Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice

Old Aug 25th, 2016, 06:41 AM
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Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice

We just spent a week in Iceland and what an unforgettable trip! What an amazingly beautiful and unspoiled place! At every turn there was a new, more gorgeous vista. There are so many different types of typography: mountains, valleys, glaciers, beaches, moss-covered lava fields, geothermal hot springs and serene farmland. There is something for everyone (except for warm weather).

Sorry for the long report, but just wanted include details that might be helpful!

First I will start off by saying, if you can stay away from flying out of or through NYC, do it! We have been screwed by New York several times now. It always seems the flights are messed up, or delayed, etc. We were on Delta, and all the New York flights from Raleigh to JFK and LGA were either heavily delayed or canceled (supposedly due to weather, but that remains to be confirmed). We were one of the only flights that evening that actually got out, albeit 3 hours late, causing us to miss our connection to Iceland and delaying our trip by a full 24 hours (Iceland is a hard place to get to, with very few flights). But, it was worth the wait (we got a fun day in Brooklyn, however it was in the worst heat wave they have had in years, and we were in our toasty Iceland clothing because our bags were stuck at the airport).

Saturday, August 13th
We finally took of from JFK to KEF, after a 24-hour plus 2.5-hour delay. Man, overnight flights are the worst. Only 5:15 from JFK, but got all of 2 hours of sleep that night.

Sunday, August 14th
We arrive at 9:00 am pretty exhausted but excited for our adventure. The customs agent was the first to wish me a happy birthday.

We had to juggle our plans after the kafuffle with the flights. While stuck in New York, we called the Stracta Hotel in Hella and they kindly let us cancel Saturday night with no fee. We also got in touch with Eskimos travel agency, who booked our three tours, and they arranged to have our tour guide for Sunday pick us up at the airport, instead of at the hotel in Hella, as scheduled. They were great, and had Karl waiting for us with a sign as we got through customs (very easy, quick process, BTW). We also purchased some wine and small amount of liquor at duty-free because we read it is hard and very expensive to buy in general. More on that later.

The weather was drizzly and chilly, temperature of about 56 degrees F, but felt colder with the rain and no sun. Layering is the name of the game here. And a waterproof shell is a necessity as the weather is unpredictable. Sunny in one spot and rainy in another!

Karl was going to take us on the South Coast tour. Leaving the airport we drove by the rocky black lava fields that reminded me a lot of driving on the Big Island of Hawaii. Karl was a geologist by trade and gave us really great insight on the geological wonders of the island. Very interesting, but on 2-hours of sleep, we were trying not to nod off on our long day of driving. We drove about 1.5 hours and stopped for lunch at a gas station in Hvolsvollur. This sounds odd, but once you have driven around, it doesn’t. Outside of Reykjavik the towns are VERY sparse and not much to them at all. Most of the towns have a gas station where you can use the restroom and get a good cup of coffee and a bowl of “meat soup” which is actually a delicious soup with lamb, potatoes, carrots, onions, etc. It hit the spot on the cold rainy day! Highly recommend this dish while you there. You can find it lots of places.

We then hit the road and made a short stop at Sólheimajökull glacier tongue where we got a great look at the amazing glacier. We then drove down to Dyrhólaey; a really cool rock arch inhabited by numerous types of birds, including the puffin, and beautiful black sand beaches with the ocean waves beating the shore of Reynisfjara beach. We then continued on a little ways to see the rock formations of Reynisdrangar with its amazing basalt columns. On the way back, we hit Skógarfoss waterfall…make sure you have your rain jackets on for this one…the mighty waterfall will spray you. Karl had great advice…walk backward when you are leaving to avoid getting your butt wet so you can sit in the car without feeling too soggy!

We headed back to the Hotel Stracta in Hella, barely able to keep our eyes open. This hotel was nice, but the room (which was a very nice suite because that was all they had left when I booked months before) was WAY overpriced, but it is the high season and rooms are scarce. It had a private outdoor hot tub, which we soaked in and then headed to the dining room for my birthday dinner. They have a dinner buffet, which gave us a nice sampling of some traditional Icelandic food. Not able to stay awake any longer, I passed out early and got a good 10 hours of needed sleep.

