It was an ordinary day in November, when my little sister emailed my older sister and I, with an idea for a “sisters” trip. The email was a little frantic, and followed by a text that was a little frantic, saying we need to make a decision on this trip by the end of the day, because it was a special deal. The trip was to ICELAND. After emailing that I just couldn’t go because of mundane reasons like work, I took a step back and said to myself, “What the hell am I thinking?” I want so badly to be a spontaneous person, but it doesn’t come naturally to me, so I love to have people around me that are spontaneous to give me the push I need. My husband wholeheartedly encouraged me to go. Yes it would mean more time from work and more importantly, time away from the kids, but this is the trip of a lifetime and would give so much more to my life than it would take away. I eagerly texted back to my sisters, “I’m in.”
We’ve never taken a trip together, my sisters and I, at least not without my parents and not since we all lived at home eons ago. The three of us are so different yet so alike. My younger sister is always pegged the “free spirit.” I’m not sure if she likes that or not, but it’s mostly meant as a compliment, when so many people (myself included) are too tied down mentally to fully experience travel, random opportunities, and beauty in the unexpected. She brings out sides of me (artistic, spontaneous, etc.) that no one else quite can. My older sister is kind, open-minded, and thoughtful. Talking with her is easy and comfortable. She is on the quieter side and finds humor in little things, and her jokes come out a little dry (which I find hilarious). And me? Well it’s hard to describe oneself. I think critically, am a skeptic, appreciate art and music, have an open mind, and love to laugh and explore. I tend to take things too seriously sometimes, and get anxious over dumb things. This is how my sisters and I compliment each other.
I would have never thought to visit Iceland, and I was getting questioned by so many people as to why I would want to go there. After all, it’s cold and snowy, right? What is there to do? Honestly, I had no idea what the weather was like or what there was to do – the most I’ve heard of Iceland is the devastating economic collapse it endured in recent years – but I remembered hearing of Iceland’s natural beauty. After just a few minutes of researching, I knew I made the right decision. Travel for me has never been all about “vacation.” It has always been about exploration. I crave exploring nature, people, and food the way some crave sand, sun, and an umbrella in their drink.
Fast forward to March, and we are headed to Iceland. It was a surprisingly short flight – 6 hours, tops – and we landed in the early morning, exhausted. It was dark, rainy, cold, and windy on our arrival, but soon the weather would clear up.
We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Reykjavik Natura. It was a nice place with decent accommodations, and we would soon learn that droves of people come in and out of there early morning and late night, nearly every day. Icelandair does a pretty good job at coordinating these air/hotel packages, which is essential to building up Iceland’s tourism and helping to rebound the economy. The hotel offers a good breakfast, nice restaurant, cozy bar area, spa and pool (that I never visited), with quirky wooden sculptures and activities (Icelandic Bedtime Stories, anyone?). Its biggest downfall is the location. The hotel is next to a park, but also sits on the domestic airport and is a good 15 minute walk from the city center.
First on the agenda was breakfast. Our hotel offered a pretty substantial European breakfast, with some American favorites, and of course, Icelandic must-haves. This is when we were introduced to Skyr, a non-fat, ultra thick and creamy yogurt that resembled Greek yogurt but with the texture of soft-serve. We were in love, especially the younger, who eagerly scooped up 4 servings of Skyr every morning.
We decided to spend our first day exploring Reykjavik. It is a very walk-able city, with several landmarks to visit, shops, restaurants, and incredible street art.
First stop was Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran parish. The architecture is stunning, and it took 38 years to build the church. The doors of the church were beautiful.
A statue of Leif Eriksson predates the church. According to the Icelandic Sagas, he landed on North America (Vinland) some 500 years before Columbus.
The image on the door depicts Christ, with the words “Come to Me.” The inscription above the door is from Hallgríms Péturssonar Passion Hymn 24, however I cannot find a good translation.
Hallgrímskirkja houses an impressive organ that, unfortunately for us, was under construction. The organ has over 5000 pipes.
You can pay a small fee to take the elevator to the top of the church, right below the bells, and get a magnificent view of the city.
The weather was a little mucky the first day, and all being lovers of eating, we stopped at this fabulously-decorated little cafe – Babalu’s – for some crepes and hot chocolate to warm-up.
Oh, And did I mention the street art? You’ll find it in nooks and crannies while walking through the city.
We visited Reykjavik Art Museum, featuring Robert Smithson, an artist who used earth, water, and the elements to create his pieces.
After some shopping and what seemed like miles of walking, we needed dinner. As with any tourist location, many restaurants showcase “traditional” food (read: not traditional at all). The menus typically featured whale and horse; items that are eaten, however not day-to-day fare.
