Iceland with Norway and Sweden. Oops again.

In a frustratingly sleepless blink of an eye we arrived in the intense dark of Keflavik at 6ish in the morning, the steel, glass, and stone a chilly welcome, which got even chillier as we found, strangely, that we had to go through security to get INTO the country, perhaps to keep Wall Street Types out. We hit the Flybus stand near the airport exit and bought 2 tickets to downtown Reykjavik (www.flybus.is , 2200 ISK), forking over a little extra for direct dropoff at our hotel. The 40-minute bus ride eventually wound its way into morning rush hour, meandering past squat, aging apartment buildings built of blown concrete, and a few sleek low complexes, some of which stood sadly empty. We made our way to the Fosshotel Lind (www.fosshotel.is) after dropping off almost everyone else at the BSI bus terminal, blinked into the small lobby and paid an additional $25 so we could check in right away and get some unremarkable breakfast at their "buffet". Our room had a queen bed - 2 twins shoved together, headboard ca. The Golden Girls - smallish flatscreen TV tacked to the wall, very little floorspace, and a flimsy corner shower stall that could squeeze in exactly one adult and one Mastercard. All well and good, we never hang much at the hotel and it was a good location, but soon my American sensibilities reeled! The toilet had Half-flush and Full-flush options!! Good God, what shock and awe, especially to somebody who expects every flush to suck down the equivalent of a mature sheep!

By the time we hit the road dawn was finally breaking, and it was less than a 2-block walk to Laugavegur, one of the main shopping drags that leads into the heart of the city. We ambled WNW, heading towards the main Information center at Adalstraeti 2, and passed still-closed boutiques and a smattering of coffee joints, noting the huge prevalence of "Utsala" (= sale) signs in all the stores. At one break in the blocks we noticed you can look out over the harbor to a jaw-dropping panorama of snow-covered volcanic cliffs jutting from the icy water, the scene plus the Atlantic wind blasting in beat the middling hotel coffee at waking us up.

At the tidy and helpful tourist center we picked up a few 72-hour Reykjavik Tourist Cards (available in 24/48/72 hours) for 2400 ISK each, which allow you unlimited use of the city buses, use of all the city's geothermal swimming pools, and admissions to several museums – definitely worth it – and then wandered a few doors down to the subterranean 871 +/-2 Museum and Exhibition at the corner of Adalstraeti and Tungata, admission included with the card. In 2001, while excavating for the Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, workers happened upon remains of a thousand-year-old longhouse, and probably wet their pants. The site was dated back to 871 AD, give or take, a feat which I'd assumed was from radiocarbon dating but would soon learn otherwise from a lovely new word: tephra. Tephra, being volcanic layers of sediment, can be identified one from another based on the particular consistency, or fingerprint if you will, of spouted material, and in Greenland scientists have taken glacier core samples showing ice layers interspersed with tephra. Given that one ice layer is laid down each year, one can count backwards in the layers to see a geological/volcanic record much like counting the rings on a tree. The tephra deposited on top of the longhouse (as opposed to under it) told archaeologists that this was one of the first settlements in all of Iceland.

[Me, Geeking Out: anyone who's been around a warmish front stoop two weeks after Halloween knows that non-growing spongy plant matter is going to get five kinds of schmutzy before long, and here the excavators faced a similar problem. The outer walls of the house were made of stacked turf chunks shot through with moss etc., and extended exposure to moist air would've accelerated schmutzification. The entire structure was therefore flushed three times with tetraethyl silicate, which created silica deposits in the interstices where water was or would have crept (see: Rivers, Joan), and then highly nasty preserving fluid had to be pumped in so as not to disturb any of the other remains (ibid.). In other words, it was a total pain in the ass. And in typical green Icelandic fashion, they calculated exactly how much ethanol would be released into the air in the process: 1000 Liters. Bottoms up, Reykjavik.]

The museum has several way cool and way spendy multimedia and interactive displays – clearly it was built when times were flush – and is definitely worth some time (check the ghostly settler clubbing the flightless bird – THWACK!). And if you get the museum sleepies, take a biobreak: the wildly acidic walls and the tiniest sinks EVER should wake you up.

In typical fashion I then dragged DH next door into the Kraum store (Adalstraeti 10, www.kraum.is) , specializing in Icelandic design, where we checked out funky jewelry, funkier wool clothing, and, funkiest of all, huge, dried, blown-up cod that hung from their tails from the ceiling and had been turned into lamps (94,000 Kr). Mothers Day!

Exiting the store we heard the unmistakable blast of a train horn, except there's no trains in Reykjavik. Walking towards Austurstraeti the sound of drumming, yelling, and air horns grew louder – we saw the TV crews first, then about forty protestors banging away in front of the Parliament building. Anyone with a pulse and a passing interest surely knows about the disastrous Icelandic economy, which I won't write about as I don't speak economics, but I will say I found this Fortune article to be a readable summary of the mess they're in:
http://money.cnn.com/2008/12/01/magazines/fortune/iceland_gumbel.fortune/index.htm?section=magazines_fortuneintl

The best sign, held by a youngish bespectacled gent:

CTRL-ALT-DEL
Restart Iceland 2.0
NOW!!!

