Author: John Connaughton
Date of Trip: February 2016
OUR ICELAND TRIP IN DETAIL
February 17, 2016 through February 25, 2016
Wednesday February 17 – We drove from Tanya’s to Orlando and picked up a sub for on the plane, then we parked at Signature Auto Rental. They were a bit crowded but we were plenty early and after a bit we were shuttled to the airport in Orlando. We flew from Orlando International Airport direct to Reykjavik. The plane was at the gate quite early for the flight and we pushed from the gate a little early too. The flight was not very full and we were able to each have a 3 seat bench to ourselves, making it easy to try and sleep later in the flight. We must have had some significant tail winds as we wound up landing over 45 minutes early, now Thursday morning, (Iceland is 5 hours ahead of Florida).
Thursday February 18 – Even after taking our time getting off the plane, and looking around the duty-free shop, we still had a few minutes until our luggage came off the carousel. Next we went thru immigrations and customs, a real breeze. We checked in for our Flybus trip from the airport (Keflavik) to the city, (Reykjavik – about 45km away), then we exchanged some USD for Icelandic Krona. Next we boarded the bus and soon we were off. We switched from a full bus to a van at the bus terminal in Reykjavik and then we were dropped at our hotel, Metropolitan Hotel, just after 7:30am. I had to ring the hotel manager, who buzzed us in and he showed up a few minutes later. We were able to get a room right away and we went up, got our luggage settled and rested for about an hour. Then we dressed fully for the cold, it was in the 20’s F, and we headed off to do the walking tour, CityWalk Reykjavik. While waiting we grabbed a couple hot chocolates at Café Paris, right beside where the tour starts from, to counter the cold. This tour books only with 5 days in advance and you pay at the end, whatever you feel it was worth. Our tour guide, Eric, did a great job. We got to learn a lot about Reykjavik and Iceland and all within a very manageable walking distance around the heart of the center of Reykjavik. I gave him 2000 krona (1000 ISK each), as I was very happy with the tour, his knowledge, his affability and enthusiasm. Only he and another guide, Martin, conduct these tours and they do a great job. This was a great tour to begin our trip to Iceland with. Next we went to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand in Iceland, in fact when Bill Clinton visited Iceland in 2004 they made a big deal of that as well. I got one with everything and Cretia got one with just ketchup. I enjoyed it quite a lot, however Cretia did not find it to her liking. She thought the ketchup watery and the taste off, perhaps because the hot dogs themselves contain lamb meat. After this we worked our way up the hill to see the Hallgrimskirkja Church. A large church built on top of the hill near the center of Reykjavik, which has as its main feature a huge 244 ft. tall bell tower that you can go up in an elevator for great 360 degree views around Reykjavik. We went up there and took several photos of the surrounding area. Its other main feature is a pipe organ which boasts an impressive set of tubular pipes that play the music. Next we worked our way back down the hill and took a taxi to Aurora Reykjavik. This was a small exhibit about the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), covering the science, history and various mythology from several cultures. It also has a small display about help in photographing the Aurora’s. We found this attraction a little disappointing in that we thought people would get individualized help about the photography from an expert, not just reading some suggested tips on a placard and trying your luck in the photo booth they had to simulate taking the pictures. Also, we thought there should have been an expert on hand to talk about the aurora’s and the chances of seeing them that night, based on current forecasts which they have access too. We really wouldn’t recommend this attraction. Next, since it had been a long day after our overnight flight, we headed back to the hotel. Cretia rested whilst I went out and picked up a pizza and some sodas and brought them back to the room for dinner. Then we relaxed some and went to bed early.