Monday, August 15th
I believe there may have been a mis-communication at Eskimos, because a new guide was supposed to pick us up at 9am, but he didn’t come in until 9:45 and it was Karl again, who was supposed to be leading a foreign geological team out west, but he said it was cancelled due to heavy rains. Still haven’t figured how that all went down when we set this up months ago. But Karl was very informative and we learned so much from him. So today he was taking us on a tour of the famous Golden Circle and then dropping us at the end of the day at our hotel in Reykjavik.

First stop was the highly active geothermal area and home of Geysir, the “original” geyser. She is inactive at the moment (however Karl told us that they have had several 6+ magnitude earthquakes in the past few years and she always reawakens after that, for a little bit. Next to her is a very active geyser, Strokkur, that erupts every 10 minutes or so. It was exciting to watch it bubble and try and predict when it was going to blow! This was a cool area in general with lots of steam vents and bubbling pools of water.

A few minutes’ drive away took us to Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall. This was an awesome waterfall, thundering down into an impressive canyon. We were hoping to see the famed rainbow in the mist, but because it was a gray drizzly day, we didn’t see it. We had lunch in the visitor’s center there…more lamb soup (which you could get refills on!) and we split a smoked salmon bagel. We then headed to Þingvellir (Thingvellir to us non-Icelanders) National Park. This was a truly special place…the only place in the world where tectonic plates can be seen above sea level. You can see splits in the ground all over the place and a large ridge which is actually the edge of the American plate, and across a large valley another ridge which is the European plate. It was gray so we couldn’t see all the way across the mid-section, but it was amazingly beautiful regardless. You can even snorkel or scuba dive down in one of the faults…it looked cold and scary, so I was happy to be on the (somewhat) dry land watching them. A 45-minute drive after we were done there got to us Reykjavik by about 4pm and we checked in to the Hotel Borg and said goodbye to Karl. Time to explore!

We walked around the waterfront area, which is really cute and then found a gastro-pub for some good Icelandic beers for happy hour and some interesting bites…horse carpaccio and Minke whale. The horse tasted just like beef…perhaps a tad bit “gamier”. The Minke whale was surprising. It was like seared beef on the outside and a rare tuna on the inside. Very good. They insist there is an overpopulation of these whales with no danger of over fishing. I think tourists are the only ones who order this because our waiter was coyly smiling as we made our order. Well, Karl said he loves it and his son asks his dad to make it at home. So there. We then strolled along the pedestrian road, Laugavegur, which is a great street with lots of restaurants and shopping. The sky cleared up and sun actually came out so we decided to go to the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church and ride up the elevator to the top of the steeple and get some photos of the city. Definitely try to do this on a clear day…the views were amazing! For dinner we just walked in to an awesome little place called Smakkbarrin, which serves small little Icelandic tapas. We tried 8 things, including the infamous hakarl, which is fermented shark. We chased it with their local Brennavin, which is also nicknamed “Black Death”. Both weren’t as bad as I was expecting, but let’s just say that is the last time I ate or drank those. We got back to our hotel around 11pm and the sun was just setting. Great day in Iceland!

Tuesday, August 16th
Today was a free day in Reykjavik. We slept in, which is a luxury when you have two small kids. We then strolled around outside and found Reykjavik Roasters, which was recommended by a friend and it was the best latte I’ve ever had. So good. It was worth the walk over (it was a 15-minute walk from our hotel). We walked in to Around Iceland shop on the Laugavegur and had the very friendly Ellie book a snowmobiling trip and hire a car for us for Thursday. Then we headed back to the waterfront and had to try the famous hot dog at Baejarins Betzu Pylsur. You usually order it with the works…mustard (which is like a honey mustard), ketchup, remoulade, raw onions and fried onions. It was good, but I haven’t had a hot dog in several years and not really that big of a fan in general. Still, worth it though! We then walked over and shared an order of fish (cod) and chips at the Icelandic Fish and Chips Wagon in the harbor. It was very good…very crispy and flavorful. We went back to the hotel and got our swimsuits and walked about 20 minutes to one of the Iceland’s outdoor swimming pools which are extremely popular with the locals. We went to Vesturbaejarlaug, which has a large lap pool, a shallow area for kid, a large hot tub, a cold tub and several small, super hot tubs, as well as a steam room. The whole thing is geothermally heated. Cool experience.

