I’ve been paralyzed with feeling that I had to explain it all, to wrap my mind around my trip, and create my travel video before I could talk about Iceland. However, if I wait much longer, I may forget the little details. You know, the ones that showed a different world. As you may know, I left the US on Saturday, March 7th and touched down in a frosty pre-dawn world 2,500 miles away on Sunday. Why did we choose Iceland? Well, when we were purchasing tickets for our trip to Europe last year, it hit our fancy to try and land for a few days in Iceland. Unfortunately, it was far too pricey to do, so we skipped it. Then last fall, we decided “let’s go to Iceland and try to see the northern lights!” My best friend piped up that she wanted to go too. So off we went to buy plane tickets (November) and lodging (February). The total cost per person was $1100 which covered a plane ticket, gas, lodgings, and a SUV.
T and I agonized over how to carry as much food as possible with us. We had been told repeatedly that food was ridiculously expensive. So the night before we left, both of us separately hit up the store. Then we were so upset to realize that we had way more food than we could carry over w/o additional taxes (6.6 lbs/person). We had bought food with my BFF in mind, but she had other ideas. I took her to Trader Joe’s before we left and she stocked up on her own treats. So what made the cut?
- Nutrition bars (breakfast)
- 6 Hormel dinners (kinda gross, but cheaper than buying food there)
- A box of saltine crackers
- Chicken bouillon cubes
- Instant coffee
- Movie theater boxes of candy (I ate this)
- 1 bag of popcorn
- Raisins (gross)
- Cans of chicken
- Pack of tuna
- Canned ham (nasty — fell apart)
All our worrying ended up being for naught. Customs wasn’t even open, so we skipped straight through without anyone wanting to weigh how much food we had brought. We were emotionally drained by this and frustrated. However, we only bought food four times: pastries in Reykjavik chicken sandwiches in Akureyri, hot dogs in southeastern Iceland, a box of rice, butter, and carrots. Then at the first place we stayed, we ended up driving of leaving all the cold stuff including my BFF’s India Pale Ale beer in the fridge. Only the rice made it safely out with us. My BFF brought along two types of tea and tons of mac and cheese.
Due to my over strictness that we make it to the airport in plenty of time, we got there WAY too early. It turned out that the Icelandair counter didn’t even open until like 3 hours before the flight. So we had 3 hours to wait. Fortunately, the chairs we found were awesome. T and my BFF relaxed in those while I commandeered the cool bench and power outlet.
These chairs were awesome
Later we hung out in the terminal, guarding our power outlets while relaxing. The flight over was painful for me because I NEEDED to sleep on this red-eye. Unfortunately, I just jerked uncomfortably in my seat for 3 hours before giving up and flipping through the videos on the screen in front of me. I watched some 12 minute long video which I thought was about selki. Oh, no. I was so wrong. It was about a guy who went canoeing. He pulls up on a rocks-only island to eat lunch and then falls asleep. However, the tide is rising and his canoe disappears. There’s a moment which focuses on his face as he realizes that he’s screwed. His eyes are red rimmed and teary. His lips are parted. I know that face, those feelings. The scene shifts to a guy in a motorboat. He’s drinking a lot. It feels like a student film with all the focus on the beer can. He sees the guy on the island waving his arms as the water rises around his ankles. The captain blinks, rubs his eyes, and stares out his window. Then he tosses his beer out the window. The video ends with the camera following the descent of the bottle.
It was extremely bizarre and set the mood that Icelanders must be a very tough, no-frills demeanor.
When we landed, the plane did not come up to the gate, so we were unceremoniously dumped out into the cold. I was unprepared for that and hustled inside the…what is this? An Ikea showroom? of an airport lobby. The airport was interesting in how many turning twists we had to make to get out. The Wow airline posters were unsettling with their brightness in the hallways. All the models in all the advertising were blonde, blue-eyed, and pale skinned. It was odd seeing as how natural blondes are not particularly common on the East Coast of the U.S. This set the tone for the rest of our trip with the only non-white people I spied were a couple Asian female tourists at Geysir (the home of the original geysir from which all geysirs are named after).
We were loaded up into a huge work van by a boy that looked like a high school sophomore. He drove us within sight of the airport to the car rental company. What I found surprising is that he left the van running while we went inside. The snow was a thick powder around our shoes. T signed papers while I looked at the huge map of Iceland. As far as I can tell, Icelanders just refer to their country as Island. I asked the guy if he was the unlucky one who had to be here at 6 a.m. He smiled and said no, he was here every day this early. As he led us to our SUV, I asked if there was anywhere we could get some breakfast. He said we might find a bakery further north at the capitol. We then got in the car and drove the long drive north.
The video above does not paint a complete picture. It was a little snowy while we were driving. Then out of nowhere, the car sounded like it had been hit with a wave of bullets — and unending wave of bullets. I became paranoid that our rental insurance would not cover whatever damage this ice was inflicting. Pro-tip: buy the gravel insurance. All roads are also marked with tall, yellow bars on both sides. This way you can try to avoid running off the roads. Most roads are built-up above their surroundings. We were grateful that these yellow bars were there within minutes when we realized we could not see the road.
