An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

Our third full day in Iceland would be a long one. We woke up early to head out for a tour of the Golden Circle, a route that travels approximately 190 miles in southern Iceland, covering some of the country’s most scenic natural landmarks and attractions. But first, breakfast!

Our hotel offered complimentary breakfast every morning and I have to admit it was one of the best free breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen. My plate was a little boring but there was fresh fruit, fish, meats and cheeses, yogurt, cereal, pastries, eggs, bread, cereal, and a waffle bar. Everything was very fresh and paired with coffee, provided the fuel we needed to start the day.

First stop: Friðheimar grehouse.

The first stop on our tour was Friðheimar, a geothermal greenhouse where organic tomatoes are grown year-round. Agriculture can be tricky in Iceland because of the climate and shortened daylight hours during fall and winter. From May through August, Iceland’s sun doesn’t sleep and daylight persists for 24 hours a day. However, for the remainder of the year Iceland is under much darker skies with only 3-5 hours of light each day.

Visitors can dine on all things tomato right inside the greenhouse.

At Friðheimar, plants are grown using geothermal water and light is sufficiently provided through green electricity produced by hydro and geothermal power plants. A restaurant is also onsite serving up a variety of tomato dishes, drinks, and even desserts. We weren’t feeling very hungry since we had just eaten at the hotel, but looking back I really wish I would have tried the homemade tomato ice cream à la Friðheimar or maybe a tomato beer. Next time!

Friðheimar also specializes in breeding Icelandic show and riding horses. We were able to meet a few of these beautiful animals who didn’t seem bothered by the snow or cold one bit.

Next we were off to the Haukadalur valley, an area with a lot of geothermal activity. Here we saw Geysir, Iceland’s most famous, though mostly dormant geyser. Although she’s been inactive for several years, Geysir is truly the mother of all geysers as she was the first ever to be recorded in earth’s history and all other geysers discovered after her have carried her name. 

These days the crowds tend to form around Strokkur, one of Iceland’s most popular and reliable natural geysers. Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes blasting its boiling water upwards of 49–66 ft on average.

Thar she blows!

The Haukadalur valley has over 40 more geothermal features including smaller pots of boiling mud, hot springs, and steam vents. The landscape in the area is also stunningly scenic, rich with colorful grasses and algae.

You might recognize this photo of Haukadalur from my last post. It’s one of my favorites from the trip.

I had purchased ice cleats for our trip just in case we needed them and was glad to have them when I started sliding around on the slippery walkways. Once I had the cleats on my boots I felt very confident trotting along through the ice and snow. After exploring the valley for a bit longer we ventured into the nearby visitor center where we had lunch- nice hot soup and cold Icelandic white ale.

I was really excited to visit our next stop on the tour, Gullfoss or golden falls.  This massive and powerful waterfall sits on the Hvítá river and is fed by the Langjökull glacier, Iceland’s second largest. It was so windy we had a hard time walking and an even harder time trying to hold the camera still for a picture. Nevertheless, I managed to snap a few without getting blown away by the wind or sacrificing my phone to the falls.

View from the upper observation deck.

Before Gullfoss became a nature reserve, the land belonged to a sheep farmer. Over the years foreign investors sought to use the waterfall for generating electricity.  The farmer’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir fought to preserve the falls, hiring an attorney and even making the journey to Reykjavik barefooted for court proceedings. Though the court did not rule in her favor, plans to exploit the falls ultimately fell through and Sigríður’s efforts helped bring awareness to the importance of preserving Iceland’s natural beauty.

View from the lower observation deck.

The last stop on our tour of the Golden Circle was Þingvellir National Park, a site that is truly one-of-a-kind. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, runs through the park. This is the only location on earth where visitors can snorkel or dive between two tectonic plates. I’m definitely adding that activity to my list for our next visit! It’s also the only location where the ridge sits above sea level, allowing visitors to walk along the crest on land.

The rift valley from above.

In addition to the beauty and geological significance of this site, it’s also culturally and historically rich as the birthplace of the Althing, Iceland’s national parliament and the oldest parliament in the world. Þingvellir was also Iceland’s first national park, founded in 1930, and was designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 2004. Any Game of Thrones fans out there? The park was used as a filming location in season 4 and you may recognize the rugged terrain from the iconic battle between Brienne of Tarth and The Hound.

