“Why?” This was always the first response we would get from friends, family and well even strangers when we would tell them where we were going on our honeymoon. To be honest, I also had to take a moment to recall how this admittedly odd decision took place. It was so long ago, back when we were in college, when we made a point to travel to odd places like Estonia and Cambodia. I’m sure I had casually mentioned how intrigued I was about Iceland and wouldn’t it “just be a whacky place to honeymoon?” subtly or not so subtly trying to pry a clue from Matthew as to what type of commitments we were looking toward in the future. Six years, a break up and a reconciliation later, not to my least surprise he took it all to heart (he’s just that kind of guy) and we found ourselves registering on Traveler’s Joy for our honeymoon which we aptly titled, Iceland: A Dream Realized.
With a year to reflect, now I’m not so sure what was more fun: building our Traveler’s Joy website or the honeymoon itself. Matthew loves planning, it’s his job, and there is nothing he loves more than planning a trip. He took the lead on this one and we couldn’t stop laughing as we googled images of Iceland and began learning more about the lore of the island appropriately nicknamed the “Land of Fire and Ice.” There was the hotel in Reykjavik with the owners who were big gnome enthusiasts. Yes, the little people are very much alive in Iceland and recognized by the government. It is said the curvaceous narrow roads are built to avoid disturbing elf hovels. Then there were the huge monster trucks. Again, something we thought was a joke until we arrived and realized, we couldn’t get anywhere in our little Yaris, a micro car by American and especially Icelandic standards, we needed something with clearance (at least 5 ft of it), a step ladder for easy entry and a massive engine with tires to match. Once in Iceland I realized global warming might affect Iceland first but without these huge vehicles, there was no other way to navigate the icy lunar landscape, especially in May.
Knowing we would catch some slack for our destination selection we tried to make our page as funny as possible. Here was our greeting to potential donors:
Just your luck: Our dream honeymoon destination is experiencing a bigger economic crisis than we are just in time for our arrival! So whip out those credit cards and let's stimulate the economy. A once unaffordable island nation of under 400,000 people, Iceland is home to glaciers, Bobby Fischer and the once thought to be extinct Nordic Yetti. Our travels will take us to spas, peet bogs, volcanic hot spots and of course melting glaciers. On a serious note this has truly been our dream honeymoon since we first began to talk casually about marriage on our second date. Please note, the timing of this trip is somewhat dependent on which graduate school Matthew ends up at and will occur either this summer or the following. Either way, Iceland or bust baby!
It’s true though, we were planning our wedding during the start or at least the perceived start of the recent economic meltdown and Iceland was at the heart of the crisis. We had many generous friends and family who dutifully contributed to our travel funds and in the end raised $1230.23, just enough to cover the plane tickets which totaled $1131.76 (from JFK). We did receive additional funds offline bringing the grand total to $2,080.23. The additional gifts covered the rental car (approx. $60/day) and some of the fees for changing our flights (we are notorious for changing our plans but all should be warned, Iceland Air has a monopoly on all things Iceland and will charge you $275 a pop for any change made in your itinerary, just be warned, buy the travelers insurance).
On a sunny Seattle morning in April we set flight to NYC to begin our honeymoon in style, sleeping on the floor of my sister-in-law’s one-bedroom apartment in Queens. We were staying in NYC for just a few days. I had never been and Matthew being the urbanite he is loves the Big Apple. We spent most of our days there eating bagels and pizza, exploring Central Park and taking in a Broadway Show (The Heights, a spectacular hip-hop inspired musical that makes you desperate to live in the Burroughs of NYC and sit on the stoop with your Puerto Rican grandma). For just under $100/seat we were able to sit in row 15 and practically watch the dancers sweat. But I won’t bog you down with details from this portion of the trip. There is plenty of info out there about amazing places and things to do in NYC (like strolling through the Greenwood Cemetery, really, I’m not into cemeteries but the green parrots and cherry trees make for a pretty magical setting). I will, however, tell you three places where we ate that will never be forgotten and should be on anyone’s list for eating out on a visit to NYC or at least Queens:
Taverna Kyclades (Greek, order the grilled octopus, but its all worth the wait) 3307 Ditmars Blvd Queens, NY
Popover Café (classic place for a nice breakfast or early lunch) 551 Amsterdam Ave NY, NY
El Gauchito (Argentine, don’t miss the flan) 94-60 Corona Ave Queens, NY
On May 3rd we set flight from JFK for the near arctic aboard Iceland Air Flight 1614 and thus began our grand adventures in the “Land of Fire and Ice.” Our flight left NY at 8:00pm and we arrived in Keflavik, a suburb of Reykjavik, at 6:45am (5 hours 45 minutes). According to our car rental reservations, the service desk would not be open until 8am, so we killed some time in the duty free store buying an excessive amount of Icelandic beer, Viking, and Johnny Walker plus a little bit of chocolate and some Skyr, basically Icelandic yogurt (this would become my best friend). Before setting foot on the country’s soil we had already spent $55.98 (7,075 ISK).
