Date of trip: October 3, 2014 - October 8, 2014
Iceland is a land of Nordic treasures and languages, Vikings, sheep, waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and volcanic fields covered in moss, farms and plastic covered hay bales, sulfuric smelling showers, pickled fish, smoked salmon, window plants, bookshelves, tall bearded men, expensive wool sweaters, Icelandic ponies, harbors with rusted fishing boats, modest homes with red roofs, licorice candies, Sigur Rós, dried cod fish, old turf homes with grass-covered roofs, more sheep, the cutest cows, geysers, tea and cake, and gender equality. It’s the place to be, I say I say.
Want to skip the our long story below, and just see pictures of Iceland? Check out our Explore Iceland pages.
- Day 1: Reykjavik
- Day 2: Golden Circle day trip – Keriò, Geysir, Gullfoss Waterfall, Thingvellir National Park, Reykjavik
- Day 3: Reykjavik, Aftanes, Reykjavik
- Day 4: South Iceland day trip – Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Eyjafjallajökull, Skogafoss Waterfall, Dyrhólaey, Reynisdrangar, Vik, Reykjavik
- Day 5: Grindavik, The Blue Lagoon – Flight home
Our trip to Iceland started Friday night. Heather was kind enough to bring us to the airport. She was very giddy for us. Our 7:30pm flight left late but we were assured many times that we’d make up time in the air. After six hours of flying, we arrived in Iceland at 8:00am, found our little black rental car (Suzuki Swift), and drove through lava fields to Reykjavik. We napped once we got to the guest house, Baldursbra, owned by an elderly French couple who moved there in the 60’s.
When we woke up, it was raining out–as expected–so we were happy to have brought our new rain jackets and umbrellas.
We walked around the city, ate some Thai food, and went to the Vikin’ museum at the old pier. The museum wasn’t about Vikings but instead the historical Icelandic fishing culture.
Iceland was and continues to be a large fishing culture. “Lífid er saltfiskur” or “Life is salt fish” is a common Icelandic phrase, referring to fish being Iceland’s most valuable export product since the 14th century. After World War II, most of the fish export was frozen, but in the 500 years prior, drying or salting fish was the conventional preservation method.
We then continued to the main avenue full of coffee shops, boutiques full of wool goodies, restaurants, and book stores. After shopping we returned and dressed for dinner.
We walked around aimlessly, getting lost, hungry and frustrated until we finally agreed on anything but a Chuck Norris Bar. Yes, there is actually a place called “Chuck Norris Bar in Reykjavik. We found a French restaurant. It was unexpectedly delicious–we don’t eat French–I finally ate salmon. All was right in the world. That night we woke up at midnight and were wide wake until 2am. It was dead silent in the city–very different from the roaring of HCMC ambulances and stupid motorcycles that frequent University Avenue NE. It was much too quiet for me to sleep but I didn’t want to open my eyes because OBVIOUSLY there are ghosts in Iceland…in my room…eventually morning came (as it usually does).
Best moment of the day:
Chris: Walking around the city.
Ali: Eating dinner. Because I was hungry.
When we woke up, it was 9:30am. Oops. So much for 7am wake up. On our way out we ate cheese and rye bread served by our hostel mother. Twenty minutes out of the city and we were driving through mountains and lava fields covered in a thin layer of snow.
All of a sudden the snowy mountains stopped and ahead of us were green hillsides and pastures with cabins and farms spotting the countryside. We were in complete awe of the scenery–Chris died inside, I think. Along our route, we stopped to see the crater, Keriò, a collapsed volcano. It was freezing! Very windy. It was a quick stop and we were on our way. Our next stop were the geysers. And what a production–the gift shop and restaurant were nicer than most places I had been in. I ate soup in the coolest ceramic bowl. The restaurant was super fancy and cozy. The geysers were crystal clear and blew their lids every eight minutes or so. Chris took selfies with the geysers as I made fun of him for taking selfies with the geysers.
We eventually made our way to Gullfoss waterfall, ten minutes north. The waterfall itself was massive. We journeyed as close as possible into the wind and rain of it, patting ourselves on the back for buying rain jackets. I had to hide my camera in my jacket at times because I was getting so wet.
