Saturday, June 28, 2014

I Love Iceland

This post comes in at around 4000 words, so it took a while to write. I have a lot to say about Iceland apparently.

I’ll start by saying that I really want to go back to Iceland. I absolutely loved it, and so far it has definitely been my favorite place that I visited. The combination of the people and the amazing landscape made it a fantastic experience, and I will definitely be going back soon. 

Day 1

After waking up super-early in Oslo, I made my flight with no complications or especially amusing things happening.

View out my (slightly dirty) window

Passport control in Reykjavik was quick, and after a short wait for my bags, I was ready to go. I had booked a transfer from the airport to Reykjavik via the Blue Lagoon, so I met the bus and hit the ground running. Well, OK, soaking not running. After a bit of confusion getting started at the Lagoon, I wandered around for a little while before actually getting in the water. There is an area with similarly blue water with even more striking landscape and lava fields, and I walked around that first.

The water isn't warm though!

Then I rented a bathing suit and towel and went into the lagoon. The water varied in temperature as I moved around, but most of the time it was around the same temperature as a hot tub or something similar. A few places were unpleasantly hot or cold, but most of the time it was very comfortable. I smeared the silica mud on my face like a good tourist and swam around looking like a ghost for 10 minutes, and I spent a while just relaxing in the lagoon. 

It’s really neat at first, but after a couple hours there wasn’t much to keep me entertained, so I got out, showered, got my bags from the left luggage, and realized that I had missed the bus transfer by about 10 minutes. The next one wasn’t for another 2 hours, and I wasn’t about to waste 2 hours just sitting there doing nothing. I managed to find another tour operator who was willing to take me for only about 12 Euros, and 2 hours of my time was worth way more than that, so I went for it. I have no idea if the other company waited around for me at some point, but at least I made it into the city without waiting for an absurd amount of time.

The driver dropped me off in front of Kex Hostel, where I was staying for 5 nights. The hostel itself fell short on a few things, but overall was pretty nice. My biggest gripe was the general facilities: The lockers were too narrow to fit any sort of bags (they were basically school lockers), they made a lot of noise, and the bathrooms weren't always the cleanest. The other thing was that they had communal showers. I seriously felt like I was back in 8th grade (that is, if I ever went to 8th grade, ha). The hostel bar was located in the lobby which was nice, although it closed early and was a major hangout spot for a lot of local Icelanders. While that’s neat in theory, in practice it meant a mostly unwelcoming environment since very few people at the bar were actually staying at the hostel. Despite that, I still met some fantastic people who were a lot of fun to hang out with in the evenings. I won’t write about them all (especially since it’s awkward describing people I now have on Facebook), but they were great. I spent about 5 hours one night talking with one guy whose name I still don’t know, and since he checked out the next morning, I probably won’t ever know. Such is the problem with meeting people in hostels, but fortunately I have managed to keep in touch with several of the people I met (remembering to ask their name is a good start!)

Anyhow, I arrived at the hostel around 3:30pm instead of 5:30pm if I had waited for my “real” bus to take me. Since I had paid extra for these two hours, I figured I’d make the best of them… I dropped my bags in the room, chatted with my roommate (a mid-20s Canadian guy running a startup and living in Qatar who was a lot of fun – he was there for the same amount of time as I was, although he had to switch rooms after a few days due to his last-minute booking), and left the hostel to wander around downtown Reykjavik. I started at the giant church at the highest point in the city, the Hallgrimskirkja. It is an odd-looking building, believed to be modeled after an arrangement of basalt columns similar to ones I saw the next day. 

Complete with a statue of Leif Erikson!

Architecturally it is very neat, and the inside is rather barren. Since it is (by far) the tallest building in Reykjavik though, I figured I’d go to the top since it was clear outside. The view from the top is remarkable, especially on a clear day. I could see almost all the way to the airport, as well as the entire city and surrounding area. It was well worth the small entry fee.