At about 7:30 we headed to the desk where we found the clerk already helping another group of tourists explaining the excessive fees one would pay for a small scratch or dent on their Hertz rental. After re-listening to the clerk go over the extensive regulations and rules of renting a car and driving in Iceland, and purchasing additional insurance which we later found covered very little, we were free to take our car anywhere on the island, except for: on any dirt roads; into sand storms; across rivers or streams that could be suspected as rivers; into mud; on rocky soil; under, over or across bridges…pretty much anywhere off of highway 1 and outside the capitol Reykjavik. Confident in our driving skills and our boosted insurance policy we chose to ignore this advice as we encountered each of the forewarned obstacles.
For now though, we were a bit tired from our flight and eager to relax. Rather than heading into the “big” city of Reykjavik (pop.120,000) we headed 20 minutes down Hwy1 to Grindavik near the infamous Blue Lagoon and checked ourselves in to the Heimagisting Borg hostel, listed in Lonely Planet and also one of the only open guesthouses in the area. It was a charming little farmhouse with inviting rooms all with two twin beds and a complimentary self-serve breakfast for $48.62US (6,032 ISK). We would later find that in Iceland all guesthouses are similarly fashioned and equipped with two twin beds, but no fear, they can be easily pushed together, the advantage being you get to choose your own temperature with your own blanket, the disadvantage of course: who has to sleep in the crack? The owner was very nice though and considering our lack of choices in the month of May, we set down our bags (custom in Iceland is that you pay when you leave) and headed for the spa.
The Blue Lagoon is the famed spa destination in Iceland. It’s the place you see in all the advertisements of Iceland as a romantic getaway, the couple cuddling in a steaming caldron of sky blue water. Nestled into the tundra as though it was meant to be there, the complex boasts the curing combination of silica mud, algae and geothermal seawater. If you swim to the edge you can glimpse a peak at the geothermal plant which developed the resort as an extra revenue source. Intriguing as it is, one can easily forget the facility’s presence and float over to one of the mud boxes filled with white goo. Slather some on your face and you will feel like a princess, until of course it dries and begins to itch. The resort itself offers several different pools or hot pots at varying degrees of lukewarm.
Being that it was early May it was barely above freezing and with a light ran I could practically feel the slush forming in my hair. We spent most of the time swimming around like alligators to where the water was entering directly from the pipes, envying the guests receiving $80 massages on floating mattresses and running in and out of the pool to the slightly warmer steam rooms and saunas.
After a few hours in the pool we decided we’d had enough. Like most pools in the U.S. there are common showers and lockers to rinse off in when you are done. Being a light traveler I opted to use the shampoo provided and skipped the conditioner, bad idea. Something about the water makes your hair feel like you just took down your wedding up do and are now trying to run your hands through a tangled backcombed mess---even after brushing it---even 3 days and half a dozen washes later. In the end though that relaxed spa feeling was worth it. Entry into the resort was $55.21 (6923 ISK) for the two of us. Later we found the municipal pools, the pride of most towns, were a steal and one of the only available forms of active entertainment in early May. For about $2.00 a pop you got the Blue Lagoon, minus the silica mud but with fewer people and the welcome addition of a waterslide!
