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.

Iceland 2015 Day Five – Puffins ahoy!

We woke up with a clear purpose… We were going to hunt down some of these adorable puffins and then shoot them. With our cameras, of course. (Come on, do you think I would actually shoot these adorable little things?)

Chris and I booked seats on the Puffin Express tour provided by Special Tours for only 5,000 ISK per person. When we showed up at their booth in the Old Reykjavik Harbor, we were greeted by a friendly clerk – I showed her our confirmation email and we were given the tickets and waited for our turn to get on the boat.

14:30 came by and the tour guide called us over to the boat, affectionately name Skúlaskeið, or “Old Skuli”, built in 1959. She’s a tough old boat with a shallow hull, allowing for much closer approach to the islands we would be visiting.

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On the way to our first stop, Engey Island, the guide regaled us with stories about the puffins. They are apparently Iceland’s national treasures, and are protected as such. They avoid any mammals, so they tend to nest on remote, uninhabited islands or along the coast. Engey Island is a very new colony, less than five years old. We didn’t spot any there, so we moved on to another nearby island with a older, well-established colony – Akurey Island.

At first we saw only one swimming in the water…

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And then we saw more!

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I spotted one sitting on the rocks and zoomed in on my DSLR camera. Their cuteness is unfathomable and should be illegal.

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This was about as good a shot as I could get – the best telephoto lens I had could only go to 135mm. Drat! But watching them fly around was absolutely incredible. I absolutely recommend doing it if you’re ever in Reykjavik.

Afterwards, we walked a few blocks to Austurvöllur, Reykjavik’s downtown public square. We were greeted by a surprise. That is, a masked naked man on a bicycle.

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Not sure what his schtick was, but it happened. We shrugged it off and went in search of a restaurant where we could get a decent meal. Soon, we ended up at Hressó Hressingarskálinn on Austurstræti. It’s a modern type of bar with very excellent pub food. And I finally got to try one of the local beers – Viking.

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Great stuff! It came down smooth and not so hoppy. For a starter, we ordered the nachos which was quite delicious. In fact, we inhaled the whole thing. 8/10, would eat again.

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While eating the nachos, we noticed that the older couple at the table next to us got up and walked away after eating their appetizers without paying. Their dinner arrived and just sat there for fifteen minutes. I had half a mind to just take the glass of Viking on that table…

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(One of the waiters gave it to me on the house, since it was going to be poured down the drain anyway…) Then my pulled pork and beef burger arrived!

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Tres delish. We paid our bill and then walked around. Stopped at a bookstore nearby to check out the souvenirs and noticed that their music section was full of Björk CDs. Go figure!

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And now, we walk home for the evening.

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Day Four – Ayyyy, Babalú!

Today we woke up at around 10am and I made us breakfast – the usual scrambled eggs and toast. It felt good to not spend so much money on food, seeing as a meal is around 1,500 ISK, give or take. We had an appointment at 12:30, but first… I wanted to check something out. So out we went to Smaralind Shopping Centre in the nearby town of Kópavogur. I wanted to see what Gamestö∂in (their version of Gamestop) was like.

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It’s a pretty nice mall, actually. I couldn’t find the 220-volt charger for my Nintendo 3DS, however – the US one only accepted 120v and I didn’t want to fry it. So I got myself a consolation prize – a caffe latte. While on line I noticed something adorable. Aww, Olaf…

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It was yummy. But it was time to head out to Ishestar in Hafnarfjörður for our 13:00 ride with some stout Icelandic horses!

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They greeted us warmly and asked us to sign the standard release of liability in the event of injury, then we went through a brief orientation in which we learned how to mount a horse, how to handle the reins and “communicate” with them. And then we were introduced to our hoses (for the next hour away) and then we were off!

