Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Implusive Travel - A Trip to Iceland

This post should be a cautionary tale about what not to do when traveling internationally. There will be no caution because everything was amazing and despite some crappy luck with cars (more on that later), it was pretty close to perfect. In December a friend posted a link on Facebook about an incredible deal on airfare to Iceland and other cities in Europe. I immediately went to check it out. It was incredible, $99 each way from Baltimore. There were dates available from January to March. I looked at dates for March but didn't purchase that day. Then next day I took another look and all of the $99 dates were gone for March and most of February. I decided right then to purchase tickets for {msL} for Christmas. Did I mention that my passport was expired? I bought them anyway. I booked tickets for January 25-31. Like I said, cautionary tale.

Me at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

I'm still shocked that I managed to keep the secret until Christmas. {msL} was so shocked when she opened the box containing the guidebooks and itinerary, that she couldn't speak. Then for the next month, she would randomly say, "OMG we're going to Iceland!" It would be nice to think you can do everything when you visit a destination but that's not realistic. For me, I like to make a list of the things that are my "must do" items. If I am never able to return to this country/city, what will I be sad that I didn't do or see. So we made our list. On that list was number one, see the Northern Lights. Since that's up to mother nature, we added to the list. We included, bathing in a geothermal pool, hiking on a glacier, seeing the black sand beach, seeing waterfalls, going to an ice cave, and generally being outside and taking in the beauty of Iceland. I did tons of reading on websites and blogs. I booked our trip to the Blue Lagoon and a two day South Coast trip ahead of time. Everything I read, said that booking in advance was a must. Lots of blogs and websites said that the food in Iceland was decent but nothing amazing. We decided to book an apartment instead of hotel, so that we could have a kitchen. We also decided to rent a car (not our best decision).

First things first, I had to get my passport. Then I found out that {msL} also needed to renew her passport because she had less than 6 months left on her passport for travel. There are several ways to get your passport in less than a month. I'm lucky because I work less than 20 minutes from a passport office where you can get your passport in 24-48 hours. My appointment was two days before a huge snow storm, five days before our flight. Yes five. Lucky for me, the passport officer was kind and made sure I could pick up our passports the day before the storm. Twenty-four hours after I submitted everything. I was so thankful. The snow started on Friday and it snowed until early Sunday morning. We got almost 30" in parts of the DC area. Our flight was set to take off from BWI Airport on Monday at 6:30pm. My biggest worry was getting out of our neighborhood and to the airport. Well we made it!

Our flight took off on time and we arrived in Iceland at 5:30am on Tuesday. I had reserved a VW Jetta with Budget car rental. I should know better but because I've never driven in Iceland, I let the Budget car rental rep talk me into getting an all wheel drive car, translation a lot more money. While we were standing at the counter, a hold for over $700 was placed on my credit card. Holds are common for car rental but this one seemed high. I was told it was customary. We headed out to the car. It was snowing and sleeting. We found the car and it was covered in snow and ice and it was dark outside. It was about 630am but the sun doesn't come up in Iceland until about 10am during January. I got in a started the car, hoping it would warm up and {msL} started to clear the windows. I looked over and saw the FlyBus, a bus that you can take to the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik from the Keflavik Airport. I wondered how crazy I was to be renting and driving a car, in a foreign country, in a snow storm. It was nice having a car to drive when and where we wanted but frankly it was an expense we could have skipped. We really didn't need a car at all. Reykjavik is an easy walking city. In the spring/summer it would be a great choice to drive yourself on tours around the countryside. If you're going in winter, I suggest skipping the car rental and choosing buses and tours instead.

I'd read a couple of blogs that suggested going to the Blue Lagoon between the airport and Reykjavik. It seemed like a great idea, since we landed so early and most hotels and apartments wouldn't let you into your room until about 3pm. Since our drive was in the dark, we didn't see any landscape on the way there. And our walk up the hill from the parking lot was pretty dark except for the lighted path. This was our first real view of Iceland.

 Then this...

Then this...

To say I was in awe is an understatement. 

Planning our trip the Blue Lagoon as relaxation on the way from the airport to Reykjavik was a great decision. After reading this review, we opted for the Luxury package to have the benefit of a private shower and changing room. We also received a delicious fruit tray, juice, coffee, Proseco, Blue Lagoon flip flops (slippers), and a bag filled with sample sizes of the Blue Lagoon spa products. It was calming and beautiful. We indulged in the silica mud mask. There is a silica bar and vats of the Blue Lagoon signature silica mud mask available. You can slather it on your face and body. When you wash it off, it gives your skin a soft silky feeling. It felt like floating in the most beautiful hot tub ever. The lounge had an inside entrance to the Lagoon so we wouldn't freeze on the way into the water. It also had comfortable chairs and a fireplace. For us, it was worth the splurge. In addition the early arrival has the advantage of fewer guests and a less crowded Lagoon. By the time we got ready to leave the Blue Lagoon (about about 1pm), the line to enter was out the door and down the path. People were arriving by the busload. While we were getting dressed I saw an alert on my phone that another charge from Budget Car Rental had gone through on my card for $973! Yep, bad car luck. I decided to contact them as soon as we arrived at our place in Reykjavik. 

