Reykjavik, Iceland 2004

El and I at Blue Lagoon. The power plant in the background.

This is another trip that El and I took before we were taking any notes or keeping any travel journals. I will do my best to recall the trip as best I can and give as much detail as I can for being five years from when we went. It was a short trip (and that was plenty enough). In the winter of 2004, I was doing some vacation research and much to our surprise found that a trip to Iceland in the beginning of March would be a) cheaper than going to Florida b) closer than going to London and c) warmer than NYC. I only knew of one person who had gone to Iceland for a vacation and he heartily recommended the experience. And without much more prodding, we booked the trip that was "on sale" through the travel company $328 for R/T flight from Boston and three nights hotel at a Radisson in Reykjavik. How could that be bad?

Well, as I did my research about the place we were going to visit, one thing kept coming expensive it is. One person said it best when they wrote "imagine the most expensive place to double it!" That pretty much covered it. I think if we spent more than 3 days there I would have gone broke for sure. The other adjective that recurred was "bizarre". I couldn't agree more.

March 2, 2004

We took a night flight from Boston to Keflavik which is the only major airport in the country. All international flights arrive and depart from Keflavik which is about 45 minutes outside of the the city of Reykjavik. Our plane arrived in the morning- somewhere around 6:30ish. It was cold, but not frigid, and still dark. Basically there are shuttle buses staged as you exit the airport to take you into the city. It seemed like everyone got on a bus no matter where they were staying and took the bus to the terminal. I don't remember any car rental places at the airport, but I didn't pay attention. We eventually got to our hotel, checked-in and took to our room to rest before getting out to explore the area of the hotel which was on the outskirts of the city. After our nap, our first stop was the public baths that we had read so much about. Public bathing in hot spring pools is the national pastime in Iceland and EVERYONE does it either in the morning before work or after work/school, or maybe both. But it's a big deal there. We asked at the front desk of the hotel for the nearest baths which were pretty close and certainly within walking distance. We grabbed our gear and made the trek. The walk itself was a little tough as it was tremendously windy as we made our way down the hill. We had quite a laugh at the sheer strength of this wind, so much so that in retrospect I am amazed neither of us were toppled by the gusts, although that would surely have just made it an even more comedic moment. As we made it to the baths we could see that we were a little way off from the city center. Whatever time it was, the schools were letting out and the baths were quickly overrun by school kids (presumably from the school across the street). Now, from the guidebooks, I learned about the national pastime of communal bathing in hot springs and more importantly about the body washing ritual that takes place prior to any bathing. Having virtually zero public bathing experience I did everything I could to understand this process to avoid making an international social faux-pas. We registered at the baths and El went her way and I headed to the bench in front of the men’s locker room. As I sat to remove my shoes, the reality hit me that, although I know the basics (shower before entering pool), I am unclear on the particular sequence of events. I decide to wait for the next patron to arrive and figure I will follow him and just do whatever he does. Now, I do know there is a fine line between being a stealthy observer and lewd and I wanted to avoid anything that would make this situation any more awkward. The plan starts to work as a gentleman arrives with his gym bag and sits on the bench to remove his shoes. Since my