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Published: November 30th 2015
Six friends (Chuck and Leila, Chris and Sarah, Jason and Holly) from Wisconsin decided to travel to Iceland together in November. One friend (Chris) asked the seemingly obvious question "Why would we want to go to Iceland in November?". Well, why not?!
In all reality though, Iceland has a very mild climate despite edging the Arctic Circle. Typically speaking the weather is milder in Iceland than in the Northern United States, say November through February. However, Iceland is nestled oh so nicely between the Arctic Circle as well as the Gulf Stream. The result can be not so nice of weather, like when our group of six friends traveled there November of 2015. Windy, wet, and cold for much of our time there. It's all part of the Icelandic adventure, so we put on our winter gear, embarked, and enjoyed as much and as best as we could.
The first day was tough! We left home the previous night at probably 6:30pm (plane was a bit late) and arrived to Iceland six hours later. With the time change that put us wheels down in Iceland at roughly 6:30 in the morning.
Next up (after immigration, baggage, customs, and making way through airport) was an hour bus ride to Reykjavik and then to our hotel; Hotel Cabin. The hotel was at full occupancy, it was maybe 8:30 in the morning, we were dog tired, and no rooms were yet available. We pile into the cafeteria and hope and wait for rooms to open soon; "maybe" 10 o'clock is what we were told. Thankfully 10 o'clock was a realistic and reliable estimated check-in time. Got the keys, grabbed the bags, and hit the beds in hopes of a nap before we ventured off to ride the Icelandic Ponies in less then three hours.
On a sidebar, Hotel Cabin is an economy hotel. The keyword here is ECONOMY! We all agreed that these were the absolute most smallest hotel rooms any of us had ever experienced. Sarah said it best when she described them as cozy, that's right, cozy. Cozy is about the best and most optimistic word to describe the rooms at Hotel Cabin. It must be added that we stayed in the basic or standard rooms. Bigger and better rooms are available there, but really the point
of traveling is not to stare at a hotel room wall. The point is to get out of the hotel room and go explore, adventure, and enjoy. So that's what we sought to do; back to riding ponies...
Less than three hours later we were all in the hotel lobby waiting for the bus to bring us to go horseback riding in the Icelandic countryside, which consists primarily of lava fields; although a bit stark it is equally uniquely beautiful. We went to Ishestar Riding Center for our horse riding tour, located outside of Reykjavik and surrounded by lava fields. Cold weather coveralls were available, which some of us happily accepted, while others declined and regretted later (I was among the latter, stupid gringa). Wisconsin has experienced an unusually warm fall, in fact when we left for Iceland the temps were in the 50s. When we arrived to Iceland it was in the 20s, blustery, and well just plain cold! Once we climbed, or were heaved, up onto the horses and had sat atop a horse in the blustery cold for a length of time, well it got to be a bit chilly, no FREEZING
30% of Icelanders believe in elves
(made with caraway)
is much more fitting! Really, fingers and toes had lost all feeling about half way through our tour. Layers, liners, and mittens! We all totally know this. We are from the Northland after all. We know cold. We are winter tough! Not this time, kids! It was cold!!! Insert excuses, reasoning, and justification...now! As already mentioned, we've had an unusually warm fall and therefore we have not had time to become accustomed and acclimated to winter weather, so there. And, JETLAG, this is a really real condition that can render one stupefied, funkified, dumbified, and numbified. Trust me, it happened and therefore the cold winter weather penetrated all the more, so there. Hmm, what else? Nope, that's it, that's all we have. On the upside, even with the bone penetrating cold conditions that left me shivering and stuttering, the ride was good! The countryside was beautiful in it's own way and on its own terms; rugged, stark, jagged, demanding of attention and respect, kind of omnipresent and surreal. Although the air was (once again) cold, it was fresh, crisp, clean, and refreshing. The horses, well they were Icelandic Ponies, they are built for their environment. They are stocky and graceful
all in one; friendly, fun, firm, and admirable. They are sure footed, well usually. Funny, the first time I went horseback riding in Iceland my tour ended with a girl screaming and spooking all of the horses on the tour causing some of them to stop on a dime, some of them to scurry, and the one a friend was riding to somersault across a lava field (oops and ouch). This time around, the tour began with instructions not to scream, yell, or make any load and sudden noises. He, he, he..I know why! Our horse riding tour ended happily quietly this time around, albeit with frozen digits. We were unprepared, tired, cold, weary. But, it did us good to get out, get refreshed, and enjoy our first day in Iceland, Icelandic style!
