In October, 2013, Iceland Air offered what they called the Northern Lights Tour for 2 to come to Reykjavik for 4 days and 3 nights. The package included airfare from Seattle for 2, a hotel in downtown Reykjavik, a pair of vouchers for a boat ride into the bay to look at Northern lights, and a pair of vouchers to the Blue Lagoon Spa, all for $1,299. When we signed up the vouchers came through for the boat ride on the day we arrived, and the Blue Lagoon experience was on the day we departed. We picked the dates back in October to be in March because we already had the trip to Fairmont Hot Springs scheduled for late January, and we didn’t want the trips to be too close together.
The flight departed SeaTac at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, March 9. We skipped going to the UU and packed, and looked at the webcam that showed some new snow that fell overnight. We went through our plans again, and felt we were all ready.
Marilyn came with us to the airport, but Des drove. She uses her GPS to help her get places, and when you put in SeaTac Airport, it enters the street address on International Drive which is not the main entrance to the departure and arrivals concourses. We entered the main entrance the normal way, hopefully showing her how to skip the round-about path she has been using. It apparently only worked partially – see the story about being picked up at the end of the trip.
We arrived a bit early, like 2:00 for a 4:30 flight. Judy and I stopped by the Sky Club where I am a member, and Judy was able to visit without being charged. After a couple of free drinks and an hour plus on free Wi-Fi we were ready to go. We boarded the plane and sat in seats 25 A and B. Judy was at the window, hopefully to see the Northern Lights on the way since we would be travelling in darkness the whole way. Our seat mate was a UW grad student on his way to 2 months in Greenland as a part of his research on glacial flora and fauna, to be followed by a 2 week trek across southern Greenland on skis.
One unfortunate part of this phase of the trip was the 20-something woman and her 2 year old son Magnus behind us in seats 26 A and B. She talked non-stop for the whole trip, loudly, about every personal thing that came through her mind. Her seat mate was also a 20-something young man, and apparently she thought they hit it off. It is unbelievable what people will say to strangers about her pre-marital affairs, her married life, her husband, etc. Anyway, Magnus liked to kick the back of the seat in front of him (where I was sitting), and she was so loud it was very hard to sleep on the flight. More about the effects this lack of sleep on the plane had on us later.
The good news was that they had free movies on the flight and I watched the Desolation of Smaug, and Pacific Rim. The flight was 6:55 in length. The bad news was that the food on the plane was priced as though you were buying it in Iceland, which means it was very expensive. A grilled chicken entre was 2,300 Icelandic Kronor, which at 113 K to a dollar is $20.35. Yea, it was ridiculously expensive. Note to self: next time, bring a Subway Sandwich on the plane.
We arrived and disembarked normally. There were duty free shops we passed on the way to the exit, and we had been warned that alcohol in most forms was pretty expensive in Iceland, but I reasoned that we would be out and about most of the time and we didn’t need a liter of rum in our room. In hindsight this was a good idea, as we didn’t have any extra space in the room for a bottle, and we didn’t spend any time in the room except for sleeping. It was very small.
Upon exiting we looked for the Thrifty car rental place, but didn’t see one. There were others like Budget and Hertz, but not Thrifty. When I booked the reservation I saw that the location was at the airport but not in the terminal, so I asked the Budget girl where it was. She pointed across the parking lot and said it would take us about 10 minutes to walk. Judy and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s go!” We started off, but soon discovered that it was 32 F outside, with a strong wind and precipitation in the air (snow, rain?). We came back inside, found the guy waiting for us with a sign that had my name on it, and he drove us over in a warm and cozy van. This was a much better way to go. The rental process was handled by a young blonde woman (blonde Icelandic woman is redundant, I can tell you – they are 80% blonde in this country!) and in a moment we were inside a Ford Focus with standard transmission.
It was only now getting light. Time was about 7:45 am. What to do? We decided to drive into Reykjavik and find the hotel, knowing that it was too soon to check in. We found the Hotel Klopp and looked at the downtown area a bit, but decided to go and see the Geyser and GullFoss Waterfall areas, so off we went.
Highway 41 turned into Highway 1, the Ring Road around Iceland, and we departed the Reykjavik area east and a bit south, headed for Selfoss. The area we drove through very quickly turned to volcanic lava fields, and the road began to rise between very tall escarpments of basalt. It looked very much like central Washington near Vantage, where basaltic columns of rock form the sides of the Columbia River canyons, and for a very good reason. Both areas were formed by the same basic geologic process – lava flows over the ground and solidifies into basaltic columns in layers. There were 1,000 foot tall escarpments all around, and more.
