Thursday, March 9, 2017

Iceland - Reykjavik and more

Langoustine at Fjorubordid, Gullfoss Waterfall, Harpa Concert Hall, Strokkur geyser
Langoustine at Fjöruborðið, Gullfoss Waterfall,
Harpa Concert Hall, Strokkur geyser

In October 2016, my husband Mike and I were parents to a toddler when we decided to go on a much needed vacation. Without her. We've each traveled a decent amount so we selected Iceland and since we were going to be on that side of the Atlantic we decided to also head down to Portugal. Luckily we were able to make plans with friends in both countries so we knew our trip would be extra fun!

We priced flights from San Francisco to our destinations and it turned out 2 roundtrip flights were cheaper than multi-city flights. We booked the following flights:
  • SFO-KEF direct
  • KEF-LIS (layover in CDG)
  • LIS-KEF (layover in LGW)
  • KEF-SFO direct
Coming back we didn't want to fly from Lisbon-London-Reykjavik-San Francisco all in one day so we spent an extra day in Reykjavik at the end of the trip. It actually worked out well because we had time to enjoy ourselves at the Blue Lagoon. Our final itinerary:
  • Reykjavik, Iceland: 5 days
  • Lisbon, Portugal: 4 days (including a day trip to Sintra)
  • Reykjavik, Iceland: 1 day

Iceland
We had heard how expensive Iceland was so we didn't get a huge shock as we were trip planning but I must say I did a few double-takes when I saw how expensive meals were when we were actually there. I thought for sure we spent more on food than we did on lodging but I was surprised by the final tally. Here's a breakdown of our entire trip budget:

Iceland budget
Iceland budget

Observations about Iceland
  • WOW Air was great We minimized costs by paying for only one piece of checked luggage and we didn't pay to pick our seats ahead of time. We sat together on the way there but were separated on the flight back - pretty good for not reserving exact seats. The plane was bare bones but roomy and comfortable. Bring your own food and water as they charge €3 a bottle. Ice is free.
  • KEF Airport is expanding Tourism to Iceland is booming and the airport is expanding to accommodate an influx of travelers. Currently 4.5 million travelers move through KEF airport and that number is expected to double to 9 million by 2040. The airport was very much under construction and the 4 window passport checkpoint was backed up when we were there but I'm sure all the efforts underway will make traveling through KEF a breeze in the next few years. If only they could do something about the transit options into Reykjavik.
  • Transportation options are limited Uber and Lyft don't operate there and there are no city transit options from KEF airport to Reykjavik. Aside from renting your own car, you can only get to Reykjavik via FlyBus, Gray Line, or taxi and all options are pretty expensive. On top of that, FlyBus and Gray Line only stop at certain guesthouses or hotels. If you stay in an Airbnb like we did, you'll have to look on the FlyBus or Gray Line websites and use Google Maps to figure out the closest stop to your Airbnb.
  • Don't let rude people ruin your vacation I thought people were generally friendly but I found the FlyBus personnel to be pretty rude. They interact with tourists daily and they must get a ton of questions but it still doesn't excuse their poor attitudes. They act like they're doing you a favor which I really dislike. Why work in the service/hospitality industry if you're going to have an attitude? They offer little to no explanation of their bus system and they're dismissive when you ask for more details.
  • Leave your umbrella at home The wind you encounter will turn your umbrella inside out and probably tear it from your hands! The wind hits you with such force that it's almost comedic. You'll almost feel like you can take off flying if you weren't trying so hard to avoid getting blown into the street.
  • Pack some rain gear Depending on when you go, it might make sense to splurge on some waterproof gear. We packed thick ski pants but I wish I brought some lightweight rain pants for the days we walked around town. I just wanted something I could slip on over a few layers (thermals and jeans). These Columbia storm pants would've been perfect.
  • Pack efficiently Airfare is cheap but WOW Air tacks on additional fees for checking in luggage. We made sure to check in only one piece which really pushed my packing skills. I've gotten better at packing the more I've traveled. I use the roll method and I'm able to pack a ton of clothes into a small carry-on. These Eagle Creek packing cubes have made packing even easier. I use the large cube for most of my clothes, the medium cube for toiletries, and the small cube for socks and underwear. No more hunting around for my stuff! Check out some YouTube videos for expert packing tips.
  • When given a choice, choose to pay in Icelandic krónur Some establishments will give you a choice to pay in isk or your home currency. This practice is known as Dynamic Currency Conversion and it's a financial "service" that is offered by third party operators to Visa and MasterCard credit card holders, not offered by the credit card companies themselves. DCC is supposed to help consumers understand charges in their home currency but what establishments may not tell you is that you will pay a markup for choosing your home currency. So you can see the charge and pay for it in you home currency but would you want to pay a fee to do so? I struggle to see what the "service" is. We were charged a 3.5% markup when we paid for dinner in USD one night. Never again!
  • No need to bring Icelandic krónur or even get cash from ATMs Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere. We took out a little bit of cash and struggled to spend it. I read that you can even use your credit card for pay toilets. Try to get a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees, of course. :o)
  • Everything is expensive It wasn't uncommon to spend US$50 on lunch for 2 (didn't even include alcohol). I stopped looking at the price after a while otherwise I wouldn't have done or eaten anything.
  • Food was underwhelming Aside from maybe a dish or two, I didn't think the food in Iceland was very good. It wasn't anything special, especially given the price! Just to give you context, my favorite cuisines are Thai and Vietnamese. I love bold, fresh, and vibrant flavors. One of the things I look forward to most when I travel is to taste all the flavors of a country's cuisine. I think the flavor that stood out most to me was... salt. There weren't any discernible spices otherwise. Likewise, I found the raw ingredients used and the way the food was prepared to be pretty ordinary. :oI
  • Bring your own water bottle Iceland has some of the best-tasting water in the world. You can drink straight from the tap and get your bottle filled anywhere. I love these klean kanteen bottles - I bring mine on every trip. They come in a variety of colors and sizes so find one perfect for you!
  • Get ready to get naked We went to Fontana Wellness Spa and the Blue Lagoon to stew in some natural (and geothermal powered) hot water. Before getting in the water you have to shower without your bathing suit on, sometimes in communal showers. When in Iceland, do as the Icelanders do and get naked without even thinking twice. You're just a quick shower away from a relaxing soak!
  • Get used to the smell of rotten eggs Depending on where you stay, your hot water may smell of sulfur which is totally expected due to the geothermal origins of the hot water. The hot water in our Airbnb shower had a super strong sulfur smell and it completely tarnished my silver jewelry. The cold water also smelled bad but it didn't stop me from drinking out of the tap. I didn't notice sulfur in other places so I think it might be geography specific.
  • Have a backup excursion plan The weather in Iceland changes very frequently. 2 of our 3 excursions were canceled due to unfavorable weather conditions and volcanic activity. Even our Northern Lights tour was canceled 3 times. Sometimes you won't find out about the cancelation until the night before. Have a backup plan in case your first choice excursion is canceled.

