Iceland: Day 5 & Reflections

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Our flight back to Boston wasn't until 3:30pm, but our cottage at Hestheimar was still over an hour and a half away from the airport.  There were a few places I was hoping to stop and see, but it was raining pretty hard.  Most of our time there was drizzly, but this was the only day that the weather was bad enough for us to not want to be out in it.  Luckily we didn't have to check out until 11am so we were able to just have a relaxing morning and watch the rain from inside.

Our trip to the airport and our flight home were all uneventful so I figured I could use this post to share some reflections on the trip and Iceland in general.
1. I know I said this in an earlier post but if you are traveling anywhere with out cell data download the app and download the maps for where you'll be traveling.  We had bought a sim card at the duty free shop when we arrived, but never needed to use it.

2. Renting a car is almost a necessity.  Unless you plan to stay in the city (which you shouldn't) you will need a car to get around.  I believe there are buses you could find, but I think you'll miss out on so many impromptu roadside stops that make up a bulk of traveling in Iceland.  I would recommend Sixt after using them for the week but I know there are several other options there as well.

3. If you are renting a car find out if your credit card gives you insurance coverage.  We were able to save a good chunk of money because my American Express card has a international car insurance program so I could decline Sixt's.

4. Iceland is very credit card friendly.  I never even took money out of the ATM and never needed cash.  Every place we stopped took credit cards.  Even more shocking, all but one location we went to took American Express.  I have a harder time using my AmEx card in the US than I did in Iceland.

5. That being said, almost everything we did in Iceland was free.  I think the only attraction I paid for was the elevator ride up the tower of Hallgrimskirkja.

6. THAT being said, everything else was very expensive.  Restaurants were outrageous but we could find relatively affordable meals at gas stations.  It sounds weird but it was pretty common in Iceland. We ate at an A1 Gas Station probably once a day while we were there.  Our hostels were also all more expensive than any others I have stayed at and at least one charged extra for bedding.

7.  We also found that most of our hostels were fully booked each night. We were there in mid September which is already considered the off season so I would recommend booking well in advance, especially if you are there in the summer.

8. Wow is a budget airline so they give you nothing for free, but I found that the plane was just as comfortable as any regular flight I've been on so if you pack well and bring snacks I would highly recommend them.

9. Everyone there speaks English so don't worry about a language barrier.

10.  Seeing the Northern Lights is not a guarantee.  That was something I really wanted to experience while there and I just barely got to see them.  It seems like the weather is overcast regularly enough that you could be there for a while without seeing them. Luckily Iceland is amazing in so many other ways that I wasn't too upset about not getting a perfect view of the lights.

Iceland: Day 4

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Since the first three days of our trip consisted of driving west and north, we had to at some point make our way back towards Reykjavik and the airport.  Most of our fourth day was dedicated to doing that, though we made a dozen pit stops along the way.

Our first stop was back at Jökulsárlón.  As we were leaving the day before we saw that you could actually park on the other side of the road that faced the ocean instead of the lagoon.  It seems like a lot of the ice that makes it out of the lagoon ends up washing back up on the shore so it was cool to be able to walk between the massive ice chunks.

After that we stopped at Núpsstaður.  Our plan was to stop there the day before however there was a "Private Property" sign at the front gate so we decided to skip it.  While we were driving past it on the way back however we saw half a dozen cars there and people walking around the area.  I'm sure we should have just listened to the sign, but we decided to go anyway.  Núpsstaður is a collection of old turf houses and a turf church.  They were all so tiny that I don't think I could even fit in one for long.   We didn't stick around there for long but again I felt like we were exploring hobbit houses.  Pretty much the whole trip felt like we were bouncing back and forth between Middle Earth and the moon.

