A Travellerspoint blog

Iceland

Last day

We decided to sleep a little since we had been out late on the Northern Lights tour. We didn't want to sleep too late though, as we still some stuff to see and do. After the same breakfast we'd been having, we got the free shuttle to drop us off at the downtown bus station, where we stored our luggage so that we wouldn't have to head back to the hotel before catching the bus to the airport. We walked around the harbor area and saw a bunch of statues, most of which we didn't know what they were of. However at the harbor, there is a neat picture display. Side by side, there are pictures that are 50+ years old with a picture of the same spot from recently. Accompanying the photos are explanations of the changes that have happened in town. It was actually pretty neat to see how the town has evolved and yet stayed the same over so much time.

After passing through another tourist square area, we decided to take another crack at the pond. There was a lady with a baby in a stroller out in the middle of the pond, so we decided that meant that it was safe to walk across it. So, we did because we could.

The last stop was the Pearlan. We walked there, and were stripping and sweating the whole way. We had bundled up in preparation for another cold day with fast winds, but the wind had pretty much died down. As a result, we were removing more and more of our winter gear every few blocks. By the time we climbed the hill to the building itself, I had my sleeves rolled up, my scarf in my bag, and was wiping sweat up with my hat. Eeeew.

Inside the Pearlan was a book sale of some sort, but we didn't really stop there and went straight to the top to take pictures of the city. We did visit the Saga museum inside the building though. It is a very small wax museum. The figures are historic Icelanders, but the faces were made from molds of modern Icelanders. The museum itself would only have taken about 5 minutes to work through if there hadn't been an audio guide. The audio guide told the stories of each of the figures. As the room progressed, the stories got gorier and more disturbing. For example, at the beginning, there are people just arriving. In the middle, there is a half-topless lady holding a sword to her exposed breast. (The story behind this is that some Icelanders were running from native Americans. One woman turned, opened her shirt, grabbed a sword, and threatened to cut off her own breast. This scared the natives and they turned and ran.) By the end, there are people getting their heads lopped off. This might not be the best museum for kids. We didn't have much time after that museum, so we just ate lunch at the bus station. It was the best food I had in all of Iceland. The bus station restaurant served authentic creamy vegetable soup, that I think had some Skyr in it. Either way, it had a ton of flavor. The base was a bit tangy, and the vegetables provided some contrast. The salad bar consisted of pickled vegetables that were full of flavor, albeit pickle flavor and not necessarily veggie flavor. They served the dark bread I had read about in all of the food research I'd done, and the bread was also delicious and full of flavor.

Alas, after lunch, it was time to go. We took the bus to the airport, and a plane home. It was definitely a fun weekend, although I don't feel that I got a feel for "real" Iceland, just the tourist areas. Either way, I was glad I went.

The ship area

The ship area


Stroller on the pond

Stroller on the pond


Perlan entrance

Perlan entrance


View from Perlan

View from Perlan

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Lavaland

We woke and had breakfast at the hotel again. The breakfast buffet is one of the larger buffets at any hotel I've stayed at. They had American breakfast- different kinds of cereal with milk, pancakes, bread with various sugary substances to put on it, eggs, potatoes, breakfast meat- but they also had international-style items as well: cookies, baked beans, baked tomatoes, shrimp cream cheese, and all sorts of meats, cheeses and fish. As previously mentioned, the raw veggies didn't really have much flavor to them, but the other food was good. The Icelandic cheeses they had were like solidified cream cheese blocks with exciting coatings. They had Skyr, which is like a creamy yogurt and is a very Icelandic dish. We had the Icelandic butter, but it really just tasted like regular butter. Overall, the food was good due to the variety, but there was no individual item that stood out as fabulous.

We got on the bus to our Golden Circle tour that was included with our package. Yesterday, we had asked about making sure we were on the right list as we had switched hotels. A bunch of people didn't and so they weren't on the list. The bus driver didn't let that bother him though. They just welcomed everybody aboard and took us to their office to make sure we were all good. After that 10 minute stop, we were on our way to the edge of the world*.

It was snowing during the first part of our drive. It was still windy as well. The tour guide said that the winds were 10-18 m/s, which converts to 20-40 mph, but they felt faster. Of course, it also meant that it was completely white out the windows. There was little to no visibility, so I took a nap. The bus driver knew where to go though, as the roads have little yellow posts on the side at regular intervals. Apparently, the roads get snowed out a lot, so the Icelanders are well-prepared with their road markers.

At some point the snow cleared up and we had a great view. That was also due to the first settlers. When they arrived, the island was covered in trees. Within a few hundred years, ALL of the trees were cut down. Now, the island is eroding out into the sea. The government is trying to plant trees and eliminate some of the erosion, but they haven't planted any yet where we were. As a result, you have a pretty unobstructed view of whatever you're looking at. A lot of the scenery consisted of brush and of these uber-short horses. Don't say ponies, as people will get offended. They're just short horses.

When the bus stopped, we were looking at the edge of the North American tectonic plate. We walked off the edge of the continent. (*Ok, so it's not really the edge of the whole world, but it's still pretty cool.) In between the tectonic plates is a valley of hardened lava. From the valley, you can look up and see the edge of the continents. Very cool. Also, we saw an old government building, Alþingi. The government used to be here, but due to the activity of the earth, it got moved. We took the bus up onto the Eurasian continent and were on our way.

After the outdoor hike, we stopped briefly at a small coffee shop to get something hot to drink. I got hot chocolate and some sort of Icelandic cinnamon rolls. They were definitely not as sugary as the kind we get here, plus they had no icing. It's not what I'm used to, but good nonetheless.

