Date of trip: December 23, 2015 - December 30, 2015
Read “Part 1” of our 7 day Iceland trip here.
- Day 4: Reykjavik (Harpa, Photography Museum, Cafes)
- Day 5: Thingvellir Park, Silfra Snorkeling, Reykjavik
- Day 6: Reykjavik
- Day 7: The Blue Lagoon, Grindavík, flight home
Looking for tips? Check out our 10 tips for traveling to Iceland in the winter.
We pressed the snooze button four times that morning. Day four was one of our days to just be in the city and explore. That day the city sidewalks were covered in ice from the rain, so we decided to drive around. Our first stop was to the concert hall Harpa to see a 15 minute movie on Iceland.
The room wasn’t as we imagined. The room had no chairs or rows for seating. It was a small 300 square foot space with a few upholstered blocks in the middle for “seating”. We took a seat, not knowing which way to face. When it started, all four walls including the ceiling lit up with footage of the countryside and instrumental music playing in the background. One by one, the other people in the room started lying down on the floor, looking up and crossing their hands on their bellies. First the scene panned across a body of water towards the land and then over glaciers to the mountains, lakes and lagoons, the colorful highlands, and the city in the summer. It was beautiful and overwhelming to see the landscape from a birds eye view. Then the scene changed abruptly to volcanoes with their spewing fiery lava, billowing black smoke, bubbling grey lava, and lightning. Again, I was reminded of Iceland’s two faces; one of tranquility and one of harshness.
After the show, we walked around Harpa, a modern architectural beauty of it’s own.
We sat by the windows watching the boats rocking in the Reykjavik harbor. It was a bitter day. The wind slapped the water and made strange circular ripples. I was so sleepy still, and mesmerized by the turquoise waves. I needed a tea.
After wandering around Harpa, we drove a few blocks to the city center for lunch at a fast food place serving pizza and kabobs. Chris needed it.
You really don’t need a car to get around Reykjavik, we just took it because we were in a rush to get to that movie. It’s a very walkable city.
After eating some pizza and a gyro sandwich, we found a tiny photography museum on the 6th floor of the library. It was showcasing Icelandic photographer Gunnar Runar Olafsson. We circled the small white room taking in the black and white photos. Stern faces looked back at us–the men and women of an older Iceland standing in front of their turf roof homes. Their children standing near wearing bulky wool sweaters and baggy, corduroy pants, their round faces looking at the camera just as stern as their mother’s and father’s. I made a mental note to return to the museum store when it opened so I could snag the postcard of children at a summer camp dated 1910.
It had started raining. We took shelter at a book and coffee shop called Bokakaffi, right across the street from our favorite Stofan Cafe. I remembered being there before, but this time we stayed and sat at a wooden table by the window, plucking books from the shelves about Thai cooking and Iceland’s ghosts. Out the window, the rain and snow pick up. It was a bitter day and we didn’t want to leave. I, of course, grew hungry, and my tea cold.
That’s when they walked in. First one, and then two more, and then the littlest one. All in their snow suits, knitted hats, and fuzzy heads. The smallest one was no more than three years old, with a chubby chin and big blue eyes. They sat at a table nearby (YES), drinking from their juice boxes, and giggling quietly about something only they shared. Their father came and sat next to them and they all just sat there. Just talking. Looking at each other and smiling. Drinking from juice boxes. The father ran his hand along the littlest one’s fuzzy head, and she in return laid her head on his arm. I almost cried.
That night was the beginning of my homesickness. We stayed in. Chris watched the Packer’s game on his laptop (I’m sorry, I’m not joking). I read up on things to see and do from the local newspaper. That night I was so homesick I fell asleep trying to recite the words to the Scooby Doo theme song.
Day five we woke up in another bed. Overnight, the rain had pounded overhead on the skylight. So we retreated to the quieter room late in the morning. For breakfast, we decided to return for a third and final time to The Laundromat Cafe, for Chris really wanted those blueberry pancakes.
We booked our stay through AirBNB, like we do for most of our trips. The place wasn’t overly cozy or unique, but the location and our host, Vidir, were perfect.
We then hit the road towards Thingvellir Park for our day of snorkeling at Silfra. This time we drove with the daylight, a fleeting commodity when visiting Iceland in the winter.
