A post-mortem on Iceland

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Now that I’m fully rested from a pretty active vacation, it’s time for me to reflect on my experiences in Iceland and hopefully offer some insight that will hopefully help you if you ever decide to plan a vacation there!

First Impressions

When I landed at Keflavik Airport, it was 6am local time. I hadn’t slept, so I was pretty much focused on just getting out of the airport and getting to Reykjavik for a well-needed shower. Several things I noticed, though – everyone spoke perfect English and were unfailingly polite. For a country with a cold-sounding name, the people were very warm! The air was completely immaculate, and there wasn’t a single shred of garbage on the ground.

Driving on the highways between cities was a breeze for me. Only thing I had trouble with was getting a “sense” for what driving in metric felt like – especially once I realized that the top speed, 90km/h, is equivalent to 55mph. Once I got out of Keflavik, it was immediately apparent that even the “larger” cities are still pretty small with populations in the few thousands, at most. They’re all spread out, as well – you can drive thirty minutes out of Reykjavik in any direction and probably not see a sign of civilization.

Random Fact

The name “Iceland” has nothing to do with ice. It’s a corruption of the Swedish word “Ísland”, coined in 870 AD by a Swedish explorer who circumnavigated Iceland and determined that it was an island.

Driving in Iceland

Iceland is a geographically diverse country and some areas are inaccessible by most cars, therefore 4x4s and all wheel drive cars are very common over there. People who don’t drive deep into the country will fare just fine in a sub-compact, of course. Like the US, they drive on the right side of the road. Unlike the US, they use kilometers to measure distance, and kilometers per hour for speed.

There are three kinds of roads that I could tell, designated by their names. Generally (but not always) roads with names like Hringbraut or Vesturvillagata are city or town roads, but I’ve occasionally seen named roads out in the country as well. They are always fit for any car, be it a subcompact or 4×4. Numbered roads are more common outside of cities, with the one and two digit numbers representing major highways connecting cities and towns. Finally, many roads are prefixed with a “F” before the number. This means that they are only accessible by a 4×4. If you try to drive on it in a regular car and get stuck, the insurance company or rental company will not cover any expenses associated with that incident; in fact they will fine you – the fine is usually 100,000 ISK!

Icelanders tend to drive a bit aggressively on the highways. I remember driving to Reykjavik on Route 41 going the speed limit of 90km/h and getting passed by Icelanders on 4x4s. The national police, the Lögreglan, enforce speed limits through the use of speed cameras. They are scattered all around the city, with a sign placed about 200m before it with a warning (in Icelandic, of course!) For those who don’t speak Icelandic, the only clue to the context of the signs is an artistic rendering of an old-timey accordion camera. Of course, it never hurts to be mindful of your speed at all times!

Currency

The currency is the Krona (singular) or Kronur (plural), but people tend to call it “krona” either way. The coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 kr. Notes come in 500, 1000, 5000 and 10000. As of this writing, 1000kr is roughly equivalent to $8.

As can be expected, the cost of goods in Iceland is higher than in the US due to everything being imported from Europe. For example, a package of bacon costs about $20. Ground beef costs about the same from what I saw at Viðir. Very few meals cost less than 1,450kr (roughly $11) and most restaurants cost 2,000 – 3,500 a plate. Alcohol taxes are the third highest in Europe – expect to pay around 1,000kr for a 330mL glass of beer. Gasoline is quite expensive too, averaging at 221kr per liter, almost double what we pay in the US.

Dining

It came at almost a surprise to me that there were very few true Icelandic restaurants in Reykjavik. I don’t think I had ever seen so many hamburger places in one small area. There is no shortage in the variety of cuisines to choose from there! However, almost everything closes at around 20:00 or 21:00 so if you plan on getting food, ensure that you eat before 8pm. There are a few rare exceptions, however. Tipping is not customary in Iceland, as employees make a fair wage and the food prices reflect that.

