Iceland

I was overdue for a birthday adventure after some uneventful birthdays.  With my birthday at the beginning of March, you would assume I’d head someplace warm to escape the last throes of winter.  But after repeatedly seeing offers for Northern Lights tours in Iceland, I couldn’t resist finally checking this off my list.  I wasn’t sure I would find anyone to join me on this trip, but my friend Jessica decided that she, too, was ready for an adventure, so off we went.  Jessica and I were college roommates, and had studied in Madrid together.  We backpacked around Europe following our semester abroad, so our trip to Iceland kind of felt like a long awaited sequel.

We had an overnight flight from Dulles, which wasn’t really much of an overnight at only five and a half hours.  When the pilot announced we were preparing to land, I looked out my window and saw pitch black darkness, which was a bit disconcerting.  The Keflavik airport is right on western edge of the country, so there was no glow of city or suburban lights to indicate an impending arrival.  We arrived at 6:30 a.m., which was 1:30 a.m. for us, and I immediately reset my watch, not wanting to even think about how tired I was going to be.  I was ready to jump in and begin the adventure.

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Reykjavik is about an hour from the airport, so as we arrived at our hotel downtown the sun was just beginning to emerge.  We stayed at the Center Hotel Plaza, which I would discover over the course of our stay is in the perfect location for exploring Reykjavik.  There are great restaurants, shops, and tourist attractions all within walking distance.  We had a standard room, and if I could do it over again I would definitely upgrade to a bigger room with a view of the plaza.  But the breakfast buffet was delicious, the staff was helpful, and lobby was a cozy place to hang out while we waited to be picked up for our various activities.

We were scheduled for a Northern Lights tour our first night, so after paying for an early check-in, we dropped off our bags, walked over to the harbor to do some sightseeing, then returned for a nap and shower before our tour.  But due to overcast skies, the tour was canceled for that evening, so we decided to grab dinner at a restaurant Jessica’s sister had recommended to us, Icelandic Fish & Chips.  Dinner was delicious, with tomato and fennel soup, and fried fish over a mango salad.  We tried Iceland’s Gull beer, and I was hooked.  Wandering back to the hotel, we stopped in a charming coffee shop called Stofan for a coffee and dessert (chocolate cake for me, meringue pie for Jessica).  Feeling more awake, we decided to pop into an English pub – appropriately named The English Pub – for another pint of Gull, and had a fun evening listening to live music, checking out the beautiful Icelandic people, and questioning why we didn’t think about studying abroad in Reykjavik.

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THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

The next morning, we took a tour of the Golden Circle.  Our tours were all through Reykjavik Excursions, which runs a pretty smooth operation.  A shuttle is sent to various hotels each morning to pick up guests and take us to a central bus depot, where everyone boards different buses according to what they’ve signed up for that day.  I have to admit, when I booked the tour package, I didn’t think I’d be taking a tour bus, and I was initially a bit disappointed.  But it turned out to be a nice experience.  Maybe because the countryside is so vast, and the sights were not very crowded, I never felt like cattle, as can happen on bus tours.  Jessica and I discussed that it would be fun to come back in the summer and rent a car, but certainly in the winter it was nice to have a professional driving.  At a few places we ran into smaller tour companies with monster wheel buses, which I believe were geared towards more extreme tours.  But I very quickly found myself happy with my bus for this visit.

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The Golden Circle is a must for Iceland, kind of like seeing the monuments in Washington, DC or Times Square in New York.  The first stop is Pingvall, which is in the Rift Valley, where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are pulling apart.  It’s stunning.  Pingvall is also the site of the original Icelandic parliament, where the chieftains would gather in the tenth century.  Walking in their footsteps, I felt like I was on the set of a fantasy movie.  It was such a surreal landscape.

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Before our next stop, we made a detour to a geothermal greenhouse that grows tomatoes, to learn about Icelandic agriculture.  It was interesting to see tomatoes growing in the middle of winter, and we had a cup of incredibly fresh and flavorful tomato soup.  I never knew tomato soup could taste that good, and without all the cream.

Next, we went to Geysir, which has, well, a geyser.  In fact, the word “geyser” comes from the location Geysir.  I had seen pictures of it in my research and didn’t think much about it.  But seeing it in person was really cool.  I’m not sure what it is about a massive stream of hot water suddenly bursting into the air that gets everyone excited, but I liked it.  Maybe it’s just the awesomeness of nature showing you who’s boss.

