You’re Going Where? Why, Iceland...
by Gail Skroback Hennessey
Most people's response when we said we were going to Iceland was "why"? Thirty-six years ago, on our first trip to Europe(our wedding trip), we took Icelandair and stopped at Reykjavek for 45 minutes. On the return home, we again stopped at Reykjavek and were offered a special package to stay for the two days to see the land of fire and ice. We didn’t do so but have often thought it might be an interesting place to visit one day. It was always extremely expensive and thus, we didn’t go. With the financial collapse of Iceland, in the fall of 2008, the exchange rate became very positive for the American dollar. Things were 1/2 the price they had been the year before...time was right for a visit to Iceland.
Our five day trip to Iceland, highlighting the natural wonders took place in the fall of 2009. The drive to John F Kennedy International Airport from our upstate New York home, took over 5 hours. Normally, it should have taken about 3 1/2 hours. We endured horrific rain for the first hour. We almost turned back so my husband could build an ark! Then, we had a horrible traffic delay by the Delaware Water Gap where I crept along at about 3 miles per hour for an hour! The fight was on schedule, at least until we boarded the plane at which time the pilot announced a 2 hour delay due to poor weather conditions. Once we were in flight, the five hours went quickly will little turbulence.
We arrived at Reykjavek , the most northern capital city in the world, about 7:45 AM, and took the Reykjavek Excursions’ Flybus, about $14 per person, from the airport to the hotel, about a 40 minutes ride. I marveled at the barren landscape, the snow covered mountains, the moss covered lava fields.
We walked around city centre for a while and had a brunch later in the afternoon. Our hotel was great! A four star, Hilton Nordica, was priced about $160 a night including a fabulous morning brunch!
That first night, we took an excursion to see the Northern Lights(Aurora Borealis). For those of you that watch reruns of Seinfeld, it was a definite Seinfeld moment. The excursion, the bus ride from hell to see the Northern Lights, was a disaster from the start. We should have been wary when the original tour company cancelled due to inclement weather! You can’t see the northern lights, swirling green and red lights in the polar regions, with cloud cover. Yet, when the registration desk told us that another tour compan WAS going out that evening and that they had a great track record of finding the northern lights, we booked the tour! Think 4 hours traveling a distance of about 120 miles over back roads in search of the lights... in the rain. Despite the fact it was obvious we wouldn’t see the lights in such weather, the two guides wouldn't give up and kept us "captive" as they continued bouncing us along the roads/and unpaved roads in their search so that they could say they tried. In a Seinfeld episode, Kramer kept passengers on his tour bus, as he tried to find a place that would take his muffin stumps! At first upset, (I was crying) from lack of sleep-we’d been up nearly 40 hours,my husband and I eventually started to laugh hysterically when I made the Seinfeld connection that we might never get back to the hotel!(along with about 75 other captives on the bus). We were on a bus from 8:30 until almost 1AM! Thankfully, we did have one bathroom break! The guide would say, “Look, over there...I think that’s a star” or “ That haze to your left is from the city lights of Reykjavek”. The tour started with the caveat that they couldn’t guarantee a sighting of the northern lights but they should never have taken us out on a cloudy evening! Oh, well.
The next day, with jet lag and only 5 hours sleep, our next excursion began with our guide David(http://www.icelandhorizon.is/), a Brit who moved to Iceland in 1985. He was wonderful and I totally recommend a tour with him as he uses a mini van and takes a small group as opposed to a large bus tour. He also makes sure that he times arrivals to the different stops BEFORE the large tour buses get there to insure a quiet and uncrowded visit! He was constantly talking,sharing information on Iceland’s history and culture. Did you know that Iceland does not have an army, navy, or air force? It does have a Coast Guard. Did you know that Iceland doesn’t have any railways? Or that there is only one main road,the ring road which goes around the island? There are 36 letters in the Icelandic alphabet. There are no C and W. No letters are silent when reading a word. And, there are no regional languages. There is only one way to say each and every word. Takk is thank you, Bless is goodbye and Goda Nott is goodnight. The other Northern Light tour could take a lesson from David. Instead of constantly chatting with the driver, the guide could have used all those hours to talk with the tourists about his country!