Further along the road back to the city we stopped in an area we had found the day before.  I'm sure this area had a name, but we were just calling it The Cove.  From the road we could see two waterfalls off in the distance and it looked like there was a hidden cove at the base of them.  I had left most of this day open for driving with time to get a hike in, so we decided this would be the area we would explore.  We parked our car in an area off the road and started following a path.  The path led to a few levees that we couldn't even see from the road.  From there we continued on by following sheep paths.  We began climbing up until we were looking down over the small river created by the waterfalls.  We had been walking for a long time and because we were now between massive moss covered rocks we could see no signs of civilization.  It was just us, the river, and the sheep.  I don't think I've ever felt so truly isolated as I did there.  Turns out there wasn't really a cove and we probably would have had to hike for a few more hours to actually reach the waterfalls so we eventually started making our way back.  On the way back we did, of course, cross paths with two men who probably owned the land.  I felt bad if we were trespassing but they didn't seem to mind. We also found the bones of a long gone sheep which was kind of terrifying (especially when Josh threw one of the bones at me when I wasn't looking) but it definitely added to the isolated feeling we experienced.
The hike I had actually planned was at Skaftafell National Park, but by the time we reached the area we were both exhausted.  We did start the hike but within 15 minutes we both decided that continuing on would probably just leave us cranky and unable to enjoy the hike.  Plus we still had a decent amount of driving to do that day.

Our "splurge" for that trip was staying at Hestheimar Cottages.  These were a handful of cottages overlooking a horse farm.  After staying in hostels for three nights anything would seem luxurious, but this place really felt it.  There was a big hot shower (though it did almost flood the bathroom after running for just a few minutes) and bathrobes provided.  There were candles in all of the windows and a nice little kitchen for us to cook our dinner in.  We probably could have gone out and explored some more, but this cottage was kind of like ending our trip with a spa night and we were both more than happy with just relaxing and enjoying it.

Iceland: Day 3

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The next morning we were going to try to meet up with my aunt and uncle who just happened to be visiting Iceland at the same time as us so we headed to Reynisdrangar.  Reynisdrangar are basalt columns similar to Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland.  There weren't as many columns as there were in Ireland, but they were right along a black sand beach which made it a cool area to explore.   It wasn't a huge area but we searched for my aunt and uncle for about 20 minutes before giving up.  I got a text later saying they were there at the same time we were, but I haven't talked to them since to find out how we could have missed each other.

After giving up our search we continued our drive North.  We wanted to stop at the Eldhraun Lava Field however our GPS wanted us to go 12 miles down a gravel road which we didn't think our little Opal Corsa could handle.  We settled with a few roadside stops that let us get a decent view of the lava fields covered with squishy green moss.

From there we continued on to what I think was my favorite stop of the trip. Fjaðrárgljúfur was down another gravel road which almost made us turn around, but I'm so glad we continued on.  Fjaðrárgljúfur is a canyon with these outcroppings that lead out over the river below.  The views here were breathtaking.  And, again, they gave warnings where something might be dangerous or where they were trying to protect certain plants, but for the most part you could walk right out to the edge of these ledges.  This is another place that I wish I budgeted more time to explore.

After that we stopped at Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon.  This was kind of the smaller, hidden little brother to the more popular Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon further down the road.  It was not as big as Jökulsárlón, but I'm still glad we stopped to see it.  Both lagoons were filled with massive ice chunks breaking off from the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier.  The blue/green color of the ice chunks seemed almost unnatural but they were amazing to look at.

We then continued on to our hostel for the night: Vagnsstaðir Hostel.  I chose this hostel because I wasn't sure if we were going to make it all the way to the next town, Höfn, that day.  In retrospect we should have just booked a place in Höfn. There was nowhere to get food near where we were staying and we ended up having to drive to Höfn anyway to find some. It was 40 minutes there and 40 back to the hostel so we could have just save ourselves the trouble and stayed there for the night.  We did at least getting to see a beautiful sunset on our ride back.

On the brightside, because our hostel was in the middle of nowhere we had our best chances of seeing the Northern Lights.  Every night we were in Iceland was overcast except for this one night.  Josh and I went out around 11:30 as soon as the sky started clearing but the moon, which was almost full, was insanely bright.  Unfortunately a bright moon is almost just as bad for the Northern Lights as an overcast sky is.  We were looking off towards a mountain range and felt like there was a green tint along it but we couldn't be sure it wasn't our eyes playing tricks on us.  Luckily I had my camera and was able to do a two minute exposure which showed us that it was, in fact, the Northern Lights.