shoes are already off, I take this opportunity to “inspect” my shoe laces. He gets up, so I bundle my items and head off behind him. He chooses a locker a few rows into the room, so I choose a locker in the same vicinity. Not too close- but randomly close. The inside of the locker door reveals all of the strict rules of the baths written in Icelandic. It also has a stick figure with some appropriately placed red circles to depict the areas of the body that are required to be washed in the shower before entering the pool. At this point, I am thinking how clever my plan is. He pulls his towel out of his gym bag and sets it on the bench, so I too roll up and set my towel on the bench. He removes his jewelry and shirt and places them in the locker, so I do the same. At this point, I cannot see the shower area, but I do hear activity in other parts of the large room. He continues to undress, removing socks and trousers, so I follow. At this point I would like to point out that I am not very comfortable with the idea of public nudity even though everyone in the room seems to be unphased including all of the naked school kids running around unsupervised. The thought of stripping naked and walking through the room makes me nervous, but I know I’ll get through this. The gentleman then removes his briefs, puts everything in his locker except for his trunks and towel and shuts the locker door. I quickly do the same figuring we will be off to the showers immediately. I stand naked in front of my trunks and towel ready to make the move, ready to follow my unsuspecting teacher. Just as we both grab our gear, from around the corner a discussion begins with a man who appears to be gentleman’s friend! As the two engage in conversation he sets his burden back on the bench!! I stand there for a few seconds, mortified that if I stand too long it will become obvious that I am waiting for something and that line between stealthy and blatant will become painfully clear. I make a split second decision to abort the plan. I grab my things and start to walk towards the noises in the room leaving my mentor. I get to the end of the lockers and turn the corner to see the shower area and make my way directly. All I can think about is getting through this slightly embarrassing moment as I walk naked through the room. I get into the shower and follow the stick figure rules for washing. I learn from watching the others that you wash, then put on trunks, and exit directly into the pool area. I realize that I still have my towel which will now accompany me to the pool, but that’s a small price to pay to have put this episode behind me. There were cubby holes located at the doors by the entrance to the locker room from the pool, but I did not see them until I was returning from the bath. I meet El in the pool, who joked how worried she had been since what had taken me fifteen minutes (and seemed like an eternity), took her only five. As we get settled and look around It becomes obvious that this is THE social place. You figure that these people bathe with the same people from their same town every day, so basically everyone knows each other and it feels like you are crashing a town picnic. As El and I sat in the corner of the pool, not really interacting with anyone, we were commenting on the whole different experience of soaking in a hot water pool that was hot like a Jacuzzi, yet the uncovered pool leaves the head and shoulders (depending on the depth of the step you are sitting on) exposed to the elements, which was windy, but then turned to freezing rain, then moments later is a cloudless sky. I have no proof, but I expect the phrase "if you don't like our weather, wait five minutes" could very well have originated here. The pool is so warm that you don't do much swimming or splashing around, you just sit and relax for as long as you want. At some point we did decide that we had had our fill and with perfectly frozen hair and hyperthermic bodies we wrap in our towels and head inside to shower and dress.