We could see the farms, the ranch style homes, horses and rivers. Yes, it was still barren and I didn’t love the wide open space, but it wasn’t so scary this time. Forty five minutes later, we arrived to the information center in the park where the tour van picked us up. We opened the door to a group of strangers from different parts of the world, found a seat, and were dropped off minutes away at the snorkeling lot. The van door opened and we were greeted by a jolly bald man with a red short beard. He was short but burly, and spoke with an English accent. “How we doing today? You’re a bit early, so feel free to look around for about ten minutes before coming back here to gear up. See you then!”
We booked our Silfra snorkeling tour through Arctic Adventures.
The small lot was stocked with other snorkeling and diving company vans, with underwater gear overflowing their makeshift changing stations.
We took a trail to the water’s edge where other divers and snorkelers stood in their gear, getting prepped for their descent into the water.
We approached as the tour guide joked that he’d be sticking his finger in their snorkels, upon which everyone chuckled. We ended up waiting far more than 10 minutes but enjoyed the time to take more pictures. When it was our turn, our stalky, English tour guide gave us the spiel.
He explained the fissure we were about to snorkel through, known as Silfra, exists solely because it is in the exact place where the two tectonic plates–Eurasian and North American–are drifting apart. We would be swimming in the gap between two continents. He said in some parts you could touch both sides of the fissure and be touching two continents at once. The water that fills the fissure is the clearest and purest in the world with visibility exceeding 100 meters. For those of you like Ali, this is about the distance of one football field. Where does the water come from? Way back when, glacial water from the Langjökull glacier was covered by a volcanic eruption and pushed deep underground. Over time, the water has been and continues to filter through the lava fields–up to 100 years–and eventually wells up from an underground spring directly into Silfra.
Once we got our educational lesson, it was time to gear up. First, we stripped down to our underwear or first layer of clothing. Ladies got to change in the van. Together. None of us took any clothes off. Then we put on our “teddy bear” suits, essentially the warmest thermal sleeping bag in the shape of a onesie. We were told to stick the bottoms of the onesie into our socks, mostly for visual appeal, and slightly for some functional reason I don’t recall. Note to others: don’t wear ankle socks.
Once emerged from the van, looking as beautiful as ever, we were helped by one of the guides to get into a wet suit. Because the wrist and neck holes were designed to be tight fitting to keep water out, the next part was the funnest. We brought our finger tips together to poke our hands through the tight hand holes. With half of my hand through the hole, I looked like Kristin Wiig playing Dooneese, the ugly Maharelle sister on SNL. I indulged myself and sang her tune while swinging my hands in front of Chris. He didn’t get it or pretended not to know me. “It’s that bad?” I don’t think anyone saw. Once our hands were through, we pulled the tight neck apart and squeezed the crown of our heads through. Someone behind me said, “This must be what it’s like to witness your own birth.”
In order to allow the excess air out of our suits, a tour guide directed us to put one finger in our neck opening, pulling it outwards while squatting low. As we stood back up, she said, “Now I’ve shrink wrapped all of you.” We all looked at each other and saw it was true, our suits were wrinkled as they clung tight to our teddy bear suits. Then they gave us the coolest three-finger mitts with high tech material that uses your body heat to quickly warm any freezing water that leaks in. With our snorkels, fins, and mitts in hand, we walked the short path to the water’s edge. A tiny hill took us down to where there was a platform and ladder descending into the water.
After lining us up on the path, they had us put our fins on. We then spit into our goggles to prevent fogging, smearing our spit around and letting the guides dunk them in the water before putting them on. We then got in the water one by one. I thought I was going to puke. I was nervous! I remember gagging on my snorkel and thinking “oh, fuck”. My neck felt so tight all of a sudden. But it all happened so fast and as soon as I hit the water, I put in my snorkel, started paddling, and bobbed my head under the water. A natural, I was.
I instantly felt the ping of freezing water hit my lips–they had warned us that the water was cold (a constant 2 to 4 degrees celsius), and our lips would go numb in about a minute. NBD. The water hit my neck and filled my ears when I turned my head from side to side to see the other snorkelers around me. So I just looked down through the crystal, clear water to the steep rocky sides of the fissure. I’m not sure I have the skills to explain what it looked and felt like. Just google it!