It was a convenient way to get my bearings, and after I finished taking way too many pictures, I headed down one of the shopping streets toward the water. Near the harbor area there was a very modern-looking opera house with an entire glass wall and all sorts of interesting interior architecture. In terms of modern architecture, this was one of my all-time favorite buildings. It has a really fun feel to it, and I took a selfie in the ceiling.

Leaving the opera house, I walked along with water until I was back to my hostel, passing the Sun Voyager sculpture.

Pretty good for self-timer!

I then went up past the hostel to the main shopping street to find dinner. Following Tripadvisor’s rating, I opted for a Nepalese/Indian restaurant not far away. Since it was still early I was the only person there, so I had the opportunity to chat with the owner for a few minutes after ordering his suggestion of the Nepalese Masala (A creamy curry with a lot of spices and a bit of honey). He moved to Iceland about 20 years ago, and runs a fantastic restaurant with very reasonable prices – Instead of advertising and trying various other methods to get business, he lets the Tripadvisor reviews speak for themselves and lowers the prices a bit. In any case, the food was among the best I have ever had, and I returned two more times during my stay in Iceland. If you ever find yourself in Reykjavik, definitely check it out – The name of the place is Kitchen Eldhus. After I finished dinner, I went back to the hostel, eventually going to bed fairly early after a very busy day. 

Day 2

The next day I went on the first of several guided tours around Iceland. Since I couldn’t rent a car (too expensive, not old enough, etc), exploring Iceland via tour groups was my best option. I went with GeoIceland, which runs smaller and more detailed tours, and tried to schedule the tour so we could dodge the giant tour buses which arrive and dump hundreds of people at each place. They did a great job, and I actually had the same guide for both days – He was strict on times in each place, but that allowed us to beat the big tour buses each time, making for a far more enjoyable visit. My first day I did the South Coast and there were a total of 12 people on the tour. The drive from Reykjavik to the far end of the tour was about 3 hours, and we started there, working our way back toward Reykjavik. We did stop once, near Mt. Hekla, often considered the gateway to hell. Honestly, if this is hell then I need to work harder to make sure I get there.

Mt. Hekla, due to erupt sometime soon!
From the drive...
The first official stop was the “Pebble Beach”, a beach-like area on the coast with large pebbles instead of sand. Running alongside the beach, there were giant basalt columns and other interesting geological formations. It looked pretty clearly like the church in Reykjavik, and made sense that the church was modeled after those basalt columns. When we arrived we had the entire beach to ourselves, and as we were leaving, several of the giant tour buses arrived. It was remarkable how different the beach seemed when swarmed by people, and I was very glad we had avoided the madness. 

Almost to ourselves!

See what inspired the church architecture?

Supposedly it wasn't safe to go further under in case the rocks fell

Basalt columns are actually really comfortable 

We left the beach and headed for a glacier where a few people were doing a glacier-walk. We walked over some of the glacier and on an iceberg covered in volcanic ash. Most of the grey and dark parts of the ice are not pollution; rather, they are ash from recent volcanic eruptions. 

There were a few areas of the iceberg that had begun to melt, and I drank a bit of the water – It was supposedly clean and safe, and volcanic ash probably has some vitamins or something. It turns out sneakers are not the best footwear when walking on a glacier… Who would’ve thought? Anyhow, I slipped and fell once and cut up my left knee a bit, but it made for a good story later. 

Vitamin V: Volcanic Ash

We continued by visiting a huge waterfall. It was possible to climb up to the top of the waterfall by going up 400+ stairs, so I went for it. The view from the top was nice, and it was high enough to see a lot of the surrounding area, although it was a bit cloudy. Climbing down the stairs was a lot easier than climbing up, and after I reached the bottom, I went up close to the waterfall, where I got very wet. Fortunately I had my waterproof jacket on, but the rest of me was soaked. 