But we couldn’t see much of any of this. We found ourselves in rapidly deteriorating weather, with snow increasing. Soon we were in a literal white-out, using the orange poles at the sides of the road to help show the route. It was nasty. Winds were in the 30 mph range, maybe higher. We slowed and kept at it, soon finding the top of the pass and headed down the other side. We descended quickly into a warmer zone, and the snow turned to rain. It was a short distance to Selfoss, where both of us were feeling a bit tired from the exertion of the ride. We found a large church and pulled into the parking lot, tipped the seats back and took a nap for about an hour. All the while the rain and wind kept up, and it was thoroughly nasty wintery weather outside.
We woke up at about noon, and decided it was time for lunch. We drove around and found a grocery store, and finally settled on a restaurant called the Kaktus. Inside it was themed Mexican, but the fare offered was pure Icelandic. I had fish and chips, and Judy ordered a chicken burger with fries. Unfortunately Judy was pretty tired from the flight and the drive, and she wasn’t able to eat much. The waitress, who deserves a chapter all to herself (she was a pretty blonde girl wearing a remarkably minimalist outfit – a strapless one that is usually best described as being held up by one’s imagination) was very understanding and helped as much as she could. We boxed up the burger and fries Judy couldn’t eat and headed back to Reykjavik, back over the pass (slowly and carefully), checked into the hotel at about 3:30, and promptly hit the sack for another nap. Sleep deprivation is a nasty thing.
We rose at 5:00 or so, went out to see the town, and found a wonderful restaurant specializing in Icelandic fish. We both had cod served in different ways, and declared it a fantastic place to eat. Wow, it was good. The prices were high, and just 2 entrees and one drink each cost about $80 for the both of us. We hit the sack again about 9:30 and slept the night through.
Today the weather is better, and we planned to complete the trip we started yesterday. At breakfast we met others on the same sort of vacation itinerary we were on, including a woman about our age with a college-aged daughter. Mom lives in Colorado, and the daughter is at UW. They were friendly and we see them a couple more times, but always in the hotel lobby. They tell us that they did the Blue Lagoon trip on Monday, and it was fun. Mom complained that the water of the lagoon made her hair “feel like straw”, but that the spa treatments were good.
Breakfast was a buffet arrangement, with fruit juices, bread, meats, cheese, pickled herring and beets, hard boiled eggs, and 2 kinds of cereal with yogurt. Coffee and tea completed the mix. It was actually quite filling. It came included with the hotel stay making it the most economical meal of the day – free!
Overnight the weather had warmed and the roads were clear and dry, even the nasty wintry part from Monday. We got to Selfoss in about 40 minutes, stopped briefly for a coffee, and then off towards Geyser and Gullfoss on Highway 35. The valley through which the road travels is wide and flat, although gently rising. The views were nice but pretty plain. We saw lots of Shetland horses, which they use both for tourist recreation, and as a source of protein. Horse was commonly on menus. The snow persisted on the ground in many places. We saw many fields where trenches had been cut in an apparent attempt to drain them, and when we asked about this were told that the water table is very high and without trenching the fields would only grow moss. So, basically they were draining peat bogs to grow grass for livestock.
Our first stop was the site of the original Geyser, now dormant. Apparently the discovery of this crazy phenomenon was a unique thing, and the Icelanders who saw it called it Gey-SEER (translation – really large whale blowhole in the ground of really hot water), which is what we now call Geyser. At that time the geyser shot up over 100 feet, but now it sleeps. An earthquake changed the chamber below in 2000, and since then it has not been active at all.
To make the geyser work better they figured out that they could charge it with soap. 100 years ago they would put 40-50 kg of soap into the hot water, which would lower the boiling point and help it shoot off to great heights. They also figured out they could toss rocks into the hole to help out. Eventually they had to clean out the bore with drilling equipment, but the earthquake put an end to all that. Now they all just wait for another earthquake to restore what has been broken. At the visitor’s center there is a long display spelling out the ups and downs of the geyser and the effects of past quakes. It gives you a perspective of a Living Earth, I can tell you.
The photo here is of the Strokkur Geyser, which is located about 100 yards from the older one. It erupts about every 8 minutes, and it shot off several times during our visit. It is about 10-15 feet wide at ground level, with an apparent pit below the surface where the water heats up. When the pressure builds up sufficiently to push the steam pocket to the surface it escapes under some force, creating the spout you see here. I have a series of photos of this process in the folder of Icelandic photos that is associated with this report. (Do you see the hand-like nature of this geyser? Is it giving me the finger?)
