Another one of my top ten countries to visit in the world off the list… except that it’s not coming off the list. For the first time ever, a country is staying in the mix instead of being bumped to make room for another new country to move into my loosely structured top 10. Not that I visit them in order (I hate lists), but I do keep them on the radar in my head (thereby not being on paper and not being a list). And Iceland is so amazing that it’s staying on the radar for another visit… soon… ish. Here’s why…
This adventure starts like most of the others – we drove to another city to catch a flight from another airport (Damn you Air Canada and your monopoly on travel out of the airport in our city!!!). We drove to Halifax (about a four hour drive) so we could take a direct Halifax to Keflavik flight with Iceland Air. Our flight wasn’t until evening, so we made a day of it stopping to visit some of our family on the way. We left the car at the Park N Fly lot near the Halifax airport since it was cheaper than leaving it at the airport.
Tip: The Park N Fly in Halifax is just minutes from the airport and the shuttle runs 24×7. Air Miles and CAA frequently have discount coupons/codes for Park N Fly, so you should check before you go. We saved about $10 with an Air Miles one.
The airport is big for the Maritimes, but it’s really not and there’s not a lot going on there. We had a bite to eat, got a last Starbucks for the week (Iceland doesn’t have Starbucks, which is fine, just FYI), and played on our devices. Flight was uneventful, Iceland Air planes are pretty nice (a pillow and a REAL blanket) and there was movies. The flight was just over 4 hours, so really it wouldn’t have mattered too much to me. We flew into daylight since it’s 24 hour daylight in Iceland right now and it’s 3 hours ahead of us.
Touch down in Keflavik at 5am their time, many many hours before we are officially allowed to get into the apartment we rented. Different from anywhere we have ever traveled, we had to go through security before customs when landing in Iceland. And that also meant I couldn’t go pee, which I desperately needed to. Boo! Customs took 5 seconds after that, and we were off to find the FlyBus. There’s a ticket counter and self-serve kiosks for the buy to Reykjavik.
Tip: We opted to be dropped off at a hotel near our apartment, but it’s a bit cheaper if you just get dropped to the BSI bus terminal (which has everything you need to make your way anywhere as a tourist). If you think you might be thirsty, the duty free at the airport is worth a visit because the prices are better than in Reykjavik. Loads of locals were stocking up.
So it was only 7 ish when we got to the hotel near our apartment, and while the host said there was a place we could leave our luggage – that was apparently just leaving it sitting on the stairs – we opted to drag it around until we could actually get into the apartment. We stopped at a nearby hostel to get pointed to somewhere to find something to eat and hoofed it down to a cafe for breakfast. By the time we got back, one of the hosts was cleaning the apartment and we left our bags inside and took another little walk. And then we got back and he was done – and since it was 9am and we had been awake for like 30 hours, we decided to have a little nap before hitting the ground running. Since check in is really at 2pm, we’re definitely not complaining that we had to wait until 9am.
Tip: We knew going in that Iceland is expensive, so we opted to rent an apartment so we could cook some of our own meals. We used AirBnB for our rental and it’s a perfectly decent service – just read the reviews with a grain of salt like you would with any other lodging engine for travel and be sure to clarify anything you need to know with the owner of the place you’re renting. And if you’re thinking about using AirBnB sometime soon, they offered me a travel credit I could share with friends… so click here and have at it :)
We didn’t really get any sleeping in, but we unpacked and rested for a couple of hours… and then it was off to start the fun. We had booked a food tour for our first day. We’re both foodies and they are often a good way to get a lay of the land. We booked through Icelandic Mountain Guides and did their Reykjavik By Food tour. We had Sam from Switzerland as our guide and thankfully did not have to go with the large group of teenage girls and their handlers that showed up around the same time. We had a small group of 8, consisting of a couple from Australia and a family from America. We tried some seaweed (not really new to us since we also live by the ocean) and what is normally a Christmas cake for them at the tourist information center where the tour started.
Tip: Iceland rocks at tourism. The Tourist Information Center on Adalstraeti has everything you could ever need. They can book tours for you there, help you figure out what you want to do and how to get there, and there’s free maps and books and pretty much every resource you could possibly need. We picked up a map there and it was the meeting place for a tour, but otherwise we didn’t use it much. But if we didn’t already have a game plan, we totally would have.
