Tag Archives: iceland

A Wintery Week in Iceland: The Northern Lights

So after all of the posts and pictures of my fabulous trip to Iceland, the ultimate question remains: Did I see the Northern Lights? That is, after all, why I decided to brave the Icelandic winter and travel there in February.

And the answer is…

…weeeell, sort of.

Anti-climactic, I know.

During my overnight flight from Seattle to Reykjavik, during which I got a grand total of an hour of sleep, I spent some of my moments of wakefulness resting my head against the side of the airplane, looking out of my window into the inky black sky. Sometime around 2 am, I saw the faintest, most whispy of Northern Lights from the plane. They were faint enough that my eyes could not consistently capture their presence. And, although I was able to get a couple of pictures, even then the lights were ephemeral and transient, difficult to photograph. But see them I did, in the quiet moments of the early morning, in a plane full of sleeping people. For a few moments, I felt like they were all my own, the magical Northern Lights putting on a show just for me as I raced across a silent and dark planet.

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And that was it. The rest of the week, as each night approached, the clouds gathered, obscuring any opportunity to see the lights. Each day was tinged with a hint of disappointment as each night I lost another opportunity to see the lights. In that disappointment, I was reminded that travel is not always predictable and that there are certainly no guarantees. In fact, there are almost always things that go wrong, disappointments, and hard days. But that is also the beauty of it. Travel makes you choose: choose to see the beauty in the less-than-beautiful places, choose to enjoy the amazing parts of a day rather than dwelling on the things that do not happen (I’m talking about you, Northern Lights), choose joy in what you do rather than regret in what you do not. Travel, like life, is about the choices you make, especially when things get hard.

I say that to make the point that, despite not seeing the lights, I had a fantastic time. Of course, as I pondered this on the plane ride back, little did I know that my sense of peace in the face of challenges would be put to the test.

This has nothing to do with the Northern Lights, but it makes an amusing end to my stories of Iceland. Once back in Seattle, I had a 6 hour layover before my last flight home to Medford, where my boyfriend planned to pick me up at midnight. After burning time, it was finally 10 pm, time to board my plane and the announcement is made: my flight has been cancelled. Mind you, by this point I had been awake for over 24 hours, spent the day in two different countries, flown across several time zones, and eaten airport food for what seemed like days. I was not in an ideal emotional state. Apparently no flights were landing in or taking off from Medford.

As I waited in the line to rebook my flight while alternately calling my boyfriend and the airline, I felt like the best I could do was try to have a conversation without crying. This was complicated by the fact that I could not reach the person who was supposed to be picking me up from the airport. Despite my somewhat frantic calls and texts, my boyfriend, who, at that particular moment, I had to remind myself is actually a person whom I love, was apparently sleeping and unable to have a conversation about what I should do. You know, since he was the one picking me up from the airport and all. When I got to the ticket counter, I learned I had been rebooked on a flight. Tomorrow at 5 pm, almost 24 hours later. To put this in context, I could rent a car and drive home in about 6 hours. Option 1: Cancel my flight, rent a car and drive home (technically option 1 was the aforementioned flight, but as I said, not actually an option). Option 2: Catch a flight to Portland leaving in approximately 20 minutes (which my bag that I had checked on the way back due to liquid souvenirs a.k.a alcohol would not make), sleep in the airport (yuck!), then catch an early morning flight to Medford (which I later learned was also cancelled – I would’ve been stuck in Portland). Option 3: Catch a flight to Eugene in about an hour. Now Eugene is obviously not where I planned to be. Or where my boyfriend was planning to pick me up. But it is closer to home (honestly slightly closer than Medford) than either Seattle or Portland. So in my jet-lagged, exhausted, unable-to-talk-to-anyone-about-this-decision state, I chose option 3. Not necessarily the most logical choice, but the one that in the shortest amount of time got me the closest to home. I left a final voicemail detailing when and where I would be landing, confident that by the time I landed he would have some suggestion about how to get me home from Eugene.

The following text conversation occurred upon my landing:

Me: I’m here. In Eugene. Not sure what I’m going to do – I’ve thought about just taking a taxi to a nearby hotel, getting some sleep, and figuring out in the morning.

Boyfriend: Liar

Me: What??? (As I took deep, calming breaths to calm the quickly rising rage I was suddenly experiencing)

Boyfriend: You can’t trick a trickster.

Me: (emotional silence)

HE THOUGHT I WAS JOKING.

By some stretch of the imagination, he thought I was playing an elaborate prank on him, preying upon how much he had missed me the previous week.

I quickly disabused him of this notion with a mildly hysterical phone call, during which I outlined that I was, in fact, actually walking across the tarmac of the EUGENE AIRPORT while he was waiting for me at the (strangely silent, he realized) Medford Airport. Which was approximately 3 hours away. Did I mention it was midnight and that I had been awake for a really long time?

I just wanted to get home. So I decided to take a taxi. I had thought (hoped?) that my missed airport shuttle fiasco in Minnesota would be my most expensive taxi ride ever. I was wrong. At $250, this now became my most expensive taxi ride ever. Not really a record I want to break. But, I finally made it home around 2:30 in the morning with all of my belongings and my physical and emotional health generally intact. Plus, Brandon made up for the, um, misunderstanding, by picking up my dog so I could sleep in the next morning.

