My family vacations have generally followed a little formula for success: a little bit of indoor experiences like museums, theater, and shopping (for me and my mom and my sister) and a little bit of outdoor experiences like hiking and exploring national parks (for my dad). Without really realizing it, the big trips that Richie and I have taken follow the same theme: museums and beach time for me, outdoor/nature stuff for Richie. After spending about a week in Russia, visiting museums, cathedrals, cemeteries, and markets, we headed to Iceland for some outdoor adventure.
The flight from St. Petersburg to Reykjavik takes 4 hours, and it crosses four time zones heading west, so we basically netted our travel time to zero. The less pleasant part of our trip was the security lines in both St. Petersburg and Reykjavik. I’m not sure if it’s standard procedure or if it was heightened for some reason, but when we arrived in Reykjavik, we had to go through security before we were allowed into the airport from the plane. And in both St. Petersburg and Reykjavik, the security was very strict – in addition to the laptops and liquids rules, they also made us remove cameras (Richie had to remove his extra lens as well) and have a full pat-down in addition to the metal detectors.
The airport was also responsible for our first really big sticker-shock moment. Russia was expensive, yes, but y’all, Iceland is EXPENSIVE. As we exited towards the taxi line, there was a sign that said, “Ask your taxi driver for the estimated cost. You may be surprised.” Helpful and cryptic all at once, no? Following their suggestion, we did indeed ask the taxi driver the price before we got in the car. His response? 15,000 Krona. That’s $125. Yowza. However… there are no alternatives once you’re already there. The airport is actually in Keflavik, a town about 40 km from Reykjavik, and there’s no train or metro option. Many of the tour groups offer a bus that takes you from the airport to the bus station, and then you just have to get from the bus station to your hotel, but you have to book that in advance. So… if any of you go to Iceland, make airport transfer arrangements ahead of time 🙂
Because we’d had a long week in Russia and lots of traveling, Richie planned a very low-key activity for our first day in Iceland – the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. It’s an outdoor pool that’s kept at around 100˚F (which felt glorious with air temperatures in the 40s!) and has water that’s rich in silica and sulphur (although it doesn’t smell strongly inside the spa). The basic admission to the spa includes steam baths, saunas, a waterfall, a swim-up bar and giant buckets of silica mud masks for you to slather on your face and arms. Richie has some lovely photos of each of us coated in blue face masks… I’ll have to see if I can convince him to post them 🙂
We spent several hours there – I tried all the different steam baths and saunas and the waterfall, but honestly, the best part was just sitting in the water and relaxing. We found a cozy spot with seats near the swim-up bar and chatted with some fellow Americans.
Afterwards, we headed to our hotel to check in. We stayed at Room with a View based on a friend’s recommendation and it was wonderful. You couldn’t beat the location – it was right on the main shopping and restaurant street in the city center, and we were able to walk to everything.
The tall building in the back of the photo is the Lutheran church called Hallgrímskirkja and it clocks in at 74.5 meters tall.
The next day, we had a few hours to kill before the pickup time of our afternoon excursion, so we wandered the city a bit. There’s not a lot of sightseeing to do in Reykjavik itself, and it was a Sunday, so we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and a little shopping. This wasn’t fun shopping, though – this was necessary shopping. Somehow Richie and I both managed to arrive in Iceland without gloves. It’s to be expected of me, honestly (I’m the same girl who bought hiking boots for the trip the day before our plane flight, after all). And I really object on principle that we had to have gloves on a vacation in the middle of July.
I was really glad we had them on our afternoon adventure, though – Inside the Volcano – where you go inside the Thrihnukagigur volcano (yeah, I can’t pronounce it), which erupted only once 4,000 years ago and has been dormant since. The operators of the tour said that it’s really rare to have the right conditions to visit the inside of a volcano – first, many of the ones that erupt can collapse inwards, making them too dangerous to enter; second, those that don’t collapse inward are usually closed off by the lava as it cools, leaving no place to enter; and third, you obviously don’t want one with the potential to erupt while you’re in it. It’s also an extremely difficult project to get off the ground because of the logistics – government authorization, insurance, permits, etc. The company that does this volcano tour has only been able to do it for two summers, and the government may not renew their permits in the future, making this a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience for us!
The tour begins with a pickup from your hotel and a drop-off at a site at the edge of the lava field. From there, you hike across the lava field to base camp at the crater, where you receive a harness and a helmet for the descent. You hike up to the crater and are hooked up to what essentially looks like a window washer’s lift. The lift takes you down into the volcano, where you’re unhooked and free to walk around, take photos, and explore for about 45 minutes. Then you do it all again in reverse. 🙂
Hiking across as lava field is not as easy as it might sound 🙂 The field is not smooth lava completely covering the ground. It’s ground embedded with millions of lava rocks, some as tiny as pebbles and some as giant as boulders. So, while the hike was relatively flat (only a few sections of uphill or downhill walking), you had to constantly figure out where exactly to put your foot – whether on a rock, between rocks, or in a mud puddle. Did I mention that due to the rain and fog, the ground was muddy? By the end of this excursion, my hiking boots were well broken in.
