The morning drive out of Grundarfjordur was pretty dreamy. The morning light shining through the clouds created a kind of magic with the reflection of the water that seemed like a cool toned watercolor. Hues of pale blue and pink along with silvery water made a calming contrast against the steadfast mountains and shoreline as we drove east out town.
We took a new road out, heading into the highlands of central Iceland and toward our first and only booked tour. We had previously thought that we would do a guided glacier trek or some ice climbing but due to the weather in southern Iceland our schedule got put off. Traveler true, traveling in Iceland means go with the flow, in this case the lava flow, badum cha! (obviously a Matt sentence).
So our one and only tour was of the Víðgelmir cave, the largest known lava tube in Iceland. Lava tubes are formed by lava flowing through previously cooled lava beds creating subsurface pathways, some large enough to walk though. Other than being the largest known tube in the area, it became a preserved location, pristine and “guarded” by the owners of the land. This meant we would be touring with the utmost carefulness in order that many generations of peoples may have the same pleasure of viewing such a beautiful rarity.
Haldor, was the most recent in a long line of guardians and owners of the lava tube and surrounding farm land. He can trace his lineage all the way back to the Vikings who originally settled Iceland. Most Icelanders can as they take pride in their distinct heritage. He was by far a perfect host and guide. He explained his farm and how he had started hosting artists from around the world in a residency type structure. The concept and his general awesome attitude toward nature and travel was very much an inspiration for Matthew and me and we will always remember him.
Geared up with hard hats, head lamps and of course our walking crampons, we descended into the snow-covered tube. The entrance was caved in, offering just a touch more light before we descended into complete darkness. As the cave is closed through the heavy part of winter, we happened to be the first ones in this season. We slid down into the cave as Haldor led the way and created an actual slide in the snow. Once down we took care to limit our impact. This meant hands in and sturdy foot placements as to not trip and fall into the delicate sidewalls of the lava tube.
Once inside, we beheld the mystical world of the “Ice Elf Palace”, as referenced by Haldor. Icelanders have a rich history of elfish folklore and we just happened upon one of the great kingdoms, where it’s said that the ice stalagmites house invisible elves. We painted the kingdom with the light from our headlamps and Matt tried to expose the secret world and perhaps capture one of the illusive beings on film.
In the quiet and still of the lave tube I remembered how it was originally formed with searing hot lava. Ice now grew from the ceiling and floor where once one of the most violent of earth’s forces flowed. Iceland is Iceland because of volcanic eruptions, lava is its blood and we were walking through one of its veins. On the surface I had felt overwhelmed by the ocean, feeling its seemingly sage and timeless force, but below I felt just overwhelmed by Iceland, by what it was made of, by what exists today where nothing could exist before. Good tour.
We left the lave tube, Haldor and his farm, feeling inspired and more in touch with Iceland. Our time here was wrapping up. We had one place left to visit, the capital, but of course on our way to our final destination we had to stop for a few more waterfalls. Couldn’t get enough.
We arrived in Reykjavik in the late afternoon and checked into our guesthouse. We were situated downtown and across from the beautiful Reykjavikurtjorn, a pond that was frozen now and surrounded by brightly colored houses. We checked the northern light tracking map and decided that since it would be overcast we would wait till the next night, our last night, to search for the Aurora Borealis. So this night would be fine dining, music and nightlife. First though, some hot sulfuric showers and some lounging in the bathrobes that our guesthouse had provided. I didn’t mention but as much of Iceland’s energy comes from thermal energy, the water, at least in southern Iceland, is slightly stinky… Or was it just Matt? It does the trick though and I had the feeling that my skin was softer after those eggy showers.
All fancied up, makeup and curled hair, which was a first for Matt, we set out on foot to Snaps, a European style eatery. We felt as we did in other downtown cities, surrounded by a happy bustle, with smart cocktails in hand. While we waited for a table, we discussed the tipping protocol, or lack thereof, with the bartender. He explained that they just don’t do it, they are paid well and they typically won’t accept anything above and beyond. As the cost of everything seemed to be higher in Iceland we were a bit grateful that we would not need an additional 20 percent this evening. Habits die hard though.