Onwards, then, to the beautiful Culture House (Hverfisgata 15, www.thjodmenning.is) , an imposing white neoclassical structure a bit incongruously set amongst all the sprayed concrete and corrugated-iron-clad buildings. The main floor houses several exhibits on the ancient Icelandic sagas, with actual medieval manuscripts from the 1200s on display containing poetry and prose handed down from pagan times; these delicate vellum texts eventually inspired enough national fervor to lead Icelanders to declare independence from Denmark in 1944. The books were astounding, 100-plus sheets of dried calfskin painstakingly written on and illuminated, and part of the exhibit explains how the skins were dried, stretched, and treated to remove the hair. As the process involved pee and putrefaction, naturally this is where DH found me before we ventured up to the third floor Surtsey exhibition.

On November 14, 1963 tectonic frottage belched up a new island off the coast of Iceland, and botanists, ornithologists, and entomologists alike creamed their pants. Surtsey Island became a real-time laboratory, and the exhibit has interactive multimedia displays of the eruption and the forty years of research into flora and fauna alike. There's a clever display where you can slide a dial along a track and see the bird, insect, and botanical populations come and go with the years, and it's neat to see the symbols eventually turn into digital aerial photos (plus it's always neat to come across words containing "wort"). The timeline projects out another 100 years or so, with the island dramatically shrinking; I thought this would be an Icelandic caveat re: global warming but they explained it as normal lava erosion, and I guess Icelanders know from lava erosion.

Fatigue and hunger finally slapped me silly (wort, wort, wort!!) and we went in search of the famed local hot dog joint Baejarins Beztu, a rinky little takeout shack down by the water (on Tryggvagata) made rather inhospitable by the aforementioned freezing-ass wind. Undaunted, we snagged 2 dogs with everything (500 Kr), which produced 2 slightly gummy dogs with unusual ketchup, mustard, some sort of mayo (ack!), and strangely crunchy onions. More of a been there, done that than a two thumbs up, which I will reserve for our next destination, the Mark-Bittman-blessed Sagreifinn (www.saegreifinn.is, Geirsgata 8), a brashly turquoise lobster shack just down the docks past some squeaky-clean Coast Guard cutters. Here we ordered 2 of the recommended lobster soups and a couple of Diet Cokes ($11 pp) and just as we were contemplating the skewers of whale meat, cod, salmon, and potato out the large steaming Styrofoam cups came with the truly lovely tastiness within. The langoustine chunks were fresh and sweet, the soup not too creamy, not overpoweringly spiced – a perfect way to warm up and plan the remains of the day.

We wandered back to the main Info house to purchase tickets for the next day's Golden Circle Tour, and while we were at it we bought our return bus trip to Keflavik via the Blue Lagoon. We then figured out enough of the bus schedule to hop the 18 bus to the Perlan in order to see the Saga Museum (www.sagamuseum.is, 1500 ISK) before it closed (Note: a goodly amount of sights close by 5 PM in Winter/early Spring) The geothermal water tanks and dome of the Perlan are nifty sights in and of themselves, and it doubtless provides a fabulous view over the city, but a sudden steady rain plus an underwhelming "Museum" wax-figurine experience for the price left us a bit cold, so we headed back to the hotel via the bus to the Hlemmur station and got ready to mingle with the natives in their habitat. Time to hit the "hot pots".

The white concrete Laugardalslaug geothermal bathing facility is the largest in town, with indoor and outdoor pools and hot pots, and can be reached (eventually) by the 14 bus. We used our tourist cards to get in and get locker keys, realizing later we should've rented towels (not covered by the card). Oops. Anyway, after complying with the rules and showering thoroughly in the communal powerwash (see ya, epidermis!) and meeting back up we dashed outside in the 30ºF and rain to slide into the bliss of a warm but not TOO warm hot pot, where we spent a leisurely half-hour or so relaxing, lolling, and chatting with a nice British couple while the rain not-so-gently turned into sleet. Almost thoroughly spent, we dashed back inside, showered again per protocol (this time noticing Bumbos stacked in a corner, *whimper*) and tried to look somewhat dignified while drying myself off with one of the hairdryers (it didn't work).

We took the bus back to the Hlemmur station and walked down Laugavegur to the recommended pizzeria Eld Smidjan (www.eldsmidjan.is, Laugavegur 81), a new, two-story eatery where we ordered a surprisingly good wood-fired pizza margarita, split a salad, and had a few of the local Viking beers (around $39). The crust was really quite good, thin and crisp, and with the exception of a bit of a heavy hand with the oregano was a LOT better than you would think you'd get in Iceland, of all places, and we know from good 'za. After my second beer I was, however, getting more shiitake'd than I thought I would even with jetlag, when a glimpse of the 5.6% alcohol content helped explain things. Finally we staggered back to the room under a biting, small snow, listening to the tiny clicks of snow studded tires as cars and buses quietly rolled past.