Day 1: Reykjavik

One of the reasons we wanted to go to Iceland was to see the Northern Lights. Just a few days before we arrived, street lights in downtown Reykjavik were shut off to let the people in the city enjoy the light display. We hoped the light show would continue in time for our arrival. Unfortunately conditions were never that good while we were actually there but we were lucky enough to see a display during our flight! We took these pictures with a long exposure ~6 seconds. I blocked out the plane cabin lights by holding a jacket over my husband's head and camera while he took these. Interestingly you couldn't see them with the naked eye. The "lights" just looked like a gray haze. I took some photos with my iPhone and nothing came out. Womp womp.


Northern Lights from our WOW Air flight

Northern Lights from our WOW Air flight

Northern Lights - Doesn't that look like a devil tail?

Northern Lights - Doesn't that look like a devil tail?

We flew on WOW Air and landed at KEF at 4:10am (the only direct flight from San Francisco). While I was planning the trip I researched what we could do after landing so early in the morning. Believe it or not there are a few blog posts about where to go to wait out your time. We almost considered it since the airport shuttle bus departs at all hours, however, most hotels or Airbnbs don't allow check ins until much later. And besides, I'm too old for that. The thought of wandering around freezing cold downtown Reykjavik with our luggage and huddling in some coffee shop to wait until 3pm just didn't appeal to me.

Instead, I booked a night at the Bed and Breakfast Keflavik Airport because I knew that after 9 hours of travel I'd want to take a nap in an actual bed. They offer free pickup from KEF 24 hours a day so I jumped on the airport wifi and emailed them after we arrived. They came about 15 minutes later to collect us. FYI Joe and the Juice (a coffee and juice bar) is open at 4am in the airport!

The Bed and Breakfast Keflavik Airport hotel appears to be a converted former army dormitory. It was bare in decoration but was still pretty comfortable and roomy. We booked a room for 2 and ended up being put in 2 adjoining rooms that had 8 beds! Paid about $105/night. Read reviews of Bed and Breakfast Keflavik Airport on TripAdvisor.

We slept for about 4 hours and then made it downstairs for free breakfast before it ended at 10am. Breakfast featured pancakes, an assortment of bread, cold foods such as eggs, deli meats, fruit, an assortment of yogurt, cereal, juice, milk, coffee, and tea. After we ate, we packed up, and took a free shuttle back to KEF airport.

We went to the FlyBus counter to buy shuttle bus tickets from KEF to Reykjavik. I wanted to book round trip tickets at 5000isk/person to save some money. I knew that the shuttle bus only stops at certain hotels and guesthouses so ahead of time I found a guesthouse that was about 100 ft away from our Airbnb. Perfect! We walked up to the the counter and I told them that I wanted roundtrip tickets. The agent asked where we were staying and I told her the guesthouse but then my husband said, "We're actually not staying there. We're staying at an Airbnb near it." I gave him a stern look that screamed "SHUT UP!" but it was too late. The agent then said that she couldn't sell us roundtrip tickets and that we needed to call them to book our return trip. We had no phone so we wouldn't be able to do that. It made absolutely no sense to us. Did that mean that people without phones couldn't book returning bus tickets? That would be a lot of people. Mike thinks it's because FlyBus needed us to call them to confirm the pickup time (it would've been 3am for our 6am flight). I doubt it and just think she wanted to give us a hard time. Does anyone know? Anyway, we ended up getting 2 one-way tickets to that guesthouse at 3000isk/US$27.50/person. Aurgh. Strike 1 against FlyBus.

We loaded our luggage on FlyBus and took our seats. The ride to Reykjavik would take about an hour and I knew that I had about 10 minutes before the bus would leave so I asked if I had time to use the bathroom (there wasn't one on board). The bus attendant looked at me, sighed, and told me to be quick. I took off for the terminal like I was on the Amazing Race. I raced downstairs and peed like my life depended on it. I ran back to the bus. And waited. And waited another 15 minutes before we departed. So much for ME needing to be quick. Strike 2 against FlyBus.

FlyBus contracts out to Reykjavik Excursions so their process was:
  • One trip from KEF to BSI Bus Terminal on a large charter bus
  • Transfer to a small van which takes you to your hotel or guesthouse. Each van makes multiple stops to hotels/guesthouses around a certain area.
  • Total transit time is about an hour
Keep in mind, no one explained this process to us. We were just given 2 tickets when we boarded and they make you disembark at BSI Bus Terminal. You figure out what to do by watching other confused travelers who are watching you. Somehow everyone manages to grab their luggage from the cargo holds and get sorted to smaller vans (that's what the second ticket is for) to continue the journey. Strike 3 against FlyBus.

After getting settled into our Airbnb our first order of business was to eat lunch, get access to wifi so we could contact the host to get the Airbnb wifi password (what good host doesn't provide it either in the house notes or in the house itself?!), get oriented with the downtown area, and pick up some breakfast items for the next few days. We had an unremarkable lunch at a forgettable place which came out to US$60! It was so bland that I don't even want to mention the name of the restaurant. I was floored. It would be hard getting used to spending that much money to eat just ordinary and in some cases, sub-par food. Yikes.

We made our way to Hallgrimskirkja and along the way stopped for a cinnamon roll (490isk/US$4.30) at Braud & Co and a latte (650isk/US$5.68) at Reykjavik Roasters. Hallgrimskirkja was closed for a wedding ceremony so we had to come back another day.

