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June 10th 2013
Published: October 24th 2013
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Iceland Road Trip

Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik, volcanoes, Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, Geysir

In April 2012 my friend Jason and I took a trip to Scandinavia (see "The Great Scandinavian Adventure"). Amazingly enough we found a flight to Stockholm for $578 on Iceland Air. We just had to change planes in Reykjavik. Not a big deal for a flight that cheap to Europe. While we were on the flights we watched Borat like three times each. But we also watched some videos about Iceland tourism that the airline had made. And you know what? Those videos worked. Iceland looked frikin' awesome. By the time we were back from Scandinavia we had already decided that we had to go to Iceland. And being so close to the US, we could manage to just go for a weekend and not have to make a huge trip out of it. From DC it's about the same distance as a flight to LA. And even cheaper!

My mom also wants to go to Iceland so she decides to join our adventure to the volcanic Island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. I find a flight to Reykjavik for $509 leaving Thursday night and returning Sunday night. It's a great deal, considering I can't even get to Vegas for $500 nonstop anymore. We choose mid October as the time to go. We want to go sometime that we can see the northern lights, but at the same time still have a considerable amount of daylight to see all the other natural wonders that Iceland has to offer. So October seems like a good time, giving us about 10 hours of daylight and a prime northern light viewing window.

The flight from Dulles takes just over five hours and we arrive around 6:30 AM on Friday morning. I've rented a car from Sixt, my preferred international car rental company, for a pretty good price. I like having the freedom of making my own schedule when I'm in Europe so I prefer to rent cars over organized tours. We're on the road just after 7:00 and it's still pitch black outside. The sun doesn't actually rise till around 8:00. We are about 200 miles south of the arctic circle. So yeah, we're pretty far up there.

As the sun rises over Iceland we are greeted with a volcanic landscape that looks like the surface of some other planet. The hills are covered with jagged black rocks that are the remains of volcanic activity from who knows how long ago. We are at the far southwest tip of the island, driving along the highway through the rocks until we reach the small town of Grindavik where we stop to get cash. Our next stop is Seltun Springs, a natural hot springs not too far from the town.

It's still early in the morning, and we're the only ones at the hot springs. The sulfur smell is overpowering. Shades of yellow and green and brown dominate the landscape. Boiling pots of mud bubble in the crevasses. I have seen something similar in northern California but my mom has never seen anything like this before. It's like a miniature Yellowstone. Smoke rises from the site. It's still freezing outside, but taking a dip in a boiling hot spring doesn't sound like a good idea.

After Seltun, we head up the road to another hot spring, one that is a nice 99 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. Perfect for swimming and relaxing in. It's called the Blue Lagoon, and it's internationally known (http://www.bluelagoon.com/). Nestled in the black volcanic rocks of southern Iceland, the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa is an oasis of turquoise water and luxury. The banks of the springs are a solid white color, creating a contrast against the rocks. There are some natural white mud pots that the locals say revitalizes the skin. Many people put it on their faces.

Admission to the lagoon is pricey, about $40 USD, but we didn't come all this way to skimp on 40 bucks. Mom doesn't want to swim so she just waits in the cafe, where you get a nice view of the lagoon but don't have to freeze (it's about 33 degrees outside). Jason and I pay our admission and head to the locker rooms. You're required to take a quick shower before entering the springs and after that we run outside and jump into the water as soon as we can, because you know, it's frikin' cold. The water feels glorious. It's the perfect temperature to relax in. It's not very deep so you have to kind of crouch down most of the time. Or stand up and feel the contrast between 99 degrees and 33 degrees. I chose to crouch down.

I've given my camera to mom to take some pictures. There's a spot where she can walk out to the banks of the lagoon. After posing for some photos Jason and I swim around the lagoon exploring all the nooks and crannies. Jason tried the mud on his face. I opt not to. Back near where we jumped in there is a little minibar selling Iceland's finest beers, Gull Lager and Viking Lager. It's just past 10 in the morning but seems like a perfect time for my first Icelandic beer! I order a Gull and Jason order's a Viking. I try some of the Viking and prefer the Gull. Jason prefers the Viking (Note: we had actually tried Icelandic beer at the Reykjavik airport on our way to Sweden in April 2012 but as it was in the airport it doesn't really count).

