Monday, January 28, 2013

Adventures in the Land of Fire and Ice

Part I of my Iceland posts! Stay tuned for Part II where I talk about the FOOD!

In September of 2007, my sophomore year of college, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a special program with my school. Eighty of my peers and I lived in a castle in the Netherlands for a semester. I was able to afford it thanks to generous financial aid and a summer of working three jobs to save up some spending money. While I checked off my Bucket List cities of London and Paris, there were many times where my friends took me along to cities that had never even been on my radar, but which immediately became treasured memories.

Castle Friends! Shawna, Me, Meredith, Heather

Iceland was just that--a country that was only mildly on my radar. But when my study abroad friend, Shawna, found an excellent deal on a long weekend in Reykjavik, my travel bug was thrust out of its shell again and I signed on. We booked our tickets in November, and waited patiently for January to roll around. For less than $1000 we had round-trip airfare, four nights in a central hotel (we even got upgraded to a nicer, newer hotel with a spa due to overbooking), breakfast every morning, and a tour of the Northern Lights with dinner included. In all it was four of us from our Castle days in college, Shawna's boyfriend, Shawna's friend from her home city of Chicago, and my roommate. It was the ideal reunion for us all!

Horse with a white batman spot, hanging out in front of a pretty landscape

"Why are you going to Iceland in the WINTER?" asked every friend who knew how unhappy winter weather makes me. Iceland also is rather dark in the winter, with only 5-6 hours of sunlight. "Because it's ICELAND?" I responded, still having no clue how absolutely breathtaking this country is.

Iceland, 9:30am

We landed at 7am, hours before we could check in to our hotel. All of us had had less than five hours of sleep and the sun wouldn't rise until at least 10am. So, we found breakfast and wandered the streets a bit. After stopping at a cafe for even more coffee, we were fueled enough to trek to the Reykjavík Cathedral at the top of the city. We paid the 600 kroner to visit the top of the Cathedral, and were treated to some excellent views. A great introduction to the city!

Cathedral as the sun rose

View from the Cathedral

After the Cathedral we still had another hour to kill, so we made our way to a cafe for even more coffee (Icelandic coffee is the best I've ever had!) and found the flea market. I had read that it was the best place to find discounted Icelandic wool (generally 20000 kroner or $190-ish American), and I left the market with not only a sweater (8000 kroner!) but an awesome pair of boots, score! They also were giving samples of Icelandic Dried Fish, which the locals seem to eat like potato chips. It was... fishy.

Stupid Americans in the Icelandic History Museum

After the flea market we drove around aimlessly for a bit, and then decided to go to a museum of Icelandic History. While there, we happened upon an art gallery opening and got some free wine! It was cool to read about the history of the country, and play with some of the Viking gear in the little kid playroom.

Random view of a village (taken at a gas station)

After that, we finally were able to check in to our hotel. We unpacked a little, changed, and spent some relaxation time in the hotel's spa. The spa was okay, but it was free and included a huge hot tub, so it was a great way to relax after all the running around!

View from our Hotel Room!

"Pre-gaming" for nightlife, Reyka vodka is THE BEST.

That night our plan was to take advantage of Iceland's famous nightlife, bars are open all night and locals party until 6am, but we got sidetracked when we saw a bit of the Northern Lights from the street. We immediately piled into our rented van and scoured the countryside looking for a better view. We couldn't find it, but got a crazy tour of the city from our driver, Shawna's boyfriend. By the time we got back we barely made it through the "pre-game" phase of our partying before everyone decided bar hopping was just not for us.

Snowy lava fields

Gorgeous sunrise

The next day was our own private tour of The Golden Circle--you can buy tours for this, but since Shawna and her boyfriend had been there before, they showed us around. The tour started with the sunrise over the snow-covered lava fields on our way to Þingvellir (thing-va-lir). According to Wikipedia, " Þingvellir is a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland." According to me, it's a gorgeous stretch of land that made for some fantastic pictures. The views are just breathtaking--it looks like another planet!