We stopped at a pub style place to try Malt (kind of like a sweet non-alcoholic beer). And then we were off to the Seabaron for our next sampling. We were supposed to try rotten, fermented shark, but they had already run out for the day, so they served us some whale instead (I suspect we traded up). I have some moral issues with eating whale (despite quotas and all that), but I decided to try it anyway. I have to admit, it was delicious – but that will be my one and only sampling of whale meat. We also washed it all down with some schnapps – Brennivin – affectionately known as the Black Death. It’s gross and it burns, but we brought some home so our friends could try it too!
From there it was on to our next spot – Mar Restaurant – to try some lobster soup with a twist… a twist that I proudly
guessed as cocoa. It was kind of like lobster hot chocolate and it was not my favourite. Next up, we stopped at a pub to sample some local beer – all of which I could see through and didn’t enjoy. We stopped at a deli to try some Icelandic cheeses and meats, and then we headed to Cafe Loki for the final stop on our tour. There we had rye bread with butter (yum – I’m totally going to try and replicate it), rye bread ice cream (amazing), and our choice of coffee or tea. Overall, this was a pretty good tour. It was a bit pricey in terms of comparing to other food tours in other countries, but not really surprisingly so compared to other things in Icelandic prices. Our guide was interesting and had interesting insights into Icelandic tourism since he was one and now works in the field. The tour lasted about 3.5 hours.
Following the tour, we headed back to the apartment quickly (since it was near the finishing point) and then we headed back out (we’re not big for lingering and we wanted to stay awake until a reasonable time at night to put us on the right time zone) to walk around some more and find some supper. We opted for tasty fish and chips at the organic bistro Icelandic Fish and Chips. We hit up the alcohol store (outside of bars/restaurants, you can only buy alcohol in proper stores in Iceland – which is the same as it is here, so we didn’t find it weird) to get a few beer en route back. Some chillin’ at the apartment after that and getting a few things ready for a really long tour the following day. Night one of sleeping through 24 hour daylight was weird but a success.
The real reason of this trip is that we wanted to celebrate our 10th anniversary (love you Greg!) somewhere awesome… and for part of the trip, we decided we would splurge on one day trip that we likely normally wouldn’t have. We opted for the Glacier Lagoon Cruise with Gateway to Iceland. They were terrific to deal with by email in advance of the tour and I would highly recommend them. They picked us up from our apartment shortly after 8:00 and off we went.
This was one hell of a crazy day of a tour. Our guide – Stanthor – was interesting enough, though a bit “Ricky rulebook” for me. He was also quirky (which I normally dig), a hater of trees and the lupines that Iceland brought in from Alaska (and which have taken over the landscape in many places – some Icelanders love because they aren’t too tall and don’t affect the view much and also because they cut down on sand storms, but others hate them because they just don’t belong there), and a bit crazy about what you could and couldn’t eat inside his van (we ate some crackers in there, don’t tell him!). We figure he must actually own it. He had his son with him for the day, so we also reckon we may have gotten to see a bit more than normal. There were 11 of us on the tour, which is about my limit of people I am willing to wait for getting on and off a small bus all day long… but I love people, so we frequently roll the dice on tours that we could just do ourselves. It works out more often than not. We had a good mix, many around our age and all of them friendly.
We had considered just renting a car and doing stuff for ourselves, but we walked through the costs and this worked out fine for us. Car rentals there are a lot more expensive than here in Canada and so is petrol. Next time we’ll rent a car and not stay in Reykjavik though.
Our first stop on the tour was Skógafoss waterfall. Generally waterfalls are interesting to me for about five minutes. I take a picture or two, walk around some, and unless we get to play in them, I am ready to go. But the landscape in Iceland is stunning, there are waterfalls everywhere – wee ones, giant ones, amazing… not amazing enough for me to travel with a tripod and be one of those people that block the beautiful view for everyone else trying to get that perfect picture of fake looking slowed down water… but amazing all the same! We didn’t have loads of time here, but enough to walk around a bit and admire the beautiful landscape. We stopped at several others over the span of the day – so beautiful.
There was never an uninteresting moment during the drive (we covered about 800km of Iceland’s southern coast) because the landscape is so interesting… lush green farmland, lava rocks covered in moss, volcanos and glaciers, lots of sheep and Icelandic horses, and our guide was great about pointing out different areas… and stopping quite a lot so we could stretch our legs and see things more closely. We got an Icelandic language lesson on how to say Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted a few years back and put a very serious hitch on European airspace. It’s along the lines of AY – yah – fyat – la – yo – kuh-tle. Simple right? Icelanders we met seemed to get a kick out of how poorly news agencies around the world did with this name in 2010.
