Iceland Report

Back from Iceland! Had a great time, but now unfortunately it's back to the real world. Anyway, some of you probably want a full report about the trip, so here goes...

We flew out of SFO on an Icelandair 767. The plane was only about 70% full, so we had plenty of luggage space and lots of empty seats to stretch in. The flight was a little over 8 hours long. Since we were headed in a northeasterly direction (semi-polar route) and chasing daylight, it got light outside really quickly even though we left San Francisco around 11 PM. BUT... before it got light... I was sleeping in my seat when Bill woke me up and made me look out the window. And I saw them for the first time. The Northern Lights! Aurora Borealis! Shimmering curtains of green, glowing gently in the dark night. The view was spoiled a bit by the airplane's own lights, but it was a beautiful sight nonetheless.

Arrived at KEF around 2 PM. Clearing passport control and customs was a breeze, and the airport terminal was so tiny that we found our hotel transfer company right away. The ride into downtown Reykjavik was about 40 minutes on the Reykjanes Peninsula, a pretty barren landscape created by ancient lava flows. Hotel Skjaldbreid was where we stayed. It is a small hotel in the middle of downtown, and a bit of a disappointment considering its room rates. The room was spartan, reminiscent of a nice dorm room. Hotel guests get to eat breakfast for free at a bufffet spread out every morning at the sun room, and the breakfast is pretty good.

After checking in we went for a walk around town. It was a beautiful day, and we walked near along the sea and checked out the whale watching ships. Looked at cute little shops and cute little houses. The streets in Reykjavik are really narrow. The funny thing is, in spite of that people still park curbside, and big vehicles are pretty common. In fact, Bill kept drooling at all the Land Rover Defenders we saw around town. There were also a lot of big German sedans and SUVs - very surprising considering the fact that gas cost ISK 120 per liter, or approximately USD 7.60 per gallon! Anyway... we walked up a hill towards Hallgrimskirkja, a really big church with a commanding view of the city.

In front of the church is a statue of Leif Eriksson. I think the statue was given to Iceland by the United States to commemorate some kind of special occasion. We took lots of pictures of the church because its architecture is so unique and interesting. The nave is a bit reminiscent of the great gothic cathedrals in Europe, but with a weird Krull-meets-concrete twist, and without the flying buttresses. The building is very imposing and visually pleasing, which is good because you can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city.

Had dinner at the hotel restaurant. Ho-hum meal and ho-hum service, with an eye-popping price tag! If you're thinking of going to Iceland, be warned: it is very, very expensive. VERY. I suppose it's because everything has to be imported, and they have such a small consumer base. But anyway...

The next day we went on a bus tour that is pretty much de rigeur for all first-timers. It is called the Golden Circle Tour, which is given by a handful of different tour companies. We saw Gulfoss, spectacular waterfalls "fueled" by glacial melt. There is a trail that takes you right to the edge of the falls. You get to stand on slippery rock, kept from cliff's edge only by a rope strung across thin metal spikes. As you hear the roar of the water and get buffeted by very strong wind and the spray of icy cold mist you wonder at how awed the first Vikings to see this must have felt.

On the same tour we also got to see Geysir, the geyser from which geysers got their name. There is a small area where all the tour buses stop and you get to walk among a handful of geysers. Geysir is the big one, but it only erupts every several hours. There is a smaller one that erupts every few minutes. It's an awesome sight! A bubbly, steamy hole in the ground that suddenly swells with the bluest water you've ever seen rising up and bursting with a huge cloud of steam.

We also got to see beautiful countryside, geothermal power plants, a greenhouse that's so humid and hot you'd swear you were in the tropics (they grow bananas there! and makahiya!), a collapsed volcanic crater, and a trail that takes you to the boundary of two tectonic plates. You get to walk in the no-man's land between the North American and Eurasian plates. Way cool for geeks like me. LOL. Oh, I almost forgot. The first stop on our bus tour was actually Alafoss, an "outlet store" where you can get Icelandic wool products for (relatively) cheap. We got sweaters for ISK 6,600 that we later saw downtown for almost ISK 10,000.

