Iceland! – Our Trip Part 3

O! For dinner on Thursday night we ended up, after a failed attempt at a very popular local seafood restaurant, at a hotel restaurant called O. It was good. As always, the food wasn’t quite what we expected, but was very enjoyable.

Friday morning was an early one, as we had an 8:20 AM pickup to go ride Icelandic Horses. Icelandic horses are short, sturdy, gentle horses with long hair and long manes. There were a total of eight people on the horse tour, four from our party (Dan ducked out due to a debilitating fear of animals larger than him), and two other couples (one from Germany, one from New York). First we had to put warm coveralls over our already quite warm outdoor gear, which was a little concerning. Then helmets for safety, and finally we went outside to be given our horses, the selection of which was at least party based on any riding experience.

Being the largest person, I ended up with the largest horse, a tall white shaggy horse whose name I can’t remember or pronounce. We were given basic instruction in how to mount, dismount, and the basics of riding. When I was younger I used to ride regularly, so it was old hat for me. The Icelandic horse has a unique fifth gait called the Tolt, which is an amazingly smooth pace about the same speed as a trot, or possibly a bit faster (I’ll have to look it up when I get home – I’m on the flight home now, somewhere between Iceland and Greenland over the North Atlantic). My horse responded beautifully to all steering, starting, and stopping commands, but refused to listen to my requests for more speed. He resolutely ignored any gentle or firm kicks, and essentially walked most of the time, accelerating to a trot or tolt only when the horse in front of him began to seriously out pace him. I started off in 2nd position, and rapidly fell to 8th, and then began lagging 100+ feet behind the group. I’m sure all the other horses were laughing at him, but he just won’t go any faster. That minor frustration aside, the ride was amazing! The day was cold and clear, but the coveralls kept us warm, and the act of riding horses through the alien countryside was a beautiful thing. This was one of my favorite tours that we went on during our stay in Iceland.

That afternoon we did some souvenir shopping, and Emma and Dan got hotdogs from the world famous hot dog stand near the harbor in Reykjavik. We met in the lobby for a self-hosted cocktail hour(s), and headed out for Thai food around 8:30 PM. The Thai food was fantastic, better and cheaper than our previous Thai dinner. Overstuffed, we made our way back to the hotel. I was exhausted from the mountain climbing on Thursday and the riding on Friday, so I packed my bag, relaxed a bit, and went to bed before midnight. The rest of the troop went out to experience the infamous Friday night Reykjavik bar crawl. They returned a bit after 2 AM.

This morning, Saturday, we got up early, finished the final packing, and ate breakfast downstairs. I ran out to the local bakery and returned with a selection of pastries to add a change of pace to the daily breakfast offering of the hotel. After checking out, we took a shuttle bus back to the Blue Lagoon. They kept our luggage in the bus, and we went to enjoy a nice soak.

The only catch was that it was a blizzard. It was bitterly cold, snowing heavily, and the winds were steady and very strong. We saw an upside down 4×4 Jeep on the road on the way to the Blue Lagoon, testifying to the bad conditions. It was much colder than our previous visit to the Blue Lagoon the previous Saturday, and the wind and blowing snow meant you couldn’t face into the wind without being blinded by the snow and stinging wind. We explored the whole lagoon, until we found the best balance of extra hot water, and some shelter from the winds. After a couple of hours in the water, we got out for a small lunch at the indoor cafe by the water. Most of us headed back in after lunch to soak our sore muscles a bit more before we had to get ready to head to the airport. After so many days of strenuous exertion we were all sore pretty much all over. The hot water was wonderful, even with the howling winds. Eventually we had to get out and get ready to catch the shuttle to the airport. I wish every airport had a nearby hot springs spa with shuttle service. I think people would be much happier on their flights if they’d just come from a long luxurious soak.

The Keflivik airport is beautiful and seems much too large for the number of flights or people it currently handles. I think there were five outgoing flights today, with ours at 5 PM being the first. As such the check-in and security lines were non-existent, and the waiting area was very clean and grand. We’re on the way home now, at 33,000 feet and just over five hours to Boston left to go.

While I’m definitely glad to be headed home and eager to enjoy my own bed (with it’s lack of Frankenstienian bedding and fluffy pillows), a shower that doesn’t smell of rotten eggs, and most importantly the company of our iguana Fifi, I also really enjoyed the trip. It was amazing, and I’d like to come back at some point. We packed a lot into our eight day stay, and I think at least once a day we wondered if we were going to freeze to death, or at least lose a few fingers or toes. It was very extreme, and very enjoyable. I recommend going if you can, and I recommend bringing very warm clothes.

Photos will be uploaded within the next few days. Thanks!

Iceland! – Our Trip Part 2

In my previous post, Our Trip So Far, I caught you all up to Tuesday afternoon, when I was writing blog posts from a local coffee shop.