El amongst a "bizarre" landscape

Since we were only in Iceland for three nights and I had made reservations at two different restaurants, we split them up, one tonight and one the third night. The first restaurant we eat at is called Perlan (The Pearl) which is an attraction in itself. The restaurant itself is built on top of a series of giant hot water tanks that supply Reykjavik. It is located on Oskjuhlid Hill and is a giant glass dome. The top floor revolves and take 2 hours to make a single revolution. We got a seat on the outer edge of the floor so we could take advantage of the panoramic views. The meal was very good and very expensive (even by Iceland's standards). After dinner while waiting for a taxi to take us back to the hotel we chat with the doorman who comments on the extreme windiness they have been experiencing. He tells us that the gusts are not typical and not to expect them after tonight. He also tells us that Reykjavik has not had a significant snowfall in more than six years! I like the sound of that. We have booked the Golden Circle Tour for the next day and need to get back to the hotel as we have to be up to meet the bus in the morning.

March 3, 2004

We get up and have breakfast in the hotel. Today is our Golden Circle Tour. I guess most tourist itineraries are pretty similar so there are a few tour companies that offer standard packages to simplify everything. There are some excursions like whale watching or glacier hiking, but with our limited time in the country and our lack of interest in hiking (or whale watching), we went with the right package for us. There are expeditions for people who are far to the end of the adventure spectrum. They can sign up for things like white water rafting or "superjeeping" which is where they convert a 4x4 Jeep and put monster tires on it so they can withstand driving on the lava terrain. I understand this is done mostly in the interior of the country, but the access roads to the interior are so difficult to navigate and the area so remote that the interior is actually closed for many months of the year because emergency crews would not be able to police the area. We were having none of that anyway and again went with the standard Golden Circle Tour which worked out perfectly. Our first stop was an extinct volcanic crater. As we were driving to the site, the driver gave us fun facts about Iceland and pointed out natural features. The first thing you notice is that there are no trees, no shrubs, no grass, and no dirt/clay to hold the roots of any of them. Just some moss on the volcanic landscape. It looks bizarre and not-of-this-earth. We stop at the crater and get the lowdown on it (age, last eruption, all the pertinent and useless-the-minute-you-leave facts). Our next stop is Gulfloss Falls. Iceland's answer to Niagara Falls. I understand it is very beautiful in the winter when the falls actually freeze. When we were there in March, the water was flowing, but you could see that it was just thawing and would rage harder in a few months.

El at Gulfloss Falls

The next stop we made was to a commercial greenhouse. Iceland has a lot of greenhouses that produce tremendous fruits and vegetables year round. The problem of course, is that even a commercial greenhouse isn't really that big, so you are sure to pay a premium for the quality food they produce, which is ironic because you can pay less money for food items that are imported or more money for the better local produce. Either way it's expensive. We get a quick tour of the greenhouse, but it is obvious that they really want us to hang in the gift shop for a little while. This lets us stock up on trinkets (and postcards) and use the restroom while the bus driver gets a snack for bringing his tour in. The next stop is the town of Geisyr. With the amount of geothermal energy in this country, it is inevitable that some steam is going to be blown off somewhere. Well, the phenomenon known as geysers are named for the town of Geisyr, Iceland. There is a field that has a walking path built though it where you can see continuously bubbling clay pits that are only the size of a wine cask and as you move on you get to see the attraction that is exactly what I expect Old faithful looks and acts like. An explanation card at the site said that this town used to be the site of the world largest geyser, but that it was "broken" by an earthquake some years ago. There is still a significant spouter, but I do not recall the relationship to the other major geysers like Old Faithful. With a significant dormant period of about 20 minutes between plumes, there's not much to do except sit on the bench and wait for the next 15 second eruption. After one cycle you get the idea.

in the town of Geysir

a geysir doing its thing

This spot too has an eatery and we ate lunch after we saw the plume and while we waited for others to get their photo opportunity. We made a quick stop at an old church that was seemingly in the middle of nowhere (then again everything seemed that way). There were some of historical significance having to do with the first settlers of Iceland and possibly texts from those settlers, but I do not recall those particulars. I took one picture of a stained glass window, but that was all. We continued to get bits of Icelandic history and fun facts as we drove to our next destination. Iceland did not have a television broadcast until 1966 or that Icelanders are so protective of the keeping their language pure that they do not borrow words from other languages, so when they needed to come up with a word for "telephone" they used the Icelandic words for "talking wire". Before we knew it, we were at Thingvellir. They pointed out the site of Althing, the first parliament that was set up in the year 930 A.D. The parliament has since moved to Reykjavik center but the first was set up here so as to be central to the original 36 settlements of the country. Then the group disembarked and did a little hiking around Thingvellir which is one of the the few spots on earth where you can stand on and view a rift valley. Geologically speaking, this where two tectonic plates (North American and European) are diverging and as the earth separates between the two plates, new earth is created from below. I actually find this concept fascinating and as you look across this span of earth you can see what the cross section of a tectonic plate looks like as we hiked up next to one. The rift is sizable, I suppose a mile or so, and the rate of growth is something small, like 2mm per year, it has taken millions of years to create this valley, but it is still, again geologically speaking, very young earth.

a rainbow in the rift valley



At Thingvellir. on the left you see an actual tectonic plate from the side.