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    Day 2:

    "Was that a Full Flush? I still have to BRUSH MY TEETH!!"

    Thus began the second day of vacation. After packing up some gear we hit breakfast, which apparently aims for mediocrity daily. Tired of the mental judo of converting kronurs to dollars, DH whipped out an index card and hammered out a cheat sheet based on a 120:1 rate, while I tried to determine if it was really Kenny Rogers on the stereo (it WAS!). We hit the lobby where we were picked up by a minibus at 8, taking us to the Iceland Excursions office to await the 8:30 Golden Circle Classic Tour (www.grayline.is). In the lot there was a jacked-up monster half-bus, a part-tourbus-part-dump truck that would've sent my 3 year old into spasms of ecstasy. Happily it was ours, so 13 of us hopped on into the predawn chill towards Thingvellir.

    After about 15 minutes, we stopped at the Alafoss Woolen Mills (to give the sun a little more time), a smallish store in a little artists' colony outside the city packed with Icelandic-style sweaters, hunters' hats, and the like (www.alafoss.is) . Handy index card aiding and abetting, I fell for a beautiful wool blanket that will never grace a sofa until my boys are out of diapers, out of sippy cups, and into their first mortgages. On, then, 20 more minutes' East to a brief blustery stop at Lake Thingvallavatn, and then on to Thingvellir, where in 930 AD Vikings established the world's first Parliament in the craggy, jutting rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We were the first group to arrive, and made our way through the crunchy ice-covering snow down along the path into the rift as our Canadian expat tourguide described the law readers, the no-man's-land between the plates, and the pools and streams surrounding and penetrating the chasm. One pool, the Drekkingarhylur, was the final stop for adulterous women, whose pockets were loaded down with rocks before being pulled across the icy deep by ropes around their waist and neck. I elbowed DH to remove the "those were the days" smirk from his mug. At one point our guide asked if there were any Brits in the group, and he had one gentleman push against the left outcropping and said, "Look, you support America!" Whatev. Getting back on the bus we would learn on the radio that Parliament had just dissolved, so he was allowed to be grouchy.

    I'll admit to not quite feeling the momentousness of the site until H and I came to an overlook area where we were separated from the group a bit. It was here during a blast of sunshine that we looked out and saw, with the exception of the small state park buildings and a few scraggly pines below, the vast, flat expanse of the snow-covered lava fields, and the otherworldly presence of absence – here and throughout the countryside there are no towering trees, no billboards, no power lines, no street lights, nothing to disrupt the view of the rocky terrain until the next mountain several kilometers away. It wasn't so much the lack of manmade or natural disruption, it was the dead quiet, too – there was no human or animal voice, no wind rustling through leaves, no vehicle noise, and absolutely no planes in the sky, an empty blue horizon and a complete, eerie quiet we both agreed we could only compare to 9/11. Others have described it as a moonscape, and they're right. It's fantastically strange.

    Eventually the crew moved along, and we loaded up to continue on to the Skalholt Memorial church, which for several hundred years was one of two seats of the Episcopal Church in Iceland. The sun was still bright, firing through the stained glass windows and making beautiful colored shadow mosaics on the walls, and highlighting the mosaic in the nave. The most interesting part to me, however, was the list of bishops' names on the back wall, an excellent snapshot of the patronymic system, whereby Icelanders' last names reflect the immediate father (sometimes mother) and not a "familial" surname. E.g., if Anders Jonsson has a son Tor, he is named Tor Andersson, not Tor Jonsson. There's some knottiness, though, among the best being that Icelandic phonebooks go by first name, and that first names not previously used have to go through the Icelandic Naming Committee, drastically cutting down on "creativity" by loopy parents ("Announcing Tephra Poopiesparkle!!").

    Our tourist gang then set out for the famed waterfall Gullfoss, where we stopped above the falls at the Gullfoss Café for lunch, and saw other buses of tourists jealously regarding our pimpin' truck (www.gullfoss.is). H and I both had the Icelandic meat soup, a tasty, nicely-spiced broth loaded with chunks of tender lamb and vegetables (where do they get 'em all? Geothermal greenhouses, duh). After chasing with hot cocoa, I went and put on my thermals and we ventured out down a few flights of stairs to follow an icy trail hugging the 2 drops of the waterfall, a massive display of power with otherworldly ice formations clinging to the rocks on each side. We climbed up some rocks to get a better view, and here DH surprised me by pulling out 2 nips of Brennivin, the local schnapps made from fermented potato and spiked with caraway. We toasted our good fortune and our ten years of being together, and then promptly scorched our throats with the stuff.

