I love IcelandAir. My knees loves the legroom. The pillowcases had a cute bedtime poem on them in English and Icelandic. The seat backs even had cute little facts about Icelandic on them. Just on the plane, we learned that the Prime Minister is in the phone book and that the most popular restaurant in the country is a hot dog stand. The only negative about the flight is that it is only 5 hours from NYC. So, I did not get the typical 8 hours of sleep I'm use to getting when flying to Europe.
When we arrived, we checked to see how much a taxi to our hotel was going to be, and it was twice what the bus was for 2 people. The line for bus tickets was hella long, but they make sure that they get everybody out. My recommendation is to just buy the tickets ahead of time.
We got to our hotel (IcelandAir Loftleider), and they were "upgrading" almost everybody to the Hilton Nordica. While the Hilton has much nicer decor and I imagine a nicer breakfast, it is not in quite as good of a location, so we were a bit bummed since that was our priority.
We quickly ate (the buffet was huge), grabbed a nap, and headed downtown. It was only 30 F, so we didn't think it would be that rough, but the winds were howling. As we walked by the sea, the wind splashed water up the barrier wall and iced over the path. I put on my sunglasses, not because it was sunny, but because it was windy.
Our first tourist stop of the day was the Höfði house. Gorbachev and Reagan had some important discussion there that was the beginning of the end of the cold war. We took pictures and moved on.
We stopped by a tourist info booth to get the bus/museum discount card and book our bus to Blue Lagoon. They info guy was very helpful. He even spent several minutes being patient with us, trying to teach us how to say the name of the famous church in town.
At first, I was trying very hard to get all the names right, but at some point, it just became too much effort. Soon, Kringlumýrarbraut was "Klingon Rabbit" and Njarðargata became "Nicaragua." I felt bad butchering the names, but we just needed to get places.
Hallgrímskirkja is the city's landmark building. The church is not particularly huge, but it is thick. The front doors can't be opened manually. They are so thick that you have to press a button for them to open automatically. We climbed to the top and took in the view of the city. The wind was practically blowing us over, so we didn't stay at the top too long. The sculpture garden across the street was closed, so we headed to the culture house museum. Our Welcome Card got us in for free, and they had free lockers to dump our bags in. The lockers were very useful as we were pretty bundled up to keep out the cold and wind. Every time we entered a building, it took several minutes to unbundle, and then we were left with a pile of winter clothes that we'd have to carry around if there weren't lockers. The museum contained displays on the Viking Sagas (like mythology), including some of the original manuscripts. (I love old books, even when I can't read them!) The top floor had a film display that had some pretty weird short films showing. The one I saw was in English and didn't really have a plot or a message, as far as I could tell. On the way out, we looked at the fridges that had Icelandic poetry magnets. I was very amused.
We re-bundled and headed to our next tourist stop- the government house. Despite being a small town (200 k residents) by US standards, most of Iceland lives in Reykjavik. So, the government house isn't super huge. It was neat that we could go right up to it though. It was a very different experience than the DC government buildings- no fences keeping cars a certain distance away, no barriers preventing people from walking up, no security guards watching the activity. Not that there were a ton of people around in the first place. I think that between the small population, the freezing weather, and the fact that it was Friday, we didn't really see any people out on the non-main roads. In some ways, this was good for us in that it made walking around town a peaceful affair. When we passed a small playground, it was empty, so we swang on the swings without feeling bad for taking the swings from the kids, because they weren't out.
Eventually we made it to the National Gallery, unbundled our stuff into the lockers and looked around. This was a modern art museum. As such, there was the requisite "that's not art" type of art, including a pile of laundry and a stack of empty soda bottles. Beyond that, the art was nice. They had a little cafe to eat at and had a Charlie Chaplin cut out sitting at one of the tables. While I thought it would be neat to eat with Charlie, they really didn't have lunch food at the cafe, so we rebundled and moved on.
Just outside the museum is Tjörnin pond. (Don't call it a lake or they get upset.) At one corner, they have heated water constantly flowing so that the ice doesn't freeze over and the ducks, geese, and swans have a place to stay. The rest of the lake was frozen though. We saw some natives playing hockey on the lake, so we decided to go out on the ice as well. Not being from a place where lakes freeze well enough to stand on, it was a new and exciting experience for me. After lake playtime, we headed for lunch. There seemed to be an abundance of Asian restaurants, and we landed at a Thai restaurant. I ordered an Icelandic soda, whose name started with "apple." It turns out to be orange soda, but not US-style orange soda. It was more grapefruity than sugar syrupy. Apparently in Iceland, sweet and sour is a Thai flavor, not Chinese. I originally thought it would be Thai-style sweet and sour, but it really didn't taste any different than Chinese food in the states would. Another difference as a whole is that when you first look at the menu, the prices seem high, but really, I think it works out about the same as they price you see is the price you pay. There is no added tax or tip, and not even a place on the check to write it in. This was definitely helpful as the food would have been mega-expensive if it hadn't already included everything.
