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Six Days in Iceland

Let me start by saying that nobody is more surprised that I went to Iceland than me. It wasn't anywhere on my list of options until I received an email from one of the cheap airfare subscriptions. Roundtrip on United was $229 and change. This was cheaper than a flight to Nashville or Florida so why not? And while I was at it, I bought a second ticket in my sister's name and texted her that we were going to Iceland - she had 24 hours to cancel if she really wanted out. Lucky me, she opted in.

We landed at KEF around 7:30 on Wednesday morning. We picked up our rental car from Avis/Budget and the first thing I can tell you is that we opted to add on a wi-fi gadget instead of GPS. This was very affordable and turned out to be a really wise investment. The gadget was portable so we literally had wi-fi access everywhere we went. There was a very brief moment to/from Vik later in the week when reception wasn't great but it is hardly worth mentioning as it had no impact on our trip or decision to do the same thing on a future trip. Our phones never left airplane mode and we were always connected and able to use our phone GPS. Also, please forgive any Americanized names because I don't know how to access Icelandic characters on my Dell laptop. I don't intend to be disrespectful.

We headed to our hotel - Reykjavik Lights by Keahotels - and put our luggage in storage. We walked the mile or so into city center for some exploration and breakfast. Now, while we were originally a bit nervous about the lack of options at 9:30AM, we did find a wonderful little place on the main strip called Nat. We shared a cheese omelette and enjoyed a coffee for her and a hot chocolate for me. The omelette also came with some bread and hummus. It was DELICIOUS. Their whole menu was appetizing and we actually ended up returning for our final dinner before flying home.

We shopped and walked and when it was time to check in, we headed back. We got to our room and found it to be very Scandinavian in its functional minimalism. We were on the top floor in a mountain view room and overlooked a sports complex with soccer fields, a beautiful mountain and a bay. The hotel served us very well for the three nights we spent in Reykjavik. We FaceTimed our parents and took a short nap because my sister had seen the conditions were such that Northern Lights were possible that evening and booked us to take a late night tour. Not my typical first day of travel but I wasn't going to deny her the chance to see them. We got up from our naps, had dinner at the next door pizzeria and actually headed to Costco to fill some time before the tour pick up. The tour itself did not end with a lights sighting but it did validate that we made the right choice in renting a car to do things on our own terms.

Our plan for Thursday was to drive the West Iceland tour according to the RS book. We took the Hvalfjordur tunnel shortcut for about $10USD and followed the stops. RS says to keep an eye on the car's outdoor temperature gauge because the tunnel is over some warm undersea rock. Our display went from 5 to 14 degrees Celsius. The first town, Borgarnes, didn't wow us as a necessary stop but we found a couple of photo ops to prove we were there. Next was the Grabrok Crater which was a climb but not horrible. My sister went all the way to the top but I stopped when the wooden handrail stopped. I like something a little more sturdy to hold on to than the rope rail. The crater itself wasn't overly exciting but the surrounds were beautiful.

We moved on to the Deildartunguhver Hot Springs. I could have stayed there for hours watching the bubbling springs. There was one spot on the rock wall that reminded me of a little doorway to some fairytale creature's home. I would suggest grabbing a short video to accompany any photos you take as still photos don't really do justice to the lively waters.

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After our Hot Spring pitstop, we moved on to our first encounter with waterfalls in Iceland - the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss Waterfalls just outside of Reykholt. If ever there was a time to use the expression "OMG", this was it for me. The juxtaposition between the force and power of Barnafoss against the gentler, more spread out Hraunfossar was just captivating. We made a quick stop in the cafe for hot chocolate and coffee to get a game plan together for a late lunch and off we went. We ended up at a cozy little place called Hverinn and enjoyed the soup and bread buffet. The hostess was charming and very helpful. We headed back to Reykjavik, taking the longer, scenic route around the fjord. Stunning views. We caught sight of sheep everywhere and at different points in the day we took advantage of pull off opportunities to snap some photos of horses and sheep and miscellaneous waterfalls. As we settled in Thursday night, I think we were both certain that Iceland was going to be everything we hoped and nothing like we could have imagined.

Friday was designated as our Golden Circle day. Up and at 'em, we headed out according to the RS guide. I will pause to note that typically I'm not driving while visiting other countries so something I noted in this case was that Rick's organization of driving instruction and colorful information was a little messy feeling to us. I would like to see a better separation so when navigating there is less page turning.

