Iceland…Not That Icy, Lots of Land Though
In life, there are 2 types of people. Those who say “Why Iceland?” and those who are our kindred souls. Those who live to travel and travel to live. Those who wander but aren’t lost. These are the people who say “Iceland? Dope! Iceland looks/seems/is amazing!”
This blog? This is for the latter. But for those of you in the former group, those who wonder why any sane person would go to a place literally named after ice? Keep reading, you may be impressed. And hey, maybe your mind will change, because mine sure did.
In 2008, sitting in a public speaking class, I was one of the “Why Iceland?” people. A kid told a story about spending New Year’s Eve in Iceland, and I remember thinking, “Huh. Iceland. Sounds awful.” And when we booked this trip, about half of our friends and family said the same thing. But luckily, by this point, we knew better. Iceland was #2 on my “must go” list (Tahiti is still #1, BTW), and when Secret Flying posted $300 flights to Reykjavik from Los Angeles, I frantically called and texted Caitlin, got a tepid response and approval, and booked. Iceland it was!
Read just about any “best places to visit” or “adventurous places to travel” lists, and Iceland is almost always there. I’d read enough to know that you can’t go far in Iceland without seeing a waterfall, glacier, hot spring, or some other amazing natural beauty, and I wanted in. If you like nature, cool people, hot tubs, good food, beautiful scenery, oceans, driving, or basically just consider yourself to be among the living, Iceland is the place for you.
The flight from Los Angeles to Reykjavik is not terrible. At just over 8 hours, it’s long, but not, like, Australia long where you’re contemplating gnawing off a limb just to pass the time. In fact, with a couple Benadryl, I slept like a baby and only remember about one hour of the flight. And as a side note, I’ve found that if you give in to jetlag, it will crush your trip. Down a Red Bull (or 5) and push through the fatigue. Sleep on your new place’s time, not your previous place. Luckily, Iceland was only 6 hours different from Salt Lake City, so fatigue was hardly an issue.
However, a note about WOW air: You get what you pay for. They only allow one (tiny) bag for free, so you’ll be paying for your luggage unless you can pack super light (which we did, see the GEAR section for more info). The seats aren’t bad, but you’ll pay for EVERYTHING. Want entertainment? Pay. Food? Pay. Water? Pay. Air, luckily, was free, but I’m guessing there will be a surcharge for that soon. The good thing, though, is you can take food and drinks onboard. We bought some food and beverages at LAX (our friends who we met up with there went to the PriorityPass lounge which we got through our Chase Sapphire Reserve card) and stocked up on food and drink there. We didn’t have time) and took those on the flight. The prices for onboard food and drink were high, but, as you’ll learn, everything in Iceland is expensive (everything except the views, that is).
One “bad” (if you want to call it that) thing about having only 5 ½ days in Iceland is that it’s simply impossible to see everything. We knew that as we planned, so we had to make hard choices on what to see and what to skip. We knew we’d miss things, but honestly, when you have travel in your blood, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just more motivation to come back. So we knew what we wanted to see, we had our itinerary, and we set off. As soon as we landed, we caught to shuttle to our rental car, which we got from Sixt. It was the best price I could find by far, and their service was awesome. The guy who helped us check out (Armand, I think?) was super helpful and suggested a bunch of stuff to see close by the airport. We were off!
Iceland is half on the European continent and half North America, so we headed out to see the bridge between continents. It’s right on the southern peninsula near the airport, and from the second we left the airport it felt like we were on Mars. The weird, lava rock filled terrain, covered with moss and surrounded by jagged mountains, is just amazing. Seeing Iceland’s landscape for the first time is something that can give you goosebumps (it did me) and is hard to appreciate until you’re there. Photos just can’t do it justice.
At the continental bridge, you can stand between Europe and North America and see the big gap. It’s not the most amazing thing ever, but since it’s so close to the airport, it’s worth dropping by. Also there is a big lighthouse and some beautiful cliffs where we saw a bunch of big sea birds (a common sight in Iceland).
At the airport, we were shown a site which tracks the Northern Lights, and it looked like the south was the place to be that night for our best chance. (Spoiler: We didn’t see them). So we headed to our flat in Reykjavik (booked on AirBNB, see the PLACES WE STAYED section below for info), ditched our stuff, and headed south. Unfortunately for us, Iceland had a TON of cloud cover the whole time we were there. That, combined with the sun not setting until after 10pm and the sky never getting super dark before sunrise at 4am, meant we didn’t see the Northern Lights. That’s literally the only disappointment of our entire trip.
There’s a lyric from the Front Bottoms that says “I like the in-betweens/I like the time it takes to get somewhere,” and I feel like that sums up why I love travel. Me, Caitlin, and Loinz (our friend who came with us, more on him later) had a bunch of stuff on a list. This is what we want to see. But we knew we’d be doing a LOT of driving. And that’s where the in-betweens come in. That’s the true adventure. We knew we were driving south, towards Vik, Iceland’s famous black sand beach, but we had no idea what we would see as we went. And our philosophy was basically “Scream if you see something cool and we’ll pull over,” and boy did we ever. That sense of spontainety and anything could happen is what makes life, and travel, exciting, so when we saw Seljalandsfoss off the side of the highway, we were pretty stoked. (By the way, Seljalandsfoss is really well known, so it’s not like we were discovering something secret, we just didn’t realize it was right there, so coming upon it unexpectedly was awesome).
