I just returned from a week in Iceland and must say, I was somewhat surprised at how much I fell in love with this country. I’m usually a warm weather person; the more sun and sand, the better. But when my friend (and co-worker) Kylie started talking about her desire to go to Iceland and I started researching it, I was sold. Afterall, I rarely find people that want to travel to places I do, and it’s not my typical destination style, so why the hell not.
Kylie, Sam (another girlfriend of ours) and I left Seattle last Thursday at 5pm and arrived Friday at 630am. After a mediocre attempt to sleep on the plane, we were exhausted. We arrived in Reykjavik and instantly went to our accommodations, a brand new hostel called KEX (meaning biscuits) which was in a great location next to all of the main stores, bars, restaurants and happenings – renovated out of a former biscuit factory. How appropriate! The hostel was likely one of the coolest I have ever stayed in. It reminded me of something out of a trendy Portland clothing store or artsy/hipster hotel in New York with vintage decor, but at hostel prices and a great location. One quirk: the hostel had communal showers and toilets. When we spoke with one of the designers about it (he inquired at the party that night to get our feedback on the hostel) we said that the place was amazing outside of this. He responded with “but it’s the Icelandic way”. And we responded with, “but how many Icelanders do you have staying here”. He promised they would get it fixed.
Although KEX was quite comfortable, we tried to sleep some, but had little luck and finally crawled out of bed around 5pm to start our day. After a quick meal, we joined the Grand Opening party at the hostel and made friends with some local guys …who really seemed to have a distaste for Americans but still wanted to hang out with us girls nonetheless. We ended up leaving them and went out on the town for the weekend runtur – the famous Reykjavik pub crawl that goes from midnight to 5am. Literally, everyone hops from bar to bar socializing and drinking. The streets and bars are packed with people and the Icelanders definitely get decked out and take full advantage of the weekend.
We hopped from several bars and drank more than our fair share of drinks (which are not cheap at $9 for a beer and more for cocktails) and made friends along the way. At one point, I paid 1500 krona (about $15) for a chance to spin a wheel to win drinks (or lose your money) and ended up winning three beers (BARGAIN!), which I unfortunately ended up sharing with a couple of British guys standing near me wearing a lot of plaid. Maybe not such a bargain after all.
After much dancing and drinking, I wandered to the water’s edge on my way home (the girls had gone home by this point). It was about 4/430am. The sun was starting to come up and the sky was turning all sorts of shades of red. There was a calm about the ocean and the city. I soaked in every minute. What a beautiful way to end a night, or start a day for that matter.
The girls and I slept in well past 4pm and finally awoke to give it a go again. We followed the same course as the night before, however, Saturday night was much less crazy. I think we were still pretty exhausted from the night before and hadn’t quite adjusted to the time difference yet.
On day three, we woke up at a decent hour (probably noon) and decided to explore the city. We walked the main streets of Laugavegur and artsy Skólavörðustígur on our way up to Hallgrímskirkja church. We rode the elevator to the top the church for a birds-eye view of the city. After exploring some other areas, we attempted to go to a mall for some shopping (most of the stores were closed on Sunday) but without much luck there, we gave up and headed to the Pearlan, a glass dome restaurant and museum resting on five water tanks that also provides spectacular views.
That evening, after eating at a great Mexican joint, we wandered around to a couple of bars and finally settled at a bar called Dillon which was farely empty. Quite different from Friday and Saturday, Rekyjavik’s main strip was pretty much dead. However, Dillon ended up providing some entertainment. There was Kurt Cobain (Icelander look-alike) and his mom making out at the bar, then an Italian guy begging for drinks after leaving his friend swaying outside against a tree, and an Aussie and a Kiwi from New York who we ended up sharing a table with us. We made some bets, drank some Brennivín (the local drink also known as the “black death”) saw the Kiwi-bartender exhibit the super-shake (creating a cocktail with a shaker in his pants…aka CLASSIC) and, needless to say, we ended up more wasted than any other night in town. Leave it to us to get bombed on the quietest night in Reykjavik.