About 6 miles up the road is the waterfall called Gullfoss. This is a fairly large and wide waterfall at the top, arranged in 2 parts. The first wide part cuts a diagonal across the river, and falls about 11 meters overall. The second part is deeper at 20 meters, but the water falls into a crack in the basalt and disappears from most vantage points. You can see the river below the falls, but in the crack it is dark and narrow and there is very little to see. At this time of year there is lots of ice that has formed where the spray usually comes up, and in this picture that ice is about in the center of the view, at the far end of the upper section.
The stories about the falls were several, one involving a lonely shepherd on one side and an equally lonely shepherdess on the other. One day she convinced him to cross the river above the falls and by stepping on the stones we was able to make it. Sort of anti-climactic, I thought. Another involved a woman who owned the falls (there is a lot of private land ownership in Iceland) who fought the town council over a plan to build a dam for electrical power generation, and won. She is heralded as the first Icelandic Environmentalist. The last was about an earlier falls owner who had amassed a small fortune in gold but didn’t want his ungrateful kids to have any of it, so he threw the gold into the falls so it would be lost forever. This is the origin of the name, Gull = gold, and Foss = waterfall.
As you can see in the picture the weather had clouded up again, after the sun showed itself at Geyser. It didn’t rain at that point, but the parking lot had about 6” to 12” of snow on it, and the trails and boardwalks around the falls had plenty of snow on them. It is interesting to note that Icelanders are not fond of shoveling snow, neither off of paths and sidewalks nor roads. Apparently it may be like the PNW where it snows today but melts tomorrow.
We drove back towards Selfoss, skipping the extra leg to Thingviller. I suspected the bad weather would have made this difficult or at least would have obscured some of the sights we might have seen. I wanted to stop by the restaurant with the special waitress, both to show her that Judy had recovered after the flight, and to see what she might be wearing today, but it was not to be. I’ll just have to imagine that she has a wardrobe of similar outfits and she wears a new one every day.
We did stop by a small town located just at the bottom of the pass, where the road hit the flat ground again. This town is totally powered by geothermal energy with lots of greenhouses and steam vents. We later learned that this is where most of the tomatoes grown in Iceland come from, and mushrooms. We drove around the little town (it took 10 minutes, and I think we hit all the roads), stopped by the main Thermal Park (closed for the winter), and generally enjoyed what little this town had to offer.
After returning to Reykjavik we decided to have a brief walk around before dinner. This included a visit to the large and modern church that has been built on top of the hill that overlooks the old town of Reykjavik, called Hallgrimskirkja. This church is built in recent times, but generally reflects the older traditions of large churches with tall steeples. This one has an elevator in it, not like the 327 stairs to the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris! Although it was quite windy near the church, and it was past the normal closing time, we stopped for a quick picture. It took about 5 minutes to walk to the church from our hotel.
You can see the statue in the background, just above Judy. This is Leif Ericsson, the most famous Icelander of all. We found statues to him all over the place. The story is that Eric the Red, Leif’s father, was the one who sailed from Iceland and settled in Greenland, and established a settlement on the west side in 986. He is called Eric the Red because he had a small anger issue and tended to kill people. He was kicked out of Norway and sent to Iceland, where Leif was born. He was then kicked out of Iceland, which is when he took his family to Greenland.
Leif then sailed on and established some sort of settlement in each of Labrador and Newfoundland, making him the first European to discover America. This was supposed to have happened in about the years of 999 or 1,000. Leif visited there after hearing about it from others, so maybe he discovered it, or maybe he just gets the credit for discovering it. It is clear that Leif and his band collected wood from the places they visited and brought it back to Greenland. He rescued some shipwrecked Icelanders on one trip, which is how he got the name, Leif the Lucky.
We stopped for a beer near the hotel at a small bar called Kalde, which turns out to be the name of the brewery that makes the beer served in the bar. Kalde means cold in Icelandic, and this particular beer is made in a small fishing town in northern Iceland. It was featured on one of the tourist videos they showed on the plane. Anyway, the beer was very good, but they didn’t offer anything to eat in this bar at all. Nothing. We were starving at that point.
For dinner we chose a small Italian restaurant not far from the church. It was off the main street, and was a quiet little place. I thought it might have been lower in price than the other places around, but not so! We had skipped any sort of normal lunch, and we were both hungry at that point, so we ordered a glass of red wine apiece, and 2 appetizers to share. They were very good. Then we each had an entrée and another glass of wine. The total was just under $100 for the dinner. Isn’t that crazy?