Now, the book gives two options for approaching this drive and we opted to go up the Nesjavallaleio route. This was one of my very favorite things all week. The journey follows a water pipe and essentially you are driving a road built to service the pipe. We had the whole thing to ourselves and at times the road was more akin to a roller coaster track. You would approach a summit and have to just trust the track/road would still be under you if you moved ahead - you had no visible evidence that it would be there. Our small rental handled the climbs and turns just fine - it was just a really, really fun drive.

We arrived at Pingvellir Park - there is an error in the RS book that I will submit on this site. Please note that you do need to pay for parking inside the welcome center. RS doesn't mention this and if the place is crowded, you might miss the notices but please don't miss paying at a kiosk - they scan license plates. We walked down Everyman's Gorge and took pictures on the bridge straddling the tectonic plates - make sure you check your compass if you plan to take one pointing to the North American plate. Also, RS just refers to this as the American plate which isn't right and felt like a big miss on his part. The whole stop at Pingvellir took us about an hour but that included time waiting in line to pay for parking.

We had reservations at the Fontana Thermal Bread Experience for the bread reveal but our timing was off and we missed it. We spoke to a lovely employee named Barbara who moved us from the 11:30 to the 2:30 slot and was really helpful in helping us rearrange our plans to see the next couple of sites, double back for 2:30 and then made a great suggestion to push back our 3:00 reservation to 3:30. Plan B established, we went ahead to the Geysir Geothermal Field and the Gulfoss Waterfall. Another tip: Take the first turn off for parking to the right even though it will look/feel like you should continue on to the upper parking. The lower option will get you to the fall easier. We doubled back to Fontana and enjoyed the bread reveal - the bread is cut when it's still steaming hot so it will feel more like cake than bread but take the staff person's advice and load it with butter - it was awfully tasty!

The experience took about 30 minutes then we were off to our next reservation...another late day lunch, another soup and bread buffet. We headed to Friðheimar (Just realized I could be copying/pasting proper spellings!).

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This place is a greenhouse with a restaurant inside. Very cool atmosphere and very friendly set up. Plenty of families, groups and duos. We ate our soup, and experimented with different ways of jazzing it up with the condiments available on the table. They do have a larger menu, we opted to keep it simple. We stopped in Reykjavik's city center for dessert, coffee and hot chocolate before settling back at the hotel and ending with a nightcap in the lobby bar there. I should note that this hotel offered a very good breakfast at no additional cost to the room rate. I would be surprised if anyone ever reviewed that they couldn't find a breakfast option there.

Saturday we were set to leave Reykjavik as our base and we drove the South Coast to our next base - an Airbnb in Vik. First up was Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. I have to say, just as captivating as the water was the moss covered, "living" wall behind it. Now, for all the waterfalls, glaciers, etc, there is some element of up/down treks on both sides of the attraction. And it's never on flat, even ground. Do not go to Iceland without hiking boots and expect to work as hard at your footing as you do with your up/down treks. I'm no athlete and I managed just fine so everything is doable, but the better equipped you are with footwear and realistic you are with expectations, the better you'll fare. We did the climb up to walk behind the water, then scaled a sort of rocky wall type climb to get back down. Watch your step and take whatever time you need. Once you are back down from walking behind the water, I would encourage you to walk the 600 meters (I think) to the cave waterfall. Then, go to the trouble of going down to get a close up look. If you have higher boots, get in the water - we wished we had something taller than hiking boots because the whole scene just draws you in by hooking your curiosity. We grabbed sandwiches at the little parking lot food hut - nothing impressive but it served a purpose.

Next was the Skógafoss waterfall. We took some of our favorite photos here. We could actually see a rainbow that made a nearly complete circle. I mean, not round but you know - the two ends nearly came together. I'm sure that happens elsewhere but it was the first time we'd ever seen it. Also, the rainbows have this surreal substance to them in Iceland. They are clearer and more complete than I'm used to. Every color had its own clear bandwidth and strong visibility. Stunning, really.

Next we stopped in for a quick look at the Sólheimajökull glacier. It wasn't my favorite spot. We heeded the sign warning against getting closer and had a nice chat with a tour guide who was waiting for her group. They had gone ahead. I might skip this if I were having to edit our itinerary.

Our final stop before checking into our Airbnb was the Reynisfjara Beach with black sand. Get a video recording of the waves and put it on loop for an awesome white noise experience. The waves were hypnotic. The formations were cool, but those waves will stay with me. You can see why there are warnings not to underestimate them or turn your back to them.

