Guess who's back? Since my semester abroad, I have not had the pleasure to travel outside the US aside from my college spring break in Cancun. However, I just got back from an incredible weekend trip to Iceland and want to share my experiences with you all!
Last month, my boyfriend, Zach, and I went out to dinner with my sister, Christina, and her boyfriend, Lloyd. We were excited to share that we had just booked a trip to Miami beach the day before when my sister mentioned they are going to Iceland the last weekend in February. Elated – I've always wanted to go to Iceland – I mentioned our plans to leave for vacation that same weekend and within minutes we canceled our flights to Miami and booked a round-trip to Iceland on WOW air. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last couple of years, WOW airhas discounted flights to Iceland in an effort to promote its brand as a reliable, European budget airline. Needless to say, our round-trip flights were cheaper than traveling to California and for the same six-hour flight.
After a somewhat chaotic start to our travels last Thursday – let's just say trying to fit in a day of work before a 6:00 pm international flight doesn't always work out as planned – we were off to Iceland! The flight was a surprisingly short six hours, especially since we downloaded movies using the Amazon Prime Video app beforehand.
In the final hours, one of the stewardesses announced over the loud speaker that we could see the Northern Lights on the left-side of the plane. I peered outside my window to see some fuzzy, apparition-like clouds. Having seen the Northern Lights in photographs, I quickly realized these "fuzzy, apparition-like clouds" were, in fact, the Northern Lights. Unfortunately for us, the air was a little too humid and the sky was not clear enough for the lights to appear a different color. Christina was able to take a photo of them and increase the exposure to make them appear green.
When we landed in Iceland, there was a pretty ridiculous storm coming in. We went to pick up our rental car, our very kind and informative rental car attendant notified us that all roads would be closed from 12:00 – 5:00 pm due to sleet and up to 30 mph hurricane winds. On the bright side, our car was upgraded from a Subaru to a Toyota Land Cruiser. We had no problem driving through all kinds of Icelandic weather - that car is an absolute tank. We also purchased a portable, personal WiFi box for $10 a day so we could use our phone GPS and internet the entire trip.
The Blue Lagoon
After about a 15-minute car ride through gusty winds and rainy sleet, we arrived at the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a world-famous spa with mineral waters that boast healing powers and total relaxation. It was formed in the 70's when a geothermal power plant experienced leakage that created a pool of mineral filled water. The geothermal power plant creates electricity using water from over a mile below the earth's surface, where freshwater and seawater combine at extreme temperatures. As the water makes its way to the surface, it picks up silica, algae, and minerals. Recognized as one of the wonders of the world, the spa is a beautiful and luxurious experience.
Despite the horrendous weather, we braved the storm and entered the milky, sea foam green waters of the Blue Lagoon. Aside from a short trek through the waters to the complimentary silica mud mask area, we spent most of our time by some rocks in a cove that blocked most of the winds and sleet. We sipped on beers, enjoyed the warm water and even made friends with a couple sitting next to us. It was the couple's fourth time visiting Iceland and they seemed totally enamored with the country. It was fun to hear their stories from past trips and off-road adventures in the Icelandic countryside.
After a couple of hours, we visited the cave steam room, showered off, and headed out to Reykjavik before the roads closed at 12:00 pm. We made the best of our experience, despite the hail periodically pelting us in the face. Honestly, the storm made the experience that more memorable!
When we arrived at our hotel, Fosshótel Reykjavik, we were about three hours early of our check-in time. Lucky for us, the rooms were ready and we were able to take a quick nap and regroup as the storm passed through. After our nap, Zach and I took advantage of the last couple of hours of daylight and walked throughout the city. During this time of year, the sun rises around 9:30 am and sets around 6:30 pm. We walked down the main road, Laugavegur, passing by shops and restaurants until we reached the city center. The town is small, walkable and very quaint. It reminded me of a Swiss ski town, blended with some modern architecture from Amsterdam.
Before visiting some historical buildings like City Hall, we made a pit stop at Sægreifinn on the water. Sægreifinn, or The Sea Baron, is a tiny waterside shack known for their fresh, local seafood and lobster soup. We ordered a couple bowls and a sample of whale meat. The soups arrived with a basket of fresh bread and Icelandic butter. It was warm, salty and delicious. The piece of whale arrived with a honey mustard sauce on the side. Despite not having meat for the last three years, I took the plunge and tried the whale. It reminded me of a filet mignon, tender and very juicy.