Our dinner was fabulous. We gorged ourselves on fresh seafood, mussels, a cioppino-like stew and french fries. We stuck with whiskey cocktails as I had had little luck with wine so far. We could have forgot we were in a foreign land until we were happily reminded by our waitress who told us the customary Icelandic cheers, Skal! Folklore says that the Vikings used to drink mead form the skulls of their enemies and thus it was passed down as a salutation. Upon rudimentary fact checking we learned the word actually means, “bowl” and you cheers as an offering by emptying your bowl in a friend’s name. But still, if an Icelander says it’s from the practices of the Vikings, we’re down. Skal!!! Great meal, great service and as such we left our own American tradition in the form of some Alexander Hamilton’s.
We headed out for some local music and hopefully some good draft beers. Iceland boasts a hearty local music scene and has produced many successful bands, again check out Sigur Ros. I had done some pre-screening prior to leaving the states and picked out Café Rosenberg. We arrived to a full house and a bouncer at the door turning everyone away. I should have known better. In any good music town, spaces fill up quick and you have to be early. Oops and bummer. We turned away and began some fruitless meandering.
We found a Beatles themed bar; it was the last choice after walking block after block, and feeling like we were not in the know and in the wrong part of the city. Being from Denver, with a beautiful music scene, I am well aware that the best music is surely found on the fringes of the city and not in the heart. It wasn’t the worst landing spot though. The crowd inside was mostly locals, which with all the tourist activity outside seemed a little surprising. They were friendly, very talkative and eccentric. The band, obviously a Beatles cover band, was entertaining and brought a bit of a following. We stayed until we could stay no more.
Our next and last landing spot was a Big Lobowski bar, a complete tourist joint. We gave in. We knew this was our one night out in Reykjavik. I’m certain there are marvelous places to grab a drink, listen to music or whatever but we just couldn’t walk that far or ask any more locals. When I say we gave in, I mean it. The bar was blasting American classic hits, which we belted out with a strange homeland enthusiasm and liquid courage. Urethra Franklin came on and I just lost it. We felt a little old comparatively, a little poofy in our winter coats and so what the heck? Who cares? I’ll sing loud if I want to. We toasted (skaled?) over some shots of Brennevin, the local liquor and a sure-fire body warmer. We danced, awkwardly in our coats until our internal clocks said it was bedtime.
The walk home was fun. Matt was a gentleman and gave me his arm as we walked along the icy streets. Too bad he had awesome, not actually awesome, boots without any traction and lost his balance, pulling us hard to the ground. It was ok though as a friendly cat came by to makes sure I was ok and asked for me to pick him up. Feline therapy.
The next morning was no yoke, we were moving slow, so we had breakfast in bed (eggs) and some long eggy showers. We decided to take it easy and stroll the city, picking up some gifts for the family, however, I’m gonna give it away and say the pinnacle of the day, maybe the trip, was the night. We had been on the lookout for the northern lights, had checked the Internet tracker daily and looked continuously at the night’s sky every chance we could. That night, our last night, the prediction was looking good and we were in the right part of the country. We decided we would set out at sunset and stay out as long as it took.
We left the city and the lights that might hinder our view. We ventured to the southland as eager as I can ever remember being. It didn’t take long and then Bingo. What seemed to be a long wispy cloud turned a vibrant green and ribboned out across the sky. We obviously freaked out and were absolutely giddy, grabbing at each other and exclaiming our gratitude to God, you might know it as OMG. As we drove, the night deepened and the lights brightened, so striking and unmistakable.
We wondered what we would think of them if we hadn’t known what they were. Would it be the end of time? Would they be proof of magic? The northern lights were alarming even when knowing the science.