Laugavegur Street
Laugavegur Street

Our Airbnb was near a supermarket chain called Bonus (their mascot is a pink piggy bank) so we stopped in to buy shampoo (none provided by our Airbnb host), snacks, and breakfast items. We left with 2 types of skyr and biscuits. I guess we'd have a light breakfast. :o) FYI - I also managed to do some price comparisons between Bonus and another market called 10-11 and Bonus was more affordable for almost everything.

In the evening we wandered around Laugavegur Street and ended up at Lækjarbrekka. The menu looked delicious - we wanted to try so many things! It had a romantic atmosphere with low light and nice service. I thought the food was decent but I wouldn't say it was spectacular, especially considering how expensive it was. Read reviews of Lækjarbrekka on TripAdvisorWe ended up ordering:
  • Cream of langoustine 2950isk
  • Arctic char 4100isk
  • Icelandic fish stew plokkfiskur 3800isk (it came with rye bread!)
  • Total of 10850isk/US$97.65
Plokkfiskur at Lækjarbrekka
Plokkfiskur at Lækjarbrekka

On our way back to our Airbnb we stopped by a convenience store called 10-11 so that I could check out the snacks. I love seeing the flavors of chips in every country that we visit! Check out those Doritos - what's Cool American Flavor??

Checking out the chips
Checking out the chips

Local snacks
Local snacks

We were scheduled for a Northern Lights tour on our first night but it was canceled. We booked it with a company that would reschedule the tour a total of 3 times and would offer a full refund if it was unsuccessful. We ended up getting our money back after the tour was canceled 3 times. We were so bummed that the weather didn't cooperate!


Day 2: Reykjavik

We met our friends Svava and Nick for brunch at Sandholt Bakery. They live near us in California but were spending a few months in Reykjavik, Svava's hometown. At Sandholt I enjoyed a delicious quiche and a really good latte. We should've come here for lunch on our first day! Read reviews of Sandholt on TripAdvisor.


Quiche at Sandholt
Quiche at Sandholt

After brunch we made our way back to Hallgrimskirkja where we enjoyed a children's violin recital that happened to be taking place inside. We also went up to the observation tower (900isk/US$8 a person) to see views of the city. I loved seeing the colorful rooftops on the buildings below.

Hallgrimskirkja
Hallgrimskirkja

City views from the Hallgrimskirkja observation tower
City views from the Hallgrimskirkja observation tower

City views from the Hallgrimskirkja observation tower
City views from the Hallgrimskirkja observation tower

I always love taking walking tours whenever we travel to a new city. I find it incredibly useful to get oriented and it's an excellent way to learn about the city's history and culture from a local. Not to mention, it's fun! I found a free walking tour through CityWalk and Sara was our guide for the 2 hour tour. At the conclusion, you just pay what you think is fair. Our group was about 30 people and the time just flew by as we covered a ton of ground. Sara was funny, interesting, and very knowledgeable not only about Icelandic history but about their current political and social climate. It was a very cold day but I think everyone stayed with the tour. I loved one of Sara's lines, "There's no bad weather, just bad attitudes." Read reviews of CityWalk on TripAdvisor.

Some interesting takeaways from Sara's tour:
  • Thanks to the abundance of geothermal heat, downtown Reykjavik enjoys heated sidewalks and streets which means there's no time or money spent on snow plowing or shoveling
  • Iceland is known for black licorice. Better yet, a black licorice-chocolate combo. The supermarkets carry plenty of brands to try or bring home as souvenirs.
  • Most Icelanders are fluent in 3-4 languages
  • It's mandatory to learn Danish in school because Iceland was under Danish rule until its independence in 1944. English is also widely learned, followed by Swedish or Norwegian.
  • The entire population of Iceland is around 330,000 and about one-third of the population lives in Reykjavik. The chance of dating a distant (or close) relative is so high that many turn to Íslendingabók, or the Book of Icelanders, to make sure their potential mate is from a different gene pool. There was even an article in the WSJ about this. Iceland’s No. 1 Dating Rule: Make Sure You’re Not Cousins
  • It's very expensive to live in Iceland and a lot of locals hold down 2 jobs to make ends meet. They mostly cook and drink at home to avoid paying those insanely high restaurant and bar prices.
  • Iceland is extremely progressive with LGBTQ rights, women's rights, and with more than two-thirds of babies born to unwed parents, marriage is something that just isn't on the minds of Icelanders. Less than half of Icelanders polled claim to be religious and more than 40% of young Icelanders identify as atheists. In fact, in 2016, 0.0% of young Icelanders under the age of 25 believe that God created the world. There's little stigma for being unwed parents, very generous parental leave, and a feminist society that supports the freedom to live with choice.
  • Icelanders pay 30-40% income tax but for that they get...
  •      - Free health care
         - Free education including university
         - University of Iceland is public and free. You only have to pay a 75,000isk/US$667 annual registration fee. Compare that to UC Berkeley, a public university in California. For the 2016-2017 school year, the annual tuition for an undergraduate California resident is US$13,500. Out of state students pay US$40,182!
         - Reykjavik University is private but mostly still government funded. A quick look at their website shows that for an undergraduate student, each year's tuition runs about 458,000isk/US$4073. Compare that to Stanford University, a private university in California. For the 2016-2017 school year, the annual tuition for an undergraduate student is US$47,331.

Sara pointed out a few landmarks during the tour which we set out to visit. On the list were:
  • Harpa Concert Hall
  • Bæjarins Beztu for a hot dog
  • Old harbor area - revitalized area known for their restaurants. We found an ice cream place called Valdis that we wanted to try.

But first, we stopped by Cafe Paris for Icelandic lamb stew (2990isk/US$26.60), Icelandic pancakes (1390isk/US$12.36), and some much-needed warming up from the cold. And we had to plan out the order of events because most of it involved eating. All before dinner. :o) We finally decided to have a hot dog and ice cream snack before our actual dinner. Hey, it worked out well because our walk turned out to be about 2.5 miles!

