Before I begin, I should remind you that I am not a travel lifestyle blogger. I typically blog as I would compose a diary, to remind myself of where I was and what I experienced. This is going to be a long post because I want to capture the details that matter to me, and not boil down my travels to a perfectly-manicured and concise article on the time I went to Iceland. So, reader, you’ve been warned…
There are people out there that say there is a particular sadness in leaving an immersive trip, the sadness that the incredible journey is now just a memory on its way to becoming a story.
I returned to Seattle after spending a week in Reykjavík, Iceland at the beginning of December 2015. The worst part about visiting Iceland is how badly it makes me want to go back now, so as not to let it become just something I remember. I suppose that delaying the completion of this post is my one way of pretending it isn’t over, but time has a way of slipping by regardless.
Everything I knew about Iceland made it seem like a fairy tale; although I had heard about the Northern Lights, the architecture, and the quaint feel of the only large city many times over, it was too fantastical to be believed. I had to see it for myself, and arriving in Iceland, it was truly like I had traveled somewhere other-worldly. It’s part of my story now–and I can recall the trip itself, still fresh like the snow we trudged through to and from the city each day.
Sunday, November 29th
John and I packed for most of that Saturday, when he insisted on bringing a laser pointer for no reason other than, “It’ll be fun.” On Sunday morning, we both went to the gym for one last WOD, then cleaned up and started loading my car.
Ari and B met us at noon, and we hauled away to Sea-Tac where John’s coworker let us park the car. She drove us to the airport, we checked in, and we sent all of our bags away; two free checked bags is a very comfortable policy, it turns out. Thanks, Icelandair!
With parkas on and only our purses and small backpacks, we passed through security and on to our terminal. We grabbed a bite to eat and awaited our plane. I chatted with my mother on the phone, keeping an eye on the impatient crowd at the gate. Eventually, there was movement, and we all boarded the Boeing 757.
Once snugly in our seats, we settled in for the seven-hour ride. John and I had been moved to exit row seats, so our leg room was ample and the tray tables quite awkward. We set our watches eight hours ahead, took off through some low-lying Seattle clouds, then turned northeast and climbed on towards Canada. The sun was already low in the sky, and we spied pink snow-capped mountains out the window before the night sky took over.
With not too much to see, I split a snack with John and had some water before trying to snooze as much as possible. The woman on my other side was part of a group of three or four, traveling to Iceland for some kind of celebration; I never discerned what their reason was, although they were planning to spend time both in the city and somewhere outside of it. She ordered two mini bottles of wine, so I figured perhaps she was celebrating a birthday as well.
Spotify offline playlists kept me calm and soothed, and when my phone read “5:00AM,” I woke up and watched some of the in-flight offerings until we landed.
Monday, November 30th
The Seattle flight left at 3:45PM Pacific Time, which meant a 6:55AM Monday arrival. Once on the ground at Keflavík Airport, I marveled at the fact that I was on Icelandic soil for the first time; it was a wish come true.
Customs was a quick process, as we were one of only a few arrivals at that dark, early hour, and after collecting our bags, we did some duty-free shopping. The thing to keep in mind about Iceland is that the liquor is expensive, but that it’s quite reasonable at the duty-free store. We grabbed a few choice bottles, including some Brennivin, along with some Garún Icelandic Stout NR.19 (Borg Brugghús), Einstök Toasted Porter, and an obscene amount of Viking Gylltur.
After shopping, it was time for juice and a snack, killing time before our 8:30AM shuttle to the Blue Lagoon. The freshness of the smoothie was much-needed after a long plane ride. However, what was even more needed came next.
The Blue Lagoon excursion immediately following arrival was one of our best ideas. Blue Lagoon is a major tourist destination, although one a traveler cannot miss; all my worldly friends stand by this, tourist trap and all. They make it so tourist-friendly anyway, it’s hard to say no.
Our shuttle bus driver stashed our luggage in the cargo hold, then drove us through the pitch black dark about 12km from the airport. We transferred our luggage to the bag storage at the end of the parking lot, where our group of three busses–ours only had about six people on it–parked; no other visitors had yet arrived, making our arrival seem even more special. We stopped in front of the Blue Lagoon sign to take a few celebratory selfies and sips of liquor, reveling in the cool winter air and the pre-dawn hush. Perfect snowflakes blanketed the ground and muted all the background noise, so it was just the trudging of our boots and our lowered voices in the air.
