I finally had an opportunity to return to Iceland after I heard some coworkers talk about going to see the northern lights. We made some plans and decided to go to Iceland in the middle of January.
The flight to Iceland on Icelandair was uneventful and on time. The flight attendants hand out a big bottle on Icelandic water on boarding for everyone, which was greatly needed and appreciated. One thing that catches some travelers off guard is that Icelandair does not have free food onboard their aircraft. The non-alcoholic drinks are free, but if you want food, that will cost extra. I did not mind the extra 9 euros for a hot sandwich and chips.
We arrived early in the morning, as most flights into Iceland from North America do. Getting the rental car was pretty easy, except the fact that you had to walk outdoors to an outdoor waiting area for the rental car bus to pick you up in cold! It was about 33 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived into Iceland! We rented thru Budget rental car, as that was the cheapest I could find a 7 person car. If you do travel with 7 people to Iceland and expect to fit all your bags in the car, forget it. We luckily only had 6 people traveling on this trip. The problem is that the 6th and 7th seats fold up to give you an above average trunk space if you have 5 people. If you use the 6th and 7th seats, there is no trunk space at all. We ended up packing in the back as best as we could with a couple of people holding on to their backpacks on the drive into Reykjavik.
On this trip, we were fortunate enough to stay at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica. This hotel near downtown Reykjavik and is nothing short of amazing. We showed up at the hotel around 8AM hoping for an early check in on 3 rooms. To our surprise, one of the rooms was in fact ready! They graciously gave us keys for the one room, which included lounge access for breakfast and appetizers in the evening. After we had breakfast, all of us went downstairs to see if the other rooms were ready, which they were not. I give great compliments to the front desk agent for finding us napping in the lobby to inform us that our other rooms were ready with keys in hand about an hour after we left the front desk the 2nd time. One of the biggest tips that I can not stress enough on international travel while changing multiple time zones is to adjust to the local time on the first day. Most of our were still tired from the trip in from Denver to Keflavik as it is only an 8 hour gate to gate flight. Most of the people in the group wanted to take a nap, so we all agreed to meet back up in 2 hours. If you feel like you need to get some shut-eye after a red-eye flight, make sure you take a short nap and not sleep in for a couple of hours, because your body clock could be thrown off versus what timezone you’re in. After a short nap, we got up to explore Reykjavik a bit.
Reykjavik has a lot of things to see and do within a walkable distance. Laugavegur is a very long street in the heart of Reykjavik with lots of shops and restaurants to check out. At one end of the street, in the shadows of the Harpa Concert Hall, is one of my favorite places, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. I have written previously about this location and I still am in agreement that this is the best hot dog stand in Europe. I enjoy it so much that I not only got 1, but 2 hot dogs! After some eats and a lot of walking, we called it an early night to try to catch up on some sleep.
Once we awoke in the morning, we headed out to check out Seljalandsfoss, a beautiful waterfall in the southern part of Iceland. Seljalandsfoss was also featured as a waypoint on one of the seasons of The Amazing Race. As a huge fan of the show, we had to go check it out. We drove about an hour and forty minutes to get to the falls, but we made a pit stop in the town of Hella. For those of you not from Northern California, we use the word hella as an adjective, so it was a pretty exciting experience for the group to be in the town. Seljalandsfoss is one of the better known waterfalls in Iceland that has a 197 foot drop that forms the Seljalandsfoss river, which is fed from a glacier in Eyjafjallajökull. (Yes, the same Eyjafjallajökull that erupted in 2010 that shut down air traffic in Europe) You can actually climb a set of stairs on the right hand side of the waterfall and walk behind it! It is about an hour and a half drive from Reykjavik.
