Iceland - a brief trip report

Old Jul 1st, 2015, 10:50 AM
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Iceland - a brief trip report

Mr frogoutofwater and I just got back from a 10-day trip to Iceland. We timed it so that we could participate in the Suzuki Midnight Run on June 23 (1/2 marathon, 10K and 5K) and the main focus of trip, other than that race was photography.

This isn't a structured trip report, but rather a short list of tips and impressions.

1. This is an extraordinarily, ridiculously, simply stunning beautiful country. No matter where you are, there is something beautiful just in front of you, behind you, or at your feet.

2. I'm still uploading photos from the trip to my gallery, but you can have a look here. I'll add that I take really boring landscape photos, so that's something I tried to work on Iceland, but as you'll see the gallery is full of cute animals instead.

http://www.frogoutofwater.ca/Portfol.../Iceland-2015/

3. I knew it was silly to try to see everything in a short trip, so I organized a two-location trip for a 9-night/10 day vacation. We spent 5 nights based in Reykjavik, using Hilton points to stay at the very nice Hilton just on the edge of the city center – that saved us a bucket of money, especially because I have Diamond status and so we got free breakfast and free happy hour snacks (which sometimes served as dinner) in the Executive Lounge. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have such a long stay in the capital of a country like this, but we had the race scheduled on the 3rd night, so the 5-night stay made sense logistically. Then we picked up a 4x4 and drove to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (western Iceland) and stayed in a B&B in Stykkisholmur for 3 nights, then returned for a final night at the Hilton before heading home. It only takes about 2.5 hours to drive from Reykjavik to Stykkisholmur, so my itinerary (booked far in advance) gave us the flexibility to decide on the spur of the moment where to spend our travel days. For example, we could have explored the road toward Akureyri more if we wanted to, either on our drive to or from Stykkisholmur, or doubled back to see certain sights more than once.

4. We booked (at the last minute) a day trip from Reykjavik to Akureyri (northern Iceland) and did that on our 2nd day. We took an 8 am flight there (40 minutes gate-to-gate, from the local airport 10 minutes’ drive from our hotel) and an 8 pm flight home, and arranged a private tour with Saga Travel (which was expensive but worth it). If I were starting my travel planning from scratch (and didn't plan the trip around the race), I would have had us stay in Reykjavik for 3-4 nights, then do two days in Akureyri (fly up early one day, stay the night and fly back the next day and then drive to our next destination). We also organized a day trip (with a photography instructor/driver) to the South Coast on our last day in Reykjavik (after the half-marathon).

5. Flying out of the domestic airport is about as complicated as catching an airport express bus. We showed up at 6:55 am for our 8 am flight (because I thought check-in closed 30 minutes before departure), but the airport wasn’t even open yet. Check-in started at 30 minutes before departure.

6. It takes less time to deplane and get a taxi at the Reykjavik domestic airport than to exit a subway station in New York.

7. Next time, we will rent a camper van for 3-5 days to explore a region – possibly flying to that region and driving back to Reykjavik. We missed seeing the Westfjords, the central highlands and the far east. It also would be interesting to do a short trip to the Westman Islands (without a car).

8. Bring a wide-brimmed hat with a bug net that fits over it, especially if you visit the area around Akureyri. The bugs don’t seem to bite but they swarm.

9. It was really interesting to be there at midsummer, but it’s also peak season in terms of pricing. Next time, we probably will visit later in the summer, when the days are a bit shorter but the roads still passable. It’s a bit riskier (weather-wise) to book travel much earlier than early June (if you want to get into the wilderness) because if spring is late (as it was this year), a lot of the roads won’t be open. Even at mid-summer this year, some of the roads are still blocked by snow. So we’re thinking that August or even right around US Labor Day could be better timing for us. At that time, there should be lovely light (for photography) after dinner but before my bedtime. (We didn't take full advantage of the midnight sun to pursue photo expeditions because I usually wanted to fall asleep by then.)

