Iceland – February 2012

This is a trip that almost didn’t happen, and it would have been a huge shame if we missed it! I came down with a stomach bug two days before our departure and the morning we left was my first try at eating real food…but we decided to risk it, packed our bags, and headed to Logan Airport for our evening flight. I am so glad we did!

Our amazingly inexpensive Icelandair package included roundtrip flights from Boston to Reykjavik, three nights’ hotel accommodations, and a full day sightseeing tour of the Golden Circle. It was just the right amount of time for a quick introduction to this beautiful country, and I can’t wait to go back and see more. The full trip report is below, and the photos are here.

We left Boston at about 8:30 pm on a Friday night and were fortunate enough to have a fairly empty flight (needless to say, February is not peak season for travel to Iceland) so we each had a row to ourselves to stretch out and sleep. That made a huge difference! We arrived at 6:40 am (local time), collected our bags, changed some US dollars into Icelandic Krona and grabbed the FlyBus to our hotel, the Reykjavik Natura. NOTE: The Keflavik Airport is about 30-40 minutes outside the city of Reykjavik, and the FlyBus meets all arriving flights, so it’s very easy to get into the city. For some properties you have to change buses at the central bus station, but we were dropped right at our hotel.

Our hotel, owned by Icelandair, was located just outside the main tourist area of Reykjavik, next to a (surprisingly quiet) small domestic airport. We never noticed any planes coming/going, and the 20-minute walk into town was no big deal at all (the hotel also operates a free shuttle, but it runs on a very sporadic schedule). The hotel is modern and Scandinavian in design – very clean and spare – and it features a very welcoming lobby and bar/lounge, a nice restaurant, an indoor pool and full-service spa, and some of the friendliest, most helpful staff I’ve ever encountered. Everyone spoke perfect English, and they got us into a room by about 9:30 am, despite the hotel being oversold for that first night. NOTE: Travelers on the IcelandAir package are guaranteed an early check-in (by 10 am) which is a fantastic perk for early morning arrivals from the US. Our room was small but cozy, and it sort of felt like a cruise ship cabin, with everything tucked into ingenious little spaces.

After a brief nap, we walked into town to explore. We started with the landmark Hallgrimskirkja church which stands high above Reykjavik. From there, we had a commanding view over the city and the harbor beyond. From there, down every side street into the center of town, there are shops, boutiques, galleries and restaurants.  We could have spent days wandering around, but we continued on to the waterfront, to photograph the stainless steel Viking ship sculpture and the cool new Harpa building (an ultra-modern concert and convention center). We stopped at Lake Tjornin to watch the children feed the ducks, and then went in search of a late lunch. We had received several recommendations for Icelandic Fish and Chips, which did not look like much from the outside, but was a fantastic find! The cod was so light and fresh, better than any fried fish I’ve ever had anywhere else, and they served it over a salad (sounds weird, but it worked!) with your choice of delicious dipping sauces, all made from Icelandic “skyr”, which is their version of yogurt. I would go back to Reykjavik just to eat it again!  The overnight flight and jet lag were catching up with us at that point, so we headed back to the hotel to have a nice drink by the fireplace and then called it an early night and went to bed.

The next morning (Sunday) started with a hearty breakfast at the hotel, and then we took a quick walk to the nearby Perlan (the Pearl) which is a hilltop landmark that combines a geothermal treatment plant with a museum, restaurant, a manmade geyser, and a viewing platform with 360-degree views over the city. Our guide picked us up back at the hotel at about 11:30 am for a full-day (12-13 hour) tour of the Golden Circle. One of the most popular tourist routes from Reykjavik, this tour includes the natural wonders of Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall, and Geysir (the original geyser, after which all others are named). We traveled in a modified four-wheel-drive minibus, with a small group of just seven people, and it was a fantastic way to see the countryside. Our guide Stephan explained Iceland’s unusual geography and geology, and his rescue driver training came in handy on the icy side roads. He even stopped to let us pet and play with some of the ubiquitous Icelandic horses. So cute!!

Towards the end of the tour, we ended up in the town of Laugarvatn, for a visit to the Laugarvatn Fontana Spa, which harnesses the power of Iceland’s natural hot springs and offers steam rooms, a Finnish sauna, and a series of hot and hotter outdoor baths with a scenic view over the lake. We were complete wimps about the steam rooms and sauna (ouch!) but we enjoyed soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by flickering lanterns, as darkness descended. Fully relaxed, we all walked next door for a delicious gourmet dinner at the Lindin Restaurant. Run by a CIA-trained chef who used to own a restaurant in New York, this restaurant shocked us all. We had expected a typical “package tour” meal, but we were treated to unbelievable fresh, local cuisine and a chocolate mousse/watermelon puree/hot white chocolate foam dessert that I’m still dreaming about.