Chris said he could not have designed a waterfall any better the way Gullfoss was naturally made, with three plateaus falling into a wall and turning 90 degrees into its river. We jumped the rope and walked for a bit along the prairie above the falls.
After leaving the falls we drove back the way we came and found a car pulled over to the fence. A couple was petting the horses so we followed suit. These horses were wider than I imagined. Chris tried feeding them hay. They didn’t like it. Many pictures later, we continued on our way.
We drove past farms, mountains, hills, rivers and more snow to get to Thingvellir Park.
The road became increasingly narrow as it took us north and then south around the park until we reached a parking point. We walked around the mid-Atlantic ridge until I got cold and tired. Not a big deal and obviously I would grow cold and tired of witnessing such natural wonders.
Within the park we saw some of the oldest buildings in Iceland–buildings once a part of historical Icelandic parliament! We continued driving through the mountains and hills, through a patch of snow, past farms and rivers, and back to Reykjavik.
Once home, we changed and walked to dinner: historical Icelandic Fish and Chips. We both ate cod! I was expecting Anchor Fish n’ Chips style (Why? I don’t know any better) but instead of tasting like butter and salt, it tasted like fresh fish. It was much lighter than Chris Chapman’s used to. I knew I needed to make up it up to him and get desert somewhere, so we walked until we found a brightly painted, eclectic coffee shop with a coo coo clock in the entrance and hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling. We got desert, beer and chai tea. It is now official: I actually, really, honestly don’t like the taste of chai tea. We enjoyed our deserts but not so much the loud hoodlum teenagers next to us. We went back home to edit a few photos and sleep. Aahhhhhh sleep.
Best moment of the day:
Chris: Driving through the wintry mountains and traveling over the bend where the snow stopped and green mountains started.
Ali: Getting up close with the horses.
We woke up at 8:00am, and left for breakfast. We wandered in a new direction, getting lost but ending up at the sea. We walked the sea walk, starving and cold (Ali), happy as a clam and taking time lapse videos of the ocean (Chris).
We finally found our way back and ate in an upstairs coffee shop (often times restaurants are piled on top of shops or other eateries).
We then shopped for gifts and ate Icelandic hot dogs – pyslers. My hot dog had mayo and bits of dried onions (odd). We then took an elevator to the top of Hallgrimskirche (church) to get views of the capital area.
We then drove to Aftanes, an area outside of Reykjavik where we found a farm guest house with a grassy roof top on the edge of a peninsula, some curious horses, and some sheep.
Side note: We got nosy and drove up someones driveway to take a closer look at the sheep. Chris rolled his window down and whistled at the sheep, trying to get their attention for a picture but they turned their butts in our direction and starting walking away. We turned the car around only to find a stray one in the middle of the road staring at us! Chris slowly drove up to the sheep and “ba-ah-ah-ah-ah-ed” at him and the sheep “ba-ah-ah-ah-ed” back (as you can imagine).
We decided to get pizza for dinner but got lost trying to find it. Again. We decided 20 minutes later to just appease our stomaches with the closest cafe. And we did. We finished up eating a quick sandwich and walked two shops down the stretch only to find the pizza restaurant we had been looking for. We ironically didn’t even like the pizza place (except the stuffed pizza–that part was good). We happily ended the night at Stofan cafe, a lovely seemingly NE cafe with brick walls, wooden beams, antique chairs, candle light, deserts-beer-wine. Twas just like home.
We then returned to Baldursbra to find our French guest house mother, sitting in her chair next to the TV. She asked us how our day had been, what’d we seen, and our plans for the next day. It was hard for this Minnesotan to kindly say I was retiring for the evening but eventually found the means. She was too sweet.
Best moments of the day:
Chris: Views from the top of the church.
Ali: Finding Stofan Cafe and eating chocolate cake.
We woke up at 7:00am and managed to blow the fuse in our room (The power adapter Chris brought was about 10 years old, and had duct tape holding it together. Clearly, it was not the safest electrical device). We got ready in the dark and then went downstairs to eat bread, cheese, olives, toast, and jam. For the second time we headed out of town, not noticing until 25 minutes into our drive that we had driven the same road before. The first time the ground was covered in snow. The second time the snow had melted and the bright green moss of the lava rocks stretched for miles, crawling upwards into the mountains.