After that we went back to the hotel and got dressed for dinner at the awesome Seafood Grille (Sjávargrillið). This was a great restaurant. We splurged on the 8 course, Iceland Grill Party tasting menu. It was a great sampling of tons of Iceland food and it was insanely good…and filling. Lots of food beautifully presented. Fat and happy after that 3-hour meal, we headed back to the hotel to rest up for our tour the next day.

Wednesday, August 17th
Today we took a Super Jeep tour, booked through Eskimos, to Þórsmörk (Thorsmork, or Valley of Thor). We headed out in our big SUV with very large tires, driven by our guide, Fjolnir. This unbelievably gorgeous valley is located in between the three glaciers Mýrdalsjökull, Tindfjallajökull and Eyjafjallajökull (the one that erupted in 2010). We drove on the 4-wheel drive road and splashed through rivers and just looked at the amazing scenery. Like nothing I have seen before. We stopped at the base of one of the Eyjafjallajökull tongues and hiked around a little bit to get some great views. It was possible to cross the river to get right up to it, but we chickened out because our guide wasn’t with us and it was a little dicey and slippery looking with some swift water. We then kept driving taking in the amazing views. On the way back we stopped at a “secret waterfall”. You have to hike into the rocks about 15 minutes and there is a beautiful waterfall at the end. Fun. On the way back we stopped at the last of the 3 most famous waterfalls in Iceland, Seljalandsfoss, which is cool because you can walk behind it and get a much different view of the falls. We headed back to R. after this. What a great trip and the weather cooperated beautifully!

For a little snack, we hit the Public House gastropub and got smoked arctic char and some reindeer tataki. Both great. We hit a happy hour at Kaffibarrin and then at a place called Kaldi Bar, that was almost all locals coming for a drink after work. It was a cool spot just off the Laugavegur…look for a crowd out the door.

For dinner we were kind of tired of Icelandic, so found a really tiny noodle shop serving Tibetan food near the waterfront called ramen momo and had a great meal there and talked to the super-friendly guy who worked there.

Thursday, August 18th
Today the rental car agency, Go Iceland, picked us up at the hotel and drove us 20 minutes to their store to pick up our 4-wheel drive car. We decided to keep it 2 days because even with the steep price of 200 Euro a day, it was pretty comparible and WAY more convenient than taking public transport all the places we wanted to go the last two days. We left out in our little Suzuki Jimny and headed for Langjökull glacier to go snowmobiling. We stopped in Selfoss, probably the only other town in the south that amounted to more than a few homes, a gas station and maybe another restaurant. We found a place called Yellow for lunch and had a great grilled chicken and brown rice bowl with a double latte. Yum. We then headed up to the glacier. We had to drive about half the way on gravel roads, so the 4x4 came in handy! We finally got to base camp number two with not a minute to spare and got suited up with the folks at Mountaineers of Iceland. We hopped on this crazy monster bus and crawled at about 5-10 MPH up to the glacier. We got on our snowmobiles and followed the guide up the glacier. The weather was pretty clear, with small patches of drizzle. It was truly and unforgettable experience. It was a different world up there. There were white/blue ice fields with black ash from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull on top. It was silent and no one up there except our group and a few other random snowmobilers. We got to a snowcap and were able to do some fun driving and stopped for some photos. It was pretty cold up there so it was good they gave you the equipment they did. It was a really cool experience and something I will never forget. After about 2 hours we headed in. After we got back on the road…the weather was amazing. Sunny, and just about 60. We decided to drive back through Gulfoss to see if we could glimpse the famous rainbow in the falls…and we did! It was cool! Then we stopped in the town of Fludir where the “Secret Lagoon” is. The Secret Lagoon is not really a secret. There were many people there and cost like $22 each to get into. It also had nice locker rooms/showers and drinks available for purchase. But it was worth it and really cool. There is steam everywhere from the natural hot springs all around that feed the lagoon. It was super relaxing and we had nice conversations with some other folks who were vacationing from Canada and the States. Definitely worth a 2-hour stop. It was starting to get late and we had a 9pm dinner reservation back in R., but it was so gorgeous out, we decided to stop quickly back at Thingvellir to get some clear shots of the valley because we loved it so much before, in the gray. It turned out to be the best idea…the sun was starting to set and all the tourists had gone. We basically had the park to ourselves and we got some absolutely gorgeous views and photos. Unforgettable. After that, we hauled ass back to R. and made incredible time, getting to our reservation at Matur og Drykkur (Food and Drink) in 35 minutes, only 10 minutes late (which our table wasn’t even ready yet!). We went in our outdoorsy clothes because we didn’t have time to change, but turned out it was totally fine…the restaurant was casual, but the food was amazing. We started with the trout smoked in sheep’s dung (I NEVER thought I would order this, but they just use dried bricks of dung instead of charcoal to smoke it, because they have it in abundance, and have done it that way for centuries) and also had the salted cod fritters. Both were great. I had the roast lamb and Sully had the pan-fried cod and both were beyond excellent. We each had a craft cocktail, which were fabulous. Overall it was a great, fun place (full of hipsters). Amazing day.