Here’s a list of some restaurants that we enjoyed:

  • Nonnabiti (Hafnarstræti 9, 101 Reykjavík) – You can get a burger or sandwich by itself for less than 1,000 ISK, or a combination meal (with fries and soda) for less than 1,500 ISK. They have much longer hours than most restaurants, closing at 02:00 on weekdays and 05:30 on weekends.
  • Sægrifinn – Sea Baron (ReykjavíkOld Harbor) – This place is famous with tourists for their lobster soup. They also offer many choices in seafood skewers as well as whale steak. Everything is 1,850ISK or less.
  • Pitan (Skipholt 50c, 105 Reykjavík) – Delicious pita sandwiches stuffed with meat and vegetables for less than 1400 ISK. They also offer sandwiches and hamburgers as well.
  • Hressó Hressingarskálinn (Austurstræti 20, 101 Reykjavik) – This pub/restaurant/nightclub is huge and often has excellent specials and a large selection of beer and wine on tap.
  • Skólabrú (Posthussstraeti 17, near Austurvollur, 101 Reykjavík) – High end dining right in Austurvollur, offering delicacies between 2,000 ISK and 7,000 ISK.
  • Cafe Loki (Lokastigur, 101 Reykjavik – Across from Hallgrimsirkja) – One of the very few restaurants serving Icelandic food. A bit expensive at 3,000 ISK a dish.
  • Cafe Babalu (Skólavörðustígur 22, 101 Reykjavík) – Very laid back coffee shop with kitsch decor and amazing crepes. Worth a visit at 1,200 ISK or less per meal.

Accommodation

We rented an entire house on AirBnB.com and it was a great experience. Only thing that took getting used to was the shower – the water smells very strongly of sulfur due to the water being taken from geothermal sources. I would imagine that nicer hotels would have that filtered out. Still, it took some getting used to! Doesn’t make the water any less clean, of course.

The Blue Lagoon

If you want to be pampered at a spa, I absolutely recommend going to the Blue Lagoon in Grindavik. It’s a little expensive, but you get a lot for the money – silica mud facials, a massage in the water, steam baths, saunas, the works. It’s absolutely worth a visit!

Extreme Adventures

Let’s say you’re in the mood for excitement, 4×4 Adventures has you covered. They have such a wide selection of activities you can choose from – we ended up going for a two hour ATV ride and exploration of a lava tube. It was worth every kronur. Chris and I pushed ourselves to our limits; each moment was more exciting than the last. Yet, the whole time we felt very safe thanks to the warn and friendly employees. I had the adventure of a lifetime, and I know you will too – please don’t hesitate to reach out to them!

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Final Thoughts

Iceland was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. I got to see and experience things I never thought I would. I went spelunking into a pitch-black lava tube, my claustrophobia screaming for me to get out. I’ve walked around wearing just my bathing suit in 40 F weather at the Blue Lagoon. I’ve eaten whale (even though I’m not proud of that one). I’ve experienced seeing the sun high up in the sky at midnight.

Iceland is mind-blowing. And you can bet that I’ll be back in the winter to experience the darkness and Northern Lights! Until next time, and thanks for everything!

Day Eight – Heading Home!

Well, folks, it was an incredible eight days in Iceland. I couldn’t believe how much we did in such a short time and how quickly we acclimated to the culture there, and especially with the midnight sun! We woke up at 7am, showered and then went out the door for the last time at 7:30. Drove to Keflavik, which took about 45 minutes. And it was there that I said goodbye to our faithful companion, the Suzuki Swift, number plate DS N71. She’s a good car!

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Got to the airport, checked in and made it through security. They led us through not one, but two duty free shops (I guess they really wanted us to buy something!). We had breakfast at the airport (my treat) and then it was time to head to the gate! Apparently our plane is named after the volcano that grounded flights all across Europe in 2010. Bad omen?

