Iceland topped our destination wishlist. A few of our friends had been and recommended it highly. We considered something tropical and beachy, but neither of us likes the beach for more than a day at a time. We knew we’d be exhausted from the flurry of wedding madness, but a Scandinavian adventure still sounded more relaxing than sunburns and sandy feet. Plus, round trip flights were selling for about $600 per seat. That bargain sealed our fate.
We departed Seattle on the red-eye, a direct flight that landed us at Keflavík Airport around 7am. The first apartment we rented in Reykjavík wouldn’t be available until early afternoon, so we scheduled a morning at Blue Lagoon, a famous hot spring and spa.
The shuttle line’s ticket agent walked us from the terminal to the bus, which would prove fortunate. The wind whipped at a blustery 30-40 mph and tore our paper receipt out of Raynn’s hand. She still pinched the bottom corner, but the informative bits flew away from us much faster than any natural human can run. It likely sank in the Atlantic Ocean before we even stepped on the bus. But the ticket agent vouched for us. The adventure commenced.
Blue Lagoon requires you shower before getting into their water so soaps and oils don’t imbalance the ph, or some kind of science. Try not to jam your digital locker thingy, because then the hulking, young Icelander who enforces order (no running, no fighting, and no clothes wearing) must assist you for what feels like ten minutes. It annoys him and it’s embarrassing, especially because you already stripped completely naked, save for your Blue Lagoon issue flip flops. He doesn’t register your shame. He does fix the locker issue. Total professional.
Steam peeled away from the water, and flew away to the sea. That thieving wind whipped hard. Aggressive rain shot sideways, intent to blind and perforate us. We found whatever lee we could, and relaxed a bit. Then we inched onward, breaking when a hot patch of bath captured us. But the swim-up bar would not be ignored. Pinot Gris tastes best sipped from a plastic cup at 9:00 A.M. Any respectable sommelier knows this fact. Before long we hardly noticed the weather. We were officially honeymooning, and it felt great.
We waded to the silica bar while we waited for our in-water massages. Silica tones your face, makes you gorgeous, and humiliates your enemies... or something. Avoid the eyes, I tried it for you. It feels unpleasant and your new wife laughs at your squinty discomfort. It didn’t interfere with the massage, at least. Their masseurs were great. I forgot about my compromised vision for a few moments.
Our pruned bodies (and my beautified eye) enjoyed as much lagoon as they could handle for the day. I had to throw away that pair of contacts, which I had accounted for. I packed backups, but glasses would do for the remainder of the day. The hot springs and pelting showers can irritate your eyes. But really, so does a clump of silica.
We gathered ourselves and our luggage and found the bus pointed toward Reykjavík. Oh yeah. Our tickets ran away with the wind at the airport. Our story failed to entertain the driver. We kept an email receipt, but neither of our phones picked up a lick of internet connection. They connected fine before, but now they mocked us with their uselessness. The driver lacked time to deal with our search, but he also lacked time to kick us and our luggage off the vehicle, so he huffed, something resembling, “Sure fine, idiots.” But he did drive us to the last depot on his route, and even made certain we secured a ride to our rental apartment. This moment clued us into a useful cultural component. Icelanders don’t always wear their humanitarian warmth as a top layer, but it still motivates their treatment of other humans.
Our host picked us up at the bus station and drove us to the flat, where we quickly collapsed for a hard-earned nap.
Recharged, we took a late evening stroll, learning that the street art game in Reykjavík is on point. We ambled to Laugavegur, a popular artery for eating, drinking, and shopping. It was a Tuesday night and the streets were pretty quiet. We searched for Lebowski Bar, which was easy to find. Everybody else found it, too. It was already pretty packed, which pleased us.
Posters, pictures, and memorabilia really tie the room together, but somehow it isn’t too kitschy. Lebowski Bar doesn’t seem geared toward the tourist as much as one might assume. It accommodates everybody with a taste for the boozes. Locals drink there just as generously as any traveler. Their selection of Caucasians (the drink, not the people) is impressive, and they pour them strong. By the time we left the crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder, loud, and jovial. But our nap only shaved splintered corners off our exhaustion, so we chose to force a controlled crash rather than devolve into a memorable amusement for a couple hundred strangers. We didn’t budget for bail money.
We woke up late, but excited for the day. I was eager to wear my normal eyes again. My glasses sit weird and hurt my nose. Plus, weather shifts frequently in Iceland, and I get annoyed by sprinkled lenses. Joke’s on me, though. I packed empty boxes of disposable contacts. Genius. Raynn didn’t wish to endure a day or eight of my whining, so she quickly found a place that sold contacts. We would survive my own incompetence together. This marriage was already working out well.
