Iceland: Blowing Away Expectations

We’ve been on the road for almost a week now, and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind.  First, a photo of the Princess and her Sherpa on our way out of Seattle on Saturday, July 30th.

RICOH IMAGING

Princess and the Sherpa

This is the way we have been rolling thus far in this trip. Note that Terra does have a shoulder issue that currently precludes her from carrying too much weight (I’ll let the reader decide how much she minds that!). I think we may end up swapping out one of the bags for a rolling suitcase, as getting around in the London underground Tube was a trying experience since I’m essentially three people wide!

We started our adventure in Iceland, and, as the title suggests, it simply blew away our expectations, although thankfully that was all that blew (and not one of its many volcanoes). Iceland is larger than life in almost every way. In fact, it deserves a top 11 list (because 10 isn’t enough for a country like Iceland).

Before I get into the specifics, I want to point a few general points that impressed us beyond all others. Iceland is almost completely run on renewable energy and you see their respect for nature everywhere. They are industrious, friendly (but not overly so), generous, and trusting (see the note about the unlocked door at 1am). Iceland has very low crime (sporting the 3rd lowest murder rate in the world). The Icelandic people live a very long time – in fact, over 4 years longer than the average American.

I could go on and on, but we definitely got the sense while we were there that the Icelandic people are doing many things right, and have an extremely high quality of living. And now, on to the top 11.

#11:  It’s always light in the summer

Iceland at 1am

Iceland at 1am

On our first night we arrived in Iceland around midnight, so we entered the quiet town of Hafnarfjörður around 1am (try saying that out loud a few times lol).  Our instructions from our Airbnb host included things like “walk by the sea on your left” and “look for the grey house with the red roof” and “take the Flybus to the Hotel Viking.” I didn’t have a lot of confidence that this would be an easy find at the time.

It was much easier than expected thanks to the fact that there was enough sunlight to distinguish houses and landmarks. Fortunately, we somehow missed the three mannequin heads in the window and the life-sized mannequin in the living room, else we may have run away and never returned.

#10:  When Icelandic people want to party the country closes down for 5 days (subtitle: Paprika is a big deal in Iceland)

Reykjavik after holiday

Reykjavik after holiday

Of course we happened to go to Iceland on the weekend of the largest festival weekend of the year, including a 5-day camping festival on a small island off the coast of Iceland.

We only saw our Airbnb host once in 4 days, for about 15 seconds total. I’m pretty sure she, along with the rest of the country, had basically checked out for the weekend. The first morning we went down into the town of Hafnarfjörður (a small port town outside of Reykjavik), and literally nothing was open – not even a coffee shop. We settled for paprika chips from the gas station for breakfast; yes, apparently paprika is a big deal in Iceland.

#9: Iceland makes you feel small

Can you see Nate?

Can you see Nate? (Skeljalandsfoss Waterfall)

I have worked in Yosemite, lived in Montana, hiked through the Rockies and Cascades, seen Old Faithful, and driven down Highway 1 in California – all amazing experiences. But somehow I don’t think anything in the US prepared me for the scale and grandeur of what Iceland has to offer. And admittedly we only saw a little sliver of the overall package.

There are waterfalls everywhere (hopefully these pictures do them some justice), geysers and hot springs in random spots all over the place, enormous mountain ranges, larger-than-life glaciers, and did I mention black sand beaches?

Black Sand Beaches

Black Sand Beaches

#8: Iceland is the real Big Sky

This is not a dig at the Montana Big Sky – which I love. But Iceland has the advantage of virtually no trees and wide, expansive views.  I’ll let you be the judge of which one wins!

Big Sky!

Icelandic Big Sky!

#7: Iceland is basically one big volcano waiting to blow

Geothermal activity everywhere!

Geothermal activity everywhere!

Volcanic eruptions are not a ‘once-in-every-50-years’ type thing in Iceland.  Over the past 500 years, Icelandic volcanoes have erupted a third of the overall lava output of the entire world.  Let that sink in for a second!

The strangest thing about driving around the countryside is to see sights like this picture above.  I’m trained to think ‘forest fire’ when I see anything that looks like smoke rising.  In Iceland, though, geothermal activity is everywhere.  This really gave us the sense of nature being active if not a bit fragile.  Also, a good portion of the areas we saw were all lava fields that had a thin layer of green moss growing on top of them.  We have never seen anything like it!

