Travel Column: Up and Away, Down to Earth—Reykjavik, Iceland

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Travel Column:  Up and Away, Down to Earth—Reykjavik, Iceland
Stephanie Weyant - Up and Away, Down to Earth

Travel writer, Stephanie Weyant

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year!  I hope all is alive and well.  The world didn’t end – those Mayan jokesters – and we’re all still here.  So let’s have fun with it, and let the new year’s resolutions begin.

I’m going a different route for 2013 – I’m not joining a gym (let’s be honest, I never have), and I’m not going to curse less.  Instead, I’m going to revisit my bucket list, and vow to accomplish at least one thing from it.  Do you have a bucket list?  Everyone should.  A bucket list is the ultimate holy grail of your own life.  It’s different for everyone, and it’s a great way to define who we are and why we are here – and what we want to see and accomplish in this very short amount of time.

What I’ll check off this year, I don’t know yet.  But I’d like to share a trip from last year that allowed me to cross off another one: it was my winter adventure to rugged, mysterious Iceland, and my quest to see the Northern Lights.

So kick back with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and get this new year off to a good start.  Cheers!

Sincerely,

Stephanie

* * *

A Light in the Dark

By: Stephanie Weyant

It’s a frigid, icy night in the dead of winter.  I am all but numb, standing in the snow.  Wearing two layers of thick wool socks inside of North Face snow boots, my feet still ache from the cold.  But I am on a mission – a quest to check off one more dream from my bucket list.  In the unforgiving wind on the outskirts of town – Reykjavik, Iceland to be precise – I patiently stand looking up at the sky.  Frozen as they are, my fingers are crossed in the hopes of seeing the ever-elusive Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.  With a small group we wait, we wait, we wait…and finally, suddenly, out of nowhere – the tour guide shouts at us to return to the bus.  “Too cloudy!” he says, “No lights tonight.”

Well crap.  Doesn’t Mother Nature realize I flew 2,600 miles to see this?

Photo credit: Dawn Malkowski

10 minutes into the Blizzard

At this point, shivering with lips that I am certain are blue, all I really want is a cup of hot tea and a roaring fire.  It was not long after I arrived in this stark but beautiful place that my body had taken quite a beating.  The day prior, I had just landed in Reykjavik jetlagged but excited.  I had flown in from New York to meet my dear sweet mother who had come from Seattle, just to spend a fun weekend together.  With only three days and nights, we set out to make the most of it.  We dropped off our luggage at the Hotel Óðinsvé and hopped a bus to the Blue Lagoon for some relaxing, detoxifying time in the hot sulfur pools.  The relaxation was almost undone by the work of untangling my dreadlock, rat’s nest hair after unwittingly dunking it in the sulfur lagoon (don’t do that!)…after conditioner, it still took two hours to brush out.  Live and learn.

Blue Lagoon – Photo credit: Getty Images

Oh, and it was snowing!  It was surreal.  If I am ever inside a snowglobe, it will be just like this.  I learned rather quickly that I love the feeling of snow falling onto my shoulders as I bask in the milky blue water.  It’s simply enchanting.  What I also learned, not as quickly, is that I have a severe sensitivity to sulfur.

That first night, I felt fine.  We were exhausted, the snowfall was heavy, and after inquiring, we found out that the blizzard-like weather would prevent any sighting of the Lights.  So instead, we trekked out all bundled up to find a good meal.  In this weather at this time of year, our options were suddenly quite limited, but we found a good spot – Gamla Vínhúsið – and settled in with a bottle of red wine and local fare(http://www.gamlavinhusid.is/engindexrvk.html).  Some of the best lobster bisque I ever ate was here, and a large bowl was roughly $9.  The lobster tails just melted in your mouth ($20), and for a country that doesn’t have a lot of cows roaming around, the steak with fries and greens was deliciously fresh and satisfying ($16).  With the frigid cold, we needed comfort food; for now, we would pass on the Icelandic staples of horsemeat, whale, and boiled lamb’s head.