The next day was brutal, particularly for me who couldn’t hold anything down until about 1 in the afternoon, but luckily we had booked a night at the Blue Lagoon spa, the perfect place for recovery. We left our friends at KEX and went on our way to the Blue Lagoon to get checked in. After checking into The Clinic, a hotel onsite with only 20 rooms, we made our way over to the spa, ate, and went for a swim.
The lagoon is unlike any place I have ever seen. It is located on a lava field and appears otherworldly at first glance…almost as if you have been transported to the moon. The steamy, warm waters are part of a lava formation and are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur. Odd fact but the lagoon is fed by water output from the nearby geothermal power plant and is renewed every 2 days. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and is used to run turbines that generate electricity. The result – a manmade lagoon that is the most touristed destination in Iceland. The place is fairly surreal and pretty amazing, regardless of how it was formed.
After lounging around the public area for the day, the girls and I had dinner at Lava, the onsite restaurant, during which it downpoured on the lagoon and created a full, brightly colored rainbow just above it. I don’t think this place could get more surreal?!? Post dinner, we walked back to our hotel for the night.
Simple and modern, The Clinic, is exactly what you think a Nordic spa would look like. However, outside your back deck is miles of lava rock with moss slightly overgrown creating, again, an otherworldly view. We decided to take advantage of our surroundings once again and lounged around in our own private lagoon. With only a few people there to enjoy the cool breeze and the warm waters, we felt like we had the lagoon all to ourselves and that, in itself, was worth the pricey stay. We rubbed silica on our faces and floated about the lava-walled lagoon enjoying the night. We watched the sun start to set and once again, the sky was filled with the most amazing colors. Post-lagoon, my skin and body felt more amazing than it has in a really long time.
On day five, our car was delivered to the lagoon from one of the local rental companies and we were ready to set out on another adventure. Our 4WD Lada, aka the Russian Hummer, was promptly delivered and we set out to head to the SE Coast around 9am. The Lada was quite the car. An oldy, but goody, this 2-door car looked like a Yugo on big wheels, but treated us well throughout the journey – not to mention we had several people comment on it and ask to take a picture of it. Our journey in the Lada was ever-changing. We ended up on some pretty deserted roads and at one point had to wait for construction workers to smooth out a pile of gravel so that we could pass a pretty treacherous area. Back on Route 1, the main road, we saw few cars throughout our trip which made for extremely peaceful driving and allowed us to just take it all in and sometimes stop in the middle of the road just to take a quick photo. We stopped for Icelandic horses (much shorter than the ones we’re used to), baby sheep, beautiful waterfalls, towering cliffs, turf-covered roofed houses, complete devastation and nothing-ness in post-volcanic areas, black sand beaches, lava fields, glaciers and finally landed at 430 in the afternoon at Jökulsárlón (literally translated “glacier lagoon”).
Jökulsárlón is probably one of the most enchanting places I have ever been. After driving for hours in the country, you literally come around a bend and are instantly taken back by a lagoon with massive bright blue icebergs floating about. We stopped at the water’s edge and just took it all in for a few minutes, then hurried on to catch the very last amphibious boat for the day. We loaded the boat on land and then drove into the freezing waters for a tour of the lagoon which is filled with huge icebergs of which only 10% is actually visible from above the water line. The lagoon is formed by the receding nearby glacier in which large chunks of ice drop from the edge into the lagoon, roll down the channel and melt into the sea. Apparently the lagoon only developed about 60 years ago, but has doubled in size in the last 15 years.
After taking it all in, we grabbed some hot chocolate and headed back to the Lada to start the 150 kilometers trip back to Reykjavik. After spotting an odd side road near one of the glaciers, we decided to take a chance and see where it would take us. Our risk paid off and we ended up right at the edge of the glacier wall where the lagoon starts. The boat didn’t take us nearly this close and since it was a very overcast day, we could barely see it. Here we were just a few hundred feet away and could see the jagged edge of the wall and another breathtaking sight.
Our next stop, about 50 kilometers away, was somewhat random but once again rewarding as we ended up at the edge a cliff that overlooked Svínafellsjökull Glacier around Skaftafell National Park. Like many stops throughout the day, we were the only tourists there and were able to get as close as we could without actually doing a glacier walk/tour. The warning signs on the walkway leading up to the cliff were interesting enough. A warning about quicksand? Ok, we’re definitely staying on the path then. What a beautiful site though. Rugged mountains surrounding a rugged glacier. Such a cool site.