A slight current carried us forward, our buoyant suits keeping us afloat. I kept bumping into the others around me, saying “sorry” through my snorkel as I pushed off of them to get away. We floated and paddled along, Chris ahead of me with his GoPro attached to his head. The guides swam in front and back of the group, stopping us at times to give tidbits of information and encouraging us to drink the water. The swim took us only 20 minutes, and ended in a big lagoon where we could swim around exploring the shallow and the deepest fissures. To exit the lagoon, the tour guides aided us onto an underwater platform where they took off our fins, congratulated us, and told us to head back towards the lot. As I got out of the water I was waiting for the cold, but I was perhaps too numb to feel it. Newcomers passed by looking at our purple lips and smiled anxiously. “Worth it” we told them.
Having snorkeled in Iceland in December, we tell anyone who is weary that it’s not as cold as they may think. It’s all worth it.
That night we had indian dinner and found the Icelandic version of our very own 331 Club, called Hurra. We were some of the first at the bar, and sat by the bartender. We had sought out Hurra, knowing there was going to be live music by Moses Hightower, a soul and R&B band from Iceland. We were disappointed at first to hear the show was sold out, but somehow scored tickets by asking the man stamping hands by the front door. As we waited for the music to start, watching people roll in for the show, the bartender asked us if we knew of the band Sigur Rós. Chris instantly died a little and replied, “Yes.” The bartender took out a napkin with scribbles on it. In the dark, Chris could make out the signature, “Jonsi”. It was a happy birthday note that he had found behind the bar, crumpled up and left for the universe to gobble up. Chris then died some more, and snapped some photos of the napkin. “Would it be rude to try to buy it from him?” Chris was conflicted. Surely the bartender treasured his find. He was proud of it and knew it was special. Chris decided not to ask.
The bar got busier and busier as Icelandic hipsters streamed in, ordering beer and heading to the back room where the stage was. We followed suit and got a spot along the wall where we could stand and watch others, listening to their beautiful, nordic language. The lights dimmed. The music began, and everyone started to sing along to Moses Hightower.
I must say it’s a humbling experience to be in a room where everyone’s singing along to words you don’t understand, and laughing at a joke that everyone understands–except for you. But to be clear, we were part of it. You don’t really need to know the words to share in the experience of music, right?
After the show, we wandered around Reykjavik, stopping in and out of a few bars. Back at home, we could see fireworks booming in the distance as part of a pre-New Year’s Eve celebration. If anyone is curious about Iceland’s fascination with fireworks and their New Year’s Eve celebration, look no further. Seriously, check it out. Unfortunately, we had to leave a day before the big show.
We slept in like middle schoolers on a Sunday. When good and ready, we ventured out on foot. Snow had fallen overnight covering the icy sidewalks and making it easier to walk around. The sun came and went, teasing us as we walked around the city.
On the main drag, we found Cafe Bar with a menu of only beer, soup, and bread bowls. Yes. The answer is always yes.
After indulging ourselves, we continued on our way, walking along the water’s edge.
The weather continued to change from sunshine to snow, to rain to sunshine. Unabashedly, I just kept my umbrella over me. Itching to get out of the city center and explore other parts of the city, we took a road north into the neighborhoods. We saw homes, a mall, and a dead end. So, yea, we turned back around and returned to the city. I also really wanted a danish. We sought out Sandholt, a respected bakery in Reykjavik. They sat us in a cozy nook and we gobbled up delicious pastries, quiche, coffee and tea. Can I go back, please?
That afternoon, we took a break at home to clean, pack, and relax. I made us return to my favorite photographer’s store to buy a print, and went to an Icelandic Starbucks, Kaffitar, to write more about our time. We ate dinner at Cafe Paris and per tradition, capped the night at Stophan Cafe with tea and writing. I may or may not have swipped a menu from Stofan Cafe, like the sentimental hoarder that I am. That night I laid in bed reading my new book of Magnus Olafsson’s photography and anticipating our last day and traveling home.
As any last morning goes for us, we were up and at ‘em by 7:45am, driving for the last time away from the city. It was dark and rainy, of course. Because it was Iceland in the winter at 7:45am. We were off to The Blue Lagoon, and were happy to have experienced the lagoon on a previous trip during a clear fall day.
