“Why Iceland?” This is what I was asked when I would answer the question, “Where is your next vacation?” My response, “Why not?” Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the “land of fire and ice”?
Iceland has been on the “Gina and Leann travel bucket list” for awhile now. So when Leann saw Go-Today’s $999, four-night/five-day package on Travelzoo’s Top 20, she sent it my way. We booked it, and extended our time to explore on our own.
Travel tip: Save money without compromising your experience by booking a tour and extending your stay. Airfare from our departure cities was about $1,000, whereas flights to New York were only a few hundred dollars. We each saved about $1,000, I caught up with an old friend, and some of our activities were already planned. Our hotel was also one of the best and was featured on our flight’s Iceland video.
Part 1: A Taste of Reykjavik
Saturday, October 5th: Two very excited girls met up at JFK, one traveling from Delray Beach, Florida the other from Chicago, Illinois. I spent Friday night in Armonk, New York, visiting Erin and her family, Howard, Connor and Hannah.
Sunday, October 6th: The adventure began when Leann and I touched down in Reykjavik, Iceland. Customs was a breeze. The airport had hardwood floors and was super clean. I knew I was going to like it there.
Travel tip: If you are looking into international destinations with short flights, research Iceland — a five-to-six-hour flight from New York or Boston. You won’t be disappointed.
I exchanged $100 for Icelandic krona, while Leann figured out where our transfer was. The krona was valued at 121 on the dollar, but I was paid 116 krona for every American dollar. The airport said “no commission.” We started off small to figure out where we would get the best exchange rate.
- Airport: I lost 4% in my transaction.
- Hotel: Charged a 10% commission.
- Credit Card: 3% service fee for international purchases.
My best bet was to keep some cash on me and use my credit card. The bus picked us up, and off to the hotel we went.
Travel tip: Contact your credit card before you travel abroad, and find out what your international fee is. Compare the exchange rate at the airport versus the hotel versus a bank. Sometimes, hotels give you better exchange rates (such as in China); other times, the airport is your best bet (as in Iceland).
Being very excited, neither of us got any sleep. We checked in at our hotel, Reykjavik Natura, and took a nap. We figured the city was still sleeping, and we would be much better off getting some rest rather than pushing ourselves to run for no reason. After all, we were on vacation…
A few hours later, we stopped off at the front desk to get our bearings. Although our hotel provided us with a free bus pass, we decided to walk into town. Our first stop was Hallgrimskirkja, the beautiful church which led us to downtown.
What we missed: Taking the elevator up to the top to catch a great view of Reykjavik. This was recommended to me by a friend’s, Shawn’s, cousin, Andrea, who lives in Iceland. Of course, I didn’t put the two together until the end of the day when the church had already closed. Fortunately, we caught the view from another spot…
We continued to wander through the city looking for a place to eat. Our morning cappuccino and hot chocolate could only last for so long…
Where to eat in Reykajvik?
- Bergsson Mathus: Recommended by Lonely Planet as a “top choice.” Located at Templarasund 3.
- Fish Market: Recommended by Leann’s friend as “Delicious, fancier.”
- Laundromat Café: Recommended by Lonely Planet and by one of Leann’s friends who visited Iceland as having “good breakfast.” We stopped in and the coffees looked great, but we were not in the mood for breakfast or American-type sandwiches.
- Ostabúðin (Delicatessen) on Skolavörðustígur 8: Described by Andrea as “a local secret, where you can get the BEST fish dish in town for approximately 1400 krona.” Food in Iceland is pretty expensive, so this is a great place to hit for lunch during the week. Unfortunately, it was closed on Sunday.
- Perlan: An upscale restaurant known as “The Pearl.”
- Saegreifinn: Recommended by Leann’s friend as a “must go; they have fresh fish, whale, and veggies they grill up on skewers… and amazing lobster soup.”
- Seafood Company: Described by Andrea as “an amazing seafood place, but not cheap.”
- Sjavargrillid (Seafood Grill) on Skólavörðustígur 14: Recommended by Andrea. Located on the shopping street going up to the church.
- Tiu Dropar: Recommended by Lonely Planet as “a cozy basement off the main drag.”