David told us that Iceland has up to 500 earthquakes a day, most less than three on the Richter Scale. He said that Iceland was due for a volcanic eruption, and I just hoped it wouldn’t be as we meandered around the volcanic areas. Called the Golden Circle Tour (about $85 per person),we traveled a 190 mile circular route with David, from around 9-4. We first stopped at the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant and learned about how Iceland makes their energy. At the plant, the steam is separated from the water , the water is then also hot enough to supply secondary steam. The remaining water is then returned to the ground. Amazing process of renewable energy which supplies 99% of the countries energy needs! David called our attention to a field of growing marshmellows(really hay bales).We stopped at a volcanic crater called Kerio, a great example of a caldera crater. Because of the great acoustics at this site, there are many concerts and Pavarotti performed here. We saw a landscape of much moss covered lava fields, few trees, high cliffs and open spaces. David shared a joke about the forests of Iceland. “How does one find their way out of an Icelandic forest? Answer-You stand Up!” We traveled to the oldest geyser, called geyser(meaning “the gusher”)that’s where the word originated which doesn’t erupt very much any more. Next to it was Strokkur(meaning “on the struck”), which faithfully erupted ever few minutes. We then travelled on to the Gullfoss(means “golden fall”), the largest waterfall in Europe. The 105 ft. waterfall was very beautiful with a huge canyon. I also liked the fact that the restaurant buildings were made away from the falls so you can’t see anything other than the falls. An interesting story tells of a woman who is credited with saving the falls. Seems than in the early 1900s, people wanted to build a hydroelectric plant at the site. Sigriour Tomasdottir , who lived near the falls, threatened to jump into the falls if this happened. She is created with her efforts to save the falls. A monument of her was erected by the falls in 1978. Our last stop was at an area called Thingvellir National Park. It is here where you can see evidence of where the North American tectonic plate and Eurasian tectonic Plates meet and are spreading apart. It is also here at Thingvellir, where Iceland’s earliest democracy began. Iceland, the world’s oldest democracy, dates back to 930. Different chieftains would travel to the area of Thingvellir and set up shelters where people could come to discuss issues of concerns. This lasted for two weeks. Afterwards, the different chieftains would meet to share the concerns of their clans. Laws were established and announced by the lord-chief for those in attendance to hear and take back to their regions of Iceland. The area was a wonderful natural amphitheater! Games were also played among different clans during this two week get-together and people who had broken the laws were brought to the yearly gathering for their punishment.
The next day, we rested by doing some sightseeing of the city centre and taking in a geothermal pool down the street from the Hilton Nordica. Laugardalur, the largest thermal swimming pool in Iceland, is Olympic sized. It also has four smaller hot pots(or gossip pots) which we used. The temperature outside was a windy 41 degrees, but the pools were about 99F. For about $4, you gain entrance to the pool/locker rooms. Another $4 paid for the rental of a towel. Not having experienced an Icelandic pool before, we had to have someone explain the procedure. All shoes must be removed prior to entering the locker room and all must first take a shower before going outside into the pool area and. In the locker room. I haven't seen so many naked women since I was in high school gym class! There is definitely a totally different mentality toward the human body. In the locker room, women strolled around or sat and blow dried their hair in the buff as I scurried around in my towel to find (a none existent) shower with a curtain! We also took a bus to the Pearl, a huge dome building which also has a restaurant and Viking museum. From the observation deck, you have a wonderful view of the city, it’s colorful buildings, the surrounding snow-covered mountains and bay with all its fishing boats. We actually walked the way back to city centre and walked by the US Embassy, located near the city centre, at 21 Laufasvegur. We also passed by the largest church steeple in Iceland.
The next day, we went with David’s associate, Ragner of Super Jeeps,(http://www.superjeep.is/) for an adventure to the South Shore and the town of Vik.(about $200 per person).It was interesting to learn about how people get their last names, a very old tradition.Within an Icelandic family, there will be many different surnames. That’s because Icelandic people name their children after their father’s first name plus the name son or daughter added at the end. So, if a boy named Ragner’s dad’s name is Eider. His last name would be Eidersson. If a girl in the same family was named Dugg. Her last name would be Eidersdottir. Because of this, it is easier to find a person in a telephone book by listing first names alphabetically. Additionally, Icelandic people always use first names,never Mr., Ms. Mrs. Even students call their teachers by their first names as do citizens toward the leader of their country. There is also a list of accepted names. All names must be Norse names. Some children have
Norse names that when translated mean ugly, criminal, cup,mountain spring and dew.