We had pre-booked our visit, so once we reached the main building, we got in line and got squared away with our wristbands before heading to the luxurious locker rooms. Again, with relatively few visitors at the Lagoon, it was relaxed and peaceful. I remember the locker rooms being the perfect temperature, both in the air and beneath my feet. I changed into my favorite swimsuit and commented to Ari about how flattering the lighting and mirrors were; I actually looked like I work out as hard as I do! An added bonus to an already great experience.
Many people warn tourists about the showering process, where one must strip down before entering the Lagoon. No one mentioned the fact that there were single shower stalls in addition to the common shower. With no rush, there were plenty of single showers open. Spotting an open stall, I took it, and I relished the warm water and soap; after all, I had been on a plane all night. I made sure to load my hair with conditioner to stave off the minerals, then put my swimsuit back on and wandered out into the frigid morning.
To say my feet were then cold was not giving Iceland its due credit. The air was freezing, and the walkway surface was not much warmer. It behooved us to hang our towels as quickly as possible in order to get into the milky blue pool before turning into human icicles.
With dawn breaking and steam rising off the surface of the water, I couldn’t help but want to hurry on in, though. The Lagoon was heated to a comfortably hot temperature, somewhere between 98-104 degrees Fahrenheit, and again, after a seven-hour plane ride, it was just what I needed. We slowly ventured to the outer reaches of the Lagoon, with our visibility obscured by the thick steam and low light; thankfully, I didn’t fall into any unexpected deep spots (something you expect when you’re 5’1″).
Since it was a birthday celebration trip and all, our next order of business was to procure champagne, so off to the bar we went. In all actuality, this meant finding the stairs closest to the bar, dashing inside, dripping all over the floor whilst apologizing for doing such, and then ordering our drinks of choice. We were rung up with a swipe of the wristband, and back into the warm waters we went. (Luckily, for our next round, the swim-up bar was open; no more mad dashes for a beverage.)
We spent the next few hours wandering in the water, sitting in the steam rooms, and lounging in the jacuzzi areas. The water had a sort of soft quality to it, and only in the steam rooms did I ever sweat.
Eventually, it was time to leave, so we reversed the process: showered, dried off, dressed, paid, ate lunch, retrieved our bags (and beer), and waited for the shuttle to the city.
We eventually made it to our Airbnb apartment, after transferring to a mini-bus due to the snow. The apartment’s “on-site manager” (so to speak) met us, let us in, and gave us essential pointers for our stay. We unpacked, freshened up, and were ready to see the city by foot. Icelandic fish ‘n’ chips were on the menu for dinner that night, so we were able to cross off one item on John’s “must do” list. Please note that we visited Reykjavik Fish Restaurant to get our fish ‘n’ chips; our friends had advised that they once tried to find fish ‘n’ chips in town and had ended up at a joint that had “fish ‘n’ chips” in the name, but alas, no actual fish ‘n’ chips. Reykjavik Fish, however, had a chalkboard with its offerings, and their hearty fish ‘n’ chips were just what we needed.
In addition to dinner, we took in the sights of a Christmasy-looking Reykjavik and wandered through a snow-covered cemetery before calling it a night and doing our best to ward off the jet lag.
Tuesday, Dec. 1st
A winter storm rolled in on Tuesday, bringing lots of snow to the area. “Lots of snow” is an understatement, but I don’t have a much better way to quantify it. We took our time, after sleeping in, to bundle up and seek out the famous Sægreifinn lobster soup.
Let me tell you about lobster soup in the most succinct way possible: it’s incredible.
Warm, flavorful, perfectly salted, and rejuvenating, lobster soup became an instant favorite of mine. The menu at Sægreifinn is also wonderfully straight-forward: there’s the soup, fresh seafood skewers, and beverages–alcoholic and non–to choose from.
We warmed up at Sægreifinn (The Sea Baron), enjoying our soup and complimentary bread, as well as enjoying being out of the wind and snow. It was a good day for cozying up in coffee shops and bars–which is considered one of the best tourist activities when in Iceland–and generally just seeing all the city had to offer.
