Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An Icy Introduction

Ohhh, yeah--the travel blog is back!

No, Andy and I have not decided to quit life again and go vagabonding for an extended period--we're quite happy with our lives and jobs in Colorado, which has now been our home state for almost a year (!). 

But you may remember that we flew through Reykjavik airport on our way home from Poland at the very end of our round-the-world trip last year. Our layover only gave us time to slurp a little delicious glacial tap water and use the snyrtingar (Icelandic for toilets), but the country looked so beautiful from the air that we vowed to return one day and visit it properly.

Well, that day came this fall, when we found out that Iceland Air was running direct flights from Denver to Reykjavik--and offering a great deal on an 8-day flight + hotel package. Clearly, it was a sign that we needed to make Iceland our first international vacation destination since our triumphant return to America.

So back on went the backpacks, and away to Iceland we went!
(Click on the pictures for larger versions.)

Iceland Air kindly gives you a crash course on Icelandic language and customs on your seat back and pillow. (Not so kindly, they don't provide free headphones or food for your eight-hour transatlantic flight, so a word to the wise, bring your own or be prepared to pay up.)

Hey, those look familiar! Welcome to Iceland!

From reading online reviews, we knew that the Reykjavik hotel that came with our package would be far from the "four stars" it claimed to be. Indeed, the room turned out to be kind of small and with two single beds pushed together for us to sleep in. But hey, after all of our travels, anyplace with 24-hour electricity and hot water feels luxurious to us!

After getting settled in, we immediately set out to take advantage of the sunny (though cold) weather and see some of Reykjavik. Our first stop was Hallgrimskirkja, the city's largest church. Built between the 1940s and 1980s, it was apparently designed to resemble Iceland's lava flows!

It has a very impressive organ inside, with over 5,000 pipes.

The rest of the interior is rather stark, though.

Here you can see the lava-like design a bit better...and a statue of Viking explorer Leif Eriksson, a gift from the USA (presumably in honor of him having "discovered" our land).

So many of our old backpacking skills quickly came back into the long-armed self-portrait shot! You can see a typical Reykjavik street in the background.

Down by the harbor, where we shiveringly ate a skyr and donut breakfast (food pics to come in the next post), we also happened upon some Viking-inspired art.

Iceland is known for its cliffs full of puffins, but sadly they only come ashore in the summer to breed, preferring to spend the winter months hanging around on the surface of the North Atlantic itself. (Yeah, that totally sounds preferable.) So we had to content ourselves with gift shops full of stuffed puffins, instead.
(We thought about bringing a giant one home to decorate our apartment, but given that the tiny ones cost about $20 each, the big one probably would have cleaned out our bank account. In related news, Iceland is EXPENSIVE.)

Out on a different street, near city hall. I guess this sculptor got tired of chiseling...

Back at our hotel that evening, all the non-four-starrishness of our room was immediately forgiven when we saw the spa in the basement.

Thanks to Iceland's volcanic nature, it has abundant geothermal power and more hot water than it knows what to do with, so every little village has a public hot pool complex that only costs $3 or $4 to use. There are also the more touristy, natural-style hot pools like the famous Blue Lagoon, and then many hotels have their own spas. Our had a large warm swimming pool, a smaller hot tub, and two saunas. Yay!

For this trip, we finally replaced the waterproof camera that we had lost in Madagascar, so of course we had to test it out.

The pool also came with abundant free floaty noodles. Since almost nothing in Iceland is free, we had to take advantage!

Wait, I think I need more noodles. Yeah, that's better.

The last thing to be included with our package was a day trip to walk on a glacier and hunt for the Northern Lights. We took off the next morning with an excellent guide named Vidar and drove a couple of hours through beautiful countryside to the Myrdalsjokull glacier in southern Iceland.

We strapped on crampons and stomped up onto the ice. It's a very active glacier, with icescapes that change every week, forming crazy holes...

...and crevasses. If you are thinking that the glacier looks dirty, that's volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (the volcano that shut down air traffic in Europe for several days), which is nearby. Fields in this area are still covered with ash and volcanic rock, and if you get stuck in a windstorm they can apparently scrape the heck out of your car's paint job.

The company we hiked with also gave us ice-axes, mostly so we could take silly pictures with them like this one.

Here you can see a very good-looking gentleman, and some interesting ridges on the glacier's surface. We spent a good couple of hours on the glacier, and saw many different ice formations.

Hold onto your hat!

The tour also included stops at a couple of impressive waterfalls, like this one. Andy REALLY likes waterfalls.

We also got our first close-up look at the famous Icelandic sheep. They are so incredibly fluffy that they look like caricatures of sheep. Brought to Iceland by the Vikings over 1,000 years ago, they are the only breed of sheep allowed in Iceland today--you can't import any other kind. The same goes with the adorable (but very strong) pony-like horses, which you will see in a later post.

Iceland only has around 300,000 inhabitants, and according to one source, there are four times as many sheep as people.

Unfortunately, the Northern Lights didn't come out and play for us that night (or any other night that we were in Iceland). Vidar admitted to us that the tours only see them about 10% of the time they go out searching. We had seen them once before, while driving north in Canada, though we didn't know what the heck they were at the time.

Back in Reykjavik the next day, our lucky streak of sunny days ended and the clouds and drizzle came out. We headed for the Saga Museum, which tells the history of Iceland using human-sized dioramas. Probably not really worth the $15-per-person entry fee, though we did get to see this disturbing depiction of a nun being burnt at the stake for witchcraft and fornication.

And we also got to try on chain mail, which is really heavy and smells like a schoolyard fence.

But it clearly looks awesome. Maybe that $15 was worth it after all!

What, you think I let Andy have all the fun?

This is Perlan, the building that houses the Saga Museum. It's up on a hill, and has a restaurant and observatory, too. Oh, and the giant circular things store Reykjavik's hot water!

A view from the top of Perlan. You can see Reykjavik's seaside setting and the mountains that rise across the inlet. It's a city of only 100,000 people, and I think that the tallest building is 17 stories high.

Later, we had to stop by the theater. Little Shop of Horrors in Icelandic!

Another typical Reykjavik street, with lots of fun colors. Also, lots of cars--Iceland has no trains, and with its low population density, it's very much a car country like the USA. And thanks to the harsh winter weather and a number of unpaved roads, SUVs are popular. Gas costs about four times as much there as it does here, though.

This one's for our niece, Stella!

And this one's for our friend Katrin, whose name is popular in Iceland. Actually, I'm pretty sure that that witch burnt at the stake in the Saga Museum was named Katrin, too...

The next morning, we rented a car to venture out into the great, underpopulated beyond and see more of this incredible country. There would be weirdly mossy lava to touch, and snowy volcanoes to climb, and rotten shark to eat. But those are posts for other days. Stay tuned for our further adventures in Iceland!