A lot of the places were closed because it was the middle of the day on a Sunday. We ended up choosing the Bergsson Mathus, which was delicious. Most places were serving coffee drinks, breakfast, soups and sandwiches.
We continued to explore the city and stopped at the Harpa, where you can see live performances such as the symphony. We couldn’t fit any shows into our agenda, but it was still cool to see.
Next stop: A funky flea market, Kolaportið, recommended by Andrea. It is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There are lots of eclectic things to choose from, and the woolen goods are much more reasonably priced at the market. Shopping in Iceland is super expensive, so this was a great find. Here I bought a really cool pair of earrings, which were made in Iceland. The flea market is also a great spot to people watch as it was hopping and the streets were less crowded.
Lucky for us, we did catch the Aurora Borealis. However, they were not as vibrant and playful as when I saw them in Alaska. To see them, the conditions need to be right — cold weather and clear skies. Observing them in their full glory is truly an amazing sight — one of my favorite experiences.
Some other recommendations we received included:
Music/Nightlife (recommended by Andrea, who lives in Iceland)
- Harpa, mentioned above
- 12 Tonar music store on Skólavorðurstigar
- Shows at Café Rosenburg
- Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are crazy in Reykjavik on the main streets downtown after about 11:30 p.m. and doesn’t stop until 6:00 a.m.
Points of Interest (recommended by Andrea, who lives in Iceland)
- Local pools, which are a fraction of the price of the Blue Lagoon.
- National History Museum for Icelandic history (Viking era to current).
- Settlement Museum in downtown.
- Take a walk up Laugavegur and Skólavurðurstigar for shopping.
Resources (also provided by Andrea, who lives in Iceland)
- The Reykjavik Grapevine: A local newspaper with lots of ideas of things to do (e.g. music, etc.).
- Iceland Review Online
Monday, October 7th: Today’s destination? The Golden Circle. Onto our tour bus we went to see beautiful landscapes, pretty little churches, amazing waterfalls, geysers, a power plant (where we learned about geothermal energy), and more…
After our tour, we walked to Perlan, an upscale restaurant known as “The Pearl.” The “spinning restaurant” gives you an amazing 360-view of the city, which made up for the view we missed at the church. Leann had lamb, and I had ocean perch — a white fish that reminded me of sea bass. Both dinners were native to Iceland and extremely tasty.
Other native dishes (we did NOT eat) included:
- Fermented shark (described to us as, “shark that is left underground in its urine for a year before being eaten”)
Tuesday, October 6th: While we were waiting for our bus, we met three deaf, Asian travelers from San Francisco and exchanged tips and experiences with them via paper and pen. It was fun playing charades and communicating without speaking. A smile truly is the bridge to meeting new people.
We were then all whisked away to one of the top 10 spas in the world, the Blue Lagoon. As Leann and I have been to hot springs before, we thought this may be a tourist trap and anti-climatic. We were wrong.
We upgraded to an “experience comfort,” which included a bathrobe, algae mask, and cocktail. Out of the cold and into the hot water we went. I could feel my skin turn to pure silk in the super relaxing water, and all cares melted away. After we finished our algae mask, we smothered ourselves with mud… over and over again. A truly invigorating experience. I never wanted to leave!
Tip: Condition your hair before and after your swim. The minerals are great for your skin, but they will leave your hair a little crunchy.
We played in the water for as long as we could. We made a new friend, Andrew, at one of the mud spots. He was also from Boston’s suburbs, but had moved to San Francisco. It was refreshing to meet someone who was around our age, adventurous in traveling and life like us, and very interesting. He left to catch his flight, and we went to eat some sushi.
The sushi wasn’t great, but it was from a buffet. We also ate catfish, which was superb and tasted like sea bass. Note: I am NOT a fan of catfish. Tip: Just try it. You never know when you will be pleasantly surprised.
After an amazing day in paradise, we went back to our hotel. We weren’t hungry, so we skipped dinner. In the morning, we would transition to the second part of our Icelandic adventure…
Part II: Ring Road. The Road Less Traveled.
“Today’s ingredients include:
- One Ring Road
- Two excited travelers
- Three and a half days until we catch a flight back to the States
And a little cup of luck… Part II of our Icelandic adventure starts NOW…” – Gina’s Facebook post
Why a little cup of luck?