We must have walked away from at least 5 restaurants because of price or menu, when we finally found a small pub-style place on the outskirts of the city. The menu featured lots of seafood, as well as reindeer, whale, and puffin. Wait…puffin??!! That’s right, those cute little sea birds that are indigenous to the northwest coast of Iceland.
You want to eat me?
Seems we couldn’t get away from the whale, but I had to try puffin. What came out was salty, smokey, and somewhat raw. I ate a lot of it, and wasn’t offended in the least by the rareness of the meat or cuteness of the bird.
Exhausted, we got a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night, not before finding out that the excursion we booked for the next day – a glacier hike and Northern Lights watch - was cancelled due to poor weather conditions. A little bummed, we decided to rent a car and explore the next day.
We set out to explore the Golden Circle, a drive-able loop of sightseeing in south Iceland. First stop was Þingvellir National Park. The park was created to protect the site of the parliament, which operated there for more than 800 years. The park is home to the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn, and is a rift valley, with plenty of tectonic action and the crevasses and faults to prove it.
older, younger, and I at Þingvallavatn lake
The park also holds beautiful hidden treasures that we stumbled upon.
Friendship Park, a nice little trail into a sitting area, housing beautiful scrubby birch trees.
Öxarárfoss waterfall, visible from the park trail.
From the park, we made our way to Geysir, passing many farms, and consequently falling in love with the Icelandic horses. The cuddly ponies were also smart, steadily standing in groups with their rears to the wind.
Geysir and Strokkur are two large geysers located on Laugarfjall hill in Haukadalur, among hot springs and smaller geysers. The tectonic and volcanic action of the land determine the activity of the hot pots and geysers. Geysir erupts infrequently, but its eruption has been higher than Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. We walked up the steamy hill along the trails, and experienced Strokkur erupt several times. Just before an eruption, the water would bubble and recede into the crater several times.
Strokkur – just before an eruption
We made our way to Gullfoss, one the most popular waterfalls in Iceland. The river Hvítá feeds the 32 meter-high double waterfall. There is an interesting story behind Gullfoss: Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson (who owned the waterfall in the early 20th century), loved the waterfall so much that she threatened killing herself in its waters as a protest to the prospect of harnessing hydroelectric power from the massive waterfall, which would have changed and destroyed it. She went as far as to walk barefoot from Gullfoss to the capital, Reykjavik, in protest (that’s 120 km or 72 miles). Her statement was taken seriously, and the hydroelectric plant was never built, saving the natural beauty of the waterfall. Today, Sigríður has a memorial at the top of the falls.
It is impossible to capture the power and enormity of Gullfoss in a picture. The trail leading to the base of the falls was closed for the season.
Iceland is volcanic, therefore there are many natural hot springs and hot pots on the island. Unless you are on someone’s private property, you can take a dip in the pots when you find them. We got a tip from a local on a secluded hot pot off a trail, that could be reached by “going up the mountain,” as the hotel receptionist so vaguely told us. Still, we thought we could find it. It was also late afternoon – approaching dusk – and the mountain was bigger than it looked. We changed into our bathing suits and redressed in the car and hiked it anyway. The trails in Iceland are not like in the states, where there are clear trail markers, railings, and walls or roped to stop you from falling. They are also snow-covered and about 6 inches wide in some places. In Iceland, they give people more credit to use their good judgement.
We were determined to find a damn hot pot. We had food with us, but realized a half-hour in that we only have the light of our phones to get back to the car. We hiked for a long time and thought it better to turn around and head back before it was pitch black. It was clear that we were in hot springs territory, with the bubbling creeks and steam coming out of the ground, but we never found the elusive pool.
The start of our treck
An angel on the mountain…
View from the top of the mountain we climbed
Dark and headed back to the car
That night we were beyond exhausted, and had a full schedule planned for the next day.
We left early to go to Snæfellsnes peninsula, a good 150 km and 2+ hours north of Reykjavik. That’s the thing with driving Iceland – the country isn’t huge, however the roads and weather make driving unpredictable, so it takes more time than you would think to get somewhere.
As we drove up the gorgeous coast, my younger sister read to us about the Icelandic Sagas that are such an important part of Iceland’s tradition, as well as the elves (Huldufólk) and trolls that watch over the land.
farmhouse with Snæfell Glacier behind
Golden Eagle…a rare sight
A stop in the fishing village Arnarstapi, where we found amazing cliffs above the sea, with black sand beaches and sea birds huddled together on the steep rocks. Just near the cliffs is a sculpture of Bárður Snæfellsás, the deity of Mt. Snæfell.
