Category Archives: Iceland

#iceland #icegnomes #day4 #day5

Iceland

Our trip had been seamless so far, except for the minor keypad incident. We had pre-purchased our admission to the Blue Lagoon for 10am which meant that we had to book a 9am bus ride to the lagoon (all booked through their website). It was recommended to go as early as you can to avoid the mad rush of tourists in the afternoon. I recommend this recommendation.

Our bus tickets stated “pickups begin up to 30 minutes before departure.” We didn’t know that meant “pickups will be 30 minutes before departure, and they will not stop to wait for you.” So, we were ready by 8:30am but, didn’t stroll to the bus stop until 8:45am. While HyeMi and Christina went to grab coffee, Jenn and I stood at the corner where we thought the bus would pick us up. I noticed a minibus zoom by on the other side with the name of our bus company on it. “Hey, Jenn…I think it’s that one! But…it zoomed by. It must be making rounds so, maybe it’ll come back around.” Then came 9am, 9:15am…

“Um, the minibus never came around. But, that minibus never even slowed down to look for passengers. It zoomed by as if they were expecting to pick up no one!”

So, we rushed into the nearby City Hall and asked to use the phone. I called up the bus company and the customer service just flat out said, “You were supposed to be there 30 minutes before.” Luckily, she continued on with, “There is another bus coming in 5 minutes. You can catch that one.” We ran outside to the other side where there was an actual bus stop, one where we thought was only for city buses. A minibus came at 9:30am, and it only slowed down because we waved it down.

Finally, we were on the bus. Jenn and I were a little nervous because we had pre-booked massages for 11am, and it took about 45-50 minutes to get to the lagoon. Once on the bus, we felt relief…except that the minibus began making rounds, picking up people at their hotels. At each stop, the bus driver actually stopped, opened the door and called out to the passengers, “Blue Lagoon?” Um, why didn’t he do that for us?? If we hadn’t flagged him down, he would’ve zoomed past again. Then he made another stop and walked out of the bus. I thought maybe he was going for a quick bathroom break.

“Oh, he’s walking back now. Wait, he picked up more people!! WHAT THE EFF?”

Not only did he stop and wait, he physically went to go get them. Not fair!

The bus driver finished picking everyone up and we were finally on the road…the road to the main bus station for the bus company. To our surprise, we were then instructed to get off this minibus, go to the main counter at this station and exchange our vouchers for actual tickets, then board a coach bus..the actual bus going to the Blue Lagoon. No wonder pickups began 30 minutes before departure. It’s because we needed to transfer onto another bus. Why didn’t they specify this before?

By the time the coach bus departed, it was close to 10 past 10am. The Asian family who was on the 3-day tour with us came onto the bus and, though we’ve never said a word to each other during that tour, we happily waved and said hello to each other, bomber jacket grandma inclusive. It’s funny what kind of bonds traveling can create, even in silence. I think we all just like clinging onto whatever familiarity we can find in unfamiliar territories. We wondered what kind of bathing suit the grandma would wear in the lagoon but, after that bus ride, we never ran into them again.

Using the bus wifi, I tried emailing the Blue Lagoon to let them know that we will be a bit delayed to our massages. I didn’t get a response until the late afternoon, informing us that we couldn’t reschedule because they were fully booked. By then, we had already made it to our massages. At least they responded.

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Once the bus parked at the lagoon, Jenn and I ran off the bus and started running to the entrance. It was actually a long, winding path to the entrance, and a couple ahead saw us running and moved out of the way.

Jenn: “I bet they’re wondering why we’re running!”
Couple, now behind us: “Actually, we really were wondering!”
Me: “We’re late for our appointments!”

The run was a bit tiring because we had been non-stop laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. We made it inside and gasped at the long line. It was the line for people who didn’t pre-purchase tickets. Phew! We went to the line for people who pre-booked. It was empty.

By then, HyeMi and Christina had caught up to us. We checked in and were given our robes, towels, flip-flops, samples of products and bracelets which allowed us to enter and charge drinks and meals just by scanning them. We bought the premium tickets which, in addition to the stuff just mentioned, also included an algae mask and free drink at the in-water bar, plus a free drink and reservations at the Lava restaurant. So worth it.

Jenn and I yelled, “See you girls later!” as we ran to the massage area. I didn’t have a chance to look around while running to the massage area but, from a few side glances, the lagoon looked so magical – pockets of blue in the midst of black volcanic rock all engulfed in the steam rising from the hot spring. We walked over little walkway bridges to pass over parts of the spring and made it to our massages by 11:03am. Perfect timing!

