As previously mentioned in my Puerto Rico post, my husband and I are pretty fond of traveling. When my sister and her boyfriend Mark mentioned that they were planning a trip to Iceland and Ireland in the fall of 2017, we
politely asked if we could join them for the first half. We had been sidelined for the past few years due to having 2 boys approximately 25 days apart (16 months, whatever), so as soon as our parents even made a face twitch that looked like they might be willing to take the kiddos for a week, we jumped on it. My mom and aunt took them for our trip to Puerto Rico, and Noah's parents kindly agreed to watch them so we could join Amy and Mark on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Iceland.
My sister and I spent a lot of time planning for the trip before we went, because if there's anything our dad taught us about traveling, it's
never check your luggage
never take a cab when your legs aren't broken
wear the same knaki pants every day for a week
you'll be able to see twice as much and you'll avoid wasting precious time on your trip when you invest the time before hand to plan and make a detailed itinerary. We love to mock him for his itineraries (there was the infamous Costa Rica itinerary that included a 5 minute slot for withdrawing money from an ATM), but that apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. We were on the go for the entire 6 days we were in Iceland, but we did so much and I feel like I really "saw" Iceland. With a travel bucket list is as long as mine, you can't really afford to go back somewhere more than once.
For reference, here's a map showing how we allocated our time:
We touched down in lovely Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, bright and early at 9 AM
jet lagged and stinky ready to rock and roll! There's nothing like flying all night to prepare you for a day full of driving in a foreign country, a ferry ride, and trying to prounounce 17 letter words with nary a vowel in sight. We hustled to our rental car and hit the road, because it had seemed like a really good idea 2 months prior when planning the trip to travel for 15 hours, land, and then book it to the farthest corner of the country we planned to visit so we could work our way back over the course of the week. At least we didn't have a hard deadline to hit. Kidding! Our ferry was leaving Stykkisholmur (see??!?) at 3 PM with or without us.
And thus, we departed on the prettiest road trip of all time (also, the slowest, because #pictures: "Pull over! This is an unbeatable view!" 14 seconds down the road... "STOP THE CAR!!"). We made it to picturesque Stykkisholmur with enough time to grab one of Iceland's famous hot dogs from a roadside stand, take a few photos, and drive our car right into the bowels of a boat from the Cold War era.
Here are just a few of the scenic views we saw on our first 4 hours in Iceland:
The ferry ride from Stykkisholmur to Brjanslaekur was a few hours long but cut out a ton of driving time and had beautiful views. Plus, I have a weird affinity for incorporating as many different modes of transportation into a trip as possible. Bonus points if I hit the ultimate trifecta: planes, trains, and automobiles. Alas, no trains in Iceland. #wompwomp
That said, Ferry did not disappoint because I found my favorite signage of all time:
A few ferry shots:
From Brjanslaekur we had a quick 45 minute trip to Patreksfjordur to our B&B (the darling Guesthouse Stekkabol, with a KILLER assortment of breakfast jams, may I add). We checked in and were promptly informed that the restaurant on our itinerary for dinner was closed for the winter. In hindsight, this should have been an ominous red flag indicating what was to come from our poor, innocent friend, Itinerary. We went to dinner at a place nearby that our B&B owner recommended, and struck up conversation with our waitress. She told us how isolated the part of the country was that we were in, and explained that almost all of the ~400,000 people in Iceland live in the capital. She said the region we were in had some doctors, but no hospitals- in the event of an emergency, the nearest hospital was 4+ hours away via many unpaved roads. Just as we were beginning to mentally calculate the odds that we would need a doctor in the next 24 hours (is my heart beating a little fast? What is my pulse? What is a normal pulse? 1000? WHY DON'T I KNOW BASIC HEALTH THINGS?!), our waitress pivoted to listing the attractive parts of this part of the country. When she mentioned a natural hot spring 5 minutes away, we
added it to our itinerary impulsively (!!) headed there straight after dinner via directions like "when you see a house keep going until you see a sign and then keep going and turn right when you can. There are no lights. You can't see it."
When we passed the house and then passed the sign and then turned right, our headlights illuminated a tiny hut. When we turned the car off, it was suddenly pitch. Black. I realized I had never truly been in the darkness before, and also that I've been sold a lie because my other senses did NOT pick up the slack as I could neither hear nor taste my way to save my life. Thanks to the power of phone flashlights, we stumbled over to the hut, which turned out to be 2 changing rooms, and changed into our suits. Side bar: have you ever gotten dressed in the pitch black? I never did determine for sure if I had my swim top on top or bottom, but... YOLO, you know?
We slowly stepped into a shallow cement pool which was being fed by hot water running down a hose from... ¯\(ツ)/¯. Then we laid in said pool for an hour, marveling at the darkness and the vivid stars and that we were in Iceland. The planner in me hates to admit it, but so often in life, the most magical moments are completely unplanned.