Perhaps my trip did not end in the best or most fun way. Travel is not always easy and certainly does not always go as planned. And yet, I love it. Less than a week after getting back, I was already planning my next trip (to Hawaii, for my birthday!!). Even when it is hard and exhausting and comically terrible, travel is worth it.

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Packing Update

Prior to leaving on my trip, I spent an extensive amount of time researching what to pack. And then writing about it. Now that I’m back, here is the update to how well my packing plan fared. I am pleased to say that I what I packed was just about perfect!

First the coat. It was exactly what I needed. It was warm, but also reasonably stylish. Which kind of mattered because I was wearing it in pretty much every.single.one of my pictures. Forget all the effort I put into picking out cute outfits. They were constantly covered up in the name of warmth and comfort.

Yeah, maybe I looked cute. But no one would know.
Yeah, maybe I looked cute. But no one would know.

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Yep, pretty much every picture looked like this. Not that what I looked like really mattered. Just check out that scenery!

Relatedly, if I was going to look the same in every picture, a colorful hat really make a difference.

Underneath all of the pants and shirts and coat and gloves were my handy thermals (linked here and here). These were literally a lifesaver. They were thin enough to easily fit under what ever I was wearing and perfectly regulated my body temperature. Although not cheap, these were worth every penny!

They are both the Smartwool's heaviest base layer, the MTS Mid 250. And they both kept me nice and toasty! I wore these daily. They were warm when I was outside and, because of the moisture wicking merino, did not make me sweaty when I was inside.
They are both the Smartwool’s heaviest base layer, the MTS Mid 250. And they both kept me nice and toasty! I wore these daily. They were warm when I was outside and, because of the moisture wicking merino, did not make me sweaty when I was inside.

Then there were the pair of waterproof pants I purchased.

DSC03480I only wore them once – during my glacier hike – but even so they were worth the space they took up in my suitcase. They kept me warm and dry. Again, the temperature regulation they provided was useful. Yes, a glacier may be literally freezing, but hiking on a glacier? That is going to work up a sweat.

My real success was my choice of shoes. I may brag a bit for a moment. I only packed two pairs of those – Sorrels and a pair of Crocs. The Sorrels were my day to day shoes and I wore them just about everywhere.

On ice and snow
On ice and snow
On the black sand beach
On the black sand beach
On a glacier (with crampons to make me look super legit)
On a glacier (with crampons to make me look super legit)
On the rocky surface of long-cooled lava
On the rocky surface of long-cooled lava

That being said, I loved having a second pair of shoes, something lighter to wear after a long day in boots, something easy to slip on and off in the airport, and they had a surprising amount of traction that allowed me to walk comfortably around the city of Reykjavik.

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And let’s not forget my new Kavu rope bag. Despite being loaded down with everything I would usually have in my purse, a book (okay, so technically that falls under the category of “things I usually have in my purse”), a water bottle (Icelandic water is great, so I could fill it up anywhere), and various other items needed for travel, it never felt heavy or awkward, even after a 3-hour hike or walking around for hours exploring the city. I continue to use the bag for my weekend hikes and cannot recommend it enough.

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For more details about exactly what I packed, please read my original post. One added note that I somehow overlooked originally – pack a swimsuit. Geothermal springs are an important part of the culture year round and are a relaxing way to enjoy Iceland. Otherwise, I fully stand behind my obsessively researched packing list!

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My final purchase was a new LifeProof case for my cell phone. It enabled me to take my phone everywhere, less worried about dropping it on the ice or into a hot spring while I took pictures or used FaceTime. It was a last minute, impulse buy, but I was thankful I had it.

One last thing I packed was a Tep Wireless Egg.

IMG_9381After seeing how convenient it was in South Korea (my friend Shannon had one), I thought I would give it a shot for my first really and truly solo trip. At $100 for the week (including delivery and return by mail – super convenient), for me it worth it to have consistent access to the internet. I could use Google Maps to find my way around, I could FaceTime my boyfriend from some really cool places, and I could stay connected with people back home (and by that I mean post cool Instagram photos) without depending on unpredictable wifi. I know that it may not be worth it to everyone, but for me, I was glad I had it.

Oh, and don’t forget an adapter, even if at the end of everyday, it means your nightstand will look something like this:

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So that’s my post-trip review of my packing list! There’s just one more question to answer: Did I see the Northern Lights?

A Wintery Week in Iceland: The Food

Now let’s get to my favorite part of pretty much, well, everything. The food. The mostly delicious, very seafoody food of Iceland.

I was not sure what to expect when it came to Icelandic food, although I did a bit of research beforehand into Reykjavik restaurants. I wanted to treat myself to a nice dinner out my first evening in Reykjavik. Because that’s what I do. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a fancy restaurant eating expensive food. Alone. I eventually settled upon Fiskfelagid, Fish Company.

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I was intrigued by the “Nordic fusion” menu, with recipes featuring global flavors made with Icelandic ingredients. The restaurant was cozy after a cold walk from my hotel, despite the sunshine still pouring through the windows.

