I Heart Iceland

 

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When I think of summer travel, cold weather doesn’t usually come to mind.  But Iceland has been on my radar for some time, so we decided to close out summer 2015 with a vacation that included five nights there and ended with a few nights in Paris (which I will cover in my next post!).  While five nights is nowhere near enough time to see all of Iceland, we certainly got a healthy dose of culture, nature and adventure.  We focused our trip on the south coast because of its relative proximity to the airport and Reykjavik, and because that region is rich with activities and diverse landscape.
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Although it’s a significant expense, I highly recommend using a tour guide in Iceland. The country’s infrastructure is fairly undeveloped (aside from Route 1, the “Ring Road”, which loops around the the entire island) and many of the hidden treasures require driving on unmarked, unpaved roads. The guides all drive “super” jeeps with 4-5 foot tires that they masterfully inflate and deflate depending on the ever-changing terrain.  If that weren’t enough, the special historical and personal perspective of a native adds so much texture to the experience. Because Iceland is so sparsely populated, you are less likely to meet and intermingle with locals outside of Reykjavik, so a meaningful part of your cultural exposure comes from a good guide.  Our guide was like a walking wikipedia of Iceland – he shared volumes of fascinating historical facts and anecdotes, not to mention lots of cool Norse myths which our kids loved.   We booked him through South Iceland Adventures (http://www.siadv.is/).
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He picked us up in his “super” jeep each day and had a full itinerary in place, including national parks, volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers and black sand beaches, just to name a few of the highlights of our three action-packed days with him.  We took walks and hikes at every destination so that we could explore on foot and experience each magical destination with all of our senses. We spent a day doing the famous “Golden Circle” tour as well, which included visits to the country’s most famous geyser (Strokkur), waterfall (Gullfoss, or Golden Falls) and national park (Thingvellir National Park).
In addition to our daily tours with Svavar, as he was called, we went on an unforgettable sunset ATV expedition in the shadows of Mt. Hekla (which included an Icelandic coffee shop experience we will never forget!) and snowmobiling on the 4th largest glacier in the country (Myrdalsjokull). We arranged the ATV and snowmobiling tours through South Iceland Adventures as well and fully recommend both experiences.
We ended our visit to Iceland in Reykjavik, where we had just a day to see the city with a map as our guide.  We managed to work in a visit to the Saga Museum (http://www.sagamuseum.is/), a stroll through the city centre, a few great meals and a visit to the awesome Hallsgrimskirkja Church (http://www.hallgrimskirkja.is/).  Basic info is below, and you can read on for a detailed itinerary.
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Where to stay – Seems there are more and more options every month, as tourism grows rapidly throughout the country, from cutting edge boutique hotels to farm stays. The Ranga Hotel (http://www.hotelranga.is) was our base for the South Coast.   Ranga is practically an institution.  We reserved two of their basic rooms – one for the kids and one for my husband and me.  Our rooms were fine, but I hear that their themed suites are the real attraction.  In Reykjavik we stayed in a spacious one-bedroom apartment at the Black Pearl (http://www.blackpearlreykjavik.com/), a luxury apartment/hotel near the center of town. It was clean, modern and sophisticated with a beautiful, full kitchen.  The kids had plenty of room to spread out in the living area where the sofa opened to a queen size bed and we arranged for a rollaway for our third child.  Black Pearl is not a full service hotel but they do have a helpful concierge on site from 7am-10pm each day, who can arrange anything from car transfers to dinner reservations to breakfast delivered to your apartment.  We loved it!  We also considered the 101 Hotel (http://101hotel.is/), which is a true hotel done in a chic, modern style. If you want to do Reyjkavik on the cheap, the Kex Hostel (http://www.kexhostel.is/ looks super cool and clean.
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Getting There – We flew Iceland Air, but there are a number of airlines that fly nonstop.  Make sure to grab a snack from Joe and the Juice at Keflavik Airport.  Their juices, smoothies, coffee and sandwiches are delightful!  If you are planning on guided tours during your stay, you’re best bet is to pre-arrange airport transfers rather than to rent a car.  After pricing out a number of transportation options, we discovered that they’re all costly!  We ended up booking a car and driver through the Black Pearl. They were super responsive, organized the offered the most cost-effective and comfortable transfers for our family.
Where to eat – In the south, the restaurant at the Ranga is very nice, not to mention convenient if you’re staying there!  For you adventurous eaters, get ready to sample smoked puffin, reindeer carpaccio and Icelandic lamb.   Whale is another delicacy you will likely see on menus.  Stop at Fridheimar (fridheimar.is), the country’s famous tomato farm, for lunch on the day you do the Golden Circle tour. Fridheimar is located inside of a huge, meticulous greenhouse. Everything on the limited menu was delicious.  In Reykjavik, The Fish Market (http://fiskmarkadurinn.is/english/) is a must for dinner.  The Laundromat (http://www.thelaundromatcafe.com/en/home) is great for breakfast or lunch, or even a casual dinner.
Tour Guides – There are many, but we had a stellar experience with South Iceland Adventures (siadv.is).  We worked directly with Kristin to organize our tours. She was patient and helpful.  Svavar was our guide. We thought he was terrific, though I am sure all of their guides are top-notch.