Panorama approaching the waterfall -- Yes, those little tiny dots are people!
At the top!
At the bottom!
After the waterfall we stopped by a few traditional turf-houses and then stopped to feed some Icelandic horses.

I don't know if the horse liked me, but it definitely liked the food I had
After feeding the horses, we headed to another waterfall. This waterfall was a bit smaller, but the mist formed a nice rainbow, and it was possible to walk behind it. I got wet again, but it was a lot of fun. We stopped there for a while and then headed back to Reykjavik after a very full day.

Back in Reykjavik, I went to a sub-par Greek restaurant (I should have gone to Kitchen Eldhus every night!) and spent a while hanging out at the hostel. I was pretty dead after the full day of sightseeing.

Day 3

The next day I had another tour with GeoIceland booked, and this one was the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle route is extremely popular, but we dodged most of the giant groups yet again. We started by visiting the “Golden Waterfall”, Gullfoss. Since it was cloudy it was not very golden, but it was still huge and awesome to walk around and watch.

I love panoramas

Next we continued to the original Geysir. Although the original one doesn’t erupt often anymore (due to pollution and other problems), there were numerous other hot springs in the area with varying degrees of eruptions. By far the biggest one was very close to the original Geysir, and it erupted well over 100 feet into the air roughly every 5 minutes. I wandered around some of the other hot springs as well, then settled in to watch the bigger Geysir erupt a few times before getting lunch.

Geysir at work
One of the calmer springs
After lunch, we headed to Thingvellur national park, between the North American and European tectonic plates. The natural landscape yet again was spectacular, and it was possible to very clearly see the area between the places. Apparently it was possible to snorkel or scuba dive there, but the idea of a dry suit and extremely cold water didn’t seem all that appealing, even though it would’ve been very cool.

Between the plates (and on a ledge)

After a short hike up to the top and onto the North American plate, past the place of the first “althing” held in 932, we headed back to Reykjavik. Both tours were great, and although I’d have liked to rent a car and explore everything at my own pace, this was still a very reasonable alternative.

Icelandic Flag marking the site of the first althing, and North American plate in the background
Thingvellur National Park

Day 4

The next day was the craziest of them all – I went inside of a volcano. After a 30-minute drive outside of Reykjavik, we got out at the edge of a giant lava field. I had brought long pants and both my regular and rainproof jacket, and they provided a bright yellow rain jacket to go along with the others. With these three layers, I was still a bit cold, but once we got started walking, it wasn’t bad. Although the weather in Reykjavik was sunny and around 60 degrees with no wind, the weather here was drastically different – It was 40 degrees, cloudy, and very windy (20-30MPH). 

3 layers, complete with radioactive yellow. I won't be winning any fashion awards, but at least I'm visible from space.
The view getting off the bus
The hike over the lava field was roughly 1.5 miles, and only a small part was paved. The rest of the hike was either on the lava itself, or on rocky pebble pathways with pieces of lava occasionally jutting out. Since it had rained earlier in the day the hike was a bit slippery, but with the wind at our backs, it was not too bad.  It took around 45 minutes to reach the “base camp”, and during the hike we again crossed between the European and North American tectonic plates, although they were much closer together here. 

Lava field, with the volcano in the background!

1.5 miles of this

The gap between plates was a lot smaller here (here I am standing on the European plate)