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I began with an amuse bouche of Arctic char (very similar to salmon) and a hearty bread with citrus and dill butters.

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I followed this with the coconut fish soup – flavors of Fiji made with langoustine and monkfish.

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It was warm, tasty, yumminess. Seriously, I could have eaten just that and been perfectly content.

It was almost impossible to choose a main course, but I eventually settled on the flavors of Ireland – Arctic char served with a flavorful and colorful combination of pan-fried Icelandic lobster, scallops, apple chips, and melon balls, topped with dill vinaigrette (dill must grow like a weed in Iceland – it was in and on everything) and beer foam. 

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I enjoyed every single bite. So much so that I couldn’t even order dessert I was so pleasantly full. That is like a once in a lifetime event.

Of course, it is not like I had gone the whole day without eating. My first meal in Reykjavik had been the previously discussed Bakari Sandholt for an early, post-flight breakfast.

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And no trip to Reykjavik is complete without a stop at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur for what is perhaps the world’s most famous hot dog. I recommend ordering a hot dog, with the unique flavor derived from the addition of lamb, the classic way: ein med ollu (one with everything) – ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion, and remoulade made with sweet relish.

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It may not look like much, but it was delicious!

But the good eatin’ didn’t end in Reykjavik. Throughout my trip, I got to enjoy the best that Iceland had to offer. Delicious seafood, lamb, and skyr. One of my favorite stops of the trip was a cheese shop. Burid specializes in otherwise hard-to-find cheeses from around the world and all of the various things that can be served alongside.

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And upstairs there is a cheese school. The owner of the shop is passionate not only about cheese, but about the food history of Iceland. And she was hilarious.

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While we nibbled on cheese deliciously paired with Icelandic bread, fruit, vegetables, and even smoked lamb, we learned about the mostly gross and unvaried diet of Icelanders throughout much of the country’s history.

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There were simply no resources. And there was lots of winter. Which meant almost nothing could grow and anything that could grow or be killed had to be somehow preserved. Skyr, actually a cheese rather than a yogurt, was, and is, a staple of the diet. Served at any/every meal, usually with something sour or pickled (see the above mentioned lack of resources and winter), it is a surprisingly flexible product.

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Dessert was an absolutely incredible skyr parfait. The skyr was mixed with cream and topped with birch syrup, graham crackers, and strawberries. I may have licked the cup clean.

Although Icelandic food may have been, well, less than delicious for centuries, thankfully there have been improvements. Like global commerce and modern technology that has allowed geothermal power to fuel greenhouses that grow actual produce.

One of my favorite meals was a langoustine feast. Caught near the restaurant, the sweet shellfish are not exported – they are only available in this small seaside town.

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Just imagine the smell of garlic and butter. My mouth is watering as I type.
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It was obviously terrible

There was so. much. seafood. I ate seafood at least once a day – a fish soup, a salmon appetizer, a feast of crab and clams and prawns, a salmon and egg sandwich. It was all so good.

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When I was not eating seafood I was eating skyr. With breakfast, in a smoothie, just because.

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And then there’s Icelandic lamb, supposedly some of the best in the world. My last night in Iceland I had the opportunity to enjoy some served, as it often is, with potatoes and a béchamel sauce. Yum!

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Of course, the less palatable (at least to non-Icelanders) traditional foods are still available. Things like horse, fish flakes, and hakarl, which is fermented shark. Oh, and they eat puffins. Keeping up my tradition of eating gross things and taking pictures, I documented, with the help of one of my new friends, me trying harkarl. You are welcome.

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Feeling bad about my life choices and contemplating whether or not downing the rather strong Brennivin liquor would take away the horribleness of the hakarl. Spoiler: It didn’t. Shockingly, a drink called “black death” kinda just burned.

There were so many new and wonderful and, yes, not so wonderful, foods to try in Iceland. I didn’t even get to try Icelandic pancakes (ponnukokur) or black licorice (although I did bring chocolate covered licorice back for my office – it was a rather divisive choice of candy either staunchly hated or thoroughly enjoyed; I told them it could be worse) or birch beer. Food is one of my favorite ways to explore a new place and Iceland most certainly did not disappoint.

 

 

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Museums

I have a confession to make. I like museums. Which, let’s be honest, is probably not all that surprising. During my trip to Iceland, I had the opportunity to visit three museums and learn more about the history of Iceland.

Árnessýsla Heritage Museum – The House at Eyrarbakki

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Built in 1765, this is one of the oldest (still standing) houses in Iceland. It now houses a museum focused on the history of the house and the coastal town surrounding it.

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By far the weirdest thing in the museum was this set of clothing knit from the maker’s own hair. I wasn’t sure whether to be disgusted or impressed.

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Skogar Museum

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This was my favorite museum that I visited. I could have spent most of the day here. The collection of approximately 15,000 local artifacts was impressive for many reasons, not the least of which was that the items were all collected by or given to a now 94-year-old man. This is the personal collection of a man passionate about his region’s history.