Snapped right outside of City Hall
Snapped right outside of City Hall

Harpa Concert Hall
Harpa Concert Hall

The glass facade of Harpa is inspired by the Northern Lights and dramatic Icelandic scenery
The glass facade of Harpa is inspired by the 
Northern Lights and dramatic Icelandic scenery

Harpa interior - mirrored ceiling and glass wall
Harpa interior - mirrored ceiling and glass wall

View of Harpa's glass wall from inside
View of Harpa's glass wall from inside

Former prison now Office of the Prime Minister
Former prison now Office of the Prime Minister

Bæjarins Beztu is a tiny stand that sells steamed sausages (lamb-based, with pork and beef), served in a bun with a choice of condiments. I ordered mine with everything minus raw onion. It came with ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, and crisp fried onion. 420isk/US$3.69.

President Bill Clinton had a hot dog here in 2004 - I spied the framed photo of President Clinton inside the stand! I haven't had a hot dog in over 10 years but it was tasty but a bit gamey because of the lamb. I can see why people line up for one (or more) after a long night of drinking. Reviews of Bæjarins Beztu on TripAdvisor.

You can always spot Bæjarins Beztu because of the line
You can always spot Bæjarins Beztu because of the line

Nothing like an Icelandic hot dog to warm you up!
Nothing like an Icelandic hot dog to warm you up!

Right after I had the hot dog, we braved the cold again and ventured to the old harbor area in search of ice cream at Valdis. They had a huge assortment of flavors which change on a daily basis. Mike tried licorice and I got the blueberry yogurt ice cream. It was so tasty!! 900isk/US$7.91 for 2 single cones. Reviews of Valdis on TripAdvisor.

We braved the cold outside to have ice cream inside at Valdis
We braved the cold outside to have ice cream inside at Valdis

Large assortment of flavors but they sell out
Large assortment of flavors but they sell out

So many flavors to choose from
So many flavors to choose from

We stopped by Harpa on our way back to the downtown area. The building was lit up in a night time light show! I nearly froze my butt off taking this video.


Harpa light show

Still shot of the Harpa light show

We decided to have dinner at Cafe Loki where we could try fermented shark (hákarl) and rye bread ice cream. Cafe Loki sits right by Hallgrímskirkja so you can enjoy views of the church as you tuck into the local dishes. Recommendation for the rye bread ice cream came from my friend Suzy. No one recommended trying fermented shark. And for good reason. Reviews of Cafe Loki on TripAdvisor.

Fermented shark, or hákarl, is a traditional Icelandic dish - I don't think it was created for taste (or smell), but out of necessity. Shark became a staple of the early Viking settlers as it was plentiful in the icy North Atlantic waters. However, shark meat was toxic to humans so the Vikings developed a preservation technique to make the meat... palatable? I don't know how people could've eaten it because the full on assault of ammonia and rotting flesh breaches even the weakest of noses. Did you know that sharks don't have a urinary system? Park of the putrid smell of fermented shark comes from the smell of ammonia. The quick description of how fermented shark is prepared is:
  • Behead the shark
  • Bury it in sand and under heavy stones for 6-12 weeks. The pressure from the stones causes liquid and toxins to seep out and the time period allows the shark to ferment properly.
  • Cut the shark into long strips
  • Hang dry the meat for several months
  • It's ready to be enjoyed when the meat is covered by a dry brown crust


We decided to try the fermented shark at the end of the meal. I ordered a trout tarte on rye bread. Icelanders love their mayonnaise and this tarte had it in abundance. I scraped off as much excess mayo as I could (I can only stomach so much of it) but I loved the sweetness of the rye bread which balanced out the smokiness of the trout and the tang of the mayo. It came with rye bread ice cream which didn't exactly have the consistency of ice cream. I was surprised that it was served with the plate and I hurriedly ate the tarte and salad because I didn't want to eat melted ice cream. Later I realized it was more like crumbled rye bread mixed into heavy whipped cream that was frozen.

Icelandic plate IV
Icelandic plate IV: trout tarte with salad and rye bread ice cream 2550isk/US$22.26

Icelandic plate II
Icelandic plate II: two rye bread slices, one with mashed fish and one with smoked trout. Flatbread with smoked lamb. Dried fish with butter. Bit of fermented shark (the small cup with the Icelandic flag in it). 3090isk/US$26.98

I asked Mike to document my sampling fermented shark. We ended up with many photos not suitable for this blog post.


Here we go! Fermented shark, here I come.
Here we go! Fermented shark, here I come.

I'm greeted by the smell of putrid ammonia and my disgust
I'm greeted by the smell of putrid ammonia and my disgust

Maybe it tastes better than it smells?
Maybe it tastes better than it smells?

No. It never got better.
No. It never got better.

I don't usually shy away from exotic foods. I grew up eating chicken feet, oxtail soup, tripe, jellyfish, and sea cucumber. But my taste buds were no match for this culinary creation. The smell is super sharp and pungent, like a cleaning agent. Taste-wise it was like eating firm fish that is rotten infused with the most potent stinky cheese you can imagine.

I had to clean my palette with a few gulps of water and my entire cup of rye bread ice cream. Thank goodness it was a decent sized portion!

Rye bread ice cream to the rescue
Rye bread ice cream to the rescue


Day 3: Golden Circle and Magical Nights Tour

I spent a few weeks trying to find a tour that encompassed major sites in the Golden Circle but also a trip to some hot springs. Originally I really wanted to book a tour with a company called Floating Tours (recommended by my friend Suzy) but they were sold out. What appealed to me wasn't seeing Gullfoss waterfall or Strokkur geyser but that part of the tour was floating in a natural hot spring called the Secret Lagoon AND getting to eat rye bread that was baked underground. AND boiling an egg in a geothermal hot spring!