    Onwards, ever onwards, towards Geysir, site of the original, um, geyser, whose show has been stolen by Strokkur, which erupts a lot more reliably and has a much cooler name. Strokkur is the biggest one in the field and erupts every few minutes - its round rocky pool gushes and slowly bubbles until the bubbles build, physics takes over, and superheated water and steam shoot into the air – all well and good and cool, but I was totally taken by a teeny little geyser, right in the middle of one of the paths, no bigger than a coffee cup and every so often blurping up a bubble. As far as hydrogeological phenomena go, it was damn near cute.

    Fluffy, fat flakes descended once more from the heavens, and we moved on towards our final destination - a new Geothermal Power Plant (part of the reason we chose this particular Golden Circle Tour) - pulling over to the side a few miles away to get some love from a passel of little Icelandic horses. You see lots of these rugged guys in the countryside – there's about 100,000 or so on the island - and occasionally you'll notice a random little fence or cable spool in the fields. That's not forgotten construction junk, they're actually windbreaks, as these horses are left outside all year 'round (and remember there's no trees) – they're bred to LIKE 0ºC and freezing-ass wind and they LIVE to forage on lava rock. You keep your prissy, overbred, needle-legged thoroughbreds doomed for Alpo at maturity, I'll take these gangsta little beasties anyday.

    Still impressed, we arrived at the new Hellisheidi Geothermal plant, whose electricity production went online in 2006 and currently operates three high-pressure turbines and one low-pressure turbine to produce electricity and hot water, all driven by boreholes releasing superheated volcanic water from around 1000 meters below (80% of the country operates off geothermal power). The gentleman leading our tour walked us through the generation of electricity and hot water using a wicked cool animation on an absolutely massive flatscreen wall, and then led us to overlooks to see the turbines, condensers, etc. [If you have Flash, you can play, too – go to www.or.is and follow the Hellisheidi link on the right-hand side. Then select "Harnessing Cycle of the Hellisheidi Plant" and click around for explanations of what's going on and how it all happens. Mind the sound.] It's enough to make you wish you lived near volcanoes. Come to think of it, the plant currently produces about 30 MW, nothing to sneeze at, whereas my local nuke plant can put out about 1200, but even though my tastes run more Mondavi than Muesli I know which one I'd prefer to have heat my tub. If you're a geek, are married to a geek, are trying to get with a geek, or are amusing a geek because said geek is letting you pick the restaurants (or all of the above), do try and take a tour that includes this plant – it's amazingly advanced stuff, and well-communicated.

    All this green energy means that Icelandic air is crisp, its waters clear, and its harbors so unpolluted that fish leap for joy, puffins frolic, and whales do their whale thing, coming so close to the rocky coast that Icelanders can kill them and eat them. So after getting dropped off and leaving our goodies at the room we set out on a beautiful snowy evening towards Hallgrimskirkja and Thrir Frakkar (www.3frakkar.com, Baldursgata 14), which turned out to be nicer than I'd thought, with doubled-up tablecloths and a nicely appointed nautical theme that managed to avoid kitsch. We had the cozy place largely to ourselves and began with a shared appetizer of smoked puffin breast with mustard sauce, skipping on the reindeer pate and whale sashimi. About nine strips of meat arranged in a pinwheel arrived with our wine and beer, and we were pleasantly surprised with the dense and smooth texture, the dark-meat taste resembling duck, and the slightly salty aftertaste. Next came DH's "Iclelandic specialty" hashed fish with black bread, a large piece of fish mashed with cheese and I think bread and potatoes, served with vegetables in a cream sauce (2790 Kr), and I had the whale pepper steak with pepper sauce, three large filets of dense, slightly gamey and spicy meat with a definite sashimi-style aftertaste, accompanied by more mashed potatoes and nicely-done vegetables (3690 Kr). The first two filets were quite nice, but by the third I was noticing saltiness so we traded mains for a bit. But I'd definitely recommend the place for a quiet, excellent meal. Completely stuffed, we checked our watches and paid up, making our way quickly back to the 11-11 convenience store around the corner from the hotel to stock up on necessities (read: chocolate, Doritos, and beer) before our 7:30 pickup for the 8 PM Northern Lights Tour.

    The Northern Lights tours are weather-dependent and sightings are largely up to chance, but the snow cleared and the sky was bright by the time our half-empty full-size tourbus left the Iceland Excursions lot. We got about fifteen minutes out of the city, looking for darkness and minimal cloud cover on the horizon, when the bus stopped at a field and we all clambered out and started staring around. Sure enough, there was a greenish haze low down near the horizon line, and we watched it for about 20 minutes, shifting back and forth on our feet as the cold winds whipped around us. Unfortunately the signs never amounted to more than a smudge of green, and what followed was a three-hour expedition that was more like a comedy of errors. At one point, the bus driver tried to go down a lane leading to a farmhouse to find Utter Darkness, only to discover a dead-end sandwiched between a farmhouse and barn with all occupants cozy in their beds. After executing a nine-point turn with the full-size bus, missing the house by centimeters each time, the occupants FINALLY turned on a light after a dog started barking (time to get a new dog). But the tour then went all the way through the city to the north, the better to leave city lights to the South, and still no luck. We were both surprised that a professional tour group wouldn't know its' Dark Spots to go to in advance, and wouldn't attempt to go North of the city first, and wouldn't talk to other tours (a la whale watching) to find out where probable/definite sightings were that night. But no matter, I was able to stand under a gorgeous, clear ceiling of stars so bright I could see the Milky Way, on a lava field in Iceland with my husband as my windbreak, and how many people can say that?

