Iceland: A Tale of Two Visits

I first went to Iceland in October of 2017. With WOW Air, Iceland’s budget airline, it’s amazingly affordable to get to Iceland, even it’s just for a long weekend. More and more tourists are flocking to Iceland, so many that tourism is one of Iceland’s top exports (alongside aluminum, in fact). Given how popular it is, it was difficult for me to feel motivated to share my experiences since I felt like there was already so much information out there. But every experience is different, and now that I’ve been twice, I’m out of excuses.

My first trip to Iceland was a long weekend in the fall of 2017. It was four days jam packed with group tours, jet lag, and fermented shark. Only having limited time, I was determined to make the most of it, a full night’s sleep be damned. I landed just after 5 o’clock in the morning to a pitch-black landscape, the wind biting through my pathetic windbreaker. I took a tour bus to my hostel in Hlemmur Square in Reykjavik, dropped off my backpack, and wandered the early morning streets. Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, and even in the capital city of Reykjavik, I never felt uncomfortable walking alone. I suppose that’s for the best, since for half the year, it’s dark the majority of the day given how far north it is. As the sunlight slowly crept in, I was able to take stock of the city and the surrounding landscape. Reykjavik is quite small, and it’s easy to walk from one side to the other. The buildings are modern looking and square, usually painted bright colors to help fight back against the constant darkness. Across the harbor, snow-capped mountains loomed, with swooping cliffs like hastily drawn brushstrokes. The main street was loaded with souvenir shops, and the warm Icelandic wool sweaters began to look rather tempting.

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A view of Hallgrímskirkja church in the morning light, Reykjavik

As the city began to wake up, so did the tourists, and soon enough the streets were full of locals and tour groups alike. I spent the morning on a free walking tour of the city through City Walks. The tour began at the small Parliament building and covered what the city would have been in 1836. Mind reeling from an absurd amount of Reykjavik trivia, I enjoyed a traditional lamb stew while trying not to shudder over the high prices of eating out. Soon enough it was time for my next tour – riding Icelandic horses across lava fields. I waited diligently outside my hostel to be picked up…and I never was. The company picked up the wrong tourist, and had to send a taxi to collect me. Perhaps that was fate trying to tell me something, I mused as I watched the Greater Reykjavik suburbs pass by. The flatness and the houses coupled with the cold uncomfortably reminded me of Wisconsin winters.

Admittedly, a horseback-riding tour was not the best activity to undertake while severely jet-lagged and two years out of practice. I didn’t have much time to rethink this as I was quickly shuffled into the large stable, a helmet thrust into my hands. I went out to join the rest of the riders and meet the horses. Icelandic horses are incredibly unique. Specific to Iceland, they are small, hardy, and long-lived. They are fiercely protected from outside diseases, so much so that no other horses are allowed into Iceland, and even if an Icelandic horse travels abroad to compete, they will never be let back in. However, perhaps what makes them most unique to any horse-lover are their extra gaits. In addition to a walk, trot, and canter/gallop, an Icelandic horse can perform a tölt and pace. The tölt is somewhere between a walk and canter, but differs from a trot in that it’s the same footfall pattern as a walk. The result is an incredibly smooth but quick ride. A pace is used in races and is very fast and smooth, but not one I would be trying out.

 

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My fiesty Icelandic horse Erik

I was given Erik to ride, an adorable red horse with the characteristic shaggy coat. All the horses were quite calm and friendly towards one another and their riders, another Icelandic horse trait. It was for the best anyways, since once we got going, the horses were practically on top of one another in the line. We set out across the wide, open expanse of craggy, moss-covered rocks that made up the lava fields. Despite being a flat landscape, the lava fields themselves would be incredibly difficult or impossible to walk over, so there was not much fear of deviating from the road. This was a boon, as I was mostly just concentrating on staying on my horse. Icelandic horses are much smaller than anything I was used to – it didn’t help that the one horse I rode most while learning in Wisconsin was a veritable giant. Riding Big Ben was akin to riding a large, carrot-driven couch. Erik could have probably fit under Big Ben’s stomach. With all this in mind, there is nothing to explain why, when the group split, I decided to go with the advanced group. In my right mind, I would have elected to go with the beginners, but I was curious to try a tölt. Once we split off, Erik went from being docile and rather slow to fiesty and competitive. He constantly pushed to the front of the line, and I had an embarrassing time fighting to keep him behind the tour leaders. Finally getting him under control, I even managed to get him to tölt. The gait was astonishingly smooth and peaceful, almost like riding a bike on a well-paved road. Frustratingly, Erik would switch willy-nilly between a tölt and trot, and his trot was more like manning a pogo stick in an earthquake. In my concentrated efforts to a) not fall off and b) not look like a total fool, I didn’t get to enjoy as much of the landscape as I would have liked. We did stop in a clearing for some pictures and a rest, with strict instructions to hold onto our horses’ reins so they didn’t begin to wander back to the stable in search of food. The trip back to the stable felt even longer than the trip out, and I relaxed immensely as it finally came into view. Just as it did so, however, the horse directly in front of me tripped and the rider tipped headfirst over her horse’s head into a gigantic mud puddle. She was perfectly fine (if a little mud-soaked) and hopped right back on, but it was enough to make me completely relieved when we dismounted and left our horses to roll in the gravel of their corral. It was certainly a memorable experience, and while I don’t regret it, neither would I do it again.