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Ah well. In for a Krona, in for a hundred Kronur! And with that, we say goodbye to the beautiful country of Ísland!

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It’s been a wonderful trip. We are now in our respective homes, and I expect to make one last blog – a post-mortem of our vacation summarizing what we did, what we saw and hopefully I’ll have some good tips that’ll aid you should you ever go to Iceland! But for now, I need to rest!

Day Seven – A Shopping Spree

Our last full day in Iceland dawned on us, and we had yet to obtain souvenirs for our family and friends back home. Yikes! So we hopped into the ol’ Suzuki and drove to Miðborg, where Hallgrímskirkja is. We had lunch at Cafe Babalú again – this time I had the chocolate and banana crepe, Chris had the egg and ham panini. Again, very delicious!

We then hit the stores nearby. I came face to face with a puffin.

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Bought a hat made of Icelandic wool…

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Saw an interesting record at the Reykjavik Record Store

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Saw way more puffins than I could handle…

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..and was utterly confused at first glance, wondering why someone would need their water “sharpened”.

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The day was mostly spent shopping, so not a lot of exciting things happened. After we got back “home”, I showered and changed into something nicer. It was our last night in Iceland, so I’m going to make it special, damn it! We saw a restaurant at Austurvöllur a couple days prior advertising a three-course “Adventure Duck” meal for 6,600 ISK. It sounded really good and quite expensive, but heck, it was our last night so we went for it!

We walked to Skólabrú Restaurant on… you guessed it, Skólabrú Road. It’s a very nice, fancy place yet it’s not intimidatingly so. The staff were so friendly and absolutely welcoming!

First course – lobster soup!

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Followed by duck with asparagus and caramelized potatoes!

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And finally, a slice of chocolate cake with strawberries and whipped cream, with coffee (400 ISK extra…)!

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What a great meal it was! We walked it off by walking around Austurvöllur.

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And then we headed home to pack and clean the house. Good night, Iceland, for one last time!

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Iceland 2015 Day Six – The Golden Circle

This post includes many Icelandic characters that you may not be familiar with. Here’s a quick rundown…

Æ/æ – “ae”, sounds like the English letter ‘i’
Þ/þ – Sounds like “th” in “thong” and “thunder”
Ð/ð – Sounds like “th” in “feather” and “father”

The Golden Circle is a ring of attractions near Reykjavik that’s quintessentially Iceland. Many tour companies including Reykjavik Excursions provide tours for a “modest fee” and itineraries vary between the companies providing these tours. However, there are some constants:

  1. Þingvellir National Park
  2. Geysir
  3. One or more of the hot springs and spas along the way

Instead of going through a tour company, we decided to drive ourselves. First stop, Þingvellir! It’s only 45 minutes northeast of Reykjavik and an absolute joy to drive through. Fact is, Iceland straddles the continental divide between North America and Europe, and Þingvellir is exactly where this divide lies!

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Be sure to check out the rest of my pictures in the album!

After a whirl around Þingvellir, we drove on toward Geysir, just off route 35, another 45 minutes east of Þingvellir. Of course, we made several stops along the way to take pictures and enjoy the scenery! We made it to Geysir and, oh boy, was it ever windy! We did get a few good shots…

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…and witnessed an eruption of their largest geyser!

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Of course, more pictures are on the album. We drove about an hour to a small spa town, but unfortunately the spa was closed for repairs. Dejectedly, we ate at a nearby restaurant (which actually wasn’t bad at all) and then drove back to Reykjavik.

I’m certain we missed some things, but I didn’t want to spend exorbitant amounts of money to be on someone else’s schedule – I wanted the freedom to come and go as I please, and I was satisfied that I saw so many interesting and amazing sights… So however you do it, please make sure to visit Þingvellir and Geysir, at least!

Upon our return to Reykjavik, we drove out to Nonnabiti again for a cheap dinner and went to bed early – all that driving and walking around wore us out.