I looked through a ton of tours, read endless reviews, and ended up picking The Golden Circle and Magical Nights Tour IMG09 with Icelandic Mountain Guides. Reviews of Icelandic Mountain Guides on TripAdvisor. I enjoy doing a little bit of everything so I loved that we would see a few major sites, sample some local food, go to a geothermal spa, enjoy dinner, and try to chase the Northern Lights! Another plus for me was that the tour group was a small group of 8 and we got to know everyone on the tour since we spent almost 11 hours together. We had a pickup from our Airbnb and our itinerary was:
  • Þingvellir National Park - the site of world's first parliament, assembled in 930 AD
  • Friðheimar tomato greenhouse - enjoyed an all-you-can-eat lunch of tomato soup and bread
  • Strokkur geyser
  • Gullfoss waterfall
  • Efstidalur farm - sampled Skyr and ice cream
  • Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal spa
  • Lindin restaurant - enjoyed a 2-course dinner
  • Northern Lights viewing
  • Total Price 75,800 ISK/US$654.92 for 2 people


First stop was Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and the site of the world's first parliament, assembled in 930 AD. We also took a quick stroll in Almannagjá gorge which marks the eastern boundary of the North American Plate. You're literally walking between the North American and European tectonic plates, a crack that increases every year.

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

The wind was crazy strong in Þingvellir National Park
The wind was crazy strong in Þingvellir National Park

Almannagjá gorge
Almannagjá gorge

Almannagjá gorge
Almannagjá gorge

Next stop on our tour was Friðheimar, a tomato greenhouse that produces 18% of the tomatoes in Iceland! The greenhouse runs year-round on clean energy, providing the necessary heat and powering artificial light during Iceland's long dark winters. Their tomato plants are pollinated with the help of bumblebees imported from the Netherlands - you can even see some flying around.

We got to enjoy an all-you-can-eat tomato soup and bread lunch. There were basil plants sitting on the table - you could pluck a few leaves and use the scissors to cut basil to add to your soup! They also had a fresh cucumber salsa on the table for you to enjoy.

Friðheimar tomato greenhouse
Friðheimar tomato greenhouse

Dine among the crops
Dine among the crops

Rows and rows of tomato plants
Rows and rows of tomato plants

Bumblebees from the Netherlands
Bumblebees from the Netherlands

All-you-can-eat tomato soup and bread
All-you-can-eat tomato soup and bread

You can add fresh basil to your soup
You can add fresh basil to your soup

Cool basil scissors
Cool basil scissors

Yummy tomato soup and bread
Yummy tomato soup and bread

After lunch we went to 2 of the biggest sites along the Golden Circle. Strokkur geyser and Gullfoss waterfall. Each location was crawling with tourists but it was a quick 30-40 minute visit to each.

Strokkur geyser erupted with extreme regularity, pretty much every 6-10 minutes which made it incredibly easy to take photos and videos. The geyser is roped off but it didn't stop people from trying to get as close as possible to the gush of water. We saw people get drenched in the downpour after every eruption. Keep in mind the water temperature is 80-100°C/176-212°F - that's basically boiling water raining down on you!

Check out that huge bubble forming right before an eruption
Check out that huge bubble forming right before an eruption


Strokkur geyser eruption

Strokkur geyser eruption
Strokkur geyser eruption

Gullfoss falls
Gullfoss falls

Gullfoss falls

Tourists behaving badly at Gullfoss falls - they ignore the sign and go off the path
Tourists behaving badly at Gullfoss falls - ignoring the sign and going off the path

Our next stop was Efstidalur farm where we sampled some fresh Skyr and whey... and then homemade ice cream! The cute dining area was surrounded by windows looking into a little pen holding calves and piles of hay. I'd imagine you could see cows chewing on it other times of the day.

Fresh Skyr and whey samples
Fresh Skyr and whey samples

Our tour guide and I mull over ice cream flavors
Our tour guide Anna and I mull over ice cream flavors

Giant scoops of ice cream
Giant scoops of ice cream

View of the calves from inside the dining room
View of the calves from inside the dining room

Our next stop was Fontana geothermal spa in Laugarvatn. Before going into the water we had to shower naked in communal showers. Get mentally ready if you're not used to being naked in front of strangers. It's not a big deal, it's over so quickly.

We enjoyed a warm soak in outdoor mineral baths of various temperatures. You can also take a dip in the frigid waters of Laugarvatn Lake, accessible down a wooden walkway. Mike and I braved the windy walk, crunching our feet in the black pebbles, plunging into the icy waters, and quickly dashing back to the warm pool. There are also steam rooms and a sauna in the complex.

We showered and got ready to go to Lindin Restaurant for our 2-course meal. I think we had a choice between fish or lamb and we all had the chocolate mousse for dessert.

Panfried fish
Panfried fish

Chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce and watermelon topped with white chocolate foam
Chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce and watermelon topped with white chocolate foam

I asked our tour guide Anna if there were any interesting English words that have been adopted by Icelanders. She mentioned 2: fokk and sjitt. Haha. Fokk means and sounds like our English counterpart f*ck but it's not as taboo. It's often used as an exclamation and it became popular after "Helvítis fokking fokk" became a widely used expression of discontent following the 2008 Icelandic financial crisis. The phrase was used in a comedy sketch where it showed a middle-aged straight-laced man participating in the Pots & Pan Revolution holding up a sign that said "Helvítis fokking fokk!!" According to a Wikipedia article, it was translated by Eiríkur Bergmann as 'G-d Damn, F*cking F*ck', Roger Boyes as 'What the F*ckety F*cking F*ck', and by Michael J. Casey as 'Bloody F*cking F*ck'. I couldn't find the meaning of sjitt but I think the pronunciation makes it obvious why it would be adopted. I find this stuff fascinating!


On our way back to Reykjavik, Anna stopped along the highway so that we could try to view the Northern Lights. She was checking the weather report during dinner so we knew we had a pretty good chance of seeing something. I could see little streaks of green dancing in the sky but they kept getting covered up with dense clouds. The wind was so strong that it was hard to stand still! We all pinned ourselves to the side of the van to keep from getting blown over. Mike set up his camera to take long exposure photos and captured a good one of me against the sky. :o)

We finally saw the Northern Lights!
We finally saw the Northern Lights!


Day 4: Mini road trip - southwest of Reykjavik

We spent the day with Mike's friend Svava and her adorable 10-month old baby Saga. Svava is originally from Iceland so she took us on a mini road trip to a few local places. We started the day by stopping by a little coffee shop appropriately called Litla Kaffistofan (which literally translates to Little Coffee Shop) for coffee and 2 egg salad sandwiches. Lots of mayo again. I almost think egg salad sandwiches should be called mayo with egg sandwiches in Iceland.

