As if the approach to Keflavik Airport over royal blue waters dotted with brightly- colored fishing boats wasn’t enough to win me over, my Iceland Air flight touched down Saturday afternoon from Norway next to a gigantic rainbow arched across the terminal building. Welcome to Iceland. This could be love.
Iceland is located between two continents where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet making it a volcanic and geothermal wonderland. From grinding glaciers to gushing geysers, Iceland’s got it all.
The ride into Reykjavik from the airport is a long one, almost an hour. But the airport shuttle dropped me off directly at my hotel for the first night, the 22 Hill Hotel, which was a nice touch. I had originally planned to spend both nights in Iceland at the Hilton Reykjavik but the rate they wanted for Saturday night (compared to my reasonable Sunday night rate) was outrageous…enter “Plan B.” I found the 22 Hill Hotel again using the combo Booking.com/Trip Advisor method.
It turned out to be a lovely little hotel that was even closer to the city center than the Hilton. Though my room was about as small as the one I’d had in Oslo, it had one unexpected bonus feature…a great view! I went through the usual drill of dropping my things and heading to the front desk for advice. I also wanted to arrange transportation to the Blue Lagoon for the next morning. The guy at the front desk was extremely helpful and pointed me toward the company that offered the best rates to get to the lagoon (about 45 minutes outside of the city). I had him book the ticket for me and then I headed out to see what downtown Reykjavik had to offer on a Saturday afternoon.
The timing of my visit turned out to be really great because it coincided with Reykjavik’s annual Cultural Day festival going on downtown and the place was packed with people. As I walked down the main street, Laugavegur, there were people everywhere and music drifting from every bar and many of the side streets. I’d heard Reykjavik knew how to party but this was quite a scene for a Saturday afternoon.
I wandered the streets getting a feel for the layout and then popped down a few of the side streets to hear the various bands play and have a beer with the locals. It was a great way to spend the afternoon and the festivities only increased as day turned into night. I stayed out for a while enjoying the cool evening weather and the fun crowds before finally heading back to my hotel to rest up for my trip to the Blue Lagoon.
Day 2 – The Blue Lagoon Experience
My plan for day 2 was to switch hotels over to the Hilton first thing in the morning before leaving for the Blue Lagoon. I knew my room probably wouldn’t be ready but I also knew I would get an upgrade to the club floor which meant breakfast in the lounge. And why pay for breakfast when you can get it for free?
When I got there, my room was indeed unavailable but they were happy to hand over a key to the lounge so I could have some breakfast before my 9am bus to the Blue Lagoon arrived. The bus ride was uneventful and we arrived at the entrance to the Blue Lagoon just before 10am.
Iceland’s most famous attraction, the Blue Lagoon is actually a combination of mineral-rich freshwater and seawater from deep within the earth that is naturally heated to between 98-102 degrees. The milky-blue waters flow over vast black lava fields giving the whole place an other-worldly feel. The futuristic-looking Svartsengi geothermal plant in the distance serves as the R&D center for the spa skin care line and adds to the cosmic effect. You really do feel like you could be on another planet, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
You have the option to just soak in the water or to select one of the many spa services they have to offer. It’s actually quite a high-end spa facility and it has the prices to match. I went for just the soak. They are very serious about contamination of the water so everyone is required to shower before entering the lagoon.
When you buy your entrance ticket, you are given a coded bracelet that serves as your locker key and allows you to charge things in the shops or restaurants that you can then pay for when you check out. Very hi-tech.
I sprung for a towel rental ($4)- because, well, I needed one – and headed for the showers. I should mention at this point that the temperature had dropped several degrees since the night before and the wind had picked up significantly. This didn’t seem like that big a deal until I was wet and in my bathing suit walking around outside. I slipped into the steaming lagoon water pretty quickly after the wind hit me.
It was a lot like being in a huge outdoor hot tub. There were metal boxes around the lagoon filled with the mineral rich mud which you are apparently supposed to rub all over yourself. I skipped that part. But it did feel great just to relax and soak up the minerals. A much different experience than my Dead Sea “float” where you had to get out of the water and shower immediately on the beach so the salt wouldn’t irritate your skin. This was water that was actually good for your skin. It was quite an enjoyable way to spend the day. If I went back again, maybe I’d actually splurge on a spa treatment.
When I got back to the Hilton late that afternoon my room was ready. And, wow, what an incredible view it had! I thought my view of the water the night before was great, but the Hilton room was about 10 floors higher and had floor to ceiling windows across one entire side of the room. It was so gorgeous, I never wanted to leave.
I got some great pictures late at night of what I called the “endless sunset” – the orange light that remains in the sky hours after sunset. It’s an interesting phenomenon, I’d heard that summer days in Scandinavia were really long and the sun didn’t set until 10 or 11pm. So far, that hadn’t been true as the sunsets from Helsinki to Oslo had all been around 9pm. I figured it was just because it was later in the summer now.
But with the view I had from my room in Reykjavik, I was able to really see how the sky stays an amazing orange color until almost midnight. Technically, the sun did set around 9:30pm in Iceland, but the after-sunset “dusk” glow that usually only lasts 30 minutes or so, lasts for hours over here. It was very cool. I took some pictures at various times so you could see what I’m talking about. And the sun comes up very early as well, a little before 5am. So, it really is only truly dark for about 5 hours.