I made an eerie discovery about Þingvellir after we returned home. I took some photographs of what I thought was just a pretty pond with a small waterfall. I did a little research to see if such a beautiful feature in the park had a name. I learned the site is known as the Drowning Pool and it’s where at least 18 women were legally drowned by Vikings for behavior considered immoral, such as adultery. I also learned that a small memorial plaque listing the names of the women is posted somewhere near the site, but I didn’t see it during my visit. And, although you won’t find any informational signs revealing the grim details, there are several more historical execution sites which exist in the park. As tourists, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of a place, and in some cases, fail to fully understand its history.

Drowning Pool.

Back to our adventure…after a long day out on the Golden Circle we were feeling pretty famished and decided we needed to head back to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for some of those amazing hot dogs we had on the food walk tour. How could we not? We started off modestly ordering one each but then went back for seconds not feeling any shame.

Still dreaming of those hot dogs…

We also went back to Apotek for dessert and tried their Christmas special- spice crumble topped with a scoop of vanilla sorbet, a caramelized white chocolate mousse with apple filling atop a gingerbread cookie, dulce de leche sauce, raspberry and lime gel, fresh fruit, chocolate pearls. It was divine! They had a case full of adorable little pastries that they use for their desserts and I wanted to take them all home with me.

I’ll have one of each, please!

Since it was our last night in Iceland we decided to spend it exploring more of downtown Reykjavik, which was within walking distance of our hotel. One thing we absolutely loved about Iceland was the abundance of art. Art was literally everywhere and we probably looked a little silly taking photographs of beautiful, artful things that are probably just normal sights to Icelanders.

Another delightful and artful sight in downtown Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall. The design for this contemporary, steel-frame building that sits on the atlantic ocean was inspired by the basalt landscapes of Iceland. Harpa’s walls are adorned with geometrical glass panels, which after dark, are illuminated by led lighting and dance in every color imaginable.

Water feature in front of Harpa.

Everything also felt extra magical because of the Christmas season. The Christmas holiday is very important in Iceland and nearly every business and home we saw was decorated in some way. Our local guide explained that Icelanders enjoy having the extra light and cheer during December when the days are shorter. Even tombstones in cemeteries are often lit up with christmas lights in remembrance of lost loved ones.

There was no shortage of beautiful lights or Santas. The Icelandic Santas of folklore are known as the Yule Lads and there are thirteen of them. They’re also technically trolls and a bit mischievous, playing pranks on children, then leaving gifts for those who have been good and rotting potatoes for those who have misbehaved. We spotted a few of the Yule Lads hanging around on buildings while we were strolling downtown.

I wish we would have had more time to wander along the charming streets in search of the other Yule Lads. I wish we would have made it back to Cafe Loki one more time for another helping of that delicious rye bread ice cream.

I definitely wouldn’t have minded another visit to the Blue Lagoon or a trip to some of Iceland’s more remote hot springs. But, unfortunately our Icelandic adventure was coming to an end. The next morning as we begrudgingly headed off to the airport we saw the snow that had enchanted us over the past few days had melted away. It was almost reminiscent of when the clock struck midnight and Cinderella watched as the magic disappeared. Sigh. Overall it was a lovely trip and we left already planning for our return. For now, it’s back to California to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. As always, thanks for reading and may your holidays be blessed!

An Icelandic Adventure: Part I

An Icelandic Adventure: Part I

I’ve always wanted to visit a Nordic country and found myself intrigued by photographs of Iceland’s rugged, other-worldly beauty. When I used to think of Iceland, I imagined…Bjork, if I’m being honest. Now when I think of Iceland, I also imagine…

…dark fields of lava covering the rich volcanic landscape, streams of chalky blue, glacier-fed waters flowing to the ocean, and billowy mist from crashing waterfalls and steamy geysers filling the air under the green glow of the aurora borealis.

