Jan 29, 2016

Visiting Iceland in winter

    I just returned from a weeklong trip to Iceland – in winter! It was an amazing trip, full of outdoor adventure. At some point, I want to return in the summer. The outdoor activities vary so much between seasons, that a summer trip to Iceland would be a completely different experience.
    If you’ve been hankering to visit the land of fire and ice, I’d recommend booking a trip now, as WOW Air has cheap fares, and the exchange rate is only about half as painful as it was before the financial crash. (One man’s economic calamity is another’s opportunity for tourism, I suppose.) It’s a very easy international trip from the US, as there are tours for everything, everyone speaks English, and everywhere takes cards. (Watch the exchange rate, though!) In addition, Icelanders we met were friendly, and several went out of their way to help us the few times we needed it.
    Every day, I wrote my family and friends emails about our activities for the day. I’ve reprinted them below and added a few of my pictures. I hope this inspires you to plan your own trip.

Packing
    As far as packing goes, the temperature was moderate, hovering around 35. I brought a light jacket and a sweater, which I rarely used. My rain pants and rain coat worked great on the windy coast. I had a down jacket, fleece pants, and several baselayers for warmth. Don’t forget a bathing suit for the pools and hot springs! I brought a light sleeping bag, in case any of the hostels didn’t provide linens. Shoes were casual boots for town, waterproof hiking boots for travel, and flip flops for showering. Next time, I would bring traction devices for my shoes. I also left my thickest pair of socks at home to save space, but they would’ve been nice to have, especially when my toes were cold while snorkeling.

Getting around
    If you’ll be driving, make sure your vehicle has four wheel drive and snow tires, and prepare to drive in the dark. It was helpful to watch videos about winter driving in Iceland in advance. We got lucky, as it was sunny the whole trip. It was light out from 10:00am to 5:00pm, but it takes about 2 hours for the sun to fully rise or set. Fortunately, the low angle of the sun creates a soft light that’s great for pictures – this is true during summer and winter.

Saturday
    Hello from Iceland!
    Today we got in at 5am ish. The airport was very nice -- no carpet! We rented a Ford something... A Kouga maybe? It's exactly like a Ford Escape. People drive on the right side of the road, but it's confusing to know when a road is one way since they only use white lines -- no yellow. The roads in Reykjavik are heated by underground geothermal hot water lines, so there has been no ice, but I expect the roads will get worse when we drive to Snaefelsness tomorrow morning.
    In the morning, we got food at The Gray Cat cafe, which had eggs and bacon, and VERY STRONG coffee.
    Then we went on a great historical tour of downtown Reykjavik, and learned that almost 50% of Icelandic representatives are women. (Edit: Icelanders are very proud of their status as the world’s most gender-equal country. Nearly every tour guide mentioned it.)
    Then we went to Iceland's only flea market, a coffee shop, checked into the very nice and well-decorated hostel, and visited the tallest point in Reykjavik, the Lutheran Church. We ran into an Australian man from the tour at the church. He was traveling alone -- it seems easy to travel alone here because there are tours for everything, everyone speaks English, and everywhere takes cards. (The conversion rate has proved difficult to calculate in my head. Charging "two thousand nine hundred" for breakfast sounds funny! Why don't they divide everything by 100?)
    When we got back to the hostel, we all promptly fell asleep. We were woken up once by loud Rihanna music from our neighbors, but we fell back to sleep.
    Now, we are getting ready to go to dinner, and then to a concert in the hostel. I am excited to try Icelandic beers. People in Iceland go out from 1:00-4:30am. I think that will be tough since we want to leave early tomorrow.
    The time difference is 5 hours. The flight was very easy! Almost no turbulence, what a relief! We met an Icelandic woman at the Baltimore airport who was moving back to Iceland after 20 years in Maryland. She told us to call her if we had any problems or questions.
    Talk tomorrow!

Sunday
    Today we drove from Reykjavik to Snaefelsness. We saw the Snaefellsjokull volcano, a very windy (kind of scary, actually) black sand beach, a frozen waterfall (where people were riding Icelandic horses!), and the Kirkjufell mountain.
    We bought bagels at the grocery store for breakfast, but the bagels had caraway seeds -- not the best combo with peanut butter! For lunch, we had overpriced lamb stew at the Snaefellsjokull National Park visitor center. We had pizza for dinner at a log cabin restaurant. Everyone was watching the Liverpool-Manchester game.
    Tonight we are staying at The Freezer Hostel. It has an artsy vibe because it is used as a concert venue in the summer. There are two small towns nearby. The towns on the northern side of the peninsula are much bigger than those on the southern side -- they have about 150-200 houses each, versus 5-20 for the southern towns.
    We are hoping to see the Northern Lights tonight. The sky is very clear, and Snaefellsjokull National Park has no light pollution.

