The rumors are true:
Iceland is insanely expensive. However, the other rumors are also true: Iceland is one of the most breathtakingly, beguilingly beautiful places on Earth. I say that as someone who has not been to every single place on Earth, so take that as you will. Still, I can’t express enough how much I loved the three short but perfect days I spent there, and I can’t wait to get back.
I took advantage of Iceland Air’s “Stopover” deal. (No, I’m not getting paid to push this program, Iceland Air doesn’t know me from Adam. Or Eve. Or Bjork.) On the way back from France last summer, my son and I stayed in Iceland for a 3-day stopover and my only regret is that I didn’t choose to stay the full 7 that Iceland Air allows. Let me tell you about it…
Day 1: Arrival & A Gift from Iceland
Knowing how expensive Iceland is, I opted for hostel-style accommodations in Reykjavik that I booked through Airbnb. The place itself was nothing to write home about, but it was clean and comfortable, and the location was unbeatable: right in the heart of the shopping district downtown, and just a couple blocks from the harbor. Getting there was the first of many sticker shocks, though, I will admit. While we were on the plane, I took advantage of their ticket service for the Flybus that goes from Keflavik airport to downtown Reykjavik. I was expecting that the bus might be around $30. I was wrong. The bus, for myself and my son, cost over $100. I don’t even want to think about what a taxi might have cost. So, we sucked it up and forked over the money, and that’s how we got from the airport to the hostel. Luckily, even though the bus didn’t take us right to our door, the stop was just a few blocks from our place. (Right in front of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is just what you think it is. Walking by that with my 17-year-old wasn’t awkward or anything.)
Once we got there and settled in, we couldn’t wait to explore. Like I said, we were right in the heart of downtown, so there were lots of cute stores just out the front door. High on the shopping list was a jacket. We’d just spent 3 weeks in 90+ degree weather in France, and the highs in Iceland were in the 50s (Fahrenheit)! It took some digging, but I was finally able to find a light windbreaker in one of the more tourist-y gift shops with “Iceland” emblazoned in huge letters on the back. It was a shockingly cheap $20. Everything else was over $100, so I was thrilled, even if it did scream “tourist!!”
By then, it was time for dinner, and we opted for pizza. This entire 3-week trip could have been called The Pizza Trip because apparently the world has decided that the lingua franca of food is wood-fired pizza. Works for me. We went to Eldsmiðjan for a delicious and fairly reasonable pizza (by Icelandic standards).
A few hours later, we were relaxing in our room; it was about 11 pm. Being Iceland in the summer, it was still light out and people were still out and about as if it was 6 hours earlier. I noticed that the sky had turned a bright yellow so I suggested we head down to the harbor and see the midnight sun. My son grabbed his camera and we headed out. We were not disappointed. It was as if Iceland had decided to pull out all the stops and show us just how grand she can be. As soon as we rounded the corner and the harbor came into view, we both let out a gasp. The sky was a bright gold and the mist that had been hanging in the air all day caught the light and set it on fire.
As we continued toward the harbor, we suddenly realized that the misty air had given us yet another gift: a rainbow! So, looking in one direction, we could see the setting sun, and in the other direction, the rainbow, each scene competing for the “Most Breathtaking” award. It was a tie, folks. Photos can’t do it justice, but here’s a few (we didn’t capture the rainbow, it was too elusive). We stayed down at the harbor until about 12:30; the rainbow had disappeared, the sky was much mellower, and we were ready for bed. We fell asleep with visions of this amazing land running through our heads.
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Our plan for the next two days was to drive half the Golden Circle, stay at an Airbnb at the Secret Lagoon, and then complete the circle the next day. We walked to the car rental place and, after being warned by the agency about the fact that Icelandic wind can blow car doors right off if you’re not careful, we made our way to the countryside. I had read that there are two types of animals that I had to heed as I was driving: the Icelandic sheep, because they roam free all summer and might hang out on the road, and the Icelandic horses, which are unique in all the world (in fact, if they ever, for whatever reason, leave Iceland, they cannot return). So, with Bjork serenading us, we headed out, eyes peeled for sheep and horses (my son was officially on sheep-watch).
Our first stop on the Golden Circle was þingvellir National Park. This is the site of the Allthing , the oldest parlaiment in the world, and a huge tectonic rift that you can very clearly see slicing right through the earth.