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The massage was UNREAL. It was unlike any other massage that I’ve had in my life. Both us had booked the Nourishing & Glowing Algae Treatment, which I think may have been the most expensive one. We lay face down on mat-covered tables suspended in the water, backs exposed to the cold winds. The masseuse then covered me in hot spring soaked towels, as he uncovered portion by portion for the scrub. The description on the website:

A cleansing and nurturing treatment for the skin. Starting with a salt glow, your skin is polished with a unique combination of Blue Lagoon minerals and oils, followed by a nourishing algae wrap. While you float in the lagoon your face and scalp are gently massaged. The treatment ends with a 50 min full body massage in the lagoon. This extraordinary treatment leaves you energized and nourished.

There is really nothing much to add except HOLY CRAP THIS WAS AMAZING! Throughout the scrub, the masseuse would periodically re-soak the towels in the hot spring and place them back onto your body in a way that only exposed your body to the cold for a microsecond. There was so much wind that the towels became cold within several minutes. The momentary cold and the subsequent hot was an amazing contrast to feel. The algae wrap began with the masseuse rubbing your body with an algae concoction and then placing your entire body into a plastic bag, as you somehow still remained under hot spring soaked towels. Once completely encased, you are then slipped off the table on the floating mat. The masseuse then lifts your head and places a floating neck support. At this point, your body from the neck down is completely in the hot spring, floating. It was like being in the womb. After your face is massaged, the masseuse then places a warm mask over your eyes, and you’re left floating for maybe a half hour or more as the masseuse periodically undulates your body in the water and re-soaks the towels. I drifted off into a light slumber and would wake up in a twitch, momentarily forgetting where I was. Once the 50 min massage began, I kept thinking, “Oh no! It’s already half over!” The massage was also in the water, on the floating mat with the plastic bag now off. This stage is what Jenn and I call “the rebirth.”

We met up with HyeMi and Christina afterwards and went to the Lava restaurant for our 1pm lunch reservation. It was funny sitting in our robes next to a table of people dressed in regular outfits. We each ordered from the 3-course set menu, one with lamb, two with cod and one with the fish of the day, along with free glasses of sparkling wine. All were delicious.

We went back to the lagoon and proceeded to do silica mud masks. There were wooden containers of it along the lagoon for people to use. The silica hardened on my face but it didn’t prevent the cold winds from irritating my face. The sun was also strong and I ended up getting some color on my body. It was recommended to wear sunscreen.

One tip for anyone going to the lagoon – try not to dip your hair in the water or, if you do, leave conditioner in your hair (which they provide). Your hair will harden with the minerals in the water and it will take several days for it to finally feel normal. Also, people will steal your robe and/or towel. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they may have forgotten which was theirs. But, I’m sure they took whatever felt drier and left me with a wet robe and towel.

“Ah, I could spend all day here.”
“Me, too!”

An hour later, “so, should we get going?”

Haha. We also needed to get back in time for our 6:30pm dinner reservation. After showering and getting ready, we caught a bus back around 5pm. We thought it’d be the same deal – take the coach bus back to the main station, then catch the minibus that’ll make rounds dropping off people in our area. Nope. The coach bus ended up dropping off every single person off at their hotels, near and far. We ended up at dinner about a half an hour late but, it luckily wasn’t a problem.

(Photo credit for the 1st & 3rd photos above: HyeMi)

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From the recommendation of a friend and also TripAdvisor, we made reservations at Sjávargrillið. Before our appetizers came out, the waitress served us a small bowl of Arctic char lightly marinated with citrus juices, on the house. Light, fresh, delicious. As an appetizer, we ordered a plate of fresh and deep-fried Icelandic cheeses (not pictured) and, to try something exotic…and to do as the Icelanders do, an assortment of minke whale, smoked puffin and European sack (which is what I thought she said but, I can’t seem to find this bird on Google). None of these tasted great and I will never put it in my mouth ever again.

As our main course, we decided to share 3 plates – Grilled leg of lamb & slow deep-fried lamb shoulder, Grilled catch of the day and Juicy pasta with grilled langoustine & tiger prawn. Yes, “juicy pasta” was the actual name of the dish and, boy, was it mouth-wateringly delicious. All of it was cooked to perfection and helped me to forget the combo taste of whale, puffin and sack.

Ten minutes before 9pm, Jenn and I headed off to meet the Northern Lights tour at the nearby Gray Line bus station. HyeMi and Christina stayed behind to go bar hopping around the city.

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Jenn and I expected another minibus and a small group of people. Instead, there were maybe 5 or 6 coach buses full of people going on this tour. It’s clearly the number one attraction. We ran into an Indian couple (who are now living in Amsterdam) who we also met on our 3-day tour. We excitedly said hi to each other, happy to see familiar faces once again. About 30 – 40 minutes out, we were at our destination and the tour guide spotted a faint showing of the aurora. Looking up, I wasn’t sure if the aurora was what I was really seeing. But, there were phases when the lights stopped, and the area around us fell into darkness. Surely, it was the aurora, albeit faint.

