Iceland November 2011
Iceland Trip Report, November 5-10, 2011
I always wanted to visit Iceland, so when opportunity came up from Icelandair fam trip, I jumped on it.
Iceland is the second largest island in Europe. The first inhabitants arrived from Norway in 9th century so Icelanders have Viking/Celt Heritage and culture. Language is Icelandic, which is derived from Old Norse (German-Scandinavian). The present population is approximately 325,000 and about half of them live in capital Reykjavik. Most people speak English so it is easy to communicate. Contrary to expectation that Iceland is cold and covered by ice, the temperatures are mild, average in winter it is 35-45 F. Icelandic climate is temperate. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. Iceland's winters are mild and windy while the summers are cool. Also Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge dividing European and American tectonic plates, slowly pushing the two in separate directions. The ridge runs through the whole country, resulting in volcanic eruptions, geothermal activity such as geysers and hot springs, and earthquakes. There are many volcanoes and glaciers around the country. The landscape is surreal, like being on another planet, with volcanic lava and little vegetation.
So we were off to Iceland! Flight to Reykjavik from Washington took 5.5 hours and there is difference in time 4 hrs (without daylight savings time taken into consideration). Icelandair does not serve food included in economy class, only for sale. So first surprise is – Iceland is closer then it seems and easier to get to. Jet lag is not a big issue comparing with coming from European continent.
Icelandair booked us into their hotel Natura owned by Icelandair. It is a bit off center but we have not had the choice. We took Flybus to hotel. As promised the room was ready at 9am and we had breakfast before getting into room and taking a short nap. I discovered that My t-mobile (Deutsche telecom in Europe) does not work here. But Michael's AT&T worked. Fortunately, hotel provided free internet so we were OK with communication. Natura is solid 4* hotel. Staff was friendly, but there are no extra services like valet, concierge, etc. The design is Scandinavian minimalist style. It have been recently renovated. The room was small, with a little of closet space. Only shower, no bath tub. No small travel size toiletries, they had two large dispensers – one is soap in the sink and another shampoo in the shower. But it smelled heavenly. It has description on the bottles that it contains natural herbs and oils used in the hotel’s spa. It felt good on body and hair. It is very clean hotel, even outside windows were cleaned and we were on 3rd floor. Hotel is located next to small domestic airport but now I cannot remember any noise from airplanes so sound insulation was good. The Drawback is that it is 20-30 min walk from center. Better stay in the city itself, for example Radission Blu. We ended up taking taxis for about $15 each ride. I checked with reception how to change money but they said we can use credit cards. Indeed, on this trip, I never had to use cash, always credit cards. Even taxi drivers took credit cards and small vendors like water and hot dogs all took credit card. I do not even know how their money look like. It was very convenient.
We had a nap, woke up, dressed to go downstairs for whale watching tour only to find out it has been cancelled. We took cab to the center and enjoyed nice clear though cold weather. We saw flea market, browsed some stores, walked to Art museum. They have 3 art museums and the one we visited was modern art which did not impress us. We walked through the old part of the town, very picturesque, but not like European towns, more like Nordic. Saw “Occupy Reykjavik” tents. It must be cold there. Went for early dinner at Café Paris. Nice meal, busy place. We enjoyed seafood soup, very well prepared Icelandic lamb and potatoes, vegetables. Back to hotel by cab.
Day 2 touring. We met our private guide Oli and went to explore south coast in his 4 wheel drive. He brought cute puppy Loki with him.
First we drove through Reykjavik harbor, we saw new Opera house, very beautiful. We drove past Laugardalshöll Arena where in 1972 World Chess Championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer took place and Bobby Fischer defeated Spassky and became chess champion. In my pre-American life I used to play chess professionally and I grew up on studying their games and style so this attraction, maybe not that of much interest to average tourist, was of interest to me. Fischer was a chess genius, despite of his disturbed personality. We talked to Oli about chess and Iceland Grandmaster Fredrik Olaffson, we found out Olaffson was also very popular in Iceland and even served in the Parliament.
We talked about how Bobby Fischer ended up in Reykjavik again after his exile in Europe and then to Japan and USA wanted to extradite him. Iceland offered him citizenship and he arrived to Reykjavik in 2005. He died 3 years later. We asked where he is buried and Oli said in a small church near town Selfoss. It was on our way so we went there. Oli had to ask local policemen for exact location and they talked about 5 minutes about Bobby Fischer. We found the small church and his grave at this church.
