Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Iceland: a beautiful cherry on the top of our trip

Iceland is amazing! I can't imagine a better place for the last stop of our trip. Although we only have four days here, and are just barely scratching the surface of what Iceland has to offer, the scratch that we've done has been pretty nice.

Our visit started out on a slightly stressful note though. We took a 10:30 PM flight from Frankfurt, which was scheduled to arrive around midnight local time (it's about a 3 1/2 hour flight and Iceland is two hours behind Western Europe), but the flight was delayed by about an hour and we didn't arrive until after 1 AM, and after taking the bus into Reykjavik it was almost 2 AM. We had scheduled to stay with a Polish couple through couchsurfing and we had their address and phone number, but it turns out we were dialing the wrong country code. We were using the SIM in our phone that we got in Greece so we didn't know that we had the wrong code, only that the phone number didn't work. After walking around for a while (even at 2 in the morning it wasn't even close to dark) we eventually found the apartment, but after ringing the bell and knocking on the door, nobody would answer! We didn't know what to do, but in the end decided to just "camp" in their yard. We unfurled our beach mat and sleeping bags and slept for a few hours in the back yard.  Around 8 AM we tried ringing the doorbell again and this time they answered. They're not sure why they didn't hear us the night before, but they welcomed us in the morning before heading off to work.

We spent the day exploring Reykjavik, which is a very cosmopolitan town, full of little cafes, restaurants, book stores and other little shops. We were lucky to have a beautiful blue sky day, with temperatures in the high 50s, low 60s. Here's the famous concrete church, called Hallgrimskirkja. We didn't get to climb it because it was busy with funerals, but it's quite a sight and because it's on a hill, it can be seen from all over town:
From Iceland
We also visited one of the many outdoor geothermal public pools. For a 360 kroner ($1.75 US) fee we soaked in a gigantic outdoor hot tub. These pools are everywhere and are centers of social life. Instead of going to a coffee shop (although they do that too) groups congregate and hang out soaking in hot water. It was quite fun.

Iceland has a reputation for being extremely expensive, but Iceland was hit especially hard by the recent financial crisis and their currency took a huge hit (thanks Financial Crisis!), so in dollar terms prices are half or less what they were two or three years ago. So, while Iceland is still not cheap (restaurants in particular are still quite costly), it is not at all prohibitively expensive. For example, we ended up renting a car for two days to do some touring and it cost 19,000 kroner (about $90 $145 US) for two days. This includes taxes and insurance! Update: I realized later I must have miscalculated the exchange, and it's actually $145 for the two days, which is on the high side, but still better than we could find on-line when doing research.

We also scored a free tent for out little excursion by just asking. We went into an outdoor store and inquired about renting a tent to do some camping and although they didn't rent tents they told us to check the hostel across the street. We went in there and asked and they said we could just have a tent! Some German tourists had bought it and didn't want to bring it home so left it at the hostel. We were surprised, but they just let us have it. It's not the best tent in the world, but it was more than sufficient. (See a picture of it in action.)

For our road-trip we toured around what's called the Golden Circle area, a loop of about 200 miles or so that visits some waterfalls, National Parks, hot springs and geysers. Here's a short video of a geyser called Strokkur. It erupts every five minutes or so. You can watch the water recede into it and then bubble up and explode. There were gangs of kids (heard screaming in the background) who would stand downwind from the geyser and get soaked by the water.
From Iceland
We tried to get some pictures of Eyjafjallajokull (no, I didn't fall on my keyboard, that's really how you spell it), the volcano that caused all the flight cancellations last month, but it was covered in clouds so we couldn't see any steam. We also saw plenty of huge waterfalls, including Gullfoss, which had a beautiful rainbow across it:
From Iceland
We've had a blast (no pun intended) touring around in our rental car. The scenery is just amazing. Iceland is very beautiful, and there is a lot to explore. It's a great time of year to visit Iceland since the sun doesn't set until almost 11 PM and then rises again at 3 AM which means it's never completely dark.

We now have about 24 hours left in Iceland (and on our trip). Tonight we hope to camp in a hot spring area and take a dip in some open-air geothermal swimming pools near Hveragerdi. Then tomorrow before our flight to Boston we're stopping at the Blue Lagoon, a famous spa/outdoor hot pool to do some last minute relaxation before getting back to the US.

We can't wait to see friends and family again, but it's sad that our trip is almost over. It's been 297 days since we left Seattle last August 15th. Iceland has been a great last stop, and I'd highly recommend it as a place to visit, especially now while the dollar is strong against the kroner. (And note to our Seattle friends, Iceland Air flies direct to Reykjavik from Seattle.)

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