The next day we were planning on going whale watching. It was a gorgeous sunny day with brilliant blue skies, but -- strangely enough -- gale-force winds were also blowing. The whale tours were all canceled due to 9-meter swells out in the open sea. Drat! We left the waterfront and went back to the church, because we learned that you can go up the steeple for an awesome view of the city. Awesome it definitely was! You have to pay ISK 350 to go up, but it's worth it. Funny thing when we were up there... we were happily taking in the view and taking picture after picture when we suddenly realized that it was almost 10 o'clock. Think about it. Top of the hour. Giant church steeple. There, in the same chamber where we were, hanging directly above us... BELLS! Almost as soon as Bill mentioned it, the bells started clanging. Yeeeeooow! Them's loud!

Went to the mall (loooong walk across town) and checked out the stores but didn't buy anything. Stopped at the Reykjavik municipal museum to look at some art and to use the restroom. You pay ISK 500 to get in one museum and the ticket you get is good for all museums in Reykjavik. The catch is that the ticket is only good for one day.

Rested in the hotel for a bit. Had a nice nap, then Bill started looking at a city map and figured out a route for a nice long walk. Yes, another one. This time we walked along a path that hugged the waterfront. Fantastic vistas, pretty houses, COLD. The sea looked calm, but the wind was blowing constantly and it was very cold. Not to the point of being painful, though. It was actually very stimulating, I think, but then again I like the cold as long as I'm suitably dressed. The houses along the waterfront were very nice. Architecture was varied, so it didn't look like some antiseptic soulless Stepford burg. We walked a long way. Saw sea birds, people walking their dogs, people jogging, mothers pushing their babies on prams. We walked past the municipal airport and up an urban forest park to Perlan (The Pearl), a restaurant and vista point that's in a glass dome (hemisphere?) set on top of giant water tanks. There's a fake geyser inside and a real one outside, but we only saw the fake one erupt. We just rested a bit at the cafeteria because the sit-down restaurant one level up was too expensive. Took some pictures out at the observation deck but didn't linger as the sun was setting and it was getting way too cold. We then walked back to the hotel and collapsed from fatigue.

After resting a bit we went out to dinner. Decided to try a restaurant called Apotek, which turned out to be the dining highlight of our trip. Had salted cod, which was fantastic. Very tender and tasty. Desserts were fantastic, too. Total bill came to about USD 170-180 for the both of us, and this included a half-bottle of red wine. The waitress was very good, so we tipped her ISK 800 even though it wasn't expected of us. Yes, it was expensive, but since dinner was very good it didn't piss us off as much as the other places we ate at did.

The following day was our last day in Iceland. Woke up, packed, showered, at breakfast at the sun room. Talked to the hotel employee there, who was Filipina. I started thinking about how it must be difficult for her, living in a country so incredibly different from the Philippines, where she doesn't even speak the language. She communicates with the Icelanders in English. Anyway... after checking out we got picked up by the shuttle bus and taken to the Blue Lagoon. It's this incredible spa complex on the Reykjanes Peninsula, minutes from Keflavik. I suppose you could consider it a tourist cliché, because practically every visitor to Iceland stops there either the day they arrive or the day they leave. It's a lagoon or lake fed with hot, very blue water that comes from the same source that powers the nearby geothermal plant. It is very, very relaxing being in that warm water. I guess it has lots of sulfur and many other minerals. They also have silica mud that you can smear all over your face and body. I tried it for a bit but it got in my mouth. Salty. They also have a sauna, artificial waterfalls for a nice free massage, and actual massage therapists that will knead your weary muscles right there on the water (for extra pay, of course). It's very invigorating, being in the hot water outdoors, while the air outside is a chilly 40 degrees (about 4 degrees Celsius for you Metric people), with steam rising all around you. Fun!!!

Went back to the airport by shuttle bus again (the Icelanders have these bus transfers down to a science). Went crazy at the duty free shop because they had very good Chilean wine that you can never find in America (Valdivieso Reserve Cabernet). I bought smoked salmon as well. Also got a flavored Icelandic vodka and some Icelandic schnapps that they call "Black Death". Should be interesting to taste. Plane home was packed, but surprisingly it wasn't difficult to find luggage space. I guess Icelanders are a lot more disciplined with their carry-ons than Americans are.

All in all it was an excellent vacation. It probably sent me to the poorhouse, but it was fun nonetheless. I would like to go back someday, to go whale watching, check out the northern part of the country, and maybe even make a side trip to Greenland. Yes, the Icelanders have packages for Greenland, too!