We drove an hour and a half, happy as clams taking blurry pictures out of the window until we reached the first waterfall, Seljalandsfoss.
It looked tiny in the distance, but was roaring up close. We bundled up and walked up the steps alongside the waterfall, getting sprayed with water.
Eventually, we took the unbeaten path up the mud, rocks, and grass to get a better view. We then walked behind the falls and around the other side, down the steps and to the foot again.
We walked north towards other smaller falls. I watched Chris cross a creek and hike up a muddy hill, almost falling.
After hiking, we walked back to the car lot and got food from a small vendor on the side of the lot. We sat at a small table looking at the falls as we ate our pepperoni cheese baguette, traditional Icelandic lamb soup, and a pink sprinkled donut (obviously). We then hit the road and made our way to the second waterfall. Along the way, we stopped to take pictures of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in April 2010. We saw endless sheep and Icelandic horses, farms and barns with grassy roof tops.
The next waterfall, Skogafoss, was higher and wider than the first.
A slim set of stairs stretched skywards alongside the falls for what seemed like FOREVER…I took multiple breaks. Once at the top–a hot mess at this point–we took in the views. We (Chris) decided to jump the ladder straddling the barbed wire fence and walk the plateaued muddy path along the river.
It was so beautiful–at one point Chris turned around to look at me and said “I’m tearing up”. I snapped a pic for evidence. We could see the volcano in the distance and the rocky river below us. It was windy but nothing compared to what we would feel later on near the southern coast.
The trek back down the stairs was more enjoyable. We took off for the next destination: Dyrhólaey, a small peninsula on the southern coast. The skies turned darker as we got closer and closer.
We could see to our right the black beaches of the coast. Our GPS took us up and around a hill to the top of the peninsula. ‘Was this it?’ It was so windy I was frightened that the wind would blow our little car over. We reached the top, parked among a few cars and wondered, ‘but seriously…is this the place?’ The wind was so strong the car was rocking. Chris got out of the car first and after feeling the mighty windy, told me through the closed door, “DONT GET OUT OF THE CAR!” I took a picture of this moment. I will never tire of that picture. I sat in the car, crying from laughing at the picture while Chris was checking out the scene.
Anyways, he finally came back and was adamant he needed to hold the camera and me as we were both at risk of “falling over the cliff”. He took me from the car and walked us slowly against the wind towards the edge of the cliff.
We made our way to the edge and I held on to the railing while Chris tried to take pictures. (They didn’t really turn out. I’ll blame the wind).
Then we crossed the cliff and took pictures of the black sand beach facing the west.
Once back in the car, we laughed and said “THAT…was an experience”. We winded our way back down the peninsula and headed east. We drove past MORE farms, sheep, tractors, hay, and cows. I thought we were lost at one point, but Chris kept driving and eventually we found the black sandy beach we were looking for.
We got back out into the wind, walked across the black, rocky beach towards the cliff, and turned the corner to find Reynisdrangar, basalt sea stacks situated under the mountain Reynisfjall near the village of Vík. According to Icelandic legend, two trolls dragged a ship to land unsuccessfully and when daylight broke they became needles of rock.
We walked along the black sand, fine like powder in some places, and rocky with flat rounded pebbles in others. At times the wind was so strong that we had to turn around to avoid the sand crushing our faces.
We then headed further east along the coast to the village of Vik, and enjoyed a delicious Icelandic beef burger and a chicken vegetable meal in an old historic building and restaurant called Halldorfskaffi. The BREAD. Oh, the bread. A couple next to us left the restaurant with three fresh slices of bread on their table. The thought of such a crime–seeing that bread tossed into a pile of garbage–I couldn’t bare it. I mustered my nerves and ran to the table, nabbing two pieces for myself. I have no shame.
On the way home, I tried hard to stay awake but passed out, and apparently but PROBABLY DID NOT snore. Back in Reykjavik, we regrouped at the guest house and went back out to Stofan Cafe for Einstök Ölgerð beer and to write down our journeys of the day. We then walked back to the guest house and packed our things for the morning!
Our questions of the day:
Chris: Hiking along the top of Skogafoss waterfall.
Ali: Climbing up and around and behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall.