As we were staying in a sleepy little town with very little for the likes of food, our host warned us that the two restaurants in town (one a tiki bar the other a pizza place) would be closed, our only other option and a common one in Iceland was to eat at the gas station serving up the standard fare of hotdogs, burgers and fries. So we headed to the grocery store to stock up on jam and bread for PB&Js (knowing from previous travels the limited use of peanut butter, I had packed our own), sliced gouda cheese just to mix it up and my new favorite Skyr. One of our great joys when traveling is to browse the aisles of grocery stores. We were surprised to see pineapples and avocadoes on the shelves but none to surprised when we saw most fresh produce was over $6/lb and a papaya would set you back nearly $15! Some of this produce is grown in greenhouses on the island, but some is still imported, either way it’s expensive. There was however an affordable selection of salted and dried fish as well as sheeps’ head and other sheep parts. A little shy of how to prepare sheeps’ head we settled on spaghetti with sauce prepared from a package of magic powder. Returning to the farmhouse we went for a walk down by the fishing docks, took a peak in the church then returned to play cribbage and plan our grand adventures as we set out to circumnavigate the island.
The following morn we said goodbye to Grindavik, excited about the possibilities of finding natural hot springs and maybe taking a nice hike here or there. We decided to head toward Hella, one of the larger towns in the Southeast where there was rumored to be some nice hiking and rivers with pockets of hot water. First though we stopped at a few notable sights which of course took us off highway 1 and onto little potholed gravel roads along the coast. Stopping at the Krysuvik and Seltun geothermal fields softly releasing their sulfur sweat into the air, we began to ponder how different this experience might be from a little trip to Yellowstone, but pushed the thought aside instead pushing onward toward our destination.
Along the way we began to see several of the waterfalls (foss in Icelandic) that contribute to the various landmarks of Iceland. We stopped at one, which dropped well over 60 meters from the rocky shelf that hugs most of Iceland’s coast. We walked behind the water curtain from a little trail about 5 minutes from the parking lot. The water cast a full rainbow in every direction, encircling the scene in a full spectrum of colors I was in awe and love. Soaked from the foss’s spray we drove on arriving in Hella about noon. We found our way to the well marked tourist office (most larger towns have them just look for the “i” sign) where we spent about five minutes inquiring about where we might find some good hikes and hot springs. Most of our questions were answered with a simple no, even when I tried to attempt a different method of questioning. It was clear, however, that the issue was not one of language so I pressed on, only to find out that it didn’t matter if there was anything of interest in the wilderness outside of town, we could not get there in May, especially without paying an outfitter to take us and most certainly not in our rental, little Yaris. Only mildly disappointed we opted to push onward after a doughnut at the bakery next store and a dose of Skyr.
By 2pm we were driving through a green expanse our car occasionally nudged by gusts of wind we were feeling just fine watching the bucolic scenery pass. Horses frolicking in the pastures, the ocean tumbling just below us and the occasional old sod home built into rocks made us marvel at what it must have been like for the island’s early settlers. The road dipped down into another sleepy little town, Vik and we decided to stop for a walk along the beach. Matthew carefully maneuvered our car down a dirt road parking by the edge of the town’s little church (every town has the little church they are worth stopping you’ll know what I mean once you’re there, beautiful views).
The wind was blowing so hard the spray from the ocean’s waves was dusting our car in a salty film. But the basalt cliffs towering to our left kept us from returning to the shelter of little Yaris. They looked like towers of perfectly cut logs. We began climbing up the cliff finding it easy to scramble up with each basalt timber offering a perfect foot and hand hold. As we worked our way along the cliff parallel to the beach we made our way to a huge open cave, it was time to get down.
When we made it back to the car it was about time for dinner so we decided to check out what Vik had to offer—very little. A small hotel would serve up a nice fish dish, but as Matthew only eats land faring creatures we mixed up a little PB&J and pushed onward. It was 5pm and we still had a good 7 hours of daylight. When I was suddenly awoken by a disturbing jolt and loud scraping noise, it became clear that daylight or not it was time to find a place to sleep. Matthew, tired, had pulled over in a parking lot, why it was there we still don’t know, and in his own near stupor, brought our little Yaris right up onto a curb. While the tire was fine there was a nice dent in the hubcap, we assured ourselves no one would notice and figured the next town would have a mechanic so the best thing to do would be find the next farmhouse and hunker down for what remained of the night. We passed four farmhouses marked by road signs and all closed for the season until we came upon a farm set against the M?rdalsjökull Glacier. The green hills surrounding were crowded with sheep, a farmer and two dogs herding them into a red barn. A woman came out, immediately showed us a room and just as quickly offered a firm price of 6,000 ISK. We gladly accepted, whipped up a dinner of chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese (variety) and took off to tour the farm, just in time to see the birth of the farms newest lamb.