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral Braving the Storm

The next morning, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, something I recommend if it’s offered given the modest number of bakeries and breakfast joints in the city center.  It was easy to take our time; at 9:45am it was still dark and just beginning to lighten up for the shortened winter day.  Eager to explore the town of Reykjavik, we would spend the day there, and that night, try again to see the Northern Lights.  First, a visit to the Hallgrímskirkja – a Lutheran cathedral and iconic architectural symbol of this unique culture and place.  For about $5 (or 650 krona), you can take the stairs or elevator to the top and experience the panoramic views of the entire city and coast.  Well worth it.  Plus it helps to get your bearings of the area.

Meandering in and out of shops along the main drag, we poked our heads into a coffeehouse called Kaffitar (http://www.kaffitar.is/) and watched the locals pass by.  Soaking up local culture is one of my favorite pastimes; as interesting as the sights are, the people are just as much so.  Then it was off to see more: near the edge of the main street is the Kolaporthid weekend flea market, where you can find everything from hand-knit wool gloves to cell phone gadgets to antiques and garage sale junk.  You can snag some hotdogs too if you like.  The whole place is a hoot.

Hand-knit Icelandic Wool Gloves (~$20)

It was at this market that I suddenly began to feel the effects of my sulfur exposure.  “I really don’t feel good.”  A moment later, I find myself running to the bathroom, barelymaking it to a stall to throw up.  My body was rejecting everything in my stomach and then some.  After way.too.long in a public restroom, I was able to take a breath without being sick.  I needed some fresh air, and some water.  My understanding mom came with me as we walked back to the hotel.  I became sick again, with what felt like the flu and food poisoning all wrapped in one – an allergic reaction to the lagoon.  Lovely.  Why am I (over)sharing this?  Because not every vacation goes as planned, and this effect I later learned is not uncommon for people seldom exposed to high levels of sulfur (namely, Americans).  The trip from bed to bathroom continued.  This went on for hours.  By the end of the day, my back and kidneys ached.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge – Tectonic Plates of North America & Europe.

But it was night two of our three nights to see the Aurora Borealis.  “We can stay in tonight,” my rational and lovely mother tells me.  But I would have kicked myself if that night ended up being the only clear night we had.  “No way.  Let’s try it.”  Please may I get through this!  We booked a group tour through our hotel and ventured out.  After several hours of driving and searching, we had nothing to show for it.  To our utter annoyance, the company though highly rated, sent a bad guide that night.  The driver never left the outskirts of the city, and we saw light pollution in every direction.  Never again.  Confirming our suspicions that we had a bad tour, a couple the next morning told us they’d seen the Aurora, having ventured out further like you’re supposed to.  While our guide promised to take us out again the next night free of charge (they all offer this), why would we think they would take us out further?  Disappointed and a little wiser, we decided if the opportunity of clear skies arose on the last night, we’ll cut our losses, pay again, and try someone new.

For our last full day there, we wait until the morning to decide what would be possible given my fragile condition.  I’m not great, but I’m better than I was.  I pass on breakfast – I can’t puke if I don’t eat, ha! – but still want to see the other natural wonders this country has to offer.  And I certainly don’t want my travel companion to be cooped up in a hotel room all day.  While we couldn’t see every sight and do them all justice, we could see a few in the area.  Even in winter, there are several day-long and half-day-long tours to see the Golden Circle which comprises of the magnificent Gullfoss (literally the golden falls) waterfall; the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – usually on the ocean floor, these tectonic plates make a rare appearance on land here – it’s where North America meets Europe; and finally, the very lively Geysir who is in a constant state of ire, erupting every 5-7 minutes to create quite the show.  How can we miss that?

Trying to get this shot, Mom says, “Stand closer” …to the hole in the ground that’s seconds away from blasting boiling water up out of the earth.  I love you too, Mom.

Geysir Erupting!

We book our trip with Iceland Excursions and by the grace of God, I get through the 7 hours on the tour bus.  The sights were incredible.  Their grandeur is humbling; their power reminds me of how miniscule we really are in the grand scheme of things.  In winter, the narrow path to the waterfall’s edge gets icy and slippery – with no other protective rail to protect against falling off the cliff.  Rules, or what I like to call ‘suggestions,’ state that you cannot trespass beyond the chain barrier onto the narrow path from October to April.  Needless to say it was February, and that’s me near the edge.  What a view.

