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Trip Report Iceland Trip Report - Very Long!

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Iceland has been on my list of places to visit for probably 7 or 8 years. I’m not sure why we didn’t go before, but there were always other trips that came up. Finally I said we’re going. I was celebrating my 65th birthday in August, and I wanted to do it in Iceland! I still work 3 days a week (gearing up to retirement) and I figured it’s time to do it.

I started making the arrangements in late 2015. I considered Wow Airlines, but I liked the schedule on Icelandair better (there were 2 flights a day) and when I added in the extra costs with Wow, we weren’t going to save very much. (The really cheap fares were already gone.) The flight from Toronto takes ~ 5 hours and we were due to arrive around 11:30 PM. I definitely liked that idea better than arriving early in the morning. So Icelandair was our choice.

Accommodation
I didn’t like having to make itinerary decisions so far in advance, but I know that Iceland is very popular. We would have 11 nights (including the night that we arrived) and I considered doing the Ring Road, but in the end we decided that we didn’t want to change accommodation every night. I decided on 2 nights in Hveragerði, 2 in Vik, 3 in Borgarnes, and 3 in Reykjavik. Our first night, of course, would be spent near Keflavik. I booked everything through AirBnB. I was a little worried when I heard about the crackdown in Iceland, but all of the places were fine. For our 11 nights, we spent a little over $2,200 CAD, with Keflavik being the least expensive and Vik the most expensive.

In Keflavik, my main criterion was a place that would pick us up at midnight. Our host was at the airport to meet us and drove us to his B&B that has 2 bedrooms and a shared bathroom in a clean and modern home in Keflavik. The rooms were on a lower level where there was a kitchen and breakfast (bread, cheese, meat, skyr, etc.) was left in the fridge for us to get the next morning. I’d definitely recommend it for a stopover.

Our second place was just outside of Hveragerði, and is owned by Inge, a ceramicist. The house is gorgeous. I could live there – lovely Scandinavian décor and it’s filled with her work as well as that of other artists. She rents 3 rooms and there are 1 ½ bathrooms. (The main bathroom is huge.) There is also a hot tub and pretty patio area, although the weather wasn’t conducive to being outdoors when we were there. Breakfast was extra (1,500 ISK each), but was worth it, I think, with an egg dish, cheese, sausage, pastries, cereal, and so on. Inge’s studio is a separate room in the house. I ended up buying a piece of her work – she’s a wonderful artist and great host. Inge also has a sweet little terrier called Bruce Willis. We really enjoyed our time here.

Our place in Vik was the Kosy Vik Guesthouse, owned by Hrund. There are 2 rooms for rent on the lower floor. The room with 2 beds is small, but comfortable enough, and has a private bathroom. There is also a coffee maker and a kettle in the room to make tea. Hrund is an excellent host. She had lots of ideas on where to go and what to see. When she found out it was my birthday, she gave us a taste of hákarl (fermented shark) and brennevin – it was really sweet of her to do that! Breakfast was “picnic style” – Hrund prepares a basket (with skyr, crackers, bread, cheese, meat, fruit and her homemade jam) and leaves it in the fridge just outside the room.

In Borgarnes, we had a room in the home of Michelle, an artist originally from the US who has lived in a lot of different places around the world. We had a large bedroom, with a private half bath. The main bathroom is shared with the other guestroom. We had use of the kitchen and also the living room. The home has amazing views of the water and it’s located close to the Settlement Centre. There are 3 friendly indoor / outdoor cats (who are not allowed in the bedrooms). The house is also filled with Michelle’s art so it’s a very colourful interesting place. Michelle is a very good host and we were there 3 nights.

Our final place was the Hub in Reykjavik. It’s a studio located on the lower floor of a house on Mjóstræti, one of the oldest streets in the city. The area is apparently popular with artists and musicians. This place was perfect – it’s nicely decorated, there was lots of room, there was a washing machine (handy near the end of the trip), big bathroom and so on. We didn’t have a lot to do with Anna, the owner, but she seemed very pleasant and was there to meet us when we arrived. The location is perfect. The street is charming and we saw the walking tours showing off that street. It’s right around the corner from the Centre Hotel Plaza so very convenient for Flybus or tour pickups. We were there 3 nights and I’d highly recommend this place.