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Our guide through the museum provided a fascinating history of the hardships faced by the Icelanders as they settled the country. It was a place that was beautiful, but brutal. To survive required hardiness and creativity – bowls made out of whale vertebrae, shoes made out of fish. Survival in this place was hard won.

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The oldest printed Bible in Iceland. Literacy for the average Icelander was common long before it became usual elsewhere in Europe. In fact, the ancient sagas were written by Icelanders for Icelanders, not by or for the elite few who could read. Literacy was the rule, not the exception. 
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Oh, and as a bonus, there was a super cute dog
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An askur is a traditional Icelandic bowl. Typically made of driftwood (because there were not many other options), the bowls were used for a bit of everything, only one of which was eating.
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Fish shoes wore out quickly, but knitted insoles lasted much longer, thus making them a traditional courtship gift from a woman to a man.

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Outside of the main building were other examples of Icelandic buildings, including traditional turf houses.

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If you stop here, and you should, definitely plan on spending more than the brief hour I had to spend.

Viking World

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As the name suggests, the museum is focused on the history of the Vikings and their role in settling Iceland (although the Nordic people came as setters and farmers, not raiders).

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The highlight of the museum is the Íslendingur. The two story exhibit of the Viking ship discusses the ship’s journey in 2000 to recreate the original Viking voyage of Leif Ericsson to Newfoundland.

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This museum is relatively small and does not take long to peruse, but provides a quick history that gives a greater context for understanding the early history of Iceland.

So, there you have it. A small handful of museum to consider visiting while in Iceland. With more time in Reykjavik, I would have also liked to visit the National Gallery, The National Museum, The Settlement Exhibition, and perhaps the Culture House or The Saga Museum. Another time…

 

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Land of Ice

As I talked about previously, Iceland is a place where the impact of the elements is easily seen. Shaped by fire, Iceland is also a land of ice. With 8 months of winter, learning how to walk in the snow is a needed skill throughout much of the year. February is certainly no exception. Despite the snow and ice, I managed to only fall once. And it wasn’t entirely my fault because I was distracted by someone walking around in a storm trooper costume. Yes, you read that correctly. I fell only once even though I sometimes manage to wear entirely inappropriate foot wear. It’s a gift.

In my defense, the itinerary said we visiting Parliament. Which I thought would be a building. As in a place with floors sheltered from the elements.
In my defense, the itinerary said we were visiting Parliament. Which I thought would be a building. As in a place with floors sheltered from the elements. And for the record, I wore these very shoes all over Reykjavik without slipping. It was wearing my Sorrel’s when I fell. So there.

I quickly learned that we were, in fact, not going to a building. Rather, Parliament referred to the Althing. Held every summer at Thingvellir, the snowy site that we visited, the ancient assembly was the Icelandic lawmaking system from 930 until 1798. When Iceland separated from Norway in 1844, the Althing relocated to Reykjavik. The scenery at the ancient site is incredible, another spot where the separation of tectonic plates is evident. Thingvellir continues to be an important site to Icelanders today. And, as an added bonus, it is also one of the many filming locations for Game of Thrones.

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Iceland is also home to many waterfalls, partially frozen in the cold February weather. I got to see some of the most well-known ones during my short trip.

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Gullfoss

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Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind when the weather is a bit warmer and the ground isn’t a solid sheet of ice

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Skógafoss

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Although I live in a place where I can easily and often hike to waterfalls, they never stop taking my breath away. They never cease to be wondrous.

Ice even showed up in unexpected places. Like the beach.

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And I have to talk about the horses. Not exactly ice related, but they did have their soft winter coats to insulate them from the cold. But they must be spoken of. Because this:

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And this:

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Seriously, they were incredibly gentle and friendly. And beautiful and soft. Apparently, Icelandic horses are born with a completely one-of-a-kind smooth gait found in no other horses in the world. It is important to remember that the horses have a very specific diet that includes the worst of the worst kind of grass. Their stomachs cannot handle good quality hay and foods like apples and carrots can be disastrous. So, please do not feed the horses. Content yourself with taking approximately 30 pictures of said horses instead. Or riding them, something I did not have the opportunity to do.

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Of course, sometimes one can get a bit tired of ice. When visiting Kerith Crater and given the opportunity to walk around the rim, as a group we began the walk before having the collective thought that it was cold and windy and that it would look exactly like an icy hole in the ground whether or not we walked all of the way around it. Not worth it.

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Perhaps in the summer…

One of the highlights of my trip was hiking on Solheimajokull glacier. You know it’s going to be an, ummm, interesting afternoon when your guide starts with “Here’s a harness. Put in on so that I can pull you out if you fall into a crevasse.” Fantastic. There were also crampons and an ice pick. Suddenly it felt like the “hike on a glacier especially designed for beginners” was not so amateur after all.

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Especially when this sign greets you as you step onto the glacier.

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Of course, there was some sense of relief when we saw the people way up on the glacier. Certainly we, the beginner hikers, were not going all the way up there. We would surely just get the short and scenic tour just long enough to be able to sound awesome by saying, “Yeah, I hiked on a glacier today. No big deal.”