We checked into our Airbnb in Vik and found dinner up the hill at Sudur Vik. A converted house serving tasty food. We explored the city a bit and went back to settle in. About an hour after I went to bed, my sister woke me up. Her Northern Lights app was indicating that conditions were good again and we headed out. Up the hill from our rental was a little church. Up the hill from the church, following an unmarked gravel road, there was a parking lot next to the cemetery. We parked and waited. Eventually, my fraidy cat companion was creeped out enough that we returned to our rental without a lights sighting. Turns out it had gotten cloudy anyways.

More to come...

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I can't wait to read the rest. I am currently planning for our Iceland adventures in May so you are giving me lots of thrills.

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Sunday was another day of exploration and we worked our way further along the Southeast drive - again, we based it on the RS guide but in reverse. We opted to skip Skaftafell and headed on to Fjallsárlón to check out the smaller of the two glacier lagoons featured on this drive. An easy walk (remember up/down both ways!) to go stand at the edge of the lagoon and scoop up drifting ice chunks along the shore. A very laid back atmosphere as people linger and play with the ice chunks, take pictures, etc. Something I'll add here - drones are super annoying to everyone but their owners. I expect we will see more and more "No Drones" signs to come as the tourism continues to increase in Iceland - and I'm ok with that.

We didn't do the boat tour here as we had reservations for later in the day at Jökulsárlón but we did stop in for the soup and bread buffet at the onsite cafe. Unfortunately, the card reader was broken and the employee didn't tell us until after we had dished up. Pulling a little cash was a very good idea even if we only had enough to pay for and split one serving of lunch.

We drove on to Diamond Beach - another wonderful shoreline outing. I'm still wondering if the couple who lost their rental car key ever managed to find it. I can't imagine the task of combing through the black sand for a relatively non-descript, black rental key. What are the odds you would ever need it but maybe a good lesson in general to tie something brightly colored to your key whenever renting? One of the beached ice formations had a little kid-sized slide little ones could play on - we are on the tall side (5'8" & 5'9") and some of the beached ice was as tall or taller than us. It was beautiful to see the fish scale looking patterns worn into the ice by the movement along the waves. Again, a beach I could have spent all day visiting. This beach is almost exactly across from Jökulsárlón and we were a bit ahead of schedule so we crossed over and asked about an earlier option for our tickets. The staff was very helpful and moved us to a tour leaving 30 minutes earlier than our reservation.

We spent a little time in the gift shop and walked down to the lagoon while we waited. My sister actually spotted three seals playing out in the water so we walked a little further down to take a look. Those shiny, black heads bobbing in the water just made us smile at the freedom and playfulness. We boarded our Amphibian boat tour and set out. So lovely and serene to be out on the water sliding between the massive icebergs. Our tour guide, Anthony, was charming and they bring a chunk of 1,000 year old ice into the boat to break up and share with everyone to sample. We passed on the sample, I'm guessing it tasted like super cold, Icelandic water. Also - please note that you should pack a water bottle and just refill it during your stay. There is absolutely no reason to buy bottled water. All water in Iceland is literally the same. You can fill at any tap and the taste is very clean.

We started the drive back to Vik - a couple hours or so - and stopped at Hotel Skaftafell because it had a restaurant. We ordered food that was much fancier than we thought would be offered and it was delicious! Good service, easy going environment. I think we both would return for a meal with no hesitation.

As we arrived back to the rental in Vik, we checked the forecast for lights and of course, there was going to be a chance. So, we headed out to find a quiet, dark place to set up just outside the city since we knew better than to return to the cemetery. As we sat, the clouds rolled in and it didn't take long to make the decision to head back. Sometimes it just isn't in the cards.

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Monday was our last day and we left it open as an easy drive back to Keflavik with the idea that we would stop, shop and sightsee however we felt was right. We rose in the morning and spent a little time in Vik's shops and a last walk along the beach.

We made our way back to the west and stopped at Ölverk Pizza & Brewery for lunch. Very good! We found a shop or two with locally made wares (my biggest sticker shock all week) and found our hotel. We stayed at Base Hotel just about 10 minutes from the airport. The accommodations were serviceable but the overall feel was...sparse. And that was in the room we were upgraded to - a junior suite. I would probably stay again but everyone considering this should know that there is no elevator. If you're staying on the 3rd floor, you're climbing two flights to get there.

We did have tickets to Blue Lagoon as a way to unwind before the flight home the next morning. Here's the thing... I loved the mask that they give you as part of your entrance and it's cool to know what the experience is when people talk about it but I would totally skip this next time. I would focus on the lower profile options available throughout the country.

One last run into Reykjavik to grab some items we missed picking up and a last meal at Nat, the excellent restaurant where we had our first meal. It was just as good the second time around.

