I think it was August when I received an email from easyJet informing me of a new flight route – Geneva to Reykjavik. For those of you who are wondering where in the world is Reykjavik, it’s the capital of Iceland. (And for those of you wondering how to pronounce it, it sounds like rake – ah – vick…according to this non-Icelandic girl.) Of course, I IMMEDIATELY knew I needed to go. The question was when and with whom. I contemplated it as a destination for Christmas / New Years before making the decision to go to Jordan. But in the end, a friend & I settled on a long weekend in February, since it’s supposed to be the best time of year to see the Northern Lights. At the time, I only knew two or three people who had been, but all of the feedback I heard and read was about how awesome it was. I also wouldn’t have guessed that I would’ve been in Egypt only a week prior, but life seems to always be full of surprises.
Because there’s only two flights per week, we didn’t have much choice about our flight times. We left at 6:05am on a Thursday, which meant arriving in Iceland around 9:00. (It’s only a four hour flight from Geneva.) When we arrived, we stopped in the little market at the airport for a snack. I freaked out when I found Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (something we don’t have in Switzerland)!
Iceland is known for their geothermal pools, and the most famous one is located near the airport. The Blue Lagoon was a highlight of the trip for me. Like a lot of water activities in Europe, the changing room / shower / logistics are a bit chaotic, but once in the water, the experience is really cool. The water is naturally around 100*F. (Apparently, it is over 450*F way below the surface, and “cools” to 100*F by the time it makes it to the surface.) It is full of silica and other minerals, which makes it a blue-ish white color. It’s completely opaque. You can’t even see your hand when it is just below the surface of the water! The ground beneath the water goes from rocky to “mushy” throughout the pool. The pool is relatively shallow. There was never a point where I was treading water. There are huge crates of silica that you can put all over your face. It’s white, and it’s hilarious (and kind of creepy) to see people roaming around the water with masks on. There’s also a swim-up bar. I got a cherry icy, which seemed like a fun drink to enjoy outdoors in the wintery landscape. We also got an algae mask from the bar, so our faces were extra clean and full of minerals when we were finished! The area around the pools is mostly lava rock. It’s a really unusual setting.
[You know you’re in Iceland when this is what the shoe rack looks like in the locker room!]
[We had lunch in the LAVA Restaurant, which is built into the lava rock overlooking the pools. You’re allowed to wear your bathrobe and slippers to the restaurant, so OF COURSE, we did! The chef is one of the best in the Iceland, and it was among my favorite meals of the trip.]
In the mid-afternoon, we took a shuttle to our apartment in Reykjavik. We went out for dinner at a nearby restaurant called SNAPS. It was really adorable, and the food was delicious! We were there for two or three hours, and we were amazed at how almost all of the tables around us lingered. All of them were there before us, and none of them left before us!
[We quickly learned that walking around town was no joke. It was SO ICY on almost every sidewalk!]
There are less than 326,000 people living in Iceland, and only around 120,000 living in Reykjavik. Needless to say, the capital city is quite small. We planned to have most of our dinners in Reykjavik, and we set aside our final day to shop and explore, but during our other days, we intended to get out of town to see the natural wonders that make Iceland unique. If you visit in the summer, it would be awesome to rent a car and drive the coastal road. But, since it was winter, I wasn’t comfortable renting a car and risk driving in bad weather. Based on what we experienced, I’m still glad we didn’t rent a car. In general, the wind is out of control, which not only makes it more challenging to steer, but also causes snow to blow all over the roads making it hard to distinguish your lane. We were scheduled to be picked up between 8:30-9:00 for our Glacier Hike. I called at 8:26 to see if we had to stand outside for 30 minutes, or if they would call us when they arrived. She informed me we had to be outside. So, out we went to wait. When it was 9:05, I called back to ask what the problem was. (After all, we were FREEZING.) She said she would call them and get back to us. Several minutes later, I called again, and she said there was a mix up in the pick-ups. She would call back, but we should go wait inside. Long story short, we waited outside for 50 minutes before they realized that they hadn’t picked us up. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones either. There was some issue on the tour company’s side, and they informed us the group was already on their way to the glacier, and they had to cancel on us. Now, when you’ve spent a tremendous amount of time planning the details of every day, and someone flippantly cancels on you, because they made a mistake, it doesn’t sit well. They offered us a full refund and a voucher for a burger at a restaurant in town (which we didn’t need, because we had dinner reservations every night). Plus, it would be too late to try and switch another activity, and the glacier hike was one of the things we most wanted to do. I told them I didn’t accept their offer, and I needed them to figure out a different solution. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t send a taxi to take us to the glacier to meet up with the others. After several calls back and forth, they informed us that they would send a taxi to get us, and we would be able to join an afternoon group. The hike would be shorter than our original plan, but they were fully refunding us, and the cost of the smaller hike would be absorbed by them. I was okay with that. The additional time allowed us to try what turned out to be our go-to breakfast spot during our visit – Bergsson Mathús. It had such a chill vibe, a delicious breakfast plate of soft boiled egg, prosciutto, cheese, and some of the most delicious homemade bread I’ve ever had! We literally went three days in a row! We were back outside at 11:15 waiting for our ride. The company called again to inform us that one of their people would be picking us up, not a taxi. The guy arrived and drove us 2.5 hours to the glacier. He was a university student who is majoring in some kind of adventure degree. They even sent him with packed lunches for us, which they originally told us they wouldn’t do. He stopped by the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall for us to take some pictures. It was beautiful! We made it up some of the stairs for better pictures, but stopped halfway, because we were terrified of how icy they were!
