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Trip report - Iceland, September 2016

At long last I have written up my trip report for our September trip to Belgium, Scotland and Iceland. I'm posting in 3 parts.
Belgium - here
Scotland - here
Iceland - this post

Stop 4: Reykjavik
Friday September 23 – overcast, mid 50s
We landed around 3:30. Knowing we were probably going to have bottles of Scotch with us, and not wanting to pay Iceland duty on bottles that wouldn’t be opened in Iceland (up to $65 per bottle!), I had contacted the Iceland customs folks (by emailing upplysingar at tollur dot is) and they had told me “It is possible to handover any bottles for safekeeping in customs free at charge while you travel in Iceland. I recommend this option since the tax fee of alcohol is very high and depends on retail price and alcohol by volume. You can then pick it up when you plan to leave Iceland.” We just needed to go through the “something to declare” lane and the staff there would handle it for us. In the hopes of being able to hand over a whole suitcase instead of just the bottles, we had packed one of the suitcases with the bottles + stuff we didn’t need while in Iceland. Our clever plan to travel even more lightly was foiled, however, when the customs agent didn’t think our 4 bottles was enough to bother with and sent us through with all the whisky. It is good to know for future trips, though, that this service is available. Iceland seems to be doing everything it can to make their “free stopover” offer as convenient for travelers as possible. We queued up at the Flybus desk to buy tickets to the city. In visits past we have made advance reservations with Greyline but we were meeting friends who had arrived the day before who had RT Flybus tickets, and our Airbnb was only about 2/3 of a mile from the Flybus central depot, so we went with Flybus. A short 45 minute drive later we were in Reykjavik and in another 15 minutes or so at our Airbnb. This was our first time in Iceland arriving during daylight and not sleep deprived! Ben and I spent some time choosing which of the two bedrooms would be ours. We hadn’t heard from our friends yet – they were on a Golden Circle tour. So we decided to kill some time by walking to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur for our first hot dogs of the visit. After tveir með öllu we stopped at a market to pick up milk, coffee, granola bars and yogurt for Saturday breakfast. We walked back to the Airbnb and hung out reading for a short while waiting for Sophia & Greg to arrive. Finally they arrived! A little later than they planned, due to it taking a while to get their luggage and walk from their hotel to the Airbnb. At this point I realized that I had goofed with the reservation and somehow only had booked for 3 people instead of 4 people, so there were only linens for 3 people. I had listed all 4 of our names but when I initially made the reservation I thought it would only be the 3 of us. I sent our host a message letting her know I had made a mistake in the reservation, asking if there was any way we could get another set of towels, pillow case and duvet cover. And of course asking if our rate needed to be adjusted and could I leave it in cash for her. She didn’t want any extra fee, and asked if we would be OK that night or did we need the supplies urgently. Both Sophia & Greg had showered that day at a hot springs, so they didn’t need towels until the next evening. A t-shirt made a passable emergency pillow case on the 4th pillow and we were good until the next day, so we said “no urgency, tomorrow is fine!”

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Friday September 23 – part 2

For dinner we headed straight to Café Loki, a place Ben and I have been a couple of times now. It is a really good (and not horribly expensive) casual introduction to traditional Icelandic food. We ordered hakarl, of course, because our friends had never tried it. Greg didn’t mind it. Sophia had a hard time getting it down because she chewed it too much. It has an interesting and not pleasant texture. And the flavor is not good. Luckily the lamb pate, plokkfiskur, smoked trout, herring and rye bread ice cream made up for the hakarl. After dinner, we played cards, had a couple of beers, and went to bed.

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Saturday September 24 – partly cloudy, mid 50s
Woke up early, Ben & I showered, we all had coffee and yogurt, and our guide Geirfinnur arrived to take us on a private “Jeep tour” of the south coast & waterfalls Sophia had booked for us (in quotes because we were actually in a Toyota Land Cruiser). The Land Cruiser had wifi, which worked pretty well the whole time we were on the tour, so we could follow along on Google Maps. Geirfinnur took us first to Gluggafoss waterfall. We were surprisingly the only people there. It was gorgeous and we saw the first of the rainbows that we’d see all day wherever we went. After Gluggafoss our tour took an interesting turn. After sounding us out to see how flexible we were about where we went on our tour, Geirfinnur took us on an extraordinary tour of the ash fields around Þórsmörk and Eyjafjallajökull, along the Krossa river. I haven’t named the tour company or the tour we had booked, because Geirfinnur wasn’t supposed to take us to this area with the Land Cruiser he had – his boss would have sent a different vehicle if he’d known we were headed to that area. Our Land Cruiser was brand new! :-D The trip was hair raising for me – we crossed small and large creeks constantly, at one point Geirfinnur had to stop and let air out of the tires because we were basically driving overs mall boulders. There were no real roads! Apparently every spring workers come out with equipment to carve some pathways in the rocks and ash that people can use to travel up the valley, and in the winter the area floods and all the “roads” are wiped away. So they are different every year. I saw the signs warning anyone without 4 wheel drive not to continue but I didn’t grok what it really meant until later! Geirfinnur was an adventurous driver, who seemed to know what he was doing, but I think he was also showing off a little. He took a few risks I was not comfortable with (when it wasn’t too bumpy I sometimes had my face buried in someone’s shoulder so I couldn’t see my death approaching). I’m terrified of heights, cliffs, roller coasters, etc, but my companions never felt in much danger, so draw your own conclusions! Though I was terrified some of the time, every time we reached a new stopping point I was overwhelmed by how beautiful everything was, so I completely do not regret the tour. There is no other way to see those incredible vistas. We actually reached the “end of the road” where no vehicles could continue – only hikers. On the way back to the real road we stopped off at the base of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. We could have gotten all the way onto the glacier, but the walk was very circuitous and would have taken too long so we didn’t attempt it. Then lunch! Geirfinnur took us to Gamla Fjósið, a restaurant attached to a cattle farm. There was beef in everything, as far as I could tell. Ben & I split the Farmers burger and the steak sandwich. Greg had the Icelandic meat soup, and Sophia the Country burger. The food was simple but good. Greg found out too late that his soup was refillable and missed out on the opportunity to have another bowl. Or two or three.

