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Trip Report Whirlwind Iceland w/ two kids - trip report

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Iceland – July 30, 2015 to August 3, 2015

Travelers: Mom, Boyfriend, Child12, and Child8

1. Day 1: the flight. Departed mid-evening on WOW Air BWIKEF, arriving at approximately 5:45am. WOW Air sucked. Uncomfortable seats, no opportunity to sleep due to the unrelenting attempts to sell earphones, drinks, and food (cart up and down the aisles constantly). Checked one bag for 4 people, which cost $100 round trip. Would not fly WOW again. Ever. Flight is otherwise unremarkable. Maybe if I was 23 I wouldn’t mind it so much, but now I am in my 40s and my default setting in cranky at least ½ the time.

2. Day 2: 31JULY. Arrive KEF and get our rental car from Sixt. The agency is outside the airport main building and took some doing to find it. The Sixt counter inside the airport was unoccupied, so we could not figure out how to get to the other building (which we could see from the airport). The airport is small. We are all dazed, disoriented, and very confused because it is about 1:00am on our biological clock, but bright daylight and the start of morning on Iceland time.

Sixt is nice once we get there. We get the car pretty quickly, get the GPS, and drive to the hotel. It is a manual transmission – I used to drive one – like 10 years ago. The skill slowly comes back to me after a couple jerky starts and stops. We rent the smallest possible vehicle and use a shoe horn to wedge the children inside. No problem finding the hotel.
Hotel: Laugabjarg Guesthouse, booked through booking.com. A sweet little guesthouse w/ a very nice owner/manager. Our room is nearly ready when we arrive. We leave the bags and walk around the neighborhood a bit. We get a bit lost in the “Family Park” – can’t find the zoo, do find the pool (which is right across the street from our hotel). Grab our suits and head to the Laugardalslaug swimming pool. Admission is free for the kids and about $2 for adults. I have withheld from the children until this moment the requirement that you have to do a full naked shower before putting on your swim trunks and going to the pool. Both children immediately experience culture shock and ask desperately if there is some other way. I explain that absolutely no one cares, and that in Iceland this is just what everyone does. Apparently this is a common cultural problem for Americans. Somehow they both make it through the men’s locker room and are no worse for the experience. Maybe they will be complaining to their psychoanalyst in 20 years time, but right now they seem ok. The pool is awesome. It is warm. It is lovely. There is a 50 meter lap pool, there is a giant family pool with tons of kid’s toys, there is a slide, there are 15 different hot pools at various temperatures, there is a cold plunge pool. I swim a ½ mile or so and then bob around in the family pool area with the kids, and then have a good long warm soak. There are Icelanders lounging in the sun even though it is only about 60 degrees outside. We hang out for about 2 hours and feel totally rejuvenated. There are even hair dryers in the locker rooms. We are SET!

After the pool we head back to the hotel, get our room (big room w/ large central table and 10 bunk beds). We then head into Reykjavik to take in a few touristy things. The first stop is the Saga Museum which is a tourist trap, completely boring to the kids, and not worth the cost. It looked good online, but the displays turn out to be weird, the “history” isn’t chronological (remember what I said about cranky being my default setting), and it just doesn’t come together into anything of substance. Our next stop is Volcano House. We grab a couple hotdogs beforehand – yes, they are very good – get all the toppings – and inexpensive (like $2-$3 USD each). Volcano House on the other hand is pretty interesting. There are some displays of various volcano related rocks and such. The main attraction is a movie – maybe 40 minutes long – about one particular volcano and how Iceland coped. I settle in and watch it eagerly, my companions all fall asleep within 2 minutes of sitting down. Child8 snores so loudly that others are laughing at him. He is in a coma, I can’t wake him, so he just snores away, and then totally denies that he fell asleep once the movie was over.

We rest a bit in the afternoon and then head out for our evening adventure: Deep sea fishing with Reykjavik Sea Adventures. The boat went out at 5:00pm from the old harbor. This was the “must do” pick for Boyfriend on this trip. The boat headed out for about 40 minutes or so until we got to the fishing spot. We saw puffins (so cute! - I’m not feeling cranky!), and dolphins along the way. We have worn our rain pants and coats, and happy to have our warm hats with us. It is “warm” by Iceland standards, meaning blustery and cold, despite the sun, and even colder on the water. Child8 catches the first fish of the evening, and proceeds to catch another 8 fish ranging in size from moderate to gigantic. This is the highlight of his life to date. Others on the boat are having varying success, but everyone catches at least one fish. The crew starts a grill and cleans a bunch of the fish (most were thrown back) and cooks them up for dinner. The cuisine is …. Well, not the reason for the boat trip. The fish is sort of baked on foil over the grill and topped with mixed frozen vegetable and frozen cubed potatoes. There is no seasoning. The fish is good, but bland. The water was getting a bit choppy by the time the food was ready and I preferred to stay on deck rather than in the dining area in the interest of not getting pukey. (I am more sensitive than most to motion sickness. In fact, right this moment in my desk chair, just thinking about the boat, is making me feel gurgly.) Overall, the fishing is a huge hit. Everyone is happy and tired at the end. We get in an evening soak at the pool and then go to bed.