And then? FOOD!!!! It was time to eat and eat we did (like royalty for the next five days). We asked the hotel receptionist to recommend a good local place serving traditional Icelandic dishes. Lauga-'as was the place. This place has been dishing up traditional Icelandic plates of goodness since 1979 and they know what they are doing. Everything they do, they
do it exceptionally well! Lobster bisque; to die for! Hey, guess what? We got the ingredient list. Tee he he he he! Focus on the food at the place; got it. Lamb, whale, seal, salmon, sugar glazed potatoes, root veggies, chocolates, asperger soup. Wait, what? Asperger? Asperger...soup? To which the waitress replies with a "duh" expression, "yes, asperger". Wait, what, asperger? Huh, asperger...soup. Ok then, dish it up. Ohhhhhhh. It's Asparagus! Ha!! That's funny. Gotta love linguistics! Really though, this place, the food, will knock your socks off! Prices are worth bragging about in a European country, too. Not too shabby. And so we returned the next two nights. Yummy!
After a couple of days with lacking sleep we all agreed an early bedtime and a full nights rest was much needed. With that, Chuck and Leila were wide awake at 11pm, doh! And so, Chuck and Leila went downtown for drinks. First up was an English Pub that was too crowded to barely even get in the door. Next up was the American Bar; cool place. There we met an Irishman who was our new best friend forever, instantly. Really, he's lived in Chicago,
spent his honeymoon in the Wisconsin Dells, and covered the impacts of immigration worldwide from colonialism though to the present day (in about 5 minutes). Great live acoustical musician singing everything from Elvis to Johnny Cash to the Beatles to Icelandic. After several smiling interruptions by our talkative Irish friend we decided to see what else the downtown area had to offer. We had one more drink down the block and made our way to find a cab home. Along the way we saw that Cafe Paris has eggs for breakfast; the Americans will return.
The next day we had the Northern Lights by boat scheduled. However, that morning we awoke to low thick clouds, blowing snow, sleet, and rain. Forecast for viewing the northern lights was not very promising. No need to fret and dwell on the uncontrollable and inevitable. We're in Iceland, it was time to do Icelandic stuff. Like over easy eggs for example. We set off for Cafe Paris. Nope, over easy eggs were not Icelandic, at least not at the Cafe Paris. Over easy eggs are seemingly purely American! Every place we've traveled outside of the United States cannot cook
an egg over easy to save a life. It's really baffling. But it's ok, the potatoes were awesome and it's all part of the Icelandic experience!
After breakfast we walked to Hallgrimskirkja Church. This church was constructed beginning in 1945 as a national monument in honor of the Icelandic poet Hallgrinur Peterson - the Church of Hallgrimur. This church usually has local artwork on display, while we were there artwork by Helgi Thorgils Fridjonsson titled "Five Crucifixions, Clouds, and Marble" was on display. The church also has two pipe organs, one of which is massive standing 15 meters tall or nearly 50 feet, weighing 25 tons, and featuring 5275 pipes. Stained glass panels in the church portray storylines from Hallgrimur Peturssons Hymns of the Passion and traditional symbols for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Visitors to the church can take the elevator to the top of the clock tower and belfry for an incredible birds-eye view of Reykjavik. From the church we went to the Pearl, a dome topped restaurant that sits on top of geothermal water storage tanks for the city of Reykjavik. The top floor is a revolving restaurant that
takes two hours to turn in a complete circle offering great views of the city. The day we visited the restaurant was closed for a private party so we visited the year-round Christmas store and were on our way to Lauga'as again for another great supper.
We got back to our hotel to find out that our evening boat tour to view the northern lights was cancelled due to current weather conditions. We pretty much figured that would happen with the clouds, wind, snow, sleet, and rain. So we set off for a night on the town. We started out at the American Bar, which had no music and so ended up at the English Pub down the block. Live music was scheduled to start soon so we grabbed a corner table, ordered drinks, and got comfy. The night turned into international night out. We yammered on and on for hours with people from across the globe. By the end of the night we were taking turns singing into straws like true wanna-be rock stars.
We slept through the breakfast hours at our hotel and so returned to Cafe Paris
for not so over easy eggs then walked across town to the National Museum of Iceland. The museum has three floors. The first floor features temporary exhibits displayed in the Photo Gallery. The second floor covers early Icelandic history from settlement through Danish Rule and offers another temporary exhibition space in the Arc Hall. The third floor covers the time span from 1600 into the Modern Era. This is a truly impressive museum with endless interpretation to absorb and objects to admire. I only wish I had more time to take it all in, but there was more to be done.
With a bit of time to spare before our pick-up to the Blue Lagoon, I decided to take a short walk. Our hotel was a block away from the coast, along which there is a nice paved walking path. On this walk I came across a historic home on a hill overlooking the coast. It turns out this, Hofthi House, is the place where Reagan and Gorbachev met to negotiate the end of the Cold War. The house is owned by the city of Reykjavik and used for official receptions and for visiting heads
On my way back to our hotel I noticed a bus out front and thought "oh crap, I'm late for the Blue Lagoon" and sprinted the rest of the way back, checked in with the driver, asked the front desk to call our rooms, ran up to get a bag, and we were on our way. We arrived to the Blue Lagoon at sunset. by the time we got changed and made our way out to the lagoon it was very much dark out making for a very unique visit. The air was crisp and the steam was rising from the water making everything barely visible and quite a bit mystical. We rubbed mud on our faces and waited for it to dry up and fall off in the meantime looking like half drowned aboriginals. We wandered a bit and enjoyed mini glasses of sparkling wine until the skin on all of our digits wrinkled up like raisins. It was fun and all the more refreshing.