We decided to stop driving on the off chance that they disappeared and we would loose the chance to really take it in peace and silence. The sky grew in color with a new stream of neon green jutting out from behind a mountain. It was beautiful and it was strange in such a fascinating way. I will say this now; do what you can to see the Aurora Borealis in your lifetime. Find them. Chase them, they’re worth it.
We got in the car and decided to keep driving. We drove up to Pingvellir again hoping to get an unobstructed view. We passed the over sized tourist buses and dozens of people crowded together with there cameras out. We kept going. We found an empty spot in the park and stopped again. At this point the lights were waning and even went away for a time. Despite this we stayed, we weren’t satiated. The lights turned on and we were dumbfounded yet again. It was an ideal way to spend our last night in this magical country.
We drove home full, complete and slightly sad. It didn’t feel like the time to go. It kinda felt like the time to buy a house on a farm, get some Icelandic ponies, brush their hair and make some stew. We had seen so much but so much was left and other seasons too. Our little traveler feet wanted to keep stepping and moving through this hearty county. It was bittersweet.
The next day was packing and a last minute stop on the way to the airport. We had missed our chance to take a dip in one of the many countries hot springs, so we figured that the Blue Lagoon would have to suffice. The Blue Lagoon is a manmade hot spring, heated by a large thermal energy plant. We were aching for some last minute relaxation before our 7-hour flight.
Upon arrival, the production was far grander than we had expected. The packed parking lot was a good indicator of its popularity and warranted a little preemptive pessimism about getting in. As soon as we walked in, a uniformed host asked us if we had reservations. We didn’t. In short this meant we wouldn’t be getting in. We underestimated the Blue Lagoon. The building was equipped with floor to ceiling windows, letting us view the warm, steaming comfort we were missing out on.
We decided to grab a drink at their café and take a little more time in Iceland, even if it was at another busy spot that just didn’t have room for us. Don’t underestimate Iceland. We flew in thinking we were brave for going in winter, but were schooled by all the others who were also brave but additionally prepared with all their research and fancy reservations.
Despite our few blunders our trip was so so complete. In hindsight, we have reflected on the ways we could have improved as planners and as more mindful travelers. Throughout our posts we have frequently referred to Travelers Trues, which are lessons learned as well as what we did successfully. We have highlighted these for those of you who are considering a similar trip.
To restate and to add to this list our Travelers Trues for traveling to Iceland, especially in winter are:
1. Be flexible. Iceland has extreme weather, be prepared to wing it.
2. Buy walking crampons. You will be speeding around, even in severely icy conditions, passing other tourists that look at you like you have superpowers.
3. Research. We would recommend dedicating time prioritizing your destinations and determining good times to go based on crowds, if you need reservations, and if there are seasonal restrictions. Example, the Blue Lagoon and Café Rosenberg.
4. Duty Free. If you’re on a budget, alcohol is very expensive and the cost savings is worth it.
5. Buy groceries. This is true for most international travel but really worth it in Iceland where prices of food are extremely high.
6. Stay in guesthouses with continental breakfast or plan to make your own. Iceland is similar to many European countries where eating out for breakfast is not part of the culture.
7. Pay for the 4-wheel drive and studded tires are wise as well.
As a final statement on our lessons learned, many of Iceland’s natural attractions are very accessible from the Ring Road and other main roads. Tours are not necessary if you prefer to be in control of your schedule or if you’re on a budget. Although some areas and activities require a guide, rightly so, as Iceland is still new to tourism and there are not handrails and footpaths at every turn.
Iceland exceeded our expectations and as we left we knew, and know still, that we will be back. The country is home to a raw nature where so many of earth’s major forces meet to create a beautiful unyielding landscape. The forces are wild, the ocean, waterfalls, thermal activity, wind, and the overwhelming imparting sense was awe and humility. See ya soon Iceland, you’re totally rad, we miss you already.
Well that was the last stop and that, family, friends and others interested, was our trip to Iceland.