3. Day 3: Saturday, August 1, 2015. We have an early morning in order to catch the bus for our glacier tour. This is my “must do” pick for our trip. Bus does not arrive. It is supposed to pick us up at the hotel, but we aren’t clear exactly where. We start making phone calls about 30 minutes after our pick-up time and pretty quickly a van shows up, whisks us off the bus, and we are on our way. We booked the trip through Icelandic Mountain Guides because it was one of the very few companies that had a glacier tour that allowed children at age 8. The bus ride to/from the glacier was coordinated with one of the other tour companies (Reykjavik Excursions). There was a mix of people on the bus heading to a variety of tours. The drive along Route 1 to the glacier park took 5 hours each way. There were stops along the way at waterfalls and other scenic spots. The tour guide on the bus was fantastic – talked at length about Iceland and in-depth details of location, plants, history, etc. The kids and boyfriend dozed off a bit, and I was (not cranky!) soaking up the scenery and information. The ride did not feel overly long at all. It was handy having the ipads for the kids as their attention tended to wander a bit. The bus was quite comfortable.

We arrived at Vatnajokulspjodgardur national park about 1 ½ - 2 hours before our glacier hike was due to start. It was slightly rainy, but overall fair weather. We had time to eat in the cafeteria and poke around the immediate area before getting suited up. We wore a couple layers, topped w/ our rain gear. The tour operator then fitted us with crampons and ice picks. (Children delighted with ice picks and had to be watched very closely). Our group of about 14 people was then taken in 2 vans to the Svinafellsjokull for the hike. We then split into two groups, each with a guide. Our guide was a gorgeous young Icelandic woman who was super friendly and very knowledgeable. She was very kind and attentive to the kids. We spent some time getting the gear adjusted properly and practicing with the crampons and ice picks. Once we were all set, we hiked on the glacier for about 3 ½ hours. The scale was hard to imagine, or even accurately perceive. What looked like tiny dots far off in the distance turned out to be people relatively ‘close’ but dwarfed by the immense mountains of ice. The guide found a few ice caves that had formed as ice melted and we were able to go in some (large) and peek in others (smaller). I love absolutely every second of the hike. The hike itself was not overly rigorous and the group ranged in age from 8 to mid-60s. Everyone was reasonably fit, but probably no marathon runners – and we were all fine. There really wasn’t climbing at all, just some hikes up very moderate slopes. One trek took us across a bit of a drop off on one side (I held tightly onto child8).

When we arrived back at the park center our tour bus was waiting for us and we started the ride home. The bus stopped in Vik at a diner for dinner (burgers and hot dogs sort of place). We had a few other stops to see waterfalls and such as well. Because it was early August the length of the day was very long so there was good site seeing in both directions. It was nearly midnight when we got back to the hotel and went quickly to sleep.

4. Sunday August 2 – Self driving Golden Circle Tour
We took a nice slow start to the morning and started the day w/ another visit to the pool. After that we headed into downtown to check out a few stores. Enjoyed a visit to the Reykjavik 871 +/-2 Settlement Museum – which was awesome. The focus of the museum is the very early settlement of Iceland, including the actual foundation of one of the original buildings from the first settlers (on the sight of the museum). The museum is very small and manageable, and has nice interactive exhibits (interesting to school age kids). I am always fascinated by early archeology type museums and this was right up my alley. We spent about 1 ½ hours there. There is also a very nice small gift shop where we picked up a few small items. The children and boyfriend went to a restaurant to try the fermented shark and whale. I went for a protest walk and poked around on the main drag and in souvenir shops. Found the required snow globe ( I have them from all over the world). Later we went as a group on the main drag and had some fun in various shops (names not recorded - sorry), including one that was sort of a modern day “five and dime” with cute little handy things like office organizers and kitchen gadgets, where I picked up two pairs of funky reading glasses for about $5 each.

We enjoyed a good chance to sleep in, another visit to the swimming pool, and then set out on our own DIY golden circle tour. Our main stops were Pingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. First stop is Pingvellir, where we realize that we are tired and there is the potential for more hiking and walking than we might be up to at the moment. We work our way through the visitor center, and walk a bit down the major slope. There are amazing wild flowers in bloom everywhere. Early August seems like early spring by Maryland standards – there are Lilacs in bloom. Plus tons of the most gorgeous native flowers. I take lots of pictures w/ a fantasy of making some sort of farmable photo collage when I get home. (That totally didn’t happen, of course). We then drive onward to Geysir. Ok – so no wonder there are warnings about gravel roads and dings on your rental car. This is where we encounter the rockiest roads – interestingly sort of random stretches between lengths of well paved roads. We also see the most incredible vehicles designed to get through giant amounts of snow – super jeeps or something. There is no snow and our tiny clown-mobile car is just fine for the entire route.
Geysir was touristy – with a big gift shop, lots of parking, a cafeteria, etc. The gift shop was super fancy and expensive – in other words, fun to poke around in and gasp over prices. The geysers are easy to walk around, marked with temperature signs (a lot close to boiling), and of course few big geysers and erupt on a regular basis. It was fun to see and we spent about 1 – 1 ½ hours in the area before heading to Gullfloss. Gullfloss was breathtaking – just this immense multi-level waterfall. Another place where photographs cannot possibly to justice to the scale and beauty. We hiked along the falls (major walk way w/ guardrails – safe for everyone). The sun came out at one point and we got amazing photos w/ rainbows over the fall. Absolutely breathtaking. Tons of wild flowers and blowing mist and just WOW! The history is fascinating and made me really appreciate how amazingly isolated people were in Iceland a hundred years ago. (And actually still are – there are many houses in areas that would seem to be impassable when there is significant snow on the ground, and lots of tiny tiny villages scattered about. )