Over the span of the day, we stopped for some time to walk around in Vik, at several more falls, to see some bridges (damaged and new), glaciers, rivers, a turf church in Hof, Fjadrargljufur canyon, and to hike in to Svartifoss in Vatnajökull National Park. But the highlight of the day was totally our trip to Jökulsárlón – the glacier lagoon. When we arrived, we had an hour or so to walk around to and go down to the beach to see the small icebergs making their way out to the ocean. After that, we did a boat tour around the lagoon in an amphibious vehicle. Partway through the boat ride, someone met the boat to tell us some more about the lagoon and glaciers and stuff. What a truly amazing place! It was my favourite part of our entire trip. So stunning!
By the time we made a few more stops, had something to eat in Vik, and finished the drive back to Reykjavik, it was around midnight and we called it a day.
Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, we spent some time kicking around Reykjavik. We walked around exploring street art and the waterfront (including the pier where the whaling and whale watching fleet are docked together) Sunday morning after some breakfast at Cafe Paris. We checked out their weekend flea market where we got some rye bread (yum), cookies, and I bought a hat from a local knitter. We love farmers markets, but we’re not big on flea markets, so we didn’t stay long. We tried the famous hot dog stand. We chilled at the pond with some coffee and tea and explored the 3D map of Iceland inside city hall. We explored the awesome light and windows at the Harpa and while there we bought tickets to a comedy show “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes” for that night. Then we hit the Micro Bar to check out some Icelandic micro brews – which were delicious, and expensive, and I might have gotten a tiny bit drunk in the middle of a Sunday afternoon (which would make me an alcoholic in Iceland… someone was telling us that you can get as drunk and stupid as you want on the weekend, all night/weekend long, crazy, passed out in a ditch with amnesia drunk, and that’s ok… but it’s not cool when it’s not on a weekend)… oh well :)
We had a burger at the Burger Joint to soak up some booze (it was fine and it amused us that they served McCain fries there) and then headed over to the show. It wasn’t too bad, I laughed a few times… tourist kitsch… all good. We walked back to our apartment along the water so we could see the Sun Voyager sculpture, which I have to say is pretty cool. There’s loads of construction going on along the waterfront (possibly because the lots of property owners in Reykjavik want to rent their places out to tourists, making it challenging for Icelanders to find affordable housing).
Monday involved more walking, but started out with some juice from a juice bar. We explored the sculpture garden at the Einar Jónsson Museum and had a delicious local lunch at Cafe Loki. We walked out or Perlan to explore the views of the city and the nice hiking trails. It houses a restaurant and we didn’t eat there, but we checked things out from the observation decks and then walked down through the park to see an interesting cemetery and a family of geese. The constant overcast was finally starting to lift from the sky by the time we got back to the apartment, so it was finally time to check out the Hallgrímskirkja church. We had walked by it countless times but finally took the time to go up to the observation deck (there’s a small charge to go up, but you can go into the church for free). Great views, but the best one was being hogged by a camera douche for pretty much the entire time we were there.
We hit up the Icelandic Handknitting Association shop after our visit to the church, as I have been going on about how awesome Icelandic sweaters look for a very long time and I wanted to check them out. I had done some research in advance because if I wanted to buy one, I wanted to make sure I got one that was actually handknit in Iceland and not machine made somewhere else… and all roads pointed here. The shop has an overwhelming amount of sweaters organized loosely by style and then by size. They sell yarn and patterns and stuff too I believe, but I don’t knit so I’m no expert. The sweaters were a bit more pricey than I was hoping, not that they aren’t worth it, and I had pretty much decided I wasn’t going to buy one. But I’m pretty sure Greg wasn’t letting me leave the shop without one since I had been so excited about them. So I am the proud owner of a lovely, handknit Icelandic sweater thanks to my wonderful husband.
