4 days in Iceland – what an experience that was! While the weather may not have cooperated as we had hoped (No, we did not get to see the northern lights….) the country is full of natural wonders that one would have to travel far and wide to see.
We started our trip with 2 days in Reykjavik, the country’s capital and most heavily populated city. Arriving on a 6:00AM flight on a Sunday, we hopped on one of the two private bus companies with service to downtown Reykjavik. By 8:00AM we were in the center of town with over 2 hours left of PITCH BLACK conditions, as the sun doesn’t begin to rise until around 10:30AM in January. Starving and exhausted, having slept maybe a couple hours on the flight, we were in desperate need of a cappuccino and a bite to eat. Fortunately we stumbled upon what seemed like the only shop open at this hour – SANDHOLT. The bakery was buzzing with people and we soon devoured two delicious items – the BEST yogurt parfait I have ever had, served with an amazing raspberry compote and house made granola, and a multigrain “bread” with cottage cheese and delicately smoked local salmon. Delicious!
Day was just starting to break when we left so we headed to the famous church – Hallgrimskirkja to watch the “sunrise” (on a nice day take the elevator to the top of the clock tour to get a 360 degree birds eye view of the downtown speckled with it’s brightly colored buildings). The rest of the day was then filled with wondering the main local shopping street of Laugavegur, exploring downtown near the harbor, and comparing the two stands (Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur and Pylsuhusid Hot Dog House) which serve the local delicacy of Icelandic Hotdogs – something which felt very similar to the Pats and Geno’s cheesesteak battle of Philadelphia. Nestled near the bottom of the street leading up to Hallgrimskirkja was SMAKKBARINN, a restaurant advertising Icelandic tapas. We stopped in for dinner and were able to sample traditional Icelandic dishes served in small mason jars – perfect for a couple of those items you just aren’t so sure about. Our selection of tapas included Minke Whale, Smoked Lamb, traditional Icelandic Meat Soup, Langoustines, Lamb Hearts, Goose Confit, Pork Belly, and Cured Salmon – Hey, when in Rome, or in this case, Iceland! The best part of the meal was the AMAZING local beer we discovered, Einstök White Ale – slightly like a more robust and much better Hoegaarden. I Just hope then when we get back to the states we’ll be able to find it.
Day 2 brought a TON of rain so we ended up dodging in and out of stores and museums – The Viking Settlement Exhibition and the Maritime Museum. Happy Hour (a must in Reykjavik) brought us to Public House Gastro Pub where we indulged on our new favorite beer and yet another local delicacy, Puffin! (This was actually very good, served cured with a blueberry sauce). Continuing with our night’s food tour, we headed to dinner at Resto at which we had our best meal in Reykjavik – Salmon tartar with egg yolk, caviar, blistered cherry tomatoes, seaweed salad, and beets, as well as Bahadur Saltfiskur (dried salted cod which has been rehydrated and baked) with onions, chorizo, and a pesto style salsa verde. This place was a hidden gem as it is off the main street and we highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Reykjavik!
The Golden Circle
Tuesday started our excursion out to the natural sites of the island traveling along the Golden Circle and the South Coast. After picking up our rental SUV, we headed north on the most heavily traveled route, the Golden Circle. First stop was a vista overlooking the lake at Pingvellier National Park. Winds and rain kept our visit very short (should you visit in winter, bring serious RAIN gear and warm layers!) so we continued on for about 5 minutes until the rain began to slow. Stopping at Parking 3 we hiked down a small path through the cracks in the earth until we stumbled upon Oxarafoss, a small – to Iceland’s standards – waterfall. Well worth the rugged and icy terrain!
Next stop was GEYSIR, the name sake of all the Geysers in the world. What was once a very active and magnificent geyser, now only goes off after an earthquake – if we would have read the signs upon entering the area we would have not wasted a painfully cold 25 mins waiting for the thing to blow! There is however another small geyser in the park, STROKER, that goes off every 8-10 mins. If you’re photography skills are good enough, you just might get a picture of the water bubble before it’s about to burst!