The next stop was a waterfall (Gullfoss) and lunch. The lunch building had a nice view of the waterfall, but we wanted to get closer. The path to the waterfall wasn't very steep, but it was smooth and covered in a sheet of ice. We were using the hand rope to climb down, and it was a good thing. I slipped and fell. If I hadn't been holding the rope, I probably would have fallen over the edge. Eventually, I figured out that the trick was to not walk and pick up my feet, but to just skate down the ice. It was well worth the "hike." The waterfall was very neat. The water that it was spraying was landing on the grass nearby and growing into a field of little icy stalagmites. Of course, getting back up the hill was also a challenge.

For lunch, we again had a choice of cold cut and veggie sandwiches- pretty boring. I did get some sort of rhubarb dessert that was, like the rolls from the morning, very low on sugar.

The next stop on the Golden triangle was the geysers. In Icelandic, the word geysir means going fast, as in how the water comes out of the ground. There is a specific geyser called Geysir though. Geysir, the geyser that the general English word comes from, does not erupt on a regular basis any more. However, just a few feet away are other geysers that erupt every few minutes. Additionally, there are hot (as in boiling even though the temperature was low) springs, and other natural steam-making holes in the ground. I think that I decided that at least this part of Iceland is what New Zealand would be if it was frozen.

At the gift shop, everybody was trying on the Viking helmets. I definitely wanted one, but souvenirs in Iceland were expensive! We were looking at cheap (quality) lava earrings for a friend, and they were in the $40 range. Post cards were in the $1 range, and even fridge magnets were in the $10 range. While we got our bearings price-wise, we were definitely hoping that we would find some place less expensive to buy stuff.

After the "big waterfall" and the water spouting from the ground, we did a quick stop at the "little waterfall," which wasn't particularly little. After snapping some pictures we moved on.

On the way to our next stop, a church, we got a talk on religion. Originally, the settlers were pagan, but at one point a king wanted to convert everybody to Catholic. The whole country gave the decision to some wise man who basically came back and said that everybody had to outwardly act Catholic, but that anybody who wanted to still be pagan could do so in the privacy of their own homes. So, overnight, an entire nation converted religions peacefully. Since then, most people have become Lutheran, although the guide said that there are still thousands of pagans, 400 Muslims, and 50 Jews in the country. He also added that people were leaving the Catholic church in droves due to some abuse scandals.

The church that we stopped at was the seat of the southern Icelandic see, whatever that means. I think some important bishop works out of the church. The church itself had an ancient book and some underground tourist attraction, but everybody was distracted. A choir from another tour bus had decided to practice in the church, so we walked in to the sounds of Kumbaya. At some point, they got up and performed some Phil Collins song as well. It was quite entertaining, and really demonstrated how good the acoustics in the chapel were.

Between there and the next stop, we got a lecture on the Icelandic language. Apparently, it has not changed much in the past hundreds of years, so Icelandic people can easily read old books, unlike how many modern English speakers struggle with Shakespeare. The secret is that they try not to borrow words from other languages. The guide used the word "computer" as an example. The Icelandic word for computer technically means "psychic calculator," which I found a tad hilarious.

The final stop of the day was a tourist trap, and the guide was very open about it. The town itself was neat in that it was built on hot springs. They took advantage of those and had greenhouses all over. Pretty much everybody seemed to have at least a small one attached to the back of the their houses. Due to the greenhouses, Iceland can grow a lot of plants that other European countries can't typically grow. For example, Iceland is Europe's number one banana producing country. Of course, there are some down sides to putting a town on hot springs. The guide showed us a building that suddenly collapsed one day as a new hot spring opened up right beneath it.

With the golden circle tour complete, and a northern lights tour booked for the same evening, we decided to splurge on dinner at the hotel. Besides, we were sick of cafeteria food and wanted real Icelandic food.

The appetizer was made with Skyr or some other sort of super thick cream and was actually pretty good. For dinner, I had some sort of carrot patties that were also good. Dessert was definitely different though. The "whip" was basically a milkshake made with Skyr. In the milkshake seemed to be "halloween leftover surprise." There were berries, the fruit cake fruits, crushed peppermints, gumdrops, whoppers, licorice, and pretty much any other random candies that don't freeze or chew well in a milkshake. It tasted good though, and every bite was an adventure.

After that adventure, we headed out for the northern lights. On the way, we passed some rocks that our guide said contained elves. Apparently, most of the country believes in elves. At some point I wondered if the northern lights were like elves, where you have to believe to see. We spent the first half hour at the site where there was supposedly a lot of activity, and I wasn't seeing anything. I felt like I was in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Finally, I asked the guide what exactly I was looking at. Basically, there was a haze in the sky that was the northern lights. He hoped that the activity would pick up and that we would get to see more, but really 2013 is supposed to be a peak, and this year was nearer to the low point.

It was worth the tour though. I saw several shooting stars, and I don't think I had ever really seen one before in my life. I was able to pick out a dipper and see a ton of stars. Not as many as Uluru, but plenty. Also, I didn't have to stand in the cold to do it. There was a nice, warm bus so we weren't uncomfortable as we sat there for hours, waiting for the sky to do something. Ultimately, all we saw was a colorful haze in the sky. I'd like to go try again somewhere in a few years.

Walking off the continent

Walking off the continent


view

view


waterfall

waterfall


icy stalagmites

icy stalagmites


path to the waterfall

path to the waterfall


Geysir

Geysir


little waterfall

little waterfall


horses

horses


Between continents

Between continents

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Reykjavik City

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.

The Sea

The Sea


Reykjavik by the Sea

Reykjavik by the Sea


The Höfði house

The Höfði house


Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja


Heavy church doors

Heavy church doors


View from the top of the church

View from the top of the church


Icelandic fridge poetry

Icelandic fridge poetry


Ducks on the pond

Ducks on the pond


Out on the pond

Out on the pond


Across the pond

Across the pond

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

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