Like the Type A travelers that we are, we arrived too early, and stood in line with others who were waiting for the lagoon to open. Every Blue Lagoon guest receives a wristband that opens gates and lockers, similar to a key card. You can even put money on your wristband to buy drinks at the swim up bar. After being given our wristbands and changing, we met in the inside wading pool. I hadn’t noticed it on our last visit, but understood now why an indoor water entrance was more comfortable for guests, given that it was a dark, windy, and rainy morning.
Once in the water, we pushed the heavy door to the outside against the cold. The wind howled and slipped past us as we swam out into the darkness. The water was warm but the blistering wind and rain crushed our faces and kept us hiding under a man-made shelter with a woman’s voice recording looped every few minutes, explaining the significance of the lagoon and it’s blue, murky water.
“Did it stop raining yet? Should we just do it?” We were in a pickle. The water wasn’t very warm under the shelter, but out in the open we watched the other tourists cringing and laughing in unison when the wind picked up, slapping their shoulders and their faces. We ventured out slowly, finding tiny pockets of refuge under the walking bridges. The darkness eventually softened to a dark blue and then orange as the sun slowly made its appearance. The rain never fully stopped. We left the water about an hour later and found reclining chairs for napping in a warm room with big windows looking out over the lagoon. I’m sure it wasn’t for napping, but everyone else had fallen asleep.
After changing and grabbing an expensive bite to eat from the cafe, we excitedly made our way to the sleepy fishing town of Grindavík. To our closest friends and family members who read every word we write: First, bless you, and secondly, do you recall our friend Kristen from our first trip to Iceland? He’s the gracious Icelandic fellow we met in Grindavík who asked us about our travels, taught us about the volcanos, and gifted us a horse racing book from his cafe corner library. We wanted badly to meet him again, as we had kept our word and returned to Iceland.
We didn’t recall what the cafe was called, but knew the way. We found it easily. “Do you have the card?” “Of course I do!” We had brought Kristen a card and a magnet from I Like You, a Minnesota themed shop selling gifts from local artists. Both were MN themed, of course, the ceramic magnet was shaped like our state with anchors engraved on the front. Fitting for a fishing town, right?
The cafe is called Bryggjan on Miðgarður, right next to the water and fishing boats, just 25 minutes from the airport. If you have time to kill before flying home, stop here and say hi to Kristen, you will probably be offered a free tour of his small town and nearby volcanoes.
We walked into the cafe with nervous bellies. A woman stood from behind the counter, smiling at us. I explained to her we were looking for a man who we thought was named Kristen. She confirmed yes, he was here but wouldn’t be back for a couple hours or so. Sigh. We gave her the card and gift, just in case.
And then we waited. We ordered tea and sat by the windows, reading from the same corner of books. If you’ve not read up on our first trip to Bryggjan, this cafe is not made for tourists. It is for the locals to warm up on lobster soup. It is for homecomings when fishermen return from their journeys on the ocean. It is adorned with fishing relics, and John Lennon. Each time the door opened, we looked to see if it was him. We felt so silly. What if he didn’t remember us? Surely, we weren’t the only travelers to have found this spot.
We hadn’t waited more than an hour when he came through the doors. We watched as the woman at the counter gave him our gift. As he turned to us, we smiled and waved. We asked, “Do you remember us? The couple who you gifted the horse racing book to?” I didn’t want to give him any time to say, “No, sorry,” for I would have died of embarrassment.
He scratched the back of his head, furrowed his brow, and sat down at the table with us saying he was slowly remembering it all. I hadn’t remembered his face exactly but as he sat in front of us it was clear now. Yes, we had returned for a winter trip, and yes we’d seen some new sights, we told him. “Did I give you a ride in my truck last time?” Chris and I looked at each other, knowing exactly what the other one was thinking. No, Kristen, you didn’t. You DO that?!
In hindsight, getting into a stranger’s truck in the middle of seemingly nowhere so that he or she can show you volcanoes does not sound like the smartest move. “Yes, we will get in your truck and go anywhere with you,” was basically our response.