By the time we got back, Christina and Lloyd were up and we got ready for dinner. The front desk at the hotel recommended we head down the street to Fish Company. Fish Company is a local seafood restaurant that uses traditional recipes with a modern twist. The restaurant itself was decorated like a modern, Nordic lodge. Our table was situated by a window with a rocky pond outside. On the walls were a lit up moose head and a giant painting. The painting was referred to by our waiter as the "Icelandic Kama Sutra" and seemed to be very admired by all the servers. An Icelandic graduate student created little paintings throughout the course of her semester and combined them to make a huge mural. I'll keep things PG and just say that there were dozens of very sensual scenes painted in a black ink. It was really interesting, to say the least, and apparently is worth about $475,000.
For dinner, we split two, four-course meals so that we could try a variety of Icelandic dishes. It was all so unique and tasty, but I honestly cannot recall exactly what we ate – the flavor combinations were beyond my culinary knowledge! There was a fish appetizer with cabbage, celery, and a salty foam. Then a trout tartar dish that literally melted in your mouth. It was covered in some kind of cucumber sauce and was so fresh. The next fish was lamb shoulder and chops. Zach had the pleasure of enjoying this dish all to himself and it apparently tasted as delicious as it looked.
Considering the meal was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, it is worth noting that we spent about four hours there and our waiter was the best waiter I have ever had. He was young, funny, kind, and generous. He kept bringing us fresh bread and honey butter with salt throughout our entire meal – we were ravenous and the butter was insanely delicious. Before the dessert dish, he came over with a jar of chocolates and gave us handfuls to try. He even gave us an entire list of recommendations for where to go out after we finished dinner – starting with a place to grab a beer and ending with clubs to dance at. He was seriously the best! Anyways, the final course came and it was a dessert designed to perfection. It looked like a work of art. We gobbled it up and finished our meal with some coffee.
After dinner, we headed out to, Lebowski, one of the bars he recommended. We saved his entire list for the next night when we were less jet lagged. We had a few beers and danced around to 90s and early 2000s music. My favorite part was the dancing. At the front of the bar, there's a giant wheel that you can pay $25 to spin and win a variety of prizes – from a "gutter ball" (i.e. nothing) to ten beers. Lloyd spun twice, losing once and winning three beers the next time around. It was a lot of fun and a great bar to spend a relatively chill night out.
The Golden Circle Tour
We woke up on day two still a little jet-lagged but rested and ready to take on the Golden Circle Tour. The Golden Circle Tour is one of the easiest and most popular ways to see Icelandic nature and stunning sites. It's one of the reasons we rented a car, so we could visit the sites on our on time and make stops where we wanted. Before heading out, we enjoyed a complimentary, continental breakfast at the hotel. I think it's important to note that the breakfast far exceeded our expectations of bread, jam, and pastries. We had everything from skyr (Icelandic yogurt) to fresh fruit and scrambled eggs. After having our fill, we were off into the Icelandic countryside.
Our first stop on our self-guided tour was to an Icelandic horse farm about 15 minutes outside the city. I like to refer to Icelandic horses as the "Fabio" of horses. They are stockier and covered with beautiful, long fur. They are so majestic and also very playful! Unfortunately, these horses were too busy rolling around in the snow to acknowledge us. We admired the horses from a distance and hopped back in the car. Little did we know we would run into dozens more friendly, Icelandic horses along our trip.
The second stop on our road trip was Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir National Park is a large protected sanctuary that houses historical sites and beautiful landscapes. The Althing, Iceland's national parliament, was founded in 930 at Thingvellir (the "assembly fields") and continued to assemble there until 1798. In 1928, Iceland passed a law that protected the area and claimed it as a property of Iceland under the preservation of the Althing. We hiked through rocky cliffs and over ice covered steps to see an old chapel and the prime minister's summer home. There was beautiful mountain backdrop and the river leading into the lake was stunning. Zach and Lloyd even drank the water, since running water in Iceland is supposed to be some of the cleanest water in the world.
We headed forty minutes east to Geysir Geothermal Field to see an active geyser. On our way, we stopped for some friendly, Icelandic horses. Interacting with the horses was one of the highlights of my weekend. They are just so soft and quirky! They were nibbling our jackets and allowing us to rub their noses. One was so happy that I was scratching its forehead. I could have hung around them for longer, but we had to head back on the road.
We eventually made it to Geysir and saw the active geyser, Strokkur, explode dozens of feet into the air. It was pretty neat to see the hot water bubble below the service and shoot up into the air like that. The heat builds up far below the earth's surface and about every ten minutes it explodes, shooting boiling water into the air.
Afterward, we drove to Gullfoss Falls. Almost immediately as we pulled into the parking lot, it started to literally blizzard. The weather in Iceland is like this. It can be sunny one minute and stormy the next. We had hoped that the storm would pass quickly, so the water would appear bluer and we could see it better, but the storm prevailed. Regardless, we still trekked through the snow to see the falls from several angles and cliff sides. It was the biggest waterfall I've ever seen and was beautiful. The water was a milky blue, pouring over the shelves of rocks.