We didn't stay out for long, but I decided to set an alarm to go back out around 2:30 when the moon would be lower in the sky.  I didn't wake Josh since I wasn't sure what I'd see.  I made my way down the long dirt road that led to the hostel.  There was one motion sensor light that kicked on, but once I got far enough down the road that light shut off and I was left alone in the dark.  Looking up I could see what looked like a milky disk in the sky.  Again over the mountains I could see the green tint, but this time it had a slight ripple to it which made it more clearly the Northern Lights.  I stayed out there for a while getting some pictures though none came out great.  It was still a cool experience to be standing out there by myself in Iceland watching the Northern Lights.
Seriously.  How is this not another planet?

Iceland: Day 2

Monday, September 12, 2016

As much as I enjoyed my 12 hours of sleep, my whole body hurt the next morning from not moving for that long.  It was totally worth it.  I ate some road side pastries and some instant coffee then we checked out of the hostel and hit the road.

We headed south/east to our first stop, Seljalandsfoss Waterfall.  I think when I started researching Iceland that was one of the most striking pictures I saw initially.  There is basically a cave that runs behind this waterfall with a small dirt trail that allows you to see the waterfall from the backside.

A little farther beyond Seljalandsfoss were a few more waterfalls.  One had a semi-treacherous climb up to a spot where you could look down into a cavern where the water fell.  One of my favorite parts of Iceland was that they pretty much allow you to go anywhere you wanted.  There were warning signs where things might be dangerous, but they trusted you to be aware of your surroundings and careful of flora/fauna.  On this climb there were a few spots that would definitely be considered a "lawsuit waiting to happen" here, but in Iceland it's more just "use common sense".  Perhaps that's because there is a certain type of person that would visit Iceland and a certain type that wouldn't, or maybe it's because it just hasn't become an issue yet but things will start getting more restrictive as time goes on and tourism grows... I'm not sure.

After Seljalandsfoss we drove on to Skógafoss Waterfall. This was another big beautiful waterfall... with a rainbow in front of it to emphasize the beautiful.  Next to the waterfall was a 500+ step staircase that took you to the top of the falls.  It was an exhausting climb up and the wind was unbelievable, but the view was amazing.  There were also trails that followed along the river that led up to the waterfall.  If I had known there was so much to explore up there I would have budgeted some more time to explore.  We did sit down along the trail for a while to just take it all in.  Or maybe it's just because our legs were tired...

Our next stop was the Sólheimasandur DC 3 Plane crash.  This is where a US Navy plane crash landed in 1973.  Everyone on board survived the crash, but the fuselage was left behind.  It is a 2.5 mile walk from the road to the crash site and, while it was pretty cool to see, Josh and I agreed that the 5 mile round trip walk was not really worth it.  I did get some awesome pictures there though.

We continued on from there to Vik where we checked into Hostel Vik.  We stopped at a grocery store to pick up something to cook and were shocked to see that even the small town grocery store prices were crazy.  A pound of ground beef was over $10 for what we could get here for under $5.  Chicken was also about double what it would be here.  Let's just say we got very creative with our meals while we were in Iceland.

Before we headed back to make dinner we stopped quickly at Dyrhólaey while the sun was setting around us.  We got a beautiful view of the black sand beaches and the huge waves that crashed along the rock.

Iceland: Day 1

Sunday, September 11, 2016

When I heard that there was an airline that had flights out of the country from Boston for $99 I knew I had to plan a trip... no matter where that flight was taking me.

It just so happens that those flights go to Iceland.  I knew very little about the country but for that price I didn't even care.  Of course the more research I did the more I questioned why I hadn't already visited Iceland.  It was quite possibly the most fascinating country I've ever been to.