Seljalandsfoss is the first falls, right off the road. It’s easy to pull right up to, and there’s a massive staircase going right up to the falls. We climbed up and went behind the falls. It’s just one of those amazing moments, looking around at such a stunning landscape, standing behind a waterfall, being soaked by the mist…just incredible. It was the perfect “Welcome to Iceland, this place is gonna be rad” moment.
As we were wandering around Seljalandsfoss, I saw a sign saying Glúfrabúi 560 m. I had no idea what that was, but I thought if it was important enough to warrant a sign, I’d check it out. There were a bunch of people at Seljalandsfoss but nobody (literally, no one) near the direction of Glúfrabúi, so I wondered if it was worth the walk. People, trust me…it is!
Glúfrabúi is another waterfall, but it’s mostly hidden. To get to it, you walk in the stream (again, waterproof boots are the ONLY way to go in Iceland, see my GEAR section for info). There are rocks to step on, but one of my feet went completely underwater. I don’t know if it’s because it’s kinda secret and hidden or if it’s because I was in this little cavern alone watching this massive waterfall, but it was a really cool moment for me. You know, one of those movie scene moments, where Explosions in the Sky should be playing…that’s what I experienced at Glúfrabúi. At the end of our trip, as we were reminiscing about our favorite Iceland moments, Glúfrabúi was mentioned by all 3 of us. DO NOT MISS IT!
From Glúfrabúi, we went back to the car and continued our cruise towards Vik. Vik is famous for its black sand beach, so we were in a bit of a hurry trying to get there in time to see it with light. (At the time, we thought it’d be dark at 10, when the sun was supposed to set, but it was still light enough to see). Vik is a really cool town with a church up on a hill. Our Google Maps led us a bit astray, so I stopped and asked these old ladies for directions to the beach. They were super cool and nice and helpful, something that held true for literally every Icelandic person we met. (In many places we’ve been, there’s an air of “screw tourists/screw Americans/screw American tourists” and none of that existed in Iceland, at least not to us). Icelandic people were so helpful, so friendly, and everyone spoke incredibly perfect English. It was mind blowing to hear someone greet me in Icelandic, to which I would stammer, “Oh, sorry, I only speak English,” and they would immediately respond in perfect English. Such a cool thing to see.
We did make it to Vik beach, and it was worth seeing. In Napier, New Zealand, I remember going to a dark-ish sand beach, but it was all pebbles. So for some reason I was expecting Vik to be like that, rather than fine sand like at most beaches. And I was wrong. It was like an optical illusion, holding this soft, fine sand but having it pitch black. There are some really cool cliffs at one end of the beach and we had a lot of fun just relaxing, enjoying the black sand, and digging Iceland. We ended up parking and waiting for the Northern Lights for a couple hours, but alas, no luck. Our day ended driving back to Reykjavik (about 2 hours from Vik) and sleeping like babies. Day 1 was incredible and we knew with the Golden Circle ahead, it was going to get even better. And did it ever!
DAY 2: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
There are so many awesome blogs and websites about the Golden Circle, so I’m not going to give a comprehensive guide or anything here. I’m simply going to document what we did and interject random musings, as I do.
The only rule I set for this (and all) trip was NO ALARM CLOCKS. That meant that if one of us woke at 6am and the others at noon, well, tough. I have a bad habit of waking early and roaming strange (and possibly dangerous) streets whilst overseas, so I was kinda excited to get up and roam Reykjavik alone. But we all woke up around 8, and by 10 we had hit the road.
It was raining HARD this morning. We’d had amazing (yes, even warm) weather on day 1, so this was more what I was expecting. The roads in Reykjavik had big puddles of standing water and we hydroplaned a couple times in our tiny rental car, so if you visit in April, be careful! Otherwise, though, driving in a cinch, and they even drive on the right side, so it’s super easy and fun.
Our first stop was Geysir, and, if you can believe it, that means geyser. Which is what is in Geysir. Honestly, if you’ve been to Yellowstone or similar places, you’ve kinda seen this before. You know, seen one, seen ‘em all. But Caitlin insisted, so we went, and it was actually pretty cool. The fun thing about Iceland is you drive forever and hardly see any cars or even any civilization (besides those awesome Icelandic horses) and then boom. Town. Geysir.
They have a geyser (Strokkur) that goes off every 8-10 minutes, which totally puts Old Faithful to shame. It’s not as tall or anything, but it’s nice to not have to wait an hour. It went off 3 or 4 times while we were here. There’s a bunch of hotpots and with all the steam and spray it looks like something from prehistoric times. Even though it was still raining, we had ponchos, rain pants, and waterproof boots (along with hats and gloves) so it didn’t bother us in the least.
A random but important note: Bathrooms are fairly sparse in Iceland. And yes, in true European fashion, many of them require payment. For dudes, it’s quite easy to pull off and pee by the side of the road, as there was almost no traffic. Women might want to pack some toilet paper though, just to be safe. It wasn’t uncommon for us to not see more than 1 public toilet all day.
Another highlight of the whole trip, and a CANNOT MISS in my opinion, was Gulfoss. Gulfoss wasn’t much farther from Geysir, and it’s just a phenomenal, breathtaking, powerful and unique waterfall. I visited Niagra Falls in 2003, and even though I barely remember it, I’m gonna say Gulfoss is probably something like that.
