Sunday, February 28, 2016

The This and That of Iceland

28 February 2016 

Travelling in the winter was easier and more enjoyable than I expected it to be. Every morning getting dressed took a bit more thinking, but with a puffy coat and some long johns I was always comfortable.

The landscape was incredible, with about 130 volcanoes on an island the size of Ohio, it truly is the land of fire and ice. The country has only 300,000 inhabitants and 200,000 of them live in the capital of Reykjavik. With tourism gaining popularity in both summer (still the high season) and winter, Iceland is rising to the challenge of making sure people get a chance to see amazing things.

Throughout the week we were in awe of the SUVs jacked up with tall, super wide tires so they could cross through the rivers and climb across the glaciers that cover the interior. They made monster trucks in the US look like toy cars.
Fish was always on the menu and traditional food included dried cod, gravlax- a cured salmon, sheep's head, and most memorable, Hakarl, fermented shark meat. Hakarl is so smelly that it was served in a sealed jar so everyone else at dinner wouldn't lose their appetite. Once opened, the smell of ammonia just about singed the inside of my nose.

Hakarl is prepared by burying it in the ground and letting it rot for 6-12 weeks then fermenting in the air for 4 months. This process is to reduce the poisons in the fresh shark meat. At first it tasted like a mild pickled herring, but within seconds the taste turned into rotten cheese soaked in gasoline.

The only thing one can and should do to wash it out of your mouth is by drinking gulps of Brennivin, Icelandic schnapps with the endearing nickname of Black Death. Although it is absolutely terrible, since it is a local delicacy, you should always give it a try!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Golden Circle

27 February 2016
If there was one tour that would give you a sense of all the great things of Iceland, it's the Golden Circle. 325km of windy winding roads that take you to some spectacular sights. 
We started off stoping at Thingvellir where the north American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling, ever so slowly apart. The water in the rift is crystal clear and the lake it leads to is suppose to be one of the best dive spots in Iceland.
 In between groups of tour buses, the valley is quiet and very beautiful. The rift is making walls of lava rock that you can hike between and the surrounding mountains and volcano's make for a dramatic background.
 Next stop on the road is Geysir. While waiting the 10 minutes for water to shoot up, there was plenty of entertainment watching slip and slide on the sheet of ice covering the ground from the geyser spray. The ground went from ice to boiling water in just a few steps.
 All along the road were farms of Icelandic ponies. As soon as we stopped they all ran to the fence for scratches and pets. The ponies were so wooly and stout that they didn't even notice the brisk wind that chased us back into the car.
 The last main attraction on the road is Gullfoss, a massive step down waterfall (the largest in Iceland) that thunders down a narrow gorge.
After multiple stops and short hikes out into the wind we made one last stop. Because of all the geothermal energy coming out of the ground they can grow tomatoes on greenhouses all year round. Each plant lasts for 9 months and these greenhouses produce 80% of the tomatoes and 100% of the cucumbers in Iceland. They are even experimenting with bananas.
We stopped for lunch where everything on the menu was a tomato dish and had soup, pizza, and tomatoe ice cream. It was one of the best meals we had in the week
 Back in town we wound down the day with a visit to the Phallilogical museum where various phalluses were on display from house mouse to sperm whale. Though not large, it was the most unique museum I have been to.
 The sperm whale seemed to be the largest, dwarfing Hanne in both heigt and girth.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Blue Lagoon

25 February 2016
 A lazy morning walk to the sculpture park, located on the last remaining natural coastline within Rekavik. It is suppose to be a small beach bird haven with grasses and shrubs, but for February it was keeping in tune with the grey blue color theme.

We headed out to the peninsula west of Reykjavik and got caught in a white out with snow and rain blowing sideways across the road limiting visibility to just a few meters at times. We stopped suddenly as we passed this grouping of hotpools.

Icy wooden walkways led us past boiling pools and plopping mud. With the rain and wind getting worse, we only stopped for a few minutes and ran back to the car.

 After warming up with lobster bisque in small seaside Grindevik we continued on to the famed Blue Lagoon.

 The Blue Lagoon is considered (by them) one of the 25 wonders of the world. Wth a surface temperature of 100F the water brings up silica that turns the water a milky blue and is suppose to be good for you if you smear it all over your face.
With little nooks and crannies along the edges of the pool to explore, it was easy to spend a couple hours floating with hundreds of other people bobbing aroud and taking selfies. There were steamrooms and saunas but the currents of extra hot water that would surround you from time to time were delicious.

After covering myself in the white mud several times I decided it was time to extricate myself from the best bath I'd ever had. The silica dries out your hair and turns silver black but a heavy dose of conditioner and a little time and I was back to my normal self.

Back in the capital we finished out the night with an American theme; dinner at Chuck Norris restaurant and a quick stop at the Big Lebowski bar.


