It was on the second day in Iceland that I realized I should have been careful about over-excursion. Oh, sure, there was a small element of over-exertion. But as our Extreme Iceland van was still half an hour from Reykjavik at 8:45 p.m. and most restaurants in town — particularly those around our hotel — closed at 10, I thought maybe I had over-scheduled us.
We’d arrived at 7 a.m. the previous morning and blew through Customs (they’d get us on the way out), snagged an early check-in, went out for a two-hour walking tour of Reykjavik, then a couple more hours on our own. After dinner that evening, we went on a Northern Lights excursion that had us out until 1 in the morning (more on that later, or in a different post). And then we were up at 6:30 to grab breakfast and, at 9 a.m., head out for 11 hours of sight-seeing and something called a glacier hike. The next day, a tour of the Golden Circle. The day after that, Blue Lagoon and a snorkeling trip.
Would I do it differently? Maybe. I’m pretty sure Cara would. I’d likely move things around some and add another day just to kick around Reykjavik at leisure. It would have been nice to check out some of the museums. I definitely regret not getting to the Icelandic Phallological Museum (yes, it’s a penis museum). I don’t feel any pangs about missing the opportunity to get drunk at the bars on the tourist strip. And this wasn’t a culinary vacation. We weren’t interested in the most unique aspects of Icelandic cuisine. As much as I like to stick new types of animal flesh in my face, it isn’t clear if the whale and puffin served at some places is actually sustainable now that tourists are chowing down on it. And I’ve got an admittedly irrational aversion to horse, even if it is on the menu at some restaurants. Sheep and cow, no problem. Horse? Nope.
As far as the infamous fermented shark, the locals don’t eat it much anymore and seem to view it mostly as a funny prank to play on visitors. I watched an episode of “No Reservations” once in which Anthony Bourdain said it was too much for him. And if it’s too much for a guy like that … no thank you.
Iceland is a beautiful country with stark landscapes. That’s what we wanted to experience. Maybe we crammed too much stuff in, but we went in thinking, “We might only do this once.” I came out thinking, “We need to come back during the summer and see the whole island.”
Sometimes I think it’s as much fun planning and researching a trip like this as it is actually going on the trip. You get your copy of Lonely Planet, you spend a hundred hours on Trip Advisor (half of that laughing at German reviewers bitching about misaligned tiles in the hotel bathroom and particularly stupid Americans blaming the hotel for the weather) and you scour the web for “secret” tips. One website that proved invaluable in terms of a starting point, was I Heart Reykjavik. In particular, the post “How to Spend Four Days in Iceland in Winter (Without Renting a Car)” was tailor made for my needs on this particular trip. You can actually book trips through the site (though we ended up booking pretty much everything through Extreme Iceland).
We stayed at Icelandair’s Reykjavik Marina. You’ll never guess where it is. It’s near the marina! We wanted something that was cool, perhaps a little different, and that wasn’t on the tourist strip (but was serviced by excursion companies). It’s hard to judge walking distances with Google Maps sometimes, but the hotel was a five-to-ten-minute walk to the central part of town — and that’s taking into consideration ice-slicked sidewalks after the country was hit by a record snowfall.
Marina fits squarely in the hipstery boutique space — but without all the dirty hipsters. The lobby housed loads of great common areas, including Slippbarinn (a well-liked restaurant and cocktail bar), a library, gym, theater, lounge and a cafe. A few fire places made it a great place to return to after a long day freezing your tail off.
The room was small, but adequate and even had a balcony. If it was the sort of trip where we spent more time at the hotel it might have proved problematic, but it served our needs. It had the sort of queen bed created by throwing two twin mattresses on a box spring, which is sort of perfect for couples who are well beyond the cuddling stage (or who might toss and turn a lot).
But fair warning to new couples. There are bigger rooms in this hotel, but I’m going to assume the bathroom situation is the same in all of them. The bathroom — a sink, a toilet and a shower (no tub) — is separated from the room by a very thin sliding glass door. If you’re not yet at the “I’m comfortable with those horrible noises/smells my true love makes” stage in your relationship, you might want to consider another hotel.
The Slippbarinn. If you’re going to Iceland, guidebooks, websites and friends are going to tell you to go there. Conveniently enough, we were staying right above it. It is a trendy, happening place and hopping on weekend nights. That said, I wasn’t blown away by its cocktails, some of which had up to seven ingredients. The food echoed the cocktails, some of the dishes going for experimental whether the dish came together or not. The gratinated cheese with honey was the standout of our meal there. It’s basically Icelandic queso. And you can’t go wrong with queso.