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Yep, so didn’t happen that way. We did, in fact, go way. up. there. At each point of interest where we stopped to learn about the glacier and it’s ever-changing environment, I would think surely this is the place where we will stop and turn around. But no. Up we would go, slowly making our way across the icy surface of the glacier.

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At the end of the 3-hour hike, I was tired and a bit relieved to see the parking lot again.

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But I was also feeling pretty accomplished. I had climbed up and down the often steep surface of a glacier. I had walked through caves and tunnels made of ice. I had remained upright. It was not an easy afternoon, but then again, the most amazing and worthwhile things in life are rarely easy. Welcome to Iceland!

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Land of Fire

Iceland is a land constantly shaped by powerful forces – the land of fire and ice. During my trip, I was able to see this first hand. I relaxed in geothermal springs, I hiked on a glacier, I saw geysers erupt and now dormant volcanoes, I walked through ice and snow. All of it was beautiful and powerful.

The heat in Iceland can be both violent and wonderful. In the wonderful category are the geothermal waters that are used to create thermal baths. One such location that I enjoyed while on my trip was the Fontana Geothermal Baths.

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Located on the banks of Laugarvatn Lake, the multilevel baths offer multiple temperatures, as well as the opportunity to dip in the chilly lake if you’re overheated. Or crazy.

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There was also a sauna available.

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It was a lovely and relaxing way to spend an afternoon. With one exception. There is a certain set of bath etiquette in Iceland that can be somewhat, ummm, uncomfortable for certain (prudish) Americans. That would be the expectation that one showers unclothed in a group shower prior to putting on a swimsuit and entering the baths. I kept reminding myself that I would never see any of these people again. It was certainly worth the temporary discomfort in order to spend a leisurely hour soaking in the warm baths. The spring at the site of the Fontana Baths is one of three in the area. The coolest, Vígðalaug, is where the pagan Parliament of Iceland was reportedly baptized into Christianity in the year 1000. The warmest, Bláskógabyggð, is used for geothermal heating.

The other bath I visited is the not-to-be-missed Blue Lagoon. The water in the lagoon is the result of a byproduct of the nearby geothermal factory. Built into the lava bed, the lagoon waters combine fresh and seawater, as well as beneficial minerals, silica, and algae.

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The lagoon has been moved and expanded over the years to accommodate the factory and growing crowds that flock to the lagoon. There are multiple price options for enjoying the Blue Lagoon. My group got the Premium package. This included a towel and bathrobe, a drink from the swim-up bar, and the ability to use an algae mask in addition to the silica mask available to everyone.

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Upon check-in, you are given a band that corresponds with your package. It gives you access to the spa treatments and can be used to purchase additional services and drinks. Anything charged to the band is paid upon leaving.

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Also, there is wifi. Which allowed me to have the coolest FaceTime conversation ever. Sidetone, it is amazing that technology lets you share cool experiences with someone thousands of miles away.

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There are springs both large and small located throughout the country. I think that for a first time visitor to Iceland, visiting the Blue Lagoon is a must. It is a completely unique place and popular for a reason. Because of this, however, it was quite commercialized and crowded. Although the lagoon was large enough to accommodate the crowd without feeling packed, the number of people were quite evident in the dressing rooms. My preference was the smaller, more intimate Fontana. On a return trip to Iceland, I would probably forego the Blue Lagoon (although again, I think you should go at least once) for one of the many other geothermal springs. Regardless of where you decide to go in Iceland, definitely bring a swimsuit and find some warm water.

Although the water in Iceland can be pleasantly warm, it can also be destructively hot. Approximately 90% of the energy in Iceland comes from geothermal energy, heat harnessed for productivity. The evidence of it is visible in steam and in geysers. In water much too hot to bathe in. In water hot enough to boil water and cook food.

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One such geyser – Strokkur

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The water can even be hot enough to destroy roads when the activity below the surface unexpectedly shifts and makes its presence known above ground.

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One afternoon, I had the opportunity to take a tour with the family-owned Iceland Activities. What I loved about this tour was that it is a family who takes small groups of people to do the things that they love to do in and around their home town of Hveragerdi.

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Located in a volcanic zone, the town of Hveragerdi lives with the constant threat of a changing landscape. They average a major earthquake every 10 years, not to mention the frequent minor earthquakes. Case in point, the hot springs on the hillside that we hiked up with our guide opened up literally overnight due to an earthquake in 2008.

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At the top of the hillside, we had the opportunity to sit on the quite warm ground as we learned more about the springs, ate bread and eggs cooked in the springs, and sipped hot chocolate.

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It's all fun until you get sulphur steam in your face...
It’s all fun until you get sulphur steam in your face…

With a return trip to Iceland, I wouldn’t hesitate to use Iceland Activities to explore more of the area.

Iceland is clearly a country shaped by “fire,” although at times it can look deceptively like ice. Take for instance the now dormant Eyjafjallajökull (don’t ask me how to pronounce it – I’m still working on “godan daginn” – good morning).

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The volcano erupted violently a mere six years ago, the eruption bringing attention to Iceland as flights throughout the world were disrupted by the ash from the eruption.