Falling asleep is never easy when the sun doesn’t set, but we managed and by the time we woke the sun was high in the sky. The glacier beckoning us from above we packed up, checked our tire (it was fine), paid and made our way down another forbidden road to the edge of a quickly receding glacier. There we scampered up the dirty but blue ice marveling at the huge boulders and rocks it had deposited and crushed over time. Cautious not to go too far we decided this might be a guided tour we would pay for. A sign down at the trailhead gave information for the Icelandic Mountain Guides (www.mountainguide.is, 587-9999), a guiding company that gave tours at this location and one other in the country’s famed Skaftafell National Park. This would only be a few hours drive and it was still early enough to possibly make the 3pm tour, so we loaded into Yaris stopped for some gas, coffee and Skyr and hit the open road.
It was about an hour into the drive that the wind started to push little Yaris to and fro. Matthew was sleeping in the seat next to me as I marveled at what appeared to be a low smog in the distance, most likely a very sandy “smog.” The wind was blowing so hard even the birds were having difficulty navigating the currents. One swooped down right in front of the car, the road to narrow to swerve I cringed at the inevitable outcome of Yaris colliding with a little bird, but felt nothing. As we entered the smog my suspicions were confirmed it was one of the sandstorms our car rental attendant had warned about. As I held tight to the steering wheel, careful to keep Yaris in between the lines or at least on the road we were blasted from all directions by whirling sand whispering as it collided with our windshield. Matthew awoke just as we pulled into the parking lot at the Skaftafell National Park visitor center and I peeled my clenched fingers from the steering wheel.
We were the first to arrive for the tour about 30 minutes before the departure so we paid the 6,300 ISK (about $50) and toured the visitor facility marveling at the old artifacts spit out by the ice over the past century. There were also several exhibits dedicated to flooding caused by a glacial lake spillover. The catastrophe sent an icy mudslide crashing down the glacier in 1996 destroying nearly everything in its path and sending the only road to this area of Iceland hurtling toward the sea.
By the time our tour was ready I was excited to get outside and explore the glacier’s tunnels of frozen blue ice and deep crevasses. Along with our fellow travelers we piled into one of Iceland’s classic cars, a jacked up fifteen passenger van. Once on the glacier our guide, a young man no older than 18, explained to us how to use our ice axe and crampons. As we walked further we learned a little about the history and geology of the glacier, but there were no ice tunnels in site. Rather we spent our tour throwing rocks into the crevasses listening for several seconds before hearing the “curplunk!” only an icy canyon can produce and taking pictures as we pretended to use our ice axes. After 90 minutes we trekked through the mud and shale back to the van and back to the open road of highway 1.
According to our Lonely Planet and personal internet research, most of the hotels around the park were expensive and somewhat sterile so we opted to push on with the arctic daylight at our backs and find another farmhouse toward Hofn. Along the way we made one last stop in the park at Jokulsarlon, the glacier lagoon. Braving the cold and wind we stepped out of our cars and into a breathtaking site. The blue ice I had desperately wanted to see on the glacier was right before my eyes in hundreds of icebergs floating atop what must have been the world’s coldest lake. Being as it was late in the day we could not take a boat trip around the lagoon but we attempted to capture the glowing color with our camera until the cold beckoned us back to Yaris.
Upon arriving at the car we were startled to hear a distinct scratching coming from the hood. Concerned we may have pushed her to far we approached the front only to discover a small bird caged in the pocket between the grill of the car and the engine. Alive and well the bird was scarred to death. We carefully opened the hood of the car unscrewing a panel with our pocket knife we created an escape route for the bird who quickly flew out of the car and hopefully the countless km back to its home. Only in Iceland!