Friday, August 19th
We slept in once more and then walked around looking for a brunch place. We settled a place on the Laugavegur called Le Bistro, which was obviously a French place, but had a good selection of Icelandic food as well, and we both had great brunch platters. We actually even sat outside because it was sunny and it was fun people watching.

For our last adventurous excursion we drove over to Mt. Esja, which is the flat top looking mountain you look out on from Reykjavik. It was about a 10-15 minute drive from the hotel. It has a lot of different hikes, some hard, some easy. We actually took a wrong turn and did a much harder one than we had decided it, but it was good exercise and afforded much better views than we would have gotten otherwise. It was a GORGEOUS day and I was peeling off layers. There were some locals that were running with shorts and short sleeves! We did about 1.5 hours total and then said goodbye to Reykjavik and headed for the Blue Lagoon, which is back towards the airport, about 30-40 minutes away.

We checked in to the Silica hotel, right next to the Blue Lagoon at about 4pm. This was a super cool hotel--very modern and our view looked over the awesome moss-covered lava field. The hotel has it’s own private lagoon and also includes a basic ticket into the Blue Lagoon. We got on our suits and made the nice 5-10 minute walk over to the Blue Lagoon. The crowds were starting to filter out so we got in, got a towel and robe and showered and hit the lagoon. It’s very cool…pretty water and a very nice temp…and the day was sunny and amazing, so bonus there. There is a swim up bar so you can have some cold beverages. There is also a kiosk where you can get some silica mud to apply a mud mask. That felt good on your face and has anti-inflammatory properties (or so my Dermatologist told me!). We spent about 2 hours there (that is really all you need!) and headed back to the hotel by 7:30. We got right in our hotel’s lagoon because there was an unbelievable sunset happening and we got a glass of wine and soaked in their lagoon (which I honestly enjoyed more than the Blue Lagoon…hardly anyone in there, and soft, squishy silica mud on the bottom). We got out so we could grab dinner in the hotel restaurant (which oddly closes at 9…there is NOWHERE else to eat except the Blue Lagoon, but that restaurant, Lava, closes at 9:30 as well, and the sun doesn’t totally set until 11ish). We had a good and quick meal with spotty service by the one, clearly overwhelmed dude that was working there, and went back in our private lagoon for another hour of relaxation before our early flight the next morning! It was the perfect, restful end to an awesome week!

Saturday, August 20th
We found out our flight was an hour and half late so we got to sleep a tad bit longer than we thought, and had the included breakfast at the hotel, which was great. We then drove the 15-20 minutes to the airport. We dropped the car at the rental place and waited about 10 minutes for the shuttle bus over to the terminal (could have walked…was like 4 minutes!). The line to check in for Delta was REALLY long and REALLY slow. We waited about an hour+ in that line. Once we got to the counter it was no problem and security was super fast and efficient and customs was no problem at all. So really the bottleneck was Delta. But we did have to rush to the gate which was actually a 15 minute walk. We only waited about 5 minutes at the gate before boarding. They also have a very nice duty-free shop where you can find things cheaper than anywhere else, so buy your souvenirs and liquor here! We took off with no problem and the last little amazing surprise: flying over Greenland on a clear day…we saw the most magnificent icebergs, glaciers and mountains that were clearly visible from my window seat (right-hand side of the plane). It was an awesome view. Such an unforgettable amazing trip we had!