Next, we went to explore the Raufarhólshellir lava tube along Þrengslavegur Road. Svava equipped us with climbing helmets and headlamps and we put on our ski pants to keep us warm and protected from rocks. We climbed and scrambled around the lava tube for a good 45 minutes or so while Svava hung out in the car and Saga napped. There's really only one direction to go in the lava tube but someone marked a "path" with a line of gold string. At first I thought it was funny since you could only go one way but as we got farther into the tube with diminishing light and increased mistiness, I found myself looking for the string to guide me over and around the boulders. Thank you, kind person for leading the way!

Raufarhólshellir - Our only source of natural light inside the lava tube
Raufarhólshellir - Our only source of natural light inside the lava tube

You have to carefully make your way over jagged rocks
You have to carefully make your way over jagged rocks

Pretty massive lava tube
Pretty massive lava tube

Melted rock carved out by lava
Melted rock carved out by lava

Outside, above the cave. You can see one of the ceiling holes on the left.
Outside, above the cave. You can see one of the ceiling holes on the left.

Svava baby wearing Saga who is up from her nap!
Svava wearing Saga who is up from her nap!

Svava took us to lunch at Fjöruborðið, a famous langoustine restaurant, located in the village of Stokkseyri. The restaurant sits right along the beach and if you get a window seat you can enjoy your langoustine while watching the waves crash onto the beach. The food was crazy expensive but there was a lot of it and it was delicious. Don't look at prices!

We opted for the 3 course menu which consisted of:
  • Langoustine in magical soup (yes, that's what it's called on the menu!)
  • 300g of langoustine and all the trimmings: cucumber salad with dill and vinegar, tomatoes with basil and black pepper, cous cous with curry and leeks, fresh salad with balsamic oil and baby potatoes. Mike and I had no idea how much 300g was but let's just say it was plenty for 3 adults.
  • Dessert
  • Total 26,700isk/US$234.62


Svava and baby Saga sharing a moment
Svava and baby Saga sharing a moment

Langoustine in magical soup
Langoustine in magical soup

300g of langoustine and all the trimmings
300g of langoustine and all the trimmings

After lunch we dropped by the Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant for a quick visit. The entire facility was empty so we took our time learning about the power plant. It's the largest power station in Iceland and the third-largest geothermal power station in the world. 90% of Iceland's homes use geothermal energy to heat their homes. Our walking tour guide said that it's common for Icelanders to crank up the heat and sleep with their windows open. 100% of Iceland's electricity comes from renewable sources - the only country in the world to have that distinction.

Here's a link to a 360 degree photo I took of the power plant. The parking lot was essentially empty while we visited so it looked like a massive building in the middle of nowhere.

Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant
Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant

Electric vehicle and charging station, of course
Electric vehicle and charging station, of course

Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant giving off pure steam
Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant giving off pure steam

Distribution pipes
Distribution pipes

Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant giving off pure steam
Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant giving off pure steam

When we got back to Reykjavik, we spent some time shopping around the downtown area and visiting Anna, our tour guide from the Golden Circle tour. She was working at her uncle's tobacco and souvenir shop. We stopped by a few candy stores to pick up chocolate-licorice bars to bring home to friends.

That night we had dinner at ROK, a restaurant situated across the street from Hallgrimskirkja. We were seated next to a window with beautiful night time views of the church. ROK's menu was tapas-style with small plates. We ordered:
  • Baked vegetables (beetroot, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, and puree) 1090isk
  • Lamb au vin (lamb shank, wine, and mushrooms) 1690isk
  • Seafood platter (langoustine, gratinated mussels, pan fried cod, and scallop ceviche) 5990isk
  • Total 8770isk/US$79.84 (paid 3.5% markup by paying in $USD) - the lesson is, pay in the local currency. Don't pay in USD! :o)


Enjoying dinner at ROK
Enjoying dinner at ROK

Seafood platter at ROK
Seafood platter at ROK

It was raining slightly and freezing but on the way back to our Airbnb we stopped by Paradis for ice cream. It's never too cold for ice cream! 2 single cones for 860isk/US$7.55.


Day 5: Reykjavik

We originally had an ice cave tour scheduled for our last full day in Iceland but it was cancelled due to volcanic activity and poor weather. We didn't have a backup plan so we decided to check out the National Museum of Iceland and spend some time to figure out how we would get to the airport for our 6am flight to Portugal the next morning. First, we stopped by Sandholt for a leisurely lunch and to hide out from the miserable weather - rain and crazy strong winds.

Sandholt Bakery
Sandholt Bakery

Delicious bakery items at Sandholt
Delicious bakery items at Sandholt

Latte at Sandholt
Latte at Sandholt

Tomato and lentil soup - delicious!
Tomato and lentil soup - delicious!

The latte was delicious, the tomato and lentil soup was very flavorful. We also ordered a sourdough, mozzarella, and pesto sandwich which was just okay. It sounded so tasty but it was very plain and unappetizing, if you can imagine.

We decided that the best way to get to the airport the next morning was to take the Flybus from the BSI station. We couldn't risk not getting picked up (as we had read in some reviews) so we walked to the BSI terminal to get an idea of where it was and to purchase tickets for the next morning. It wasn't a bad walk but we would be dragging our luggage at 3am. I hoped it wouldn't still be raining and windy! 2 one-way tickets from BSI to KEF airport came out to be 5000isk/US$44.60. It was 1000isk cheaper than our Flybus Plus tickets coming in.


BSI bus station
BSI bus station

FlyBus ticket counter
FlyBus ticket counter

We walked about a half mile from the BSI bus station to the National Museum of Iceland. It was raining and insanely windy and by the time we got to the museum we were both drenched! My ski jacket kept my upper body dry but my thermals and jeans were completely soaked. It would've been a good day to wear my ski pants! Tickets were 1500isk/person.

We enjoyed a home cooked meal at Svava and Nick's house on our last night before heading back to our Airbnb to pack up for the next leg of our trip.