Photo credit: Dawn Malkowski

Stephanie at Gullfoss – ‘Golden Falls’ – Iceland – Photo credit: Dawn Malkowski

After our successful half-day tour, the driver tells us there have been reports of clear skies and high likelihood of seeing the Lights.  But we would need to drive far to get to a good area, and leave now.  No time to get our tripod at the hotel; no time for food (after a day and a half, I’m getting hungry); only time to buy the tickets.  I am worn out, but it’s our last night in Reykjavik, and last chance to see this wonder.

Back into the cold, we meet our bus and drive out into the night.  There are fewer people now, and after a two-hour drive, we stop in the middle of nowhere.  There are no other buses behind us; there are no city lights to distract us.  I step out and look up.  Darkness.  Suddenly a glow appears, and vanishes as fast as it came.  It’s so subtle that I think my eyes are playing tricks on me.  I blink and it happens again.  The light appears, this time not as shy.  It peeks again through the black blanket, gradually gaining confidence.  And there it is.  Imagine a giant lava lamp in the sky.  Not much to see at first, but slowly as it warms up, the colors brighten, the movement is greater, and the more you look at it, the more hypnotic it becomes.  It’s unlike anything I have ever seen; it’s absolutely magnificent.  No wonder Icelanders believe in gnomes and elves.  If their sky can turn green and blue and red in the middle of the night, then mythical forest creatures living among us doesn’t sound so strange anymore.

Northern Lights – Finally!

In a state of content, I take a deep breath and smile.  The extensive planning, miles traveled, hurdles jumped, and a lot of luck all led to this moment.  For over a thousand years, Icelanders have weathered the harshest of conditions, and survived on the scarcest of resources.  We survived the worst blizzard in a decade, and I survived what felt like death.  In a way, it was a tiny parallel to these historic struggles, and getting through it felt like we triumphed over an initiation, a rite of passage.  I felt more connected to Iceland than ever.

Despite the unexpected hurdles, we had a fantastic adventure in the face of resistance.  Vacations aren’t always perfect, which is easy to forget when they’re portrayed that way in travel shows and magazines.  Setbacks happen beyond our control; you can’t predict a blizzard or getting sick.  But if you make the most of it, you can come home with more interesting stories and better memories.  And maybe you’ll even be lucky enough to check off that bucket list.  After all, I finally got to see those mysterious Northern Lights.

* * *

Reykjavik Snapshot

Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral

Iceland is unlike any other place on earth.  Isolated for millennia, this beautiful culture has developed on its own.  Despite having only gained independence from Denmark in 1944, the people have always maintained their own language, their own beliefs (many still hold that elves roam the landscape!), their own customs, and their own style.  Ironically, Iceland today is the most connected to the world, having the highest percentage of Internet users in its population.  They’re friendly and love to drink, and while there is no Icelandic translation for the word “please,” the people are more than polite and helpful.  Feel safe when you arrive here; in a country whose entire population is 320,000 covering land the size of Kentucky, the crime rate is the lowest per capita in the world.  Guns are only used for hunting, and are so rare that even the police don’t carry them.  They’re some of the happiest people too, according to several quality of life studies, which says even more after the massively destructive Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in 2011, their own financial crisis of 2008 – their stock market plunged 90%, and the harsh winters that in other countries cause high rates of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  It’s a great place to visit in winter or summer; and it offers some incredible natural wonders that everyone should see in their lifetime.