I have read a lot about the “Northern Lights” while I’ve been in Scandinavia as well. It only happens during the winter but I’d really love to come back sometime and see that, the pictures look out-of-this-world.
Day 3 – The Golden Circle
For my last day in Iceland, I decided to splurge on a rental car to get out of Reykjavik and see some of the sights that were a little farther out. Rental cars are ridiculously expensive in Iceland and mine ran me $145 for the day…yikes! The main sights I wanted to see were along what’s called the “Golden Circle”. This included 3 of Iceland’s most famous sights: Pingvellir National Park, Geysir and the Gullfoss Waterfall.
I was excited to have my own wheels for the first time on this trip. I always love driving in new countries and having the freedom to stop where I want to and see only what I want to see, versus taking a group tour bus. There were a number of Golden Circle group tours offered but all of them were full-day tours and I knew I could knock it out in an ½ day and still take in some other sights. So, Sunday morning after an early breakfast (and a full hour before the tour buses departed) I grabbed my car keys and my map and hit the open road of the Icelandic countryside.
The first stop on my self-guided Golden Circle tour was Pingvellir, one of Iceland’s most important historical sites. The Alpingi (parliament) was founded here in 930 AD and many crucial events in Iceland’s history took place here including the adoption of Christianity around 1000 AD and the founding of the modern Icelandic Republic in 1944. Pingvellir has been a National Park since 1930 and in 2004 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
When I got out of my car at Pingvellir, I immediately realized there was a drastic difference in temperature between here and Reykjavik. It was much, much colder. And my thin windbreaker wasn’t providing quite enough warmth. But the worst part was the gale-force winds that made it difficult to even stand up straight, much less walk. I could see today’s adventure was going to be a challenge. I didn’t last long at Pingvellir but I saw as much as I could have under the circumstances.
It took some doing to get to my next stop, Geysir. The roads were mostly unpaved and large, muddy potholes were in great supply. Since I was driving a little tiny car, I was paranoid about getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. (For the record, I do not know how to change a tire – sorry, Dad.) Navigation isn’t the easiest either, you can go miles and miles down tiny roads without seeing a sign for anything. You think you’re still going the right way but who can tell?
Eventually, I pulled up to the parking area for Iceland’s infamous Geysir, after which all spouting hot springs are named. There are actually several geysers in the area, the Great Geysir only erupts 2 or 3 times daily so in this weather, I wasn’t going to wait around for that to happen. However, a smaller geyser called Strokkur is known as the world’s most reliable and spouts every six minutes like clockwork. As I was getting out of the car, I saw that Strokkur had just erupted so I knew I had about 5 minutes to get over there to catch the next one.
And there we all stood, cameras in hand, staring at a tiny bubbling pool in the ground. When it finally did go off, I missed it. Wasn’t fast enough with the camera and it all happened in a split second. I didn’t realize you actually have to stand there with the camera up to your face and be ready to push the button instantly. I took a lap around to the other geysers, “little” and “great” hoping maybe I’d get lucky and the big one would erupt.
No luck though, so I wound back around to Strokkur to try to catch its next show. Success this time as I got a good shot of it just starting to erupt. But by the time I got off the second shot it was gone. Darn it. This geyser shooting stuff is tricky. By this time I am so cold that I can’t feel my fingers or my lips and the harsh wind keeps blowing sulfurous mist on me. Can I wait another 6 minutes? Seems like an eternity.
New plan. Head back to the car and try to shoot the next eruption from afar. A wide shot…perfect! And the car has heat. It turned out to be a master plan as I got two more great shots from there. Geysers – check!
The final stop on the Golden Circle is the Gullfoss (Golden Falls) Waterfull, king of all of Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls. The wind made the viewing areas especially treacherous as I was constantly worried about being thrown off balance by a big gust. It also made for difficult photography. Half my pictures were out of focus because the camera was moving so much or blurry because the lens was wet. There was a constant spray coming from the falls that was hard to avoid. And if it wasn’t cold enough, I just happened to look over to my left only to discover a glacier lurking nearby. That’s right, a glacier. Out of nowhere with the glacier. That’s Iceland for you.
I’ve never seen a glacier before so it was definitely a very cool experience, it looked beautiful from afar. Iceland tour companies offer tons of tours to the glaciers including snowmobiling, hiking, etc. Some day I’d like to come back with warmer clothes and try that. I bet snowmobiling would be a blast. But, since I don’t even have warm enough clothes for my current endeavor, I think I’ll have to save glacier activities for another day.
On the way back to Reykjavik, I still had plenty of time before I had to have the car back so I took the scenic route along the coast. It was a beautiful drive and I finally made it back to town around 3pm. I stopped near the shopping area to see if I wanted to buy any souvenirs but everything was so expensive, I gave up and headed back to the hotel. I mean, honestly, do I really need a $10 magnet or $60 bath salts from the Blue Lagoon? Probably not.
My flight to Copenhagen wasn’t until 1am so I was happy to still have the use of the Hilton’s lounge and spa facilities for the rest of the evening. I can’t believe I’m heading to my last stop in Copenhagen already, it seems like just yesterday that I left. This trip has gone by so fast…sigh.