We hiked up to a plateau and got some great pictures before descending back to the bus. That was the end of the sites in the program, so the bus made its way back to the center of Reykjavik and let everyone off in the center of town. El and I took advantage of the drop spot to go to a tourist office and get some information including bus maps. It was around dusk and we tooled around the city center for a little while. There was a night club that we had heard a lot of good things about in the guidebooks and from travelers accounts called Gaukur a Stong that I was anxious to check out. We found it, but it seemed more like a late night live band venue than a bar where we could just grab a beer. The evening cover was the equivalent of US$20 each and in general beers started at US$10 for a pint. Imports were more expensive. The local beer was Thule, which was not the best, nor the worst. It was workable. It is said that a typical night club outing for the Icelanders is to get drunk at home on Brennivn (potato schnapps flavored with caraway- also known as Black Death) then they go out and nurse one expensive pint of beer all night. I don't know why I don't remember having the Brennivn, but it doesn't sound very good on any level. We tooled around the city center for the evening and eventually caught a bus back to the hotel to get our game plan for the next day.

March 4, 2004

We were decidedly low on things we wanted to see in the greater Reykjavik area and with the exception of dinner reservations on our last evening in town, we kind of planned to play everything by ear. We dressed as accordingly as we could for the unknown weather. During our planning stages of the days' things to do, El suggests a walk through the cemetery. Yes, the cemetery. I wasn't really into that idea much, but didn't put up a fight considering the fact that she didn't put one up when going to places I wanted to see. We take the bus into the city center and walk towards the cemetery. We get an up close look at the houses as we walk. Interestingly, with Iceland's lack of trees and wood in general, the houses are made out of cement and they all have metal siding that are painted very robust colors. Then when they want to change the color, they just take down the old siding and put up new siding. It makes for a colorful and vibrant neighborhood walk. We find the cemetery and as we started to walk through it was obvious that the site is kept up by a maintenance crew making sure that the walkways are kept clear of debris and and that the grounds are pleasant to stroll through. Mainly the cemetery is made up of family plots which are all made out of concrete. Think of a grave dug in a 10ft. x 6ft. rectangle outlined by a 2ft. wall then filled in with dirt with a headstone in the back. Then, every time a family member dies, they add the burial to the plot and add the name to the headstone. The names are pretty interesting since every persons last name begins with the fathers first name (patronymic) and ends with either "son" for son of, or "dottir" for daughter of. For example, if Thor has a son and a daughter and their names are Magnus and Bjork they would both have different last names as in Magnus Thorson and Bjork Thordottir. This makes for some interesting family trees that you can start to get a sense of through the headstones on the plots. It is also the reason that most, if not all, Icelanders can trace their genealogy back to the original settlers of the country. We didn't spend more than an hour or so and we spend the rest of the day walking around the city center. I had found a couple of CD stores to check out, but since everything is imported from elsewhere (mostly UK), the prices are just ridiculous ($40 for a regular CD). You would be better off buying it as an import at home and not have to lug your purchases around. Luckily, I didn't see anything that I just had to have. In addition to the CD shops, El also wanted to check out some knitting shops to get some wool or a sweater. (I understand that the wool was comparably priced to the CD's, even though the wool doesn't need to be imported). While walking through the shopping district, we did manage to see what is Reykjavik's most recognizable landmark which is Hallgrimskirkja church. It is a church that has an interesting design and looks like cascading water.

Hallgrimskirkja church

It sits at the top of a street, so we took some pictures as we strolled through the area. We did not feel a need to go inside. Again, the weather was on and off all day. It would rain, then be sunny, then get cloudy, then sunny again, repeat. We would walk around and as soon as the weather became inclement, we would duck into the closest cafe or pub or store. I don't remember many of the specific places we ate, drank, or sipped at, but we did include a stop at a popular cafe called Kaffeebarinn. It is co-owned by Damon Albarn (of Blur) and is said to be Bjork's favorite hang spot. We saw evidence of neither while we were there. We just drank a few $4 coffees and mapped out our next stop while we waited for the weather to clear and when it did, we high-tailed it out of there. At some point we knew we had to call it a day and get back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner. We did make a pit stop at an adult bookstore...well, not inside, just to the window to get a few pictures. The story behind this is that you know how different countries have different internet domain suffixes? Japan is .JP, Germany is .DE, and Iceland is .IS. With that said, the adult store's internet address is WWW.PEN.IS, boy did we get a laugh over that. After that, we headed back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We caught the bus back to the city center and went to a very fine meal at the Holt House. Unfortunately, we don't have any notes on our meal, but it was very good, and very expensive. After dinner we head back to the hotel to get ready to leave the next morning.

