I’d heard the words magical, ethereal, and enigmatic used to describe Iceland and thought it sounded a bit airy fairy, until I experienced the incredible feeling of being there myself. After 3 days on the ground as part of a larger Scandinavian vacation my husband and I were hooked and are already planning a longer trip. Italy may have my heart, but Iceland has captured my soul.
Our flight arrived at Keflavik airport at 7am. We picked up our rental car, grabbed a couple of skyr yogurts for breakfast and headed towards the Blue Lagoon, about a 20 minute drive from the airport. Along the road we saw a little area to pull over, so we ate our yogurts and tried to sleep, killing time until 9am when the lagoon opened. As I sat in the car with the wind whipping across the lava fields I had this surreal feeling that I was on another planet. Iceland isn’t really European, and it’s certainly not North American. Rather it’s this culturally rich, stunningly beautiful island hovering just south of the Arctic Circle.
We were some of the first people to enter the Blue Lagoon that day. Because it was early in the day the tour busses hadn’t arrived yet, and we had about an hour of feeling like we had the place to ourselves. We paddeled around, did the requisite silica mud mask, and treated ourselves to a couple of delicious smoothies. It was hands down the most relaxing and soothing experience I’ve ever had. Well worth the pricey entrance fee; if you’re only going to do one thing in Iceland, this should be it! The combination of the bright blue milky water, lava fields and the gigantic geothermal power plant steaming away in the background truly do make you feel like you’ve left the Earth.
It was a long 40 minute drive into Reykjavik after being warm, relaxed and jet lagged, but we made it to our airbnb apartment just fine. We stayed in a basement suite on a quiet residential street about a 5 minute walk to Laugavegur, which is the main street through town with all the shops, cafes and bars. Travel tip: basement suites in Iceland are great in the summer because with fewer windows you can actually sleep at night when the sun is still up at 23:00.
After a quick nap we wandered around Reykjavik and found ourselves at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hotdog stand down on the harbour. Despite trying not to eat meat we both hopped on the bandwagon, because according to multiple sources, this hot dog stand is really the most popular restaurant in the country. You have to order one ‘eina með öllu’ (with everything). There is no other way so don’t even consider it! You end up with what I suspect is just a normal dog, covered with amazing condiments on a very light and delicious bun. Ketchup, crispy onions, regular raw onions, sweet mustard and a mayonaise remoulade are what make it the best hotdog you will ever have. We liked them so much that we went by again the next night instead of getting dessert. It was funny seeing locals drive up and make the designated person hop out to get dogs for everyone in the car.
The next day we were up early and hit the road heading east out of Reykjavik to complete the tourist circuit that is the Golden Circle. I was very happy with our choice to rent a car and do a self drive tour (longer post to follow on the Golden Circle) since I despise tour busses and the thought of being on one makes me cringe. The great thing about having our own car was that we could stop whenever we wanted to take pictures. You don’t even need to pull off the road, because once you get about 20 minutes out of the city there isn’t a soul in site. We saw tons of sheep, interesting rock formations, high mountains with flat tops, and really interesting looking modern churches in the middle of nowhere. But the most amazing thing we saw was hundreds of little Icelandic ponies just waiting for pets by the side of the road. Once you get past the lava fields there is actually quite a lot of farmland. There is nothing stressful about driving in Iceland.
We were pretty tired after the Golden Circle route and it being a Sunday night we decided to take it easy. We ventured down along the water, past the Sun Voyager sculpture and Harpa (the concert hall) on down to where all the big fishing rigs dock. On a recommendation from a friend we found ourselves at Sægreifinn (or Seabaron). It’s a little hole in the wall where you order at the counter and find a seat at communal tables. We had the lobster soup (for $12 it was a steal in Reykjavik) and tried the Gull beer, which is a nothing special, totally fine, Icelandic pilsner. The soup was amazing, and just what we wanted after a chilly day out in the elements. It’s a must try when in Reykjavik!
By the third morning the weather had turned completely terrible. It was cold and rainy and windy. But we set off down south to meet our Arctic Adventures group for a day of hiking on the Solheimajokull (glacier). There is nothing like the prospect of climbing around on a 1,000 year old ice formation to get you out into the rain. Thankfully by the time we got to the end of the dirt road to the base of the glacier the rain and wind had slowed and conditions weren’t too bad. We spent the better part of the afternoon with our guide Laurent and 6 other people about our age and fitness level hiking up and down the crystal blue ice and learning about what makes Solheimajokull unique. Because of the active volcanoes in Iceland these cones of volcanic sand and ash form on the glacier that are seen nowhere else in the world. Hands down this was the most incredible experience of my life! We all got to take our turns ice climbing too, which is not easy. Just as it was my turn to go the weather turned particularly nasty and it was hard to get my footing, but I kept on throwing one axe up in front of the other, slowly pulling myself up out of the cravasse. We went down first, so we were forced to climb back out which was awesome; no giving up.
We got back to the car around 3:30 and drove to the stunning Skógarfoss waterfall, about 5 minutes back down the road. We reenergized with some sandwiches and traditional Icelandic fried donuts (and changed into dry clothes), and then headed back towards Reykjavik, stoping again at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Both are beautiful and worth a stop if you’re on the southern part of route 1.
Being completely exhausted after our day on the glacier we weren’t up for much our last night in Reykjavik unfortunately so we went to Kryddlegin Hjörtu for dinner, which is a nice little soup and salad bar down on the water. For $18 you get all you can eat salad (which was good and interesting) and the choice of 4 soups, 2 of which are always vegetarian. It seemed expensive at the time, but after seeing what things cost throughout Scandinavia this placed seemed reasonable in hindsight.
We got back to our apartment, tucked ourselves into bed after waving goodnight to the midnight sun, and woke up the next morning, heading the the airport for our flight to Copenhagen, wishing we could stay longer. On the way back to Keflavik we detoured down the road to Grindavik and the Blue Lagoon and stopped at the same pull out we visited our first morning to take some photos of the lava fields. To our surprise, just across the road, there were a bunch of what look to be former settlements or houses made of rock. It’s not marked, but is very cool to check out. On the other side, where the parking lot is, look towards the airport and you’ll see a set of rickety looking stairs going down into a lava tube that you can walk into. These are the kinds of amazing things you discover in this stunningly beautiful country without even looking for them.
I cannot wait to go back and spend a week driving around the entire country and exploring further what makes this little island of 350,000 people, stuck way up in the north Atlantic the most amazing place on earth. It was those moss covered rocks, they hooked me the minute I saw them. Go to Iceland, and you’ll see what I mean.