Car Rental
We rented a car for 8 days through Lagoon Car Rental. We had no problems with them at all, other than having to call them about our pickup from the Keflavik B&B. They said that they had come by and we weren’t there, which didn’t make sense, but they came quickly once I called them. (Good thing as it was pouring rain when they did finally pick us up.) We had booked a Toyota Auris automatic and all the insurance, plus a GPS and 1 additional driver (since we planned to share the driving). With the exchange rate, the total came to $1,600 CAD – crazy expensive! Anyway, we were upgraded to a large Mitsubishi 4X4, which didn’t cost us any more money, but it probably used more fuel (it used diesel).

We found the GPS to be useful. I had printed out maps and instructions from Google, I had maps.me on my phone, but it was still useful to have the GPS. We had no problems with the car at all, although it was definitely bigger than what I’m used to driving so that took some getting used to. (We drive a Subaru Forrester at home.) We dropped the car off in Reykjavik when we arrived, and were glad to be without it, especially in the area where we were staying. (Plus another 3 days would have been ridiculously expensive.) I’d say the only scary part was the tunnel outside of Reykjavik when we went to Borgarnes – it felt like we were driving forever through that tunnel!

Cash
I had gotten an Amazon Visa card (Chase) before I left, and we used that exclusively in Iceland. All of our cards use 4 digit pins in Canada, so I was used to that. I did get some cash from an ATM once to pay for a couple of purchases where the person preferred cash to credit card.

Clothing
I brought too much cold weather clothing, but I think we lucked out with the weather. I had tights to wear under pants and so on, but didn’t need them. I brought 2 pairs of Columbia Anytime Outdoor pants. They come in both bootleg and cropped straight leg. I’m 5’1”, so the cropped length was perfect for me, i.e., no hemming required and I like the skinny leg. I also had a fleece vest and a fairly light weight hoodie. I brought a light weight rain jacket, but didn’t use it. I also brought a longer Gore-Tex jacket with a hood that I bought years ago and hadn’t worn in almost as many years. It came in very handy. I had several long sleeved t-shirts as well as a couple of short sleeved t-shirts. I brought 1 casual dress that I wore with leggings when we went out to celebrate my birthday. For shoes, I wore a pair of Ecco Gore-Tex short boots that were extremely comfortable and good for the light weight “hiking” that we did. (I also brought along another pair of boots just in case I needed them.) I also brought a bathing suit, Turkish cotton bath towel and flipflops. I brought a pair of gloves and a headband for cold weather. I must admit I was tired of wearing black pants and boots by the time I got home! My husband tends to run a little cooler than I do, so he brought heavier clothing, and he wore everything that he brought.

Activities
I had worked out a fairly loose itinerary for us when I booked our accommodation. I kept it fairly loose – we don’t like to be on the go all the time, and I knew we’d need downtime.

To start, we drove the 427 to Hveragerði. Even though it takes a few more minutes than going through Reykjavik, I’d recommend that route. It’s really an easy drive and much more scenic. It was pouring when we picked up the car, so I was concerned about driving, but it was fine.
When we arrived, we planned to have lunch and then hike to the nearby geothermal pools, but unfortunately it was raining and it didn’t seem very appealing at the time. We drove to the parking lot which was filled with cars, so obviously there were a lot of other people who didn’t feel the same as us.

We did our own Golden Circle tour from Hveragerði, taking in Þingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir. Þingvellir was a lot more interesting that I thought it would be. I was totally captivated by the colour of the moss on the lava rocks and the whole area was quite beautiful. Plus there’s the historic side of it, and I wasn’t familiar with that at all. Yes, there were a lot of tourists, but I enjoyed it. Gullfoss is lovely, but to be honest, waterfalls have only limited appeal for us (and living in Toronto, we’ve been to Niagara Falls several times and it’s much larger). We also planned to go to the Secret Lagoon or Fontana spa at the end of that day, but John forgot our bag with our swimsuits back at the B&B and only remembered that when we got to Þingvellir. I was not a happy camper that day, believe me! We weren’t going to the Blue Lagoon, so I had been looking forward to this for quite a while. And given the fact that we hadn’t been able to go to the geothermal pool the previous day, well …… One saving grace was lunch at Friðheimar Farm. I had made a 3 PM reservation, and was glad I had – several people were turned away when they didn’t have a reservation. (More about it later.)