On Tuesday evening we had an early dinner at a Mexican restaurant which was delicious. Like many of the meals I’ve had in Iceland, the food wasn’t exactly what I had expected, but was very good. My chicken quesadilla was stuffed with shredded chicken, similar to pulled pork, folded up like a calzone, and fried like a sopapilla. It was then covered with lettuce, which was then drizzled with sour cream and balsamic vinegar. It was AMAZING! I’m hoping to go back for lunch before we leave the country.

After dinner we went on a Northern Lights tour. The forecast for the lights, based on monitoring the sun, wasn’t great, but it looked like we would be able to see something. Unfortunately clouds came in and we had to divert from our initial destination and try another spot. It was very cold, but eventually the Northern Lights appeared and we watched the green lights dancing back and forth across the sky. It was very impressive! I would love to go back when the solar flares are stronger, and remember to bring a tripod and remote shutter button for my camera.

On Wednesday we did an all day tour of the Golden Circle, a trip that took us to many famous and interesting places in Iceland. Our tour driver was great, and we had a small group with just the five of us and a couple from the UK. We saw amazing waterfalls, old churches, the valley between the American continental plate and the Eurasian continental plate where the original Viking parliament meetings took place, and toured a geo-thermal power-plant. Our tour guide was a wealth of great stories, knowledge, and even sang an example of an ancient Icelandic poem/song. I took a ton of pictures, and we all had a great time. We spent a lot of time hiking outside, climbing up and down, and got a good amount of exercise. When we returned that evening to Reykjavik we were cold and tired and decided that spicy hot Indian food would hit the spot. We tried a little Indian restaurant near the hotel which was delicious.

Today, Emma, Dan, and I went on the Hot Springs Hunter tour. The premise of this was that we were going to hike to a hot springs, take a dip, and hike back. It was rated two out of five stars for difficulty and used the term “stroll” to describe the hike. When we went to pay for the tour on Tuesday we discovered that all of the tour company’s tours were between two and three stars. A two and a half star tour involved using ice picks to climb a glacier, and the only three star tour involved scuba diving through ice caves. All of a sudden two stars sounded much harder than it had before.

Our tour guide picked us up at 9 AM and it turned out there were only the three of us on the tour. Our tour guide was the epitome of the young, handsome, outdoor adventurer, although seeing the hiking pole on his backpack raised the anxiety level for me. After a 30 minute drive taking us to a small town with large greenhouses which we had driven past on the previous day we left the van and started heading up into the mountains. We were initially told it would be a 20 minute hike to the hot springs, and as we looked up the mountain we saw a crest high up that looked like a reasonable destination. Once we reached that crest we were up into the snow, and started heading into a valley leading North and up deeper into the mountains. The wind in Reykjavik was supposed to be about 35 mph, and I suspect that the Arctic wind coming in from the North and rushing down the valley was significantly higher speed than that (my uneducated guess is about 50 mph at it peak). We ended up hiking for about two hours, climbing higher into the mountains. Between the wind and the snow, and being able to see nothing but mountains in every direction, it felt very much as if we were in one of those documentaries about climbing Mount Everest or hiking in Antarctica.

We crossed rivers (I had to jump one instead of walking across as I didn’t have water-proof hiking boots), walked around boiling mud and spurting steam, we walked on eight inch wide paths high up on very steep mountain sides, we hiked through snow making our own trail, and eventually came to the bathing location, a place where a steam of hot water from underground merged with a colder stream, providing warm but not scalding water to soak in. Changing into swimsuits was the coldest part, but once we slipped into the water, it was just like being in a hot tub surrounded by the most beautiful landscape. Once it was time to get out of the water, it was much easier to get dressed with the warmth from the soak making the cold wind feel much less chill.

The hike back was much faster and easier. The wind was to our backs and the sun was in front of us, and we carried the warmth from the hot springs with us. We made it back to the van in about an hour. Frankly I am very impressed by all of us. The hike was well beyond what I would have thought I could tackle, and we all handled it very well. If I’d known what I was going to be in for I’m not sure I would have signed up for the tour, but I’m actually very glad I did it. I took some amazing pictures, had a really good time, and feel proud of myself and like I really accomplished something today. Plus it was probably the best workout that I’ve had in a very long time. Pictures of me from the hike should show me as all smiles!

We grabbed a late lunch in Reykjavik, and are currently relaxing in the hotel. I’m sore and tired, but quite happy. Tomorrow we ride horses!

Iceland! – Our Hotel

We are staying at the Leifur Eiriksson hotel in Reykjavik.

The Good:

  1. It’s cheap. I think we’re paying about $40/night.
  2. The location is great. Quick walk to the main shopping/restaurant drag, great view of the big church.
  3. The front desk has been super helpful at setting up tours, taxis, reservations.
  4. Free breakfast spread that’s better than many cheap European hotels’.