Dramatic, but accurate! Though our trip was short, it was packed with a ton of adventure and I’m already dreaming of a return voyage. After spending a full day hopping on connecting flights between California and New York, we finally headed off to Keflavik, where Iceland’s international airport is based. Maybe it was the excitement of visiting a new country or maybe it was the cool airplane entertainment system loaded with new movies, but we got very little sleep on the flight. When we arrived it was just after midnight and we were exhausted. Still, there was no time to rest because it was only 8:00 a.m. local time and officially day 1 of our Icelandic adventuring.

Lucky for us, our first day would be spent relaxing. What better way to start a vacation and cure jet lag than with a nice trip to the spa? Though not lacking in any natural beauty, Iceland’s geothermal hot spring retreat, the Blue Lagoon, is technically a man-made attraction. The lagoon was formed when runoff water from a nearby geothermal power plant began pooling in the surrounding lava fields. People began bathing in the pools believing the water possessed healing properties and eventually the site was transformed into a fully operational spa, becoming one of Iceland’s most popular destinations.

Sunrise on the lagoon.

Just a day before our arrival, southwestern Iceland had received its first snowfall of the season. It snowed lightly as we left the airport to board a shuttle that would take us directly to the lagoon. When we arrived, we checked in our luggage and headed off to the locker rooms to change.

Pathway from the parking area and luggage storage to the lagoon entrance. Dark at 9:00 a.m.

I was very pleased to learn that the Blue Lagoon is super accessible. Facilities in the main complex including the changing area, showers, and restrooms are all accessible. The pool is equipped with a mechanical lift and also has a ramp where visitors can enter the water using specialized waterproof wheelchairs. Another wonderful feature the Blue Lagoon offers is free admission for a person assisting an individual who has a disability.

Visitors enjoying the lagoon.

I was concerned that the Blue Lagoon’s water would be lukewarm given the recent snowfall and chilly 32°F weather. The water was actually quite pleasant and I learned the average temperature of the pool is between 98 and 103 °F.

Although highly visited, the Blue Lagoon’s water is completely replenished with fresh geothermal seawater, which has high levels of silica, algae, and minerals, every two days. There’s a fun mask bar where visitors can slather on silica and algae masks or purchase a lava scrub. And of course, there’s a regular bar serving drinks too. Visitors can swim-up for sparkling wine, beer, smoothies, or juice. At check-in, all visitors are given waterproof, electronic wristbands that can be used to make purchases anywhere in the Blue Lagoon, which means you don’t have to carry around cards or cash. The wristband also serves as a key to the provided lockers. Smart and simple to use!

Sipping on sparkling wine and enjoying the colorful sunrise.

After wading in the pool for a bit we headed over to the Lava Restaurant for lunch. We toweled off then walked over in the flip flops and robes that were included with our admission. Entering a restaurant wearing a robe felt strange at first but we quickly realized how comfortable and cozy we felt.

The restaurant has great two or three course set menus but guests can also order a la carte. Hoping to catch a good variety, we ordered the seafood menu and the Icelandic gourmet menu. Our first courses were langoustine soup (basically icelandic crawfish) with dulse (a salty seaweed-like vegetable) and birch and juniper cured arctic char with horseradish, cucumber, rye bread, and pickled mustard seeds.

Complimentary wine with rye bread and butter topped with lava salt and herbs.

As soon as the food hit our bellies we drifted off into a state of sleep deprivation and food coma. I failed to take any additional pictures of our meal but we also enjoyed cod and lamb main courses and a caramel chocolate mousse for dessert. Everything we ate was absolutely delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed dining in our robes overlooking the lagoon. After we dined we planned on visiting the sauna and steam room but we were pretty tired so instead we showered, bunded up in our winter clothes, retrieved our luggage, and caught a shuttle to our hotel in Reykjavik.

Frozen pond outside of the spa.

Our hotel room was small but clean and quite cozy with a beautiful view of the ocean. The floors were heated and radiant heat warmed the room to a comfortable temperature. After getting settled in we took a nap before our 8:00 p.m. northern lights tour that evening.

View from our hotel window.

Feeling rested and suited up in our snow gear, we headed out to chase the northern lights. We eagerly boarded a shuttle and our guide, an enthusiastic physicist, shared some of Iceland’s history with us and the science behind the glowing green lights.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any beautiful bands of green illuminating the sky. It was snowing pretty heavily and we weren’t able to see the lights through the cloud coverage. The skies wouldn’t be any clearer for the duration of our stay so we decided against attempting to go out to see them again. But, we were having such a wonderful trip so far it was hard to feel disappointed and it was easy to say to ourselves, “guess we’ll have to come back to Iceland again.”

