ICELAND - PART 1
Iceland has been on my list of places to visit since I was a kid. When my mother was in High School her family accepted an exchange student from Iceland for a year. My family is a group of adopters. If you hang out with us long enough we bring you into our clan. Needless to say my family quickly brought Birna into it's ranks, and she has been my "Aunt" since I was born.
I knew I wanted to see the land where so many childhood books and music I'd received had come from. I had no idea that Iceland would steal a piece of my heart and I would forever long to return (no matter how many trips I make over the years).
If you are thinking about going to Iceland, don't think anymore, JUST GO! I have never been to a country with people so nice, crime so low, and scenery so beautiful. Icelandic people truly know how to take care of each other, others, and their country.
For those of you unable to hop a plane today, here is just a quick glimpse into a world I couldn't even do justice to.
Part 1: Vogar, Reykjavik, and the Golden Circle
My trip started where most Icelandic adventures begin, right outside of Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital. The trip was extra sweet because I was able to do it with my Mom, the gypsy that taught me to love exploring. She had found an Air-B&B in a little town called Vogar, just south of Reykjavik. It was this house that would be our base for our trip. It was a quick ride from the airport, and also just a short drive into the capital, making it an ideal location for western Iceland.
Travel Tip: If you are able/ want to see a lot of Iceland, I wouldn't actually recommend staying in a house. Iceland is a lot bigger than you think and for those looking to see a ton of the country, I would suggest booking hotels for two nights in places around the island. That way you can move from spot to spot. This will allow you to get a larger view of this pretty country.
For those who only have a short amount of time, or are looking to just do the western chunk, renting a house in a place like Vogar would suit you well. It is also cheaper in the long run (depending on length of stay and number of people) than hotels would be.
I will start with VOGAR: The town of Vogar is rich with Viking history. Located right on the ocean, it was easy to see why it would be a spot once traveled by the original settlers of Iceland. It is also know to most Icelandics as "the windy ass-hole" and the plentiful breezes we experienced certainly explained the name, though it was so much more charming than "ass-hole" would imply.
A small fishing town, I found Vogar quiet, quaint, and beautiful. Right down the street from the Blue Lagoon, the bridge between two continents, the Viking museum and more, it was an ideal location to start seeing the history of Iceland right away. Being outside of Reykjavik also made it a great place to see the northern lights. We were lucky enough on our 4th day to do just that, right from the backyard patio.
Some views of Vogar- Hawaii might have "rare" black sand beaches, in Iceland they are the norm.
Iceland is a land covered by lava, but in contrast to many other areas of the world where this is also the case, Iceland is also an extremely wet country. With so many glaciers melting Iceland's land is rich in moss and waterfalls are plentiful. Because of this, the landscape is bumpy but lush. Right down the street from Vogar, enveloped in moss and lava, geothermal sites create fun places to visit.
On our rainiest day in Iceland we decided to visit the most famous thermal spot: the Blue Lagoon.
Travel Tip: VISIT THE BLUE LAGOON!!! It is totally worth it. I would even suggest going on a day that is cold and raining like we did. I was wet already so I didn't mind the drizzle. Instead of wasting a rainy day inside and a sunny day in the pool, plan your visit to the lagoon for the worst weather day of the week. You won't be disappointed.
PS: Also book early. Tickets book up, and online reservations are cheaper. If you can't print your tickets, like we couldn't, don't worry. The Blue Lagoon can scan your reservation from your email. Since Iceland is a country where wireless is everywhere and it is free, bring your phone or iPad for things like this! Lockers are provided, and crime is low. We never once worried about our IPad.
Plan to stay at least 3 hours, you will want as much time to use the silica as you can. Use it, a lot, and often. Plus they have steam rooms and a sauna if you are sick of the pool.
Travel Tip: Don't get your hair wet in the lagoon!!! It will destroy your hair, making it stringy and chemical burned. Instead, when you get your hair wet in the shower before you get into the lagoon (you have to do this to enter the pool... and no, I did not have to get naked so don't let the internet scare you) rub a ton of conditioner in your hair and leave it there. Then put your hair in a bun on the top of your head. This will insure any splashes don't destroy your hair as well. When you are done, rinse your hair and it will feel amazing, and will have been protected.
You enter and exit the lagoon through walls of lava they had to move to create the pool.
The Blue Lagoon was not the only geothermal site near Vogar. There were a ton of them. Driving around through mossy lava fields we found a whole geothermal center right near the lighthouse for the bay. We decided to spend the afternoon playing around the area, climbing up hills, watching the sunset on the beach, and looking for the bridge between two continents.
Yes, you read that right. Iceland is uniquely located at the spot where two continental plates are pulling apart. No, the rift doesn't open up to the center of the Earth (as cool as that would be), at least not yet. Though you can see this in a couple places in Iceland (another one at the Golden Circle, which I will also talk about) the spot near Vogar has a bridge which allows you to pass from one continental plate to the other. It was a spot my Mom couldn't wait to see, and I was equally as glad when we found it.
Because of it's geography, Iceland is also known for it's caves. Whether made when the lava flowed, or when water carved through it later, there are many tours that offer trips below the Icelandic surface. I happened to find one on my own (again, right outside of Vogar), which I heard is pretty easy to do as well.
Reykjavik: Iceland is a country of magic, belief, and kindness. Over 80% of the population still believes in Elves, fairies, and trolls. Because of this, signs leading to Reykjavik play on this very belief system. A harbor town, like Vogar (and like most of Iceland, as the interior of the country is not inhabited) ships and beaches are prevalent. So is art, culture, and beauty.