Friday February 19 – This morning we slept in a little, (last of the jet lag). We weren’t really feeling like breakfast, so we headed off straight away to visit the Maritime Museum. It was a little interesting. A bit small and mostly you just read placards about the various artifacts and displays. But it did give some insight into how the fishing life ties in to Iceland’s history. Next we headed over for an early lunch. We found a pizza place that had pizza by the slice, right near the famous hot dog stand. So I got 2 of the hot dogs, brought them to the pizza place and Cretia had a slice and we shared a coke. While there I spied a casino with slot machines, so we went in and Cretia tried her luck. She lost 500 krona (about $3.50). After this we headed back to the hotel and stopped in a souvenir store for a short time. Back at the hotel, we rested a bit and then dressed for being out in the cold. Then we were picked up to be taken to our Icelandic Horseback Riding Experience at Solhestar Horse Ranch, about 45 mins away. Everyone was very friendly and helpful and we really enjoyed a wonderful horse ride on the unique Icelandic Horses. We also had some great weather, not too cold, clear and no wind. We experienced their famous “tolt” gait, much like a trot, and I got to canter quite a bit. Cretia was not feeling like trying the canter today, having to ride “english” and also having a problem with her helmet threw her off a bit. Cretia’s horse was named “Stulka” (means ‘girl’) and mine was named “Alsaelu” (means ‘ecstaty’). Afterwards our driver, Linney, dropped us at Hamborgara Bullan the famous Burger Joint in Reykjavik, where we had dinner. We both had a small burger, a chocolate shake and shared an order of fries. Everything was great, we both liked all of it. We found that dining was the most expensive aspect of our trip to Iceland. So we adjusted our food expectations and decided to eat as basic as we could, to help keep costs down. So this was actually the most expensive meal we had, twice, and cost about $30 total for the 2 of us. We could have kept the cost down more by getting soda (gos) instead of shakes, but we really wanted the shakes. So $30 for 2 people is not bad, but a little high for 2 burgers, 2 shakes and 1 fries. Next we went to the room for a little while, then we headed into the town square where we visited a few more gift shops and stopped in at the Dubliner Pub, I had an Irish Coffee and Cretia just had a Sprite. Next, as the sky was clear we walked around a bit hoping to see the Northern Lights. That didn’t happen and we went back to the room for the night. We had a really good day.
Saturday February 20 – We got up early, got ready for the day, and then had breakfast in the hotel. After that we checked out and we were picked up for our 3 day/2 night excursion. After they completed all the pickups we transferred to a small bus and headed to the Golden Circle. We were in a group of 20 people. Our driver and tour guide was named Finnbogi (Finn-boy-eh) and he was great, we often called him Finn, for short. He was very friendly, informative and hospitable. Our first stop was the Pingvellir National Park. Here the American and European Tectonic plates meet, and are actually moving apart by 2cm per year. As we got off the bus, Finnbogi gave us all small crampons, that go over the soles and heels of our boots, to help prevent slipping on the ice and snow. At this stop we visited the Parliament area. This is where the first meetings of the leaders of each region in Iceland would gather to make the laws and pass them down, back in the early settlement days or Viking times. Also every year, in summer, people from all over the country would come here for a festival called Aplingi. It was much colder and very windier here than anything we had experienced so far in Iceland. From here we headed to the Geysir area and along the way there were a couple vehicles that had slid off the road and were blocking the way. So we had to turn around and take an alternate route. After we completed turning around, our driver was telling all the people in the vehicles behind us, (about 20 of them), that they would need to turn around. People on our bus thought it was funny that he was doing this. Next we finally made it to the Geysir area. Here we got to see a geysir that erupts on a schedule of approximately every 5 to 8 minutes. While we were here it was erupting about every 5 minutes. The eruptions of this geysir is due to the water heating to boiling from the magma, then immediately after it erupts, the chamber fills with cooler water, which heats once again and the cycle repeats itself, over and over. Next we went to see the Gullfoss Waterfall. This waterfall is where the Golden Circle gets its name, due to the golden color of the water here. Next we headed off to see two more waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss (tall and narrow) and Skogafoss (broad and shorter). Then we made it to our hotel, Hotel Katla. We settled into our room, had a small snack, and then tried to see the northern lights for about 2 hours, clear sky but no activity. Then we went to bed.
Sunday February 21 – I woke up first at 6:50, took my shower then Cretia got up when I was done. We got ready and went to breakfast in the hotel. Cretia was not too impressed by the breakfast. Next we dressed for the cold again, checked out and started our touring for the day. Our first destination was Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon to meet our Ice Cave Guide. We had to stop almost right away as our guide forgot to close the luggage compartment door. Along the way we crossed several lava fields and made some photo stops. Next we arrived at the Glacier Lagoon. We had about an hour to check out the area before our starting our Ice Cave Tour. The Glacier Lagoon contains pieces of the Jokulsarlon Glacier that have broken off. They drift around in this bay area until they get small enough, through melting, erosion and scraping of the bottom surface, to float out to the sea. We also saw some seals in the lagoon, both swimming and on the various icebergs. Next we went into “Super Jeeps”, (actually modified Ford Econoline Vans that were 4WD and set on HUGE tires), and we headed to the Ice Cave. The winds on the way to and out near the Ice Caves was very fierce and when we got out to walk to the cave entrance you would have thought we were in any movie where they are in an arctic environment, like Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. Fortunately, they had given us larger ice crampons and helmets for this. The helmets also were great as we bumped our heads inside the ice cave, more than once. Inside the Ice Cave was AMAZING. Beautiful blue ice, as well as some clear and some coated in white from the snow. We crawled further in to a second chamber where you could again stand up. We took a lot of pictures in the Ice Cave and this was the highlight of our trip. After this, we headed to a Black Sand Beach to try and see more seals. We also saw several large pieces of the ice being tossed about on the beach by the waves. Then we headed to the hotel. Just as we turned into the road to the hotel, the driver went off the road and the front of the mini-bus was stuck in a ravine. This was due to all the wind and the ice on the road he was turning into. Fortunately, in a very short time a farmer came with a very large tractor and was able to pull us out. It turned out this was the wrong hotel, but our guide made some calls and got our hotel switched to this one, which was Hotel Smyrlabjorg. We had dinner and sat with the group for a little while and then went to bed. This was an AWESOME day, the REAL ICELAND!!!