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    hi A,

    yep, it sure is a strange place. [we went last summer, BEFORE the crash and consequently the drop in prices]. but we're glad we went.

    looking forward to more,

    Regards, ann

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    I got a kick out of the half flush in the toilets. That is very common in Australia as well. Personally I think it should be required on American toilets as well. I do have one replacement one in my house that uses less water. I think it is the coming "green" thing. You don't need to flush a mature sheep each time.

    Thanks for posting. I would like to check out Iceland now that the price is right, but this summer I have a home exchange in Finland.

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    Day 3:

    Finally, a lazy morning, which for us still means getting out of bed around 8ish. After yet another meh brekkie at the hotel we peek out at steady flakes – the wet, sticky, Heavy kind of snow that makes school kids cheer and parents reach for Maalox. We decide to pack our hotel towels and head towards a much closer, indoor pool, Sundhollin (on Baronsstigur), another attractive, white, neoclassic structure built in 1937 which we discovered on the walk back from dinner the night before. As we pass a small elementary school we're both stunned to see kids outside playing before the bell. Gotta love Icelanders. Though I had every intention of actually swimming, steam rising off the outside hot pots beckoned, and we were soon in the frigid predawn simmering happily in a 42ºC pool, with big flakes of snow clinging to our hair.

    A word, then, about Pool Protocol – the geothermal pools are not heavily chlorinated, so there's some pre- and post-soak rituals to observe to keep your ookyness out. Stolen from the excellent www.visitreykjavik.is site:

    1. Pay for your entrance to the pools and receive a locker token.
    2. Undress at your locker and take your towel and swimsuit to the showers. Soap is provided, but you may want to bring your own soap and shampoo. If so, take it to the showers too. Stash your towel etc. in the rack provided.
    3. Shower (without a swimsuit), put on your suit, and head for the pool.
    4. Soak and relax in the abundant hot water provided to us by volcanic activity.
    4. When you return, shower again, and dry off before you go back to your locker: wetting the floor in the locker room is frowned upon.

    In addition, I'll note that shoes are to be left outside the locker room on separate racks, cameras and camera phones are verboten, there were some very East-German-looking attendants in or near each locker area at each pool we went to, they mean it about the no-getting-the-floor-wet which is really quite nice, and the cartoon pictures showing "red zones" that you're supposed to scrub with extra care are kinda funny.

    We prodded our medium-rare bodies back to the hotel to change and then picked up the 14 bus from the Hlemmur station towards the National Museum (www.natmus.is , Sudurgata 41), a ride that took place in absolute whiteout conditions but by the time we arrived it had stopped. Reopened in 2004, the Museum is beautifully done, and provides a comprehensive overview of 1200 years (!!) of Icelandic history from Settlement to the present day. The second, main floor has a neat, large, encased core sample pointing out tephra and estimated dates from various volcanic eruptions (if you lived near Mount Hekla in the 1380's you were HOSED), and there are several excavated skeletal remains which kindly volunteered teeth for DNA studies (more info in yet more multimedia interactive exhibits). The third floor moves into the modern age, Iceland-style: there's a slightly creepy pair of ice skates made out of animal bone, and an explanation of how the Icelandic flag evolved with blue for mountains, white for ice, and red for all the damn lava. Lucky for them they ditched the crowned stockfish.

    At this point breakfast had worn off, so we walked down the Tjarnargata (noting the geothermally heated sidewalk) passing the Tjorn (city pond) and several blocks of lovely homes, the architecture looking like a blend of Dutch roofs, Danish woodwork, and Icelandic cladding – a nice stroll, which ended at the Radhus and Parliament area, where the protestors were still at it. We continued on to the waterfront, where I'd wanted to try the Icelandic Fish & Chips restaurant, but DH balked at the words "organic" and "bistro" underneath the header and I relented as he had all of our kronur. We wound up at the Grillhus Gudmundar at 20 Tryggvagata, with American-style retro décor and Elvis on the speakers; I exhaled when I realized we were surrounded by Reykjavik city workers on their lunch break, and when we saw that the daily specials included beverage, soup, and sandwich or fish for less than $10. OK, fine. After our mushroom soup I had a decent grilled ham and cheese with a side of fries and some tea, and DH had a few nice pieces of broiled fish oddly set on a mound of spaghetti with red sauce and washed down with a few beers. Full, happy, and after a while quite alone we agreed to do right then and there what we always love to do when we're away from the kids: get away from each other, too. For the next few hours H would check out the Viking Maritime Museum, and I had a date with some Utsalas.