We spent a good deal of time at the Culture House, a part of the National Museum of Iceland, where the exhibition Points of View was being housed. This was another good way to learn more about the country we were in, taking in art and history from centuries ago through the present. While we were in the building, I distinctly remember seeing large, fluffy clumps of snow falling past some of the windows. The relative quiet and stillness of the Culture House–along with the picturesque snowfall–was peaceful, a nice departure from the hustle of “real life.”
Other places of interest on this snowy day included Lebowski Bar and a book shop. White Russians and books, what could go wrong? We eventually wound up back at the house after trudging along through most of Reykjavik.
(PS – I visited Lebowski Bar’s page in February, and I noticed that they were offering free bacon on all burgers for Valentine’s Day. First of all, that’s quite the way to celebrate; second of all, had I known about this sooner, I would have definitely pushed for a return visit slash date night.)
Wednesday, Dec. 2nd
The morning was clear after the previous day’s winter storm, and after starting our day, we walked down to the Harpa Concert Hall to pick up tickets for a Sin Fang show later that night. We arrived at Harpa at just the right time, as the sun was high enough in the sky to throw some beautiful colors into the surroundings.
Shortly thereafter, dark clouds, heavy with precipitation, rolled in, but instead of rain, they brought more snow. We wound up at Kex Hostel and Bar, where the restaurant/bar provided us with unnecessary amounts of delicious food: a spicy burger, salmon and kale, fresh sausages, and a simple yet much-needed green salad.
Later that evening, we went back to Harpa and watched the show. We were in one of the small auditoriums, looking down on the group. All the songs were in English, and all of the filler between songs was in Icelandic. This made for a pretty mellow experience for us. We didn’t understand any of the punchlines to the jokes, but we laughed along anyway. Young Boys was the subject of some kind of joke about it being a “gay anthem.” It’s fairly obvious upon listening to see how that could be; the song itself is one of my favorites now, and I encourage you to take a listen.
After the concert, we quite likely ended up at Prikid, as we had time on our hands, and feet with which we could walk.
Thursday, Dec. 3rd
Or, the Day I Turned 30. And how else would I start the day but with a WOD at CrossFit Reykjavik? (Actually, it started with toast, skyr, some juice that I’m sad we can’t find Stateside, and an espresso from our grumbly espresso machine. But I digress.)
In order to get to the gym, we needed to take a cab; our driver got us there quickly, especially quick considering the snow-covered roads. Icelandic drivers mean business. We arrived in one piece, then wandered the perimeter of the building until we figured out we had to access the lower level to get to the gym. In our defense, the snow was obscuring the pathway.
CrossFit Reykjavik is, as another visitor noted, a fitness factory. A well-oiled machine, we dropped in during the block of time where classes start every twenty minutes. The space is organized to allow this type of rotation, with strictly timed warm-ups, skill or lifting sections, and the WOD.
Our coach led us through warm-ups, which were easy enough to follow, as the combination of Icelandic and body language were all we needed. He checked in with us Americans every now and then to make sure we understood what was going on, which was appreciated.
The day’s lift consisted of 8 minutes to find your 1-rep max overhead squat. With a cranky shoulder, no Olympic lifting shoes, no weight belt, and a few days of improper nutrition and jet lag, I still managed to PR my overhead squat by a few pounds. 50kg/110lbs., good enough for a birthday PR. The rest of my Seattle crew either matched or PR’d their OHS, as well.
Then there was the WOD. It came with a 12-minute time cap, and read:
Box jump overs (60/50cm)
I was worried about hitting the time cap, between all the aforementioned ailments and chronic asthma. However, I surprised myself partway through my first set of SDHPS, noticing the clock was not very far along.
I’m actually going to finish this, I thought. Since that was the case, it then was in my best interest to try and keep up as best as possible. My fitter half and two BFFs unsurprisingly came off of the middle part of the WOD ahead of me, and they were well into their closing 400m run when I joined in. At the least, the gym operators weren’t cruel enough to send us out into the snow and ice, so we ran 8 small laps around some of the equipment.
I had a small lead on a few of the local athletes, and I finished well under the time cap. John naturally finished in his favorite spot, “fastest in the class,” although he didn’t look at the right clock to log his time. His time is forgotten to all eternity.