Monday February 22 – We got up early, like yesterday, then had breakfast in the hotel, I was not as pleased with this breakfast as no pancakes or waffles. After that we headed off to Freysnes Visitor Center and the Svinafellsjokull Glacier for our Glacier Walk. Once there we got our gear, large ice crampons, a safety harness, a helmet and an ice axe. Our Glacier Guide was Rosa and she was excellent. She showed us how to adjust and don our gear and how we would use the ice axe. Then a short bus ride on an icy/snowy trail over to the glacier. They called the road to the glacier “Batman Road” as the ice/snow scenes in BATMAN BEGINS were filmed here. We got all our gear on and headed off. We walked around various places on the glacier for over an hour. We got to see some ice holes, crevices and ridges. Then we were attached with a rope to the ice wall, where they had put an ice screw into the ice wall and we were able to lean into the crevice for pictures and our viewing of the inside of the crevice. At the end of our glacier walk, the bus could not make it up the icy hill, so we all helped and threw a bunch of dirt and gravel onto the path, then our driver was able to get the bus up the hill, where we all boarded. Then we went back to the visitor center. After turning in our gear, we had a lunch break, then headed off to our next stop, which was the Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara. Here are several interesting land features. There is the black sand and black gravel. There are hexagonal basalt columns along the wall, much like the basalt columns at Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, as well as two caves. There are several large columns of basalt rising up out of the water and a promontory that is split into several sections and has arches below, facing the water. Next we revisited the Skogafoss Waterfall, which we did not get to until dark on the first day of the tour. This time we got several pictures and I went up a long set of stairs and took some pictures from the lookout platform above the falls. Then we stopped along the road to see some Icelandic Horses, but they were too busy eating their hay and would not come to the road. So we stopped at a restaurant for dinner for the group as well. Next we re-visited Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, which was all lit up at night, very beautiful. Then we continued on our journey back to Reykjavik. We had a great 3 day trip with Extreme Iceland and Finnbogi, and they give you 3 full days, as we did not get back to our hotel until 11pm.
Tuesday February 23 – We got up and went to breakfast straight-away at Café Paris. We shared a plate of pancakes that had 8 pancakes as one serving. After that we walked around downtown Reykjavik and did some souvenir shopping. In one store we saw Baktus, the famous white & black cat of Reykjavik. He wanders around central Reykjavik, going into and out of various stores and even has his own Instagram page with over 4,000 followers. Of course Cretia picked him up and I took a picture of them. After, I went to Baejrins Beztu Pylsur and picked up 2 hot dogs, while Cretia played some slots right next to the pizza place. When I got there we went to the pizza place and she got a slice of pizza and we had an early lunch. After lunch she finished playing slots, as she had money left on the ticket. Next we went back to the room and caught up on some details and relaxed a bit. Then we headed over to visit the Saga Museum. It was interesting, all about the early settlement times of Iceland. You get an audio tour with numbered stations that have the historical figures recreated, like a wax museum along with signs and other items. One interesting aspect was to learn that some of the earliest settlers in Iceland came over from Ireland, especially a large percentage of the women, who were captured as slaves by Vikings. Of course, the rest of the settlers were Vikings, descendants of Vikings and other Norse and Scandinavian settlers. I had thought the museum would have been more at your own pace vs. pre-set as the audio tour laid out. But still, it was very interesting and informative. Another nice thing is that we had heard some of the tales from Eric (our walking tour guide) and Finnbogi (our Extreme Iceland tour guide), so it reinforced those sagas. After the museum, we walked around town a little more, stopping in various souvenir shops. Then we went back to the hotel and around dinner I went and picked up a pizza and sodas and brought them back to the room. We just stayed in the room and had a very low-key, relaxed pace kind of day.
