Iceland is crazy beautiful: mountains and volcanos pop up in every direction, looming over fields of lava rocks covered in moss. You can't take a photo without capturing a picturesque waterfall or steaming geothermal feature in the distance. At this time of year, the grasses and plants are turning brilliant shades of red, yellow, orange, and bright green. Iceland also has an interesting history that includes vikings and the first parliamentary government in the world. In 3.5 days I toured a small section of Iceland within two hours of Reykjavik. I packed my itinerary full, hoping to see and do as much as possible in that short time.
Day 1 (9/21/16): Golden Circle & Fontana Wellness Spa
The Reykjavik tour operators have made it really simple to get around the country. I hoped on a bus at the airport at 6:00am that dropped me off at my hotel, Hótel Ísland (which, by the way, means "Iceland" not "Island" in Icelandic - I found that out the hard way). The hotel had a place to store my bags and change for the day. By 8:30am, I'd been picked up by another bus and was on my way to visit the Icelandic countryside.
We first stopped at an Icelandic Horse Farm to learn about this special species of pony-like horse, the only kind they have on the island. I met this horse.
The next stop is where things got really, really good. We saw Gullfoss Falls, which is a big, beautiful double waterfall with a path that allows you to get relatively close as well as admire it from afar.
The geysers are nothing compared to Yellowstone, but I hiked up a nearby mountain and found this picturesque farm and winding stream on the other side.
Our next stop was the Fontana Wellness Spa. Here, we learned about how the locals make rye bread, by burying it in a hot spring and cooking it for 24 hours. We got a demonstration and tasted it too. Delicious!
For the next two hours, we soaked in hot spring bliss. The Fontana Wellness Spa has four pools, kept at different temperatures, a sauna, steam room, and a glacially-fed lake. It was surprisingly fun to jump from pool to pool, relaxing, then adjusting your temperature by moving to a different pool. I even jumped off the end of the pier into the lake. It was so cold that by the time I got back to shore, I couldn't feel my legs. I only had to try that once.
The last stop of the day was an incredible gem. It was Thingvellir National Park, which is significant for two reasons. First, it was the site of the world's first parliament, where different early tribes in Iceland met to discuss governance issues starting in around 930 AD. Second, this is where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart. You can see both ridges (and they are beautiful) and walk around in the gap between them. It is also incredibly picturesque and is probably my favorite scenic area in Iceland.
Day 2 (9/22/16): Snorkeling Silfra, Reykjavik, and the Blue Lagoon
On Day 2, I did something that I admit was a little stupid: I went snorkeling in 37-degree glacial water. Silfra is an area in Thingvellir National Park where water fills the crack between the splitting tectonic plates. The water is crystal clear, filtered over 30-100 years from a nearby glacier through lava rocks. It is pure, cold drinking water with visibility up to 150 meters. The crack itself is a geologists' dream. While there is no wildlife in it (not enough to eat), the formations are amazing, especially the section known as "the cathedral" where the crack plunges down and you can see deep into the earth through clear cerulean waters. It was amazing, except for the temperature. We were in dry suits, but they didn't protect your hands or face from the extreme cold. I was only in the water for 40 minutes, but my lips went numb after 1 minute. The experience is really neat, but uncomfortable. The preparation took 1-2 hours and it was windy and rainy as we suited up. After it was over, I felt much like I did after climbing Kilimanjaro: I was glad to have done it, but I don't feel the need to do it again. We got hot chocolate and digestives afterwards, which was delightful.
I was so excited to get back to the hotel, take a warm shower, and have a big bowl of soup after this! After a couple hours of relaxation, I ventured into downtown Reykjavik. The city is cute and walkable. I didn't get very far past the shops on Laugavegur Road and Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral, but I had a good time exploring.
|A delicious local orange soda I discovered.|
In the evening, I was supposed to go whale watching, but the wind was so high that it was canceled. Instead, I went on the most iconic of all Icelandic adventures: the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a huge thermal bath, fed with both fresh water and geothermal salt water. There are minerals in the water that make your skin baby soft and you can relax in peace for hours. I've heard it called "The Disney Land of hot springs" because it is huge and located right next to the airport so it can get very busy. There is a swim-up bar and a giant hydraulic massage waterfall. You can get a silica mud mask for your face and explore the giant pool or just sit in one glorious place. It was pretty amazing.
|I never took any photos here because it was dark and I was too busy relaxing, so here's a stock photo from Guide to Iceland. Love this place!|
Day 3 (9/23/16): Glacier Hiking & Waterfalls
On my final full day in Iceland, I took a bus two hours along the South road. Here, the scenery is out-of-this world amazing. Mountains and volcanoes crop up out of nowhere, each with its own spectacular waterfall. There are picturesque farms dotted with sheep, Icelandic horses, and cows. You have a view of the ocean off in the distance, with jagged islands shrouded in mist. In fact, I got to see the volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) that erupted six years ago, halting all air traffic from Europe. After the drive, we stopped at Sólheimajökull Glacier and grabbed crampons and an ice ax to go out onto the glacier.
The Mountain Guides I went with have an incredible knowledge of the glacier. We first walked through an area dubbed "Mordor", with huge peaks of ice and ash. Crevices and waterfalls of ice water were around every corner and we skirted around features constantly to stay on solid ice.
There was a place on the Glacier where a river of water has eaten away the glacier and formed the most amazing walls, waterfalls, and sculptures in the ice. We walked down inside this area, where the walls were well-above our heads.
This walk was my favorite activity the whole trip, in a vacation that was jam-packed with incredible experiences. On the way home I visited two waterfalls: Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. Both spectacular in their own ways. You can walk behind Seljalandsfoss and to get an amazing view from every angle.
That evening, I met up with my friend, Jesse's cousin's girlfriend (Ilyssa) who was starting a three-month epic tour of Europe. We went to a cute little restaurant called Svarta Kaffid that only sells two soups a day in a bread bowl with beer (how perfect). Soup is the ultimate meal in Iceland; so warm and cozy. I'm excited to follow Ilyssa on her own journey long after I arrive home.
Day 4 (9/24/16): Whale Watching & Home
After my whale watching was canceled on Thursday, I was able to reschedule it for the morning before I left on Saturday. It was raining again and the ticket window had a large sign that said "Rough Seas". They offered us all sea sickness pills and I happily took one. The boat headed out past more mountains in the mist of the rain and then we waited. And waited and waited and waited. About two hours later, I had given up and was trying to enjoy the (somewhat cold) sea air on my face. Suddenly we found one: a minke whale, not far from the front of the boat. I saw its small dorsal fin pop out of the water twice. That was it. Three hours of waiting for two seconds of whale viewing. The company thought that was pretty crappy too, so they gave us all tickets to return and try again within the next two years.
I had to rush to the airport after that and through passport checkpoints. I feel like I barely made my flight, but got home on time and was happy to be back.
I loved Iceland so much that I'm planning to take the family back for a week next summer. It will be the kids' first time out of the country. They're going to love it.