I SPY: Iceland

Apr 19, 2017

ICELAND: April 2017

Have you ever studied the flight tracker map on an international flight and seen a city in Iceland labeled 'Reykjavik'?  For years I've wondered what's there and how does one even pronounce that with out butchering it?  REY - KA - VIK!  When the Eyjafjallajokul volcano erupted in 2010 Iceland gained huge media attention, and as a result in the last five years tourism has rose tremendously.  Thanks to social media I've been seeing surreal photos of Iceland pop up frequently, and in the last two years have had it on my bucket list.  Well…goal just got ticked off!  So happy we did it!!


Flew into Reykjavik direct from NYC.  A five hour flight; as close as California!  Spent four days there.  Wasn't enough time though to see everything the land has to offer.  But here is our express tasting sample to use as a skeleton plan.

DAY 1

BLUE LAGOON:
Our flight arrived at 7am.  The lagoon is located 20 minutes away from Keflavik airport.  We couldn't check into our hotel till 3pm.  If your in the same situation, believe me, this is the best way to wake up and kill time!  It's a geothermal spa, that is one of the twenty five wonders of the world.  Temperature is 90+F, think giant hot tub, with a bar to sip on beer and champagne while soaking, and help yourself tubs filled with silica mud mask are provided for free to dip into. Pre-booking online is required to reserve a spot.  I also recommend booking an in water massage too.  Why not pamper yourself?  There is luggage storage on premises, towel rental, a nice restaurant to have lunch in your robes, or a cafe for a quick bite, lockers, clean showers, and arm band floaties for anyone who isn't a strong swimmer.  However it's not deep.  I could stand in most places, and you know I'm not tall!




HALLGRIMSKIRKJA:
When your in town you must visit this cathedral.  Amazing architecture by Gudjon Samuelsson, that you will see later was inspired by the natural lava rock column formation found at Vik Beach.  It is an iconic landmark that soars high above the rest of the city.  Views from the top give you a picturesque aerial view of the colorful city.   Check opening hours that vary daily, and depending when they have services, because access to the roof top is only available when open, but not during mass.




DAY 2

GOLDEN CIRCLE BUBBLE TOUR:
We joined a small tour with three other people.  It was an overnight tour that picks you up from your location in Reykjavik at noon, and returns you back to the city before noon the next day.  We covered a lot of ground, but it was well paced, with many food stops and breaks in between that didn't leave us sitting in the car for more then two hours straight, or feeling exhausted nor bored.  Even the kids enjoyed it!  These are all the main stops we made:

- THINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK
Game of Thrones has been filmed here!  What's interesting is the rocky cliffs.  The park lies in a valley between the separation of two tectonic plates that has formed the high rock walls.



- EFSTIDALUR
Famous ice cream, farm to table stop in the middle of no where!  As you eat your ice cream you have the lovely backdrop of live cows in the background who have provided the milk.  MOO.



- GEYSIR HOT SPRINGS
This was super cool.  You have to wait for it.  It happens about every ten minutes.  A huge gush of hot water explodes and gets swallowed back into a deep hole in a matter of a few minutes.  Amazing to see mother nature doing tricks for you before your eyes.



- GULLFOSS WATERFALL
One of the many waterfalls we chased on our trip.



- ICELANDIC HORSES
These special Icelandic breed of horses are super adorable, friendly by nature, and look rather like ponies then horses.  But they're full grown.  You will see plenty in the countryside.  We couldn't get enough of them and had to pet all!


- SECRET LAGOON
A natural geothermal lagoon we floated in to end the day.  Not as high end as the Blue Lagoon, but provided the same relaxing benefits.  We also got to boil eggs in the grounds hot spots.  First time my lil' guy ate a soft boiled egg.  Now he's addicted!