Frozen Waterfalls and Pickled Fish

25 February 1016
70km out of the city is Glymur, the tallest waterfall in Iceland, or used to be until 2011 when a volcano erupted, a glacier melted back and a new tallest waterfall was discovered. The hike out was labeled as "treacherous, you would be crazy to hike here in the winter" we decided it would be perfect. 
The hike starts by following a narrow gorge, travels through a cave, and is suppose to cross a very thin log that wasn't there, over a raging ice encrusted river. We opted to back track and hike up an old Jeep track.
 The 198m tall falls had turned into a huge chunck of ice except for a thin ribbon of water crashing down sending spray high up into air. A brisk wind sent us all down the trail after snapping a few pictures at the top.

On the way back we stopped at a tiny church surrounded by graves dating back to the 1600s.

That night hopped on the bus for our Northern Lights tour (part of our trip deal) and headed out to the Lagervatn Fontana hot pools 1.5 hours out of Rekjavik. After a buffet of pickled herring and smoked trout we soaked in the lake side pools and watched the moon rise. Despite Patti's pleading, I could not be coerced into jumping into the lake. I try not to swim in things that have ice sheets on them. Her son however followed her in without a moment of hesitation.

We boarded the bus and went in search of northern lights but the cloud cover was too thick. Upon reaching the city we drove out to the Western point of the city as a last ditch effort. Suddenly, there they were! Thin ribbons of faint green threading across the sky then melting into the night. With the wind howling, we watched the show until we were all numb with cold and the lights started to fade.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mostly Clear and Barely Freezing- That's a Good Day

23 Feb 2016
 A surprisingly clearish day gave us a chance to walk around the city. After a crack of dawn breakfast at 9:30 we headed down to a hotpool in the middle of a bay surrounded by a beach of golden sand imported from Morroco. We pulled up to the parking lot to see steam rising over the rocks into the icy air but alas! no water, just fridgid ocean lapping at an empty pool and golden sand covered in ice.

Second choice; the National Museum of Iceland with exhibits of artifacts from when Norwegians first sailed over in tiny open hulled boats to establish settlements on Iceland in the late 800s.

Walking around the city for the rest of the day we stopped off at the Harpa, Reykevik's concert hall. Normally I don't like contemporary style structures but with its street to roofline glass covered windows resembling a giant honeycomb, even I thought it was pretty cool.



More walking, more eating, more laughing for the rest of the day. Tomorrow we have big plans to hike and hotspring. It's a tough life sometimes.


Monday, February 22, 2016

A day in the life of Iceland

22 Feb 2016

When our plane touched down at 7am it was still dark out, but we had time before we could check into our hotel and a rental car so off we went to circumnavigate the peninsula West of the airport.

Next to the large map of all the shipwrecks that had sunk on this coastline was a lighthouse. With the North Atlantic crashing at the shore we shuffled gingerly across the thick ice covering the roads to explore.

The peninsula was bare and windswept except for the few houses and churches that clustered together against the elements.

By 9:30am the sun was up and we were sleep deprived and jetlagged. We napped, we ate, and we reconvened at Reykavik's main cathedral. The cathedral Hallgrimskirkja, was built to resemble a volcano and was guarded by the statue of stoic Leif Erikson. The inside was more lofty and open than I believed a grey concrete structure could be.


To finish off the day one must go to one of the geothermal public bath houses. Sounding like a luxurious experience, we were a little surprised to find ourselves in a public pool setting complete with swim lessons and older ladies bobbing in the deep end. After a swim, a hot tub, a swim, a steam room session, and one last swim, I was refreshed and spry. A quick convert to making the public bath house a part of regular routine.

darkness settled in at 6:30pm so a quick walk downtown for dinner and off to bed in our compact cozy budget hotel.



Friday, February 19, 2016

Off to Iceland... in February


Friday, 19 Feb 2016
 

 
I'm going out of the country in winter... to more winter, and taking a trip with no real purpose or goal. But a week in Iceland, including roundtrip airfare and hotel for $630 was just too good to pass up.
 
When the travel deal first came up I asked if anyone was interested, I had a hesitant nibble so I pounced and booked the tickets. My friend told her mother in law who thought it was a fabulous idea so she is coming with her husband. The mother in law told her son who was thrilled for a chance to vacation in Iceland again so he signed up for the trip with his brother... my friend's husband. Which is how I ended up going on someone else's family vacation.
 
The hope is to see the Northern Lights, the reality is the forecast is for cloudy days and rain. Thankfully everyone going is energetic, fun to be around, and spontaneous. The suggestion to jump into the North Atlantic Ocean in February (in a country that has numerous hot water options to jump into) has already been proposed.
 
Our plane leaves Sunday, so cross your fingers for a break in the weather!