We drove the 45 minutes back to Keflavik, got our bags together and called it a trip. Tuesday we made sure to turn in our tax refund forms, had breakfast at the airport and visited Duty Free. The two big names of vodka are both sold Duty Free but you can buy Reyka in the states so we opted to pick up Katla to bring home along with some chocolates and a rhubarb liqueur. Other gifts we brought back were wool socks, other candies, a couple of knit hats, some mittens and a couple of little Christmas nick-nacks. Everything made it home safely (transferred
bottles to checked bag at connecting airport) and was well appreciated. I grabbed a flat rock at one of the waterfalls and have it to give to my sister with "ég tala ekki íslensku" written on it - "I don't speak Icelandic" was definitely a theme of our trip.

Some random thoughts of the overall trip:

If you worry about the high authorization for gasoline going on your card, you can check inside to see if they offer a prepaid card for sale - easier with American credit cards.

As you drive along, you'll see fields and fields of moss covered boulders - watch the movie "Frozen" and you can easily put together how these Scandinavian cultures have come up with the idea of trolls and rocks being related. (I believe it's understood that "Frozen" is set in Norway but when you see these fields, you will see what I mean.)

Seriously, don't go without good hiking boots. I normally live everyday life in Oofos but picked up a pair of Columbia brand boots on Amazon. They were ~$70USD and did the job perfectly.

Pack rain pants and rain jacket.

Cost is what you make it to be.

We didn't do museums on this trip, we wanted to be playing outside as much as we could be. Embrace the weather, it's Iceland for Pete's sake. If you're from the midwest of the US, it'll be like home on steroids. If you are from the warmer areas, it'll be an experience you won't find anywhere else.

To sum it up, it's like Iceland is where they keep a backup copy of everything cool on the globe. It shouldn't all make sense to be stored all together on one relatively small island but it does. Volcanoes, icebergs, mountains, fjords, hot springs, lush fields - it's like a physical interpretation of God's topographical inventory list. Pictures and words will never do it justice and even standing there soaking it all in for yourself, it's almost overwhelming in its awesomeness and you're still not getting it all, even in person.

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Great report! Thanks for posting!

You mention sticker shock and how cost is what you make it, but did you find things (food/meals in particular) to generally be crazy expensive?

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@Nancy, I'm even excited for you! I would go back in a heartbeat and hope you love it just as much!

@diveloonie, thank you! We landed early morning on 9/26 and flew home the morning of 10/02.

@Teresa, thanks! I tend to travel according to the local currency and market, typically I am not comparing every purchase to an American experience of roughly the same "value". So, I knew going in that costs would be higher and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. The sticker shock I refer to is in regards to a specific shop where locally made products from locally available resources were unexpectedly high even by Icelandic standards. Despite them not having imported anything. For instance, a little Icelandic horse that was made from local sheep's wool was so cute, I immediately decided that I needed to have it. Slightly smaller than a tennis ball, it tied my Iceland adventure to a happy childhood memory. Then I saw the price tag - it cost 5,250ISK or roughly $50USD. I couldn't justify that and put it back. However, gasoline at roughly $9USD/Gallon didn't phase me, $4USD slice of pizza at Costco didn't phase me, etc.

A couple of "typical" price points for your reference regarding meals: Cheese Omelette, hot chocolate and coffee came to $28.26USD, a hot chocolate and dessert bar came to $11.44USD, Soup and bread buffet at the greenhouse was $20.82USD and I drank the water on the table, a light meal for two of avocado toast, hot chocolate, hummus toast and coffee all together came to $32.62USD. I wouldn't call those crazy expensive, I think they cost what they cost in Iceland. Having said that, I'll be in Edinburgh, York and London next month and will appreciate a 3£ meal deal from Tesco as much as I always do when I'm in the UK. I hope those examples are helpful!

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Thanks so much for the comprehensive, fun-to-read trip report. Iceland is gaining popularity -- partially due to its discount transatlantic carriers that make stops in Reykjavic. I've often wondered what there is to do there -- thanks for shedding light on that. All of the outdoor activities sound wonderful. I also find myself drawn to the idea of soup and bread buffets -- soup is one of my favorite foods! How was the hot chocolate? I've always been more of a hot chocolate person than a coffee person, too.

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Thanks Dave, I appreciate your kind words. Most hot chocolate was standard but the hot chocolate at Nat in city center Reykjavik was a wonderfully deep, more European taste and it was my favorite! I hope you can find a way to visit - enjoy it when you do!