The next day, we left our car on the mainland and caught the noon ferry at Landeyjahöfn to Heimaey on the Westman Islands. The weather was perfect and we really enjoyed the day. The ferry takes about 35 minutes and we left our car on the mainland. We had booked a 2 ½ hour bus tour ($58 CAD each) with Viking Tours, and I’d highly recommend them. There were 2 other couples on the tour. Our guide Alfred was excellent. He’s from the island, and he was 14 when the volcano erupted in 1973 and they were evacuated from the island, so he had some very interesting stories. We were fortunate to see lots of puffins, which was something we both wanted to see. I had no idea about the history of the island, and it was an interesting informative tour. For lunch, I had booked Gott, which is a very good restaurant (more later). We did a bit of wandering around and I bought a scarf at Gallery Tyrkja Gudda, which is a nice little wool shop. We caught the ferry back to the mainland and continued on to Vik.

Vik is a nice little town, quite picturesque (the view from the church is lovely), and that’s where I celebrated my birthday. I had originally planned a trip to Jokusarlon, but when I thought about it, I realized I didn’t want to spend my birthday in a car. Instead, we decided to pass on Jokusarlon and we drove to where the glacier tours depart and we walked to the glacier. We didn’t walk on the glacier – that’s not safe – but we got up close and that was cool. We then drove to Seljavallalaug, apparently one of the oldest geothermal pools in Iceland. It’s definitely not the Blue Lagoon, but it involves a 20 – 25 minute walk from where you park, so there are no tour buses. It’s rustic and the bottom of the pool is kind of slimy (that’s why we brought flipflops) and there are no facilities but it was really cool to see it and get in the water. It’s not for everyone, but we loved it! My birthday was a total success!

The next day, we drove back across the south to Borgarnes. Along the way, we stopped at the black sand beach outside of Vik (which is really a black pebble beach) and saw more puffins and the amazing basalt columns. It’s quite beautiful and worth seeing. We also stopped at a waterfall and I’m forgetting the name right now – maybe it was Seljalandfoss or Skogafoss?

We had some time when we got to Borgarnes before we could check in at our next AirBnB, so we decided to do as the Icelanders do and head to the local pool. That was an excellent decision! I really enjoyed the pool – there’s an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, 4 hot pots (or whatever they are called) and a pool with water slides. The weather was lovely and we totally felt revitalized. The pool is 600 ISK each and you are provided with a token so that you can lock your locker. We ended up at the pool twice while we were there.

The next day, we had booked the Víðgelmir cave tour ($70 CAD each), which is the largest lava cave in Iceland. It’s quite amazing and also quite cold (0 Celsius in the cave), so you need to dress appropriately. The young guide (coincidentally from the Westman Islands) is a glacier geology student, so very knowledgeable. We did the 1 ½ hour tour, which is billed as being “family friendly” although there’s also a 4 hour tour for more adventurous people. (Family friendly was enough for me. Has anyone else seen “The Descent”? The scariest movie I’ve ever seen …..) Parts of the cave are fairly narrow, so I suppose it could be a problem if you’re claustrophobic. The drive to the cave is mostly on paved roads, with only the last part on gravel roads. After the cave tour, we drove to Husafell and saw the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls.

The following day, we drove the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, heading from Borgarnes to Arnarstapi (absolutely beautiful place to stop), through the park and Hellisandur and Olafsvik and finally to Stykkishólmur. We stopped in a few places to take pictures, including one spot where we thought we’d blow off the cliff. In Stykkishólmur, of course we walked up to the church, which we both thought was beautiful both inside and outside. I love the simplicity inside. I bought another small piece of ceramics at Leir 7, where they use local clay. (This was another shop where I could have bought several pieces if I had room in my luggage and my budget!)

The next day, we drove back to Reykjavik for our final 3 nights. We were able to find our AirBnB fairly easily and managed to drop off our luggage before returning the car to Lagoon.