Food walk tour in downtown Reykjavik.

Feeling well-rested and eager to explore the city, we started off our second day with a food walk tour in downtown Reykjavik. Our guide was a local, born and raised in Iceland, who shared a ton of information about the city and Icelandic culture as our group toured the streets.

At our first stop on the tour- Islenski Barrin, a popular spot for food and beer.

Looking back, the food walk tour was one of my favorite activities on our trip. The other travelers in our small tour group were great and we all really seemed to enjoyed the food, conversation, information, and company. There was even another couple from Texas in our group. Yee-haw!

We visited six different restaurants and walked approximately 1.3 miles on the 3-hour tour. Our first stop was a popular bar for Icelandic lamb meat soup, a special schnapps made from potatoes, and a sample of hákarl, fermented shark. Yup, shark, which is a national food of Iceland, infamously known for having a horrible taste and odor. Honestly, I didn’t think it was bad, especially chased with the schnapps. Next we visited a cheese shop where we sampled black Gouda, Gull Ostur (gold brie), and bleu cheese. We also sampled cured Icelandic lamb seasoned with rosemary, thyme and anise, smoked Icelandic goose with raspberry champagne vinaigrette, and cured Icelandic horse seasoned with rosemary, thyme and curry. Yep, horse. Eek! I’ll admit I was feeling a bit reluctant while pondering the ethics behind eating shark, and especially horse. However, in the U.S. we eat fish, cows, and pigs (a species even more intelligent than horses) without a second thought. It was also somewhat comforting to learn that Icelandic horses and sheep roam free out in the wild, hopefully living their best lives, before farmers round up herds for slaughter.

Cheese and meat tasting.

Next we indulged in rye bread ice cream with whipped cream and caramelised rhubarb syrup from Café Loki. This was one of my favorite foods on the tour. The texture was similar to cookies and cream but the flavor was buttery and lightly sweetened. Our main course was at Messinn and served up family style. We had arctic char cooked in honey and almonds with potatoes, tomatoes, and mixed greens, and an Icelandic fish stew called plokkfiskur, a mashed cod dish with potatoes, onions, butter, cream, garlic, celery, white wine and lime served with fresh rye bread.

After a bit more walking we arrived at Bæjarins Bestu, for a treat that some sources have crowned the “best hot dog in Europe.” Established in 1937, this Icelandic national treasure serves up lamb-based hot dogs dressed with sweet mustard, ketchup, raw onion, crispy fried onion, and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. Possibly the best hot dog I’ve ever had! In fact, we returned the following day for more.

Our last stop was to the trendy restaurant and bar, Apótek. Here we had coffee and a Skyr mousse dessert with strawberry and lime gel, sponge cheesecake pastry, and fresh berries. So good and a great way to end the tour.

After our tour we decided to continue exploring downtown Reykjavik on foot. During our tour we passed by Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and one of the country’s most stunning works of architecture. We weren’t able to see the inside because a funeral was being held but we returned after dark to see the church lit up. In the photograph below, you may notice the national flag is flown at half mast, which is a traditional Icelandic practice for honoring a resident who is being laid to rest. I learned that the statue that stands outside of the church depicts explorer Leif Erikson and was a gift from the U.S. to celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the Althling, Iceland’s parliament.

Before sunset.
After dark.

The city was beautiful covered in a layer of fluffy snow. We had fun venturing into shops and galleries and admiring statues and art displays along the way. It was a great way to burn off some of the calories we consumed during the food walk tour.

We couldn’t resist a photo op with the yule cat sculpture unveiled earlier this year. Her proper name is Jólakötturinn, and this giant, red-eyed, feline beast from Icelandic folklore is believed to devour those who don’t receive warm clothing to wear for Christmas. 

The next morning we headed out early for the Golden Circle tour to see some of Iceland’s stunning natural beauty, which I’ll cover in part 2 of our Icelandic adventure. Thanks for reading!