#6: Their vehicles are beastie-mobiles

Monster vehicles

“Beastie-mobiles” (phrase coined by Terra)

The vehicles in the above picture are everywhere.  Many of them have the tailpipe sticking upwards above the vehicle as well as large shovels attached to them.  This is not overkill – if you’ve seen the episode of Departures where they travel to Iceland you’ll understand why (a great Netflix find by the way).  Pretty much anything and everything can happen while traveling on the backroads in Iceland.  We like to say in Seattle that ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.’  In Iceland it’s more like 5…or 3.

A related point here is that you really need to rent a car when you visit Iceland, which is unfortunately a large expense.  But it’s absolutely worth it, and I can’t imagine trying to navigate Iceland without it.  Ours was much smaller by the way (and no shovel).  Luckily it is their summer when we visited with a high of 62* so no need for shovels yet in the areas we went.

#5: Iceland is a great place to make new friends

Chris and Jo, our new Canadian friends

Chris and Jo, our new Canadian friends

We had a great adventure with Chris and Jo, a couple from Ottawa who was staying at the same Airbnb. They were fresh off the plane and a little early for their check-in, so we invited them down to breakfast in Reykjavik.  Little did they know they would end up spending the entire day with us!  We had a great time and look forward to meeting them again in Paris as our European adventures will cross again in August.

#4: Our lunch was cooked in a geyser

Lunch anyone?

Lunch anyone?

There is really nothing else to say except, “Our local lamb lunch was cooked in a geyser.”  This is just another example of their ingenious ways of surviving on a continent no foreign invader has wanted to conquer for thousands of years.  Another fascinating fact is that they produce all of their own vegetables in greenhouses!  All of their food is locally grown or sourced aside from a few imported delicacies.  This explains the high food cost since it is a not an easy feat to accomplish.  Our respect for their lifestyle is off the charts.

#3: Iceland is unpredictable

Sort of like Old Faithful

Sort of like Old Faithful

We were at the geyser in the picture above.  The signs said the geyser erupted every 8-10 minutes.  Well, let’s just say that we were there for roughly 25 minutes and the geyser erupted 6 times.  Also, eruptions were not consistent in the volume of water and the direction that it spewed.  The first one was kind of unimpressive, so we got close to the geyser and waited for the 8-10 minutes (which turned out to be more like 4).  The eruption was much larger than the previous one and came towards us. Our intrepid new friend Chris stayed the course and got some great footage which included getting doused.  Thankfully the boiling hot water had cooled enough in the air first before the dousing or we would have been searching for a hospital in the middle of nowhere!

Iceland offers very little in the way of railings, signs, or anything else that would indicate how dangerous some of the natural features can be, which is opposite to what we’ve experienced in the US.  If you visit make sure to be careful!

#2: Swimming in the Blue Lagoon was one of the most unique experiences of my life

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a hot springs turned tourist haven, but it’s large enough that (when we were there at least) it doesn’t feel overly crowded.  The average water temperature is about 100 degrees F.  They have a bar that you can wade over to and order from.  There are steam rooms, saunas, and pretty much everything you could ever want to use in a spa.  We saw a tremendous sunset while we were there.  I can’t say enough about this experience!

If you end up wanting to save some cash, however, there are numerous cheaper (and many free) options to dip in hot springs, you sometimes just have to get off the beaten path and hike a bit.  All of the natural attractions were free.

#1: This woman has a plaque and I’m not sure why

Plaque at Gullfoss

Plaque at Gullfoss

Terra shared a great story she had read about a woman who made it her life’s mission to save Gullfoss Waterfall (see pictures below).  I assumed, then, that the lady on the plaque was the same lady.  And then I read the description next to the plaque.  She was basically an average lady (it said she was pretty in her younger years!) who toured people around the waterfall during her lifetime.  And no plaque for the lady who basically threatened to throw herself in the water if they tried to dam the river.  I don’t understand!

I’ve included a few other pictures below of places I thought were quite impressive.

In our minds during our stay, Iceland morphed from a mysterious stopover to an absolutely must-see experience for anyone traveling to Europe.  IcelandAir offers cheap flights, and allows visitors to stay for up to 7 days without additional fees on their way to or from Europe.  If you go, be prepared to pay high prices for car rentals and food, in particular.

The Great Gullfoss

The Great Gullfoss

Great Gullfoss again...

Great Gullfoss again…

Gullfoss yet again

Gullfoss yet again

Seljalandsfoss

Skogafoss

Entrance to Blue Lagoon

Entrance to Blue Lagoon

Yes that's a ginormous glacier

Yes that’s a ginormous glacier

Skogafoss

Another Skogafoss

Waterfall-like organ at church in Reykjavik

Waterfall-like organ at church in Reykjavik