We didn’t have anything planned for that first day, other than exploring on our own. I considered trying to do the free walking tour in the afternoon, but it would have been too much of a rush to get there for the start. (Later, when we saw the crowds doing the walking tour, we were glad we hadn’t gone.) We looked at Hallgrimskirkja, the famous modern church. The lineup to go up the church would have meant a long wait, so we continued to wander along Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur. I could have done some more damage to my bank balance! As it was, I ended up buying a shawl at Gjóska. I understand that a lot of woolen products are ‘designed’ in Iceland, but many of them are actually assembled in China. I believe that Gjóska’s products are actually made in Iceland. One other store that I liked is called Kirsuberjatréð. It’s a co-op of 11 female artists located about 2 minutes from our studio. I bought a bowl that is made of paper made of radishes. Sounds odd, but it’s beautiful art. (You wouldn’t use it as a bowl.) I also bought a beautiful handmade kitchen knife for my husband – it’s his birthday in September – and it’s like a piece of art from Soffía Sigurðardóttir, who is the wife of Páll Kristjánsson, the Icelandic knife maker. Their work is beautiful. (That was a definite splurge and he won’t be getting anything else for his birthday or Christmas!)

On Wednesday, we had booked the “Classic” Reykjavik Bike Tour ($70 CAD each). It’s a 2 ½ hour tour from the old harbour and we really lucked out. The weather was perfect. Our guide was Rosa, who was been guiding for 20+ years. We saw some of the normal tourist attractions (the amazing Harpa, the church, various buildings such as the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met, our own neighbourhood and so on), but we also rode our bikes out to a neighbourhood where she discretely pointed out Bjork’s house (a modest home in a lovely neighbourhood facing the water), the home of Arnaldur Indriðason (crime novelist that I have read), the home of the new Icelandic prime minister (with the Canadian wife – this is not the official residence, but was his home before he became PM) and our guide’s home. I loved it and would highly recommend this tour. A lot of people were renting bikes that day (I guess that was due to the great weather), but there were only 7 of us on the tour, plus our guide. The biking itself isn’t difficult, but we definitely had to pedal to keep up with Rosa!

On Thursday, our last full day in Reykjavik, we were booked to take the “Inside the Volcano” tour ($455 CAD each). Pickup was at the hotel around the corner from our studio. The hike to the “base camp” was 3 km. We were divided into 3 groups for our descent, so there were 5 of us in the lift. When we got to base camp, we put on helmets and harnesses and hiked up to the lift. It’s an incredible experience – the colours and rock formations are amazing. The descent takes about 7 minutes, and then we had about 30 minutes down there, so there were lots of opportunities for photos. I felt an odd sense of vertigo when I got down there – it was very disconcerting! After we came back up, we had some ‘meat’ soup (or vegetable soup) to warm up and then we hiked the 3 km back to the bus. It wasn’t a particularly arduous trek, but I think it would be difficult if you have mobility problems. The temperature in the volcano is about 4 Celsius, so you need to dress for that, but I definitely worked up a sweat hiking to and from the volcano. This tour was one that John really wanted to do and he said that it exceeded his expectations. Considering that it had been a tossup as to whether we should do the snorkeling at Silfra or this one, I think we would have been happy with either one, but this one was a complete success.

Food
Iceland definitely is more expensive than most of the places I visit. Alcohol is expensive. My husband doesn’t drink and fortunately I don’t drink a lot. That definitely saved us some money.
We brought some food with us – peanut butter, almonds, protein bars (for John), jerky. We brought coffee and cups that are like French presses. (We bought them at Mountain Equipment Co-op and they work really well, although I find they keep the coffee hot too long for me!) The food was handy to have – we tended to go out once a day for a meal and once a day for a latte and cake. We took 3 suitcases between the 2 of us, so we had plenty of room in our bags for food. (And once we were ready to leave Iceland, we weren’t bringing back any of the food so we had room for whatever we wanted to buy over there.)

In Hveragerði, we had a nice lunch at Kjöt og kúnst. They have a “soup buffet” with 3 different types of soups and different breads with a variety of toppings for the bread. The soups were ok, but the breads (some savoury, some sweet) were amazing. They have an outdoor kitchen using geothermal power for some of their food. Their bread was probably the best we had in Iceland. The buffet is 2,300 ISK a person (came to about $51 CAD).