The natural and the manmade collide in this one, beautiful setting. On our way to the park we passed a beautiful ranch (do they call them that in Iceland? I really don’t know. But there were cute little Icelandic horses!) and the horses were happily hanging out very close to the road. We pulled over and my son grabbed his camera and was off before I could say, “Don’t get hit by a car or a roaming sheep and don’t let the wind blow you away!!” He charged ahead of me and started snapping photos. He was able to get quite close to the horses, which are smaller than American horses– almost half-way between a mustang and a pony. (He wasn’t as close as the photos make it seem, as he had a 500mm lens.) Take a look:
I swear, that horse has better hair than I have ever had. She literally woke up like that.
From þingvellir National Park we made our way to Geysir, which is where the word “geyser” comes from. Just like Old Faithful in the U.S., the geyser Strokker erupts faithfully every 5 to 10 minutes, shooting water over 100 feet in the air. You are reminded that Iceland is a volcanic island as you travel throughout the country, encountering geysers large and small, as well as a plethora of natural hot springs which you can spot due to their telltale steam plumes rising into the chilly Icelandic air.
Our last stop for the day was Gullfoss, which translates to Golden Falls. It has more hydropower than Niagara Falls– a power which at one time was almost harnessed for profit. Luckily, it was saved by the tireless Sigriður Tomasdottir, who is regarded as Iceland’s first environmentalist. We benefit from her tenacity and are able to enjoy views like this today:
Finally, our brains overloaded with the beauty of Iceland, we headed for our Airbnb at the Secret Lagoon. And when I say it was at the Secret Lagoon, I mean it was right there, just steps to that amazing natural hot spring. You do have to pay $30 to go into the lagoon, but it’s totally worth it– the fee covers 24 hours, so you can go back as much as you want. And you will want. Just don’t make the mistake I did and try to go in anywhere other than via the steps. The rocks are super slippery and I’m lucky I only slipped a little and didn’t actually fall flat on my rear and crack my head. But once you’re in, ahhhhhhh….the water is so warm, the beauty all around you is so majestic, you will keep wanting to pinch yourself to be sure you’re not dreaming.
Day 3: Completing the Circle
After a cozy night’s sleep, we had to say good-bye to the Secret Lagoon and finish up the Golden Circle. There was one more sight to see before returning to Reykjavik: the Kerið Crater, which was formed when a volcano emptied itself of magma collapsed inward. The water is an amazing hue of turquoise and is crystal clear.
After a walk around the crater, it was finally time to head back to Reykjavik. Sadly, our flight was leaving the next day to take us back to the U.S. But there was still a little time for one more adventure.
Day 4: Puffins!
Our flight left in the late afternoon, so we had time to squeeze in just a bit more of Iceland before we had to say good-bye. We’d seen lots of ads for puffin and whale-watching cruises, and I knew my son really wanted to get some more nature photos before we left. We opted for the puffin cruise because it was much cheaper than the whale watching, and I felt, more of a sure thing. Whales can be solitary and elusive, but puffins hang out by the hundreds, so we placed our bets on the birds– they did not disappoint.
We used Special Tours, and I thought they were just great. (Again, not being paid for this, they don’t know me from Thor.) The boat was on the smaller side and the tour guide and captain were very nice, helpful, and informative. We took an hour-long tour to a small island just beyond the harbor that was absolutely covered in puffins. Their chicks are called pufflings, which is just about the cutest thing I’ve ever heard, and they had recently hatched when we visited. No, we did not get to see them, as they were still safely stowed away in the nests, but it meant that the puffins were madly flying and diving for fish. They are not the best flyers so they used– I kid you not– a stick as a kind of airport. They lined up and one by one, climbed up the stick and jumped off of it, catching the air as they fell, flapping furiously until they achieved lift. It was difficult to not burst from all the cuteness.
Finally, the boat headed for shore, and we were about to head to our own airport where we would be transported back to Minnesota. Iceland was more than a destination, it was an experience. I’ve never been in a place like it, and I hope to return soon.
But What’s Up With Those Letters?
The letters ð and þ look kind of like a d and a p, but they are not pronounced that way! If you want to attempt correct pronunciation, the ð is pronounced like a voiced “th”, like the beginning sound in “this”. The þ is pronounced like an unvoiced “th”, like the beginning sound in “thing”. So, if you see the word “þor” it is not pronounced “por”, but is the recognizable, “Thor”.
And I just need to mention…
the coffee. I don’t know what they put in that stuff, it could be crack, for how delicious it is. Seriously, I’ve never had coffee so good anywhere. So, when you go, have coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. And say hello to the puffins for me, will ya?