[We made it halfway up the stairs to take better pictures, but we had to stop, because we were terrified of how icy it was!]
When we arrived at the glacier – an outlet of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, we found out that we were being taken out with a guide for a private tour! At this point, I decided the company had really worked to do right after the initial cancellation. It was fantastic weather – no wind & no rain! Our driver came out with us, too, and the four of us had a great time learning about glaciers and taking in the gorgeous scenery! I am always amazed at how blue glaciers can be!
[Rockin’ crampons & ice pick!]
All four of us drove back to Reykjavik together. What looked like it was going to be a bust turned into a really great day! It was fun to have so much time to ask so many of our questions about Iceland to two people who were born & raised there. They even pointed out Eyjafjallajokull – the volcano that wreaked havoc on air travel in Europe in 2010. That night, we had dinner at another cool (and delicious) restaurant called Foréttabarrin. Unfortunately, I was so exhausted that I didn’t get to fully enjoy our meal. After some good sleep, we were ready to go on Day 3! We were going out to explore the “Golden Circle.” If you ever go to Iceland, this and the Blue Lagoon are the standard activities. The Golden Circle includes three stops: Gullfoss (an amazing waterfall), Geysir,and þingvellir (one of the national parks). We didn’t want to do this loop on a bus with a lot of other people, so we opted for a day in a Super Jeep. It’s popular in Iceland for them to trick out jeeps with huge tires that can drive on glaciers and snowy areas where standard cars and buses can’t go. Our driver picked us up on time, but I knew within the first few minutes it was going to be a long day. For one, he wouldn’t stop talking. For nine hours. Even when there was nothing to say, he would fill the silence. Secondly, he felt entitled to share his opinions on a wide range of topics without regard to the opinions of his hostages, err…passengers. I was shocked at this, because in the course of our time together, he found away to mock my political affiliation, my country of origin, my religion, and my career choice. A lot of people could mock any of those items, but when I pay a lot of money to have you guide me around Iceland, I’m not really paying to hear your opinions without filter. Especially on topics that have nothing to do with Icelandic history or geography. We had another couple with us from the UK who found him equally annoying, and it was fun to share a laugh together during the few minutes he was not with us. The positive of the day? Some really incredible scenery. Iceland has some of the most unusual terrain of any country I’ve visited. The crazy thing is that most of the things we saw look COMPLETELY different in the summer time. I saw some pictures of the same places without the snow and ice, and I didn’t realize it was Iceland!
[On our way…with so much blowing snow on the roads!]
[Our first stop was þingvellir – one of the national parks.]
Within the national park, the America and Euroasian continental plates meet. We walked between the plates to a beautiful waterfall. I haven’t see Game of Thrones, but this area was used in one of the scenes. (We learned that a lot of the show is filmed in Iceland.)
[We drove around to Silfra, which is a fresh water fissure between the tectonic plates. It is some of the clearest water in the world with visibility exceeding 100 meters. This is the only place in Iceland where tourists are encouraged to throw coins in the water. Because of the clarity, you can see all of the coins.]