We got back to our hotel late, showered, and were moments from falling into bed when we saw another couple hustling out the door near our room. They said, "The Northern Lights are out. Want to come?"
Well, let's do the math. We've currently been awake for something like 398 consecutive hours, traveled by car, plane, car, and ferry, it's midnight Icelandic time, and we're getting up at 6:30 AM per Itinerary.
Uhhhh... yes. Yes, we did want to.
It's fall, in ICELAND, and we hauled ourselves out the door so fast that we didn't all even make it into pants. Shorts + boots + wet hair + Iceland + Northern Lights = Magical Moment #2 of the trip:
The sweet gal who told us the lights were visible, luckily for me, also knew her way around a DSLR camera (I, the proud camera owner... did not) and she gave me a ~25 second crash course on how to photograph the Northern Lights. Basically, long exposure, wide open, don't sneeze. These are blurry and poor quality by any standards, but they're some of my favorite photos I've taken because they remind me of that crazy night.
I shall start my explanation of day 2 with Itinerary. Read it and weep:
Every last minute was scheduled out and adhere to Itinerary, we did. Remember all that driving we saved by taking the ferry the day before? We drove it allll on our way back to Reykjavik. On day 2 we started to realize that Icelandic scenery is basically a combination of the best of every other place on Earth. One moment, you're driving by flat topography covered in mossy rocks. The next minute, you're staring down a cliff at the ocean. Turn a corner, and you're gazing at a valley a la 'The Land Before Time.' Then there's the geometric rock walls. Is that a... herd of sheep? In other words, every other place I've ever been is a dump and all I need is Iceland forever.
Well maybe not forever, because the roads in the Westfjords were... rustic. My dear, darling husband, who grew up in the country and can handle a vehicle, earned his keep in spades dodging pot holes like it was his job. Meanwhile, I did needlepoint and focused on not barfing and how great he is (so great).
We visited the famous Bird Cliffs, but tbh in the winter they're just Cliffs because the birds that nest on the SIDE of the cliffs
are smarter than we are go somewhere warmer for winter. The cliffs are breathtaking and petrifyingly steep. I did get my photo taken at the 'Westernmost point in Europe,' so suck on that.
Tragedy struck at 1:45 PM when we pulled into Flokalunder and learned that our lunch spot (and the only food within miles) was closed for the winter. If you're counting, we're now 0/2. Thank Heaven for leftover beef jerky, amiright?
The absolute highlight of day 2 was our stop at the Dynjandi waterfall, which has- I hate to say- made me a huge waterfall snob. Everything else now looks like a tacky backyard water feature powered by a hose. This thing was EPIC. It's nicknamed the 'wedding veil' waterfall, and that's exactly what it looks like. There are tiers, and it splays out really wide, and it was jawdropping.
After Dynjandi we coasted back to Reykjavik basking in its glory. Here are a few highlights of day 2:
Day 3 had us hitting the road bright and early again and, in a nutshell went: waterfall, beach, waterfall, go to random B&B in tiny town to try to find Garmin my dad's friend left when he was in Iceland 3 months prior (you know, the usual), beach. The truth is that there's not much point in describing this day because it's impossible to do this country justice. Only photos will suffice.
Who has two thumbs and loves rocks? THIS GIRL. The highlight of the day for me was the black sand beach with the unbelievable geometric basalt columns in Vik. I'd never seen anything like this:
Next, we drove to Skaftafall where we got to hike around a glacier and to another jaw-dropping waterfall (*yawn*). I don't always hike, but when I do, there had better be views like this at the end of the trail (or food):
The fourth day of our sojourn took us from the thriving metropolis of Skaftarhreppar back to Reykjavik via 'the Golden Circle,' a very popular tourist day trip. We learned as we researched for this trip that most people stay in Reykjavik for their whole stay and do day trips to the attractions on the Golden Circle, so all that to say that pretty much everything we'd seen up to this point was off the beaten path; most tourists don't make it to those things. Hats off to my sister, who really fought for us to make the effort to make it up to the Westfjords. It was a lot of driving/ferrying, and we almost starved because all the restaurants were closed, and had we needed medical attention we surely would have perished, but it was totally worth it.
We visited Geysir, or for those of you who don't speak Icelandic, a geyser. It was neat, and erupts pretty frequently (~15 min) so we got to see it a few times. To be honest, though, after living 2 hours from Old Faithful, I'm also a geyser snob. Are you sensing a trend? I might have a problem.
Next we went to what has to be one of the most gargantuan waterfalls I've seen. I could Google this, but... I shan't. It was majestic. (UPDATE: I Googled it. It's Gullfoss.)
My favorite part of this day, and one of my favorite parts of the trip, was Thingvellir National Park. First off, the views were unbelievable, plus we were there around sunset so it made things even more magical. Second, there's a lot of neat history as this is where the original government of Iceland would meet up for... big, official government things. Finally, we got to stand between the North American and European tectonic plates. Iceland sits on the interface between the two continents, and this national park sits in a valley that is technically the plates pulling away from each other at a glacial pace.