Wish we had time for:  Vatnajokull Glacier, including its famous the Glacier Lagoon tour (http://icelagoon.is/).    The Husavik region, including Lake Myvatn and Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe (http://www.visithusavik.com/attractions/lake-myvatn/).  A visit to the Westman Islands (http://www.visitwestmanislands.com/) off the south coast.  A sea angling tour where you go out fishing and then bbq your catch on board for a terrific meal (bookable through South Iceland Adventure at siadv.is). River jet experience (http://www.icelandriverjet.com/). Visiting more remote hot springs, which are located throughout the country.  An additional day to explore Reykjavik.
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Day 1 –  After a 5 1/2 hour flight from NYC, we arrived at Iceland’s international airport, Keflavik, close to midnight.  Since it was pitch black outside, one might expect the 1.5 hour ride to the Ranga Hotel to be uneventful.  Not so!  Gutta, our driver, stopped on the side of the road suddenly and urged us to get out of the car and look up.  We saw the amazing Northern Lights dancing magically through the sky.  Incredible! Unlike anything we had ever seen!  Not long after, we arrived at the Ranga Hotel, welcomed by a huge stuffed polar bear reared up on its hind legs.  The Ranga is designed in the style of a log cabin, with a few small cozy seating areas throughout.  It has one restaurant with windows for walls so that you can marvel at the beautiful landscape during meal time, and two inviting and intimate bar and lounge areas.  The standard rooms are decent but nothing to write home about.  Check out the themed suites for a more exotic experience.  There are a number of outdoor hot tubs for guests’ enjoyment.
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Day 2 –   Breakfast buffet in the Ranga’s dining room.  Svavar, our guide, picked us up at 11am because of our late arrival the prior evening. He was young, friendly, laid back and adventurous. We quickly discovered his knowledge of and passion for Iceland’s history, which he generously shared with us during our time together.  We visited two waterfalls that were not only beautiful, but so accessible.  We were able to climb up a staircase built into the peak alongside one of them and we had the chance to walk along the banks of the river that fed into the fall. As for the next fall, we were able to do a 360 degree walk around it and experience its force from behind.  We were in awe of the beautiful rainbows from every angle.
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Next we drove up to the Myrdasjokull Glacier, where we went on an hour-long snowmobiling tour. After bundling up in neon orange snowsuits at the base of the glacier, we got a brief tutorial on how to operate the snowmobiles before setting off on our adventure.  Aside from the sheer rush of zooming across a vast open space on a snowmobile, we were amazed at the drastic changes in temperature, light, topography and views we saw from atop the icy mass.  Our guide stopped a few times to tell us about the glacier’s history, including how it has evolved and continues to change over time. We had the chance to get off our snowmobiles and walk around up there as well.  Felt like we were on the moon!
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 After coming down from the glacier, we drove to a lava sand beach (called  Sólheimasandur) just a few minutes away, where we saw the remains of a US Navy jet that crash landed there in 1973.  With nothing but black sand all around, the glacier we had just visited clearly visible to the north and the Atlantic Ocean just a short distance to the south, it was quite a setting.  There was not another soul in sight and the kids had a ball running on the sand and “checking out” the plane close-up.
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Then it was back to the super jeep, where Svavar warned us to hold on tight as he took us on a bumpy, speedy adventure around the beach, climbing up and down the uneven surfaces of the sand, rocks and through water.   We eventually made our way back to the Ranga Hotel for dinner.  As if we hadn’t had enough excitement for the day, the menu at the restaurant featured smoked puffin, reindeer carpaccio and Icelandic lamb stew, along with plenty of mainstream options.
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Day 3 –  Svavar picked us up at 10am and we went to Thorsmork National Park, where we started out with a hike up a grassy hill to a cave, picking blueberries and crowberries along the way.  We noticed bird feathers and carcasses, loose sheep wool and what looked like fox footprints along the hike.  All of our “findings” felt like treasure to the kids!  Before getting back into the car, we filled up our water bottles in a nearby stream, after Svavar assured us that the water throughout the country is pristine.
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As we drove deeper into the park, the landscape changed to volcanic sand and rock.  There, we climbed up to what Svavar called the “Elves Church” – because the rock structure looked like a church steeple and lore has it that elves live throughout Iceland, this structure is rumored to be a place of elf worship.  We all made our way up what felt like a hill of quicksand, into the “church”.
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We also hiked to an ice cave located at the base of a glacier.   The kids had a blast trying to figure out how to make it across a stream to get to the cave.
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It wasn’t until we arrived to lunch at the Volcano Huts, a small and very remote restaurant inside Thorsmork Park, that we caught sight of another person that day.   After refueling our stomachs, we drove through rivers and on unpaved roads back out of the park and headed to a pre-arranged (through South Iceland Adventures) sunset ATV tour.  Svavar left us with Unnar, a wonderfully warm and kind man who was our ATV tour guide.  Unnar took us off-roading through the most gorgeous countryside – lush and green.  It was crazy  to think that in the space of just a 20 minute car ride we had come from black, rocky volcanic surroundings to this setting that felt a bit like Switzerland.