We woke up at 7:00am and left the hostel. I never took the time to ask the French woman about her life and why Iceland. I may regret that one for a while. She was so kind, sitting in her chair at the end of every day, asking us what we had seen, where we had been. Next time.
We left Reykjavik for the last time and what a morning it was. Clear blue skies. We drove south towards the sea side village of Grindavik for breakfast. By the site of the village, we didn’t think we’d find anything to eat but happen to spot a sign pointing us towards the ship yard. Right next to the sea, was a small yellow cafe with a wooden patio. We walked into the small cafe to find a table of old Icelandic, retired fisherman drinking their morning coffee. Old fishing relics hung from the ceiling and photos of ships and fish covered every inch of the wall – except for one wall above the piano where a poster hung of John Lennon.
We ordered a cup of coffee each and the cheery man behind the counter told us, “sit sit and enjoy yourselves and then you can pay”. Before we even sat, our soon to be friend was rummaging through a pile of books in the corner near our table. Of one book about the village he explained, “Sorry, this one is only in Islandia”. There were so many books. Books on volcanos, horses, and other surrounding areas. He sat down at the table next to us and was asking us where we were from, what we had seen, where we had been and when we were going home. I loved the horses, I told him. He lit up, got up from his chair and dug out a flat, black book from the bottom of the pile. Handing it to me, he said I would love it if I loved the horses.
The book was full of pictures of Icelandic horse racing. He explained that the Icelandic horse is unique and is like no other horse, for it has five gates instead of four. In other words, it has five ways of running. He explained the different gates while pointing to photos to show what he meant. We asked what the horses were used for other than tourists butts. The horses once brought to Iceland from Scandinavia were used for pulling or for meat. Today the horses are strictly used for racing, at least the ones that develop five gates, for not all Icelandic horse are meant for racing. The ones that race train for years–up to ten–and then are brought to Europe where they race every two years. Unfortunately, no animals can be imported into Iceland, even beloved, winning race horses. They are sold in Europe and training teams back in Iceland start again with a new team of horses, or the ones already in training.
He proceeded to point to the large map on the wall behind him and spoke of the volcanos. The large volcano that is currently active, as he explained, is much larger and problematic than the eruption of 2010. He referred to that eruption as “a piece of cake” compared to the currently active one. He explained that the current eruption has already created 100 meters of lava stretching towards the sky, creating a mountain as we speak. “Iceland is one big volcano,” he laughed. The volcano could erupt within the glacier that it rests underneath, causing massive flooding of all of southern Iceland, the most populated area in the country, or it could flow under the glacier miles north and erupt on the northern side away from the ice, causing lava flow in unpopulated area (his preference).
He asked us about the waterfalls we had seen. Had we climbed behind Seljalandsfoss? Yes. Had we climbed up and traveled the muddy paths above Skogafoss? Yes. He was pleased. But we had not eaten herring? smoked salmon? shark? whale? No, sorry, just lamb soup and cod. Shark was pungent, yes, and he could understand why we would not want to try or even enjoy it. But the whale! He explained that we needed to try the whale! It tastes like a beef steak and even cooks like one, getting tough if cooked for too long. But whale meat ahhhh was so much better he explained. He said you cannot get it in other parts of the world like you can in Iceland. In fact there are select restaurants in the capital area that sell it, “Moby dick on a stick” (he laughed because “they are joking, you see”, but yes, I laughed).
He then asked us to notice all the pictures on the walls. He said fish is their life. In one picture, a boat had caught 1.5 tons of herring and cod in one net cast. He couldn’t believe we were going to leave Iceland without eating the fish. So he proceeded to tell us to stay put, he was going to go get some fish and have us try it, “just for the experience”. Chris was terrified and so was I. After a bit, the man returned with three bowls. One bowl of pickled herring (onions and mustard seeds?), smoked salmon, and traditional Icelandic bread, cooked in the heated ground like a natural oven. He returned to the table to give us plates, and then butter, and then forks! He was so excited. Do we put it on the bread? Sure Sure, whatever. We lathered the bread with butter and looked at each other, giggling as we piled a piece of raw herring on the bread. I added an onion for shits. We cheered our open faced sandwich and took a bite.