The ride back to Reykjavik at the end of the night was designed to maximize our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Despite Stephan’s best efforts, and some detours to try and find breaks in the clouds, we were unsuccessful. The overcast weather haunted us for the entire time we were there, and no one was able to see the aurora.

Monday morning dawned cold and rainy – not a great omen for the photo tour that we had booked in advance through the highly recommended Iceland Aurora – but it turned out to be a great day nonetheless. Our guide Kiddi picked us up in his crazy monster-truck of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and we headed for the south coast to (hopefully) see volcanoes and waterfalls. The relentless rain did not cooperate, and we could not see (or photograph) any volcanoes, but we did stop at two breathtaking waterfalls – Selfoss and Skogarfoss – and no one minded standing in the pouring rain and wind to grab some photographs of these natural wonders. Kiddi was patient and helpful, wiping rain-soaked lenses and providing advice on how to best capture the falls, and I would recommend the experience highly (even in the rain!)  Afterwards, he took us to the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano tourist center to learn about the 2010 eruption and its aftermath. It was very interesting to see the local impact of this major event that disrupted travel throughout Europe.

Back in Reykjavik that evening, we dried off from our outdoor adventures and headed into town for a special dinner at The Fish Market, which had been highly recommended by some new friends we met on the tour. We splurged on their special nine-course tasting menu, and I have to say it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten in our lives. Grilled minke whale, rock shrimp tempura, honey barbecued ribs,  a salad with quail egg and pomegranate seeds, assorted sushi, lightly salted cod, glazed salmon, smoked duck, and all with the most freshest and most mouth-watering sauces, seasonings and accompaniments. We almost couldn’t make it all the way to the dessert plate (cheesecake pudding, honey/fruit brulee, molten chocolate cake, and grapefruit and berry sorbets), but we persevered!  If it sounds over-the-top, it was. But we loved every single decadent bite.

Tuesday morning we checked out and boarded the bus to the Blue Lagoon. Like many tourists, we planned to soak in the lagoon for a few hours before heading to the nearby airport for our late-afternoon flight home. There is something completely other-worldly about sitting in the steaming blue water while freezing rain pelts you in the head! It sounds crazy, but it was really cool. They have silica mud which you can smear on your skin, and a swim-up bar in case you need some refreshment, but we were content with a dip in the hot waters and a light lunch in the café before we headed to the airport.

High winds delayed our flight by about three hours, but I have to say that if you’re ever going to be “stuck” in an airport, Keflavik is a great choice. We did some duty free shopping, drank some local Icelandic beers, ate dinner, snuck onto the free WiFi service that’s supposed to only be for customers in the First Class lounge, and generally enjoyed ourselves.

Best of all, the delayed departure (we left at about 8 pm) meant we were treated to a gorgeous display of the Northern Lights outside the plane window on the way home! It was Iceland’s parting gift to us, and we loved it 🙂

Here are my overall thoughts/impressions on this trip:

  • Iceland was a complete surprise to me. I expected outdoor attractions and scenic beauty, but I was completely unprepared for the sophisticated gourmet cuisine and the very high level of service. I think it would appeal to the urban “foodie” just as much as the Gore-Tex-clad hiker.
  • Traveling in the off-season was a fantastic idea. Our US dollars are at a real disadvantage versus the Icelandic currency, and meals can be expensive, so we were glad to have saved so much money on airfare and hotel.
  • This is a destination, like Alaska, where you need to budget time/money for tours and excursions. Most everyone we met was heading out of the city every day on a different sightseeing tour, and it would be a real shame to just stay in Reykjavik and not experience the countryside.
  • If you are visiting in the winter, bring the right gear. It actually was not that cold (30’s and 40’s), but we were very glad to have warm hiking boots and waterproof jackets/pants. You’ll want to be outdoors, so just make sure to dress accordingly.
  • Bring your appetite. Literally everything we ate or drank (from the bottled water to a hotdog at a roadside cafe) was absolutely delicious. Fresh, local, and organic take on new meaning in Iceland!