About 45 minutes outside the park we started to see farmhouse signs and stopped at the first one. The owner came out a little confused to see two young travelers on his door step in early May. He informed us he would not be open for another 3 weeks but we should try his neighbors about 3km further down the road. There we were greeted by a nice family and a wild herd of Caribou. The mother showed us the farmhouse, complete with five bedrooms, all ours, all with twin beds all for 6000 ISK, a pattern was clearly forming. After making grilled cheese and tomato soup we decided the next day we’d head out to the fjords and spend the night in Seydhisfjordhur, described as a little seaside town with Bohemian flare and good sea kayaking…in July.
We awoke to a beautiful sunny day making the drive that much more inspiring as we wound through the fingers of the eastern fjords marveling at the glaciated peaks which dove into the frigid ocean below. It was like Glacier National Park on the ocean. We came to a fork in the road just before Breodalsvik and consulted our map which instructed that we go left to stay on Highway 1. After our hubcap experience we thought it best to follow the rules. Bad idea. The road climbed up a hill, which became a mountain just as quickly as paving gave way to dirt and the guardrails disappeared. Before we knew it we were above the clouds on a thin road patched with ice and no where to turn around. After a tense 20 minutes we began to descend reconnecting with a nicely paved road, but the weather remained less than ideal.
The weather quickly digressed further as we approached our destination. When we pulled into the visitor center at Egilstadir we began to doubt whether our little Yaris could make it to Seydhisfjordhur let alone circumnavigate the country. This thought was confirmed by the woman at the desk who provided us with more information than all visitor centers combined starting with the conspiracies of the car rental companies who removed your snow tires April 1st meaning you couldn’t get any further north than Egilstadir and the government who according to the woman behind the desk did not mark Hwy 1 as nearly impassable on the maps at the request of the same companies. She suggested we bag Seydhisfjordhur go back via the other road and stay at the “cabins down the dirt road outside of Reydarfjordur.”
Feeling confident from our near fatal crossing on Hwy 1 we opted to attempt the ascent and descent to the next fjord and see how far we could push little Yaris. About 3 km up the pass visibility plummeted and as little Yaris’s tires span and we slowly slid toward the edge we could not even see, we surrendered to the elements and made our way back as advised. But the little town of Reyderfjordur was all but abandoned as we drove past the only open store in town, the petrol station. At the end of the road dirt road as promised by our friend in Eglistador, stood 4 little A-frame cabins, empty as expected but with no keeper. A number was left on the door of the house next door, however, so tired, hungry and nearly defeated we made our way back to the petrol station inserting several coins into the pay phone, yes they still exist. The cabins’ keeper was on her way to Reykjavik and would be unable to let us in. After much begging she offered to call a neighbor who would come with keys and take our cash, 6,000ISK of course. This would be the first and only time we paid before we slept.
As promised a messenger arrived with keys and we were let in to one of the little cabins. Fully equipped with everything needed to make a Thanksgiving dinner we whipped up some eggs and toasted with our all to neglected Johnny Walker. For the first time we watched as the sun dipped behind the massive mountain leaving the fjord darker than dusk. As we played another round of gin the wind raced up the fjord and the waves pummeled the rocky shore just outside our door. The next morning, the wind still fighting its way to the interior stole my shoe from an open car door pitching it into the ocean and on to Greenland for all I know.
Happy to be alive we headed west. In approx. 8-10 hours we would be in Reykjavik, sheltered from the wind and blessed with the amenities of a modern metropolis…so we thought. As we wound our way back through fjords (on the paved Hwy 92 this time) and I consulted our trusty guide book we opted to make the most of our car rental rather than waste the three remaining days paying for parking in Reykjavik. The plan: head for the Snaefulness Penninsula home to more basalt beaches and the heart chakra of the world, the inspiration of Jules Verns’s famed 80 Leagues to the Center of the Earth.
Not wanting to push it we stopped in Hella where we treated ourselves to a dip in the municipal pool and hot pots (aka hot tubs) and stayed in the first guesthouse with more than two guests. Clearly tourist season was blossoming in Iceland. We paid 6500 ISK for a private room. The next morning we made a quick stop at the famed Gulfoss an impressive waterfall and the main attraction in the Golden Circle, the other being Geysir a large geyser much like Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
Just beginning to thaw the river was flowing quickly to the edge of a huge gorge rimmed with ice and snow. We walked down a narrow trail off a boardwalk to the mouth of the falls, water spraying from below we felt like seasoned travelers in Iceland prepared with rain jackets for the inevitable soak despite the sunny skies.