Then there is the line between tectonic plates that runs the entirety of Iceland. Now visibly cooled, the space between the plates as they move apart continues to be filled with magma far below the surface.

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This evidence of how the world has been shaped and built is rarely seen above ground, most plates meeting below sea level. Throughout Iceland, this divide between the North American and Eurasian plates is easy to observe and provides a fascinating glimpse into the forces at work in and on the earth.

This is a land in which the forces of nature are readily apparent, visible, and a part of daily life. As much as heat has shaped the landscape, so has ice. In my next post I will share more about the other forces at work to create the magnificence that is Iceland.

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Hotels

During my time in Iceland, I had the opportunity to stay at three lovely hotels. Although I did not choose these particular hotels given that they were part of the tour package I booked (i.e., I did not spend hours exhaustively researching options before finding the perfect place), I would stay at each of them again.

Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina

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For my night in Reykjavik, I stayed at the stylish and quirky Icelander Hotel Reykjavik Marina. Located, as the name suggests, right next to the water, the hotel provides easy access to the marina and some of the best seafood restaurants in Iceland. When I arrived extra early in the morning (my flight got in before 7 am, after all), the front desk kindly stowed my bags and prioritized getting a room clean for me while I set out for breakfast. The major shopping streets of Reykjavik, discussed in my previous post, were about a 10 – 15 minute walk from the hotel. Although, perhaps even shorter if I did not have to walk gingerly in order to avoid slipping on the ice.

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Not only was my room fantastic, the hotel had great common spaces, including a small cinema and a library, and served a generous and delicious breakfast buffet that was included with my deluxe room. I loved everything about this place.

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Hotel Grimsborgir

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For the next three nights, I stayed in the absolutely gorgeous Hotel Grimsborgir.  Located in the dark and quiet Icelandic countryside along the famous Golden Circle, this hotel had a unique set up that was both my favorite and least favorite aspect of the stay: the hotel was not a single building. The main building housed reception and the restaurant, where dinner was available and where the breakfast buffet was served in the mornings.

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The hotel rooms were located in multiple buildings spread throughout the property. This meant that going to dinner or breakfast involved a beautiful walk through the snowy landscape.

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There were also many hot tubs on the property.

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DSC03057It also meant that going to dinner or breakfast meant an icy, cold, and slippery walk through the snowy landscape.

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It was always a bit of a relief to make it back to my room each night knowing I had made it another day without wiping out in the snow. It also probably helped that my room looked like this:

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DSC03016Getting to end each day in this hotel room with a hot bath or by curling up in the cozy chair for a FaceTime call with my boyfriend was wonderful. My patio was also a great spot to keep my eyes out for the northern lights while in my pajamas. The Hotel Grimsborgir was perfection.

Northern Light Inn

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This was my least favorite of the places I stayed. Most likely chosen because of the convenient location to both the airport and the Blue Lagoon, the Northern Light Inn was perfectly adequate, but could not possibly compare to the other places I stayed. The room was clean and comfortable, but missing the small touches such as blackout curtains (which would sort of seem necessary during the Icelandic summer) and fancy bathrooms (I sort of have a thing for nice showers).

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I cannot speak to the breakfast, because I slept too late to enjoy it, but the public spaces were spacious and provided a nice place to spend time after checking out of my room and before my shuttle to the airport on the last day of my trip.

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DSC03749Overall, I could not have asked for better places to stay while in Iceland. I would not hesitate to recommend each of them to anyone traveling in Iceland. I know not everyone gets excited about hotels, but if, like me, you enjoy staying in nice places, these are fantastic options.

 

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Reykjavik

I knew I wanted to go to Iceland. And I knew I wanted to see the northern lights. Like really wanted to see the northern lights. So, Iceland in winter it would be. After doing some research I settled on the small group tour Northern Lights in Style. Booked through Nordic Saga, the tour was operated by the large Icelandic tour company Guðmundur Jónasson Travel. The 6 day, 5 night tour seemed to offer everything I was looking for – nice hotels; the opportunity to try great, local food; someone to drive me around the icy roads of Iceland; the opportunity to see the northern lights; and an itinerary packed with seemingly amazing things. I will talk more about the specifics of the tour itself in a later post, but for now, booking this tour is how I ended up in a cold and snowy Reykjavik on a Sunday morning in February.

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland. In a country with a population of approximately 330,000, you can imagine that despite being the capital and the area in which the majority of Icelanders live, it is not a particularly large city. What it lacked in size, it more than made up for in color and character.

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As excited as I was about being in Iceland, after an overnight flight and a long day of travel, I needed all of the help I could get to stay awake.

Before the 8 hour flight from Seattle
Before the 8 hour flight from Seattle
After the 8 hour flight from Seattle. And the 45 minute Flybus transfer to the Reykjavik bus terminal. And taking a second bus to my hotel. And walking to breakfast. Travel is not glamorous.
After the 8 hour flight from Seattle. And the 45 minute Flybus transfer to the Reykjavik bus terminal. And taking a second bus to my hotel. And walking to breakfast. Travel is not always ever glamorous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After dropping off my bags at my hotel, I began to carefully tread the ice-covered sidewalks of the city. I marveled at the incredible sunrise as I made my way toward one of the city’s best bakeries. And toward coffee.