After enjoying our beer in the lagoon, and about 45 minutes after jumping in, it's time to move on. The Blue Lagoon is a must see destination in Iceland, especially since it's so close to the airport, but it doesn't require more than an hour unless you really want to soak in the waters and revitalize your skin. We depart the Blue Lagoon just as some giant tour buses are rolling up. Got out just in time! As a major tourist destination this place can get pretty crowded. My advice: be there at 10 AM when it opens. Beer tastes better in the mornings anyways.

From there it was time to drive the main highway east across the southern part of the island. We wanted to see the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (say that 3 times fast... wait, no just say it once). You might recognize that ridiculous concoction of letters from April of 2010, when the volcano erupted and sent ash flying all across mainland Europe, bring air traffic to a halt for weeks. So as one of the most famous volcanoes eruptions in the world we wanted to check it out.

On the way to the volcano we make a few stops, most notably at a huge waterfall right of Highway 1. We didn't know about this waterfall but it definitely merited a stop. The cool thing about this waterfall was that you could walk right behind it. By now it was a bit warmer but there was still ice everywhere and the mist from the waterfall was freezing. After hiking behind the waterfall and back we were back in the car heading to Eyja-aw-fuck-it.

It's not really a park or anything like that. Just a small volcano off the highway. A narrow dirt road leads to a spot near it's base. We drive as far as we can and hike the rest of the way to where the lava flow had been. We can tell where the lava had flowed due to the high concentration of volcanic rocks cutting through the grassy foothills. The top of the volcano had been blown off in the eruption, similar to Mount St. Helen's in Washington state. But even imagining the full size of the mountain, it was quite small. It's hard to believe a volcano so small in size could have caused such disruption to global air travel. Must have been one hell of an eruption to witness. I pick up a small piece of volcanic rock as a souvenir (shhhh) and we head back to the car.

The sun has set by the time we arrive in Reykjavik. We've rented a furnished one bedroom apartment for a surprisingly low price (http://www.welcome.is/). We're downtown, within walking distance of everything, and the room is pretty nice. We've picked up some beer, Gull and Viking (really your only options - there are a few other beers but they are terrible), for the night, but first we need to get some dinner. We wander around downtown for a bit and end up at a little restaurant near the apartment. Iceland is supposed to have the best lamb soup in the world and I deem it necessary to try as much lamb soup as I can this weekend. The soup is awesome (well, it's more of a stew, let's call is lamb stew) and I decide I will be eating a ton of lamb stew over the next couple days.

After dinner we head back to the apartment. We have a plan for tonight and it involves looking for the northern lights in a remote spot about 30 minutes outside of the city. The northern lights are one of the big draws for Icelandic tourism. They are most easily seen in the winter time, but if you come to Iceland during winter you get about 4-6 hours of daylight, depending on where you are on the island, so that makes it tough to see the sites that require daylight. We picked late October to go, as there was still about 10 hours of daylight and the northern lights become visible in late September. Seemed like the best of both worlds.

We drive out to the boundary of Thingvellir National Park and leave the city lights behind. We can see the light from the city off in the distance, but other than that it's completely pitch black, save the headlights of the cars and buses passing by. As we drive along the road we see some white light in the sky to our right. We're not sure what to make of it. It seems to move, so we assume it can't be from the city. But aren't the northern lights supposed to be colorful? All the pictures you see are blue and green and yellow, swirling in the sky. These appear to be lights in the sky, but it's more like a faint white streaks than swirling colors.

We see some tour buses (plenty of tours will take your money and put you on a bus to do the exact same thing we're doing for free plus the cost of gas) and park where they are, figuring they'd know the best places to see the lights. The faint white streaks are gone now, and it's just darkness. We hang around till about 11:30, drinking Gull and Viking, awaiting the lights. In all we spend about 2 hours outside the park, but all we see are the faint white streaks. We're not prepared to stay out here all night so we head back to the city. Mom is ready for bed and Jason and I need to get some drinking in to see what this Reykjavik nightlife is all about. Did we see the northern lights? We're not entirely sure. We have one more chance tomorrow night. Time for more beer.