10. Probably the single most enjoyable hour we experienced as the puffin cruise with Laki Tours, based in Grundarfjörður. We saw puffins (at a distance) during our trip to the South Coast earlier in the week, but puffins are tiny, live on cliffs, fly very fast and don't come home until around 9 pm or later, so they were hard to photograph. Our 8 pm boat cruise (about 90 minutes) took us very close to the cliffs on a nearby island where puffins, cormorants and other birds roost, so we were able to get a close look at the right time of day. If you want to see puffins, book the evening cruise. The Laki tours office also incorporates a good cafe (with happy hour drinks) and surprisingly excellent pizza

11. I had waterproof hiking boots (essential) with good traction (also essential) but very little ankle support (a mistake – but they were the only shoes that fit my messed up feet).

12. The wind can knock you off your feet – or, as we learned (at great expense), rip your car doors off. And there’s no insurance for wrecking your doors due to wind damage. So, in the same way that you train yourself to look both ways before crossing the street (or to check for cyclists before opening a car door), you need to train yourself (and everyone in your car) to hold tightly to the car door as you open it, especially if your car is tilted forward or to one side. We wrecked a door on our final day and the bill for the repairs was USD $1,000.

13. Clothing and gear: We expected temperatures in the 40-60F range, and were prepared for 30F-70F. We got beautiful weather, and our estimates of the temperature were about right. Everyone says pack layers for Iceland, and so we did. To deal with variable outdoor conditions, I brought the following: 2 pairs of Eddie Bauer's winter Travex pants (stretchy with fleece lining and great cargo pockets), a couple of long-sleeved burnout tshirts and a couple of midweight technical shirts, a running jacket that has a padded front and single layer sleeves, an LL Bean lightweight poly-filled puffy jacket, a Marmot spring/fall poly-filled mid-thigh parka, a waterproof jacket and a pair of waterproof overpants. I didn't need the waterproof jacket and pants. If necessary, I could have worn the other three jackets one on top of the other (running jacket, LL Bean jacket, Marmot parka). But because the weather was fairly warm, I generally wore the Marmot parka but put the LL Bean jacket in the car (to layer underneath when it was cold in the evening or to wear alone when it was warm in the afternoon). Fleece gloves, fleece earmuffs and a fleece neck gaiter were added occasionally (during evening photo shoots in the wind).

14. We also enjoyed our short sojourns on Flatey Island (near Stykkisholmur) and Videy Island (near Reykjavik).

15. Budget an hour more than you think you need to fly out of Iceland, if your flight leaves between 2 and 6 pm. Check-in was fast because were in Saga (business) class, but then we spent an hour lining up for security, an unpleasant surprise after the easy processes we had arriving in Iceland and on our day trip to Akureyri.

16. It's mandatory (ha ha) to visit the Blue Lagoon before you leave Iceland. We went on our way home, but if I were doing it again, I'd stop on our way from the airport, since we arrived early and our room wasn't likely to be ready at 8 am. Another reason I'd go to the Blue Lagoon on arrival is because the mineral water leaves your skin feeling a bit weird and it was a bit hard to get my hair feeling clean, and I didn't particularly like those sensations on my long trip home. We booked the "comfort" package (60 euros, one step up from the basic package) but when we arrived there was an incredibly long line (and no line for the "premium" package, which got us a free drink, a bathrobe and slippers, in addition to the towel we got with our "comfort" package), so we upgraded to premium and skipped the line.
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Old Jul 1st, 2015, 12:31 PM
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Hi frog, not bad for a 'brief" TR, but full of interesting detail, so thanks.

Do try to get back to see the Western Fjords [possibly one of the best experiences I've had - lying on the edge of a cliff watching a puffin looking back up at me was mind-blowing] and the Western isles, though only try the latter if you don't mind small, [and I mean small] planes.

personally I wouldn't bother with the blue Lagoon at all, but I can see its attraction in winter. and by the sound of it the price has increased mightily - I'm sure we didn't pay anything like that, and wouldn't have done for 4 of us.
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Old Jul 1st, 2015, 12:40 PM
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The photos are great!! Cute animals are always a bonus

The wind wrecking your car door was terrible bad luck!! But it sounds like all in all it was a pretty memorable experience. I'll definitely make a note of your tips on hiking boots and clothing and gear, it's tiny details like these that can sometimes put a damper on an otherwise perfectly fine trip - being prepared pays off.
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Old Jul 1st, 2015, 01:40 PM
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Here is some more gear information (what was in my camera bags - plural):

Camera backpack (also my carryon) - Lowepro Photosport 200AW: I love this bag because it's one of the lightest bags out there for the volume it carries, it has a good padded side-access chamber for camera gear plus a top compartment for other stuff, a raincover, a back compartment that will hold a 12" laptop (and your passport), good shoulder straps and a hipstrap.