Gulfoss has several lookout points, and all of them are awesome. We first went down the stairs and got as close as we could. Each vantage point offered different angles, and we mostly just stared like slack-jawed yokels at this amazing thing. The cliffs, the water, the mountains…it’s hard to believe a place like this even exists. In my opinion, Iceland and New Zealand are neck and neck for most beautiful places on earth (that I’ve visited, anyways) and maybe it’s just recency bias, but Iceland may take the cake.
Gulfoss has what looks to be an amazing trail that takes you down to a cool lookout point on a cliff, but it was closed for the season. Just one more reason I’m already scheming to go back so I can do that walk.
Then, we went up and did the lookout point from above. Again, it’s just an incredible view. I know the term “breathtaking” is cliché, but I can’t really think of a better word. It’s just that amazing.
Iceland has done a phenomenal job of catering to tourists too, so there’s lots of informational signs in many languages. It’s really fun to read about the place we’re at, and they do a great job of telling the place’s backstory and history. Apparently Gulfoss (gold falls in English) got its name from a dude throwing gold in there, or so they say.
As I mention in the FOOD section, we bought groceries day 1 and took most of them in the car on the Golden Circle, as we wanted to keep expenses for this trip low-ish. Along the way, we stopped and bought some premade sandwiches, which are available at just about every gas station or grocery store in Iceland. It’s not the Ritz, but it did the job. After cramming a few of these down our gullets, we were off to stop #3
Kerid, or as the Iceland call it, Kerið, was the next stop on our tour. This is basically a massive crater that you can walk both down to and then up to the rim of. It’s a volcanic crater, and like everywhere else in Iceland, the terrain around it is just surreal. It’s one of the few (or maybe the only) places we had to pay to get it, but being only 400 ISK (just under $4 USA), it wasn’t a big deal.
Again, like other places in Iceland, Kerid was really well maintained and easily accessible. We walked down the staircase to the bottom of the lake and touched the water and got some photos, then all the way back up to the top and walked around the rim. The view from the top is cool and the water is a beautiful color (even for a colorblind schmo like me), but it was not a place we spent a ton of time. If you have to cut something out of your Golden Circle drive, I would say this.
Our last stop on the Golden Circle was Þingvellir, which I’m going to refer to as Thingvellir from now on because it’s supposedly the English equivalent. It may have been my favorite stop on the drive, although it’s hard to choose.
Ironically, we found it on accident on our way to Geysir, as we followed Google Maps to a nonexistent gas station and saw a gas station in the distance. We decided that we’d hit it on our way home, and had no idea what it was or where we were. I’m so glad we made time for it!
Thingvellir is very significant in Icelandic history, a fact we only learned as we walked the trails and read the tourist signs. Apparently, it was the place where Iceland’s parliament was founded in 930, and has been home to lots of their significant events. My favorite random fact I learned was that back then, one dude had to memorize all their laws, and once a year, over a span of 3 days, he would recite every law. For this, he was highly paid and respected in their society. Cool stuff!
Before we hit the trails though, we saw this gorgeous rift in between 2 big sections of rock and this super clear stream flowing through it. We got out and saw a bunch of coins in the stream. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen water that clear. Just the whole landscape seemed surreal, like a movie. It was a small thing, but one of those “in between” moments that became unforgettable.
Anyways, we were drawn to Thingvellir by the massive waterfall we could see from the road, but along the way, there was so much beauty to take in. The streams, the church and graveyard, and just the vast plains surrounding it make it easy to imagine how it was a thousand years ago, since there’s not much else around.
We stopped to read the signs and found the place they used to execute people. If I’m not mistaken, they would drown female adulterers in this pool in the river that we were standing above. Morbid? Yes, but interesting to think we were standing in the very place it had happened.
Öxarárfoss was a bit of a walk up the trail, but absolutely worth it. By this point, we were exhausted and hungry, so even though it wasn’t a crazy long walk, it seemed like ages. Getting up to it was not hard, just took a few minutes, and was incredible. Öxarárfoss has a cool viewing platform and we saw several people with nice cameras and tripods getting all sorts of cool photos. Again, standing there in the mist of this massive waterfall and appreciating the beauty all around was a really cool experience. As we walked back to the car, we were ready for food and rest, but sad to think our Golden Circle experience was over.
For some reason, I’ve always had a thing for harbors and was stoked when we headed to Reykjavik because I wanted to see the boats and harbor area. We searched for good seafood on Google, and although parking took a minute, it was fun to drive through the city. We got some cool pictures of Hallgrímskirkja, which is a very cool Lutheran Church kind of at the top of a big hill which is visible throughout lots of Reykjavik. It has an awesome statue of Leif Erikson, which apparently the USA gave to Iceland in the 30’s, which was cool to see. Finally, we parked right by Reykjavik harbor and went to a place called Icelandic Fish & Chips for dinner.
FISH AND CHIPS
As mentioned in the food section, we mostly just bought groceries and ate sandwiches, either premade from the gas stations, or ones we made with grocery store bread and cheese. But c’mon, when you’re on an island nation, you’ve gotta try seafood, right?
Those who know me know how much I despise seafood. In fact, in Thailand, one reason I was thrilled about their cuisine is that it gave Caitlin the opportunity to have all the crab, lobster, octopus, shrimp, and prawns she wanted while I could eat 3 meals a day of Pad Thai. Win win! Even after living for New Zealand for 2 years and eating every sea creature under the sea, I still despise seafood. Except fish and chips.