On the way back to Reykjavik, we drove the Southern route and stopped at Kerid crater lake. The crater was huge and we walked along its edge. On the other side, we saw a spectacular view of an evergreen forest. It looked enchanted, as the sun set along the horizon. We walked down to the lake and felt the cool water with our fingertips. It was really beautiful.
The best part about the Golden Circle Tour is the car ride - especially the drive back in the South. The landscapes are breathtaking. We passed through mountains and small towns with beautiful, lit up greenhouses. We experienced all four seasons. And we watched the sun rise and fall over the Icelandic countryside. It was truly surreal.
A Night Out in Reykjavik
In Iceland, you start casually drinking beers at 12:00 AM and continue to drink until 5:00 AM. We wanted to experience the infamous Icelandic nightlife, so we took our waiter's recommendations and were off into the city. When our night started at 12:00 AM, it began to snow heavily. We ordered a cab and experienced driving with a local. Icelandic people are not phased by the weather. He zoomed through the snow covered streets as if it was a beautiful summer day when the roads would have been completely empty back home in Baltimore.
We started the night at Bar Ananas, which is a cute little spot with fun house music and beachy, pineapple decorations. Ananas means pineapple in Icelandic. Everyone was hanging out drinking beers and lounging at tables. This was Zach and my favorite spot.
After Bar Ananas, we headed out to Prikid. The scene was rowdier and a lot of fun. It is a small bar with a DJ and an outside area upstairs. Ironically, we ran into a bartender wearing a Ravens sweater and some Hopkins students visiting as well.
After another delicious Einstok white beer (picture an Icelandic version of a Blue Moon), we headed out to a club called Auster. On the way there, some church volunteers handed out free hot chocolate in the snow. Auster was a lot of fun. Everyone was dancing and it was definitely the most lively place we visited all night. By the time we left Auster, the snow had really picked up and the other club we visited wasn't as fun. We waited in line for a cab to take us back to the hotel and got back around 4:00 AM.
Our Last Day in Reykjavik
For our last day in Iceland, my friends Pat, Chris and their friend Andy, had just arrived in Reykjavik. They had a few days off between semesters at med school in Philly and our trips happened to collide. I rarely get to see them, so I was very excited to meet up with them. The snow storm had accumulated about 2 feet of snow from the night before, so the whole city was covered in a beautiful, white blanket of powder. And the sky was blue for the first time our entire trip. It was absolutely stunning.
We walked over to the Hallgrímskirkja church and took a look inside before the morning service started. It's a beautiful, tall cement building, with an interior that reminded me of the Notre Dame's arches in Paris. The stairs to the top were closed, but we still got to admire the unique architecture inside and out.
From the church, we walked to Cafe Babalu. It's an adorable cafe by the church. The walls are covered in trinkets and the tables were very eclectic. It was super busy and understaffed - probably because of the storm - but we managed to find a table for us five. Zach and I got cappuccinos, crepes, and a grilled cheese. The crepes were really sweet, but the grilled cheese was perfection. It was fun to share stories with the boys and to hear about what they had planned for the week.
After breakfast, the boys headed off for the Golden Circle tour and we walked along the coastline. Our flight ended up being delayed almost an hour, so we took full advantage of the beautiful weather. The coastline is stunning, with blue skies and deep blue seas. In the distance are snow covered islands and mountain-like peninsulas. We walked over to a Viking ship steel sculpture, snapped some photos of the incredible view, and headed back to the hotel. It was the perfect end to an amazing trip.
When we got back to the hotel, we had to get the snow off our rental car. Luckily, we parked on a plowed street and were able to pull out of the snow back and wipe it down. It was completely buried, so cleaning it off was pretty hysterical. Zach ended up hopping onto the roof to finish it off.
I wish we could have stayed one more day, just because the weather was gorgeous and supposed to stay that way for the next couple of days. Since it was cloudy both nights we were there, we never really saw the Northern Lights in action. Regardless, there are other places to see the Northern Lights and plenty more opportunities to see them. And with flights this cheap, who knows, I may just have to come back!
Traveling has always been a huge part of my life and I feel blessed to have the means to take trips like this one with my friends and family. There is nothing more inspiring and refreshing than traveling outside your comfort zone and experiencing different cultures.
When In Rome
Two of my most cherished hobbies go hand-in-hand. Writing is my favorite way to reflect after traveling to a new country. I have kept this blog ever since I studied in Rome to share my travels with families and friends. I hope you enjoy learning about my experiences and getting a sense for my writing skills. If you have any questions, please reach out!