Monday
    Last night, we saw the Northern Lights. [Friend1] took good pictures on her camera, but our phones didn't have long enough exposure times to capture it. The pictures actually look brighter and more green than they looked in real life. It was definitely worth the midnight trip back to windy Snaefellsjokull! I hope she posts the pictures soon.
    This morning, we drove to Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site for TWO reasons: (1) it is the location of many geological wonders, being that it is the rift between two tectonic plates -- a shield volcano, two glaciers, several geysers, Silfra rift, and more, and (2) it is the site of the world's first Parliament, established in 930 AD, making Iceland the world's oldest continuous democracy. They also used to execute witches at that time, but many people in Iceland WANTED to practice witchcraft, so it was sort of like martyrdom to be executed. More "warlocks" were executed than "witches".
    In Thingvellir, we went snorkeling in the Silfra rift. The water is glacial runoff. It takes 50 years to travel the 50km from Langjokull. It is so clear that you can see over 100m through it, and it is safe to drink. They put you in a down suit and then an Otter drysuit before you go in the 2 degree Celsius water. (It was minus 2 on land! They said the water stays that cold in the summer.) Your cheeks are exposed, and your hands and head go in wetsuits, so they get wet, but not too cold. Everyone loved it! The views were amazing. I hope [Friend2] puts the video up soon so you can see it.
    We also saw the Little Geysir and Strokkur today. I need to research how tall the blast is compared to Old Faithful or something.
    Now we are settling into our private cottage. It is so nice -- it has private bathrooms, heated floors, a hot tub, and an elk in the living room.
    Tomorrow we will see the Gulfoss waterfall and do some hiking nearer to Vik on the southern coast of Iceland. We might do a glacier walk tomorrow or the next day. It was highly recommended by the two women from San Francisco and Arlington, VA, in our snorkeling group.

Tuesday
Part 1/2
    The Northern Lights were even better last night. We took some amazing pictures using the timer camera with us in silhouette against a wavy green sky.
    We saw a string of waterfalls today, and it seemed one woman we met at Geysir was following us. Gulfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skogafoss. The first was near the Geysir (many years between eruptions) and Strokkur (bigger than Geysir, erupts every few minutes, see my video on Facebook!) site so we got to sleep in. The latter two were near the southern coast. It was lava fields again, but, unlike Snaelfellsjokull, there was no snow. Just green and amber grass fields. It was 40 degrees out at most sites instead of 25. We were very close to Eyjafjallajokull, the glacier/volcano that erupted in 2010, and caused a huge ash cloud that grounded planes in Europe. (It's pronounced kind of like eye-yuh-fyaht-la-yo-koot-luh.)
    We also visited a volcanic crater, and a family-run tomato greenhouse, where I pet some Icelandic ponies. Such pretty ponies!
    For lunch, we had the famous Icelandic gas station hot dogs. "With everything" means onions, fried onions, ketchup, mustard, and "remoulade" sauce, which is not like American remoulade sauce. It's sweet and caramel colored. There was a garbage truck driver at the gas station and he offered advice on what to order. I don't think Icelanders have learned to hate tourists yet.
    Our apartment for the next two days is very, very cute. We are trying an Icelandic restaurant tonight, and there is a brunch restaurant that opens early so we won't have to eat PB&J for breakfast.
    We might do the glacier walk tomorrow, but we haven't signed up yet. Otherwise, probably hiking near Vik (southern coast again).

Part 2/2
    Re: remoulade -- the remoulade is the same as the American version. The sweet brown sauce is a type of mustard called "pylsusinnep".
    Dinner was fantastic. Tried puffin. Tastes like red wine.
    Back in the apartment now. Handball is on TV.

Wednesday
    We started this morning with a swim in the outdoor pool. Every town in Iceland has a public pool with several pools and hot tubs kept between 85 and 113 degrees F. This one had a gym, too. We got yelled at twice for showering in our swim suits instead of completely naked. Oops!
    Next, we registered for a day-of glacier walk, which was near the falls we saw yesterday on the south coast. It was a serious workout. We are very wind-burned. Our guide taught us a lot about glacier formations and volcanoes and what kinds of safety responses occur when volcanoes erupt, and he taught us to pronounce some Icelandic words. It was the most I've learned about Iceland yet! The glacier we hiked has receded over 60 meters this year.
    Hot dogs for dinner!
    Do you think our flights home will be cancelled due to the weather?

Thursday
    Today we drove to a turf house, but the museum was closed. Then we went hiking by some hot springs near Selfoss, had lunch in Reykjavik, and then [Friend1], [Friend2], and I went shopping while [Friend3] and [Friend4] climbed to the top of Hallgrimskirkja church, which we girls had already seen the first day.
    Our apartment tonight has a weird sleeping situation. There is a master bedroom with a large bed, and then there are bunk beds in the attached closet. No door or fifth bed.
    We are going to go to dinner (I want Thai food!) and some bars tonight. On weekends, Icelanders go out from 1 am to 4:30 am, but on the weekdays, I am hoping that the bars will not be open so late.
    Tomorrow is Blue Lagoon. I hope our flight home is on time.

(Edit: I didn’t write a Friday email, but here’s a recap of our activities.)
Friday
    On Friday morning, we went to the Blue Lagoon, which is an outdoor geothermal pool that contains silica mud and salts said to be good for your skin. The Blue Lagoon was formed in 1976 during operation at the nearby geothermal power plant. The day we visited was the first day the Lagoon was open post-construction. The Blue Lagoon has the same “naked shower” rules as the pools, but they have private shower stalls and private changing rooms for prudish tourists.
    After the swim, we went to brunch at a diner in Keflavik, and hopped on our flight home just in time for Snowzilla 2016. (The flight was uneventful, but a few inches of snow had already accumulated when we landed. Our pilot announced that our flight was the ONLY flight allowed to land at BWI that day.)