From miles away, the Snæfellsjökull glacier is visible, resting on top of a volcano. The volcano is active, although it has not erupted in almost 2000 years. The glacier is receding due to global warming, and it is estimated that it may be gone in 50 years.
Snæfellsjökull: a glacier atop a volcano
We made a stop at Djúpalónssandur beach, a gorgeous black stone beach at the foot of Snæfellsjökull. The trail from the parking lot down to the beach was steep and covered in snow, and we “hiked” most of it on our butts, but somehow we made it down without hurting ourselves.
At the bottom of the trail were lifting stones, used back in the day to test the strength of potential fishermen. They are Fullsterkur (“full strength”) weighing 154 kg, Hálfsterkur (“half strength”) at 100 kg, hálfdrættingur (“weakling”) at 54 kg and Amlóði (“Useless”) 23 kg. I am a weakling.
The difficult hike/slide down the trail was worth it.
As you travel around the volcano, there are many other natural sites to explore.
The beautifully hostile lava fields
A troll house?
As we drove back to Reykjavik, we (once again) went on a hunt for a hot pot. This time, we gathered the location of the pot from a blog. Again, the exact location was vague, but we found it. It looked like a pretty large pool, about 1/10 mile walk over jagged earth. I already wrote about the volcanic geography and crevasses dotting the land. Early-on, we were advised not to walk on areas where we couldn’t see rock, as snow and thatch could easily hide a dangerous crevasse. For a half-hour we tried walking around snow and thatch covered areas, but found it impossible to get to the pool. Finally we gave up, and decided that we would go to a commercial hot spring the next morning before flying out.
Fish 3 ways, with cold pea salad and mashed squash.
Because our excursion was cancelled, we never had a chance to see the Northern Lights. We talked to the concierge, who told us the best time to see them was around 10 pm, and that our chances of seeing them were good, as it was a cold clear night. We had a quick local dinner before driving into the darkness. I can’t say it was the best thing I ever ate, but it was traditional food.
As we drove north of the city, at almost exactly 10 pm, we spotted the Lights. I started yelling like a lunatic about it and almost made my sister crash the car. We stopped on the side of the road to watch, and were surprised to see the Northern Lights tour bus pull up nearby to let their tourists out to see. I figured we were in the right spot if the tour bus was there too. The Lights were faint, looking more like a green-tinted dancing milky way. We stood quietly in the cold for a long time to watch. None of my photos turned out, but it’s in my memory.
The next day, we packed up, checked out of the hotel, and headed South. As I mentioned, we were going to a commercial hot spring, the Blue Lagoon. It’s a popular tourist destination, and the price tag fits. For me, it was bittersweet to go there, when we were so close to so many natural pools that were free and secluded. The place features steam rooms, saunas, a spa, and a large pool that you mill about in with one hundred strangers. The pool grossed me out a bit, with all of the people in there, a pool bar reminiscent of something you would encounter while on Spring Break, and the natural silica mud on the bottom squishing between your toes. The first thing we noticed were the zombie heads bobbing in the water. Okay, they weren’t zombies. They were actually people with silica mud on their faces. The mud came from vats located in the pool, where you could take a scoop and rub it on for its exfoliating benefits. The next thing we noticed were the number of couples making out in the pool. Call me a prude, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make out with their significant other in a pool, while scantily clad and surrounded by zombie heads and the smell of a stale bar, with toes squishing in silica mud that was once slathered on another person’s body. Other than all of that, it was relaxing, and beautiful to look at.
When we were all finished cooking ourselves, we showered and headed to the airport to drop off the rental car. We had plenty of time at the airport to do some last-minute souvenir shopping and grab some lunch before take-off.
So what did I learn on this trip?
- Icelandair does a pretty good job at coordinating flights, ground transportation, and hotel stays. Even though my sisters and I were flying out of and into different airports, the flights arrived and departed Iceland at approximately the same time, making it possible for us to meet up easily.
- Iceland is incredibly full of things to see and do, and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. In 3 full days, we only saw a tiny piece of the west coast. There are so many other natural wonders to explore around the island. While tour excursions/guides are necessary for things like hiking glaciers, renting a car allows you to go at your own pace and see what you are interested in seeing.
- Travelling with my sisters was one of the best things I have ever done, and I plan to keep doing it. My sisters and I don’t live near each other, and don’t have a chance to talk to each other often, however none of that matters when spending days side-by-side. Yes, we disagree on things and have different stances on so many subjects in life, but we have a stronger common thread that ultimately ties us.
We agreed to do a “sister’s trip” every other year, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds.