Category Archives: Iceland

Revisiting Reykjavik

Iceland’s lovely little capital extends warm welcome in winter.

This was the third visit to Iceland since the fall of 2014 for my husband and me. In the dark depth of winter, we were sticking around Reykjavik and hoping to see the Northern Lights between landing early on Tuesday morning and departure late Friday afternoon. At this time of year, it gets light after 10 a.m. and twilight hits around 5 p.m. — enough time to do things. If you want to see our Northern Lights images, scroll to the end of this post.

Tuesday, January 23

On this cold, gray January morning, my husband and I landed at Keflavik Airport in the dark and wet.

Early morning arrival at Keflavik on a dark, drippy morning. The convenient FlyBus transported us to our hotel.
I can’t begin to pronounce the name Aðalheiður S. Eysteinsdóttir, whose distinctive, whimsical wood sculptures are features of this and other every other Icelandair hotel.

Fortunately,  our room at the Icelandair Hotel Natura was ready, so we checked in immediately and went to the SATT Restaurant where the abundant breakfast buffet was set up. Then, on this uninspiring day, we took a nap in our simple and unphotogenic room. The bathroom was so small that the bath towel could have served as a wall-to-wall carpet. But the beds were comfortable and  WiFi was included — as was a pass for the city’s extensive bus system.  Good thing, because the Natura is near nothing except the domestic airport.

We would have gotten our money’s worth if we had paid for the pass, because we took a long roundtrip ride the first evening. When we started getting hungry, we hopped on the No. 5 bus, which stopped right by our hotel. We had to change to the No. 14 at the Hjellmur station, which is under renovation. The station is on a triangular island, so when we asked on which side the bus stopped, we were directed to the wrong one, and the driver was one of the few Icelanders we’ve met who spoke no English.

 

After two lengthy “Reykjavik By Night” rides, we reached our goal, Reykjavik Fish Restaurant, a warm, cozy harborside restaurant that did not disappoint.

Two pieces of fresh, flaky cod that is well battered and crisply fried. It is served with OK but not great fries and a choice of good sauces. And there wine and beer are, of course, available.

Wednesday, January 24

Rested up and ready to roll, we took a morning bus to town. It was to be a cold, breezy museum day that started out clear but then clouded over.

The old perched in front of the new — a perfect snapshot of Reykjavik today.

On a previous trip to Iceland, we had visited the Icelandic Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur. I knew very little about the Norse sagas but was intrigued by this extensive museum that focuses on Njál´s Saga and the Viking era.

Reading the sagas is too formidable a task, but I did purchase a slim volume called Icelandic Literature of the Vikings, which helped me understand when we visited Reykjavik’s smaller, simpler Saga Museum. It depicts aspects of Viking life in a series of clearly narrated dioramas.
Continue reading Revisiting Reykjavik

Iceland’s Famed Blue Lagoon Expands

Top draw for tourists, locals and even stop-over visitors now bigger.

BlueLagoon-logoBack in the day of the old cheap-fare Icelandic Airlines, there wasn’t anything to do during the stop-over that  required passengers to get off the plane, the only things to do in the tiny terminal were to eat a snack, buy some souvenirs or postcards and stamps. The Blue Lagoon, now one of the island nation’s top attractions, did not exist.

In 1976, a pool began to form from excess water from the then-new Svartsengi geothermal power plant. Five years later, locals started bathing in it, and word spread about the water’s healing powers. In 1992, the Blue Lagoon company was established and an official bathing facility was opened for the public.

Dipping into the steaming waters any time of the year is mystical and magical.
Dipping into the steaming waters any time of the year is mystical and magical. My husband and I toasted to our wedding anniversary with blue cocktails at the Blue Lagoon when we visited last year. I wish I could find the image.

Now, 40 years after hot thermal waters collected just  finished the popular attraction just 12 miles from Keflavik International Airport and twice that distance from the capital of Reykjavik has greatly expanded, adding to by half to its original size to now 8,700 square meters. You do the math.