Funny enough, Icelandic Fish & Chips (restaurant name) didn’t actually have chips, they had “crispy potatoes,” which were still awesome. The fish called plaice was really tender and smooth and mild, which is the only fish I liked. It was just under $20 USD per person (and hooray, no tips required!), and not the most filling meal, but really delicious. Plus, it was fun to sit and experience Icelandic dining. This place had a cool location too, so we did some people watching as we relaxed. Definitely recommended.
While we waited for our food, we wandered into the Volcano House, which was part of the restaurant. They had all sorts of cool volcano souvenirs, and also had ads up for an hour-long movie about Iceland’s volcano eruptions. After dinner, we had no plans, so we headed in. It was expensive ($18ish USD per person), but like I said, everything in Iceland is expensive, and we ended up really enjoying it.
I won’t give you a full Icelandic history lesson (mainly because I know almost nothing about Icelandic history), but apparently in 1973, the volcano Eldfell erupted and devastated an island off the coast called Heimaey. The movie showed a ton of footage of the volcano erupting, eating houses and neighborhoods, interviews with the residents, and the cleanup effort. It was incredibly fascinating to see how they dealt with it and to watch its destruction.
Then, in 2010, the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. This I remember, because flights were grounded around the world. Again, it was really fascinating to watch what happened and to see footage and interviews. Here in Utah we get earthquakes, not volcanos, so it was interesting to see the way volcanos affect people’s lives.
The coolest thing we learned though, was that in 1783, the volcano Laki erupted for 8 months. It basically made all of Europe hazy and dark, and even parts of North America. In fact, Ben Franklin wrote about it in his journal. It killed 50% of Iceland’s livestock, 25% of their population, and many historians believe the eruption, with its subsequent crop destruction and food shortage, led directly to the French Revolution. Maybe I’m just easily entertained, but to think of an Icelandic volcano causing the (incredibly interesting to me) French Revolution was mind boggling. The Volcano House movie was definitely worth it to me. From there, we went back to our flat and packed, because the next day we were heading to Iceland’s “capital of the north,” Akureyri.
DAY 3: THE DRIVE TO AKUREYRI
DISCLAIMER: In planning this trip, Loinz and I (Caitlin was in grad school and did not care what we did, she just signed off on going) knew we were going to have to skip some things. In fact, almost every trip I’ve ever been on has been that way. You can’t see everything, or at least I never have. It’s a bummer when you get home and people say, “Oh did you see this place,” and you have to say no. But alas, such is life. So Loinz and I looked at all the attractions in Iceland and decided we wanted to hit the north rather than the south, which is why we booked Akureyri rather than heading down to Jökulsárlón (the glacier lagoon beach). So off to Akureyri we went.
There’s one toll of about $10 USD as you leave Reykjavik, but the drive is awesome. It’s scenic and beautiful, the roads are open, the drivers are courteous, and we were blasting Bruce Springsteen, Gaslight Anthem, Radiohead, Courtney Barnett, and all sorts of other good tunes. It was a good old fashioned Icelandic road trip. And although it was a 4.5 hour drive, it truly didn’t seem too long at all because there was so much beauty around. I was in awe the entire time.
A couple hours outside Reykjavik, we came to Grabrok crater. Luckily, Caitlin is an excellent navigator and co-pilot, so she found Grabrok, and since it was right along the route, we stopped. Grabrok is basically Kerid Lake without the lake, so it’s not the most incredible thing you’ll ever do, but if you’re driving up north and need a break to stretch your legs, Grabrok is it. Just like everywhere, there’s signs telling the history of Grabrok and a nice staircase going all the way up and around. The coolest part was seeing what looked to be remnants of old houses and villages. I love history, and just imagining people living here thousands of years ago and seeing ruins of their towns was awesome. The views from the top of Grabrok make it worth stopping, even if you don’t walk around the whole thing.
Coming into Akureyri was really interesting. I expected something a bit bigger, since it’s Iceland’s second largest city (not counting Reykjavik suburbs), and in reality, it’s just a little resort town. For those of you who have been, it reminded me a bit of Park City, Utah, or maybe Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In saying that, it’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, Akureyri is an incredible place, really beautiful, and easy to get around and park. We found our flat (which was awesome and in a perfect location), grabbed some burgers at the only fast food place we could find, and decided to head to the Myvatn Baths.
On our way to Myvatn, we came across Godafoss, the waterfall of the gods. It’s right off the road, and you can park super close to it. It’s another phenomenal falls, just immense and beautiful. It’s so close to the road and such a short detour that it’s a must see on your way to Myvatn.
The main reason we chose to go to Akureyri was for Myvatn. You need to understand, me and Loinz (and to a lesser extent, Caitlin) love hot tubs. Like, love love hot tubs. Our high school years mainly consisted of finding nice resorts with nice hot tubs and sneaking into them weekly. So when Loinz’s friends told us that Myvatn was the best natural spa in Iceland (yes, they claimed, better than the Blue Lagoon), we knew we had to go. It was our destiny.
The one thing we weren’t stoked on after a 4.5 hour drive was another 1.5 hours to Myvatn. But, as I’ve mentioned, Iceland is pretty spread out, and if you want to see what you want to see, you need to drive. Again, it’s hard to stress how cool and beautiful the landscape is, so even though it was lots of driving, there’s always something to look at.
(Side note: Isn’t it crazy how quickly humans get blasé about things? Day 1, I was screaming like Dean Moriarty, telling Loinz and Caitlin, “Look!” and pointing at everything. By day 3, it was like, “Oh, yeah, a waterfall. Cool.” I had to slap myself mentally a few times so I could re-focus and appreciate what I was seeing.)