We took sandwiches for a road since at this time of the year you have to plan your meal stops. At service station, we got smoked lamb, salmon, herring sandwiches. There were also football (soccer) memorabilia and photos and Oli showed us photo of his father who is a head of country’s soccer federation. We also tasted Icelandic pancake (like crepe) and got Icelandic lemonade with Orange flavor (apelsin).
The weather was changing all the time but it was mostly rain and wind. Oli had a four wheel drive with big wide tires. We went to the famous Volcano Eyjofjallajokul site – which erupted in 2010. On average there is a volcanic eruption every five years and lava fields cover about 11% of the island.
Another 11% is covered by glaciers. We visited Eyjofjallajokul site and we also saw a small waterfall. We continued on south coast and came to small town of Vik where we stopped at woolen factory and bought beautiful sweaters of Icelandic design. Then we went to Black beach where it was dramatic view ocean, waves, volcanic mountains coming out of the sea and black sand. It was raining and windy and the rain was mixed with ocean mist, the colors were all gray and ominous but it was something exciting and dramatic in that view. It is cold for swimming even in summer but the view is spectacular. Oli drove to the beach direct and I started to worry when waves kept coming closer but he got us out just fine.
We continued to glacier Myrdaisjokull, parked there and walked to the ice. It was raining but we got as closer we could get. The ice indeed was white and blue color. Loki followed us.
The Aurora Borealis, also known as Northern Lights, is unique in nature and for those lucky few who can visit Iceland in winter, there is an adventure worth undertaking. The adventure is far from being realized even under the best circumstances. Besides local condition, low ambient light, no moon, little or no cloud cover, low humidity, rain, snow.
There are other conditions: the number of the sunspots, the suns coronal mass ejections. Given perfect condition, and a substantial amount of luck and timing, you may finally witness the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are the beautiful natural wonder to behold. If this does not give you the expected results, the company has free repeat policy.
Our bus Northern Lights tour was scheduled next day at 9pm but Oli said if the weather will be good, we can watch it from his countryside cottage with coffee and hot tub. However today weather is was bad and we went back to the city. We wanted to eat authentic Icelandic dinner so Oli recommended Sea Baron in the harbor, it was no frills fishermen place, with freshest seafood available, and very basic décor, it is most like lobster harbor shack. They are known for world famous lobster soup. They have display of fish on skewers and you show what you want to be grilled and skewers of vegetables. We had lobster soup which has quite a lot of lobster meat. We also selected salmon, halibut and small potatoes kebabs, and one beer. It cost about $50 for two of us. I considered local delicacy mink whale but was not sure if I like it. The restaurant called us for taxi and we went home. We dried our clothes on the radiator, took a hot shower and went to sleep satisfied with productive day.
Before we went to sleep, we stopped at hotel’s restaurant and completed our progressive dinner with desert: chocolate cake, Apple rhubarb granola cake, ice cream with tea and coffee.
By the way, there are no tips expected in Iceland so there is another plus to paying by credit card and not worry with small bills.
Day 3 touring. Today it was excursion day provided for us in Icelandair package – Gulfoss waterfalls and Geysers. They pick people up at hotel and take them to bus station and the sightseeing bus leaves from gas station. I was concerned about bus tour, but it was not bad. The driver turned out very entertaining, he even sand national anthem. Besides us, there was a young woman from Japan, a woman with two young children from Norway and on the way back we picked up a guy from Taiwan to get them to Reykjavik. I wish we would spend more time there that was my only complaint. First stop was Geysir.
One of the many stories connected with the falls tells about the fight early in the 20th century for their existence, when a foreign enterprise managed to contracted the rights to harness them for electrical production. The spouting hot spring Geysir was claimed to be the biggest one in the world. Its fame spread and other spouting hot springs elsewhere were consequently named Geysir or geyser. The old Geysir has been in retirement for decades, but when it was active its eruptions reached the height of at least 80 m. All around the old Geysir are more spouting hot springs, such as Strokkur, which erupts every 3-5 minutes. The Geysir site has very nice center with museum and interactive exhibits. I especially liked platform where you stand and experience 5.1 Richter scale earthquake shakes. There was a lot’s of information about geological activity but we only had one hour there (more reason to drive yourself or with private guide and go at your own place). We went outside to Geysir site and saw its eruption. Nearby small lagoons had also thermal hot water with different colors.
Our next stop was Gulfoss waterfalls. Gulfoss means “Golden”. It is located on Hvita River. The falls cascade down in two stages. We saw beautiful rainbow near water. There was a photo of waterfalls in winter under snow which was spectacular.