(That’s not true; B was able to track both their times, and John logged his on our gym’s website. I just looked it up online, and his time was 8 minutes and 15 seconds.
Final time: 10 minutes, 25 seconds
After the WOD, we took advantage of the wrestling mat and stretching room, rolling out before heading into the locker rooms. We showered, then instead of getting dressed and going home, we put on swim suits and hopped in the gym’s hot tub. (And cold tub. They had both.)
We did not get to take advantage of the sauna, although I imagine that would have been glorious as well. Instead, once we showered and changed, B noticed a Hlöllabátar across the way, so off we were to acquire some ham boats for post-WOD sustenance. I had to run the page through Google Translate because I don’t speak Icelandic very well (that’s an understatement), but the sandwich–boat–in question is the “Skinkubátur.” All you need to know is these boats are reasonably-priced and tasty. No frills, just great boats.
After the boys wrangled a taxi in the parking lot of a grocery store, we were on our way back to the apartment to rest up before birthday dinner. Walking around and eating lots of things whilst on holiday is difficult, so we played some games to keep ourselves entertained. I’m not exactly sure when we brought out Milles Bornes, but that is a game I highly recommend bringing on vacation, along with Quiddler. Both are good, clean fun, and I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way. They’re a very good way just to have fun, and they take up little room in the suitcase.
Our friends Aaron and Michelle departed Edinburgh, Scotland via EasyJet, and were en route to Reykjavik by early evening. Ahead of their arrival in the city, the four of us Seattleites went out for dinner. For the first few days, the boys had been asking us ladies were we wanted to go for our special days. There were several very nice restaurants around, and most were serving special Christmas meals. We kept telling them that we would make a decision at some point.
Naturally, it being my 30th birthday and all, I decided on lobster soup.
So, lobster soup it was, with the added treat of fresh salmon and cod skewers, along with a sampling of all the Christmas beers the Sea Baron had. It was a hearty and peaceful dinner, as we got to sit upstairs in the old bunk room area.
Yes–there are several bunks in the upstairs area, which used to be lent out to fisherman in need of respite. A whole different type of homey feel to the restaurant, and one that made this birthday seem all the more unique and special.
After soup and beers, we moved onto Kex where we met the two ex-patriates, and where we enjoyed Einstok beers and a chocolate flourless cake. Aaron, the gentleman he is, requested a candle on the cake for my birthday, and Kex delivered.
The cake slice arrived with extra whipped cream, and a tea candle placed gently atop the cake. I’ve never been more delighted!
It was a special night to be celebrating my birthday in Reykjavik, turning 30 with five of my favorite people, all who entered my life at various points in time. I couldn’t have thought up a better way to turn 30, and the best present was knowing there was more of the trip still ahead of us. We kept it relatively under control on this night because we had to be up early for the Golden Circle Tour.
Friday, Dec. 4th
I would say we were up at the crack of dawn on this day, but considering dawn wasn’t going to happen for several hours, I will just say we were up early. We had booked tickets for the Golden Circle Tour, including bus pick-up near our Airbnb, and had to get up to meet the mini-bus.
Unfortunately for us, we were the last scheduled area for pick-up, so we waited maybe 45 minutes out in the cold–and I mean cold as in “far below freezing”–before we finally got to climb into a tiny bus. The waiting game was perhaps the biggest hiccup in our trip, but all things considered, it was not the worst thing in the world. No one was hurt in the process, and we eventually got to our big buses, where Aaron and Michelle had saved us all seats.
I fell asleep for most of the drive out to our first stop, which was a tomato hot house, Friðheimar. There we were able to sample some delicious tomato soup and bread, learn about the indoor tomato cultivation, and also pet some Icelandic horses. One particular horse was rolling around in the snow without a care in the world.
Next on the list was the Geysir geothermal field. As the name might imply, there is quite a bit of geothermal activity here. It’s of utmost importance for tourists to keep to the path because even though it’s cold out, it’s quite ill-advised to touch the far-beyond-boiling water.
We waited patiently for the Strokkur geysir to erupt, and we were eventually treated to a spout of water preceded by a big bubble.