Reykjavík sort of translates to, “Smoky Cove.” It makes sense, as it gets foggy and there’s a cove. However, we’re pretty sure it could also translate to, “hey look, there’s another cat!” In our historical fantasy, Ingólfur Arnarson moored his boat and was immediately greeted by the Cat Queen, who inquired about Arnarson’s fishing skills and only allowed him and his party to stay provided they keep the native feline population fat from fish trimmings. And so their symbiotic affair began. It’s unlikely cats inhabited Iceland before humans, but the idea seems valid. Cats creep around everywhere, and are almost always friendly.
We had lunch in a cafe with a mural of some epic battle. There were mountains, unicorns, a rainbow, and Vikings murdering thousands and millions of armor-clad corpses. It was beautiful. The lamb pate was also delicious. We enjoyed the fun grossness of the Penis Museum. That place is a souvenir goldmine. We meandered, killing time before our dinner reservations at Kol. We allotted a solid chunk of money for this experience. Expect to pay nearly US$400 on an epic dinner for two. Kol served us 9 courses of impeccably prepared food, complete with wine pairings. Everything we ate tasted like the best food either of us had eaten up to that point. Mouths dream of this place. They also have duck fat washed bourbon for cocktails. Drink that.
Dinner necessitated a walk. A cat flirted with us from the window throughout dinner. Raynn had to pet it. And there were other cats in need of petting. We petted and mewled our way to Kex Hostel. A dive bar functions as their lobby. Travelers seeking the party stay there. Locals hang out there. It is hip, loud, and awash in hormones.
Our morning started early. We procured a rental car for the rest of our trip. We drove to Thingvellir National Park. It earned itself honors as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Rulers have gathered there since 930 A.D., forming the world’s first parliament. This historical and gorgeous park waits a mere forty-five minutes outside of Reykjavík. We arrived to snorkel at the Silfra Fissure. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet there. You can see it in the crystal clear water. That water happens to be about 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Spring for the dry suit. The few that chose wetsuits looked miserable. However, the tour was amazing, and slightly overwhelming. Geological enthusiasts agree. Plus, they served hot cocoa and cookies after. If you have the energy you can hike around the park.
But we didn’t hike around there. We had other plans. We sought Bruarfoss, a well-known waterfall. Don’t let Bruarfoss’ popularity fool you. It is hard to find. We failed that day. We drove and walked around. It isn’t labeled well, and is not visible from the road. Without other people exploring the area you might miss it. So we postponed that site and aimed for tomato soup. Friðheimar Greenhouse grows tomatoes and serves soup and bloody marys. They do it right.
We drove back to Reykjavík to eat hot dogs (pretty much the national food of Iceland, and made of lamb) and drink at Dillon. They have a whiskey in the cask called Flóki. I loved it. Raynn did not. Thankfully, it only cost about US$65 for the two shots. Oh yeah, most booze is expensive in Iceland. So is food, except for hot dogs. We opted for cheap local beers, Viking and Einstöck, the rest of the evening.
We set out the next day determined to find Bruarfoss. Raynn procured detailed instructions on how to get there from a friend that had been previously, and who was smart enough to write down which unmarked roads she took. We were aided by the several other cars looking for Bruarfoss, though. It was a Friday and sunny. The waterfall was quite populated, notably by a couple posing for their professional wedding photos shoot. They were in the way of everything, but it was cute watching them, so we forgave their intrusion. Bruarfoss is beautiful and worth the hassle. Fortunately, we still had several days and a road trip ahead of us, but we could have ended the trip there and we would have been content.
We continued to Strokkur Geyser. A few geysers dot the land there, belching and spewing sulfuric theatrics. In fact, the original geyser lives there. But beware; these hell pools can cook a human in minutes. No swimming. Smelling all that sulfur and watching the steam reminded us of hot springs. Secret Lagoon awaited us an hour or so away. It’s much smaller than Blue Lagoon, and lacks any pretension.
We finished our night visiting the Northern Lights Bar at Ion Luxury Hotel, where we split a sandwich and downed a couple old fashioneds. The Northern Lights did not appear, however. We would chase that dream our entire trip, but clouds always obscured the sky. The bar was fantastic, but I was tuckered out and a little cranky. Having to shoo sheep off the road helped a bit, though. The sheep are fun and plenty.
The two of us evacuated our flat and took to the Ring Road in the morning. We kicked off the road trip by eating hákarl, which is fetid shark served in bite-size cubes sealed in a mason jar. Because it stinks. It tastes like a tough chunk of fish pickled in ammonia. That ammonia undercurrent flows through your nostrils the rest of the day. That’s surely a sign of quality, right?