Our first stop is the Lebowski Bar, a bar themed like the movie, with no shortage of pictures and screenshots from the movie all over the walls. After we leave the Lebowski bar we head down the main street searching for where to go next. A car full of young guys drives by and slows down to a crawl next to a group of young girls walking in front of us. They start hollering at the girls in Icelandic, motioning for them to get in the car and go party with them. Apparently this is how you pick up women in Iceland. But it doesn't work. The girls reject the guys and they drive on to find another group of girls to invite into their sketchy car with them.

In the next bar a cute blonde girl that speaks good English comes up to me and Jason. She tells me her friend thinks I'm cute and says i should go talk to her. I say "what is this, high school?" No, the girl is "married and her husband is out of town." I look over to the girl, an obese blonde girl dressed in an outfit that doesn't leave much to the imagination, and she is eye-fucking the crap out of me. Apparently cheating is also cool in Iceland. Maybe she should go find those guys in the car.... I tell her friend that I don't condone cheating, though I wouldn't have went over there regardless if she was married or not, and basically say thanks but no thanks. I tell Jason to chug his beer so we can get the hell out of this place before Big Bertha corners me. We make it out alive, crisis averted.

We hop in and out of a number of bars and before we know it it's after 3 AM and we're kind of tired. We didn't really sleep last night, since the flight was only 5 hours. It's been a long day. More things to see tomorrow. We stumble back to the apartment trying, unsuccessfully, to not wake up my mom. Don't have a whole lot of time to sleep though. We have another long day of sightseeing tomorrow. And with that I pass out.

Saturday morning we're up a bit earlier than Jason and I would like. Mom is fine, but she wasn't out drinking till 3 AM. We're driving northeast today, back to Thingvellir National Park (in the daylight) and eventually up to Geysir (yes, like a geyser - story to come). Thingvellir in daylight is a nice place, but not worth stopping for more than an hour. We do a short walk through a small canyon before moving on. Our next stop is the Gullfoss Waterfall, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. On the way there we see a huge glacier on the mountains in the distance. This is the closest I've even been to a glacier (I'll later get much closer in Alaska and Montana) so it's a pretty cool sight to see. It looks possible to hike out there, but also seems like a deceiving distance. Better stick to the waterfall.

Gullfoss is massive. There are two big drops and the water crashes down from tier to tier. Up close you can barely hear yourself think it's so loud. Ice crystals form the banks of the river. The grass is frozen over as well. A heavy mist rises from the crashing water below. A rainbow forms over the waterfall as we take pictures from a distance, making our view ever more awesome. We walk as far as we can and get really close to the waterfall. The path is icy. One slip and you could suffer a pretty horrible (and cold) death. Luckily there are railing to assist you in getting down to the edge of the waterfall.

There are a few viewpoints for the waterfall and we hike to each one. Before heading off we stop into the visitors center, which we've heard has a cafe with all you can eat lamb stew. After a few bowls of delicious, delicious stew we are back in the car heading west toward the town of Geysir. The town was named after the geysers that dominate the landscape. The English word "geyser" comes from the Icelandic word "geysa" which means "to gush." The Icelandic word is now "geysir" with an "i". The first time the word geyser was used to describe this geological feature was here. So in essence, these were the original geysers, the ones that spawned the current English word (now when you're at Yellowstone you can explain to all the tourists where the word comes from).

There are a number of geysers at Geysir, the most famous one being the one that is simply just called "Geysir." It used to have enormous eruptions, but has been dormant for a few years now. Right next to Geysir, however, is Strokkur, and it erupts about once ever 20 minutes. We are lucky enough to see Strokkur erupt twice back to back, about a minute apart. Geysirs have typical times they go off but the nature of the feature is that they are unpredictable. Even Old Faithful in Yellowstone doesn't go off exactly when they say it will ever 90 minutes. I get film of one of the Strokkur eruptions along with a number of pictures. There are a few other springs and geysers in the area, but Strokkur is the only one we see erupt. We walk around the steaming springs for a bit, check out the visitors center where I am fascinated by a giant stuffed polar bear that I want, and head off back to Reykjavik.