We used the kitchen facilities at the hotel that night to heat up a couple of frozen pizzas for dinner.
5. Day 5 (ish) – Horseback riding and flight home

Last day! The trip has been a whirlwind and felt like we were busy absolutely every minute. We were not going to slacken our pace one second on the last day. We headed out early to take in a horseback riding trip at Laxnes farm before going directly to the airport. The farm was fairly close to the airport, so it made for a good location in terms of logistics. Another “must do” from the children this time. The horses were super strong little horses – tiny, really. The farm did a nice job of fitting the horse size to the rider (Child8 got the smallest horse there) and the temperament of the horses was calm in every case. We were fitted with helmets before the ride. We were actually very warm on the ride and shedding layers as we went along. The ride was about 2 hours including a stop for a rest mid-way. After the mid-way point the group was split into those who wanted a run vs. those who wanted a walk. I chose the sedate group along w/ child8. Boyfriend and child12, with no prior riding experience, chose the run group – and bounced around mercilessly in the saddle (I could see them) and have now learned their lesson about horseback riding and testi*les. We all had a good time on the ride and enjoyed seeing more of the country side and interacting with the horses and guides.

After that it was off to the airport. We smelled like horse and were totally exhausted from our action packed days in Iceland. Uneventful horrible flight home on Wow Airlines (as I said, never again).
Side notes:

1. The landscape is so interesting. It took a while for it to sink in, but part of the reason it feels so alien is the near total absence of large trees. Ok, and the lava – the lava is also very alien feeling.

2. Around the block from our hotel was a 7-11 type store (called 10/11) that was very handy for snacks and cheese and such. No alcohol (seems to be relatively hard to get – no picking up wine at the corner bodega). Kids LOVED the slurpy machine with the name brand “Krap.” There was also “Emissis” ice cream which was good for laughs.

3. One of my favorite things to when traveling overseas is poke around in a grocery store. We found a store that was a bit like Meijer’s or Wal-Mart, but smaller. I believe it was called Hagkaup. Picked up some weird dried fish (boyfriend wanted to try it) and various candies to take home. Spent probably 2 hours poking around.

4. Practically every place sells hot dogs. Gas stations. Grocery store. Rest stop. Swimming pool. They are topped w/ some sort of mayonnaise/mustard/something sauce and dried onions.

5. Our hotel included breakfast for 7 Euro per adult and kids free. Totally a good value and made life much easier.

6. The hotel also allowed us to use the laundry facilities several times, free of charge, when a member of our party had several bathroom accidents. They were extremely gracious about this and noted that as mothers they understood the issue at hand. I was so incredibly grateful for their assistance and understanding.

7. We had the warmest and sunniest days of the year while we were in Iceland. Friends that traveled both shortly before and shortly after our trip had much colder, rainy, and blustery weather. We were prepared with layers and rain gear, hats, gloves, etc. We didn’t need much of the gear – but easily could have. A good buy were inexpensive rain pants from Amazon before the trip. The balled up to nothing in our backpacks and were easy to whip on if we were caught in the squall. We also only wore/took one pair of shoes each - a pair waterproof hiking boots. This kept our luggage to a minimum and kept our feet comfy and dry throughout the trip. I was able to find very inexpensive ($20-30) boots for the children (who both wear adult sized boots) online.

8. Coming from an area with a high cost of living, I did not find Iceland as overly expensive as I had expected. However, we also avoided most restaurants and did very little shopping. Tours and museum admission was in line w/ costs for similar activities in large cities in the United States.

9. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, including hot dog stands. I never exchanged any currency or got any Iceland dollars. I didn’t even *see* the currency until I was on the flight back and asked my seatmate if she had any I could see.

10. Prices in the duty free shop at the airport are lower or comparable to out in town. A good place to pick up candy and such to take home. There is disgusting liqueur called “Opal” that tastes like licorice flavored cough syrup. I suggest avoiding it at all costs. There is also sweet licorice candy and salty (e.g. double salt Dutch style type) licorice candy. Apparently Icelanders like licorice as much as the Dutch, so beware.

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