After dinner we headed back to the hotel. There is a bar at the check in desk, and featured prominently is a bottle of Brennivin, the local drink nicknamed The Black Death. It is described as a drink made of vodka infused with the flavors of the “local moss seeds”, which interested me since moss does not have seeds. I asked to try it, thinking I was ordering a shot. The guy behind the bar tried to talk me out of it, saying it was terrible and I would hate it. I wanted to try it anyway, and he poured 2 small shots of it for Judy and me. It tasted of anise, and wasn’t too bad, actually. I likened it to Ouzo, and Judy said it tasted like aquavit. Best of all, no charge!
After sleeping soundly overnight we got up about 8:30 and were downstairs for breakfast by 9:15. As a note, the bathroom in this hotel was very small. The shower stall was so small I was barely able to turn around while in it. It had plenty of hot water, however, and we were able to get cleaned up OK. The room was tight for space everywhere. I think the room on the cruise ship was larger than this hotel room.
Today the weather was inclement, but not actively raining first thing in the morning. We had planned to do a walking trip in town today, seeing the sights and visiting museums and such. We decided to start at the church again, to take the elevator to the top and see the sights of the city. Since it was pretty clear weather, we hoped to see a lot.
From ground level you see the shops, doors, and small roads of the old city. From the top of the steeple the play of colors from the roofs of the buildings is evident. Most are metal roofs painted in the playful colors you see here. Since most of the construction materials have to be imported, I suppose you get the most bang for the buck with metal roofing materials, rather than asphalt or tile. I did see the use of brick in Iceland but mostly for road surfaces in the old town. I did see rock construction, and some composite stone materials.
In this photo you can see the large mountains in the background. We were told that this particular mountain is 1,000 meters tall, or about 3,000 feet. The edges of the mountains came right down to the water’s edge, leaving very little in the way of shoreline. Towns tended to be tucked into small alluvia or other areas with water access. Human habitation in Iceland is clearly tied to the sea.
At the Rick Steve’s office in Edmonds we picked up a printed “48 Hours in Iceland – What to See” brochure. This had lists of special spots to visit, including a recently discovered longhouse foundation under some buildings in central Reykjavik. This one was called Reykjavik 871+/- 2, which is a reference to the year of 871 and a volcanic eruption that occurred +/- 2 years from that date. The foundation was in use at the time of the eruption, dating this settlement to that time. It had a very nicely done interpretive display that talked about the depletion of the Great Auk (extinct by 1844) and the use and destruction of the native forests (probably thickets of willow and aspen more than an actual tall tree forest) by the first settlers of Iceland.
Of great interest to me is that the forests never came back. Trees were intentionally removed to create space for grain crops and pasture land, but the regeneration from coppice or seed does not seem to have happened, and the current population doesn’t seem interested in planting trees in open spaces either. The island is nearly devoid of trees. We did see some plantations that appeared to be in the 20 year old category on our drive to Gullfoss, but there weren’t many places, and they looked pretty sorry.
We visited the Aurora Borealis museum to see the interpretive display they had there, which turned out to be mostly an explanation of the role of sun spots in creating the ejecta from the sun that eventually burns up in the atmosphere creating the aurora phenomenon (the graphics here were from NASA and they were very cool), and a collage of images taken in Iceland of Northern Lights using special cameras that created fantastically wonderful landscapes of color. If the Northern Lights were always like that, we all would take vacations in the north during the winter to see them. The actual phenomena is much more subdued most of the time, darn it.
We wandered the waterfront looking at boats. We saw icebreakers in dry dock for repairs. We saw several Icelandic Coast Guard cutters at the quay. We found the whale watching boats the tourists use to see the same sorts of whales we see here in Puget Sound. We visited the Opera House, recently built, which is right on the waterfront.
On the waterfront is this wonderful sculpture. It took a couple of minutes to find a perspective where the other tourists were not in the frame, but here it is.
When we returned to the hotel at about 5:00 we learned that the Northern Lights Boat Trip for which we had tickets was going to be going that night at 9:00. Apparently the tour group felt that the chances were good that we might be able to see something, even though the cloud cover at that point was pretty thick. We were encouraged to get ready and be at the boat by 8:30. Wear warm clothes, they said. Ha!
Judy and I got ready and headed down to the older part of town. We eventually found a Tapas Restaurant to dine, and ordered a selection of 4 tapas dishes. They were all good, and this dinner didn’t break the bank. We were done by about 8:00 and we wandered down to the dock, found the boat, and boarded.