After taking advantage of the cheap communal dinner at the hostel (surprisingly the only guest to do so), I wandered some souvenir shops. The one item I would buy in Iceland was an Icelandic wool sweater. Rather expensive, they are worth every penny. It’s my warmest garment, and in the year and a half I’ve worn it, I haven’t washed it once. The fibers repel any odor-causing bacteria and any stains. It’s miraculous. Unfortunately, I didn’t have it in time for my Northern Lights tour that evening. Exhausted as I was, I had scheduled this for the first night in case we didn’t see them and I could have other chances. My Northern Lights experience is covered in detail here, and I encourage you to read it and hope that you choose to seek them out yourself!

My next days were full of large tour groups, buses, and hurried sightseeing. Clayton and I would do many of the same sites on our visit, and I’ll go into more detail in my next post. I will say though that during my first visit, I quickly learned of my intense dislike for large tour groups. I was already wary of them anyways, simply due to occasional proximity, but being in one is no better. It’s hard to feel like anything less than a flock of sheep with a shepherd, and being let off the bus with a time limit to get back on can be anxiety-inducing. However, being in Iceland for such a short time and not having a car, it really was the best option to get around. Public transportation isn’t much to speak of in Iceland, and although car-sharing is popular, it’s still tricky to rely on locals to get you where you want to go and back again. If I’m ever in Iceland for longer than four days, I’d certainly get a car and explore the wilds. For the short visits however, I’m fine with small group tours.

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Braving the chill in front of the concert hall, Harpa

I did eat dinner at a particularly nice restaurant right next to the church on the hill in Reykjavik. It boasted traditional Icelandic fare and yes, I tried the fermented shark. I filmed it for posterity, and you can watch it here.

The only other major site I visited on my October 2017 visit that I did not return to with Clayton was the Blue Lagoon. Pricey, popular, and extremely touristy, I was on the fence about visiting. The advertisements and travel sites make it seem like a veritable paradise, with nothing but milky blue water, steam, and lava fields to meet the eye. In reality, it’s a bustling tourist trap, a man-made geothermal spa next to a power plant. For an experiment, search “Blue Lagoon” in your search engine of choice and look at the official website pictures compared with Wikipedia pictures. It can look quite different. However, I figured that there must be a reason it was a tourist trap, and besides, it was literally on the way to the airport, so I might as well give it a try.

In short – it was an incredible experience. I waited in a short line and obtained my wrist band allowing me a towel, two facial masks, and one drink. After showering in the buff and putting copious amounts of conditioner in my hair to combat the minerals in the water, I entered the lagoon area. There was an indoor entry into the water or an outdoor one. I opted for the outdoor, and the frigid morning air bit into my damp skin. I slipped into the water and it felt like melting into a warm milk bath. The lagoon was sizable, so I meandered through the water away from others exiting the locker rooms until I was relatively alone. There were several circumstances in my favor to make this a wonderful excursion. First, due to the timing of my flight that afternoon, I had to be at the Blue Lagoon right when it opened. There were comparatively few people in the waters. Second, being late October and fairly cold out, the temperature difference between the water and the air meant that there were billows of steam, masking any sites of power plants or buildings. Once I got into the water, all I could see was about ten feet in front of me. It was just me and the milky stillness of the water and steam. Closer to the edge I could see the lava rocks and the predawn sky up above, and every now and then I’d come across a solitary person. In the lagoon were two bars, situated literally in the lagoon, so you could walk right up while in the water and get your drink. I got a fruit smoothie, then tried the facial masks. I don’t know how much clout I allow facial masks for transforming skin, but I certainly felt luxurious sipping my fruit drink, guacamole smeared on my face, my body slightly stewing in the mineral waters. As facetious as I may sound, I truly did enjoy it. It was incredibly relaxing, especially after being out in the biting cold for several days. My skin felt soft and silky afterwards, and I felt silly from pampering. There were steam rooms as well, but I could only stomach a minute or two in them. There are more expensive packages, like in any spa, where you can get massages, meals, etc., but I can’t imagine it’s worth it when the true attraction is the water itself. I’d say this is a tourist trap I’d willingly go back to, but only early in the morning.