From the above picture, you can tell that it was really foggy on our hike. We actually couldn’t see the volcano until we were on top of it!
Along the way, our guide would point out geographical features and hazards. At one point, we crossed the gap between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs right through Iceland, and we were able to cross it several times during our trip (and, in a few places, get inside it!).
On our third day, we visited what’s called the Golden Circle – an approximately 300 km route through southern Iceland to see waterfalls, geysers, and a national park. We didn’t rent a car while we were in Iceland (guidebooks recommended against it, but having been there, it would’ve been just fine in the summer) so we went with a tour bus. The first stop was to a greenhouse that showed how Iceland grows its produce despite the challenging weather conditions, where we sampled organic tomato soup and salsas. Then, we headed to Gullfoss, which means “golden falls”.
Our next stop was at the geysers. The first geyser to be documented is in Iceland and is called “Geysir” (which is how the English word “geyser” was derived). Unfortunately, it no longer erupts predictably (and in the past has stopped erupting entirely until an earthquake or other geological activity has stimulated it again). However, there are several other geysers in the area, including one called Strokkur that erupts every 5 to 7 minutes.
Our last stop was the Þingvellir national park, which was founded to protect the place where the Icelandic parliament was formed in 930. It also features waterfalls, rivers, creeks, beautiful greenspace, and more of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Our last day in Iceland was a really long one. We started in the morning with a horse ride through the lava fields and pastures. Icelandic horses are unique – there is only one breed, and they do not allow importing any horses in order to keep the breed pure (and once exported, a horse is not allowed to return home). They’re rather small – an average of 13 or 14 “hands”, which is a horse term that I don’t quite understand, but horses that size in other breeds are generally referred to as ponies. Both the horses and the countryside were beautiful, but I didn’t take any photos as we were asked not to while holding the reins and I’m a rule-follower. Richie was a rebel and took a few, so when he posts them, I’ll update with a link 🙂 This was my favorite part of the day – I love horses, and mine was a really good one for an inexperienced rider. The horses were so well-trained that I really didn’t have to do anything but keep hold of the reins.
After a quick lunch at a hotel near the stables, we were picked up by the guide for our afternoon adventure – hiking a glacier. On the way, our guide stopped at a few points of interest, like the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted in 2010 and caused so much trouble for air traffic in Europe.
Then we stopped at Skógafoss:
And finally, we reached the glacier.
We strapped on crampons and wielded ice axes and hiked away.
This is called a swallower because it starts with a tiny stream of water that finds a crack or fissure in the glacier; as the water continues to stream, it melts the surrounding ice in a whirlpool fashion. These holes can, in some cases, go all the way through the glacier, although our guide said that most of the ones on this glacier were not that deep. The blue hue has to do with how the glacier freezes and the reflection of the light. The black ash on top remains from 2010 and 2011 volcanic eruptions nearby.
As someone who generally thinks the human impact of climate change is overstated, it was really interesting to listen to our guide describe the changes in the glacier over time. The place where they used to begin the hike no longer exists – it’s entirely melted away, and just sandy ground remains. In another spot, scientists drilled a hole and placed a wire to measure the extent of the melting, and from April until mid-July it had melted something like 9 meters. Crazy. Our guide said there’s really no way to tell if that much melting is “normal”, since there is no record to compare it against, but he seemed to think it was accelerated compared to past years.
Our final stop was Seljalandsfoss, which is famous because you can walk completely behind the waterfall. It also was on one of the seasons of The Amazing Race, apparently.
It was amusing because the beginning of the walk to the waterfall is on a wooden walkway with rails. At some point, it just ends on a giant pile of rocks and a jagged dirt pathway for about 20 meters – and then the wooden walkway resumes on the other side. Apparently they think that you should have to work a little for your views!
I absolutely loved our time in Iceland, which was a little surprising to me – I expected to prefer our time in St. Petersburg. But by the end of the trip, all of the (wonderful!) experiences we had in Russia just couldn’t compare to the beauty of Iceland.
Here’s a link to a few more photos of Iceland (on Facebook, but no account required).
In addition to our hotel (above), I would recommend two restaurants that were really delicious. The first, The Sea Baron, is a really simple seafood shack, with racks upon racks of skewers of meat and fish to select to be grilled and delicious bowls of lobster soup (with GIANT chunks of lobster and served with delicious homemade bread). The second, Grillmarkadurinn, is a more upscale place (they allowed us to walk in wearing jeans and muddy hiking boots and never batted an eye, but everyone else was wearing much nicer clothes!) with a great selection of food, including steak and seafood. They even have mini burgers of puffin, whale, and lobster on the menu. I had soup with shrimp, scallops, and lobster, and Richie had beef and lamb skewers. Yum. I want to go back.