When my husband and I arrived in Iceland, it was midnight our time and our plan to get five hours of sleep on the plane had failed. The flight from Boston to Iceland lumbered on despite extra leg room in the exit row. The seats were uncomfortable, the food stale and the movie selection dated: The Nanny Diaries, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The King’s Speech and Valkyerie.
The WOW flight attendants were pleasant, wore fitted fuscia uniforms with matching caps, heavy makeup and penciled in eyebrows. They hawked duty free alcohol and costume jewelry, occasionally flashing big, white toothy smiles.
“It is Shop Keepers Day on Monday,” explained one flight attendant, “It’s like your Labor Day so many of the stores and restaurants will be closed when you arrive.”
I looked at my husband, “what are we going to do when we get there?”
I wondered if some of the museums and sites would be closed as well.
The truth was, neither of us had done much research and preparation for our five day trip to Iceland. Despite the destination being on my Bucket List, we were on our way to a new country with only airline tickets, a hotel and car rental reservation and a copy of Top 10 Iceland from DK Eyewitness Travel.
Iceland was lit up for us when we arrived. The sun never set and rose high in the sky. Everyone we met was young with Flock of Seagull haircuts and excellent English. Our rental car had an American accent GPS that easily showed us the way to Reykjavik while we admired endless miles of black lava landscape.
“It’s like another planet,” we agreed.
The simple roads were empty as we arrived in the capital city. Our new surroundings felt like the Twilight Zone, just the two of us in a city that appeared uninhabited and closed for business. We drove around aimlessly, fatigue taking hold of us. The city was surrounded by the Atlantic, fresh sea air, seagulls cawing and a cool, spring like breeze.
“I need coffee. What if nothing is open on Shop Keeper’s Day,” my husband worried.
“Maybe we can check-in early and take a little nap,” I suggested. Maybe sleep would get us out of this eerie funk.
“They probably won’t let us check in until 3,” thought my husband and now it was 7 a.m. Icelandic time and visions of pulling over and sleeping in the car danced through our heads.
We pulled into the Hilton Nordica and I ran into the lobby, finally seeing signs of life: people sipping coffee, congregating for a bus tour and three friendly hotel greeters welcoming me.
“Any chance we can check in now?”
“Yes, but we just have a room with twin beds.”
“I’ll take it.”
In that tired moment I wasn’t interested in romance with my husband, just a pillow and my head on it.
I skipped back to the rental car, “let’s go, twin beds await!”
The hotel was immaculate, clean lines, modern design, wood and tile floors with the standard American necessities you’d expect in a hotel including free WiFi, spa, a tourism kiosk to help with travel plans, concierge, in room dining, and a restaurant that was listed as a must visit in our handy travel guide.
We napped for three hours instead of the planned two and when we awoke around noon we decided to check out the Blue Lagoon which requires a reservation that was made by our hotel.
The Blue Lagoon was what first attracted me to Iceland. Watching Anthony Bourdain luxuriate in the bright, warm, blue waters with a swim up bar, lounge chairs and pretty ladies named Luna offering the “Fountain of Youth” in silica and algae masks was an experience I wanted . The Blue Lagoon was the perfect way to indoctrinate ourselves into our Icelandic vacation. A little touristy, relaxing, unusually beautiful and wine . . . now we were on vacation!
Guests receive a complimentary photograph that is immediately emailed to you and the facility does an excellent job managing the crowds through mandatory reservations.
A big surprise was the dinner we had at The Blue Lagoon’s Lava Restaurant. It was the best meal we had in a very long time. Iceland is known for their seafood and lamb which is what we each ordered. John had halibut and I had the rack of lamb. It was yummy, so yummy, you dream about it when you are eating leftovers back home. This was fine dining and you got to wear wet hair and flip flops.
Prior to arriving at the Blue Lagoon we checked out a few sites nearby including where the tectonic plates divide the North Atlantic and Europe.
Iceland is essentially one big volcano with a crack in the middle of it creating a fissure or divide between continents. I am no geologist, however, Iceland is abundant with scientific natural treasures.
Gulfoss, Geysir and Pingvellir National Park
Our second day in Iceland was a marathon of sites. 90 minutes from Reykjavik is Gullfoss, a very close second to Niagara Falls, although I suspect the Icelandic people would disagree. In fact Gulfoss boasts to being grander than America’s Niagara Falls.