Next was Geysir, where you may have guessed from the name, we saw geysers! They shot out of the ground with such force I actually yelped the first time it was behind me. Pretty neat, for sure. The water is all scalding hot in this area, and the ground steams. Down the road from the geysirs, we found a pony who had gotten out of his pen! We stopped for some pictures, but couldn't figure out exactly what to do about the escapee, so we left him and hoped for the best. He was very friendly!

Friendly pony

On our way back from Geysir, we stopped at a local hot springs pool. It was a very unique experience--freezing temps outside, hot hot water, us in our bathing suits, with snow capped mountains in the background!

That night was our Northern Lights Tour. The sky was clear and our hopes were high--but honestly, the views weren't spectacular. It was bitter cold and the best you could see were tiny bits of green in the sky. I handed off my camera and stayed in the car for the most part. The included dinner, however, was incredible. I ate so much I was too full to move! I'm glad the pictures came out cool, but I wish we'd had a better viewing. The tour guides were super friendly and very helpful, giving us some Icelandic history and even a shot of the Icelandic spirit Brennevin! We were out until 1am chasing the lights, by the time we got back we all were too tired to go out again, so Icelandic Nightlife will have to wait until another trip.

Cars are ready to go--note the BLACK SAND on the beach!

My roommate's shot of the Northern Lights

Shot with my camera

The next morning was extremely exciting--we rode Icelandic ponies through the lava fields! It was only about $70 to take a two hour ride on the ponies through the lava fields surrounding the stables. As a super beginner I was more than content to ride my slow little pony, Blassa, at a leisurely pace. My roommate, who teaches riding, went with the more experienced group. She was happy with the experience but decided if she ever returned she'd take a harder course. We couldn't get many pictures here since we had to leave bulky cameras behind, but we did pretty okay with our phones.

Me and Blassa. I am in a onesie apparently.

Then it was off to the Blue Lagoon! A must-see for tourists, it's a geothermal spa, and there sure were a lot of tourists there. We went too late in the day to get massages, but it was still a very cool experience. We slathered our faces with the traditional silt and had fun swimming around the hot hot pool--I even got a glass of champagne at the swim-up bar! That night was our dinner at the Tapas bar, which I'll explain further in my food post, but I will say that our dinner there was a great example of Icelandic hospitality! Everyone is so so nice and really makes you feel welcome.

The last day we were all so sad to leave. We had a 5:00pm flight though, so we had a lot of time to souvenir shop and take some silly pictures. We each got a traditional Icelandic wool sweater--mine was in addition to my flea market find--and took silly pictures in them. Those things are well worth the money--we didn't even need coats while we shopped! I wish I'd gotten one at the BEGINNING of the trip to avoid the bulky coat...oh well! After one last stop at the famous hot dog stand, we took some pictures at a random sculpture and were off to the airport.

View from the top

Boston lights, sigh.

Iceland, in short, was amazing. I am already fantasizing about returning and catching up on all I missed. It was one of the most gorgeous landscapes I've ever seen, with the nicest people, and the most interesting food. I will return someday.


  1. omg how cool how amazing! It looks like such a wonderful time!

  2. Its like a beautiful dream....sigh. :)

  3. Gorgeous pictures, looks like you had a lot of fun! And I wonder, are those big bulky sweaters itchy or soft? Because they look SOOO WARM!

    1. I'll admit--those suckers are itchy. But, so long as you wear a long sleeved shirt under them, they're the warmest things ever! We didn't even need coats for the rest of the day, making us wish we'd bought them at the BEGINNING of our trip rather than the end.

  4. Thanks so much for this great post! I wish I could have gone. I'm glad you had so much fun and took some great photos! :-)

  5. I don't know if my comment got eaten up by the interwebs, or if you'll have two comments from me, but this post is worth it! I wish I could have been there! Beautiful photos, and it looks like so much fun & adventure!

  6. Iceland is one the places I want to visit! What a gorgeous place!

  7. What a wonderful adventure!! It looks beautiful and sounds like you had a great time!