Very near GEYSIR is GULFOSS – Iceland’s Niagara Falls. This huge two-part waterfall is an important part of Iceland’s history and folklore, including a love story, and is absolutely breathtaking. In the summer months you can hike far out to the edge of the falls, something we would have loved to experience. With a long drive to our stop for the night, we headed south passing through a little town called FLUDIR. Had we done our research a little better, we really wish we would have stopped at the SECRET LAGOON. This natural hot spring pool is lesser known than the Blue Lagoon and looks amazing!
The South Coast
After a somewhat sleepless night in our Church turned Airbnb in the middle of nowhere Iceland (ask Drew about that one!), on to the South Coast we went. Since the black sand beaches were our top priority we headed to the furthest point of VIK, making sure to visit REYNISDRANGAR and REYNISFJARA.
The contrast between the black sand and turbulent white water can hardly be caputed in a photograph and feels as though you are living in a black and white movie! The Basalt columns at REYNISFJARA were so unique, making us very glad we traveled all that way.
We were yet to make it to a natural hot spring since we made the decision to forgo the Blue Lagoon due to the outrageous prices and sheer number of people. At dinner in Reykavik we had overheard a group talking about this hidden pool in the middle of the mountains. Sold! So the hunt for SELJAVALLALAUG began. Down a gravel street (242) off Route 1, we drove to the end and parked. There were 8 other cars but no one in site. We must be in the right place so we starting hiking down a barely visible path towards the mountains. After about 20 mins crossing a stream and scaling the edge of a mountain, we rounded the corner on this tiny little pool and changing hut completely surrounded by mountains. Now this was not a HOT Spring, the 1 degree Celsius air temperature drastically cools down the water, but it was warm enough for us to take a dip staying huddled around the warm supply pipe. Being a girl who has been in the water my entire life, this was one of the most amazing life experiences for me!
The long road back to the Airport had us racing the sun to stop at the last remaining waterfalls, SELJALANDSFOSS and SKOGAFOSS. Both equally impressive due to the shear size and amount of water flowing over the cliffs, and it’s winter!
One final stop for dinner lead us to the town of SELFOSS where we stopped at TRYGGVASKALI restaurant, where we had our best meal in Iceland. Scallops and Cauliflower for me with Pomegranate and Tarragon puree and Icelandic Lamb (finally) for Drew with Carrot puree, gratin of potatoes, spinach, and parmesan cheese, and root vegetables. A true culinary gem in Iceland and a must stop along the south coast!
Winter finally hit as we raced to the airport in snowy conditions, climbing a huge mountain between SELFOSS and REYKJAVIK (I would have loved to see the terrain in the daylight). Thank you Iceland for your natural beauty! Now on to France for a weekend in Champagne, Cheers!, before our first housesit in Paris for the week.
Our Stark Perspective (Tips):
- Sunday is the only day that public transportation from the Airport is not available in the early morning.
- Iceland may be cheap to get to, but everything is VERY expensive.
- We did not need to covert money to Icelandic Kronas, as we used Credit Card everywhere!
- The beer they serve in convenience stores is not really beer, 2.25% at most.
- Drink at Happy Hour, where beverages will likely be 50% off.
- In Iceland the weather patterns are very erratic! They have a saying, if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. This could be for the good or the bad….
- If you are traveling in the winter – bring serious rain gear including lightweight pants and warm layers!
- Unless you are exploring the highlands (Golden Circle is not considered the highlands), you do not need to rent an SUV – even in the winter months.
- Make sure you have at least ¾ of a tank of gas before heading out on the golden circle, as the stations are FEW and FAR between.
- Getting gas is also an adventure as their card machines require pin numbers. You have to go inside and purchase a prepaid card and then use that at the pump.
- As of January 2017 – Gas was about $8USD per gallon!
- If traveling the South Coast, and either A) want to splurge for a night or B) are heading back and want the best priced happy hour we found – Stop at HOTEL RANGA between Hella and Hvolsvollur… This place was amazing!