Ok, here are some general thoughts and comments about Iceland.
- We went in August…temps were highs of 58F and lows around 50F. In the cloudy rain, this felt colder than I thought, and in the sun, it felt warmer. Again, layering is key! And don’t forget rain jacket!
- The country in general is very casual. Most people are walking around in their outdoorsy clothes. Even at the nice restaurants, it wasn’t very fancy. I wore black jeans and a nice shirt and was about right or even dressier than some. Don’t worry about bringing a bunch of nice clothes.
- Iceland is VERY expensive. We do a lot of traveling and have been to countries around the world and this was about the highest we have experienced. Food and drink was super high. About $10-20 USD for a beer on average and liquor drinks start at $20. We did both high end restaurants and low key little pubs, and everything seemed expensive. Even a sandwich on the street or a bowl of “meat soup” at a gas station was $12-15 USD!
- There are happy hours everywhere around Reykjavik where certain drinks are 50% off or whatever deal they have. This is really worth finding, because as I stated…drinks are very expensive!
- Transportation is also very expensive. Just taking the bus from the airport to Reykjavik was going to be $60-$80 per couple. A taxi would have been $140 USD.
- I would highly recommend renting a car for the length of your stay. This cuts out the transport to and from the airport and also can cut down other costs of transport for any excursions you do. The roads are great and they drive on the same side as us Americans do. Everyone speaks English…it was easy! And it gives you the freedom to do what you want, when you want.
- That being said, I do highly recommend you taking at least one Super Jeep tour where you get in a big 4x4 and the driver takes you on roads you can’t do with regular cars. It is so fun and a cool to see places you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. We did Thorsmork, but they go to all different locations.
- If you do rent a car, make sure you have a credit card or ATM card with a pin number if you do self service and pay at the pump. After hours this is required. During the day if you go into the service station and pay, I believe you can use a regular credit card.
- One tip, if you are driving and you are getting lower on gas and see a gas station…STOP and fill up. Sometimes the stations are very spaced out and towns are few and far between. Don’t say, oh we’ll stop at the next one cause it may be too late!
- Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. You really don’t need much cash, except for tips for any guides you have.
- For our last few trips, we have found the Galileo app for your phone extremely helpful. It costs $3.99 and then you just download any country(ies) you need. You can use it in offline mode and don’t need to use internet or wifi…GPS tracks where you are. We used it the whole time to navigate and just to see where we were! It is great.
- The Icelandic language is beyond difficult. It is impossible to understand names of things…even if you ask to repeat. And hearing it and then trying to find it on a map is impossible as well…the pronunciation usually sounds nothing like it looks! It’s crazy! Good luck!
- The Blue Lagoon does a number on your bathing suit and hair. My hair felt like straw for a few days after, and still hasn’t even fully recovered. Make sure you wash, condition and repeat after going in that water. Same with swimsuit.
- Get to the airport 2 hours in advance, as they suggest. Maybe you will get lucky, but Delta at least was a mess. Everything else was fine and efficient.
WilmingtonWoman is offline  
Old Aug 27th, 2016, 12:42 PM
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We just got back last night, so this was definitely fun to read! I'll be posting a trip report in the next few days. Sounds like you had a bad time with Delta. We flew Icelandair from Toronto - easy 5 hour flight and we were very happy with our choice.

Thanks for posting.
SusanInToronto is offline  
Old Aug 27th, 2016, 01:35 PM
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Hi WilmingtonWoman,

thanks for writing such a great TR - interesting that so little has changed since our visit about 10 years ago, including the prices! The only differences were that you had slightly cooler weather than us [we arrived at the end of July in a heat wave] and found generally better food than we did. [I'm pleased abut that!]
annhig is offline  
Old Aug 27th, 2016, 03:14 PM
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Great report! Thanks so much for posting.
Hobbert is offline  
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