Remember how I mentioned that your silver jewelry may tarnish when it comes in contact with the sulfur in the hot water? My bracelet turned a dull brassy color after my first shower and I thought I'd have to live with it until I could polish it when I got back home. Svava gave me a good tip to get the tarnish out - scrub your silver jewelry with toothpaste! I immediately did that after dinner... It worked!


Tarnished silver bracelet
Tarnished silver bracelet

Pretty much restored after a toothpaste scrub. Minty fresh too!
Pretty much restored after a toothpaste scrub. Minty fresh too!

The next morning we woke up at 2:30am to start our journey from cold Iceland to warm Lisbon, Portugal. I'll post my Portugal trip report in a separate blog post. I'm going to finish up my Iceland post with our last day which came about 4 days later - we spent one final day in Iceland because we flew back to Iceland from Portugal.


Day 6: Blue Lagoon

I booked our tickets to the Blue Lagoon well in advance of our visit and one of the time slots was already sold out 3+ weeks before! Get online and book your tickets in advance.

We would be going to the Blue Lagoon straight from KEF airport so when I booked our Blue Lagoon tickets, I opted for a shuttle ride from the airport to the Blue Lagoon. I really wanted to book a return shuttle ride to KEF as well but when I combed through both the Blue Lagoon and FlyBus websites and it seemed like a return shuttle ride wouldn't be an option because FlyBus wouldn't be running return trips by the time we would leave the Blue Lagoon. I finished choosing a package that included a towel - it also came with a drink and an algae mask. All together it was €174/US$196.39 for 2 people. It didn't include the 500isk to store our luggage. What was a little confusing was the Blue Lagoon confirmation email said that our pickup would be from KEF airport and our dropoff would also be at KEF airport. That sounded like a round trip to me and contradictory to what I read online.

When we arrived at KEF, I visited the FlyBus counter to get clarification if FlyBus would bring us back to KEF from the Blue Lagoon as indicated in the email. I was merely asking questions about the schedule but instead, the woman working at the ticket counter took it upon herself to lecture me about how their buses stop running earlier some months of the year (and October happened to be one of those months). Lady, I wouldn't be asking you questions if I knew the answer. Now that it was confirmed that a shuttle ride back wasn't going to happen, I simply wanted to know what my options were. Instead, she shoved a schedule at me to prove that they don't run past 4pm. Fine, you already made that clear. What do I do now? Another lady at the counter (with great compassion) told me my best bet would be a taxi but that it would be very expensive, like US$100. Yikes! I appreciated her answer because at least she helped me understand my options.

I don't understand the attitude of the FlyBus employees. I may not like the answer you give me but at least it's an answer. It's better to understand what will happen than to just not even answer the question. It was so strange. I think explaining the situation would go a long way - most reasonable travelers would understand and work with you. Strike 4 against FlyBus.

The shuttle ride from the airport to the Blue Lagoon was a little confusing. The same snarky lady at the bus counter gave us directions to the bus area and described the bus - the color, the markings, and the sign in the window. It was raining heavily so I waited with our luggage in a covered walkway area while Mike walked around the parking lot looking for the bus. A few other visitors were also running around looking for the same bus. Turns out it wasn't even there yet and when it arrived 20 mins later, the same lady announced it and led us to the bus. Wouldn't it have made more sense to just tell us where to wait and have us listen for directions when it arrived? Gripe. Strike 5 against FlyBus.

We arrived at the Blue Lagoon after a 20 minute bus ride, dropped off our luggage in a luggage storage area, and lined up for an open window to check in. We were issued bracelets which would be used to lock/unlock lockers and to charge food/drinks to our account. I was also advised to remove silver jewelry (it will tarnish) before entering the water. We each went to our locker room, showered, put on our swim suits, and met in the the indoor pool. We stashed our towels and flip flops (the area was littered with towels and shoes everywhere!) and opened the door (in the water) to get to the outside pool. It was freezing cold outside and raining so we hunched down and did a little crab walk to stay submerged in the water. There were pockets of hot and cold so we crawled around the area, looking for a warm spot to park and relax. I left conditioner in my hair and put it in a bun so that it wouldn't get in the water - I had read that the silica and minerals in the water would make my hair extremely dry and brittle. We visited this little station for a silica mask (complimentary) and an algae mask (came with our package). We met a couple of visitors who were also from the Bay Area so we had a nice chat while we tried to stay warm in the freezing rain.

We made our way over to the swim-up bar and enjoyed Skyr smoothies (included in our package). We noticed that the main building had a huge automatic wiper squeegeeing the front windows. I also noticed a guy stationed among the rocks, keeping watch on all the patrons. He was probably like a life guard - the poor guy must've been miserable sitting in the freezing rain!


View of the building
View of the building

View of the swim-up bar
View of the swim-up bar

We decided to get something to eat after getting out of the water. Lava restaurant was super pricey so we opted for the Blue Lagoon Cafe where we still managed to spend about US$45 for 2 very ordinary (and not very good) sandwiches, 1 bag of regular potato chips, and 1 fruit drink. Insane!

I thought the Blue Lagoon was interesting but I don't think it was a MUST visit place. It was a bit out of the way and it was super pricey for what it was. The hot water isn't even naturally forming! It's geothermal water that's heated below the earth's surface but it's accessed by drilling. Anyway, it's more of a place to say you've been than something that's mind-blowing. Reviews of Blue Lagoon on TripAdvisor.

By the time we left the Blue Lagoon, FlyBus shuttles had stopped running (as if I could forget) so we had to take a taxi to our airport hotel. We were quoted 7500isk (about US$66) by a cab driver so I was prepared for an expensive ride. He started driving without the meter on but I asked him to turn it on. When we arrived, it ended up being 6950isk (about US$60). Woo hoo! I was stoked about saving US$6!

The next day we headed back home to San Francisco. I nerded out and took some pictures of the luggage self-check area in KEF because it was so cool. Once you get your boarding pass, you load your luggage on the belt to get weighed, scan the luggage tag and your boarding pass, and check it in. Or, if you're like us, you go through the process a few times because your luggage is over the weight limit. :o)

Luggage self-check
Luggage self-check

Our luggage is within the weight limit!
Our luggage is within the weight limit!

As I mentioned, we took a trip to Lisbon, Portugal from Iceland - you can read about it in this blog post: Portugal - Lisbon and Sintra.