The drive To Myvatn is interesting because the landscape changes pretty drastically. We drove around Lake Myvatn, which was frozen and really stunning. I realize how many times I’m using words like beautiful” and “stunning” and “amazing,” but I don’t think there are enough adjectives to describe Iceland’s landscape. Just know, if I knew better words to use, I would, because it is truly beautiful, stunning, and amazing.
As you drive up to Myvatn Baths, you see a ton of steam rising from the rocks and, once again, it feels like prehistoric times. Myvatn is much cheaper than the Blue Lagoon (about $30 USD for Myvatn, $65+ for Blue Lagoon), and much less crowded. At this point, we hadn’t been to Blue Lagoon yet, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were exhausted, tired, sore from yesterday’s hiking/walking/sitting/driving, and ready to soak.
A funny quirk of Icelandic culture is that before you go into a swimming pool or hot springs, they expect you to shower. Naked. There were even funny postcards and souvenir shops saying “Iceland…you can’t wear your swimsuit as you shower.” It’s really not a big deal, or wasn’t to us, but it’s something to be aware of just in case you wonder why they’re insisting you strip down.
After a quick shower, we were into the baths. If you love nature, hot tubs, being warm, taking baths, or anything of the sort, Myvatn is the place for you. The main pool was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius), so it was the perfect temperature. Not so hot that you can’t last, but not so cold that you’re miserable. There was a stiff wind blowing the whole time, so we kept moving around to find warmer parts since the wind and the rain made everything seem colder. There’s also a small tub filled with hotter water, and we used that for a few minutes at the end, but for the most part, the main pool was perfect. We found a wooden platform on the (South, I think) side of the pool which is where they pump in the hottest water, so that spot was the warmest. Naturally, we spent our entire time there. The surrounding rocks also provided great shelter from the wind and rain, and we had so much fun just talking, soaking, floating, and relaxing. Iceland has so many extremes, where you can go from a strenuous hike to the most serene, relaxing place, in just an hour or 2.
I didn’t really understand how geothermal pools worked until we got to Myvatn. There’s massive tank full of boiling water they pump into the main pool to heat it up. But what I didn’t know until we got to talking to an employee there, is that the water is originally steam they get from underground. They cool that steam until it becomes hot water, and that’s what we were soaking in. Pretty cool!
We soaked for about 3 hours, tried the hotter tub, and went into the sauna. The sauna basically just has cracks in the ground where steam blows up from the ground. It is insanely hot but was perfect to get us warm enough for the walk back to the showers, as it was still really windy and rainy as we left.
As we drove home, I was just marveling. I know that’s a weird word to use, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I was so in love with Iceland. We had seen so much and done so many cool things, I couldn’t believe we still had a few days left. It was already among my favorite places I’d ever been.
ICELANDIC HOT DOGS
We’d heard that hot dogs were to Iceland what burgers are in America. Better yet, we’d heard they were one of the only non-ridiculously-expensive foods over there, so we decided to find a good place in Akureyri. Google told us to go to the Akureyri Hot Dog Wagon (or the “Akureyri Weiner Wagon” as we called it from then on), and once again, Google was right on. I don’t remember the name of the one I got, but it had red cabbage along with ketchup and this delicious mayonnaise type sauce on it. I’m not a big fan of hot dogs, but it was far and away the best one I’ve ever had (sorry, JDawgs). If you’re up north, go go go go go! It was only about $6 USD too, which was the cheapest non-grocery food we ate.
DAY 4: DIAMOND CIRCLE
It’s worth mentioning again that this was strictly a “wing it” trip. I had booked with Caitlin barely knowing why I wanted to go, and our planning consisted of me and Loinz looking at his friend’s itinerary, Googling places that sounded cool, and booking hotels. A few nights later I planned out a crude route of places we could go and in what order, and that was that. So until we got to Myvatn, we had no idea what we were going to do on Day 4. We knew we’d be in Akureyri, but we had no idea what else was there aside from Myvatn. Luckily, the cool employee who taught us about geothermal steam gave us a bunch of suggestions of things to do nearby. We Googled them that night and determined we would see Dimmuborgir, Dettifoss, Grjótagjá, and whatever else we may come across. I was already glad we’d come up north, but little did I know the best was still ahead.
Apparently, in Icelandic lore, Dimmuborgir was the place where earth met the netherworld, and in Christian lore, it was where Satan was cast down to earth. Once you see the bizarre black lava formations, you understand why people might believe this.
If you’ve been to Southern Utah and seen our amazing red rocks and rock formations, you might have an idea of what Dimmuborgir is like. It’s a totally weird and amazing place, full of these tall black formations of strange and eerie looking lava rock. We walked down through, and it feels like being in a forest, but rather that being surrounded by tall trees you’re surrounded by rock formations. There were a few caves you could check out and it was fun to walk around in. Absolutely a place worth checking out if you’re anywhere nearby.
I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but apparently Grjótagjá cave is on the show. It’s a famous cave and very near Dimmuborgir, so we drove over in just a few minutes.
Grjótagjá apparently used to be a popular spa place until the 70’s, when volcanic eruptions made the water too hot. Now, it’s just visited to see rather than to get in the water. I felt the water and it was a great temperature, but since it’s on private property and the sign says not to get in, I obeyed.