We take a different route back, but don't make any special stops. Every drive in Iceland is scenic, and I've made it a mission to drive as many roads as I can in our limited amount of time. Back in Reykjavik our Icelandic countryside site seeing is over. We have one more chance to see the northern lights tonight. Tomorrow we plan to explore the city of Reykjavik itself before we fly out since we haven't really seen any of it.

It's Saturday night and we head off to dinner for a true Icelandic dining experience. For that we head to Frakkar, a restaurant recommended by my Iceland travel book for authentic Icelandic cuisine. Before reading on, just take a look at this menu: http://3frakkar.com/index.php?page=menus. Let that sink in for a few minutes. Peppered whale steak! Horse tenderloin! Where am I? Frikin' Frakkar, that's where. A tiny restaurant off the beaten path, a decent walk from downtown. Now the question becomes, what the hell do I order!? I want to try everything. Mom decides to go with a fish meal but Jason and I want to get more exotic. Iceland is one of the only places in the world you can legally eat whale. Peppered whale steak: check. They have some chicken dishes, but who wants chicken when you can get Guillemot breasts, some random wild seabird? Wild Seabird "Guillemot" Breasts: check. But what about for an appetizer? We debate between the puffin and the shark. The menu says shark is an Icelandic specialty, so we decide to go with that (though who knows where else you can get puffin these days...). We'll share the whale and Guillemot main courses. Along with the shark, the waitress convinces us to get a shot of traditional Icelandic schnapps. Sure, why not?

Our excitement builds as we drink our beers, Jason, of course, with Viking and me with Gull. Everything the servers walk by with for the other tables looks amazing. Before the shark appetizer arrives the waitress brings us a complimentary appetizer of fresh Icelandic mussels, something not on the menu. She clearly has a thing for me... or maybe she feels bad for us for ordering the shark. A few minutes later she returns with out schnapps and shark. The shark is in a small cocktail glass and consists of small cubes of meat. Mom looks at it and says "you guys eat it." Maybe she was onto something, because the first bite of shark is something that can't be described with mere words. And not in a good way. It's salty, cold, and tough. I don't know why I thought shark would be good, but this is not. It's tough to say what it tastes like, because I've never tasted anything like this before. My taste buds are confused. Jason and I sip our schnapps (we were told to sip it, not take it like a shot) and grimace as the ice cold liquor goes down our throats. It's hard to say what tastes worse, the shark or the schnapps!

As unappealing as the taste of the shark is we power through the salty white cubes and leave the cocktail glass empty. I'll probably never eat shark again, but it is an experience I'm happy to have. We finish the schnapps as well, which tastes a bit better after ingesting all that shark. Mom looks pleased to have not experienced the shark. Whatever, when in Rome.... The mussels are excellent and we devour those quickly before our meals arrive. After the shark I'm a bit nervous to taste the whale, but my nerves are calmed by the look of the whale steak on the plate. It looks just like a normal steak. The Guillemot looks excellent too. Jason and I split the meats in half and share. Mom declines to try the whale or seabird as well. Her loss!

The first bite of the whale is like biting into the most tender piece of beef you've ever had. It's frikin' delicious. But it's not beef - it's whale! The seabird is dark meat, like duck, but even better. It's tender and juicy, and almost as good as the whale. I try to savor the foods. This is probably the last time I'll ever have whale unless I go back to Iceland. But it's hard to savor it since it's so good. I doubt there's a lot of meat on your average whale, since it's mostly fat, but the meat they do have is awesome. Completely satisfied with our dinner choices, we skip desert, pay the bill, and head back to the apartment.

I can't give more praise to Frakkar. If you are in Iceland this is the place to go. And if whale, shark, and seabird doesn't pique your interest, there are a number of other less exotic options as you see on the menu. The reviews on TripAdviser are excellent, meaning I'm not the only one that loved this place. And if you have been there, I am curious to know your take on the place. Let me know!