My first trip to Iceland was over in a flash, I was left reeling with a sense that Iceland was incredibly touristy, amazingly cold, and extremely expensive. I have to admit, I wasn’t enamored – certainly not when comparing my reaction to Martinique. And yet, over the past year, I found myself looking back to my Icelandic experiences fondly, and I was more than willing to make another pit stop on the windy island en route to Europe.

This past December, Clayton and I stopped over in Iceland while returning to Europe after a nice long visit in the States. This time, jet lag hit me hard. The hardest it has ever hit me. I certainly feel jet lag when crossing the Atlantic, but usually it’s just enough to keep me tired the first day or two. This time, I could barely function. We’d taken the red eye on WOW air, Iceland’s budget airline, and arrived at 5am Icelandic time. (Sound familiar?) It didn’t help that the sun wouldn’t rise until after 11am. It really messed with us, and we were eager to settle in.

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Homemade waffles and rhubarb jam from our Icelandic hosts

This time, I had a few lessons learned in my back pocket. Instead of a hostel to call home, we had found an affordable AirBNB in the Reykjavik suburbs. This alone gave our visit a completely different feel from my last one.  We were staying with a family in a small apartment – two native Icelanders and their young daughter. After settling in (and an ill-advised nap to combat the jet lag on my part), they shared some homemade waffles with us. They were pillowly and sweet, slathered with rhubarb jam our host’s grandmother had made. The home was decorated for Christmas, like most homes we’d seen in Iceland since we landed. Most Icelandic people go all out in Christmas decorations, especially the lights. As there are only a few hours of daylight in the winter, anything to combat the darkness is welcome, and Christmas lights can still be seen up in March.  We were also kept company by their young cat Biscuit, an orange tabby who was stubbornly social.

That first night I only had the energy to go out and get some groceries, but it was nice to be able to do that. Having a kitchen and an actual home to come back to at the end of the day was much comfier than a hostel, as nice as the hostel was. I will always advocate staying with locals – from WWOOFing to housesitting to AirBNBing, I feel like it’s a much easier way to get to know the people of the country you are visiting. This Iceland trip was already much more personable and relatable than the last. Instead of visiting an amusement park of a country, I was visiting a real place. Sadly, more and more listings on AirBNB are specifically for renting out and no one lives there any more. We try to do our research to ensure that we’re staying with a local as often as possible, and usually it pays off since we learn far more about the local scene and culture than we would otherwise. As you can see, I tend to stand on a soapbox about it. In major tourist cities, such as Rome or Venice, many people find it more lucrative to rent out their homes to tourists rather than live in the city center themselves, a side effect of rising housing costs. This means less locals keeping the culture alive, and more crowds of tourists and souvenir shops. It’s a frustrating problem that some localities are starting to fight with short-term rental regulations and AirBNB taxes. I don’t blame them for fighting back.

Clayton and I went on the same walking tour through Reykjavik that I had been on one year earlier. We nabbed one in the middle of the day to make the most of the scant four hours of sunlight. This time we had the added bonus of learning about some of the Icelandic Christmas traditions, such as the giant cat that eats you if you don’t get any clothes for presents before Christmas. We learned about the thirteen Christmas trolls that used to be tricksters, but now leave little gifts for children in shoes left on the windowsills in the nights leading up to Christmas. We saw the main sights to see in Reykjavik proper such as Parliament, the Prime Minister’s abode, old neighborhoods, and the concert hall. Walking to the concert hall was a trial – we got caught in the crosswinds coming in from the harbor and it was shockingly difficult to walk straight. Iceland isn’t actually that cold, if you think about it. Wisconsin winters, for example, are often much colder. However, it’s the Icelandic wind that gets you. Iceland is the second most windy place in the world, and the first one is uninhabitable. That gives you an idea.