There were about 80 people on the ship. We motored out into the harbor, and one of the crew stood on the deck and watched for the lights with us, telling stories of Iceland, of the Northern Lights, reciting poetry by Icelandic poets who mentioned the lights, and even singing a few songs that referred to them. There were scattered clouds until about 10:00, but then we could see an edge to the clouds that was heading our way. When it finally arrived the sky was clear and bright and almost immediately we could see a faint green glow in the sky – the Northern Lights. It waxed and waned over the next hour or so, split into two ribbons of light, then three, and danced across the sky. Judy was transfixed the entire time the lights were available. On a scale of 0 to 10, this was supposed to be a category 2 night (there is a website that you can visit to find these things out), so it was not a spectacular display, but it was visible and it capped a trip already fun and entertaining.
A short note: On the ship were survival suits that people could put on if they wanted. I was skeptical at first because we had our coats and hats and we were ready for what we expected to be a cold night on deck of a ship at sea. Judy put on a suit right away, and I put one on before I went up on deck. Now that I am older and wiser, I have learned that these suits are GREAT! Wow! We were warm and cozy inside these things, even though the wind was blowing and it was really cold. I want one of these suits to wear around here!
We walked back to the hotel and got there just at midnight (15 minute walk). We went straight to bed.
On our last day in Iceland we had a planned schedule that didn’t feel like it was going to take all day. We were supposed to arrive at the Blue Lagoon at around 11:00, and then be ready for a flight at 5:30 or so. We rose at 8:30, packed in the room, breakfasted, and departed the hotel at about 9:30. We drove to the Blue Lagoon area which is quite near the airport, arriving about 10:30 or so. To get there we drive through sun, rain, sleet, and snow, and there was a huge cloud over the airport that looked ominous. Since we were supposed to get into the lagoon by walking from the dressing area to the water over some distance, the cool temperatures were a bit of a concern.
We left our bags in the car and joined a queue at the entrance to the spa. We stood for about 15 minutes outside in the cold with the other travelers who had gotten off a bus with all their bags only to learn that this was the line to put your luggage into lockers, we then headed down a short path to the actual spa entrance. The path was cut through a lava flow with the black, jagged rock characteristic of the type. The spa building was modern and sleek, and the line at the entrance was all inside and warm. Things were starting to look up. We presented our voucher, were handed bath robes, towels, and a wrist band with a RFID chip inside, and told to use the chip to access all the features of the spa. If there were any additional charges to be paid for, we would handle that at the end. And we were off…
After exiting the locker rooms I headed to the milky blue water of the lagoon. I was looking around for Judy, who I thought would have preceded me as I took a bit of time finding a space and getting myself together, but it turned out I was first. The approach area had places to hang your bathrobe and towel, and I did, then walked briskly to the water. It wasn’t snowing at that moment. The water was tepid where I first entered it, but there were warm spots here and there, and overall it was fine and toasty. Judy showed up in a moment, and we paddled around with all the other tourists. The lagoon is 3-5 feet deep, with rocks in places. The footing was OK.
Our stops included a facial of silica sand that they collect somewhere in the area. We scooped this out of buckets at one side of the pool, and then slathered the goo on our faces. All over the lagoon people had this white stuff in various stages of drying on themselves, so we looked sort of normal in this world of crazies. We visited a faux volcano set up in the center of the lagoon where piped in steam was used to warm the water in the center of a rock pile. We visited a steam room that was so hot I could not stand it, and another where it was just hot. We stood in line for our free drink at the bar and Judy availed herself of another facial paste, this one infused with a local algae said to be good for the skin. In all, we had a great time just paddling around, talking to the other guests, and keeping warm. At times it snowed, was sunny, and always steamy from the hot water. Nothing we did added any charges to our account, and we checked out and departed relaxed, warm, and our faces were scrubbed clean and shiny.
At the airport we checked in the car after refueling it, checked our bags, passed through into the concourse, and eventually found the central food court where we had lunch. We had some time to kill before the flight, so we used the free airport Wi-Fi to check Facebook and our emails. We sat in seats 33 A and B (there are only 34 rows on this plane) but it turned out there was nobody in 33C, so we had the 3 seats to ourselves. The flight home was 7:25 in duration, and there was some sleeping on the plane. The noisy woman was somewhere else in Europe, annoying somebody else, I imagine.
Mostly the ground was occluded by clouds over Greenland and northern Hudson Bay, but over central Canada it cleared and the views were first frozen like tundra, and then wonderful over the Rockies. We landed without incident.
Marilyn joined us for dinner at a restaurant near the airport. She used her GPS to guide her to the airport, but apparently she entered something strangely as it took her into downtown Bellevue. As a result she was later than she planned. Anyway, I drove home and our Icelandic Vacation ended well.
Desmond and Judy