The next thing we discovered about driving in Iceland is that road signs are useless. Most of them were completely covered in snow. I quickly became disgruntled that T had insisted we just use some paper maps. I have not had to rely on a paper map in years NOR could I understand Icelandic, so driving around without a GPS was very difficult anywhere near Reykjavik. Later when you’re outside the city, there are very few roads, so you can’t make too many mistakes.
So there I was, trying to read the paper map in the weak light of dawn. As you’ll see in the photo below, dawn was strange. The sun appeared to rise some distance above the horizon. Where it had been dark, suddenly a bright spot appeared higher in the sky. Anyways, we drove past the one bakery that was open. We ended up near the ocean at a gas station. It had appeared open with the lights on, but nope. T crossed the street to a hotel to purchase maps. I took the opportunity to climb over the seats to the back so I could pull out my thermals and snow boots. Thus began the first of three times of changing in the car in broad daylight. Don’t worry — no one was around. Pro-tip: it’s very difficult to pull up thermal pants while sitting down.
Why are you so high up?
Once T had returned, I tried to navigate us towards the highway leading to Þingvellir while hoping we’d find food on the way. We got lost, immediately. Then we drove up and down the road, trying to get re-oriented. Only by sheer chance did we run into that bakery I had seen earlier. I got some pastry that was the size of my face with some kind of hazelnut icing on top. Then off we went to find a gas station. I won’t bore you with how many more times we got lost, turned around, etc. But suffice to say, we realized that T’s credit card would not be accepted at the gas stations. He ended up spending a great deal of our in-hand cash to buy a gas card. The gas station attendant was uncertain that T really meant to put that much cash on it. He insisted. We were then free to travel onwards.
Check out the way the clouds sit on top of the mountains north of Reykjavik.
Note: I’ve discovered that while in European countries, I slip in the local vernacular of saying water closets instead of bathrooms. On one of the long stretches between destinations, T and I had a discussion if there was a better word for the toilet room other than bathroom, restroom, or water closet. We accepted that water closet is probably the best term.
It was with a bit of luck that we took the right road to Þingvellir. While the Golden Circle is probably the most popular thing to tour in Iceland, the road outside of Reykjavik is barely marked. We were unsure we were going the right way for awhile. Then after awhile, we saw a sign that was not snow-covered so we could see we were enroute.
The first bit of land through the northern section of the Golden Circle is smooth snow over soft rolling hills. Other times the land flattens out with distant tall hills. There are great expanses of snow which are unmarred by footprints or car tracks of mankind. Since there are few trees in Iceland, you feel like you are on top of the world. There is nothing beyond the great white snow and the sky. When the snow would blow around, you could not tell the difference between the ground and sky.
More flat land on the Golden Circle.
We then found Þingvellir as a mysterious side road that led to the left. What is Þingvellir you ask? It’s where Iceland’s political matters were traditionally settled for over a thousand years. The Þ is pronounced as “th” so I believe you say it as “Thing-veil-air.” I’m awful at pronunciations though, so don’t trust me on that. The other notable thing here that drew me like a bee to nectar is the rift valley. Iceland exists at a location where the European and North American plates are pulling apart. If it was the right time of year, you can visit Lake Silfra which has some of the clearest water in the world. At one point, you can touch both continental plates at once. Alas, we didn’t see that. We had a long way to travel, but we took dozens of photos and videos. I did my second change of clothes as I shrugged into another top before we got out.
It was cold here, no lie. Snow covered everything. We walked on this wooden walkway between two high walls and looked down. We realized that we couldn’t see how far down it was under the bridge. Just rocks jutting out as far down as you could see. The path here through this “canyon” was fairly narrow. We then walked on down and came across more places to view the largest natural lake in Iceland. T and my BFF found a narrow zig-zag staircase leading up. The steps were pure ice. I followed after them as I watched in fascination as they clung to the rail like hiking a vertical wall. It was a good thing I had on my ridiculous hunting gloves to give me a better grip. I didn’t see it, but T reported that he got to the top, took a few steps and hit the ground thanks to the ice. We then walked around, enjoying The snow began fall in earnest. We headed back after deciding we were too cold to walk towards the church in the valley below.
Ah, European bathrooms — you had to pay to go in. We had no coins, so I had to solider it on.
Just past Þingvellir, the road wound through scrub bushes. At this point, I passed out despite protests from T that I should stay awake. He had slept on the plane, but I had not. When I woke again, we had arrived at Geysir. We thought we had missed it, but when T turned the SUV around, we saw steam rising from the ground. We parked and I declined to go with them. I was too exhausted to keep my eyes open. I did wander inside the visitor center/store to the restroom. The leather bags, sweaters, and other goods were almost too irresistible. Fortunately, I had no cash, so I couldn’t spend a dime (side note: I felt so safe in Iceland with it’s extremely low crime rate that I left my purse in the car everywhere we went. I did take it inside our lodgings at night tho). Once outside, I decided to walk up to the first geysir. It was disappointing.