The Exit. I was going to do one master post, but I’m too long-winded for that. So I’ll include Day One here and then get to the other days after. But before doing that, a word about leaving Iceland. While there are evening flights out of the country that give you another day of sight seeing or floating in the Blue Lagoon (and thanks to time zones, get you home at a reasonable hour), we booked a morning flight out. I get too antsy about departure times and all that to really enjoy a half day and Cara wanted a full day at home to just relax before going back to work.
I know this sounds completely anal, but you really need to leave Reykjavik at least three hours before departure. The flights, it seems, depart in clusters, meaning everyone gets to the airport at the same time. And while getting into Iceland was a breeze, getting out of Iceland was a pain in the ass. I’m not sure if they honestly think there are terrorists trying to sneak into the U.S. via Iceland or if it’s part of their employ-every-person program, but
- the kiosks might give you a boarding pass, but they won’t let you check bags
- while in the bag-check line, all passengers were stopped and questioned by security (the same questions the kiosk would usually ask)
- after getting through security and before boarding the plane, the same security guards stop and ask the same passengers the same questions
- bonus: Cara got pulled over at the gate for special screening
To say this slowed things down would be an understatement. As a point of reference, I went to Jamaica last week and they barely even looked at me as I went through security. I’m not saying that’s a GOOD thing, but it was odd that Iceland, which seems so efficient and hospitable about everything else, made leaving such a pain in the ass.
And if you ARE taking a morning flight, I’d suggest saving up some cash for a cab ride to the airport. While a Flybus van can and will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the main bus terminal, the airport buses leave every hour on the half hour, which may force you to wake up even earlier or get to the airport with under two hours to spare. Also, depending on the time of day, the main bus terminal can be a bit insane. It’s the staging ground for all the major big-tour companies. We only went through it once on the a trip to the Blue Lagoon and it looked and felt like a Nordic version of the fall of Saigon, as hundreds of people in winter clothes ran through snow and puddles trying to find the right tour bus at the right time. I don’t need that excitement before the sun comes up, so taxi it was.
And, yes, for a 45-minute ride from Reykjavik to the airport, it did end up costing around $200 U.S.
DAY 1: The War on Naps
The flight to Iceland from New York on Delta was an overnight flight that arrived at 7:30 in the morning. We took a bus from the airport to the hotel. It was either a $28-per-person bus ticket or $200 taxi ride. I figured we’d try the bus to the hotel and consider a cab for the return trip since we’d be leaving so early. The Flybus Airport Shuttle is a fine, clean, luxurious bus, complete with WiFi. The $28 price gets you a transfer to a van and they’ll take you directly to your hotel. You can also arrange to be dropped off at the Blue Lagoon and then go to your hotel later.
Iceland is four or five hours ahead of Eastern Time depending on the time of the year. The time difference combined with an overnight flight means one thing for the experienced traveler: YOU MUST NOT NAP. OH MY GOD, WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T FALL ASLEEP! Apparently overnight international travel is the same as suffering a concussion.
I get it. I get it. You suffer on the first day to get on schedule with the new environs. Sometimes this is helped out by a hotel that won’t let you check in until 3 p.m. The Marina hotel, however, had our room ready. Still, we resisted the siren call of the comfy bed and the down comforters, threw on a couple more layers and headed out into the streets.
We’d scheduled a two-hour walking tour with CityWalk at noon, so had some time to kill. A short walk through some slippery streets found us at the Stofan Cafe, a lovely place just on the outer edge of the tourist area that served up big breakfasts and hot coffee (and beer) at reasonable-for-Iceland prices. Put another way, two breakfasts and coffee ran us $37 U.S.
Nothing is cheap in Iceland with the exception of stunning views and glacier water. Oh, and the CityWalk walking tour. It’s free! Sort of. It’s billed as free, but participants are encouraged to make a donation after the tour based on what they thought it was worth. Suggested donations on sites like TripAdvisor range wildly, so we went with $40 a person. (You literally put your money in a bag while the guide isn’t looking, so if you’re a cheapskate prone to peer pressure, you can definitely get away with less.)
Was it worth $40? I’d argue yes. Marteinn, our guide for the day, gave us quite a bit of history and trivia, as well as a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and a few jokes you likely wouldn’t get away with in the states. He was also prepared to answer questions regarding the economy (including the 2008 collapse), where to eat, and the gender makeup of parliament. Fun fact learned from the walk: You graduate high school in Iceland at age 20 with four languages under your belt. Icelandic kids speak Icelandic (or Viking as I like to call it), start learning English upon entry to school, start learning Danish in sixth grade and then must choose another language in high school. Most American students, of course, struggle with English.
Anyway, the two-hour walk is not strenuous under normal circumstances, but was a little treacherous due to ice patches and piled up snow. We did get to walk out onto a frozen lake. Also, here’s a work of art in the town hall. Yes. It is a vagina. They take their gender equality seriously in Iceland.