After a lunch break at Geysir, we headed to the Gullfoss waterfall.  I had seen this on TV before, but never in the winter.  Seeing it in person was overwhelming.  It was loud and powerful, but with snow and ice everywhere it seemed impossible that the water could be flowing so intensely.  How the hot water from the geothermal energy underground could flow alongside the ice turned out to be an ongoing fascination for me.  It added to the fantastical allure of Iceland.  Hot and cold at the same time.

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We headed back to Reykjavik, and learned that the Northern Lights tour was on for that night.  We grabbed a quick dinner at a noodle place called Ramen Momo, across the street from Icelandic Fish & Chips, then got ready for our evening tour.

As we stood outside the hotel that night waiting for the bus to pick us up, a green streak broke though the sky.  It was my first sighting of the Northern Lights.  I freaked out inside, but stood in silence with the rest of the crowd as we watched the green fly across the sky.  It seemed like right out of a science fiction movie (feeling like I was in a movie would be a recurring theme during this trip).  Our bus took us outside of the city, and we pulled off the main highway to a dark side road, where we could get out and watch the lights.

Despite my many practice sessions at home setting up my tripod in the cold, dark night and taking pictures of the back yard – all of which went smoothly –  I was unable to set up my tripod or get a picture.  There just wasn’t enough light, despite maxing out my aperture and shutter speed.  And I just had to laugh as pieces of my tripod fell off into the snow while I tried to assemble it.  I finally put the camera down, and, as Jessica explained it while pointing to her forehead, “took a picture up here.”  The lights looked like a milkier green than what we had seen in the city, and with nothing blocking the view, they seemed to stretch across the sky.  It was like watching a dance as they came and went, expanding, disappearing, reemerging, lilting, reaching, teasing, mesmerizing.

The weather in Iceland had been no colder than what we were experiencing back home, but that night, without the city to insulate us, it was pretty cold and windy.  I had fortunately brought hand warmers for the trip and that night they definitely came in handy.  With everyone pretty much freezing after a while, our tour guide took us further down the the road to a dark cafe.  In the middle of nowhere stood a round, glass-enclosed cafe with only one dim light for the staff behind the counter.  They were selling hot chocolate and donuts, and in that moment it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.  We stayed a while longer watching the lights, then headed back to Reykjavik.

Since I’m unable to provide any pictures of the Northern Lights from that night, here’s a picture of Lenny Kravitz instead.

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When we got back to town, it was Saturday night and there were young kids everywhere, dressed to impress as they waited outside clubs and bars.  It was such a jolt after being out in the country.  Jessica and I walked up and down the main streets, checking out the scene, which featured music blaring from each bar and cars full of young people cruising the main drag, blasting their own music.  After a long day, we just smiled and made our way back to our hotel.

REYKJAVIK

The next day we explored Reykjavik.  We started at the National Museum, where I learned all about Icelandic history.  I never considered until that point how little I knew of Icelandic and even Viking history.  We didn’t learn much about it in school, I guess because it had very little to do with the settling of America.  So it was all new to me.  What I found really interesting was that, despite the reputation of the Vikings as being violent, there seemed to be a lack of violence in the relationship between Icelandic governance and religion.

Making our way to Saga Museum, we strolled through neighborhoods and I couldn’t help but stop and check out the homes.  The older houses looked like doll houses, and were quite different from the modern, more stereotypical Scandinavian designs.  We came upon the frozen Tjörnin lake and saw people walking across it.  Jessica wanted to do it, while I was hesitant that if anyone was going to fall in, it would be me.  But we worked up the courage to walk out on the ice, and we both survived.  We stopped for lunch at a hot dog stand.  I had read a lot about Icelandic hot dogs and how you had to try them.  To be honest, they tasted like hot dogs.  I’m not sure what all the fuss was about, except that they put friend onions on them, which was tasty.  Frankly (pun intended), I’m surprised I never read about the bread in Iceland, because every time we had bread with our meals it was ridiculously good.

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The Saga Museum is devoted to Viking history, in Iceland and beyond.  It is more or less a wax museum, and at first I thought it was a bit cheesy.  But after the tour, there was a room with a video showing how they made the wax figures, and this is where we learned that the guy who took our ticket was the owner and the museum was his lifelong passion.  He even had his 80 year old mother encased in plaster as a model for one of the displays.  There was an area where you could dress up as a Viking and take pictures.  The weapons and chain mail were authentic (and heavy!), so in the end I enjoyed my visit and found myself rooting for this guy to succeed with his museum.  Jessica and I decided that his story would make for a good indie film.  We ended the day with a visit to a local thermal pool, dinner at Reykjavik Fish Restaurant, and coffee and dessert at Cafe Paris.