Gulfoss is a two-tiered water fall that crashes into an impressive canyon of roaring water. It is amazing to learn that Gulfoss was almost dammed for a water supply, but public outcry preserved the natural landmark in the early 1900s.
Just down the road is Geysir Hot Springs. The Icelandic word geysir’s namesake originated at the Geysir Hot Springs.
I think we were at this geysir for all of 30 minutes and probably spent more time in the very nice gift shop. Once you’ve seen shooting hot water it’s on to the next site. It was funny watching a circle of people wait for fifteen minutes poised with their camera to capture the active spout.
We drove through Pingvellir National Park and this is a spot worthy of spending some time although my husband felt it couldn’t hold a candle to Yellowstone National Park. For me, who has never seen Yellowstone, this land was lovely and one of so many examples of how Iceland preserves its natural resources for everyone to enjoy for free.
To go on a summertime vacation to see icebergs and glaciers is pretty amazing and on our third day we were determined to reach Jokulsarlon, nearly five hours from Reykjavik. But the drive along the way was pretty picturesque with sites you can only see in Iceland.
Barns with grass engulfed roofs would pop up now and again, but this one barn had been taken over by a giant cliff. The view was so amazing we had to stop and admire it for a few minutes. Random waterfalls, more rams than humans frolicking along lush, long grass and the most beautiful, muscular, stocky Icelandic horses known for their “gliding gait” called “tolt.”
On our way to Jokulsarlon we stopped at Vik, a little village with amazing views of Icelandic horses, black sand beaches, cliffs and Tetons or as the Icelandic call them Troll Rocks stacked in the ocean.
The long ride to Jokulsarlon was worth it. Blueish icebergs, black sands, a glacier slowly sliding into the icy lagoon and giant ice boulders on the beach were spectacular. We captured over 100 photos in the two hours we lingered, taking in this special scenery.
From icebergs to volcanoes, on our third day we headed north from Reykjavik to Snaefellsjokull National Park. This ice capped dormant volcano towers over some beautiful seascape including the Church of Buoir that has beautiful paths curved out by Icelandic horses that lead to lava rocks and the ocean.
Each night we would head into Reykjavik for people watching, a little shopping and of course dinner. Along Laugavegur is lots of shopping, bars and great places to watch people. This is a city of only 300,000 people and my impression is that it is very youthful, kid friendly and artsy. Primary color metal sided buildings made for a wonderful contrast against a grey sky backdrop. There were no sky scrapers, a few statues of viking pioneers and families pushing baby strollers.
Dinner reservations are recommended wherever you eat, but we lucked out in randomly picking KOL to dine at on Tuesday evening of our trip. Another really amazing dinner where we enjoyed watching the chefs prepare our meals. My husband had Fillet of Plaice with mashed potatoes, broccoli, millet, capers vinaigrette and fennel seeds. I had Langoustine tails, wolfish with mashed potatoes. Our cocktails were artsy, cool and unusual like Duck Season which was smoked duck fat washed bourbon, a maraschino cherry and some lemon. I sipped an Icelandic Ego with birch, lemon, mint and a touch of honey.
KOL also specializes in tasting menus and is the kind of restaurant that is more of an experience than a quick meal. Definitely a place to go to when in Reykjavik.
There is a quirkiness to Iceland. We listened to lots of Icelandic radio stations and in one half hour of music on one station you can hear Eddie Rabbit, Bay City Rollers, Metallica, and The Go Gos. Convenience stores hand you a bag to bag yourself, Dunkin Donuts is all the rage in Reykjavik and whale tastes like steak. They must like The Big Lebowski because there is a bar that pays tribute to the movie with an assortment of White Russians and if your’e hungry and have a load of laundry to do go to The Laundromat where you can have brunch while checking off a chore on your “to do ” list. At one point we had pulled over to take photos and a car sped up behind us. It’s driver jumped out of the car and ran to us, waving his arms:
“Do you mind moving, we’re filming here and you’re in our shot!”
So next time you are watching Games of Thrones you might see me taking photos. Sorry about that.
Iceland is a perfect long weekend destination, a quick flight from New York or Boston and a great way to get a slice of the arctic.