Iceland? Is it on your list of must-see destinations? If you love natural wonders, unique culture and fascinating history, it merits a spot on your bucket list.
Traveling to Iceland is easier than you might think. You can fly direct or, as I did, on a stopover returning from Europe or any Icelandair destination. One of my fellow choristers discovered Icelandair’s My Stopover promotion enabling a traveller on its airline to layover up to 7 additional nights at no additional airfare cost. With such a tempting incentive, on our return trip from England for our choir trip, LDB and I made a 2-night stopover in Reykjavik to see the latest hot spot for travel, as Caroline Wallace of Caroline Travels the World dubbed it in her latest newsletter. Now I know what she means and hope for a return visit.
Though sitting remotely in the North Atlantic, and with a population of only 330,000 nationwide,
Iceland offers the sophisticated amenities demanded by today’s tourists. Its capital, Reykjavik, sports a hip and digitally connected culture with tourism as its number one industry today, outstripping fishing. It’s not touristy, but tourist-ready. Luckily two friends advised me on the must-do activities for our short stay.
Day 1, 3:30 p.m. ~ the Clock is Ticking
Upon landing at Keflavik airport (KEF) at 3:30 pm, we took a Flybus airport shuttle to our hotel. FYI, if you go, be prepared for a longer-than-advertised 45-minute trip from Keflavik to Reykjavik. Ours took 1.5 hours, the only sore point of the trip (a cab ride exceeds $100). After checking into Hotel Borg downtown,
we explored the city center on foot. Sitting at 65°N latitude (the Arctic Circle is at 66°), Iceland is indeed the land of the midnight sun: when I went to bed at 11 p.m daylight still prevailed. The long hours of July daylight gave us plenty of time to explore. I took this picture of the majestic Voyage sculpture at the Reykjavik Harbor
Walking along the harbor, the new Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center (Harpa for short) stopped us in our tracks.
We tried to see How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes but couldn’t work it in our schedule. Next time! We booked a Golden Circle tour at one of the many tourist bureaus for the next day and dined at a highly-rated (by Tripadvisor) restaurant, Ostabudin, where local fish and lamb star. It did indeed live up to its rating.
Day 2 ~ Geothermal Pools and the Golden Circle
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Blue Lagoon, the major tourist attraction in Iceland. Note I said tourist. The locals avoid it. Instead, in Reykjavik they relax and recharge in one of the public geothermal pools. Natural geothermal water is undoubtedly one of Iceland’s greatest natural resources. Every village, town and city has at least one public pool. We headed to Laugaralslaug, about a 40 minute brisk walk from the city center.
Laugardalslaug offers a 50m outdoor pool, two children’s pools with a thrilling water slide, and best of all, naturally heated and mineral-rich hot pots (hot tubs), ranging from 38ºc to 44°c (100.4°f to 111.2°f). With air temperature of 55°, we felt energized rather than freezing moving from hot pot to hot pot. The photo below shows the hot pots.
Our return trip to the hotel down the main shopping district along Laugavegur Street tempted my pocketbook with gorgeous woolen goods and unique nordic clothing boutiques, but we had to make the next stop on our condensed itinerary: the Golden Circle Tour.
The Golden Circle
Created by the tourism industry, the Golden Circle (shown in yellow above) shows the traveler the most highlights-per-mile of Icelandic natural wonder. Sterna, our tour operator, and Simon, our driver, completed the circle in 7 hours, beginning with a filming location on the way to Thingvillir for the popular Game of Thrones show.
It was LDB‘s equivalent of going to Highclere Castle.
Thingvellir, a UNESCO world heritage site and national park, holds great significance in Icelandic history and is a geological wonder as the only rift valley sitting above sea level.
Okay, dust off your Geology 101 knowledge for this. The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates created the rift valley you see above. Volcanic activity over the hundreds of years has caused the plates to pull away from each other, leaving fissures,
crags and cliffs in the breathtaking landscape.
The Viking parliament held their reading-of-the-laws assembly at Thingvillir, beginning in 930 and lasting until 1798 when a massive earthquake (8 on the Richter scale) indicated it was time to move to a safer location. Historians believe the Law Rock
is the actual backdrop from which the speakers recited laws and settled disputes. After a leisurely hike through the immediate grounds, we boarded our small bus for the geysir area.
We saw the bubbling hot springs of the geysir area as soon as we disembarked.
Our bus driver warned us against touching the hot water. Despite being a rule-follower, I was mighty tempted to find out just how hot the water was, but LDB gave me the look, and I stepped away from the gurgling pools.
the newest active geysir in the region, entertained us every 5 to 10 minutes with its thrilling spouts.
Seriously, it never got old. We hiked up to a vantage point for a different perspective.
We found it hard to leave, but the stunning Gullfoss Falls awaited us.
The glacial river Hvítá flows and
creates a two-tiered spectacular waterfall
as it spills into the gorge below.
The story behind the preservation of the falls impressed me as much as the grandeur of the falls. In the early 1900’s a foreign investor approached the owner of the land on which the falls resided to lease the land in order to harness the falls to generate electricity. The farmer agreed, but his daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, concerned about the impact of development on Gullfoss, filed a lawsuit to break the lease contract. After three years of hard-fought maneuvering and protestations, the matter resolved itself after the investors failed to make payment on the lease. Icelanders consider Sigriður Tómasdóttir their first environmentalist.
The lack of safety fencing shocked me, and while laughing at the simple warning signs,
I took a few prudent steps back from the rope line.
Our last stop brought us to Faxi Falls.
The falls created by the river Tungufljót are gentler and more accessible than Gullfoss. Complete with a salmon ladder,
the falls seem to be equally popular with anglers and tourists alike.
Our Golden Circle tour proved LDB wrong; he thought it would be touristy and likely boring. Simon, our driver and guide, enlightened us to Icelandic culture, geography and heritage in a way a self-guided/driven tour could not touch. I highly recommend a Golden Circle tour as a good Iceland 101.
After dinner at Grillmarkadurinn (reserve early), we strolled in the midnight sun back to the Borg just as the famous nightlife of Reykjavik accelerated.
Day 3 – Thermal Pool Again?
We loved the thermal pool experience so much we opted to return rather than squeeze in another excursion in our dwindling time. Now adept at the showering and locker room etiquette, we cruised in like the regulars, high-fiving each other for having trusted Tripadvisor to steer us here rather than the Blue Lagoon.
By the time we returned from the pool and souvenir shopping, the clock counted down our moments left in this magical country.
non-native lupines dot the barren landscape
the Hofdi House juxtaposed against modern construction
Harpa sparkles in the daylight
one of the many bike lanes lining the streets of Reykjavik
eye-catching sculpture garnishes a traffic circle
urban garden provides green space amidst the ubiquitous lava rock
stylish doorway hints at the nordic style inside
We bade farewell and boarded our jet to Boston, promising to return to this enchanting hot spot.
August 16, 2016