After the drive back from Seljalandsfoss, we went to the Blue Lagoon. There are a lot of mixed feelings out there for going there. Some will say it is overly touristy, as the lagoon itself is not natural. It is man-made that holds the geothermal water after it is ran thru generators to create electricity and energy from the nearby Svartsengi power plant. There are some that also had issues with its dynamic pricing system for reservations and that you MUST have a reservation to get in. We were lucky going in early January as it is very low season for tourism in Iceland. We were able to book tickets the night before. As I write this passage on February 9th, there is only 800pm, an hour before closing, available on February 15th! There were some late entry times about two weeks out, so book way in advance! The Blue Lagoon is currently expanding to have another lagoon sometime this year to help get more people in, as Iceland is currently going thru growing pains as tourism has double from 2010 to 2014. As for me, I think the Blue Lagoon is a must see location at least once in your life. When you check in and get you locker, it is customary the shower off before you get in the lagoon! Try to make sure you bring your own towel too, as there is limited space to hang towels at the lagoon and all the towels being rented out look exactly the same. Yes, you may feel the silica mud when you walk thru the hot water in the lagoon, but you definitely do not want to pick this up and put it on your face! There is a little hut that you can swim up to that has fresh silica mud and algae mask if you paid for the upgraded ticket. They also have a swim up bar with drinks to enjoy in the lagoon as well. We were there for about 3 hours in the twilight/evening hours. Once you leave the lagoon for the day, be sure to rinse your hair with lots and lots of conditioner, as the silica will make your hair stiff and difficult to manage!
The next morning we did the golden circle tour, which has no meaning or roots in Icelandic history, just a nice marketing name! The golden circle tour encompasses about 300 kilometers, or 190 miles, starting in Reykjavik and circling around the southern uplands and back. The day we went was the coldest day on the trip, about 18 degrees fahrenheit or -8 celsius. It is a beautiful sight though to leave in the morning darkness driving to the first stop of Þingvellir National Park and seeing the sun slowly rise over the mountains. Þingvellir National Park was the site of the Alþingi (assembly) of parliament in 930. There is a continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates that is slowly pulling away from each other that can be seen at the park as well. It is about a 40 minute drive from Reykjavik. The next stop about 50 minutes from Þingvellir is Geysir. The Great Geysir seldom erupts, but the nearby Strokkur geyser is a lot more reliable, erupting every 6-10 minutes with an average height of 15-20 meters. A few more minutes up the road is Gullfoss. Gullfoss is a big, beautiful waterfall dropping 32 meters over two tiers. When you approach the waterfall at first, it appears as if the river just drops off in the earth itself. It is really a powerful sight to look at and be a part of.
Once we were back in town, we decided to head into downtown Reykjavik to eat at one of the more highly reviewed restaurants, Fish Company. Fish Company is an upscale seafood restaurant with a wide variety of different seafood dishes around the world. They list the country of origin along with the seafood for that dish, so if you want to get a different cuisine taste, you can. I went with the fish of the day from the local waters of Iceland, which happened to be 3 different fishes plated with different sauces and veggies. The presentation and quality for the price was very reasonable compared to other seafood restaurants.
On our last day in Iceland, we had just enough time before our late afternoon flight back to Seattle to check out Hallgrímskirkja. Hallgrímskirkja is Lutheran church and is the largest church in Iceland at 73 meters high. You can go to the top of the tower to their observation deck for 900 ISK. Keep in mind that the only way up is one very small elevator that only holds 6 people at a time. We did not go to the top, as the wait was about 45 minutes to get on the elevator! There is also an amazing statue of Leif Eriksson in front of the church that predates the construction of the church itself. It was a gift from the United States to Iceland in 1930 to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of the Alþingi. We only had so much time to check out the surrounding area before we had to head to the airport to head home.
Why did we chose to go to Iceland in the dead of winter? We wanted to have the best chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora zone is usually pretty small, but it can reach down to cover Iceland in a glow of polar light depending on any geomagnetic storms or solar activity. There is never a guarantee to see Aurora Borealis, and we did unfortunately struck out. At least on Icelandair on the flight home, there was always a guarantee to see the northern lights. I looked at those LED lights dancing on the ceiling of the aircraft, dreaming of another day coming back yet again to see the Aurora Borealis in person. Til next time Iceland.