I was really in need of some more food with nutrition in it by this point (the staples of Iceland seem to be fish or lamb or hot dog and potatoes), so we hit a vegetarian restaurant for supper (I’m not a food douche and people can eat whatever they want, but we eat a lot of fresh fruit and veg in our day to day diet, so sometimes it can be a bit challenging travelling in some countries). The restaurant was Graenn Kostur and it was the best meal I had in Iceland. We hit up the Bonus for a few groceries after supper, grabbed a cookie for Greg at Cafe Babalu, and some frozen yogurt at the place near our apartment, and called it a day.
Tuesday was National Day in Iceland, so we decided to join in with the locals in celebrating. There was a ton going on but the weather wasn’t very nice. It rained off and on (more on than off) for most of the day and by the time we got back to the apartment that evening, we were thoroughly drenched! We started the day at the Bernhöftsbakarí for a treat (and we ended up back there for lunch for sandwiches and hot drinks). We watched some of the festivities in Austurvöllur (a park in the downtown area), listened to some singing, and enjoyed seeing some Icelanders in traditional dress. We joined in their parade with the rest of the locals and took in some strange Icelandic pop singers. There were little tents set up all over the downtown selling candy, cotton candy, and balloons and in one of the squares circus performers were teaching kids how to use their performance props. There were multiple stages set up with live dancing and music. We’re pretty sure we saw the president and first lady of Iceland. In the park near the pond, they set up viking games for kids and more bouncy castles than I have ever seen in my life. There were some antique cars on display, rides, chess in the park, poetry readings, a strong man competition and more… and everything except buying from the vendors was free. During some of the music, we had a nice chat with a mister from Alberta who was currently living in Iceland. He told us New Years was crazy there and worth seeing, so I’ve filed this information away.
We had some supper at a Thai place away from the action after having no luck getting served at a place closer to the festivities. Thoroughly wet and cold, we decided to call it a night. The music still went on for another couple of hours and we could hear it from our apartment – while watching the UK food network (which currently seems to be obsessed with food in South Africa and which also continuously replays Guy Fieri shows).
Tip: Iceland has fairly unpredictable weather, so dress in layers and bring a waterproof jacket at least. For us, we were there in June. The highest we saw it was 18C, the lowest was probably around 10C. Any given day, it could be sunny, rainy, cloudy, windy, etc. and then repeat. For us, it also always seemed to be nicer weather-wise outside of Reykjavik – that may be a coincidence. It was buggy near waterfalls generally, and sunblock is your friend when there is no darkness :)
Wednesday we did another tour with Gateway to Iceland. We did their Golden Circle tour, which I’m quite sure is the most common tour anyone does in Iceland – especially since a lot of people seem to be there on a limited amount of time (Iceland Air allows free stopovers there and I expect that helps a lot).
The mister (whose name I couldn’t quite catch) was actually early to pick us up and we were on the road before 8:30. He’s a history and literature teacher the rest of the year, so we were a bit worried he would be too talky, but he was great. There was only 6 of us on this tour - us and four Americans. We didn’t really talk to any of them – just not a good fit I guess… and we tend to wander off and they clung to the bus. One mister didn’t even go along with us to some of the sites we visited and sat in the bus and read a newspaper instead.
This was another nice tour – our first stop was Kerið crater lake – which was a really pretty spot. This was only the second place we had to pay admission to something (the lift in the church being the first and the Blue Lagoon being the other) and it was only a couple of dollars – with the money going to help maintain the trails around the site (so people don’t want on the moss). Next we stopped to see the church at Skálholt. I have no religious affiliations and am generally disinterested in churches, but this one has really amazing stained glass inside it and a very intricate tile mosaic. The bishop is also a woman. But more interesting than all of that is the replica turf church located beside it. It’s lovely and I enjoyed exploring that a lot more… it looked hobbity to me :)
Gullfoss was next up on our list of places to stop and it’s definitely one of the most powerful waterfalls I have ever seen. It’s also one of the most popular in Iceland. There were lots of trails so you could walk along the very top to look down, and then also so that you could walk in close to the falls. We had plenty of time there for exploring so of course we had to check out the falls from every which angle we could, and get drenched again.