Our next stop was Strokkur Geyser. It was SO COLD! The geyser goes off every couple of minutes, but we only stayed to see it two or three times. Our hands were frozen by the time we went in. Besides the cold, this was probably the iciest area we had to navigate. I almost fell SO. MANY. TIMES.
[This person stood right in front of me just before the geyser erupted. I was frustrated and shaking from being so cold, which resulted in a really blurry photo. So sad.]
[Thankfully, my friend captured the eruption well!]
Our last stop in the Golden Circle was Gullfoss – a spectacular waterfall. This is one of the sites that looks a lot different in warm weather. We were so cold that it was hard to stand outside long to really take it all in.
After seeing these highlights, the drivers of three different Super Jeeps deflated their tires and took us out on the Langjokull glacier. (Deflating the tires help them not to sink into the snow and get stuck.) The scenery was spectacular. I genuinely felt like we were driving on the clouds. Everything around us resembled what you see when flying through the clouds on an airplane. Just a few peaks popping through.
On the way home, we stopped to say “hello” to some Icelandic horses. I must admit; I’m pretty envious of their hair!
I napped the whole way home to refrain from saying anything I might regret to our guide. I was also gearing up for a night of Northern Lights. We ate a quick dinner of soup in a bread bowl at Svarta Kaffi before our driver picked us up. There was only one other person in our jeep. We all had fingers and toes crossed hoping we would see the Northern Lights. I heard so many stories about how people tried to see them and didn’t that my expectations were low. But, the company informed us that it was a cloudless night with a high “activity level,” so I also knew there was a good chance. Sure enough, we saw them! At the beginning it was a line of white with faint hints of green as we overlooked Reykjavik. We drove further up into the highlands and away from the city’s light pollution, and they got brighter! Neon green stretching across the sky and truly dancing! My camera was worthless at capturing any of it, so I literally stood there bouncing up and down. My friend did an awesome job of capturing the moment, even at the risk of losing one of her hands in the freezing cold! We drove further out, but I was satisfied with what we saw so far. Little did I know that there was one last spectacular show waiting for us. We were stopped for the driver to adjust his tires when he told us we might want to get out of the jeep. They were SO BRIGHT! There were even bursts of pink! It was truly amazing! The entire night I could only manage to think of Psalm 19:1 –
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.
Thankfully, Day 4 started a little bit later than the other mornings. We needed the extra sleep after a late night. We were embarking on a final adventure to do something a wee bit crazy…to snorkel in the Silfra fissure. Yes, we were voluntarily getting into water that was approximately 35*F (2*C). It’s okay, you can call us crazy. We wore long underwear, two pairs of socks, a warm onesie that someone described as a human sleeping bag, and a dry suit. We also had a head covering, gloves, and of course, fins and mask / snorkel. It is too cold for things to live in this water, but the rock formations are cool, and the selling feature for me is that it’s the only place on earth where you can swim between tectonic plates. We had a rockstar guide, and he captured some great photos!
I’m pretty sure I don’t want to do anything again that requires a dry suit. It was so restricting and uncomfortable, but it did give us plenty to laugh about. Leave it to the Americans to think this was so funny! For our final night, we enjoyed a drink at MicroBar (It was Beer Day in celebration of when Beer was legalized in 1989) and the Chef’s tasting menu at Grillmarkadurinn. The tasting menu included a sampling of three starters, three main dishes, and desert.
[We walked past the ENORMOUS Hallgrimskirkja on our way to dinner. At 244 feet tall, it’s the largest church in Iceland.]
On our final morning, we walked around Reykjavik shopping and trying “The Icelandic National Food” – the hot dog! Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (which literally means, “the best hot dogs in town”) is a little stand near the harbour selling DELICIOUS hot dogs complete with grilled onions, fried onions, ketchup, and a special hot dog sauce that is mayonnaise based. If we didn’t have to eat outside, I would’ve ordered more than one!
Iceland was full of surprises. I think one of the most surprising things I learned was that Icelanders receive only a first name. They do not have surnames. Their last name is their father’s name + the word son or daughter attached to the end. So, if your name is Henry and your father’s name is Mark, your name is Henry Markson. That means there must be a lot of pressure to give your kids creative names! While we didn’t see any active volcanoes, there are several. In addition to those, there are 55 volcanoes that are closely monitored due to their frequent activity. It truly is the land of fire and ice, and it was amazing!