UUUUMMMMMMMM. No. JUST. NO. I couldn’t handle the texture. But the flavor? Fishy…and surprisingly like tuna noodle salad. (I may never eat that again. Sorry, Robyn). Chris’ face was priceless. He was trying his hardest to be polite. But I couldn’t lie. I didn’t like it and my face gave me away. The man just laughed, sipped his coffee, and said, “She’s not a fan. But she will be. More bites and you’ll like it”.
At that point, an old man walked in and helped himself to the coffee at the counter top. The owner said hello and explained how he was making us Americans try Icelandic food. “This man is 84,” he said, “He is the oldest boxing champion in all of Iceland”. We turned around to say hello and the man just smiled at us and sat down at a table across the room.
Our new friend then reached behind the piano behind us and pulled out a book with Winston Churchill’s face on the cover. “What is the connection between this poster of John Lennon and Winston Churchill?” I made a few bad guesses and he told me to stop because I was way off. He went on to explain that John Lennon, born during World War II in the 1940s was given the middle name Winston. Lennon grew to dislike his middle name, but couldn’t legally change it. Upon marrying Yoko Ono, he finally got to change his name to John Ono Lennon. He then explained an interview between Mick Jagger and Lennon years ago where Jagger was heckling Lennon, calling him Winston. “Lennon didn’t care for it,” he laughed. Good golly, this man had story after story and was EATING up our company. We were dying of happiness every minute of it.
Had we eaten Skÿr? No, is that the yogurt I saw all over town? “Yes,” he said, “it is from the Icelandic cow, be right back.” He left again, bringing back a yogurt for both of us. Skÿr was delicious and tasted better than any expensive, greek yogurt I’ve ever had. An Icelandic man is currently living in New York and producing the product for the United States. YUMMMMM!
He then asked what our plans were for the rest of the day and since we hadn’t had the chance to eat whale, he at least wanted to send us out to a piece of his village that very few tourists went. He jotted down a quick map, directing us how to get to an active volcanic area. But not to worry! The lava is spent and all that remains is steam, he explained. He looked out the window at our car, looked at us and said “not a great car, it’s pretty rocky out there so just drive slow” and, “there are signs that say private road but–eh it will be fine–really”. He explained the area was a strip of volcanos, spanning northeast into the middle of the country. They begin here in Grindavik, he said. Small but manageable, he said you can climb them and see out for miles on a clear day.
He left us at that. Wrote in the horse racing book, and handed it to me with a handshake and a big smile, “It’s been a pleasure”. His name was Kristín. Chris died inside, “MY NAME IS CHRIS TOO” he said. We finally paid for our coffee and reluctantly left, saying goodbye to the old boxer as we left.
I held my new book to my chest as we left, and almost cried. Like really–almost cried. We never took pictures of our experience there. I felt insincere doing so and wanted to keep it a story instead.
We drove out to the spot Kristín had told us about. I was so in awe and warm inside that I typed everything that just happened into my phone, but soon got extremely car sick on the bumpy road. After driving slowly from one dirt road to the next, we finally found the spot. I managed to take photos despite wanting to barf, but forgot to climb the short volcano and peak inside. Chris said it had collapsed and was full of black lava rocks.
We then made our way out of the lava rock fields and to The Blue Lagoon.
We got fancy, blue wristbands that acted as electronic key, opening lockers and paying for drinks. (OBVIOUSLY there was a bar in the lagoon). The water was so warm and filmy with white, silica minerals. You couldn’t see your hands until they were coming out of the water. There was a sauna, waterfall, and silica mud pools to lather on your face and shoulders. We saw many old women and asian tourists with white faces swimming about. Much funnier in person? Yes.
After an hour or so in the lagoon, we took some photos, stole some rocks, got dressed, and left. We drove back to the northern coast to a couple villages, got some help from a nice man who noticed Chris struggling to fill up with gas, and decided reluctantly that it was time to head for the airport.
At no point did Iceland cease to amaze us, and when we found ourselves slightly numbing to its endless geographical wonders, we said, “We’re in ICELAND.” It worked every time. Thank you, Chris, for being such a patient and smart tour guide.
Best moments of the day:
Both: Hands down the sea side coffee shop and meeting Kristin
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