- The weather: I was advised to check the weather before venturing on my Ring Road trip. When it snows, the roads close.
- Hotels: I was advised to book my accommodations prior to arrival. You can’t just drive up to a place like you do in the States.
Our dilemma? We wanted to be spontaneous. So, we booked our rooms on the road.
Popular resources I was given to book with locals:
Wednesday, October 9th: We forfeited our last night at the hotel so we could drive the island. Many folks spend seven to 10 days driving the Ring. We were about to change the rules — in typical Leann and Gina style.
After our daily breakfast buffet, our transfer brought us back to the airport where we picked up a rental car. We figured we could drive straight to the airport after finishing the Ring. Note: You will need to put down a $500 deposit in case there are any issues. Additionally, there are only certain places you can drive on the island.
And off we went…
The Ring is a 16-hour drive, but we added an extra peninsula. We were also more or less the only ones on the road, which allowed us to drive at our own pace. Although we had no idea how to read the signs, we quickly learned the symbols for one-road bridges, speeding (which was a sad face), etc. These signs only added to our adventure…
Through the lava fields, mountains covered in snow, into greener pastures, passing glaciers, volcanos, random waterfalls and clusters of beautiful Icelandic horses grazing by the side of the road we drove. The scenery was breathtaking.
Our first stop was Vik (Vik I Myrdal), described by Lonely Planet as having “one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.” Before exploring the black-sand beach, we ate lunch at Halldorskaffi. Leann ordered a salad, and I got a lamb sandwich. My lunch was excellent and super flavorful; Leann’s not so much. But then again, lamb is popular in Iceland whereas fresh veggies are much more difficult to come across. Our lunch was not cheap either, which is typical of Iceland.
And then we explored Vik’s black sand beach…
By this time, we were at a half a tank of gas. Since civilization was pretty scarce on the Ring, I stopped to fill up. When I inserted my credit card, I was asked for a pin. Of course, I didn’t have one. Neither did Leann. So, into the gas station I went to buy a pre-paid card for $50. Since my car was small, I thought this would get me two tanks of gas. I was wrong. We quickly learned that a full tank of gas cost $100.
And so we continued, stopping as we saw fit… exploring and taking pictures, chatting and laughing… having a great time…
At the end of the day, we pulled into Guesthouse Skalafell, and stayed in a super cute cabin on a farm. The farm owners cooked us a wonderful cod dinner, and we chatted with some fellow travelers. I got up around 1:00 a.m. and caught the Northern Lights as they were fading into the night. If only I had woken up an hour earlier…
Thursday, October 10th: The next morning, we ventured off to see a glacier lagoon, Jökulsarlón. You can also take a boat around the glacier, but we decided to pass on this option.
Next up… a drive through the Fjords and the fishing villages. To our dismay, they were pretty deserted as the season had ended. However, the drive was still beautiful.
By this time, we were starving and every restaurant was closed. We came to crossroads… To take the more direct route or change up the scenery with a different road? What to do when you can’t decide? Flip a coin, of course. Heads meant take the more direct route, and tails meant take the other road. Tails won. Did you know heads appear more often? This, I did not know, but Leann informed me the odds were better for heads. So, we followed the coin’s direction and continued along the Fjords. Five minutes later, we found a place to eat. We sauntered into the café in a fit of giggles, feeling young and carefree…
After a very late lunch, we continued along… driving through more mountains and geothermal spots. We stopped at Jardbodin (nature baths) in Mývatn, but decided to look for a crater instead. The guy at the desk told us it was about a 10-minute drive, but he wasn’t sure if the roads would be closed. We laughed, as they were fine where we were. Lucky for me, my co-pilot talked some sense into me when I was about to drive through the snow to reach our destination. And, so, we got out of the car and continued on foot through biting winds. Our efforts did not go in vain…
Our coin toss also determined where we would sleep that night. Although we had originally planned to stay in Mývatn, we booked a place in Akureyri — the second largest city on the island. This would get us further across the island. We continued along the Ring, and stopped at Godafoss — “The Waterfall of the Gods.”