The drive to Reykjavik was easy. We were able to get into our apartment early. The City Comfort Apartments were great. They are located on Laugavegur Street, which is the main street in City Center, containing lots of shops and restaurants. Our first afternoon included a bit of shopping and sight seeing. 

Laugavegur Street, in front of our apartment

Lopapeysa (Icelandic Sweater) and Mittens
Before our trip, I read lots of great advice on I heart Reykjavik. It was hands down the best travel advice on Iceland I found, and I read a ton. Auður is a native of Iceland and she knows all of the ins and outs.  One piece of advice that I'm glad I headed was purchasing a Lopapeysa at the Red Cross thrift store. I actually purchased two sweaters and two pairs of mittens and frankly wish I had gotten more. Their prices were half or less than the tourist shops, the items are handmade by ladies that donate them to the stores and the money goes to charity. WIN! We went to Hallgrimskirkja Church and went up into the tower. We were even treated to some music. There was organ practice going on while we were there. 

Hallgrimskirkja Church
View from the Church tower
Our biggest expense was our two day southern tour, glacier walk and Ice cave trek. It was worth every penny! You must have a guide for glacier walks and Ice Cave tours, due to safety. We considered driving ourselves and meeting our guides there and I'm very glad that we chose not to do that. The winter weather is incredibly unpredictable. Freak storms can come out of nowhere and we saw tons of cars off of the side of the road. Our bus even got stuck once and had to be pushed out. We booked with Extreme Iceland for their Jökulsárlón and Ice caving two day tour. The package included transportation from our apartment, a great tour guide and driver, stops at waterfalls, the Black Sand Beach in Vik, overnight hotel accommodations, breakfast, glacier walk, ice cave tour, glacier lagoon and iceberg beach. It was truly the best part of our trip. Sadly the weather wasn't good enough to see the Northern Lights.

Skogafoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Our new Icelandic Friends

One of {msL's} favorite parts of the trip

Black Sand Beach, Vik Iceland

At the end of the day we checked into the Guesthouse Gerði in the Vatnajökull Region. The guesthouse was quaint, clean and the food was delicious. It's mostly locally sourced and we enjoyed Icelandic lobster for dinner. The area is beautiful, with sweeping countrysides and mountains. Plus the icredible Vatnajökull glacier and Jökulsárlón lagoon.   

The super Jeep we took out to the glacier
We were picked up at our little country hotel in this modified super Jeep. We drove out to the glacier and strapped on our crampons. I've never felt wind so strong. It was hard to stay upright at times. We made the short hike to the ice cave. Vatnajökull glacier is melting at a rapid rate. Approximately 200-250m is lost per year to global warming. 

Vatnajökull glacier 

Inside the mouth of the ice cave

Frozen {msL}

Volcanic ash and Ice
The black streaks you see in the photos are volcanic ash that has settled into the ice over hundreds of years. Our guide told me that the ice in the cave is 800-1000 years old. It looks like you're inside a huge marble. My photos don't do it justice.  The caves flood each spring and then refreeze in the winter. New caves must be found. They may even flood a bit during the winter, if the weather warms. We were lucky. The week before we arrived was warm and all of the ice cave tours were cancelled, due to flooding. I was never so happy to see freezing temperatures. There were two parts to the cave, the outer cave (in the first picture above) and the inner cave (below). We had to crawl about 10 feet on our hands and knees to get to the inner cave. It was incredible!

Inside the Inner Cave

Our last stop was Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Iceberg Beach. The ice is so incredibly blue. We even caught a glimpse of a seal dodging around the ice. 

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach

Iceberg Chair
Our last full day in Iceland was spent visiting museums, doing a little shopping and munching on Icelandic hot dogs.

Had to Try the Hotdogs

A Clothing Store on Laugavegur Street

There is beautiful street art and incredibly painted buildings all over the city. Our last evening, we strolled down the street and my honey picked a little dive bar where we could have a beer. It was a funny little bar and much more our style than a club. There was cold beer, good shots, and fun locals. It was cool to see a not so touristy part of Iceland on our last night in the country.

Our last Beer, the last night

We arrived back in the US to a car with a dead battery. Thanks to my sister we got home that night. Despite our horrible luck with cars, We had an incredible time. Iceland is a great country, in fact, we would love to go back when the weather is warmer. I highly recommend grabbing one of the good airfare deals and taking a trip or a stop over. I will be posting again soon with my recommendations for travel and what to wear and take with you. 

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