- BUBBLE CAMPING
We slept in a transparent bubble in the middle of the woods over night.  I had higher expectations that it would be more like glamping, but the bubble we were allocated was small.  No room to walk around, just a big mattress that filled the whole bottom of the tent.  But we had heat and electric blankets, and plugs to charge our electronics inside the tent, even though we had zero wifi or reception.  Also the bubble tents were set quite close together, so not a lot of privacy.  Bathrooms were at an outhouse in close proximity, and equipped with clean toilets and proper hot water showers.  Roughing it for one night wasn't bad.  It was a unique experience, and would of been even better if the sky was clear that night.  Bring your own towel and flashlight to use.  We also had a bunch of snacks and ordered an extra pizza at dinner to bring along as our midnight supper.  Smart move!




The only downer of the trip was that we did not see the northern lights.  Timing and weather is everything, and peak season to spot that is between September and April.  We were there at the tail end of the season.  The double BOO was we didn't catch a rainbow at the waterfall.  But we saw plenty of other things that blew our minds within those 24 hours.  The Golden Circle is a must do, even if you omit the bubble camping.

DAY 3

After pulling an almost all nighter in our bubble tent staying up till some ungodly hour hoping to catch the northern lights, we needed a long nap after returning to our apartment to catch up on some zzz's.  It was our day reserved to tour the city of Reykjavik, but we killed it by sleeping.  Priorities!  However we had two hours before dinner to walk the town, and pretty much hit everything on our list.  Downtown is that small!

HARPA CONCERT HALL:
This building is designed by Olafur Eliasson and looks like jewelry glistening in the sun!  It over looks the harbor and snow capped mountains.  Inside is just as stunning from a different angle.  When there we happened to catch a free live jazz concert.



THE SUN VOYAGER:
Iceland is viking land! This famous aluminium sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason is a dream boat, an ode to the sun.



CITY HALL:
A modern building that sits along Lake Tjornin, that was designed to attract bird life.  Didn't go into the building, but had a pleasant walk around the lake admiring the ducks and swans.



DAY 4

On our last day we did a 12 hour private tour of Iceland's south coast.  It was a long day, but again we had a lot of stops to get out of the car, stretch, and have a breather.  Manageable, and definitely worth the driving because this was the tip of the iceberg for me.  Literally!  This is what we caught on camera:

- SELJALANDSFOSS
A 60 mt high waterfall.  The thing that sets this waterfall apart from any of the others I saw was that you could walk behind it.  That was a treat, even though it was a slippery and icy hike up, and we got pretty soaked!



- SKOGAFOSS
Also 60 mt but felt larger then the previous because it was wider.  Again you can go very close to this waterfall, but there is no access to go behind it.



- VIK BEACH
First black sand beach I've ever seen!  It's black due to the volcanic activity and because there is no shellfish.  Beware that it can be a rough beach, with sporadic Tsunami type waves.  We were advised not to go to close to the water, because the wave patterns are unpredictable, and lives have been lost there.  The natural lava column rock formation and caves along the beach was spectacular to see too.  Of course my monkeys used it as a climbing gym!





- JOKULSARLON
A glacier lagoon filled with blocks of ice.  Some blocks larger then your dining table, and some that looked like carrara marble. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!  Looked like a scene out of the Ice Age movie.  But instead of seeing a mammoth pop out we saw a seal swimming around.  Really!  It was super surreal.





EAT:

- BBP HOT DOG STAND
You have to try the famous Icelandic hot dog stand.  I broke Lent to try one!  Their hot dogs with the works have a special mustard, mayonnaise, relish sauce, and fried onions underneath the frank.  So worth the cheat!

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- KRUA THAI
Pretty authentic Thai food I must admit!  Family run by Thai's.  Good to eat there, or a great place to order takeout, which we brought back to our apartment to have food in the fridge to heat up when needed.  My growing boys are forever hungry!

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- SEABARON
Fresh seafood, and the lobster soup is a MUST.

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- SNAPS
A cozy and lively greenhouse bistro, serving brasserie Icelandic/ French cuisine.  Everything we had was good!  Reservations recommended because it's a popular place.