Reykjavik City Center – Photo credit: Dawn Malkowski

If you go in winter, be advised: take warm clothes, and several layers of them.  This means long underwear, and I’d highly recommend North Face gear – coats, boots, gloves, etc. – they really do keep you warm.  We visited during some rare and record-setting cold spells, but if you get caught in that, you will freeze if you’re unprepared (or end up spending a small fortune on local goods!).  If you can swing it, bring a coat for your arrival but buy 66˚ North gear – an Icelandic brand that, fittingly, is the warmest stuff on the planet!  Each day, I’d suggest wearing two pairs of wool socks, one over the other, to keep up good circulation.  A wool and insulated hat is essential as well.  I’m not one for packing heavy, but in this case, I’d make an exception.  Do check the weather forecast before you go as a guideline, but again – pack extra to be safe!

Regarding the Aurora Borealis: try to plan your trip during the new moon.  Moonlight dissipates Aurora light.  For photography, if you bring digital cameras or camcorders, or plan to use your phone, note that extended exposure to the ice cold weather will suck the juice from your battery quickly.  We had a nice camera to capture the Northern Lights but had to use a second battery after less than an hour…lucky we had one.  The cold just drains it.  Also, remember your tripod.  With an open aperture to capture the Northern Lights, the sensitivity makes it almost impossible to hold the camera still enough to prevent light trails.

Regarding the Blue Lagoon, or any sulfur springs you visit while in Iceland, for ladies and gents with long hair: do not dip your hair in the Blue Lagoon.  Your hair will turn into one giant dreadlock.  Not realizing that you shouldn’t get your hair wet, I treated the Lagoon like a regular pool.  Usually I’m a pretty low-maintenance kind of girl.  But after getting out and feeling my crunchy, destroyed hair, I spent 30 minutes re-drenching it with conditioner…only to still spend an hour and a half brushing it out.  Being winter, I blew it dry – and it became a knotted nightmare all over again.  It was awful.  While great for your pores and skin, the sulfur springs strip your hair of every ounce of moisture, protein, and nutrient.  It took weeks of expensive conditioning to get my hair back to normal.

The little things: when you go, you will truly be submerged into another culture.  What do I mean?  Nowhere in the entire country will you find a McDonald’s or Starbucks.  The only hint of American influence is KFC, and recent emigration has opened the door to local Thai and other Asian restaurants.  Also, an unadvertised tidbit worth mentioning: given the high concentration of sulfur water in this part of the world, you may notice the occasional smell of rotten eggs.  This goes for the hot water coming out of hotel faucets and showerheads, and it’s even stronger at the Blue Lagoon.  Consider yourself warned!  But that being said, this is one of the cleanest countries on earth with the freshest air and very little pollution.  It’s beautiful.

When You Go

 

Being a smaller capital city with a population of about 200,000, Reykjavik doesn’t have an endless number of hotels, but will have plenty to choose from, not to worry.  As always, my recommendations are for places I would stay, with my budget.  Should you opt for different accommodations, please follow my universal advice – just be sure to do your research: Google hotels, reviews, and pictures.  Recent reviews are key!  Feel free to inquire directly with the hotel about nearby construction (which can lead to early morning noise and smells), renovations, and extra fees (like parking, wifi, pet lodging, etc.) – typically you can find a toll-free number or at least an e-mail address for foreign hotels.  Check cancellation/refund deadlines, and keep note of that if your plans change.  Dare I say, check www.hotels.com – you’ll likely find deeper discounts, and after staying 10 nights in any mix of most hotels, you’ll earn the 11th night free.  Please note that sometimes a hotel might not give you the best room if you book through www.hotels.com.  I’ve found that calling the hotel directly can also yield addition room size/deluxe options and discount specials that aren’t available on any website, even their own.  And remember – being nice can go a lot further than you might think!  Whatever you decide, trust your gut.