The expanded Blue Lagoon includes new features. Photo: Iceland Naturally
The expanded Blue Lagoon includes new features. Photo: Iceland Naturally

This is just the first phase of a massive renovation to be completed in the spring of 2017. The Blue Lagoon now consists of three distinct but unified areas. First, the main area of the spa has been fully renovated and now features an in-water silica mud bar for visitors to try the rejuvenating properties of Blue Lagoon’s iconic mineral-rch waters.

A new lookout point extends eastward from the lagoon’s main area to lava cliffs on the south shore and beyond. This new horizon of geothermal enchantment provides spa-goers with a more peaceful, more private experience. The final area is within a lava cove on the south shore. It  is completely dedicated to Blue Lagoon’s unique in-water massages; the cove’s seclusion creates a tranquil, meditative environment for guests to enjoy one of Blue Lagoon’s unique spa treatments. In addition, the complex includes the Lava Restaurant (fine dining), the Blue Cafe for light bites and a view of the steaming water,  the Lagoon Bar with indoor and in-the-water service, and a shop where local spa products can be purchased.

Important Note: The national carrier of the island nation, Icelandair, has many more destinations on both sides of the Atlantic and therefore more transient visitors. If you plan on experiencing the Blue Lagoon, pre-booking  is necessary. Click here to see pricing options and to reserve.

Icelandair’s New Free Stopover Buddy Offer

Connect with a local pal this winter.

Icelandair-logoIcelandair has long offered no-extra-charge stopovers in Iceland to passengers flying to Europe on Icelandair. This winter and spring, they can request a Stopover Buddy with similar interests such as hiking, nature, food, culture or just city sightseeing.

The assigned local Buddy will tailor a trip to Iceland based on their shared interests. As Icelandair puts it, “Check out a favorite swimming pool, café or boutique. Go hiking on a secret trail, practice yoga at a secluded hot spring, or explore a favorite spot to view the northern lights. The time spent together is up to the passenger and their Buddy.”

Among the Icelanders who are Buddies is 41-year-old Birkir Holm Gudnason, the airline’s CEO. He offers passengers a tour of his hometown and a day of backcountry skiing. Where else would an airline boss take the time to pal around with passengers? Other Buddies include Margret, 64, a flight attendant of 30 years who is an expert on geothermal springs. Enjoy a cooking lesson in traditional Icelandic fish dishes with travel consultant, Inga, 45. Passengers wanting to keep active on their stopover may find themselves on a running or cycling tour with fitness enthusiast Dagur, 51, who has worked in Icelandair’s IT department for 20 years. The more adventurous guests can spend time with pilot Sigrun, 44, whose passion is bike racing down icy mountains.

The Stopover Buddy service just started and is available free of charge through April 30. Visit our website to find out more about the Icelandair Stopover Buddy service  or taking an Icelandair Stopover. FoMoInfo:  www.icelandair.com or 877-I-FLY-ICE.

Icelandair’s New Northern Lights Aircraft

Natural wonder in the sky replicated on planes interior and exterior.

Icelandair-logoLast fall, flying Icelandair, we were alerted  by the flight attendant that the Northern Lights were visible from the left side of the aircraft. Now, Icelandair has commissioned interior and exterior design of its aircraft.

hekla-aurora-exterior-night

The world’s first Aurora Borealis-themed plane‘s exterior is painted with luminescent colors and the cabin is outfitted with mood lighting that mimics the Northern Lights. The plane is named Hekla Aurora (a reference to one of Iceland’s most popular names and also the name of an active volcano in the country), the brilliant Boeing 757 airplane is the newest addition to Iceland’s ongoing and the #MyStopover campaign promoting seven-day layovers, free of charge, to those flying between Europe and North America.