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We zoomed through the mountains on our ATVs and at one point we were faced head-on with what turned out to be a herd of about 50 Icelandic horses, running in our direction.  We pulled aside, stopped our ATVs and sat in awe of these gorgeous animals as they ran right by us, so peacefully.
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As if nothing had happened, we resumed our ride and Unnar paused to tell us we were going to an Icelandic coffee shop.  Although I was so energized by the thrill of the ride, I couldn’t help but wonder how a coffee shop could exist in what looked to be uncharted territory.  Just a few minutes later, we stopped again and Unnar invited us to follow him into a cave. He told our children that trolls live in the cave and that they are generally afraid of people but they like younger people. He encouraged our kids to lead the way into the cave, which turned out to be quite large.  At the back of the cave was a fire pit.  Unnar made a fire and took from his bag contents he had packed for hot cocoa, coffee and delicious cookies.  We all sat by the fire enjoying this Icelandic coffee shop experience.  It was truly magical.
 Eventually, we exited the cave and took our time heading back to base as the sun set.  There, we met and got to feed some Icelandic horses that  belonged to Unnar and his wife.  They are gorgeous, docile “pets” to many Icelandic people!  After spending some time with the horses, we returned to the Ranga Hotel for a feast of unusual delicacies once again.
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Day 4 – On our last day with Svavar, we did the famous “Golden Cicle” tour, which included Gullfoss (which means “the Golden Waterfall”), the Strokkur geyser and surrounding geothermal area, and Thingvellir National Park.  All the sites on this day were incredible but it’s worth noting that the this tour was meaningfully different from the prior days because of the busloads of tourists we encountered at Gullfoss and Strokkur especially.  While we were mesmerized by the sheer expanse and force of Gullfoss, the experience definitely felt less authentic than our South Coast tours because we were now among hundreds of other tourists.
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 Strokkur was also filled with tourists standing around, waiting for the next explosion.  I’m glad we stopped there but we didn’t feel the need to linger for too long.   That said, we did take a great little walk up the surrounding red rocks to a pretty lookout point.  Last but not least on the Golden Circle tour was Thingvellir National Park, which straddles the fault line between the United States and Europe.  It’s also the site of the first meeting of Parliament.  We hit it on a beautiful day and basked in the sunshine as we strolled through part of the park, which didn’t feel nearly as busy as the other Golden Circle sites.
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On this day we stopped for lunch at Fridheimar, a famous tomato farm that serves a limited but delicious and incredibly fresh lunch.  They have basil plants on every table with scissors so you can cut some into your lunch – doesn’t get more farm to table than that!
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After the Golden Circle tour, we took at breathtaking drive through the countryside into Reykjavik.  We were craving Thai food so our guide took us to a restaurant called Banh Thai near the center of town.  Dinner was yummy and we enjoyed a short walk through the city on our way back to the Black Pearl, stopping at Eldur and Is for delicious ice cream (try their crepes too!) along the way.  After satisfying our sweet tooth, we prepared for the next morning’s excursion to the Blue Lagoon.
Day 5 – The same driver who took us from the airport to the Ranga on our first evening also drove us to the Blue Lagoon, where we had pre-purchased tickets (through the Black Pearl) to bathe at 10am.  Although this destination was swarming with tourists too, we loved it.  Make sure to bring along flip flops for your feet as you navigate your way from the locker room to the lagoon. While the facility is kept clean, you need to do a fair amount of barefoot walking to get to and from the changing area to the swim area.   We spent more than an hour relaxing in the lagoon and had a good laugh smothering healing clay (available at no additional charge) all over our faces.  If you really want a spa experience, you can book a massage, which is given in a private and quiet area of the lagoon.
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After we arrived back in Reyjkavik, we grabbed a casual lunch at the Sea Baron (http://saegreifinn.is/?page_id=1333), which is known for their ultra fresh and impressive variety of fish kabobs.  The place is tiny, but really cute and nautical.  We tried a bunch of different kabobs, including whale!  After lunch we toured the Saga Museum, which, true to its name, features an exhibit that walks you through some momentous and historical sagas that have occurred in Iceland.  The exhibit is set up as a life-size diorama that you walk through with an audio guide. If you are traveling with kids, you might want to check out the exhibit before taking them through – one of our children stayed back as he was uncomfortable because of some bloody scenes depicted along the way.  At the end of the exhibit there is a fun Viking dress-up area where we spent some time re-enacting Iceland’s history.

We spent the remainder of the day strolling through the streets of Reykjavik and made our way to the impressive Hallgrimskirkja Church, which you should not miss!  Both the exterior and interior architecture are incredible. Make sure to visit the church’s tower for terrific views of the city.

For our last night, we treated the family to dinner at Fish Market.  The food was amazing!

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