Back at the apartment, we grab some more beer and get ready to head off to our last northern lights searching expedition. We head to the same place as the night before and are greeted by a similar scene. Except this time the dreary faint white strip of light is on the other side of the road, facing away from the city. Our "is that the northern lights?" conversations begin again. This light is more mobile than the night before, though. The streaks come and go with no pattern at all. It gets brighter. Brighter! Then fades again, and soon the light is barely visible.

It's hard to say whether we saw the northern lights or not. We saw something. Some light in the sky streaking around and fading in and out. But it wasn't colorful like the pictures of the northern lights you see in magazines and internet blogs. The white light is so faint, in fact, that I can't even take a decent picture of it. Maybe if I had a big fancy camera, but my camera is not powerful enough to pick up dull white light in the dark, so I have to settle for my memory of the phenomenon, which is still pretty clear in my mind. But something was up there. Something I have never seen in the night sky anywhere else. The northern lights don't appear every night. And maybe what we saw was how they appear when not in full "bloom."

We decide we've seen the best that we're going to get and head back into the city just after 11. Jason and I still want to make it out to some more bars tonight. Our night is similar to the night before. We hop from bar to bar taking in the local scene. We actually enter a club offering cheap drinks and make an effort to chat up some locals, who basically tell us all the other stuff there is to do in Iceland in addition to what we already did. Guess we'll have to come back.

Sitting outside at a beer garden later I'm drinking a "das boot" of Gull with a group of random girls. Jason has wandered off on his own (he like to do this when he's drinking), so I try to make friends with these girls. Until one of them tells me she's 16. I mean I know we're not the the US anymore, but 16!? She says the drinking age is 18 but has a fake ID and goes out all the time. When Jason comes back I tell him it's time to leave. 16...

The next day we sleep in a bit longer and we're out of the apartment by 11. We grab brunch at a crowded breakfast place downtown and spend the next few hours wandering around downtown Reykjavik. The tallest building in town is the church clock tower. We go inside and ride the elevator to the top of the tower to get a view of the city. There are no skyscrapers in this city, and apart from the tower there are a few condo buildings that reach about 15 stories by the water. Other than those residential buildings nothing is really over 4-5 stories. The roofs of the houses and buildings downtown are very colorful, giving the city a bright and distinctive look. After the tower we head down to the docks and look around. If we had more time maybe we'd do a whale-watching tour (no I don't feel bad for eating one...) but we have a 4:00 flight back to DC so time is limited.

I make a few stops at some gift shops to see if I can find any authentic Viking clothing or outfits/hats. I do find some authentic armor. I'm thinking of being a viking for Halloween next weekend. But the price tag (converted to about $1500 USD) turns me off of the idea. Better just stick with Forest Gump again...

Finding a gas station to fill up the car near the airport is much harder than anticipated and we end up having to backtrack a few miles to a town we already passed to get some gas. I never know what gas costs when it's per liter, but filling up the tank is about $110. And this isn't a Hummer. This is a compact sedan, probably no more than a 12 gallon tank (I looked up the conversion when I got back and gas was about $10.50/gallon). It's funny listening to Americans who complain about our gas prices. Almost $4 a gallon! Yes, it's a huge increase from where it was 10 years ago. But we still have the cheapest gas of any civilized nation. If you want cheap gas, move to Venezuela. Or Saudi Arabia. They have cheap gas. Just don't be a woman. Kind of hard to spend money on gas when you're not allowed to drive...

Our long weekend in Iceland has been a great experience. From the natural sites to the northern light(ish) lights to the exotic cuisine, we gave Iceland everything we had in our limited amount of time. For anyone living in a city where Iceland Air flies to (www.icelandair.com), a trip to this isolated volcanic island is a worthwhile expedition. Especially from the east coast. If you find a nonstop flight from Dulles (DC) to Las Vegas or San Francisco for under $509 you let me know. For the same price and distance you can go to Iceland and experience a unique and exotic culture. And from nearly anywhere in Europe you can get there quite fast, especially Scandinavia. I have enjoyed my time in Iceland but it's time to head home. I've only got two weeks before I leave for Peru and the Inca Trail. See you there!

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