It was a night flight from Logan that arrive in Keflavik airport around 4:30 in the morning Iceland time.  I don't think the whole fly through the night - go all day thing ever gets any easier, but Josh and I have at least done it enough to know what to expect.

We took a quick shuttle ride from the airport to the Sixt rental car pick up.  I've never rented a car in the states, let alone in another country, but it was a surprisingly painless process (we would soon learn everything in Iceland was a painless process compared to at home).

From there we hit the road.  We had something like 9 hours before we could even think about checking into our hostel so we decided to do the Golden Circle first.

The Golden Circle consist of a few different sites within driving distance of Reykjavik.  It was a little over an hour from the airport to our first stop.  This drive alone gave us a taste of how unbelievable the landscape of Iceland was.  It only got more interesting the farther we got from the city, but even the drive from the airport made me feel like I was suddenly exploring the moon.  

The first stop was Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. Þingvellir is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and was also the site of the first parliament of Iceland (and one of the first in the world).  Despite having done a lot of research on this and every site we visited I was surprised at how... cool this place was.  I know that is not a great description, but I think I'll just end up doing what everyone else has done and try to convey an experience that can't really be put down in words.

We were the first ones to Þingvellir that morning and it was cold and drizzly so for a while we were the only ones wandering around.  I think I said a hundred times throughout the trip that I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings.  Actually the whole country reminded me a lot of New Zealand so that makes sense I guess.

From there we continue driving on to Geysir and Strokkur.  Geysir is actually where the english word geyser came from, though it's currently inactive so not very geyser like.  Luckily nearby is the spunky Strokkur.  While we were there we saw Strokkur erupt at least three times, each one different from the last.  There were also dozens of small hot springs throughout the area.  There were a lot more people at this site but it still felt like we were walking on the surface of another planet.

Our third stop of the day was Gullfoss waterfall.  We saw a lot of waterfalls during our week in Iceland but this was the most epic.  It was just massive.  We couldn't see it while walking on the path towards it, but we turned a corner and suddenly there it was.  You can almost feel the ground rumbling under your feet from the power of the water rushing by.

By this point the exhaustion was kicking in.  I had been driving most of the morning but Josh finally made me stop when I had to shake my head every 30 seconds to keep my eyes open.   He took over driving for a while, but we eventually just decided to pull over, put our seats back in the car, and take a nap.  I'm not sure if this is better or worse than the jet lagged induced nap we took in the middle of a sketchy park in London, but it was something that had to happen.

When we woke up (mainly because the car had gotten cold) we started back toward Reykjavik.  I was nervous about city driving but Reykjavik may be the smallest city I've ever been in.  I was also driving possibly the smallest car I had ever been in so it was actually pretty easy.

Oh, and as a side note for anyone who may be traveling to Iceland (or anywhere they may not have cell data) download the app before leaving and download the maps for the country you are visiting.  We used that for the entire trip and never had a problem.

We checked into our hostel at Reykjavik Hostel Village and probably could have gone to bed and slept through the night, but it was only 4pm and it was really the only time we were going to have to get to see the city.

We headed back out and walked over to Hallgrimskirkja.  This was a massive church that towered over the city.  I was able to take an elevator to the top to see a 360° view of the city.  After the Church we walked down to the water to see the Sólfarið (Sun Voyager Sculpture) and then over to the Harpa Concert Hall.

By then it was getting late and we were getting hungry so we walked up Laugavegur Street (the main shopping area) to find food.  This is, unfortunately, where we found the one down side of Iceland. Everything is insanely, insanely expensive.  Granted we were in a tourist-y and probably more expensive area, but we could not find a single place where we could get a meal for under $25.  We ended up heading back towards the church where there was a street vendor selling waffles for $8.  We also happened to walk by a bicycle with a basket full of pastries.  Everything was closing up around us and apparently the bakery just put all of their remaining goods out on the street.  Other people were packing up pastries to go so we grabbed some as well.  Those would make up my breakfasts for the rest of the trip.  I am not above taking food from the side of the road when hungry.

We were back to the hostel and in bed by 7:30 and didn't wake up until 8am the next morning.