We stayed at the Hotel Óðinsvé, and I had no complaints.  Our room was clean, warm, and beds were comfortable.  Staff was courteous and helpful.  Current rates run about $110/night for winter.  The hotel is centrally located; just a few minutes’ walk to the main shopping street and a 10-minute walk to the cathedral, but it’s in a quieter section of town.  When booking your room, I’d suggest requesting a higher floor and/or with a balcony; those rooms tend to offer beautiful city and cathedral views.  Breakfast is an additional $15/person, but well worth it – a full buffet breakfast offers rolls, toast, meats, cheeses, waffles, cereal, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, etc. (http://www.hotelodinsve.is/)

Hotel Odinsve Lobby

My research also pointed me toward the Reykjavik Residence Hotel; highly rated at $129/night with well-appointed modern and comfortable furnishings and a kitchen.  It looks like you’re home when you’re there – not like a cold hotel!  (http://www.rrhotel.is/)  I would also give City Center Hotel a try – at $107/night, it looks like a very nice and comfortable spot in town. (http://www.citycenterhotel.is/

Reykjavik Residence Hotel – Photo credit: RRH

 

City Center Hotel – Photo credit: City Center Hotel

Hotel Borg is another hotel in the city center running about $185/night.  For the price, you’re paying for a more art deco yet modern surroundings with a masculine elegance.  Very nice, but honestly, if you’re going to splurge, don’t do it with a hotel; do it with a private tour.  That, I am sure, will be the best money spent. (http://en.hotelborg.is/)

Hotel Borg – Photo credit: Hotel Borg

Whatever you decide, stay in the city center if you are not renting a car.  Taxis are expensive, and two trips at minimum to get to and from town each day will add up quickly.  Note that the package offers from Iceland Air often include one of two hotels: the Hilton Nordica and the Reykjavik Natura formerly Loftleidir.  Both are lovely and newly renovated, but are realistically too far from town to walk.  Shuttle buses are free, but sometimes infrequent.

Transportation

In general, I would not advise renting a car in Iceland in the winter.   The icy and snowy roads can be dangerous even for the most seasoned driver, and if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere on the hunt for the Northern Lights, you might literally freeze to death!  Not to mention you’ll likely get caught in the dark with only 5 hours of daylight, which adds to the challenge of closely following Icelandic road signs.  Frankly, it’s not worth the stress.  However if you are up for an adventure, have a great sense of direction with a companion to read a map, and the town is not amidst a blizzard, renting a car can be a great thing, giving you the freedom to stop and go as you please (there are endless photo ops along the roads).  Like the U.S., they drive on the right side of the road.

If you can splurge, get a Jeep tour – small, focused tours that avoid the rounding up ‘cattle call’ and hour+ wait times of the tour buses.  Plus they offer more flexibility; most are happy to stop for photos whenever you’d like.  When I go to Iceland again, I will do a Jeep tour; at least for the Northern Lights tour.  Sometimes you can get a bad guide/driver with the larger tour companies who won’t even venture outside the city (and away from city light pollution), and you have no way of knowing when that can happen.  The Golden Circle tours are pretty standard; check recent reviews and inquire at your hotel to make sure you go with a company that leaves on time – with limited daylight, you need to make every minute count!

The wonder of Iceland!

Roundtrip airport transportation to and from the city on the FlyBus is economical ($27 to city center and $35 directly to hotel) compared to a taxi at $110.  Please note, for the FlyBus, children up to age 11 are free; ages 12 to 15 are discounted 50%; but if you’re travel with 3-4 people get a taxi; it’ll either be cheaper, or the extra money spent is worth eliminating the extra time and hassle of the bus!

When you get to the airport to leave, you’ll go through security, which opens up to a large open lounge area with duty-free shopping.  Keep going.  You are most likely nowhere near your gate.  I made this mistake thinking I was ready to go when I had to still go through the exiting process and then another security area, both of which had long lines.  I almost missed my flight!

Please note: exchange rates are based on Jan. 2013 rate of $1.00/130 ISK (Icelandic kroner).  There are daily nonstop flights to Reykjavik on Icelandic Air from select U.S. cities including New York, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Orlando, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.  Passports are required and must not expire within six (6) months of arrival date; prior special visas not required.  Enjoy!

Stephanie lives and works in New York City and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Denver. She also spent a year abroad studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. To read more about Stephanie, her travel column, Up and Away, Down to Earth, or ask Stephanie a travel question, visit her page: Up and Away, Down to Earth with Stephanie Weyant.

1 Comment

  1. Beautifully written. It sounds so inviting, with very useful information. I Look forward to your next adventure.

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