We pulled into Reykjavik a bit later than planned so we opted for a casual dinner. A spot called Icelandic Street Food popped up with great reviews, so we decided to give it a try.
Honestly, up until this point food wasn't really the focus of our trip. We'd been staying in tiny towns eating
beef jerky in the back seat of our rental car wherever happened to be open, and the restaurants where we did dine were fine, but expensive. Iceland is notoriously pricey (cocktails are $25), so we weren't surprised, but just didn't have much to write home about. That changed for our last 2 days in Reykjavik.
We went into Icelandic Street Food without much in the way of expectations, and were immediately greeted warmly by the owner, Unnar. He took the time to explain everything on the menu, including the pastries that his grandma makes for his restaurant. The food was declicious and affordable, and he sat with us and told us all about his home for about 30 minutes when he wasn't helping other customers. Noah was starstruck to learn that he grew up with the band members of 'Of Monsters and Men,' one of our favorite bands. Long story short, if you find yourself in Reykjavic, be sure to make time for a bread bowl of soup and a warm welcome at Icelandic Street Food.
The last 2 days of our trip were spent in Reykjavik. We stayed in a darling Airbnb on the main shopping street (Laugevegur) and the location couldn't have been better. Parking in town was tough, and a bit complicated as they have different zones and visitors are only allowed to park in specific zones.
Reykjavik is a really clean and interesting city with a fun history (they had a comedian run for mayor- and win!), and it is very much geared for tourism. There are dozens of highly rated, delicious restaurants, an array of food tours, and coffee houses and cute shops everywhere. The highlights of our time there were:
Food tour- there were several of these to choose from, but we were very happy with ours. We stopped at probably 6 different spots, learned a lot about the history and the country, and ate some delicious food. A couple of the places we stopped we decided to go back to later in our trip, so we were happy that we did this on our first afternoon in Reykjavik. One of the stops was the famous hot dog stand where presidents have eaten, etc., so that was good to knock off the tourist to-do list.
Hands down, the best stop of the tour was a little cafe near the Hallgrimskirkja church called Cafe Loki where they served us rye bread ice cream. It was the best thing I ate the entire trip. It shouldn't be good. It CAN'T be good. And yet... it is SO GOOD. Even if you don't do a food tour, RUN-DON'T-WALK to Cafe Loki for some ice cream. I recreated it to the best of my ability this summer for an ice cream contest and won 2nd place with it. Had my ice cream recipe not been hamstrung by a completely incompetent kitchen person, it surely would have taken 1st. ;)
"How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes" was a funny, kind of satirical play giving fun facts and information about Iceland. I'd say it was worth the money and 60 minutes. We attended partially because of the good reviews and partially because we wanted an excuse to go in the fancy, modern performance hall sitting right on the water. The design is supposed to mimic the geometry of the rocks and it's beautiful.
Architecture- we really enjoyed just walking around admiring the town and the modern architecture. The city center is really walkable and the weather was nice while we were there (August/September). The city and the water are beautiful.
More Northern Lights! We got another chance to see the Northern Lights our last night in Reykjavik. We drove 5 minutes out of town to get away from the ambient lights and I will say that my light-shooting skills did improve:
- Blue Lagoon: Normally I tend to avoid touristy things when I travel, but the
photo opsbeauty and relaxation were too hard to resist. This place is pricey, but I have to say that it was awesome and probably worth the investment. The facilities are very nice, and the lagoon itself is enormous and didn't feel crowded at all. The swim up bars were fun, and we couldn't leave without trying the magical mud masks. I still have both wrinkles and acne, however, which is completely unfair, but I'm beginning to suspect that the mud isn't actually magical.
Things took a turn for the worse about 30 minutes before we were planning to leave. We noticed that the water didn't feel as warm, but we didn't think much of it. When we got out of the lagoon to go shower, there were employees handing out complimentary robes. This should have been a red flag, because normally you have to fork over something like $40 for use of a robe. Jackpot! Upon entering the facility, the penny dropped as we realized that the power was out for the entire facility and wasn't expected to be back on for hours. Honestly, they handled it really well considering the circumstances and because we were leaving anyway, the only inconvenience for us was having to find our lockers and get dressed via cell phone flashlight. For those of you keeping score, this is the second time we dressed in complete darkness in Iceland and I got so good at it that I'm considering adding it to my resume.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip and ranks up there in probably my top 5 places I've been. When planning the trip, I was a bit reluctant to spend so little time in Reykjavik and so much time in a car going to the far ends of the country, but in hindsight I'm so glad my sister won that battle. We also weren't sure we'd be glad we waited until fall to go because it was a little cold at times, but overall the weather was great- cool and crisp, but not cold- and we got the added bonus of Northern Light visibility. There's honestly nothing I would change about the trip.