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Saturday September 24 - part 2

Next up we stopped at Skogafoss for more photos of waterfalls and rainbows. Then on to the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse, with incredible views of black sand beaches and the Reynisdranga basalt sea columns. It was so windy up there that I thought we’d be blown off the cliff. We had even better views of the Reynisdranga at our next stop where we took a walk on the black sand beach while Geirfinnur washed the car to remove evidence of our unauthorized side trip to Þórsmörk. We stopped for picturesque views of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and Seljalandsfoss where everyone but me walked the path behind the waterfall. I chickened out at the last minute and everyone confirmed afterward that I had made the right choice. Slippery, no railings, fairly treacherous. Safe enough for people who are sure footed and brave, but not for me! One final unauthorized detour to see an excavation of a Viking long house and we returned to Reykjavik. For dinner we made a poor choice. We wanted to find a place for something small so we could follow up with more hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur and ended up at Hresso for appetizers. Service was comically bad, and the food was mediocre and way overpriced. We should have just gone straight for hot dogs and eaten 3 each. Live and learn. Don’t make important decisions when tired and hungry! Back to the Airbnb, cards, beers, bed.

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Sunday September 25 – sunny, low 50s
We had no set time to be anywhere so we took our time getting up and showered and caffeinated. Today was our Reykjavik day, so we set off walking towards the waterfront, intending to visit the Sun Voyager sculpture first. We came across a bakery and stopped for (more) coffee and snuðurs. Took photos of the Sun Voyager sculpture, and finally got a photo of Ben & me with the sculpture – travelling by ourselves in years past we haven’t gotten a good photo of the two of us there. Up next: the Harpa. We’d never gone inside before, and didn’t understand what the fuss was about, but a friend had recently posted photos of the inside, so we went in. The architecture really messed with my sense of perspective and what was up and what was down. It was trippy, and I recommend visiting it. We walked from the Harpa to Kolaportið to browse the stalls. We tried pylsur from one the stalls, to compare to the ones at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. They were pretty good, so Baejarins Beztu Pylsur isn’t the only choice in Reykjavik, but I do like them the best so far. We found a stall selling reading glasses, in both positive and negative diopters! In the US you can only obtain negative diopter glasses by prescription. For reasons too boring to go into here, Ben was in need of a pair of -1 (ish) eyeglasses. We found some that weren’t hideous and bought them for 1300 ISK (around $12US) Ben and Greg also took advantage of the beer in the vending machine. In Iceland beer around 2% abv is considered “non-alcoholic” and can be bought without age restriction, and consumed while walking around, the same as a soda. The novelty of vending machine beer was too enticing to resist, so they each bought a walking around beer for exploring the market.

After the Kolaportið we walked along the harbor towards a shopping center where Ben and I knew we could buy Icelandic pylsur and condiments to take home to Boston. Along the way we stopped for coffee at Kaffislippur (actually in the Icelandair hotel). In front of us in line was a guy who asked whether the small cookies in the basket were “free samples” The barista said they come with the coffee, and the guy proceeded to grab a couple handfuls of cookies with his bare hands, to the polite horror of the barista, who then handed him his coffee and used little tongs to lay two cookies on his saucer. We drank our coffees by the fire, then walked on to Bonus and Kronan to buy pylsur and 4 of the 5 requisite toppings. It was afternoon by then, so I fired up the Appy Hour app to find out which bars nearby were having happy hour specials. We hit Slippbarrin for cocktails. They served us a jar of salmiakki dusted popcorn, which goes surprisingly well with beer. By then we were hungry so we had an early dinner at Saegreifinn (the Sea Baron) – we each had a cup of their famous lobster bisque (justifiably famous!) and chose a different type of fish for them to grill. We split the fish so we could each have 4 different kinds of fish. All were really good – I highly recommend Saegreifinn. The Appy Hour app next led us to Bryggjan Brewhuse for a round, then we headed back to the Airbnb to hang out. We heard reports of Northern Lights activity visible in the city, so we bundled up and headed to the harbor, thinking that might be the darkest spot that we could walk to easily. We saw some very faint activity, then gave up because we were really cold. Back at the Airbnb we checked a couple of Northern Lights forecast websites, one of which predicted strong activity in Reykjavik in about an hour. So we played some cards then went back out and this time did see some lights. I wish we’d seen more, because the few we saw were otherworldly.

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Monday September 26 – sunny, low 50s

Time to go home. We had a very light breakfast at the Airbnb, then headed to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur for a final hot dog. Then we walked to the Flybus depot and went to the airport.

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Nice report, Motorgirl. I hope to travel to Iceland someday soon and your post has whetted my curiosity for the country. Thanks for posting.

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Hi Motorgirl Your trip report was really great to read. Are you on instagram? Have you posted any photos? Love to see them. I would love to go to Iceland and actually hope to go to Belgium later this year! Safe travels, Ann

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@Ann - I am on Instagram but haven't posted any photos there. I'll try to get some posted this weekend! Good idea.

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Loved the report. I guess Iceland goes on my list. The list is getting longer and longer, I may need to stop reading trip reports. On second thought, forget that.