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I personally enjoyed the ride, although my horse was such a diva that she refused to heed half of my commands. 🙂 At one point she stopped mid-trot to munch on some grass and wouldn’t keep going. I had to have someone help me pull her away from the patch of grass. Guess she was hungry…! Chris didn’t fare so well, though – he complained of his hips hurting. Amateur…

We went home, took a shower and then went to Hallgrímskirkja, a Reykjavik landmark. Hallgrímskirkja is a large, tall Lutheran church on top of a hill in the center of the city. We gleefully paid 800 ISK ($6) to go up to the top of the tower and check out the scenery (which you can see in the album I will post soon!)

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The interior was decidedly plain, which honestly doesn’t surprise me as Nordics aren’t big on aesthetics as they are about functionality. However, the organ deserved a second look.

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Afterwards we walked to Cafe Babalú, which was founded by Glenn Barkan, a fellow New Yorker, and his husband Þórhallur Vilhjalmsson. I had the ham panini with cheese and iced coffee – by god, it was delicious. For what you could get, it was very much affordable unlike the other restaurants in the area (2,000 – 3,000 ISK a plate).

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And that concludes our day. We don’t have anything planned for the rest of our trip, so we’ll be “playing it by ear”. I’m hoping to have some adorable orange-beaked birds in our near future. And on that bombshell, have a good night!

Day Three – The Search for Björk

Hi all! Not much happened today, since we were still recovering from an overly active day in Grindavik. We got up late, then went out in search for food. A quick google search of “Cheap eats in Reykjavik” took us to Potturinn og Pannan on Höfuðborgarsvæði in the Hlemmur neighborhood of Reykjavik.

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However, once we saw the menu, we quickly determined that it was a bold-faced lie as each meal was in the 2,000 – 3,000 ISK range. (That’s about $15-25 a plate!) Not wanting to give up that much money for lunch, we ended up at a nearby pita restaurant, Pitan. There, a sandwich with fries and soda was a modest 1,450 ISK, give or take. And by god, it was delicious.

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We talked it out over lunch and agreed that due to the weather being cold, bitter and windy…

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…that we would stay in today. I proposed going grocery shopping at a store we hadn’t been to – one called Bónus, and we would then prepare dinner at home. So off we went…

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I was pleasantly surprised at how much more affordable it was over Vi∂ur, a store that was much closer to where we’re staying. I also found it interesting that the boxes of Ritz crackers were also much smaller here than in the US.

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And a word of caution: frozen pizzas for 350 ISK is not worth it, though attractive as the price may be. Like I said, nothing terribly exciting, but we needed a day off! I promise things will get much more exciting tomorrow!

 

 

Day Two – A day of extremes

Good morning, Reykjavik!

Today’s adventure brings us to the incredible folks at 4×4 Adventures Iceland in Grindavik who took us on a mind-blowing two hour ATV tour…

                      

…followed by spelunking in a lava tube. Eep! My anxiety went through the roof here as we’ve had to crawl in very tight spaces in pitch blackness, but it was exhilarating!

      

And now, after spending three hours on an ATV and climbing through dark holes, it’s time to pamper ourselves. Therefore, we ended up going to the nearby Blue Lagoon, an Iceland landmark.  It’s a large geothermal pool with a spa built around it. Exactly what the doctor ordered!

The fact that it was 42F/6C outside did not deter anyone from jumping into their swimsuits and lounging around the pools! The water was so warm and soothing – if it weren’t for the risk of drowning, I would’ve fallen asleep in there! I also experienced a true Nordic sauna (the one where you pour water over rocks), a steam bath and a silica mud facial. The Blue Lagoon was an incredible experience and I highly recommend it for anyone that goes to Iceland!

      

We were in a state of complete zen, oblivious to the fact that it was still pretty cold and windy out, waltzing to our rental car wearing just a T-shirt and shorts, our jackets hanging on our arms. I think at that point I realized how exhausted we were, and dreaded the 45km drive back to Reykjavik. I made it safe and sound! We then got some dinner at a burger joint called “The Burger Joint”. Yep..

The last pictures were taken at 9pm. I don’t think I could ever get used to the “midnight sun”!

Good night, Iceland!