We continued down the road, our final destination hoping to be the black sand beaches of the coastal town of Vik. After a long day of driving, I was ready to get out the car and having driven so long on an open road, it was easy to let your mind wander and just take everything in. All of a sudden flashing lights and sirens. Crap. I was speeding. 110 (approximately) in a 90 – kilometers that is. There wasn’t even an easy or safe place to pull off of the main road so I had to continue driving until there was a turnout – probably another mile or so. Great. I was probably going to get arrested in Iceland for evading the police.
Finally, I pulled off and the cop approached the window saying something in Icelandic. When I responded in English, he asked me if I had a driver’s license, which I gladly showed him. “Do you know why I pulled you over,” he asked. “Well,” I said. “I assume I was speeding. I’m very sorry. We’ve been driving since 8am this morning and it’s been a long day.” It was about 9 pm or so at this point. “I think I just spaced out and wasn’t paying attention to my speed.” Which, for the most part, was true. “Well, yes,” he said. “I pulled you over for speeding. But I’m more impressed you were speeding in a LADA. How do you speed in a LADA?” he exclaimed. We all laughed at that. Our little car had about as much power as a squirrel. Fortunately, our destination was only about another 30 minutes out, so he let us off with a warning. Such a nice police officer. I didn’t speed the rest of the trip.
We finally landed in Vik, a town of about 300 people. After driving by the local hostel and giving it a brief once over, we decided we didn’t want to be victims in a horror movie, so we made our way down to the Hotel Lundi. The lady running the place was an interesting one to say the least and wasn’t very accommodating, but gave us a triple at an overpriced rate. Since everything closed in Vik early, we crashed out and got up early the next day for our last adventure.
On day six, our final day in Iceland, we headed north to Gullfoss and Geysir. Our next few stops felt like an Amazing Race Adventure…race to get there, hurry up and see it, then move on to the next. We had a lot to do in a short amount of time and had to be at the airport by 3pm to drop off the car and catch our flight out. Gullfoss, a large waterfall fairly close to Reykjavik was fairly impressive, but not necessarily earth shattering. The falls were beautiful and the bright sun really set the scene, but it was so incredibly windy that you didn’t want to stand near it for too long. We took a few photos and headed up to Geysir, a pretty impressive place with one geyser, Strokkur, that goes off every 4-10 minutes and then Geysir, the one for which all other geysers are named, which only goes off 2-3 times a day, but at a height much higher than Strokkur. In a matter of 15 minutes, we were able to see Strokkur erupt twice. Having never seen a geyser, it was quite impressive but boy is it quick. You have to have your camera ready to go for certain and you just might miss it if you blink.
Finally, our last stop, we headed out to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park to see the tectonic plates. Kylie had been talking about these tectonic plates for what seemed like forever and yes, it sounded cool, but low on my list of things to see. It is the site of a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, or the only place where you can view tectonic plates above ground. The only place in the world I should add. You can literally stand at the edge of the North American plate and the Eurasian plate simultaneously. Not to mention, the area was absolutely breathtaking. Huge canyon-like, jagged rifts, waterfalls, and an expansive beautiful lake at the base made for some incredible views and photos. Again, being slightly rushed, we drove from rift to rift trying to find the photo opportunity we’d been talking about – standing in between two plates and simultaneously, the edge of two continents.
After driving in circles and stopping by several rifts, again, we wandered down a random gravel road. At the end of the road, on our last stop on the trip, we found sheer beauty. Nestled between two rifts was a rock-form platform surrounded by crystal clear water. Below, you could see down 30-40 feet into the water and view the rift walls on either side. On top of the water, you could see the clear reflection of a brilliant blue sky strung with cotton-like clouds. We couldn’t have asked for a better spot. No other tourists. Just us and a pure and simple beautiful place unlike any place I’d been to, yet again. We took our photos, threw krona coins in as a wish for good luck and headed to the airport. Our trip had ended on a perfect note.