Wow Fare on WOW Air

Ultra-cheap airline to offer $99 fare to Iceland

WOWAirThe latest à la carte airline offering super-cheap base fares is WOW Air, an Iceland-based carrier that I never herd of — even when I was in Iceland. It recently announced that this coming March, it will begin non-stop service from both Boston and Baltimore to Reykjavik for introductory fares as low as $99 one-way and one-stop flights onward to London and Copenhagen starting at $228 round-trip. The airline will begin offering the flights next March.

Like every other deep-discount carrier, a ticket on WOW Air will buy a seat, a mini-tray table and an 11-pound carry-on limit. Everything else will cost extra. A carry-on heavier than 11 pounds will be $29 additional when booked online or $48 at the airport. Checked luggage will be even more expensive,  each piece  adds an extra $48 online or $67 at check-in. And extra leg room, pre-assigned seats and food will add to the total cost of a the journey. Flying round-trip? Multiply by 2.

WOW Air says that it will be able to cross the Atlantic for so little thanks to some built-in efficiencies. Online sales and marketing enable it to avoid paying booking engines or travel agents. This is similar to other low-fare carriers and even Southwest. It currently a mini-fleet of only four aircraft. In theory, by refueling in Iceland, WOW can fly smaller planes, which is fuel-saving. Another fuel benefit is that planes don’t need to carry sufficient fuel for the entire transatlantic flight.

In addition to intra-European and US, Norwegian Air started flying cheap London-New York flights over the summer, but flights were reportedly plagued with delays, which could be a real issue for small-fleet WOW. Once a small-fleet airline’s flights get off schedule, there’s little redundancy and therefore difficult to get back on track again.  Discount airlines currently control nearly 0ne-third of the Noth American market (that must include Southwest) and more than one-third of it in Europe, but only Norwegian flies the transatlantic.

There’s room for growth but also for miscalculation.

 

Iceland Road Trip Basics

Island nation’s narrow but well-marked and well-signed routes.

IcelandHighway-mapYou might think that national highway #1 in a technically sophisticated nation is a wide divided roadway, but in Iceland, that’s not necessarily the case. Highway 1 is generally a two-lane road with one-lane bridges, minimalist shoulders and efficient highly visible markers that take long dark, damp winters into consideration.

The highway is lined on both sides with yellow reflective stakes every 50 or so meters apart. Bridge approaches are also well signed and have vehicle pull-outs on both ends to provide passing areas. Visitors who rent cars soon become accustomed to these markers, and locals know to depend on them in low visibility. Unless posted otherwise, the speed limit on the open road is 90 kilometers per hour.

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Highway signs alerting drivers to temperature, windspeed and avalanche conditions are updated in real time.
Highway signs alerting drivers to temperature, windspeed and avalanche conditions are updated in real time.
And at each periodic exit is a map diagramming the small roads and sites available. This one, from Flickr, shows a busy exit. Some exits access just one or two really little country roads and perhaps a guesthouse or farm that accommodates guests.
And at each periodic exit is a map diagramming the small roads and sites available. This one, from Flickr, shows a busy exit. Some exits access just one or two really little country roads and perhaps a guesthouse or farm that accommodates guests.

We just traveled from Reykjavik on the southwest coast to Hafn on the southeast and back — unable to fly  because the small commuter planes were grounded due to dense fog, intermittent rain and wind gusts. The landscape is a succession of grazing land (cattle and sheep), grassy meadows, occasional wetlands, rivers and views north toward mountains and south toward the sea.

Both sides present a captivating landscape, but the driver really needs to pay attention because Highway 1 is narrow and is used by every kind of wheeled conveyance including bicycles, motorcycles, passenger cars, buses and fast-moving trucks.

Saga Centre Focuses on Viking Life & Legends

Museum explains Icelandic sagas where they took place.