March 5, 2004

If there is one attraction that you hear a lot about in Iceland, it's the place known as Blue Lagoon. Remember I said that there were shuttle buses staged at the airport upon our arrival? That was because all incoming planes are scheduled to arrive around the same time and conversely outgoing planes are scheduled for afternoon departures. Everyone takes the buses from Reykjavik to Keflavik airport to leave the country. The Blue Lagoon is located much closer to the airport than the city, so you can sign up for a shuttle to go direct from city to airport, or for a few dollars more, you can leave four hours earlier and make a stop at the Blue Lagoon where the bus waits for you and then continues on to the airport afterwards. Being the last attraction we thought we should experience, we signed up for the early leave and had our time at Blue Lagoon. Before we leave there is one more thing we need to do. When one of our friends heard we were going to Iceland he wanted us to pick up something for him. It was something called hakarl. Basically, hakarl is putrified shark meat. They catch the shark which, when fresh, is toxic. So, they hang the meat out to rot until the toxin level is reduced. Then they eat it. If you know either of us, you know that wasn't anything we were going to try, but our culinarily adventurous friend said he wanted to try it, so El and I head out to a local supermarket to get some...vacuum packed. El likes markets about as much as I like browsing through record shops and she could spend an hour just walking around. We were on a schedule, so we didn't stay too long after getting our goods. We took a taxi to the bus terminal to head off to the airport with the stop at Blue Lagoon.

El with the milky white water of the Blue Lagoon

relaxing in the Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon water

The explanation of this place that it is situated in the middle of a lava field and that the water in the lagoon is actually the waste water from a power plant that generates energy by heating sea water by passing it through molten lava. The direct runoff is close to 200 degrees, but the swimming area is closer to 100, which is plenty warm. The water is rich in minerals which gives it the color of milk. It is opaque and when putting your hand just an inch under the surface it disappears. The floor is silt covered and very soft. All of the same bathing rules apply as all other public baths, but by this time, I am a champ at the bathing steps and had much less issue this time. There is a restaurant and a gift shop and by the time the bus was ready to leave we felt we were ready. The bus continues us on to the airport where we catch our flight and make it back to Boston.

In conclusion, Iceland was a very interesting trip. I think we talk about that trip more than almost any other we have taken. Since then, the most frequent question I get asked is if I would recommend going there. I think the trip certainly had some good, fun parts to it, but looking back I guess it all depends on your ability to find stuff to do. I suppose some would want to spend more time in the pools and less time in the cafes, but that's what we like to do. I have since spoken to the one person who recommended the trip to us and it turns out he spent more time driving to the north side of the country and spent time above the Arctic Circle and very much enjoyed the more adventurous side of the trip. I maintain that I am much more interested in walking through a city than hiking a glacier or driving through farm country. The cost of everything and not just luxuries just made it ridiculous, for us, to think about spending more time there. $10 for a beer! I would nurse it too. I would rather go to a country with $.30 beer and drink all day. Sadly, that fact overshadows much of the good things we found. I do believe we encountered exactly zero people who did not speak English (I even had a drunk, homeless guy switch languages mid-sentence when he realized I was unilingual, to ask me for money). The people were all superbly nice and genuine. So, I say, if you have the cash and the sense to handle a little of the unknown, go for it. Otherwise, Florida was just a little more expensive (to fly to), London was just a little farther, and NYC just a little colder.