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DSC02769After savoring a croissant, skyr, and, yes, coffee at Bakari Sandholt, I spent the morning walking around the city.

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I could say that I had some super-specific plan to fit in as many of the city sites as possible into one day. Because I’m the type of person who usually has some super-specific plan. The reality however, is that I simply wanted to stay upright. Cold air and walking in combination with coffee seemed to do the trick for much of the day.

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Using this map, I found my way to the city pond. Mostly frozen over, the edge of the pond was warmed for the geese and ducks who call the pond home year round.

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When I was not simply enjoying the charming city of Reykjavik, I was probably shopping. I would not have much time in the city during this trip, so I made the most of my day Reykjavik even though many of the shops were closed because it was Sunday. I rambled along the shopping streets of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur. At the top of Skólavörðustígur sits the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, which I would get to explore further the following day. Side note: I would seriously love to hear how you are pronouncing the names of places in your head as you read them. Me? It sounds something like La*mumble,mumble* and Sko-blah-blah-blah and Hallawhattheheck? But maybe that’s just me.

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I even found my way to the weekend flea market, Kolaportið.

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Despite my most concerted efforts, I eventually could not resist the allure of an afternoon nap in my cozy hotel bed.

So tired
I was so very tired by this point in the day

Thankfully, I was still able to sleep that evening and be ready to meet my tour group the next morning. The day began with a city tour, including stops at Hallgrímskirkja and Perlan.

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My transportation for the week.

The Hallgrímskirkja was designed to mimic the basalt columns that develop from cooling lava. The church is known for its unique design and the large pipe organ it contains.

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There is a small fee to take the elevator to the top of the tower. It is well worth it for the unbeatable view of the city.

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The design of the church is lovely in its simplicity.

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DSC02879I even got all fancy and recorded the organ music, which you can listen to by clicking here: IMG_9455.MOV

One of the final stops before leaving the city was Perlan, or The Pearl. The building sits on a hillside and is visible throughout much of the city. The landmark building contains one of the best restaurants in Reykjavik, where I unfortunately did not get to eat, as well as an observation deck with a 360 degree view of the city.

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A day and a half was not nearly enough time in Reykjavik, but I enjoyed every minute of the jet lagged and caffeine fueled time that I spent there. It was the perfect place to begin my exploration of Iceland before leaving the city behind in hopes of seeing the northern lights. Would I be successful in this endeavor? Stay tuned to find out!

 

A Wintery Week in Iceland: An Introduction

I have struggled with where to begin. I obviously have little difficulty writing at length about all kinds of things, travel being one of them, but something about this trip has left me at a loss for words. What I expected, what I hoped for, what happened –  I am struggling to express any of it.

But sometimes you just have to dive in. And hope that you can even begin to do justice to the experience.

Over the months that I planned the trip, I was frequently asked, “Why Iceland?” That’s a great question. Unfortunately my best answer was, “Ummm, because it seems awesome…”

From the moment I landed in the country on a dark, cold, Sunday morning, I knew my answer, while inadequate, was also replete with truth. Awesome it was, in the truest sense of the word. Almost immediately upon my arrival, as the sun began to slowly spread its color and warmth across the snowy landscape, I began to appreciate the magic of Iceland.

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Beauty there is not fleeting. It is temporary, of course, as is all beauty, but it does not pass quickly. Iceland is a place where the sunrise lasts for hours rather than minutes, where waves crash relentlessly and endlessly against the rocky coastline, where mountains and glaciers experience the seemingly minutest of changes. It is a beauty meant to be savored.

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At the same time, it is a land constantly in flux. A land that has been and continues to be shaped by water and wind and earthquakes and volcanoes. A powerful place that is continually changing. At any moment, the landscape could be violently and irrevocably altered by the forces of nature.

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So that’s where I choose to begin. With beauty and change. With magnificence and power. And the hope that as I share more about Iceland in the upcoming weeks, I can even begin to communicate what an incredible place it is.

 

Packing for a Wintery Week in Iceland

For an update of how my packing list fared, check out this post from after my trip. 

I sort of like researching things. Now that I am no longer in grad school, that particular penchant often gets redirected toward researching trips and what to take with me when I go. With an upcoming trip to Iceland on the books, I had the perfect excuse to exhaustively Google search “packing for winter in Iceland” and then subsequently determine which products to pack and purchase for my trip. In case you are in need of this particular piece of information (or have another cold weather European trip planned), I wanted to share the results of my labor.

My goal is to be warm and yet be able to fit it all in a carry-on. Because I am going to Iceland, in winter no less, one of my first purchases was a new coat. I wanted to find something that would both keep me warm, but also be reasonably stylish for the fashion conscious (if uniquely so) city of Reykjavik.

DSC02738Enter the Columbia Carson Pass II Jacket. Nice and warm with Columbia’s Omni-Shield technology? Check! Stylish enough with a removable faux-fur hood and perfectly placed belt? Check! I even had the opportunity to take the coat for a couple of test runs during my recent trip to South Korea and an especially cold weekend in Bend.