If you enjoyed reading this travel blog please check out my other trip posts:

Happy traveling and thanks for reading!

12 comments:

  1. Great blog, pictures and info about Iceland. We visited in May 2017 and drove around in our rented car.

    Agree with you that many things are over rated. You didn't go to Jokulsarlon?

    Amazing pic of the northern lights from the aircraft window. How did you realise they were 'on'?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Rainman! I appreciate your kind comments.

      I kind of regret not renting a car and driving around. I at least wish we saw glaciers but we had booked a tour for that which got canceled because of volcanic activity.

      We only looked out the plane window because the guy sitting in the seat behind us pointed it out. I think he was from Iceland so he knew what he was looking at. If I had to describe it, it was like a gray haze in the shape of the curvature of the Earth. It looked like nothing to the naked eye but it definitely showed up on a long exposure shot.

      Delete
  2. I loved reading about your experience. I'm looking to go to Iceland soon. Was Bonus supermarket just as expensive as restaurants? We're thinking about just buying groceries and cooking most of the time we are there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!

      Bonus seemed like a value supermarket. I did a little price comparison between Bonus and another market called 10-11 and Bonus was more affordable for almost everything.

      You can definitely save some money by buying groceries and cooking. Seemed like most restaurants were pretty pricey - I guess there's a reason the locals don't eat out much. It would be worth it to splurge for a meal or two though and to sample some of the local fare. Sandholt was an affordable and very good restaurant. Enjoy Iceland!

      Delete
  3. Hi Conny,
    Thanks for your detailed and humorous blog about Iceland. My husband and I are also planning to a trip to Lisbon with a stopover to Iceland. However, can you share how you booked the stopover to Iceland. We're coming from NY and can't find a good deal to stopover Iceland fly to Portugal. Any ideas?

    Thanks in advance!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HI wonder traveler,
      I tried looking for a stopover in Iceland on WOW and Icelandair but it turned out the closest cities we could fly into were Madrid or Barcelona which wouldn't have worked. In the end we booked 2 round trip flights for simplicity. The only downside was we had to have an additional night in Iceland on our way back but it gave us the chance to visit the Blue Lagoon...

      If you're not opposed, you could book the JFK-KEF-MAD-JFK route on Icelandair but then find another flight from MAD-LIS-MAD. It's a little painful either way you do it since you've got multiple flights.

      WOW only flies to BCN but the same deal, you'd have to book separate flights for BCN-LIS-BCN to take advantage of the KEF stopover on WOW.

      Hope this helps! Good luck!

      Delete
  4. Thanks, Connie, really made me laugh, and you've given me lots of ideas & info. Roni

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad to hear, Roni! Thanks for taking the time to read my post and comment. Hope you have a great trip! Enjoy the planning process and let me know if you have any questions.

      Delete
  5. Hi Conny, Read your informative experience in Iceland, I am renting a car and will be attending the AirWaves music festival early November. The lil hotdog stand for $4.00 USD sounds interesting, is there just one of those or more than one in reykjavik and located ? Sounds like my luggage will include certain food groups, jelly sandwiches, and shopping at the Bonus. Is there more than one Bonus grocery store there ? How far out on ring road 1 either direction did you travel away from reykjavik miles or KM ?
    I'm planning on circumventing on the ring road 1 in the rental car sleep out some , depending on weather, while my package stay is booked at the Hilton in a single room . Did you hear any reports about the Hilton there ? I'm reading all the reviews posts I can prior to this coming Nov visit there for a week rdtp out of Wash DC ? Thank you for your helpfulness honesty and straight forward reality check. I didn't hear you mention costs of water, like a gallon or liters jug at the Bonus. Can someone just use a tap to fill up a jug of water or is that come with a fee too? You are most appreciated for your posts and reviews during your stay in Iceland. Sounds like good Food at fair mainland prices is the equation that is needs the Einstein approach to make visiting there an affordable math $olution. I shall read what I can bring thru customs and make sure to pack a large grocery list in my luggage checked baggage as long as I can get thru customs. The Tomato soup all you can chow looks inviting, I will scroll back up to find out where that is located, is it near rekjavik or far from there ? Thank you David

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi David,
      Thanks for taking the time to read my post! The hot dog stand we visited was "the" one to try but as I understand it, Iceland is known for hot dogs so I'm sure you can get them elsewhere. Just probably not that particular store. But they're probably all very similar.

      There were a few Bonus markets around Reykjavik. We didn't travel very far, spent most of our time in the south part of Ring Road as part of our Golden Circle excursion. There are a lot of seasoned travelers who have advice about navigating the road but I know it's illegal to camp overnight in your car so please read up about it. Fodor's forums is a great resource to get more of your driving questions answered.

      Water is free and plentiful. You're in Iceland! It's got some of the best water in the world. :) I didn't purchase any bottled water and just brought my own stainless steel bottle and filled it from the tap.

      The Friðheimar tomato farm is located in Reykholt which is a little over an hour from Reykjavik.

      Enjoy your trip!!

      Delete
  6. Hi Conny,

    Thanks for writing this informative post. Based on what you shared, I am not too clear how you traveled around Iceland. You mentioned the Flybus but how did you get around the city or to destinations? Did your friends drive you, did you take public transportation, or did the tours pick you up?

    Would you recommend getting around through busses?
    https://www.re.is/iceland-on-your-own/

    Thanks,
    Michelle

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Michelle,
      We did not rent a car so we relied on Flybus to get from KEF airport to/from Reykjavik or to the Blue Lagoon. The airport hotel we stayed in offered free shuttle rides to the airport. When we booked tours, the tours picked us up and dropped us off. Our friend Svava drove us during our mini road trip. Otherwise we walked throughout Reykjavik to various stops/museums/restaurants. We didn't try public transportation and I was happy to walk everywhere. Not being locked in to transportation left our itinerary open-ended which worked well given the finicky weather. We covered a lot of ground on the days we walked and it was an excellent way to see the city.

      The bus might be a good option depending on where you go but I found that most tours offer pick up/drop off. Are there places you want to visit that wouldn't be covered in a tour?

      Delete