Iceland is a bit of an enigma to people. What do people do up there in that faraway northern country? How do people live in such a cold climate? Do they really eat reindeer? Iceland is an anomaly. It's part of Europe, but all alone up in the North Atlantic. It's rich in Scandinavian history, but not technically considered a Scandinavian country. Iceland is just...Iceland. I had initially written a (very) long post about my recent trip to Iceland, but decided it didn't truly capture the essence of what makes Iceland such a great place to visit. So I decided to scrap that long-winded and overly thought-out post, and instead just say a few words about the things I saw, and the experiences I had. As the saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words", so I'm trying to save my words, and instead let the photos I took of this beautifully unique country speak for themselves.
Sun Voyager at dawn in Reykjavik harbor
If I could describe Iceland in one word it would be "cozy". The streets of Reykjavik, Iceland's capital city, are narrow and dotted with colorful little row houses. The hotel I stayed in, the Leifur Eiriksson, had the coziest lobby/breakfast area I have ever seen. It was painted in a warm dark grey and furnished with wooden bistro tables and plush fabric benches lining the wall. It felt like eating in the Ikea kitchen of my dreams as I sipped coffee and feasted on a waffle topped with jam and Nutella. Even the houses in Iceland are cozy. Apparently curtains are not a thing there so I could easily see into people's kitchens as they gathered around the table for dinner in the evening. I was tempted to knock on someone's door and casually join them for a meal.
Coziness abounds at the Leifur Eiriksson Hotel lobby
If the coziness isn't enough to want to make you visit (or maybe even take up residence there) the sheer beauty of the country will. I took a day to rent a car and explore the country just outside of Reykjavik. My destination was Hraunfossar Waterfalls, but the drive alone would have been satisfying enough. Once you're out of the city it pretty much feels like you're the only person in the world. There aren't many signs of life besides the occasional house, or a sign directing you to a town somewhere far off the main road. For the most part it's just you and the snowy mountains that make up the terrain. That terrain, and Iceland's northern location allow for quite a few unique sights and experiences. Below is a quick rundown of my only-in-Iceland experiences.
Scenes from the city
Northern Lights - This isn't necessarily an only-in-Iceland experience, but Iceland is one of only a handful of places in the world where you can see the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights. I won't get into the science behind this phenomenon, but it's truly a sight to see and something that everyone should strive to experience at least once in their lifetime. It's best to go with a tour guide as the lights can be fickle and the best place to view them changes nightly. The guides will know the optimal viewing spots for that evening or if there won't be a chance of seeing them at all. Our guide from Discover Iceland was Thor (how appropriately Icelandic!), and he took us to Pingvellir National Park to view the lights that evening. Fun Fact: Pingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has a canyon formed by two tectonic plates that forms the boundary between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian! So much science...
You will need to have a lot of patience as most of the three hours were spent waiting for something to happen. Do not expect the lights to magically appear in the sky. The process is a bit more complex than that. Sure it was bitterly cold standing in the freezing temperatures in the middle of Iceland waiting for a glimpse of those "dancing lights", but once they begin to appear it is so worth it. Force yourself to stay outside and watch as the colors in the sky slowly change. You'll see reds, and yellows, and the tiniest hint of greens and blues. Note: the bright green you see in pictures of the Northern Lights is not how you see it with the naked eye. It's the magic of photography that does that. However, the show the lights put on is still spectacular to see. Not to mention the amazing number of stars that are visible. We even got a great view of the Milky Way! Thor thought of everything, and had a thermos of hot chocolate and cookies for everyone. It was a truly amazing once in a lifetime experience.
Quicker than a ray of light
Hraunfossar Waterfalls - With only a few days to explore Iceland we decided to skip the day-long excursions to Iceland's popular tourist attractions, and instead rent a car to explore on our own. I found the Hraunfossar Waterfalls in a local guide book and set out on the two hour drive north of Reykjavik. The drive is pretty amazing, but be aware that the weather in Iceland can be very volatile. Check the weather conditions before you leave or you may find yourself stranded on the side of the road in the midst of a snow squall. We got lucky and had a peaceful ride to the falls. If you are hoping to escape the crowd of tourists that flock to the more popular attractions, this is the spot for you. We only saw two other people while we were visiting the falls.
I feel emotional landscapes...I may have been listening to Bjork on this drive
Hraunfossar is a series of cascades pouring from lava created from a volcano lying under the glacier. It's kind of like standing on a leaky volcano. Just above Hraunfossar is another waterfall called Barnafoss or Children's Falls, so named for a rather tragic local fable about two children that fell in to the falls (Yikes)! I'll spare you the (fictional) gory details so as not to take away from the beauty of the falls and the truly spectacular image of water flowing from a field of lava.
On our way back to Reykjavik we were lucky enough to spot a group of rare Icelandic horses on the side of the road. Fun Fact: Icelandic horses are the only breed that have five gaits, as opposed to four!
Where have all the cowboys gone?
The Blue Lagoon - This is on every tourists' list when visiting Iceland, and for good reason. Though The Blue Lagoon is a man-made thermal pool (meaning it is not naturally occurring) you can still reap the benefits of the warm thermal water and the natural elements that make for a very relaxing spa-like experience. We decided to be fancy and get the "Premium" package which includes the entrance fee, algae mask as well as silica mask, a robe, slippers (actually flip-flops, but a cool souvenir!), a drink of your choice at the swim-up bar, and a glass of sparkling wine if you choose to dine at LAVA Restaurant.
We had a 9am reservation, which is a great time to go because it's less crowded and you can watch the sunrise as you luxuriate in the pool. Side Note: Did I mention that there is only 4-5 hours of daylight in the winter? While I was there the sun rose at around 11am and set at 3:30pm! There is a small area where you can enter the pool from inside, but most people brave the cold temps for a brief moment before getting in the pool. The water is about 99 degrees Fahrenheit, and when you're in it, it's hard to believe that it's only 30 degrees outside. In the pool you can swim over to the bar and grab a drink, they have everything from champagne to fruit smoothies, then head over to the mud bar and slather your face with silica and/or algae (I swear the algae mask completely erased my pores)! It's a unique experience, and it was a great way to spend my last day in Iceland.
Feeling hot, hot, hot...
The list of Iceland adventures goes on and on, and I hope to return perhaps for a glacier hike or just to spend more time in Reykjavik which has a lot to offer for such a small city. For now it's on to the next destination...
Souvenir shopping: Puffins, and Trolls, and T-shirts...
Food, glorious food!: My yummy pancake; Lobster soup and salmon at Saegreifinn; Haddock at LAVA; The bread tray at LAVA; Baejarins famous hot dog stand
Can I buy you a drink?: Brennivin, the official Icelandic spirit; a caucasian at Lebowski Bar, a homage to The Dude
Bjork lyrics at Keflavik airport