The Bad:

  1. There’s no elevator. We’re only on the 3rd floor, so it’s not too bad, but if you’re higher up, or elderly, or otherwise don’t like stairs, it could be an issue.
  2. The walls/doors/windows are paper thin. You will hear everything that happens on your floor or outside.
  3. There are no amenities. I don’t mean “they don’t have Aveda bath products”, I mean “there’s no alarm. there’s no extra towels. there’s no bath mat. there’s one ‘do not disturb’ sign shared by the entire wing. there’s no room service. there’s no shoe shine. there’s no shampoo. there’s no hair dryer (apparently there’s one for the whole hotel, but it hasn’t been available yet – and we’ve asked twice a day since we arrived). there’s only one room key for the two of us. there’s no bathrobes. there’s no paper, pens, pencils, envelopes. there’s no thermostat. there’s no bathroom exhaust fan, so after your shower the whole room is a now a steam room. there’s no tub. there’s no separate shower basin, it shares the same floor as the bathroom. there’s no clock.”
  4. The bed is hilarious. It’s a full size, since there are two of us. However, apparently they don’t have full size sheets, blankets, or pillows. For sheets, they’ve used two twin sheets put on horizontally, overlapping about 1/2 way down the bed. For blankets they’ve used two twin blankets put on vertically, overlapping about a foot in the middle of the bed. The pillows are the smallest, flattest, bags of dust mite dander that I’ve ever seen. The mattress is marginally better than sleeping on the floor.
  5. The room is tiny. There is probably about 2 feet on any given side of the bed. One side of the bed has a bedside table/micro-desk since there’s no room for both bedside stands AND a desk. The “closet” is about 12″ wide, and has four hangers. The shower is so small that I can’t physically be in the shower, without part of my body touching the shower curtain. Which when you’re wet means the shower curtain clings to your body like a cape, while you try to not think about the fact that it’s done that for every person who’s stayed in that room. When you have a cape like that, your only super power is “Fungal Infection!”

If you are broke/used to European hostels/a hospitality masochist it could be a fine option. If not, I’d highly recommend trying the Raddisson 1919 SAS, or Hotel 101 (a bit spendy).

Iceland! – Impressions

Iceland is an amazing country. The physical landscape is like no where else I’ve ever been. The old lava flow landscape looks like an other-worldly alien landscape. The mountains and glaciers appear out of the fog as these impossibly imposing edifices. On some of the shuttle trips that took us out into the desolate lava fields beyond Reykjavik, you could see a single old house or barn sitting in the middle of miles upon miles of empty harsh terrain. There are amazing photo opportunities, if only you have the right vehicle. If I lived here, I’d absolutely be one of the people who has the large jeep/truck on the giant off-road tires and lift-kit.

The weather is equally different from anything I’ve seen. It will go from sunny and warm-ish, to windy, to rainy, to snowy, to hail, to sun, in under an hour. And I don’t mean a few small hail balls, or a few flakes of snow. I’m talking about a heavy New England snowstorm, lasting only 20 minutes, or paint scouring hail pounding down for 15 minutes. And then it clears, for a while, as if it hadn’t happened.

It’s MUCH colder than Boston is at this time of year. I’m not sure if it is a cold, long, winter here, or if it’s normally this much colder than Boston (I had heard they were similar climates). We all have good gear, but it’s still quite bracing, especially when the wind picks up.

The people all speak English, which is great for the language disabled, like myself. Everyone has been friendly and helpful. People are also extremely fit compared to the USA. People walk a lot, and apparently it’s normal to go swimming at the Olympic swimming pools before work every day, and to swim again with your family in the evening before bed. Many families also own and frequently ride Icelandic horses. Judging from the amount of outdoor-wear stores, I think the stereotypical image of the Icelanders spending the weekends climbing glaciers and fishing during winter storms can’t be too wrong. The local cold weather gear company, 66 degrees North, puts NorthFace to shame as far as engineering and construction quality goes. If I every take up cold weather hiking, or something similar, I will be ordering my gear from them.

The children are very well behaved, compared to your average American children. I’m not a parent, so I feel hesitant about criticizing how people parent their children, but most parents in the USA could, and should, take lessons from the Icelandic parents.

There are also some very beautiful people here. It’s not a land of super models, but pretty often the combination of very physically fit, the Nordic cheekbone, and the striking pale blonde hair, makes for a stunningly beautiful individual. This applies to both men and women.

The combination of the beautiful people and the alien landscape makes the photographer in me want to plan another trip to shoot a calendar or photo series.

The traditional Icelandic food is pretty scary, to me at least, and consist of things like singed sheep head, and rotten shark meat. However, it seems I’m not the only person in Reykjavik who feels this way, as foreign cuisine restaurants out number traditional Icelandic fare, about ten to one.

Given the large amount of uninhabited land, combined with the financial crisis Iceland is undergoing, I have to wonder how much a house or condo in Reykjavik costs, and how much it would cost to buy up 100 acres of lava field 50 km outside of the city. Anyone know?