Hveragerði also has a fairly good bakery (Almar Bakari) as well. We picked up bread and pastries from there that we had one evening, and we also stopped there on our way from Vik to Borgarnes. We shared a huge and delicious smoked salmon and egg sandwich on “lava” bread as well as coffee and a pastry. We also picked up a coffee cake to take for breakfasts in Borgarnes, and the total came to 3,930 ISK (about $43 CAD).

At the Friðheimar Farm, I had their tomato soup and fabulous breads, served with sour cream, cucumber salsa, butter and fresh basil (the basil plant is on the table and you cut off what you want). John had the pasta with pesto tomatoes. I also ordered a wonderful drink there, with green tomatoes, lime, ginger and honey. For dessert, we had the tomato ice cream, which is absolutely delicious. The bill came to 6,890 ISK (about $75 CAD). Part of the appeal is eating in a greenhouse but the food is also really good.

On our trip to the Westman Islands, we ate at Gott. That was definitely a pricey meal – 16,800 ISK. I had ling fish, grilled veg and pureed cauliflower. John had Moroccan brisket in a bun and veg. We drank ginger soda and had dessert and coffee. It was casual, but much more “fine” dining than our other meals up to that point. The servings were huge and perfectly prepared, but luckily John can eat whatever I don’t eat :)

We celebrated my birthday dinner at Berg, which is the restaurant at the Icelandair hotel in Vik. After an interesting amuse bouche, we shared an appetizer of smoked lamb, cured lamb and arctic char mousse. They also had lovely breads and flavoured butters. Oddly enough, they don’t have a cocktail menu, but I ordered a bloody mary. For my main, I had the arctic char with carrots in cream and sesame broccoli. John had the rack of lamb (huge), which were served with mashed potatoes that had peas and more smoked lamb in them. (He loved it.) I had a glass of red wine, and we shared the black and white fondant with ice cream. John also had coffee. The bill came to 19,020 ISK ($211 CAD). I actually didn’t find it ridiculously expensive – it was a lovely birthday celebration.

In Borgarnes, our first meal was at the Settlement House, which had been recommended by Michelle, our AirBnB host. The bill was 9,700 ISK ($107 CAD). John had the fish of the day (a huge serving of cod, with vegetables) and I had the trout tartar appetizer. I had a beer and John had a non-alcoholic malt drink. I wanted to go light so that I could have ice cream for dessert. Yum! (Plus their bread with the butter sprinkled with lava salt is fabulous.)

We also had dinner at La Colina after our cave tour. It’s a pizza place owned by a man originally from Bogota, Colombia. We had pizza as well as their garlic cheese bread – an overdose of carbs, but delicious! Plus we figured after our cave experience, we deserved it! The bill was 4,300 ISK (about $48 CAD).

In Stykkishólmur, we had lunch at Narfeyrarsto, a very busy restaurant. I ordered the local mussels and fries, which were delicious, and John had the blue cheese & bacon hamburger, which also came with fries. We wanted to order dessert, but the restaurant was so busy that the one waitress was run off her feet, so we decided to get coffee and dessert elsewhere. The bill came to 5,950 ISK ($66 CAD). It was actually hard to get into a place here. I had originally wanted to get fish and chips from a truck in the harbour, but it was closed. Then we tried to get into another restaurant, but there were 2 parties ahead of us waiting for tables. It’s a busy town!

That night, we walked to Blomaestrid in Borgarnes for a light dinner. We shared a slice of bacon & broccoli quiche and a waffle with whipped cream, with lattes. (It actually seemed as though a lot of desserts and cakes came with whipped cream.)

In Reykjavik, we had a nice lunch at Glo. I had the vegetarian lasagne, with potatoes, vegetable salad and watermelon. John had the mango chicken, with quinoa salad and 2 others (can’t remember). We both had a ginger type drink. The bill came to 4895 ISK ($54 CAD) which is quite a good deal for all that food. It’s also a good choice for “healthy” food or vegetarian food.
I finally had my fish and chips at Reykjavik Fish & Chips. That’s definitely not healthy - huge servings and John also had a weird lemonade made with fish cartilage or something. (I thought that it tasted odd.) That came to 5,230 ISK ($58 CAD). The batter was crisp and the fish was good, although I felt like the chips were better in Stykkishólmur.