We refueled in the restaurant, then boarded the bus to Gullfoss (Golden Falls). Gullfoss was incredible and worth the biting wind. The water plunges over 100ft., and in the cold winter, some of the spray froze to the edges of the cliffs, creating what essentially looked like another frozen waterfall. I’m not certain what else I can say about the waterfall, other than it was incredibly beautiful. Absolutely amazing.
Last on the list was Thingvellir National Park, a geology lover’s dream come true. The tectonic plates are pulling apart here, creating steep, blocky walls. We could also overlook the original Parliment and the lake, again braving the cold wind.
Back in town, we rested up before embarking on a night out. It started with a card game at the house, included some ham boats and hot dogs, and ended at Prikid with dancing and realizing Icelanders bring their A-game on the weekends. I’ve not a clue how any of the women were able to pull off high heels and normal club clothes in the dead of winter, but I admire them for it.
Saturday, Dec. 5th
When we finally awoke on December 5th, it was Ari’s turn at 30. Neither one of us had experienced anything strange, such as losing a limb nor all of our hair spontaneously falling out at once, so it was looking like 30 would be just fine.
We paid a visit to the iconic Hallgrimskirkja, where we took the elevators to the top of the church and looked out over the city. To say it was gorgeous would be an understatement. Even in the winter fog, with the visibility reduced, it was worth the trip to the top. I can’t wait to go again in a future summer.
After coffee at Reykjavik Roasters, we went to Snaps for a very late brunch. Brunch runs until 1600 at Snaps, so we were just fine between sleeping in and our wandering. Being the holiday season, there were some additional Christmas treats on the menu, including mulled wine, which I have a weak spot for. Even though I was at the point in the vacation where I needed to probably think about putting myself on a restrictive calorie diet, I ordered Eggs Norwegian, and there were no regrets. Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon? Heaven in a single dish, I would say. (Actually, this blogger basically said the same thing about Eggs Norwegian at another place. We can’t both be wrong.) Everything else we ordered was on-point, and we gladly indulged.
It was a wandering and food-centered kind of birthday, with a siesta of sorts at the house after brunch. Eventually, we trekked down to Kex yet again for birthday treats, and later, four of us made it to Slippbarrin for cocktails and accidental (?) free shots of whiskey.
Ringing in 30 in Reykjavik was a great choice.
Sunday, Dec. 6th
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Sunday signified the end of the trip, and we begrudgingly packed up. John made one last trip to the neighborhood pool facility, and the rest of us went for coffee and a light pastry breakfast at Kaffihus Vesturbaejar. I had a croissant with some cheese and jam, and the bistro was calm and cozy, perfect for the close of a fantastic trip.
Also perfect was our bus ride to Keflavik, which began with another mini-bus pick-up. Our mini-bus driver was a natural at driving in the snow, and he wove up and down the side streets to gather other passengers and occasionally honk at pedestrians who were walking a bit too slow for his frantic pace. It was certainly a ride for which I buckled up, but when all was said and done, we not only were in one piece, but we had been thoroughly entertained by our young, relentless driver.
The longer ride from the central bus station to the airport was relaxing, with the sun illuminating the landscape outside. I snapped a few photos, but the dirty window and the moving bus diminished the quality of what I was really seeing.
Once at Keflavik Airport and through security–and after we finally figured out the self-check system for the bags–we grabbed a hot meal of Icelandic meat soup and bread. I need that recipe in my arsenal, and I need Keflavik Airport’s food in my life more often. What a treat.
I also would not mind having the airport’s bars in my life more often, as the service and selection were both great. We enjoyed a few last drinks, including the last Einstok porter for awhile.
Soon enough, we were back on an airplane, and I snuggled up to the window seat. We hadn’t seen the Northern Lights the entire trip, but once we climbed high enough and the sky got dark, I looked out the window. Past the wing, there was a faint, green glow in the sky. At first, I thought it must have been a cloud, just catching the last rays of sunshine, but it persisted, and I knew it was the Northern Lights.
I nudged John and told him to look out the window, that the Northern Lights were just outside. We both craned our necks to watch them, until they were too far behind us to see any longer.
Turning our attention forward, we settled in, headed home to the Pacific Northwest, and said goodbye (for now) to the Land of Fire and Ice.
PS – In case you were wondering, John forgot all about the laser pointer until he unpacked everything back in Seattle.
PPS – Photo credits for this post include John, B, Ari, Aaron, Michelle, and myself