Wednesday February 24 – Again we got up early, had breakfast and got ready to be picked up for our half-day tour. We are going on the Volcano Veins Tour of the Leidarendi Lava Tube, run by Extreme Iceland. Our guide was Vikner. We started by entering the cave in the easier of the two entrances. You had to step down a few steps in the ice opening, then slide into the cave on your butt, sliding on the snow & ice a short way, much like snow tubing, without the tube. Inside was very fascinating. The cave was hollowed out 2,000 years ago from lava that flowed from the nearby volcano’s caldera after an eruption. We saw large pieces of volcanic rock that was formed into flat shingles of rock, many of which had fallen from the ceiling and we had to walk over and around them to navigate through the cave. Also there was at least one stalagmite forming and remains of a sheep that was trapped in the cave several hundred years ago. Also there were many icicles of various sizes. In many places we had to get very low, even crawling at times. The head room was often very limited, thankfully we were given helmets, which made all the head bumping painless. After going the furthest into the cave (over 900m) we started back out. At one point, our guide missed a turn off and we were a little lost in the cave for a while. After passing one area a few times back and forth, Vikner finally lead us back to the main section and towards the exit. He strung a rope so that we could pull ourselves up toward the exit and then out. This was another exciting and unique experience during our visit to Iceland. When we left the lava tube cave, we made a short stop at a site where they dry fish. This is the outer parts and head only, as the meat and most of the skins have been removed and put to other purposes. The main use of these dried fish parts is they are sold as a delicacy that can be eaten, they say it tastes best with butter on it. Back in town, we stopped at our hotel then went out for lunch. We did the same casino/pylsur/pizza routine as yesterday. Then on the way back to the hotel we made one more shopping stop. We bought a handmade Icelandic Wool sweater for Cretia, which we had seen the day before. It is very beautiful with pinks and grays. Then back at our hotel we filled out our customs form for the US, as well as two VAT Tax Refund forms, so we will get a little money back on souvenirs we bought to take home. Later we again went to Hamborgara Bullan for dinner and then went back to our room. All during the trip we had tried to see the Northern Lights, on our own, and out on the 3 day tour Finnbogi did his best to keep abreast of the various forecast indicators as well as info from other tour guides, all with no luck. So we booked a Northern Lights Tour with Sterna Travel for tonight and try and see the lights, but they cancelled due to poor weather and low probability of seeing the Northern Lights. One of the reasons for our trip to Iceland was to hopefully see the Northern Lights. But it looks like that will not be the case. Still we had a great time and a lot of really unique experiences, some of which can only be done here in winter. Later we went to the Dubliner one more time and had a drink, then walked down by the harbor, picked up a hot chocolate and tried to see the Northern Lights for one last time. Still no luck, so we went back to the hotel and went to bed.
Thursday February 25 – We slept in as late as we could, to begin adjustment for the time change. We went straight to a late breakfast then back to the room to pack and prepare for our flight home. After getting ready, we checked out at 11am, and then left our luggage with Siggy, the hotel clerk/manager, and we went for one more casino/pylsur/pizza lunch. When we got back to the hotel we got our luggage and Cretia waited in the lobby whilst I went to a nearby Subway shop and picked up a sub for us to have as dinner on the flight. A little after I got back, we were picked up by the Flybus for our bus trip to Keflavik Airport. We went thru the Tax Refund claim very quickly, then got checked in for the flight, turned in our luggage and went thru security, customs and passport control, then to our gate for our flight home. This flight was full and left about 15 minutes late and was about 35 minutes late on arrival in Orlando. US Passport Control in Orlando was very disorganized, so it took longer than it seemed it should have. We finally got thru, got our bags, one last customs check then we had to catch the shuttle to the lot where we parked. Once there, we got our car and drove back to Tanya’s. With the time difference this was a very long day, we went straight to sleep.
GENERAL TIPS AND OBSERVATIONS – Even though Icelandic is their main language, almost everyone can speak English, so that made communication just about as easy as visiting an English-speaking country. We went in winter so we could experience many of the things we did, such as the Ice Cave Tour and also to increase our chances of seeing the Northern Lights, (which did not cooperate). Another reason was to visit at a time of year with less crowds and tourists. While we did accomplish that, although we thought the number of tourists was more than we had expected and in talking with several locals they confirmed that yes, over the last few years the numbers of tourists in the winter months has climbed significantly. Of course they said that compared to summer it is quite a bit less, but it’s not like you or your small group will be the only ones in most places you visit. As to winter and the weather, we followed all the good advice to have layers, thick wool socks and waterproof hiking shoes and we were never “way too cold”. This was helped by being fortunate to have had rather mild weather during our visit. All in all, a very enjoyable and exciting trip.