    The first shop I popped into had a pair of black tights with bright-red ribbon weaved up the back of the leg like a corset, just PERfect for those Hooker Fridays at work. The next few featured beautiful Icelandic wool designs custom-made for Nordic supermodels, and one had pieces unsettlingly resembling muppets that had been garroted, dressed, and whipstitched into outerwear. After a bit more hunting my favorite sweater still wound up over $200 on sale, naturally, so I sadly declined, grabbed a cup of tea, and perused a few of the home goods stores, which had some nice Scandinavian glassware and clever tooling but nothing to write Fodors about. Tiring of the effort involved with trendy boutiques and feeling not exactly MILF-y, I skipped on the DEAD store/recording studio tucked back a bit off the road, thinking that rock star artists known for printing skulls on shirts must be played out when even Wal-Mart is slapping skulls and tribal crap on their tees. In retrospect this was a mistake as I've learned a bit more about Jon Audarson, so if there's any rockin' types out there who pop in, please report back.

    Finally I ducked into Tiger, a funktastic kind of dollar store where some flower-printed hammers caught my eye. Now THIS was more my speed – reusable shopping bags with skulls and hearts, children's hats made like huge stuffed alligator heads, and best of all a plastic 20-something-piece 3D anatomy puzzle of a woman's pelvis (complete with fetus!!) that had my friend L's name all over it – I spent a goodly amount of time poking around and even dragged DH in once we met up again (when he picked up the pelvis to show it to me I was a puddle of pride). Business soon beckoned, however, and I am still recovering from the next agonizing hour spent in souvenir stores trying to find appropriate thank-you gifts for my parents, who, in painfully annoying style, Have Everything. Except 95,000 ISK blown-up-cod lights, but I don't love them THAT much.

    After some refreshments at an upstairs bar (Gull lager is crisp, unremarkable) we made our way up Skolavordustigur towards the Hallgrimskirkja, hoping to peek in before it closed at 5. The entire 244-foot steeple was enclosed in a hive of scaffolding, but the weather and time of day must have halted work as it was very quiet when we entered. The cavernous, stark, sweeping walls were strangely soft and white in the waning light of the tall, narrow windows, the utter lack of adornment reinforcing the stillness, the quiet. We sat and lingered for a bit, prayed a bit, even, then made our way out, shoved from our reverie by the 5,275-pipe organ, from which some pipes stick out horizontally, making it look weaponized and prickly.

    We wearily made our way back to the hotel, and while attempting to change for dinner on our two square feet of carpet I noticed that the Beeb was monitoring an epic, New-England-destroying snowstorm that was about to completely obliterate my block, and being that they had Serious British Accents I totally fell for it. I hightailed it to the hotel computer, totally breaking one of my Rules, and quickly messaged my brother and my friend S to Please Call The Folks and make sure they haven't tried to shovel their way out of the house screaming without putting fresh duct tape on our boys first. My bro emails back in a few minutes to say they're doing fine, and trashes me for worrying. Mental note to send him hakarl. S, the gorgeous, writes back in a few more minutes to report the same and a Hope I'm Having Fun. Mental note for big honking chocolate bar. Returning to the room DH shoots me a "Happy now??" and we make our way back to catch the bus to the intersection of Laugaveur and Laekjargata for dinner at Laekjarbrekka (www.laekjarbrekka.is ).

    The restaurant is situated right in the middle of things in a lovely old brown cladded building with wide floorboards and darkish lighting, and we were ushered to a window seat in an octagonal red-painted room with reproductions on the walls and German businessmen at the tables (read: the place was LOUD). DH ordered a Viking and I opted for some Prosecco, then we ordered off the prix fixe 3-course menu I'd seen on their website – The Icelandic Feast for H and the Fish Feast for moi. Looking around the room I wondered if we'd be in for some tourist-class sandbagging; but I needn't have worried – the amuse-bouche of smooth, smoky goose breast with a pepper remoulade was just a hint of the tasty jaunt ahead. DH was soon rewarded with an appetizer plate of marinated sliced puffin salad, a roll of tender and delicate smoked salmon with lemon aioli, some gorgeous lobster bisque, and best of all a wedge of sheepshead "jelly", explained by our waiter and met with a priceless visage – so much for my Viking husband. I had a fresh, ever so slightly undercooked scallop, a sweet shrimp with red pepper drizzle, another fresh roll of salmon but mine with dill, and the bisque. I traded some shrimp for some jelly, which had a slightly salty, nutty taste and the consistency of a chunky pate. For mains DH had the grilled whale steaks, three dark filets glazed with brennivin sauce and accompanied by white asparagus, carrots, and potatoes, but I was the winner with three delicate fish filets, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and pureed turnip in a sweet wine and cream sauce, and best of all two langoustine tails that must have been cooked in sugarwater they were that sweet. After more beers and prosecco we somehow found room for the dessert – fresh skyr with berries for me, pistachio crème brulee for H, both accompanied by some strawberry sorbet and groanings that we couldn't possibly eat another bite. Though not as intimate an environment as 3 Frakkar it was a fabulous meal, and I think a steal at about $75 pp. We finally staggered out back into the snow and caught a bus back towards Hlemmur, too damn old for the Runtur and too damn full for anything but blessedly child-free sleep.