Camera shoulder bag - Tamrac Aria 6 (also doubles as a purse): When I had access to a car, I would put the "back-up" gear in the backpack and the camera, spare lens and basic equipment (rocket blower, filters, brush etc) in the Tamrac. I'd switch out gear from the backpack to the bag depending on the scene. This kept the load light (I have a very bad back), while still enabling me to bring everything with me.

Cameras: Two Pentax K-3s (DSLRs) - main camera and back-up. The two lenses I used the most were a 55-300 weather-resistant zoom lens and a 10-17 mm fish eye lens (those photos in my gallery with distorted proportions that make the earth look curved are taken with the fish-eye). I also brought a 200mm f/2.8, a 77mm f 1.8, a 50mm macro, an 18-135 weather-resistant zoom, and a 1.4 teleconverter. I used these occasionally. The next time I go back, I will bring my very large 150-400 Sigma zoom for the birds. And someone to carry it for me.

Manfrotto tripod (which I only used once - I hate hauling out a tripod, even when my husband is carrying it).

Really useful accessories:
- a neutral density filter to make it possible to use a slow shutter speed to photograph waterfalls;
-regular UV filters on any lens that would take them (to protect them from stuff being blown around in the air, as happens in Iceland);
- Giotto rocket blower (to blow dust off the lenses)
- Brush (to brush dust off the lens)
- Nikon moist lens cleaning cloths (a recent discovery - I love these things)
- Camera rain covers (although we didn't end up needing them)
- 3 batteries
- a high-speed card reader for downloading images
- a back-up hard drive (as well as my regular portable hard drive) to make copies of my files
- grey and white cards to help set the white balance

Guidebooks
- Sarah Marino and Rob Coscorrosa's ebook, Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Iceland, is inspiring and very practical.
- Photographer's Map of Iceland, a sturdy, water-proof map with lots of photogenic sights marked on it
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Old Jul 1st, 2015, 02:23 PM
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Great tips! I leave in just over two weeks for a 16 day trip around the Ring Road. I'm also a photographer, though not quite as serious as you. I do have a neutral density filter, for exactly that reason, as my Panasonic FZ-150 doesn't have manual shutter speed. I always keep a UV filter on my lens, for the same reason. I usually go to Ireland, which is also very windy.

Fantastic shots! I loved the one with the bird skipping across the water.
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Old Jul 2nd, 2015, 10:53 AM
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I love all the photos - some wonderful shots.

GD - A friend just got back from Iceland and was surprised by 2 things - the heat and the blue lupins. And it was very expensive.
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Old Jul 2nd, 2015, 07:46 PM
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We are hoping to go in August 2016 for a 'milestone' birthday celebration. Thanks for the tips.
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Old Jul 5th, 2015, 05:58 AM
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Bookmarking
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Old Jul 5th, 2015, 07:56 AM
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Breathtaking photos! Loved all the animal ones. I wonder what the sticks were in the bucket....anyone know?
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Old Jul 7th, 2015, 08:31 AM
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The sticks are "tern sticks". You hold them above your head because the dive-bombing terns will aim for the highest head in the group (or stick), so it reduces the chance of them pecking your head.

We bought our "tern stick" on Flatey Island from an enterprising couple of little girls. They had set up their stand about 100 yards past a point on the path where many of the Flatey Island daytrippers had just been dive-bombed by terns, who are fiercely protecting their nests and the nests of other bird species.

The sticks cost about $3.50 and were nicely "branded", with the words "Flatey Island 2015" and the girls' initials.
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Old Jul 7th, 2015, 09:45 AM
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Very interesting - and what a useful souvenir! Those are a couple of very smart little girls.
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Old Jul 10th, 2015, 05:07 PM
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Thank you! The specific clothing advice is very helpful, but in all the research I've done yours is the only trip report I've read that warns about the wind and car doors. Now I'll know to be vigilant!
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