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I’m happy to say the coat has been exactly what I was looking for at a reasonable (all things considered) price.

A couple of other items on my “must have for Iceland” list were a set of thermals and a reasonably good-looking pair of warm and waterproof pants. I eventually settled upon Smartwool merino wool thermals (both a top and bottom) and a pair of Columbia Fierce Force pants.

They are both the Smartwool's heaviest base layer, the MTS Mid 250. And they both kept me nice and toasty! I wore these daily. They were warm when I was outside and, because of the moisture wicking merino, did not make me sweaty when I was inside.
They are Smartwool’s heaviest base layer, the MTS Mid 250. According to reviews, these should keep me warm when outside, but not be suffocatingly warm when I’m spending time inside. Because my plans will involve days where dressing for both will be needed, these merino wool thermals seemed like the perfect purchase.
I wanted a nice, neutral color that would not scream "ski pants" when my itinerary took me from being outside to somewhere less wintery, like a museum. On my glacier hike, these pants kept me warm and dry.
I wanted a nice, neutral color that would not scream “ski pants” when my itinerary took me from being outside to somewhere a bit more sophisticated, like a museum. I will definitely be wearing these warm and waterproof pants the day I go glacier hiking!

I also want to minimize the number of shoes that I pack. Things I need include something warm, waterproof, appropriate to wear in the city and while hiking, and that will look good with various types of pants (I’ve got priorities, after all). I eventually settled upon a pair of Sorel Caribou boots.

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DSC02727So far, I am in love. They are comfortable, waterproof, and look great with jeans. Thanks to a removable lining, the warmth of the shoes can be adjusted. With the liner, the shoes are rated down to -40 degrees. Cozy! These will also come in handy as I work on my Oregon Bucket List.

I also just ordered a pair of new Crocs that were well reviewed and most certainly do not look like Crocs. Although at the moment I am slightly horrified that I just typed the preceding sentence, these seem perfect for the plane and for a day spent walking around Reykjavik. According to everything I have read, they are surprisingly warm due to a fuzzy lining and hold up great to a day of walking. Plus, these seem a little easier to slip on and off at the airport and the geothermal springs I will be visiting than do the Sorel boots.  Taken together, I will be able to wear one pair and pack one pair, which goes a long way toward fitting everything in a carry-on.

My final purchase, which I was also able to test drive in South Korea, was a new Kavu rope bag. A fortuitous compromise between by desire for fashion and my boyfriend’s commitment to function, this bag is everything. I would not necessarily take it somewhere I was concerned about pickpockets, although it could certainly be turned around if needed, but otherwise, this bag is amazing. It can be worn all day without causing my shoulder to hurt. The weight of the bag, even when fully packed, is so well-distributed that it does not feel heavy at all. I had such a great experience with this bag that I recommended it to a friend who recently had shoulder surgery. It was the first bag she found that did not hurt her shoulder. Plus, the multiple zippers help to conveniently and efficiently keep everything organized and easy to find.

DSC02737So with all of these new purchases, how do I plan to put it all together? The following (plus pjs, undies, cosmetics, and few non-valuable accessories) will be packed into my carry-on bag.

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Five shirts that can be worn in various combinations, wool socks, a couple scarves (one of which is a very warm wool scarf), waterproof pants, black pants, skinny jeans, thermals, and a tank top for layering
The boots went in first
The boots go in first
And the carefully packed e-bags, pjs, and cosmetics fit on top
And the carefully packed e-bags, pjs, and cosmetics fit on top
With a fully packed bag, you may wonder where I planned to fit the inevitable souvenirs. My solution is to pack an extra duffel bag. Depending on how much I purchase, my purse and souvenirs can both fit in the bag (which is still small enough to be considered a "personal item"), allowing me to just fly carry-on on the way home or I can check my suitcase and carry-on the extra bag and my purse.
With a fully packed bag, you may wonder where I plan to fit the inevitable souvenirs. My solution is to pack an extra duffel bag. Depending on how much I purchase, my purse and souvenirs can both fit in the bag (which is still small enough to be considered a “personal item”), allowing me to just fly carry-on on the way home or I can check my suitcase and carry-on the extra bag and my purse.

And finally, this is what I will wear on the plane.

Jeans, bulky sweater, black flats, my coat (which can double as a pillow), cute hat (tucked into my Kavu bag), gloves (tucked into the coat pockets), my bag, and last, but certainly not least, the oh-so-sexy compression socks that have completely improved the flying experience for me
Jeans, bulky sweater, black flats (which will be my new Crocs), my coat (which can double as a pillow), cute hat (tucked into my Kavu bag), gloves (tucked into the coat pockets), my bag (which is incidentally already holding my passport because I woke up in a cold sweat last week due to a nightmare about getting to Iceland without my passport – terrifying!), and last, but certainly not least, the oh-so-sexy compression socks that have completely improved the long distance flying experience for me (don’t knock it ’til you try it…)

So that’s it folks, all the things, both old and new that I intend to take with me to Iceland. Once I get back, I will update this post with how my choices hold up to the cold, wet, and often windy Iceland winter!