I then found a large crow/raven walking around in the parking lot. I tried to film it, but some other tourists interrupted. So I went back to the car and read the guidebook when T and my BFF returned. They had gone further and saw a mini eruption. According to the guidebook, the famous geysir used to go off all the time. However, it stopped in the 1960s for unknown reasons. So for special guests, they’ll dump soap powder in it to trigger an eruption.
Onwards we headed towards Gullfoss — the destination my BFF had asked in particular about visiting. The road to Gullfoss rises up on a semi-steep hill. I spent long moments throughout the trip worried that we’d slide off the road to our deaths. However, we made it safely up the hill. In the near distance a canyon spread the ground to our right. I rightly guessed that it was the river that made up Gullfoss. It was bitterly cold. When I think back on the trip, this was the part where I was coldest. The icy snow whipped our faces and our two layers of pants made no difference. But as we descended the long staircase downwards, I looked to the left halfway down. “Wow,” I breathed aloud. The view was unbelievable.
The legend behind this place is true. A woman at the turn of the 20th century walked from here all the way to the Reykjavik to protest turning the waterfalls to a dam. She lost her court case, but public opinion was with her, so the waterfall was protected. The woman is a hero and one to look to for inspiration in protecting our natural wonders.
As gorgeous as Gullfoss was, it was too cold to stay. We made it back to our SUV and discovered a joy: heated seats. We abused this privilege for the rest of the trip. We shivered in the car while we figured out our route to Borgarnes, our destination for the night. Around this point, I found out something cool. While our phones data was turned off for obvious international travel reasons, our GPS still worked in Google Maps. We could get an approximate idea of where we were by looking at Maps. We used this over and over as I was the official navigator for the trip.
T planning our route.
The trip from the Golden Circle was scary. This was probably the second most unnerving part of our trip. The snowstorm that had began at Þingvellir was in full-swing as we headed west back into it. At times we could not see the road at all and visibility dropped to just feet in front of us. If it wasn’t for those yellow markers on the side of the road, it’d been too easy for us to have been lost somewhere on these high plains. Our fellow drivers? They drove wildly through the snow, trusting in their super sized tires.
We eventually stumbled free back to Reykjavik and then headed north. This was our second view of the ocean. Earlier we had spotted the white waves crashing in the darkness as we drove from the airport. But now we could see the deep blue of the water as it crashed along the bay. Ice pelleted the car. The views were spectacular as you may expect. I was surprised when we went through a long under the bay tunnel. It was unsettling because of how wet it was. Every few hundred yards would be a pull-off with fire extinguishers. At the end, we had to pay a $10 toll to continue on. We thought we were out of the worst of the storm, but we ran into some more white outs as we curved around a mountain. Next, we stopped at the weird, but “cheap” grocery store, Bonus. T believes this is basically Iceland’s version of Aldi’s. That is, reasonably cheap but the kinds of food you have there will never be stable. They purchase whatever they can to resale to you.
We then had a fun time figuring out which was butter and what was cheese. The freezer section was a semi-enclosed back corner of the store. You walked in and circled the area looking at food stuff. There was lots of fish as to be expected. The assortment of available products was odd, but I think that goes with the Aldi’s like aspect. We eventually settled on purchasing some single bags of rice and butter. The cashier stumbled through English with T. We then went out into the middle of nowhere. Then we made a right turn on route 50 and went even further to nowhere. We eventually came to our Airbnb host’s house. She was not home, but her father/father-in-law greeted us. He spoke no English and we no Icelandic. But he then drove ahead of us to our cabin for the night. That’s right, drove even further away.
The first cabin
When we came to the cabin, we realized it was a fishing lodge that they let out the rest of the year. But it was wonderfully warm. We brought in our stuff, careful to remove our shoes. There was a loft above the bathroom, entrance, and bedrooms, but we did not visit it. I ended up collapsing on my bed and sleeping. My BFF and T protested, but I closed them out and slept on the narrow bed. T came and got me for dinner. Turns out that canned ham is disgusting. But I ate my rice, nodding all the way. Then I retreated to bed again. At some point, I woke up, looked out the window and realized we were not as far away from other people as we thought. In the distance I could see some house lights. This pattern repeated throughout our trip. I then tried to snuggle with T, but the narrowness of the bed sent me back to my own.
Iceland water is either the best water you’ve ever tasted in your life or sulfur. Fortunately, it was overwhelming delicious, but I can’t get over the smell of the sulfurous water when I raised my toothbrush to my mouth at the horse farm.
All the furniture, showers, kitchenware, bunk beds, and maybe even the towels were from Ikea. I thought it was a quirk at first, but after seeing the familiar logo at our various Airbnb locations, I realized that Ikea was everywhere. A quick search revealed there is only one Ikea in the country. Yet we found their merchandise everywhere we went.
Stop signs appear to only exist in Reykjavik and Akureyri. Okay, all the one bridges in the east also warn you to watch out for oncoming traffic. It was very odd to be able to zoom around wherever we liked w/o traffic signs.
We could not tell the difference between butter and cheese at the pervy pig logo store, Bonus.
I spotted one cop car the whole time. There were also three emergency vehicles. No ambulances or firetrucks, just some huge tired SUVs which had “EMERGENCY” on them.
Every single place, including the hotel, had an electric kettle. This is awesome.