P1100191Sagas are stories about early Vikings, their epic voyages, the battles that took place during the voyages, about Viking migration to Iceland and the fierce feuds between Icelandic families. The tales were eventually written in the 13th and 14th centuries by unknown authors. In all, there are 40 narratives about Viking age around the year 1000 AD, tumultuous time when Icelanders forsook their ancient gods in favor of Christianity. It includes the history of the creation of a parliament in 930 AD and the strong role of the women in medieval Iceland.

Viking ships remain part of Iceland's important symbols.
Viking ships remain part of Iceland’s important symbols.

 

Ship models and maps depict the accomplishments of these remarkable seamen.
Ship models and maps depict the accomplishments of these remarkable seamen.

The Saga Centre in the south coast hamlet of Hvolsvöllur, the epicenter of Viking life on the island, is devoted to the  the Njáls Saga, the tale of a 50-year feud — Iceland’s most important literary masterpiece. The center’s “The Exhibition of Njála” covers Iceland’s ancient stories, Viking cosmology and the literary art of the Sagas.

Volunteers stitch a tapestry as epic as the sagas themselves. When completed, it will be 90 meters (some 300 feet) long.
Volunteers stitch a tapestry as epic as the sagas themselves. When completed, it will be 90 meters (some 300 feet) long.
Life-size image of a Viking warrior.
Life-size image of a Viking warrior.

Also, the “Exhibition of Cooperative Society” addresses the history of trade, commerce  and the cooperative movement in Iceland during the 20th century. The museum is at Sögusetrið Hlíðarvegi 16, 860 Hvolsvöllur, Iceland. Tel: +354 487 8781,  +354 618 6143

South Coast Scenes in Iceland

Travel along Highway 1 (aka, the Ring Road) yields bucolic and natural scenes.

IcelandTravel-tiny logo.-jpgGuðmundur Trlyingsson driver-guide Jakob Narfi Hjaltason piloted our small group along the South Coast of Iceland before the official start of the Society of American Travel Writers convention in Reykjavik. Our four-day itinerary started under overcast skies but pleasant weather. As we drove farther east, clouds settled lower and we experienced periodic sprinkles. Any hopes of seeing the Northern Lights diminished with every mile.

When we reached the small port town of Hofn on the southeast coast, the sprinkles escalated to driving through pounding rain and heavy fog. Planes were grounded so instead of flying back to Reykjavik on the southwest coast, Jakob drove us back. We retraced our route in reverse, reinforcing what we had seen. Here are images from some of the sights we saw and experiences we had — and I’m not going to attempt to include all the difficult-to-pronounce and difficult-to-remember names. You need to visit and see for yourself.

From Reykjavik – Day One

Icelandic horses on their pasture. These small, spirited horses are ridden for pleasure by Icelanders and visitors alike, and they also star in indoor and outdoor horse shows.
Icelandic horses on their pasture. These small, spirited horses are ridden for pleasure by Icelanders and visitors alike, and they also star in indoor and outdoor horse shows.
The Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur interprets the Njals Saga. I've written a separate post about it.
The Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur interprets the Njals Saga. I’ve written a separate post about it.
A short trail leads behind this waterfall -- an unusual experience, even in waterfall-rich Iceland.
A short trail leads behind this waterfall — an unusual experience, even in waterfall-rich Iceland.

Day Two

This higher waterfall can conventionally be viewed only from the front.
This higher waterfall can conventionally be viewed only from the front.
We hiked up a trail in Katla Geopark for a mile or more. The park was created in 2010 to protect the area of the Katla Volcano, which is under glacial ice and had been predicted be "the next" volcano to erupt. The prediction was off Bardarbunga to the north has been erupting since August.
We hiked up a trail in Katla Geopark for a mile or more. The park was created in 2010 to protect the area of the Katla Volcano, which is under glacial ice and had been predicted be “the next” volcano to erupt. The prediction was off Bardarbunga to the north has been erupting since August.
We put on crampons but didn't have to rope up as we crossed a lateral moraine for a short circuit on glacial ice.
We put on crampons but didn’t have to rope up as we crossed a lateral moraine for a short circuit on glacial ice. Helmets were also provided, but unlike in the US, we didn’t have to sign any liability waiver.
An easily avoided crevasse, like the rest of the exposed ice, carrying debris and therefore not pure winter-white.
An easily avoided crevasse, like the rest of the exposed ice, carrying debris and therefore not pure winter-white.
With Arnkell "Keli" Aronson, a young guide with Arcanum, a guide service (www.arcanum.is).
With Arnkell “Keli” Aronson, a young guide with Arcanum, a guide service (www.arcanum.is).