It’s another one of those “only in Iceland,” sights, just a bunch of jumbled and jagged rocks and then BOOM, beautiful hot blue steaming water. It’s a cool sight for photos and if you’re at Dimmuborgir you’re really close, so worth stopping, but not the most life changing thing you’ll see over there.
As we drove, we came across more mud pots. If you’ve been to Rotorua, New Zealand, that’s the type of sight (and smell) of these northern mud pots. There are trails all around and it’s definitely cool to see boiling mud, but as I said before, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. It was a fun spot to stop for a few photos and walk around the trails, but we’d already seen Geysir so I was happy for this to be a quick stop rather than a long one.
DETTIFOSS AND SELFOSS
As I said before, it’s easy to become blasé and casual about Iceland’s incredible beauty. The first couple waterfalls you’re basically hyperventilating, and by the fifth or sixth you’re wondering what’s next. So, you may need to mentally recalibrate and realize that some people would give anything to be where you are (like I did) before driving to Dettifoss.
Dettifoss is supposedly the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Even in late April, the trails were deep snow and slushy mud. There was a huge row of porta potties here, some of the only ones we saw, but after going in, I wished I hadn’t.
You can park really close to Dettifoss, and the trail splits, with the left trail going to Dettifoss and the right to Selfoss. Do yourself a favor and see both! Now, if I haven’t said it enough already (check the GEAR section for more info), TAKE WATERPROOF BOOTS! I don’t know how Iceland is in the summer, but in the spring I was so happy to have dry, warm feet, even after trudging through mud, snow, rivers, and random puddles. Getting to Dettifoss was a slog, but not a very long one, and the sight is truly amazing.
The sheer volume of water and power of the falls is hard to comprehend, even when you’re standing next to it. It’s just a stunning view, with beautiful landscapes all around. I realize now, that I’m trying to describe these places to someone who may not have been there, how futile words are, just like Sufjan said.
Heading back the other way, the slog to Selfoss was a bit longer and muddier and snowier. There were a few tourists out, but just like everywhere else in Iceland, it wasn’t crowded at all. It was probably the coldest we were, being really far north and surrounded by snow, but walking heated us up quickly and before long we were at Selfoss.
Selfoss is awesome because it’s a whole series of falls. In fact, I have no clue which one was the actual Selfoss, but it was beautiful to see waterfall after waterfall. You can walk right up to where they pour off the mountainside, and there’s beautiful black beaches below and on the other side of the river. This was another place where a bunch of professional looking photographers had gear set up, and I don’t blame them. It’s hard to choose a “most picturesque” place in Iceland, but if you’re looking for gorgeous waterfalls, this place is definitely up there
After seeing these falls, we set towards our flat in Akureyri. We were exhausted but thrilled at having seen so much. We had seen a map earlier at the Myvatn Baths and couldn’t believe how much of the country we’d been able to see in such a short time.
DRIVING BACK TO REYKJAVIK
Day 5 began with that mix of excitement and dread known only to adults. Like the day you leave for college, or maybe the day you know is your last in Iceland. I’m wondering if German has a word for that feeling, since they seem to have a word for everything else?
I was not thrilled at another 5+ hour drive although Leadfoot Loinz turned it into a 4+ hour drive), but more than that, I was bummed that this was our last real day in Iceland. If it’s possible to fall in love with a place in only 4 days, I had. There had been so much anticipation about this trip, and it exceeded every expectation I had. Now, we were driving to Reykjavik for one final event and going home. I was stoked about the day’s activities, but so sad it was over.
The drive was beautiful but uneventful. The Drinking Dragon, which is a really cool looking stone formation, is on the way back, but we spoke to the tourist center who told us the roads were bad and could take up to an hour each way. So even though we all wanted to see it, we decided to just gun towards Iceland and hit the Blue Lagoon as a final farewell.
PS: If you’re in Akureyri, the tourist center is a great resource. They have heaps of maps and information and can give you lots of cool things to see along the way if you’re heading back to Reykjavik.
THE BLUE LAGOON
Talk to anyone about Iceland (aside from those who say, “why Iceland?”) and you’ll eventually come to the great divider of people: The Blue Lagoon. Opinions range from “It’s the best place on earth,” to “Overpriced and tourist trap.” And, surprisingly, there’s not many other opinions. People seem to either love it or hate it, at least those we talked to. We’d heard from multiple people that the Myvatn Baths were better. In my opinion, they probably were slightly better because of the cool, remote location and views along with the smaller crowds. But take it from me: The Blue Lagoon is a must in Iceland. Repeat: You cannot do Iceland without the Blue Lagoon. That would be like doing Paris without the Eiffel Tower or Sydney without the Opera House. It’s just not right. Yes, Blue Lagoon is expensive. Yes, it’s more crowded. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, they make you strip and shower. And yes, it’s incredibly, phenomenally worth it and is one of the coolest things you’ll ever do.
Now, our excitement for the Blue Lagoon was double. Not only were we excited to get there and soak after so much driving and walking and basically being on the go for 5 days, but we were meeting our friends there.
A year ago, Babwe (as in Jimbabwe, as in Zimbabwe + Jimmy), Loinz, and me took a trip to Hawaii. Babwe and I were looking at a business and Loinz wanted to party, and it was awesome. (Check out my Hawaii posts to see). We all love travel, and from that day until now, if we’re not texting each other “die” or “get bent,” we are sending travel deals.
