Lucky Number 20!

So ever since the second time I left the United States ((to walk across the border to Mexico on Spring Break in college… sorry Dad!) The first was to Canada as a child on a family trip), I started a little tally to see how many countries I’ve traveled to. I’m happy to announce that I have just returned from a MIND-BLOWING trip to country number 20, Iceland.

iceland karen

A few months back, a friend of mine posted this link to a list of 25 bucket list travel ideas. I commented and said I had always wanted to go to Iceland, and the rest is history. We jumped on the planning and decided if we were renting a car to drive around, with the goal of seeing the Northern Lights, we better fill 2 more seats to make the rental and gas costs worth it. Adam and Wynne agreed and we started booking flights, Airbnbs, and fun excursions.

iceland ponies

The 3 friends flew out on a Sunday and I joined them the following Tuesday. They picked me up from the airport in Keflavik and off we went to our little farmhouse on the coast near Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Say that 3 times fast. On our way there, we stopped to visit some shaggy Icelandic ponies and see the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. When we arrived, we made tacos for dinner and managed to catch about 2 hours of the Northern Lights. It took me a little while to get my camera settings just right but I was able to capture a few like this (click to enlarge):

iceland northern lights

On Wednesday, we spent about 8 hours in the car driving past glaciers, more waterfalls, and adorable small towns, like Vik. I learned quickly to take advantage of gas station restrooms and gas station hot dogs. Even if you don’t need gas, you make the pit stop because you never really know how far it will be before the next one. Driving through Iceland is basically how I imagine driving on Mars or the Moon would be. Every bit of landscape is completely different from the next and the weather is changing constantly. Sometimes it would be sunny and windy and then overcast and snowing. 5 minutes later it would be sunny again but with no wind. Totally unpredictable, so it is best to layer up!

Thursday morning, I struggled through a pretty nasty little stomach bug and was collected from the farm-house around 11:00am by my adventure buddies after they returned from a glacier nearby. We drove back on the Ring Road onto the Golden Circle, and after 30 minutes in a snow squall, we arrived at Geysir. If you can imagine Yellowstone covered in snow and looking like a different planet, this is what the experience at Geysir is like. It is a geothermal field of hot-pots and geysers and everything smells like rotten-eggs thanks to the sulfuric steam pumping out of the ground. After Geysir, we traveled a few minutes to Gullfoss Falls… it is a massive, wide waterfall that dumps into a deep, blue gorge. This was my priority stop for the day, so I’m glad the snow had cleared up and the sun was out. We left the falls and decided it was time for a steam at the Secret Lagoon. This hot spring pool is about 1/2 the cost of the Blue Lagoon and we counted only 8 other guests while we enjoyed our soak. Behind the natural pool is a geyser that you can enjoy every 10-15 minutes throughout your time there. The fun part is that the pool starts getting REALLY hot just before the geyser goes off so you know when it is about to happen! After we were hot and pruney, we headed to our little cottage on the Golden Circle. We had some hole-y pizza and enjoyed more sightings of the Northern Lights.

On Friday, we headed to Thingvellir National Park for our Dive.IS snorkel trip. You can choose to scuba dive or snorkel through the continental fissure in Lake Silfra. It is amazing because you are literally between the European tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate! They are drifting apart at a rate of 6 centimeters per year so hurry before it is a veritable canyon underwater! 😉 Anyway, there were 2 companies there doing dives and snorkels and each company had MANY groups, so unfortunately we ended up waiting in the -19*C air for 2 hours before we were able to do our swim. The water was 2*C (still cold but ‘warmer’ than the air) and we were suited up in puffy bodysuits, drysuits, gloves, caps, and snorkel masks. In total, it took us about 25-30 minutes to swim through the crack and the lagoon. I had to keep looking up out of the water to remind myself where I was and it surprised me every time to see snow and ice on either side of the fissure. The benefit of being the last group to swim is that our guide, Aron, gave us our underwater pictures for free. Hooray!

iceland volcano

We continued our drive through the national park, with one last stop at the scenic overview and on through to Reykjavik. Our Airbnb there was only 1 block down and 1 block over from the stunning and strange Hallgrimskirkja cathedral and right off the main shopping/restaurant street. After showers and getting unpacked, we found wonderful, warm soups for dinner at The Laundromat Cafe and then did a little bar hopping, thanks to Appy – which tells you where the best and cheapest happy hours are taking place around town.

Saturday, we spent the day exploring downtown Reykjavik and doing a little shopping. We started at Dunkin Donuts, of course (seeing as there isn’t one in Brussels, we Americans had to make up for this deficit) and carried on to the Saga Museum. This little gem is a audio-guided walk through complete with silicon manikins depicting the different historical family sagas of Iceland. It is a little creepy but super informative. Afterwards, you can play dress up and take some fun Viking pictures. Karen has those… We left and walked up the shopping street and stopped in some of the fun boutiques. I insisted on seeing the Sun Voyager and made my group freeze themselves to walk along the water to find it. Sorry, friends. We hiked up the hill to Hallgrimskirkja and stepped inside to see the pipe organ. Compared to other European cathedrals, this church in stunningly plain inside. The windows are not stained glass and there are almost no decorations inside. Very refreshing compared to some of the mainland classics. You can also ride an elevator to the top of the tower for 900ISK (about $7) to get some panoramic views of the city.

We headed back to the apartment to pack, nap, and rally before dinner at the Fish Market. We were glad we snacked on PB&Js and Doritos in the car all week so we could save up for this meal. It was totally worth it with the fresh, local caught seafood we dined on. We didn’t have room for dessert and knew we had an early wake-up call for our return flight the next morning so we headed up the hill with happy hearts and full bellies.

I know this is a long post, but I feel like there is no way even between words AND pictures to do Iceland justice. It is the weirdest and most wonderful place I have ever been and the only way to fully understand it is to go yourself. I am interested to travel back during a summer sometime (though not this summer — Hello JAPAN & USA!) so let me know if you are free next year or the year after. 😉

 

*Stay tuned to hear about Alex’s Austrian Apres-Ski Adventures!