After 30 minutes of pictures and exploration we hopped in Yaris the shortest car in the parking lot by at least 4 feet and headed down the Penninsula and around one last fjord. In Stykkisholmur we attempted to bargain with the local HI hostel only to find that they were unwilling to take any less than the going price for the near dozen empty rooms. Baffled by the country’s lack of bargaining skills and business sense we headed to the Heimagisting Maria Baeringsdottir where a woman of nearly 80 speaking no English welcomed us into her living room and just past her bedroom to the guest bedroom with two small twin beds neatly made with crisp white sheets. Awkwardly we arranged a price 9,000ISK, I making effort to practice the only Icelandic I had learned in nearly one week of travel “tak fyrrir, tak fyrrir” (thank you, thank you). Then we walked down the hill to the little harbor a gateway to the Breidarfjordur Islands and whale watching. This was the town we had pictured before our travels, colorful buildings lining a quaint harbor overlooked by the quintessential lighthouse, and to our absolute elation an open restaurant, the Narfeyrarstota. The menu offered a variety of dishes including fresh fish, salads, pasta and even a lamb burger. Each table situated near the windows of the elegant café included a view of the harbor, this was what we’d pictured. Satisfied with our first meal that did not include peanut butter or cheese we headed back up the hill to Maria’s. In the morning we woke to a lovely breakfast spread including several cheeses, salami, toast, jam, juice, cucumber, tomato, cereal and some delicious mystery items. Full to the brim we hugged Maria goodbye and set out for Reykjavik.
Matthew had found a hotel online that offered full flats. We had been so careful with money and were practically turning into PB&J’s that we decided to splurge. Upon arrival in the Scandanavian chic lobby we were informed our room would not be ready and if we’d like for the same price could stay in a larger better flat…ugh? Yes! For $62.58/night (7,920 ISK) we slept like babies in one of the flats four beds, made full meals in our kitchen and watched countless movies from the hotels vast selection. But given that we were still in Iceland for four more days we decided we must seize the day!
Reykjavik is like many other European towns of Scandinavian descent: clean and simple. But there is an active arts community that could only blossom from a landscape like Iceland. There are several galleries, antique shops, museums, a flea market that can be missed but is something to do if you like that sort of thing (kolaborti flea market, open 11am-5pm, Saturday and Sunday). Opportunities to listen to music abound. Whether you’re looking for the sound that made Iceland famous (Bjork) or for the more traditional strum, you can find it most any night of the week.
Food selections also increase dramatically within the city limits. We gently introduced ourselves to some of Iceland’s more traditional cuisines, Lundi (puffin), Icelandic lamb and salted fish at Tapas Barinn! (http://www.tapas.is/) a tapas bar in Reykjavik Central. Emboldened by this experience we continued on to an ice bar where we drank the traditional Brennivin, a schnapps made from potatoes and caraway seeds. Traditionally it is accompanied by Hakarl, shark meet that has been aged or as some might say putrefied. We asked the waitress if they had any bu they did not, most likely to our good fortune. We settled for our Brennivin and toasted to our new life lounging on a couch made of ice wearing white down robes and watching our breath swirl in the negative temperatures. Yes, this was all by choice.
Later that night, after a rousting round at the Dubliner, an Irish pub with live music daily and a troop of pagans who will drink you under the table before you can reflect on what exactly it means to be pagan, we stopped for a final meal in Reykjavik at the most delicious hot dog stand I have ever encountered…don’t ask exactly where it was but I would say somewhere in the middle. Cheers!
In total we spent just over $3,000 on our 9 day trip to Iceland. We marveled at the landscape and went on one of the most adventurous road trips of our lives…so far. I would not hesitate to recommend that others visit the country if only to feel the remoteness of a place so removed, but I would highly encourage a shortened stay (Iceland air offers free layovers on your way to Europe), in August or January, when one can truly appreciate the splendor of this place. Timing is everything!