Iceland is a country that embraces and supports artists. You can see this in the colorful houses that line the streets, the gorgeous buildings dedicated to music and theatre, sculptures, and even graffiti... if you can call such exquisite work graffiti.
With almost a 0% crime rate, Reykjavik is the safest capital I've ever visited. So much so, locals leave babies in strollers OUTSIDE restaurants. The reason? 1. They don't want to disrupt customers with a crying baby, 2. Fresh air is said to be good for the infant, 3. NO ONE IS GOING TO MESS WITH THE BABY.
I had to see this to believe it myself... sure enough, it was pretty common.
The one thing that spoils us in America is our access to bathrooms. It isn't until you get to Europe that you realize most people pay for the ability to do their business. Even Iceland has WC built into street corners.
Travel Tip: Visit the flee market. No, I'm serious!!!
Reykjavik has a flee market, just like most cities. The reason I suggest visiting is the great price on goods. I personally have super sensitive skin and unfortunately for me, Icelandic wool is just too uncomfortable to wear. For anyone looking to buy a traditional Icelandic sweater, you can't beat the prices at the flee market. I saw sweaters marked down 60% from the store prices. Plus, this flee market is half garage sale, half place where local artisans can sell their work.
The quality at one shop was so good I was sad I couldn't buy a piece.
They not only sell sweaters, but wool spools, music, books (a great place to find a legend or two), and food. That's right, inside is a fish and veggie market.
Travel Tip: If you end up not buying food from the flee market, make sure you go to the "BONUS" stores, aptly nicknamed "the pink pig" stores. As these are the cheapest grocery stores in Iceland.
On our first day in town we visited two places that gave a great view of the whole city. The church was not only beautiful, but for a small fee we were able to ride to the clock tower above for a look at the world below. Though it was super windy, it was worth it.
The observatory, our second stop, was FREE! It also offered a great view from it's upper patio. The wind was so intense (as you can see in the picture of my mom. ps: she looks 5x bigger than she is because the wind is blowing her clothes out around her) I could almost lay down on the breeze and not fall over.
Travel Tip: Eat lobster soup at The Sea Baron (Sægreifinn). In fact, just eat here in general. My Uncle got the scallops and they were cooked to perfection. The lobster soup is all I tried, but why try anything else when you find heaven in a bowl? Rumor is, if you ask for more lobster, they willingly drop in a few more pieces for free. I never needed any more, with the free bread, and amazing broth, I was stuffed after one bowl.
The Golden Circle: To be honest with you, I researched the golden circle after doing it, more than I did before. Though the touristy route that I took was pretty (I loved Gullfoss) I would not do it again the same way. There were so many things that I didn't get to see, and a few I did that I would skip.
That's just me of course. I will walk you through what I did, and maybe it will be your cup of tea. Don't get me wrong, it was still a sight to see, just something I personally wouldn't do twice.
Every day in Iceland started one of two ways, with either a waterfall, or a rainbow. The day we drove the golden circle it was the latter.
Our goal was to visit Gullfoss (larges waterfall volume in Europe), Geysir, Pingvellir, Thermal Tomato farms, and find the hidden lagoon.
What we didn't anticipate was the drive time to get to each place, and how much time we would want to spend at each place. Though we felt like we were seeing things at a quick speed, we only truly got to explore the first three.
Gullfoss: This was probably my favorite place of the day, but that is because I'm way into finding waterfalls. With one path leading above the waterfall for high viewing, and one leading down right next to it, for a feel of the spray on your face, I very much felt like I got to "explore" here a little.
If I had to see one thing in the Golden Circle, this would be it. It is very wet near the water, so a rain coat is recommended. The path is also slippery, so wear good shoes. In fact, wear good shoes everywhere in Iceland.
Next up was Geysir, Now poor Geysir, this was my least favorite part of the Golden Circle. Probably because I live not super far from Yellowstone, which in my opinion is a much grander geyser presentation. I found Geysir, to be more of a tourist trap than a cool spot to stop. It worked well to stretch my legs, and it was cool to see their version of "old faithful" blow (fun fact, due to an earthquake, the geyser now is unpredictable in how much volume it shoots into the sky. Though it still goes off almost every 2 minutes, I watched it simply bubble over one time, and drench people the next.).
If you like geysers this would be a stop for you, and by all means see it if you have time. If you don't, I personally would move on to hidden waterfall hikes, or hidden lagoons. Both are things I wished I had spent my time on.
Something impossible to miss on the Golden Circle drive is the landscape. All around us Fall was coming to Iceland. Shrub brush scattered the fields in burnt reds, and golden yellows. Ominous clouds covered mountain peaks, sharing only a scattering of their colorful glory.
Pingvellir: Pronounced Thingvellir, Pingvellir is really known for 2 things.
1. The Alþing general assembly was established around 930BC and continued to convene there until 1798 (Think ancient parliament). Major events in the history of Iceland have taken place at Þingvellir and therefore the place is held in high esteem by all Icelanders.
2. It is another place where you can see the continental plates being pulled apart. What makes this spot different? At Pingvellir you can actually dive between the plates. Though it looked really cold to me, and I've sadly never scuba dived, we saw some people living out this once in a life time opportunity to be between to plates as they shift.
And of course, there was more waterfall action!
The drive home include sheep grazing in multicolored fields. I loved these fat fur-balls!