What we missed: Dettifoss Waterfall, which was recommended by Frommer’s as one of the best natural attractions in Iceland. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time and darkness had already descended. But honestly, we had gotten more than our fair share of waterfall sightings…
I am not going to call out our hotel in Akureyri. We were expecting another cute little guesthouse, but what we got was far from it. The place was actually highly recommended in the books and online, and it was clean. But, there was something eerie about it. The bathrooms were shared, which was fine as we didn’t run into many people. They were huge, and over the toilet hung an angel halo. And there were positive affirmations written all over the walls – bright and cheery, right? But all I kept thinking when I was in there was “redrum, redrum.” And I hardly watch horror movies or quote them. Where my mind was wandering was very, very strange.
Leann later asked what the place was, and she was told it used to be a nursing home. This was the only night I didn’t look for the Northern Lights. The place creeped me out, and I didn’t want to leave my room…
The next morning, we continued along the Ring and stopped to ride some Icelandic horses, which was one of our highlights. Icelandic horses are gentle, they ride more smoothly than ours, and they won’t kick when you are behind them.
I asked the trainer if horse meat was still a popular dish in Iceland. She responded, “yes.” I scoffed, and I was told not to judge the culture. She herself had never eaten horse meat until she moved to Iceland, but started to since she lived there. I didn’t really understand how she could train horses and also eat them.
After our ride, we continued to the peninsula. The weather had gotten damp and a little rainy. We drove through the cute but deserted fishing villages, stopped to look at the outside of a cave, then flipped a coin to choose a location for the evening… To stay in a neighboring town, Borgarnes, or drive back to Reykjavik? When we started getting too tired, we let a coin flip lead the way — and it never led us astray.
We stopped at a cute little restaurant, which was empty. I got the lobster, which was different than what I’ve eaten before. It was so flavorful and delicious. Leann got a burger, but it tasted funny. There was also horse on the menu. Boo. 🙁
Again, we stayed in a cute little place, with comfy beds and awesome comforters. We could have spent a few nights here with a group of friends. It was very homey. Sadly, we would head back to the city in the morning to catch our flight to the States.
What to do tomorrow? Try to find a cave? Head back to the city early and see if we could catch a tour? Stop off at the Blue Lagoon for one more swim? Our time was limited. We flipped a coin, and the cave won. And, so, resourceful Leann found a cave in the area.
However, instead of figuring out our path on our own, we asked for directions. The guy who helped us led us astray, and we drove an hour away from where we were supposed to go. We finally got back on the right track, but due to time, we missed the cave. We were probably five minutes away from it, but the clock was ticking… Too bad, as the area the cave was in was one of the prettiest parts of the islands and the weather was perfect. It would have been fun to go for a hike. Lesson: Trust ourselves instead of asking for help and being misinformed. Time and time again we have been much more resourceful on our own.
We stopped for gas before trekking it back to the city. Unfortunately, the pump was empty. On we went, pressed for time. And then, I took us on another peninsula when I saw a sign for Reykjavik instead of staying on the Ring. The road reminded me of driving on the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur in California… mountains surrounded by the ocean. And then our gas hit “empty.” Would we get stranded for hours and miss our flight? Or would we make it to a gas station, fill up, and catch our plane? Time was scarce…
Leann: “We’re not going to make our flight.”
Me: “Just find me a gas station, and I’ll get us there.”
Lucky for us, there was a gas station at the end of the road. There was gas in the pump. And, the store was open so we could buy another gas card. A quick fill and then we raced to Keflavík International Airport. We had lost more time, and we were already pushing it…
We dropped off the rental, ran to the terminal, and checked in 15 minutes after the cut-off time. Lucky for us, we made our flight. We looked around the shops, ate some pizza, and drank some wine.
Tip: Due to high taxes, Blue Lagoon products and everything else is much, much cheaper at the airport — which is shocking! So, when you land in Iceland, check out the shops first to see what you want. Then wait until the end of your trip to make your purchases. Just make sure you already know what is there so you get what you desire.
And then we hit JFK. The bathrooms were gross, and I knew I was no longer in Iceland. And all I could think was, dirty Americans… We are not in Iceland anymore… I wish I was still there… Sigh.
Have you been to Iceland? Share your story in the comments section below.
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