Our next stop on the Museum tour of Reykjavik was the National Museum of Iceland (again, included with our Welcome Card). The museum contained a ton of interesting information, such as that at one point, most of Iceland was either a priest or a housewife. They had a cool Viking ship. Every time I see those little boats, I wonder how people made it such long distances on them. I was also amazed to see an old loom. Holding the strings straight were a bunch of rocks with holes in them and the strings tied. I don't usually think of poking holes in large rocks as easy things to do, especially without modern tools, but I guess those Vikings were strong. The coolest part of the museum was the dress-up room, though. They had real chain mail hanging so that you could touch it and feel how heavy it was. They also had a helmet, shield and sword you could try on and pretend to be a viking- way cool.
Our last museum of the day was the Settlement House (again included with the card). This is an archaeological site that they have put a building around so that it is preserved and so that people can visit year round. The building contains ruins of an original Viking house in-situ. The ruins are well-marked so that you can tell what you're looking at. It's neat to see what an archeologist would see upon finding the settlement.
After the museum, we went across the street to city hall to wait for the bus to Blue Lagoon. One of the nice things about Iceland was that it was pretty all-inclusive. In addition to having tax/service included at the restaurants, lockers included with admission to museums, and museum admissions included on the Welcome Card, the tours were pretty inclusive as well. We had booked the bus to Blue Lagoon and asked where the bus picks up. The answer was "where do you want it to pick you up?" Throughout the whole trip we had more included door-to-door service than I've gotten anywhere else. In this case, we actually had a car come get us and bring us to the central bus station where they had a large van waiting to go to Blue Lagoon. I slept on the van, but didn't feel like I missed anything because by then it was 5, and the sun was down. There wasn't really anything to see.
The Blue Lagoon was great! We gave them our tickets and they gave us this neat RFID wrist band tag. The wrist band opened the lockers, and if you lost yours would tell you which one was yours. It was also good for making purchases. Before you get into the Blue Lagoon, they ask you to shower. It was also recommended to us to put a TON of conditioner in our hair so that our hair doesn't come out completely damaged. When you first exit the locker rooms, you are at an indoor pool that is thermally heated. It's pretty small, but it was our first stop. Really, it's just a place to warm up, because I don't know why else anybody would go in there. The real thing to do is to go outside. Polar Bear Plunging definitely prepared me for the run to the lagoon. If we were clothed, it wouldn't seem so far, but in a wet swimsuit, going even 30 feet in 30 F weather with the wind blowing makes you want to run and not walk. When we made it into the lagoon, we did get all warmed up. The lagoon itself is just a large geothermally heated pool. There are some scalding hot spots (not the kind found in public US pools) and some just generally warm spots. After a while, you forget that your ears are frozen because the rest of you is so warm. In addition to the water, there are several things to enjoy out in the lagoon. There are boxes of some sort of special mud that you can put on your face and get a facial out of. We slathered it on. Unfortunately, the masks are water-based. They started evaporating using the heat from our faces almost immediately, which made our faces freezing. At some point, we decided that we were done having this cold mud on our faces. We hadn't thought through getting it off. The water in the lagoon itself was definitely milky due to the sulfur and minerals that were naturally present. While we didn't quite think it was the best to stick our faces under, that was really the only solution to getting the masks off, so we did. Of course, we came back up with cold faces anyway, but at least that was short-term. We wandered around the hot water, enjoying the view of the stars (Jen was able to pick out Cassiopeia) and passed the bar. Yes, there is an in-lagoon bar. You just put up your wrist band and order a drink and they pass it down to you. I had a Blue Lagoon (bright blue wine drink) in the Blue Lagoon. Jen got some sort of Skyr (Icelandic yogurty-cream) milkshake that was also good. At some point, we decided that we had seen what there was to see and that it was time to get out. We ran back inside into the indoor pool to warm up and then went to the locker rooms to change and recondition our hair. In the end, my hair really didn't feel damaged. I don't know whether that's because I conditioned a lot or because of some other reason. We ate dinner at the Lagoon as we had some time before our bus came. They pretty much had sandwiches and ice cream, so that's what we got, but I was hoping for something more Icelandic, especially because the raw vegetables I weren't so good. People say that American vegetables have no flavor, but at breakfast I had eaten a tomato with so little flavor (even compared to the stuff in US grocery stores in winter) that I wouldn't have even known it was a tomato if I hadn't seen it with my eyes.
We spent a few minutes in the gift shop until we realized that the cheapest spa stuff they had was $25 for a trial-size bottle. So, we hung out for a few minutes, making plans. We had originally talked about going clubbing that night as the Icelandic club scene was supposed to be good, but we were exhausted and I had a sore throat, probably from the hot/cold of the Blue Lagoon. When the bus dropped us back at the hotel, we showered and then passed out.