I was part of the first group to reach the base camp area, so I was also in the first group of 6 to go into the volcano. From the camp we walked up a steep hill where it was even windier (30-35 MPH) and there were no guardrails over the edges. After a few minutes we reached the entrance to the volcano with a small window-washing lift to take us inside. With harnesses attached, we descended into the volcano slowly, reaching the bottom about 5 minutes later. Since the company that runs the tours is committed to impacting the environment of the volcano as little as possible, the floor of the volcano is all lava rocks and mud. Unlike the lava field outside, much of this lava is sharp and jagged, and you have to climb over some of it to move around. There is also a chamber that drops off another 80 meters further down with only a small rope to stop you from falling. Of course I managed to fall very close to this area (again, sneakers were not the best footwear for wet lava, surprise), and in my haste to catch myself, I cut up my right knee and my wrist pretty badly. Later on when I looked at my wrist, it looked as if I had tried to slit my wrist but had done it the wrong way. My injuries notwithstanding, the volcano was spectacular. The colors of the walls inside are vibrant, and looking up at the now-tiny hole in the ceiling from where we entered provided perspective as to just how giant the volcano actually was. Because of the lighting it was difficult to take many good pictures, but suffice to say it was totally worth the cuts, bruises, money, and effort of the hike to get there.

The small bridge leading to the lift where we entered the volcano
Inside! The little light at the top is the hole in the volcano we entered from
The cavern leading down another 80 meters
Some of the colorful rock
Non-selfie in the volcano!

Since we were the first group into the volcano, we were also the first group out (although I didn’t want to leave!) and when we came back out, the weather had changed again dramatically… Now it was pouring rain with even stronger winds (35-40MPH). We went back down to the base camp house (which was now shaking a bit) and had some Icelandic meat soup and coffee while waiting for the others to return. I didn’t realize how much I was bleeding from my wrist until I got back to the base camp, where they washed it off and gave me a tight waterproof bandage for my wrist. The waterproof part turned out to be very important. Once everyone was back and had warmed up a bit, we headed back across the lava field. Unfortunately the weather hadn’t improved, so we were hiking back into the 30-40MPH wind and driving rain across slippery rocks and mud. It was exhausting and took a lot longer to make it back to the end of the lava field, but eventually we all made it back to the bus drenched from head to toe. It was difficult enough to stay standing up that I didn't take any pictures, and besides, it was pouring rain, so my camera might not have liked that very much. Even having two supposedly waterproof jackets on didn’t help keep my shirt dry. The bus came a few minutes later prepared with plastic coverings for all the seats, and after a short ride we were back in downtown Reykjavik.

That mist is rain being blown around. It feels like little bullets when hitting your face.
I needed to do laundry anyway and both my jackets were soaking wet and dirty, so I put in a load of laundry at the hostel (rather, I handed my clothes to a staff member in the laundry room because they don’t let guests do their own laundry). I also had a problem with my shoes: They were also drenched and muddy. After rinsing them, I asked if I could put my shoes in the dryer (remember I only have one pair for the entire trip). I was told it was “hostel policy” not to put anything in the dryer that hasn’t been in the washer. So I started to put them in the washer, only to be told it was also hostel policy not to put shoes in the washer. So I offered to wash my shoes by hand and then put them in the dryer, and was told that it is also their policy not to put hard objects in the dryer. After playing the world’s least fun (and possibly wettest) game of 20 questions, the guy finally suggested putting my shoes on the radiator to dry. I should have just used a hair-dryer, but that didn’t occur to me for some reason until someone suggested it on Facebook. He put them on the radiator (right above the sign that said not to put things on the radiator), and I was confined to the hostel for a while – After all, I had no shoes and no jackets. I met a few fun people while at the hostel which made the wait far more bearable, and eventually around 10pm my laundry was finished and my shoes were dry-ish. I went back to the Indian place for dinner and then went out with a few people from the hostel. I used a hair-dryer to finish the drying the next morning.

Day 5

The next day was my last day in Reykjavik and I didn’t have much planned. I went around to a couple museums and visited the city hall. The first museum I went to was a bit unusual: It contained an Icelandic longhouse from the late 9th century and detailed Viking customs, history, and achievements, as well as the archaeology surrounding the longhouse discovery. The house is preserved in situ, which is just how I like it; I feel it’s far more powerful to see things in their original resting spot rather than on display at a museum… I know some objects must be removed for conservation, but I’m strongly for preserving the original context of the object as much as possible. I could go on about this for a while, but I don’t want to go too off-topic. Regardless of your opinion on the matter, Finders Keepers by Craig Childs is a very interesting and worthwhile read.