Our last meal in Reykjavik was at Public House Gastropub where we really went all out. I had an expensive cocktail and a local beer. I ordered the Best of Iceland and John the Best of Public House. Both were 4 course menus, supposedly smaller dishes, but still a large amount of food. One of my courses was cured puffin (small amount) and another was reindeer. (I had said I wasn’t going to eat puffin, but the rest of the menu appealed to me, so I did.) John’s was more Asian inspired. Everything was delicious, and we shared a very good chocolate dessert. That meal was definitely our most expensive at 20,950 ISK ($234 CAD). It was a fun evening, and I’m glad we did it. It seems to be a very popular restaurant with locals and I was glad we had made reservations.

We also had a decent lunch at the airport at Nord. Delicious smoked salmon and egg open face sandwiches and more chocolate cake. That came to about $59 and considering that it’s at an airport, I was impressed.

As I mentioned, we often went out for a coffee and shared dessert. Usually chocolate cake and carrot cake are available, and very often they are served with whipped cream. (Seems like overload, but when in Iceland ……) That usually came to about $20-$25 CAD for us.

Random Thoughts and General Impressions
There is a lot to see and do in Iceland. It’s almost overwhelming, and it’s difficult to decide what you want to do. Tourism is a huge business now, with more and more people coming to Iceland. Our guide at the Cave said that he doesn’t think it can be sustained. Iceland is more expensive than many destinations and once people have been, they may be inclined to go elsewhere. (Although it does seem as though many people make return trips.)

It seems as though everyone speaks English, which makes it very easy for us to visit. Icelandic does not seem “intuitive” to me. I struggled with pronouncing the names of the places we visited. With the Icelandic alphabet, the only way I can write the names of the places is by doing a copy/paste.

We really enjoyed Reykjavik. I was really glad that we had 3 nights there, and also glad that we were there at the end of our trip. We’re city people, and by that time, we were ready for some urban life. I was impressed by some of the stores – I like the Scandinavian esthetic.

Sheep and horses are everywhere! Trees, not so much. However, I enjoyed seeing people’s gardens and what they were able to accomplish in windy conditions. At the first place in Keflavik, they had a rocky bed with black rocks – love that look.

We didn’t eat in a gas station and we didn’t eat any hotdogs. Not that I’m opposed to hotdogs (when I go to Costco, I consider them my guilty pleasure), but I really prefer to be sitting somewhere comfortable when I eat.

I don’t have children so maybe I’m way off base here, but it seemed like people have a more relaxed attitude towards children. At the swimming pool in Borgarnes, no one seemed to be supervising the crowd of boys using the waterslides. No one was telling them to stop running, to not go down the slide face first, that kind of thing. And you know what? They seemed to do just fine. It reminded me of when I was a kid – we left the house in the morning and came back when we heard our mothers calling for us from the back door steps. Now kids here have play dates. Same with a big group of boys we saw on the ferry to the Westman Islands. They were going there to play football. There were 49 boys about 10 or 11 years old with 6 parents and 2 coaches. They were all over the ferry, just having fun.

Prices are high, but I understand that taxes are high as well.

Going through customs & immigration at the airport was super easy. They barely looked at my passport.

There are lots of roundabouts on the roads, especially going into Reykjavik. They make sense – traffic keeps moving and it seems better for gas consumption. Apart from Reykjavik, traffic was quite light. The roads are good.

Icelanders seem to keep their homes much warmer than is comfortable for me. We always needed to open the windows and at night, I slept without any covers.

We didn’t go to any museums or galleries. I was surprised by that, but the weather was relatively good so we preferred being outdoors.

I love licorice and Icelandic licorice is delicious. After going through a bag that I bought in Vik, I decided against buying anymore – I didn’t trust myself to not eat the whole bag! I did buy some Icelandic chocolate to take into my office when I’m back at work.

We had no safety concerns in Iceland. Apparently the police don’t carry weapons, which seems kind of ironic, considering all the Icelandic crime novel that I’ve read!

Will I go back? The trip totally met my expectations and yes, I’d love to go back sometime. In the meantime, there are other trips to plan …………

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