In November 2016, Babwe saw Los Angeles to Iceland for $299, sent it to me, I hurriedly told/asked Caitlin if we could go, and booked, all within a couple hours. I sent my confirmation email to Babwe and Loinz and said we should all go together. Loinz booked, and Babwe booked his dates for a few days after we arrived. The point is, we had somehow pulled it off again: Traveling as friends.
Driving up to the Blue Lagoon is awesome, just like driving up to Myvatn. The moss and lava rock makes for a bizarre landscape, and the huge clouds of steam make it feel like Mars. It was much more crowded than anywhere we’d been, but that was to be expected.
Side note: Book in advance! We booked our Blue Lagoon months in advance. You have to choose the time of day you’ll arrive, and you have an hour to make it in that time frame. They say they might give away your reservation if you’re not on time. I have no idea if it’s true, but we made it on time.
Also: BRING A TOWEL! (See the GEAR section for my recommendations). It’s like $12USD or something ridiculous to rent a towel if you haven’t paid for the upgrade when you originally booked. We all did the basic entrance, and although it was expensive, it was so worth it. You will get dehydrated, so it’s not a bad idea to keep some food or drinks in your car to avoid their high costs. There’s water fountains there, and then when we left, we ate food in the car.
Getting into the Blue Lagoon, there was a decently long line, but it moved fast. They give you a smart wristband, with which you can buy food (we didn’t), and you use it to open your locker. Yes, you need to shower before getting in and yes, you will see things you can’t unsee in the locker room, but you’re an adult and you can handle it. We showered and ran like children to get into the Blue Lagoon.
There’s not a ton to say that hasn’t already been said. It’s a giant blue pool of steaming hot water. It’s gorgeous, it feels amazing, it’s relaxing, and it’s practically perfect in every way. You can go to their pots of white mud and cover your face and body (it supposedly has healthy and healing properties, but we just used it as warpaint and makeup), and you essentially just relax.
Because I run our business, I am usually within 3 feet of my phone at all times. I shudder with dread whenever I hear my business email tone, and even though being on call 24/7 is a small price to pay for the freedom I enjoy, it sometimes gets old. Which is why the Blue Lagoon is so great.
Yes, you can take your phone. There were plenty of people taking selfies (and one girl on an animated FaceTime call), but we didn’t. We were unplugged. Our house could have burned down while we were there and we’d be none the wiser. It’s an incredible feeling to be unplugged, even if just for a few hours, and to be carefree and relaxed. In our modern lives (mine, at least), that feeling is extremely rare. The Blue Lagoon just has a way of making it happen.
Babwe and his wife Amber showed up, and it was as fun as we’d anticipated over the past 5+ months. We relaxed, talked, laughed, and just kept telling ourselves, “We’re in Iceland…how did we pull this off?” Part of the Blue Lagoon property is under construction, so even though there were cranes near the buildings, the view was still incredible. It’s just a beautiful, relaxing place that you simply have to hit when you visit. It’s only a few minutes from the airport, so even if you’re just on a layover, it’s still accessible and easy. I would absolutely go again and again, and I plan to the next time I hit Reykjavik.
BÆJARINS BEZTU PYLSUR (MORE HOT DOGS)
Babwe and Amber had limited time in Iceland, so they were up for anything. We decided to drive straight from the Blue Lagoon to downtown Reykjavik, even though our flat was nearby in Keflavik, because we wanted to do as much stuff with them as we could.
The drive from Keflavik into Reykjavik, as I already mentioned, is cool. But as you come up on the city and suddenly go from weird, Jurassic era terrain to seeing a beautiful city, it’s a really amazing sight.
We had heard and read that Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur was basically the only option for hot dogs in downtown Reykjavik, so of course we couldn’t miss it. Parking was hard to find, but when we did, we were surprised to realize Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is just a shack with a couple picnic tables outside. We were expecting to get out of the wind and rain, but alas, it was a sacrifice we had to make for famous hot dogs.
Again, the dogs had ketchup and the mayo-like sauce, and again, they were awesome. I still preferred the Akureyri Weiner Wagon, but these were a close second. They were also surprisingly affordable, and we sat there, surrounded by this amazing city, and kept saying the same thing we had at the Blue Lagoon: “How exactly did we pull this off?”
We walked around Reykjavik harbor and the downtown area, taking in all the cool shops, clubs, restaurants, and bars. By this point, it was past 7pm, and even though it was light out, shops were closed, so we decided to head back to Keflavik after getting groceries.
As you’ll see in the FOOD section, there are only a few grocery stores in Iceland. And if you’re out later than 6, you’ll only have one choice, Hagakraup. Luckily, the Hagakraup between Reykjavik and Keflavik that we found was massive, the biggest one we’d seen. It was also open 24/7 (I think), so we dropped in and stocked up on candy and Icelandic energy drinks. As we started towards Keflavik, Loinz and I kept saying we couldn’t believe it was over. After so much talking about it, so much thinking and imagining and anticipating, the letdown was starting to sink in. Not let down over the country, because it was phenomenal, but let down that in a few short hours, we’d be on an 8 hour flight, then back to Utah and back to the drudgery of daily life. It’s always the worst part of a trip.
The last flat we booked was in Keflavik, right near the airport. We booked it thinking it’s be nice for Babwe and Amber to ditch their stuff and come straight to the Blue Lagoon, since it’s in the same town. And that was nice, but it probably would have been more fun to stay in Reykjavik. Live and learn. But Keflavik was a really cool town.