Some of the ruins of the longhouse
Leaving the first museum, I went to the city hall and surrounding area and watched people feed a variety of birds for a while (to be perfectly honest, airplanes were flying overhead and I wanted to get a picture of an Air Greenland plane which was supposed to land around while I was there, but it wound up approaching on a different path due to weather).

Yes, the city hall is on/in the lake
Although I missed the Air Greenland flight, I found some smaller flying things to keep me entertained.

This guy made friends quickly
I headed to the National Museum of Iceland where I spent a couple hours before being kicked out at closing time. As I was leaving, I ran into one of the people from the first tour I took – We were each other’s designated photographers for the tour, and had spent a while talking as well. She was headed to a nearby graveyard to wander around for a few minutes, so I joined her and we spent an hour exploring the graveyard and talking. Strangely enough I found myself in several more graveyards in the following few days, although those weren’t as, um, enjoyable. After that, we walked back to the city center where I ran into a few other people from the hostel and left her to do some shopping and exploring. I wound up going out with a few people from the hostel for my last night, and once it reached 2am I figured it would be silly to try to sleep since I had to catch a bus to the airport at 5am, so I drank a lot of water and went back to the hostel around 4am to pack my stuff and have some coffee before leaving.

Giant Puffin at 3am, a couple hours before heading to the airport

Final thoughts on Reykjavik:

Lodging: Kex Hostel – I met some great people at the hostel and for me that made my stay worthwhile. The actual facilities of the hostel and the staff working there were far from ideal however, and it’s a shame, because they have the potential to be a fantastic hostel, especially given their excellent location. The communal showers were a bit weird, the bathrooms could have used more cleaning, and I’m still annoyed by the runaround I got regarding my shoes. I would probably go back, but I hope some of the problems will be improved upon since Kex has the opportunity to be a great place to stay.

Duration: I spent 4 full days and one half-day in Reykjavik. Of those days, I spent 3.5 of them outside of Reykjavik (during the day). The city itself doesn’t have that much to do, and I spent a couple evenings wandering around and only one full day of visiting museums and exploring. I felt like I had seen all the “must-see” things in Reykjavik, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere in the city, and I could have easily spent a few days just relaxing there. Outside of Reykjavik, there is tons to see and do. Renting a car and driving around Iceland via the Ring Road is definitely on my to-do list, and that would probably take between 7-10 days. I could have easily done at least 1 or 2 more daytrips from Reykjavik as well, if not more. I think 2 days in Reykjavik and 4 days day-tripping from Reykjavik would be about the ideal amount of time to spend, although if it is possible to rent a car, I heard great stories from everyone who had driven the Ring Road, and that should take a minimum of a week to fully enjoy it.

TL;DR: Go to Iceland. Stay about a week. Leave Iceland amazed and happy. Vow to go back soon.

Final note: Icelandair offers free stopovers in Reykjavik, meaning that if you fly Icelandair to/from the US to/from Europe, you can spend as long as you’d like in Reykjavik for no additional flight charge: The ticket is priced the same whether you spend 2 hours or 2 weeks in Reykjavik. Icelandair’s prices are generally competitive with most major airlines, and being able to visit Iceland along the way is a great bonus. Their frequent flyer program is practically worthless and they don’t have any partners to credit their flights toward, but that isn’t really much of a consideration for just one flight. Something to consider is that you don't have to fly Icelandair both ways: If you book a one-way on Icelandair, you can fly back to the US (or Canada) with Norwegian or a few other airlines who don’t charge extra for one-ways. Another option would be to book a roundtrip flight from Europe, leaving you with the same problem of getting back home at a future date, but potentially saving hundreds on a second trip to Europe depending on the situation (and time of year)

I’ll pick up with Scotland (and my adventure getting there while running on no sleep) soon.

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