Kristen wanted to show us his town, and we wanted to see it. We jumped into his pickup truck and he started narrating his drive through the town. The cafe was facing the water, just feet from the longline fishing boats. Kristen started there. He said the longliner fishing boats have over 50 kilometers of main line and branch lines with 46 thousand bait hooks. HOLY COD. HOLY PORSKUR. Fishing is the town’s livelihood, as it’s the biggest cod fishing town in Iceland. I forgot how much fish Kristen said the boat’s catch on a daily basis but if you can imagine those 46 thousand hooks, you’re getting close.
“Want to see the home of the elves? It’s a real thing, and not made for tourists,” he said. Kristen drove parallel to the water for some time and veered off into an industrial area, circling to the back of the warehouses. In the middle of the paved road was a small mound of rock and grass about as tall as me. You see, the home of the elves is not to be broken down or paved over for any purpose. To do so would bring terrible fortune to the town and to the fishermen. Kristen was clear to say this is a belief held by at least the eldest fisherman in the village, if not the entire fishing population.
We drove through the rest of the tiny town, past old homes worn down by the sea, and yards with sagging clotheslines and loose chickens. Kristen explained Iceland’s largest airport named after the town Keflavík was built by the US military during World War II. It was ran by both Iceland and the United States for operating civil and military flights. US troops came to Keflavík under the guidance of NATO around 1950, and American troops left only a decade ago, around 2006.
As we ventured further away from the town, Kristen explained the significance of the area. Iceland exists simply because of it’s location along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. For millennia, the spot where Iceland is has seen constant volcanic activity and from those years of eruptions, out of the ocean comes this magical land of fire and ice. Kristen explained here in Grindavík we could see and stand on a small volcano, and from the top see the line of volcanoes that stretch to the southwest.
“Did you eat whale meat yet?!” We hung our heads in shame, sorry that we had promised him last time we would try whale on our return trip. He forgave us and changed the topic. He said there are few animals or predators on the island. Polar bears will sometimes come from Greenland and be so hungry that Icelanders will shoot them in order to avoid the inevitable. Besides the birds and small mammals, the arctic fox is by far the coolest and oldest inhabitant of the island predating the vikings, he said. It’s fur is dark in the summer and turns white in the winter, and he isn’t easy to spot. But he’ll leave his little tracks for you to find. Kristen slowed down, rolling his window down so he could point out a trail of tiny paw prints in the mud.
As we drove further and further down the mud road, all that was around us were lava fields. Kristen was taking us to the volcano, and promised we would be there soon. He took us all the way back–to Leif Erikson, who is said to have discovered North America years before Christopher Columbus. The story goes, according to our friend, that Leif found America around the year 1000. The story of the exploration can be found in The Vinland Sagas, two books, old-as-shit, narrating the voyage to Vinland (presumably Newfoundland, Canada). They called the land Vinland because of the never-before-seen trees full of wine grapes. Kristen fast forwarded to life in Iceland around 1850. Life was hard with a lack of food. Many Icelanders migrated to Canada for better farming, but found that it was even colder. Whoops!
We traveled fifteen minutes on the dirt road learning of these things, Chris in the front seat carrying the conversations forward and Ali in the back feverishly texting every word in her phone for safe keeping. We arrived at a dead end near the base of a 40 foot tall volcano. Before getting out, Kristen warned us that it would be windy and loud next to the man-made contraption nearby that harnessed the underground heat for energy (I’m guessing).
The snow had melted around us from the heat of the ground, and we could see the steam rising after kicking the rocks at our feet. We stumbled up the side of the volcano, the wind whipping at our jackets. I held tight to my camera, hoping not to fall backwards or slip in the mud. We soon made it to the top where the wind was strongest, but the view outstanding. Kristen yelled over the wind, pointing out over the southwest of Iceland the line of mini volcanos that follow the Mid-Atlantic ridge. I was shocked to get a photo in focus with the wind knocking me over.
We quickly retreated back to the truck and drove back to Grindavík. Once back at the cafe, Kristen said he wanted to open his card. He had stuffed it in his jacket pocket earlier, and retrieved it in front of us, crumpled but in tact. We explained how the gift and card were shaped like our state of Minnesota. He asked where we lived and we pointed to the indent on the right side of the state. “We live here. Come visit us someday.”
We said our goodbyes and left the cafe in Grindavík just as we had the first time, in awe and full of gratitude. We could not have asked for a more special ending to our visit to the land of fire and ice. Until next time.
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