We visited waterfalls. Iceland is filthy with waterfalls named Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. We counted sheep, which outnumber humans by more than 2:1. It’s almost 3:1. The official numbers are around 800,000 sheep to 323,000 humans, but it looks something closer to 3,000,000:1. We visited Dyrhólaey Arch and assorted weird rocks. We drove by Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano you can’t pronounce, which the tourism industry uses as a running joke. We laughed. We hit Black Beach, with its basalt columns and spied a seal swimming amongst the glaciers at Jökulsárlón.
We stayed in Vík, at an IcelandAir hotel. This was a posh accommodation with a fine restaurant. Viking Classic flowed from the tap. It’s like they predicted my wants. The next night we slept in a small, but comfortable room in Höfn, a town where somebody built a probably never-used movie set. It emulates a functioning ancient Viking village. We didn’t investigate its historical accuracy thoroughly, but we allowed ourselves to pretend it was real enough.
We puttered along the Ring Road snapping selfies, wearing clown noses, and naming sheep. I started believing in trolls. If anything lives behind some of those volcanoes it surely would be trolls and reindeer. The patches of horses taught me that wild horses are actually pretty lazy. That was comforting. They don’t sprint or jog much. They mostly just eat wherever they stand. Respect.
Every waterfall still excited us, but we considered the possibility of conspiracy. No place contains this much beauty. Somebody tracked our thoughts and predicted what nature scenes would please us, then planted them around every bend. We’re onto you, Iceland. You’re cheating. But yes, we still pulled over to stare into impossibly deep canyons, absorb spittle from falls that gush from between demon wings formed from lava. We logged tens, dozens even, of foot miles. We drove through high winds and mud-thick fog. We named more sheep. We ate gas station food for breakfast, because nobody opens for breakfast in Iceland, it’s just not a thing. The earliest we found coffee shops to open was 8:30 in the morning. They start the day a bit late in Iceland, because that’s what brilliant people do.
We reached the picturesque town of Seyðisfjörður, the pivot point of our road trip. We stayed in a terrific hostel with views of most of the town. LungA teaches its international student body art stuff. The creativity pops up all over town, with funkily painted paths and houses. Ben Stiller shot part of a movie there. Our only regret was not booking more than one night in Seyðisfjörður. But we had to get back to Reykjavík in a couple days, so we made the most of our one night. We ate fish and gulped beer at a pub. I slurred through a fragmented conversation with a confused French woman staying at our hostel.
Our drive back covered the same terrain as our drive out. We only stopped for a few sights we either missed or felt too exhausted to visit before. We slept in another IcelandAir hotel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Try saying that three times fast. Try saying that one time slow. We ate another splendid meal in their restaurant. There seem to be two types of dining experiences outside the home in Iceland: Gas station food for cheap or sit-down food for not cheap. It bodes well to budget for at least a few fancy meals. Chefs flock to Iceland these days. It shows. We had some of the best food of our lives there. We think we have good taste, so that says something.
We spent one more night in Reykjavík before jetting out the next day. We slurped happy hour drinks at Slippbarinn. They pride themselves on their craft cocktails. We prided ourselves on their pride. We split a charcuterie board that would have sufficed as dinner had we not already made reservations to gorge on sushi at Fiskmarkaðurinn.
Tourism is hot in Iceland. It played a major role digging their economy out of the global recession. Icelanders are friendly, generous, and worldly, but the flurry of travelers exhausts many of them. The ratio of tourists to natives in central Reykjavík looked to be about 3:1. That split increased to 10:1 in a lot of the smaller villages. For example, Iceland clocked 595,000 foreign visitors in the year 2000. In 2014 over 4 million foreign visitors flocked to the island. Having worked in tourist heavy areas, like Orlando, FL, I can assure you that they appreciate the business, but assisting and wrangling tourists all day every day wears you down. It’s hard work. Treat the locals kindly, they deserve it.
We basked in our ten days in Iceland. We could have stayed indefinitely. For every wonder we witnessed, hundreds more remain. Iceland, for such a small country, packs a ridiculous amount of awe, bewilderment, and amusement between its shores. Reykjavík stands as one of the world’s more cosmopolitan cities, but one needn’t travel far to camp in the shadow of a volcano.
We spent money somewhat generously on food and drinks. Accommodations usually cost around $100 per night. We didn’t buy a ton of souvenirs, even though we desperately wanted a couple of those wool sweaters you find everywhere.
All in all, we spent around $5,000 on our honeymoon. Fortunately, our Traveler’s Joy registry shouldered close to half that cost. We may not have a shiny new toaster, but this trip thrilled us more than any appliance could.