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    Day 4:

    After sleeping like tephra, the standard drama of trying to fit all the goodies back in the suitcases began, and we once more sadistically hit the hotel breakfast before checking out and waiting for our 10 AM pickup for the Blue Lagoon, about a 40 minutes' drive back towards Keflavik. It only takes about 10 minutes to get back out to the moonscape, and this time under bright, searing sunshine the flat treeless expanse and the craggy, snow-decked hills and mountains made quite a sight. Eventually, off in the distance, we made out a few areas of rising steam, indicating we'd arrived at our relaxation before heading home.

    [Me, Geeking Out again: You can't swing a puffin in Iceland without coming across an ad for the Blue Lagoon, with its quasi-mystical tagline "Energy for Life Through Forces of Nature". Well… it's more like We Made a Really Cool Thing Out of an Environmental Accident. There's a geothermal plant a little ways away, and according to our guide at Hellisheidi when it came time to return the formerly-superheated water to ground after it had gone through all the heat exchangers, etc., the minerals in the water and algae in the local rock strata managed to plug the natural drains, creating a milky pool of nice, warm, algae-breeding stuff that the clever Icelanders built up and charge tourists good money for. But it IS cool.]

    Our tickets allowed us entry and locker use via a chip-containing blue wristband, and we rented plush turquoise towels before heading to the large, modern locker rooms and shower areas. Once through the scrubdown rituals we met back up and readied ourselves to dash out in the cold, occasionally blinded by sunshine when the steam parted. We minced our way over the icy teak decking, hung up our towels and finally plunged in to the opaque blue around 11ish, pleasantly surprised at the temperature and the variation in depth. We met a very nice Australian couple and chatted for a bit before venturing over to the man-made waterfall that comes down off of the roof and pounds the snot out of you with deliciously hot water – after this I wasn't so bummed that the Japanese tour group that came ahead of us took the last of the massage slots. It's quite an experience, the steam occasionally parting at little arching bridges over some of the nooks and crannies, dark, rock-cave steam saunas where the hiss of the water hitting the rocks almost blends in with the burbling and gurgling below, and unexpected areas of very hot water near some of the pumping stations. On the whole the water is at just the right temperature where you can stay and simmer all day long – human soup! There are a few teak boxes by the sides which contain buckets of white silica/mineral muck that one can ladle up and slap on for some Icelandic facial action, and if you miss it they sell it all Disney-style before you can leave.

    "Hey, A-, put this in your purse!"
    "IT RUBS THE SILICA ON ITS SKIN AND PUTS IT IN THE BASKET!!!!"

    Nice and pruney (but exfoliated!) we finally took a break and got out to find some snacks and drinks at the bar (hint: knot your towel or bring a clothespin to identify it on the rack – SHUT UP, S and Pam! – as ours had walked). We lounged for a bit to rehydrate with water before remembering we were still on vacation and got a few beers for H and a Skyr and some white wine for me, gleefully noting that you can bring drinks back into one section of the lagoon (also gleefully noting that DH got cut off as he had reached his 3000 ISK limit on his wristband buying Vikings). Taking said drinks back into the lagoon we frolicked a bit more, and before we knew it one of the big clocks on the building walls said it was time for a final scrub-up before the 2 PM shuttle to Keflavik.

    There was no line for the return flight check-in and we had a good bit of time to kill in the BIG duty-free shops and cafes before heading to the international departures area, where we found a little International Cafeteria and grabbed a late lunch of sandwiches and skyr, including one of the cheapest Viking beers of the trip at $4.50. While nosing around near the gates I discovered a little blacked-out room in the smooth lava-rock wall showing a continuous-loop movie about the sights of Iceland, one of those swoopy-helicopter deals you run into on Public TV only this wasn't interrupted by a fund drive. Before long, though, it was time to board our 5 PM flight home, where The Heir loved his new puffin plate and pix of the tour truck, The Spare has already torn a flipper off his stuffed puffin, and my folks were wondering where the hell to put the cod lamps. Just kidding.

    And so I sit, spell-checking, fatigued yet again with the demands of the day-to-day, thinking that in this damn dreary cold wouldn't it be great to have my own geothermal hot pot under the stars, someplace to relax and chat after a long day. Frog soup, anyone?

    Happy Travels.

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    Iceland has to be seen to be believed, doesn't it! My first thought when we landed at Keflavik was that we were on the moon - now granted, I've never been to the moon, but was convinced this is what it must look like!