The last night, after getting groceries, we came home, played blackjack, ate obscene amounts of Milka bars and Icelandic sour candies (they really like sour candy there, and it’s phenomenal), and had an awesome time. I was so bummed that it was over, but stoked for Jimmy and Amber to have their Iceland experience in front of them. They were also heading to Ireland after, so it was fun hearing their plans and swapping stories, experiences, and suggestions.
The next morning, we had to check out at 10am but our flight didn’t leave until 5pm. My original plan was to go to the National Museum of Iceland, but since we had to have the car back at 3 and it was an hour drive each way, it didn’t seem like a good use of time. Luckily, Keflavik is a really cool town and we loved our time there.
The Viking museum is in Keflavik, right near the airport (in fact, everything is near the airport in Keflavik because it’s a tiny town), so we dropped in to kill a couple hours. It has a huge ship inside that some Icelandic people made to mimic an old Viking ship and took around in the year 2000, so that’s a cool thing to see. There’s also a bunch of cool information about Vikings and settlers and info on how Icelandic was settled and stuff like that. It wasn’t the coolest museum I’ve ever seen, but if you need to do something for a couple hours before catching a flight, it’s better than sitting at the airport. It was about $18 USD, so not super cheap, but again, I’d easily pay $18 to avoid sitting in a terminal.
ROCK AND ROLL MUSEUM
If you know anything about me (and Loinz), it’s that music is my everything. I firmly believe everyone has at least one art form that speaks to them more than language itself, and music is mine. Loinz and I have been in bands together since we were in 11th grade, and music is the foundation of our friendship. So when we drove past the Rock and Roll Museum of Iceland, we couldn’t turn it down. And I’m glad we didn’t.
For such a small, isolated place, Iceland has a rich musical history. Those ignoramuses of us in America may have heard of Sigur Ros or Bjork or Of Monsters and Men, but that’s about it. The museum shows so much of Iceland’s musical history. It has tons of cool displays of guitars, stage outfits, videos, information on the history of pop music in Iceland, and so much more. The Sigur Ros wall was particularly inspiring because Loinz and I had been fans of them since 9th grade, so to come to their homeland and see photos of them ten feet high was awesome.
Also, the museum has an electronic drum kit, a bass, and an electric guitar that you can jam on. After 6 days without our guitars, Loinz and I were pretty stoked to rock again. The museum seemed to focus more on rock, which was fine with me, but it had a lot of awesome information. I had no idea that Iceland had so many bands and artists, and it was a great use of a couple hours. Again, it was fairly expensive ($18 USD or so), but again, I was happy to pay that money to do something cool. I would have given $18 to do just about anything that didn’t involve sitting in an airport, so it was extremely worth it in my opinion.
THE FLIGHT HOME
Sadly, all good things must end, and I was pretty bummed that it was over. Reykjavik airport has great free Wi-Fi, which is nice, but it was insanely crowded, which I hated. It has lots of food and drink options, so we stocked up pretty heavily for the flight home. We had hot dogs in the airport and took Pepsi Max, water, Milka bars, sour candy, and Pringles for the plane. The flight home seemed longer, and the lack of entertainment onboard is frustrating. Luckily, we downloaded podcasts, music, and Amazon Prime videos for offline viewing, so we made it just fine. But if you’re taking Wow Air, be sure to take lots of food both ways, otherwise you’ll pay a king’s ransom for anything.
As of this writing, it’s been about 2 weeks since we’ve been back. I kept thinking to myself that if it was just recency bias, that would wear off, and maybe Iceland wasn’t as great as I though. Maybe I was just glad to be anywhere. But now, after 2 weeks, I’m still obsessed. I’ve already looked at summer flight costs. I’ve already looked at getting a layover on our next Europe trip. I’ve told anyone who will listen how much I loved it and how amazing it was. If you’re considering it, go! If you’re not considering it, start! It’s hard to rank in terms of my favorite places of all time, but I absolutely loved it. It met and exceeded every expectation I had, and I had very high expectations. I can’t wait for my next trip back.
As noted, everything is expensive in Iceland. Everything. Since Caitlin and I are cheap travelers, we usually buy groceries and go out to eat sparingly, and Iceland was no exception. We found, of Iceland’s grocery stores, Bonus to be the best prices, but also the worst hours. I went to a Bonus in Akureyri and I’m pretty sure it was only open from 10am to 6pm. And we didn’t see a single Bonus open after 6pm. Hagkraup, which is the closest thing Iceland has to Walmart, is quite a bit more expensive, but is also open late. We bought bread, cheese, yogurt, a bunch of NoCo (Swedish, I think, red or green apple sugar free energy drink which was awesome), chips, candy, and water. Those groceries got us through most of the trip. I have a weird fascination bordering on obsession with foreign grocery stores, so I went back to Bonus almost every day just to try something new and experience local life. We spent about $100 on groceries for those 5 days, although a lot of that was unnecessary like candy and soda.
As far as restaurants, we only went to one sit down place, Icelandic Fish and Chips, as I noted earlier. We each got the special, which was about $20 apiece for a fairly small plate of battered fish and potatoes. It was fun to do once, but I wouldn’t do it a ton if you’re wanting to save money. And then we had hot dogs twice, which were awesome. You absolutely have to try Icelandic hot dogs, and the Akureyri Hot Dog Wagon was my favorite. Be sure to stock up on all the amazing European chocolate (Milka Oreo and Daim were our favorites), and their sour candies are incredibly good.