The weather was not cooperating with extreme winds and sand storms. We traveled to see one of Iceland’s black beaches, and one of Iceland’s oldest towns, Stokkseyri ,founded around 900 AD. We past by many greenhouses, powered by geo thermal energy, that enables the Icelandic people to have fresh vegetables and flowers year round. We visited a number of waterfalls including: Seljalandsfoss and Skogan Falls. We could see Mt, Hekla, a very active volcano and Snaefellsjokull, the glacier made famous by Jules Verne in his book, Journey to the Center of the Earth. We were heading toward Solheimajokull glacier. We didn’t get to the tongue of the glacier due to the dangerous winds. Instead, Ragner took us off road and I mean off road. After a brief ride down a gravel road, he veered off onto an earth path with tire ruts. He kept going up and up and eventually left this “road” to blaze a trail of his own over stones, and landscape that looked like we’d taken a wrong turn and ended up on the lunar surface. Thank goodness for his large size tires which he said cost about $800 a piece. Interestingly, NASA used the terrain of Iceland to train the Apollo astronauts and when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, he joked that he thought he was in Iceland! We traveled up about 5100 ft from the shore with hurricane like winds(about 50 mph). I could hardly stand upright when we summitted the mountain of Hamragaroaheioi and got out for photographs. Our guide, Ragner, said he's never taken tourists up to the site before, a spectacular view of the Vestmannaeyjar Islands! In 1973, the only town on the Westman Islands of Heimaey, was pretty much destroyed by a volcanic eruption. All of its 5000 residents had been evacuated. The thick ash and lava covered many of the homes. Today, excavation is find the homes well preserved and residents are finding some of their possessions still intact. Because of this, Heimay is called the “Pompeii of the North”.On the way down, Ragner played Queen's "We are the Champions"-kind of appropriate as we had survived the unusual but outstanding, side excursion!
The last day of our visit to Iceland, we stopped at the famous Blue Lagoon for a dip (www.bluelagoon.is). Reykjavek Excursions runs a very popular tour to the lagoon and then on to the airport. (cost is about $45 per person including admission to lagoon and trip to airport)They also keep your luggage for you so you don’t have to lug it around at the Blue Lagoon. If you don’t have a bathing suit, you can rent one as well as towels and robes. The thermal seawater pool , is located in a lava field called Evil Lava, created during an eruption in 1226. The hot pool is created from the run off of the nearly geothermal plant. White silica mud, collected and put into nearby pots, is thought to be therapeutic for the skin. People apply it to their faces, leaving it on for a few minutes before washing it off.
In addition to many different types of fish and lamb dishes, Iceland has some unique foods on their menus. There is sheep head, puffin bird, rotten shark called "hakarl, grilled foal, and whale! I did like one of their traditional desserts called skyr. Skyr, is a yogurt type dish flavored (or unflavored) with different fruits. I recommend the Restaurant Reykjavek for their fish buffet located at Vesturgata 2. The restaurant also has a unique bar... an ice bar.You don coats and enter a bar lined with blocks of ice and with has a bar and bench made of ice as well. It was really cool....in several different ways. We also at a restaurant called Caruso’s in city centre and near the Hilton Nordica, was a great place and value, the Brasserie Askur.
And, if you are visiting Reykjavek, depending on the time of year, take a glance into the night sky by the bay. You will see a large beam of light stretching up into the Heavens- that’s the Imagine Peace Tower. Created by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon, the light(from geo thermal energy) lights the night sky from October 9th(the birthday of John Lennon) and is extinguished on December 8th, (the date of his death)(imaginepeace.com/news/imagine-peace-tower)
I hope that my travelogue about my trip to Iceland is of help to anyone that might like to visit the land of fire and Ice! Would I recommend such a trip...most definitely!