Continue reading South Coast Scenes in Iceland

A Day in Reykjavik

Iceland’s beguiling walkable capital

IcelandTravel-tiny logo.-jpgThe Society of American Travel Writers 2014 convention is coming up in Reykjavik in a couple of days. My husband and I are booked on a pre-convention tour, but we came a day early to explore Iceland’s compact, walkable capital. Here are some snapshots:

Hallgrímskirkja, a massive Lutheran church on a hilltop in Reykjavik, is a pared-down Gothic-style concrete church -- all the bones but no interior ornamentation.
Hallgrímskirkja, a massive Lutheran church on a hilltop in Reykjavik, is a pared-down Gothic-style concrete church — all the bones but no interior ornamentation.
Colorful buildings, many faced with corrugated iron, line old Reykjavik's narrow downtown streets,
Colorful buildings, many faced with corrugated iron, line old Reykjavik’s narrow downtown streets.

Continue reading A Day in Reykjavik

The Golden Circle: A Three-Pack of Sites

Ancient assembly site, geyser central and mega-waterfall.

IcelandTravel-tiny logo.-jpgThingvellir is the most meaningful but the least spectacular of three main stops on a route that’s an easy day trip from Reykjavik. Rent a car or join a one-day tour.  And there’s no admission charge for any of them.

Thingvellir

We trace our independence and therefore our country back to July 4, 1776, and we celebrate annually. Iceland’s earliest “government” dates back centuries earlier. Representatives of the island’s tribes met at Thingvellir (Þinvellir in the Icelandic alphabet) for what became an annual gathering known as the place where representatives of all the tribes of Iceland began meeting once a year beginning around 930.

The U.S. has Independence Hall. Iceland has Thingvellir, where a tribal parliament of sorts met back in the 10th century.
The U.S. has Independence Hall. Iceland has Thingvellir, where a tribal parliament of sorts met back in the 10th century. This is the site.

The yearly assembly continued to 1798. In 1944, the nation gathered at Thingvellir to celebrate Iceland’s independence from Denmark. The site, which has been called “the spiritual and symbolic heart of Iceland,” is also significant for its geology, it sits directly on the fault line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. I didn’t plan to scuba dive there, but it is one of the most iconic and unusual scuba experiences on the planet. Thingvellir is the most meaningful but the least spectacular of the stops along the Golden Circle route.

Gullfoss

Iceland is a wet and hilly island that therefore has lots of waterfalls. Of them all, Gullfoss is the splashiest. The Hvítá (White) River, which is fed by Iceland´s second-biggest glacier, the Langjökull,  plummets into a rugged canyon in two states.

Gullfoss's awesome Water power.
Gullfoss’s awesome Water power.

The drop is roughly 100 feet. down. The raging river has carved a canyon whose walls reach up to about 220 feet in height. On a sunny day, they say, shimmering rainbows can be seen over the falls. In winter, they also say, it’s even more spectacular.

Geysir

Yellowstone National Park has geysers galore, but “the original” site Geysir, Iceland. You don’t even have to wait for an Old Faithful-like cycle to witness and eruption. Strokkur, the world’s most reliable geyser, shoots scalding water up to about 90 feet into the air every 10 minutes or less.

The geyser called Strokkur at the place called Geysir.
The geyser called Strokkur at the place called Geysir.

A stroll around the basin feels a tad like Yellowstone.