From there, we kept on keeping on to the Geysir hot spring and Haukadalur geothermal area. This area was beautiful. We saw the beautiful blue Strokkur geysir and watched one of the other nearby geysirs erupt several times while we were there. We walked up the hill to get a better view and Greg took some time to climb to the very top of ridge (cause Greg loves to climb) while I took a few more pictures. We had some lunch in the tourist restaurant there and it was fine, and then we were off again to make a couple of stops in the beautiful Þingvellir National Park. We stopped in an area that’s famous for diving because of the crystal clear water, that is also home to the spot of Iceland’s first parliament, a little church, some traditional Icelandic houses, some waterfalls (of course), and more geese for me to photogtaph (I can’t resist cute animals!). We stopped in another area as well to drop two of our tour mates off (they were camping there) and it seemed like a good time to share an ice cream since the sun had come out. We didn’t make any more stops after this and it wasn’t a very long drive to get back to our apartment.
In the evening, we went out for our last supper in Iceland to the Icelandic Bar. We had actually planned to hit up a tapas place, but this looked good on the way and had lots of local beer options, so in there we went. Food was good and we tried a couple more local beer. Got a treat on the way home, walked around a bit more, and then back to the apartment one last time.
On our final day in Iceland, our flight wasn’t until evening, but we had to be out of our apartment by noon. We opted to take it easy in the morning (knowing we had a long travel day) and then hit the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport. So we packed up, hoofed it over the BSI bus terminal, and booked the Blue Lagoon express. The ride to the Blue Lagoon was about 45 minutes and it was rainy and overcast for pretty much the entire time. We checked our luggage at the lagoon (they have tourism down to a science), witnessed a fight between a couple of grown men over one of them jumping the queue, and then were off to sort out the chaos that is the changing rooms when multiple buses drop off at the same time.
For Greg (isn’t it always for men?) it was apparently super simple. For women, they routed us to a changing room where there wasn’t a single locker left to use and there was barely even room to walk through it was so packed. So myself and a lovely German lady took it upon ourselves to get the staff to open up one of the many other changing rooms. All better from there. Stowed the stuff, had a shower, got a towel, finally found Greg, and off to bask in the lagoon we went. It was lovely and warm, and while I likely won’t do it again because it’s too expensive in my opinion (and I know other ones exist that are free or cheaper in other places), it was one of those things we decided you had to do once. We had a drink – a beer for Greg and a green smoothie for me – and a lovely girl working there took our picture for free and emailed it to us… which was great because we had checked the camera bag and I didn’t want to bring any smaller electronics out to the water. We spent a couple of hours there, walked around the trails outside in the rain for a bit, and then got our luggage and grabbed the bus to the airport.
Keflavik airport is a breeze – the machines for checking in all seem to work, they print your luggage tags properly, and then you just have to dump you bags and hit security (Iceland Air lets you have 2 free checked bags each, btw). For the first time ever, we hit a duty free store to bring home a few treats for family and friends – booze and licorice stuff since Icelanders are crazy about it and even dip it in chocolate and put it in gum and iced coffee drinks. And also for the first time ever, we spent enough money to get some VAT back in Europe (it was the sweater – but it became $40 cheaper after a small wait in that VAT refund line). We had something to eat and some hot drinks and played on the free internet until it was time to go through customs to the area where flights to North America seem to fly from. And then we boarded, watched a couple of movies, and were back in Halifax. Luggage came through fast, shuttle happened to be right out front when we left the airport, got the car, hit the road, made a quick stop for a sandwich, and were home, unpacked (i.e. dumped all the clothes in the hamper), and in bed by 1:30 am or so. And that’s a wrap!
And the random stuff that I loved about Iceland. Water is free. One of the things I find most irritating about Europe is places that won’t serve you tap water and persist in trying to make you drink expensive bottled water for no reason. We travel with a bottle and refill it regardless of where we go, but it was super nice that water is just sitting out with pitchers and glasses everywhere you go. Bottled water in Iceland is for tourists. The locals drink tap water. I also loved that tourist attractions are almost entirely free. I love their appreciation of nature and their efforts to not destroy it despite the tourism boom. I love the entire country is powered and heated by green energy. Icelanders are really friendly and we didn’t meet a single one that didn’t speak perfect English – which is extra helpful since their language is nothing like ours and would definitely take a while to learn. I loved hearing stories about construction projects being cancelled or changed because of elf dwellings. I loved seeing sheep and Icelandic horses all over the place. I love that there is art and sculpture everywhere. I love the landscape – everything about it… the colours, the textures, the angles, the variety. I love the fresh air and wide open spaces.
But mostly, I love that I got to explore such an amazing country with my very best friend … and celebrate 10 years of hard work and awesome adventures there.
PS: Go to Iceland.