After the tour, Cara and I walked the town a little bit more and found ourselves at the most prominent feature of Reykjavik’s skyline, the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church. If you’re there, check it out. Be sure to go to the top. The line moved fairly quickly and the views are great.
We made our way back to the hotel, might have taken a tiny little nap, and then headed to dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips, which was perfectly adequate, even if the chips weren’t actually chips (i.e., french fries) and rather were roasted potatoes. Before anyone starts in with, “You went all the way to Iceland and ate fish and chips,” just shut it. Fish and chips is practically one of the national dishes.
And then it was time for …
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The good folks at Extreme Iceland were scheduled to pick us up between 9 and 9:30 p.m. This pick-up window led to a little anxiety on our parts for most of our time there. Imagine a group of tourists who’ve all booked trips but with different excursion companies milling around a waiting area, checking their watches, wondering if they’re standing in the wrong area or if the tour guide forgot about them. Yes, it very much resembled a bunch of dogs waiting for their owner to get home. Every time another van rolled up, ears perked up, eyes got big and someone ran in a circle.
Why did we book almost everything through Extreme Iceland? BECAUSE WE’RE EXTREME! I don’t know. A mixture of excursions we wanted, smaller tours and an easy-to-use website. I can’t compare it to other companies of the same size, but I most definitely want the casino-bus experience, 150 people older, cranky people worried more about their feeding schedule and discounts at the gift shop rather than what’s around them. All of our Extreme Iceland guides were great and the buses and vans even had WiFi (sometimes it was spotty, but free WiFi on your tour van is pretty cool).
We picked the Magical Auroras Evening Tour. Here’s the thing about auroras, magical or otherwise. They don’t much care that you’re in Iceland looking for them. They don’t care if seeing them is on your bucket list or that it’s the main reason you came to the country and you only have three nights to see them. There are apps that try to predict aurora action, but they’re not necessarily reliable. And if it’s partly cloudy, the folks at Extreme Iceland will drive you around the southern part of the country looking for better viewing.
In one respect, we were lucky. Since it was a perfectly clear night over the entirety of southern Iceland, we only had to drive 15 minutes out Reykjavik and set up shop. On top of this, there’d been spectacular aurora action earlier that same week. While the northern lights typically start dancing between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., they’d been seen as early as 8:30 p.m. that week. In fact, the night we were going out, the city shut down all of its street lights for 45 minutes on the Friday night we set out.
But it wasn’t long before it seemed our luck had only taken us so far. After an hour of standing outside in 20-degree weather, we’d seen not a hint of lights. And while we were layered up from head to toe, there’s only so long you can stand in one spot before the extremities start to complain. Still, as the bulk of our group returned to the van to warm up, Cara and I held our ground, staring at the sky so hard at times that you convinced yourself that you were seeing something. One van took off for another vantage point, just because a couple of its occupants were carping to try a new location. Our guide and another were shaking their heads over the aurora apps, which now seemed to be in agreement that we were out of luck.
Then, at around 11:30 p.m., on the horizon there was something. You had to squint to see it. And it looked kind of like a hazy plume of smoke. But we were told it was, indeed, a weak bit of aurora magic. On the one hand, at least we saw something, certainly enough to tell people we saw it. On the other … uh, that was it? The other folks in the group piled out of the van to be mildly disappointed and we climbed in to warm up again.
Twenty minutes later, the guide said something was happening again, so out of the van we went. Once again, we were blessed with the presence of a hazy smudge. “Well, it’s something,” we said and after a bit went back into the van, our toes and fingers screaming.
Then, at 12:30 or so, the guide hustled us out of the van one more time. And lo and behold, the show was on. This time, thank Odin, the auroras were extremely magical. Green globs danced across the sky morphing into shimmering curtains that made an undulating wall from east to west. The relief among the tourists and guides was palpable — for some folks, it was their only night in town — and quickly gave way to a giddy euphoria. Our guide actually came over and hugged me, he was so happy.
I was a little bummed that the neither the iPhone camera nor the Nikon CoolPix were equipped to take shots of it, but I was also happy about it. It forced me to stop dicking around with equipment and just enjoy the moment without a screen between the lights and me.
A brief diversion: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the northern lights before. Freshman year in college, a bunch of of us were driving from Long Island to Rochester when the sky went a little nuts. I don’t think we’d been drinking and I know we weren’t tripping. But the unreliability of memory (especially the farther out you get) combined with the slim chances of seeing the lights so far south have always made me doubt that this actually happened. (If Vicky or Michelle or Erv or whoever else was piled into that Pathfinder is reading this, let me know!)
So our luck held out after all. In fact, it more than held out. While the tour companies will reschedule your excursion if you don’t see the lights, I figure that first smudge counted enough that they might have put up resistance. Besides which, while the lights were spotted the following night, Sunday excursions were canceled completely due to cloud cover and Monday didn’t seem much better.