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THE BLUE LAGOON

The next day we went to the Blue Lagoon.  Jessica had to leave a day early, so this would be her last day.  Because the Blue Lagoon is close to the airport, most tours have a morning trip to the Blue Lagoon, then you can easily catch your late afternoon flight home.  This was Jessica’s plan, while I had no idea what I was going to do after she left for the airport.

As the bus drove us out to the lagoon, snow was falling pretty heavily.  We had been lucky to have had good weather the entire trip, with sunny skies and little wind, so I was a bit concerned that the snow was going to ruin our day.  But when we arrived at the facility, changed into our swimsuits, and then stepped out to the lagoon, the snow actually amplified the experience.  Again, it was the simultaneous hot and cold experience, with the snow and cold on your upper body and warm thermal waters soothing your lower half, which increasingly became most of my body as I sank down in the water.  The fog mixed with the steam made for very little visibility, so I felt like I was floating around in a dream, as I could only make out shadows of heads in the distance.  The milky turquoise blue water surrounded by dark lava rock was surreal, and with snow capping the rocks I seriously felt like I was in a fantasy movie and a unicorn was going to show up any moment.

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The amusing thing about the Blue Lagoon was that there was a bunch of us all experiencing this together.  We had ridden the bus together and were going through the same high together.  So, you’re floating along in the water, unable to see much in front of you, when you come across a couple people and everyone is so happy.  I lost count of how many times I said to a stranger or had them say to me, and usually at the same time, “This is so awesome.”  At one point, Jessica and I were greeted by a group of young British men with, “Hello, lagoon friends!”  And for that moment, we were all best friends.

When it came time for Jessica to leave, she got out of the lagoon to clean up and I told her I would follow in ten minutes to say goodbye.  But I waited too long, and she was already off to the airport.  We texted our goodbyes, and I debated whether I should go back to Reykjavik.  I had lunch at the cafe just inside the lagoon facilities, and decided that since I had wanted to go to the Blue Lagoon for so long, why on earth should I leave early?  So I went back in for round two.  But the snow had passed and the sun was coming out.  My mysterious fog had disappeared, and a new crowd of afternoon visitors had arrived.  I watched them all go through the same awestruck enthusiasm that I had experienced a few hours earlier, and I missed my lagoon friends, most of whom had gone to the airport.  I slowly prepared myself to walk away from this amazing experience, cleaned myself up and headed back to Reykjavik.

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I spent the evening doing some souvenir shopping and finally checking out a noodle shop called Noodle Station that Jessica and I had walked past many times, always remarking how yummy it smelled.  The noodles were delicious and I felt so content enjoying my dinner, but a little guilty that she didn’t get a chance to try them.  I also went around taking photos of some of the statues we had come across during our visit.  They were unexpected and unusual, and I enjoyed having some extra time just to stand and observe them.

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My final day in Iceland, I had just enough time in the morning to do something I had wanted to do earlier in our visit.  The Hallgrímskirkja church is an imposing structure that I had read had amazing views from the top of the tower.  Jessica and I had stopped in during our first day in Reykjavik, but because a funeral was getting ready to take place, we did not get to the tower.  After breakfast, I walked to the church and made my way to the top.  The view was impressive, and I think I appreciated it even more at the end of my trip, as I knew what I was looking at, and could recognize areas I had visited.

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With time for one last coffee and croissant before I was picked up for the airport, I sat in a cafe and reflected on my experience.  After I planned this trip, there were times where I doubted my decision.  I found myself stressing out over what to pack and if I really needed to be buying more stuff that I might not use again.  I worried it might be freezing.  But everything turned out to be perfect.  I was adequately prepared and was never cold and miserable.  The weather cooperated and I had an amazing time.  Jessica and I talked about how we’d like to come back in the summer to see how differently things look under the snow, and to visit the southern part of the country.  But I really enjoyed going in the winter.  The snow made for a magical experience, and the opportunity to see the Northern Lights really was once in lifetime for me.  Iceland is a special place, and I feel lucky to have experienced it.

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