    Isn't that 1/2 flush option wonderful !!

    Nice report-entertaining and informative!

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    Like you, I spent months dropping not-so-subtle hints until my hubby finally agreed to go to Reykjavik in October. Your report brought back all the amazing scenery AND the amazing soup :-P

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    What a well-written, insightful report! I'm exhausted, already. No real need now to go to Iceland, which was never high on my must-see list, coming as I do from Ireland, which is only one letter different! Many thanx.

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    Absolutely great report, really enjoyed reading it!

    BTW, when I came across your first mention of the blown up cod skin lamp I divided it's 94000 cost by the 141 exchange rate you mentioned at the beginning --- the resulting number made me smile, definitely not good present material!

    Will be referring back to this as am hoping to visit Iceland this year...

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    AHau,

    Thanks for a well written and highly amusing trip report that also packs loads of useful info about Iceland.
    Your initial comment (early in your report and before anyone has much of a chance to know you better), about expecting every flush to suck down the equivalent of a mature sheep made me chuckle and wonder for a second how much you must eat (LOL!), but I know what you meant. (I think ...) :)

    Amongst the details of your many meals, you mention the mediocrity of the hotel b'fast several times yet you never actually said what they served. Details please ?

    I hope to get to Iceland some day soon and when planning for the trip, your report will be a definite resource.

    Thanks again for the fun read,

    Mathieu.

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    hi Mathieu,

    May i chime in? - the typical icelandic breakfast comprises cereal, toast, fruit juice, a hot dish such as egg and bacon if you're lucky, endless tea, coffee, jam, hot choc [if you're lucky].

    not so bad - or perhaps I was just lucky.

    regards, ann

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    Thanks Ann,

    That doesn't sound too bad. I'm a total B'fast person and could survive on that meal alone 'til dinner if I had a good one to start off the day, and when I'm traveling, I try to do just that.

    I recall reading your own Icelandic trip report last year and enjoyed it very much. Thanks again.

    Mathieu

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    Hi Mathieu,
    Thanks for the kind words! I enjoy writing up reports as a way of remembering events, and it actually helps me pay attention more when I know I want to write about things later (if that makes sense).
    Regarding brekkie, like yourself I am a huge fan, and I am not afraid of sampling local delights, but I do not have grand expectations at breakfast-included budget hotels and at the Fosshotel that was a good thing. There was plenty of coffee, oddly diluted OJ, and occasionally milk available, but the standard European fare of meats, cheeses, and eggs were a bit lacking - the ham and sausage slices were getting curled around the edges each morning, and the sliced cheese always had that wet-waxy-thing going on around the exposed sides, regardless of how early (or not) we arrived. There was a little stand with sneeze-guards containing metal pots of sardines, browning apple slices, tomato slices, prunes, cucumbers (hey Ann!) etc., but we routinely skipped this, opting for toast made from 3 different breads and taking our chances with the meats and cheeses. There were a few bowls of cereal next to a vat of (unrefrigerated) Skyr, I had a bit of this every morning too.

    So, no grand disappointment, we ate well enough and got some caffeine kick-start. There was a little breakfast-and-lunch cafe towards the bus station that we could have hit instead, but we weren't sure how spendy things would get on the dinner front each night. The hotel, we thought, was in a grand location, so ultimately no big deal.

    Really, I DO know how to write a concise response, but clearly this isn't it. Hope this helps...

    (and thanks to everyone else for the kind words!)
    AH

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    hi AH,

    sounds like the breakfasts you were served weren't a patch on the ones we had. we stayed either at independent guest houses or small hotels and the breakfasts ranged from good to excellent. [at the glymur - not surprising as it was twice the cost of all the rest]. not sure why we were so lucky, but we were!

    regards, ann

    ps - the other great meal not to miss is sunday tea. as served at some cafes and hotels it comprises as much coffee as you can drink plus loads of cake! also most places have pancakes for a few pence available at the check-out. if you see a tea advertised, go for it.

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    Totally. And I was a big fan of the little collapsible Skyr shovels that came with the cups...at the Blue Lagoon, I wound up knotting my towel and putting my little shovel in the knot so it wouldn't get taken again. Worked.
    -AH

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    Whole Foods Markets carry Skyr. I purchased last weekend at the Boston store - we are going to Iceland for the first time at the end of April and I had read about Skyr. Enjoyed it. (Enjoyed your report - got some good tips for our upcoming trip).

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    AHaugeto:
    Excellent reporting....very well told..thank you.
    You might be inteested in a superb article written for Vanity Fair's April issue...a no-holds-barred treatise about the economic woes of Iceland. Full spread photo of a demonstration on the steps of The Parliament Building...photo of Iceland's new PM, Johanna Sigurdasdottir, the only lesbian head of state.

    stu t.

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    ttt for a few iceland posts I've seen, not to mention I have a Reykjavik layover this weekend and I'm sorely tempted to delay my connection and hit the Bue Lagoon again!

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