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- SKYR
This the local Icelandic yoghurt brand we got addicted too.  It's pronounced as SKI-ER, and can be found in any of the grocery stores, gas stations or many cafes in Iceland use the yoghurt to make smoothies.  It is creamy, but light, not overly sweet, nor tart.  It's perfect!  We ate it everyday for breakfast, snack, dessert, and on the go.




Iceland serves quite a gastronomical affair, on par with NYC standards.  For local favorites look out for Kleinur (donuts), dried shark (I did not like that!), and I heard their lamb is also notably of high quality.  If your a true foodie you may enjoy the Food Walk tour.

SHOP:

Icelandic wool sweaters are found in every store in abundance.  They're fashionable, warm, and are the thing to purchase if you want something unique from Iceland.



Otherwise 66 North is also a good Icelandic brand to purchase when there.  They have fashionable, quality performance fabric, outdoor clothing.   I like their designs a lot.

SLEEP:
The population of Iceland is small in comparison to the lands mass.  Majority live in clusters.  You can drive through the country side and not see a single home for hours!  However the growth of tourism has risen so fast that the country has not had time to improve infrastructure, roads, or build hotels to accommodate the 1.7 million visitors in 2016, which was a 40% increase from 2015. Therefore Airbnbs are very popular.  Or there are a few hotels, or apartments set up like a hotel, but not with 24 hour service that we stayed at.  Either way please book your accommodations in advance before arrival.  You don't want to luck out and be sleeping out in the cold!

- 101 HOTEL
This boutique hotel was very swanky and aesthetically pleasing.  I loved the modern decor, however the rooms were small.  But the location was right in the heart of town, and their restaurant / bar was packed at night.

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- BLACK PEARL
Our 1 bedroom/ 1 bathroom apartment was spacious.  It had a full modern kitchen, a good size bedroom, and a living room with a pull out bed sofa.  Decor was modern, and it was very clean.  Amenities such as shampoo, soap, bathrobe, slippers were provided.  The front desk was not 24 hours, however during the day they were extremely helpful in helping to arrange tours, airport transfers and offer recommendations.  Location is closer to the harbor, and is about a 10 minute walk into the heart of town.  I recommend this option for families.

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PACKING TIPS:
The weather fluctuates a lot.  It wasn't really THAT cold when we were there in April.  Typically it was in the mid to high 30's.  Not much different to NYC winters.  However, the wind can be a killer outdoors, and there is occasional drizzle.  Beware you also do get wet from the waterfalls spray, especially if you get up close to it.  I recommend you pack:

- Layers.  Sweaters, scarfs, hats, and gloves are a must.  But also a windbreaker or an outer waterproof layer to put over your coat.  We also had pull on waterproof pants that really helped to keep us dry at the waterfalls.  Ugly but practical!

- Waterproof case for your camera or phone.

- Waterproof hiking or snow boots

- Purchase the Northern Lights app on iTunes before you arrive.  It helps you take clearer photos if you happen to catch the northern lights.  We met a couple who saw the northern lights on their plane ride over.  You will want to have the app ready on the spur of the moment if your lucky enough to experience that.



The local currency is Icelandic Krona (ISK).  There are plenty of money changers in the airport when you arrive.  Do not bother to exchange your money in your homeland, because you'll get a horrible rate.  Also, upon arrival in Iceland note alcohol sold in the airport is the cheapest you'll find on the island.  Check the duty free limits and stock up!



Lastly, beware…you think NYC is an expensive city?  Well everything in Iceland was almost double that! Labor is expensive, tourism is increasing, taxes are high, available real estate in downtown is sparse and the Icelandic Krona is getting stronger since the 2008 crash, which is all causing the rising price inflation of everything. But it is worth it, and I would do it all over again in a heart beat!  It was definitely a unique experience, and the most different type of travel I have ever done.  It is one of those places you need to visit sooner then later, because with all the environmental changes happening I'm guessing in twenty years a lot will be obsolete.  Take the kids, live in the moment, and catch the wow factor now!  It is an adventure to remember.
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