We were driven afterwards through Pingvelir National Park, Unesco Heritage site, it used to be a national parliament of the first settlers, and it is important part of history of the island. The park is also renowned for its geological significance. The area is located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, where the continents of Europe and America drift apart, causing earthquakes and volcanic activity. Icelanders believe that this is the place where you can stand between the two continental plates.
After that, we went back to hotel. We had a traditional Icelandic dinner at hotel’s restaurant Satt which was unexpected for hotel’s, excellent Icelandic cuisine. We chose 4 course sampling dinner. The appetizer was smoked goose, tartar of the goose and something else from the goose. It was very good. Second course was lobster with sautéed cauliflower and it was excellent. For main course, I had reindeer with small potatoes, chanterelles mushrooms and various sautéed vegetables and fruit, it was superb. Michael had arctic char and pronounced it also very good, similar in texture to sea bass. Desert was chocolate mousse balls and ice cream. It was excellent dinner.
At 8:30pm we were picked up for Northern Lights tour by bus. There were many people for this tour since few other days before it has been cancelled. The tour took 3 hours and they drove us in countryside, then we had stop in the airport for bathroom break. The night was clear and the moon had strange circle around it. However the full moon condition was not conducive for Northern lights. The company said we can be booked for next tour free of charge until we will see it but we did not have much time. Oli however sent us a photo of Northern Light… The guide on Northern Light tour was entertaining though and told us all kind of Nordic sagas...
Day 3 touring.
We finished Northern Lights tour about 2am so next day was hard to wake up for touring. Fortunately it was private touring with Oli today so we texted him to start one hour late. We had buffet breakfast at hotel restaurant. Speaking about breakfasts, they were included, very good but menu did not change daily. There were soft boiled (4 min) eggs, hard boiled eggs, waffles, cold cuts, great local yogurt skyr, cheeses, herring, muesli and very good breads. I wish though they would have that famous Icelandic salmon.
Oli arrived at 10am and said today will take us to Eastern coast for National Park. We stopped again at service station to get sandwiches just in case food will not be available. Loki the dog did not come this day and we were disappointed. Oli took us to countryside to inspect hotel Ranga. It is considered the best resort hotel in the country. First I thought it is in the middle of nowhere but Oli explained it is a great location for taking day tours. It is about 1 hr from Reykjavik. It is built in the style of mountain lodge and has 52 rooms and suites. We’ve met the manager who showed us hotel.
It is 4* hotel but has a quality of 5*. It has impressive guest list including Bette Midler and John Rockefeller. In addition to regular and superior rooms, we also looked at suites which are themed by continents of the world. The rooms have views of the river or volcano. There are hot tubs (no pool). We were told the restaurant is best destination restaurant in Iceland with locals coming for famous Christmas dinner. The suites were spectacular – for example, Africa suite had all decorations direct from Africa and South America from I think Peru, and North America from Canada and Alaska. Antarctica was a presidential suite in black and white colors and Antarctica theme (nothing was brought from there!). The manager was very enthusiastic and eager to please guests. There are one room and suite for handicapped guests but all suites are on second floor so he said if the guests wish to be in the suite, they will carry them. The hotel has 2 floors and they do not want to have elevators.
There is no spa but there are massages available. Probably lack of pool, elevator and official spa prevents hotel from getting 5* rating, but it is best kept secret in Iceland.
The best thing about this hotel and Northern Lights that guests can see them from their rooms! Provided you have the right view room. Otherwise you come to the lobby but it is not like going in a bus for 3 hours at night searching elusive lights. There was a list for wakeup call for Northern Lights viewing so people ask to wake them up. The hotel has connections with local farmers who will alert hotel re: lights if they see them and hotel wakes guests up to watch from their window. That beats bus tour – this is the way to watch it!
As for activities in summer, there is salmon fishing in the backyard river – the fishing licenses need to be obtained month in advance. Nearby are horseback riding facilities on those special Icelandic horses (considered special isolated breed, gentle and enthusiastic). There are trips to Volcanoes, hiking in the mountains and Glacier walks.
I’ve been looking at it and thought there is the place I can spend 4-5 days and last day in Reykjavik before flying home. I’ve been thinking that for people who considering to go for lodges to Alaska from USA it is great alternative since the weather is warmer, only 5.5 hours to get, Nordic culture, excellent food, European exposure, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, glaciers, volcanoes! And after that people can go back home – easy flight 6 hours or continue to Europe for few more hours’ flight. It is indeed incredible undiscovered destination with friendly English speaking people.