 

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The Icelandic Yule Cat prowling the streets of Reykjavik

Chilled to the bone, we took a bus back to our AirBNB. While public transportation across the country was scarce, the same cannot be said of Reykjavik itself. Through the bus app, Straeto, I could buy bus tickets with the click of a button and show them to our driver as we boarded. The app was accurate with arrival times and told us what routes to take. It was really easy, once I got past registration in Icelandic and could switch the language to English. I felt silly for not using it on my first visit.

Another thing I didn’t try on my first visit was an Icelandic swimming pool. Swimming is a big deal in Iceland, and the pools are popular places. Every Icelandic person starts swimming lessons at a young age. Despite being absolutely freezing, windy, and dark, we decided to give it a go. The public pool Laugardalslaug was only a few bus stops from our AirBNB, and joyfully devoid of tourists. We paid a small fee to enter, using wristbands to both enter the building and use our lockers. It was quite efficient. The Icelandic people are serious about showering without any clothes before entering the pool, to keep the water as clean as possible. Which meant that I was wet and freezing when I stepped out of the locker room into the dark night. The complex boasted an indoor lap pool, but this was mostly for lessons and racing, with most of public pools outside. Outside amidst the elements, there was a large lap pool, a leisure pool, a smattering of hot tubs and one ice tub. I slipped right into the first pool I saw, which had a sizable group of people clustered in there. It was warm, but nowhere near warm enough to stop my shivering. It then started snowing. This was crazy. Clayton gallantly got out of the pool to go search for hot tubs. He returned with good news – they were all up and down the size of the lap pool, the temperature of the water on display outside each one in centigrade. There was 38° (100°F), 40° (104°F), 42° (108°F), and 44° (112°F). There was also an extra 40° tub fed with sea water. After several minutes in the hotter ones, our core temperatures rose to such heights that we could switch tubs and walk about in the open air without so much as a shiver. The snow was steadily coming down, and the tree tops were howling with the icy wind, but we were cozy and warm. It was a fascinating feeling. No wonder the pools were so popular, even in winter. It made our muscles feel so good after fighting the cold all day, we ended up visiting Laugardalslaug twice. We didn’t meet any other English speakers. Instead, we kept to ourselves and listened to the cascade of Icelandic being spoken around us. It was also nice to use the pool showers. Our AirBNB had a tiny bathroom, with the shower under a sloping roof so there wasn’t room to stand up straight. Much easier to get clean at the pool. Alas, I never was brave enough to jump in the ice tub at the end, though I did stick a finger in. No thank you.

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Just before a cozy swim in the snow and wind

We would have gone to the pool three times during our four day visit, but we were thwarted the second night by, of all things, lightning. Lightning is incredibly rare in Reykjavik. So rare, that when we left our room to let our host know we were staying in as the pool wouldn’t be open, he didn’t believe us. He told us he had never seen lightning in Reykjavik his entire life, and only heard of happening it once before. Every time he turned away from the window, lightning struck again. He must have thought we were insane. Luckily, his wife came home soon after, bubbling with excitement over all the lightning she saw. It’s so rare, it made the news.

Although we did not encounter any fermented shark on this visit, we did manage to try the famous Icelandic hot dog. We went to the stand in Reykjavik that President Bill Clinton himself visited, and purchased our surprising cheap hot dogs with all the fixings. It was easily the best hot dog I have ever eaten, and Clayton concurs. The Icelandic people aren’t messing around with their hot dogs, and the hype is justified.

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Biting into a delectable Icelandic hot dog

As awe-inspiring as the sites we were to visit on our scheduled tours ended up being, it was the unscheduled events that made my second trip to Iceland that much more meaningful. I appreciated getting to know our hosts and how they lived. I enjoyed listening to the conversations of elderly Icelanders in hot tubs on frigid nights. And I loved that upon exiting my room early one morning, I ran into the daughter of our hosts, who completely ignored me as she padded across the living room to the windowsill to peek into her shoe to see what the trolls left her, which she then proudly showed off to me. It’s these moments that humanize, that bring something foreign so much closer. It’s all too easy to hop from tour bus to tour bus, much like I did on my first trip to Iceland. But the more tourist-oriented these places become, the less of what they are remains, and it’s a shame. I only hope that these cities and sites can maintain their culture and history despite the throngs of tourists treating them like theme parks. However, every time I get cynical about how we tourists are ruining everything and making places too crowded, I tell myself that it’s wonderful that so many people want to learn about other places and peoples themselves. The more open we can be to other cultures and people, the better.

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A boot in the windowsill, waiting for a gift!

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