We made our way to the parking lot for the 7:15 bus. The 7:15 bus is full. While waiting for the 8:15
bus (we were told by the driver that buses return to Reykjavik at 15 minutes after every hour) an employee of the Blue Lagoon asked if we were waiting for a private driver. We answered that we were waiting for the next bus. Apparently there is no 8:15 bus and the next bus isn't until 9:15 - wait, what? Yep, no 8:15 bus. But the driver told us 15 minutes after every (key word - EVERY) hour. Nope, sorry, no 8:15 bus. Now what?! Sure don't want to sit staring at a parking lot for 2 hours. Time to call a cab. On our way back into Reykjavik the taxi driver recommends the restaurant Kol for supper.
Kol Restaurant was very cool and contributed deliciously to our new Icelandic tradition of feasting like royalty. The atmosphere was upbeat and the style a sort of retro meets shabby chic; fun! And the food, seriously yummy. Foie gras, seafood platter, charred salmon, lobster, wolffish, braised ox brisket, and signature drinks made with birch bark booze. Seriously yummy stuff.
Our last full day was spent on the Golden Circle bus tour. The first
stop was at Thingvellir national historic site, where the worlds oldest parliament (althing) first assembled in 930 CE. Thingvellir translates to parliament plains and this is where Icelandic parliament assembled almost until the end of the 18th century. The park itself has an overlook points to view the area and trails to a waterfall where criminal trials were once held and across the river to the church and longhouse. It is at Thingvellir too, that the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are actively pulling apart. With only an hour at this site there was not nearly enough time to take it all in. Back on the bus, there's more to see. Our next stop was at Fritheimar greenhouse, where tomatoes are grown in and for Iceland. We stayed here almost enough time for our tomato soup to cool enough to eat. Back on the bus, there's more to see. Next up was Geyser, although Geyser is no longer an active geyser, so now you see another geyser there, Stroker Geyser, which we saw. This stop was also very proud of an Icelandic form of ancient combative folk wrestling with statues inside and out, magnets, stickers, stamps, all paying homage to
the wrestling wrestlers. Here we had lots of time to wander around (wink, wink - this is a place to spend money). Now back on the bus, there's more to see. Our last stop was at Gullfoss waterfall on the River Hvita originating from the glacier Langjokull. Here too we had more than enough time to wander about. Here too there was a souvenir shop. Back to the bus to return to Reykjavik.
For our last supper in Reykjavik we went to Tapas Barinn where, guess what? We feasted like royalty, again. Tapas is Spanish (from Spain, Spanish) for appetizers or finger foods or small taste-size portions of goodness. There was more foie gras, sea trout, more salmon, paella, more whale, lamb, prawns, puffin, and chocolate mouse, white chocolate cheesecake, and chocolate cake; oh my. What was really cool about this place was the fusion of Spanish and Icelandic traditions and dishes. I'm telling ya, in Iceland you remember or come to realize that food was meant to be indulged upon.
Our last day in Iceland was Sunday and the Packers were playing and the American Bar features NFL football.
Our group of Wisconsinites made our way to watch the game at the American Bar before calling it a night.
Overall it was a great trip. There were difficulties, but then again there always are. Get over it and enjoy. As Holly would say, "put on your big kid pants". Oh yeah, I still need to add in some random nonsense. Lacking segway. Squirrel!
While traveling we almost always encounter random yet memorable things. For instance, hradahindrun means speed bump or literally, speed delayer. We know this because another random bit of relatively useless information is that different countries have different words for "speed bump". In Mexico they are "topes". In Peru they are "rompe muelles" or broken docks. In Guatemala they are "tumulos". In Iceland "hrathahindrun". Which results in us asking all taxi drivers to pronounce "hrathahindrun" very slowly. Obviously one taxi driver wittingly and very matter-of-factly had to ask us "why would you want to learn Icelandic???". Good question. We will just answer with this - eyjafjallajokull (Islands Mountains Glacier).
We mustn't forget about the vouchers. Our travel documents included many vouchers to
be handed in to bus drivers and at tour sites. We all found humor in discovering proper voucher etiquette. Bring the vouchers, change vouchers for tickets, hand in tickets, hold on to vouchers, hand in vouchers. Our theory was that Iceland has no timber because it was used to make all of the vouchers and tickets. And the buses. Get on bus, get off bus, get on new bus, and then you go. Better than driving around Reykjavik for hours on end stopping at endless hotels. Although maybe a bit redundant and convoluted, it made sense to have a central hub. Besides, it was all part of the Icelandic adventure. I'd do it again in an instant. Takk and skol!
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