We continued to go East to yet another National Park where glacier melt from 2010 Volcano eruption. To get there, you need to drive through lava fields and rivers. Oli made it with his 4 wheel drive wide tires.
Some of you might remember the crisis that was part of the March 2010 Iceland volcano eruption. The volcano eruption caused ash plumes to flow over much of Europe which created massive airlines no-fly zones. This volcano is just one of the many located in the geologically amazing country of Iceland. Iceland is located and was formed a relatively short time ago on the injunction of the North American and European tectonic plates. Today we visited ground zero and the immediate physical changes of that eruption. Located about 1.5 hour east of Reykjavik National Park approachable by a very rough track of land and rivers that’s accessible by a large tired 4x4 vehicle. I would not recommend it to drive on your own. Few river crossing were scary... His vehicle is called a super jeep and the country worked in conjunction with the auto makers to develop the vehicle specifically for the terrain in Iceland.
The track roughly follows an ancient glacier track and is now a constantly changing riverbed. The river is fed by three separate glaciers. The explosion caused a rift in a huge rock which emptied a lagoon which for 10 of thousands years contained 50 feet deep of water and had small icebergs floating into it. The land we walked on has not seen the light of the sun for countless centuries.
The physical ash, small rounded glacially molded rocks and general moonlike craters was beyond belief.
We finished sightseeing by going back to Reykjavik and stopped on the way in a nice lobster restaurant www.fjorubordid.is where we had lobster soup and sautéed lobster for main course. It was excellent. Oli dropped us at the hotel and we bid farewell to him. It was time well spent and our guide was terrific. I will definitely will book him again when I will be back in Iceland.
Back to hotel, tired to bed.
Day 4, our last day in Iceland. Breakfast at hotel and check out by 10:30. We were picked up again by Icelandair flybus and they dropped us at Blue Lagoon for few hours of bathing in thermal waters. It was about 35-40F, and raining which was mixed with sleet, and we were sitting in 80F degree mineral lagoon! It was Unreal. The head was a bit cold though especially with snow/sleet falling but the hat would not work . We left our luggage in storage area and went to swimming area. There are also buckets with lagoon mud so we like other people, spread on our face to use as a mud mask. There was waterfall area as well and special massage area where people are lying down on water mat and being massaged in water by spa staff. There is also restaurant and gift shop on property. I figured that it is better to leave towel inside and use special door going out swimming to lagoon. I did have out in the cold to take photos and it was chilly in swimsuit! Again, incredible activity. I love to use hot springs whenever I had a chance but this was very special.
Afterwards, we showered, dressed up and went back to luggage area and boarded flybus to airport. We checked in flew back home.
We loved this small country, at perfect location between USA and in Europe. Great food, little crime. We have not seen any homeless people or beggars. It is very clean. Food is good. People speak English. Credit cards accepted. European Scandinavian feel and great scenery and it is close to USA. Icelandair offers stopover packages on the way to Europe with reasonable priced air; therefore you might consider taking advantage it.
It is quite expensive but very much comparable with other European countries and NYC. It is understandably expensive since most goods and food is brought from other countries into Iceland. The local vegetables are only tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers. All fruit is imported.
Although not that open as for example Italians, nevertheless people are helpful, courteous, and very friendly. The country been somewhat isolated politically from the rest of the Europe. There are discussions in parliament to become members of European Union but there is also an opposition from Nationalists stay separately. They are members of NATO but it is only one member without standing army. In Iceland, army duty is performed Icelandic Coast guard and special sources units for disasters, international peacekeeping and helping. In the airport, customs officers have police badges. During the war, Iceland benefited because occupation forces (British and American) stayed there, built bases, airport and bought local food and services. However, even though Iceland was an ally in WWII but they refused to declare war on Germany since it is against country’s policy. Ironically, 60 years later, they participated in war in Iraq to keep good relationship with USA but US military base left anyway. The people are in tough financial situation after 2009 bank crash and do not like government restrictions, for example they cannot invest abroad and when they travel only allowed taking 200 eur abroad.
Would I come again?
Definitely it is on my list. Maybe on stopover to Europe. Some things I would do different – stay at hotel Ranga or other locations in the country and make a circuit, and finish in Reykjavik for last one or two nights. It is a small city and while is very pretty, the rest of the country is worth spending time there exploring and not coming back to city every night.