Travel tip: For reference, we booked the Northern Lights Mystery tour with Extreme Iceland. We really liked this tour company because not only were their prices great compared to others, their customer service was extremely responsive and flexible with certain changes.

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There was a small cafe where people camped out until the lights became stronger. Others stayed on the bus to keep warm or even take a nap. I stayed out for awhile just admiring the faint green and all of the stars.

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Since Jenn and I already had our exciting moment when we saw the aurora for the very first time, this time felt a little more subdued. It was still fantastical, especially since the faint lights spread across the entire sky, rather than just a portion of it. The faint green continued to radiate on and off in different parts of the sky, with some periods of darkness in between. It was cold outside but, decent enough to stand outside for awhile. When the winds picked up a bit, Jenn and I went inside the bus to keep warm for awhile.

“Hey, does it look like it’s getting brighter outside?”
“Yea…maybe…”
“Let’s go outside.”

As soon as we stepped out, the faint green became a bit brighter and the movement was a bit more visible. We were so happy to have stepped out at just the right time.

We went back in when our fingers began to freeze and warmed up for a bit more. By then, it was around 11 or 11:15pm. A half an hour or so later, we were getting antsy to go back to the city.

“Want to go outside one more time? We can look one more time and also take a bathroom break.”
“Sounds good.”

We were back out close to midnight. And, at that exact moment, a green patch began to show, and was getting brighter, brighter and even brighter. I quickly fumbled with my tripod and set up my camera while chanting “Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod.” People from inside the cafe ran outside and a large crowd of people began to huddle together with their faces toward the sky.

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Right there, in front of our eyes, was the most beautiful movement of green, so amazing and so visible that it almost felt tangible. At its brightest moment, people began to cheer in excitement and the air became filled with wooooooo!!! and woohoooo!!!!!! A moment like this can bond strangers. Once again, perfect timing.

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The aurora lasted maybe close to 30 minutes. After its conclusion, I lingered out for a few more minutes and kept looking back as I walked back to the bus. It was time to go.

Both of us fell into a stupor as the bus drove back to the city and dropped everyone off at their respective hotels. We were the last stop and ended up walking into the apartment around 2am. The other girls also had just come back a few minutes before and the smell of alcohol wafted from their bodies. It was a great night for us all.

Day 5

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Our flights were in the afternoon, so we spent the beautiful morning roaming around the city and stopping at shops for last minute souvenirs. We ate a late breakfast at Bakarí Sandholt, a bakery with a variety of pastries and delicious sandwiches, then headed over to Hallgrímskirkja, the very phallically designed and beautifully simple church. (Sorry the tip is cut off…)

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The view from the top of the church is amazing, showcasing the mountains and the ocean with the colorfully roofed buildings scattered about. We grabbed coffee at the nearby Reykjavik Roasters, a cozy cafe with great coffee and where they roast their own beans, and headed back to pick up our luggage. I was sad that the trip was coming to an end.

[March 20 – 24, 2015]

#iceland #icegnomes #day3

Iceland

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Saying goodbye to our guesthouse, we first headed to the black sand beach in Jökulsárlón with icebergs scattered throughout the shore. The aliens have indeed landed on this planet.

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Nature can make you feel small but, only when you consider yourself separate from it. When you realize you’re a part of it, it should make you feel significant because you’re a part of this amazing whole. It can be hard to remember when you’re living among skyscrapers though.

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In warmer weather, you can take a boat ride in the Glacier Lagoon among the floating ice. At the end of March, the ice in the lagoon hadn’t melted enough but, I heard that we weren’t missing much by missing the boat ride.

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This entry may be more of a picture book. I loved picture books as a kid. They required minimal effort.

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Next, we stopped at a rest area so that the tour guides could distribute helmets, ice axes and crampons to everyone before our glacier walk. About 3 minibuses joined together, and the guides fit the crampons onto our hiking shoes one by one. This was really time-consuming and maybe my only complaint about this tour. Most of us stood around restless as the guides tried searching in their supply for extra hiking shoes for people who didn’t listen and came with inappropriate shoes.

But, this did give us some time to check out an Asian grandma (I think from Malaysia) who had been with us since the very beginning. We were so intrigued by her because she wore oversized wool work pants that dangled at her ankles, a light bomber jacket and a dainty silk scarf tied around her neck. She looked dainty herself and we wondered if she felt warm enough or if she had enough strength to handle the glacier walk. She also didn’t seem to know what was going on and yet, she appeared to not have a care in the world. She had come with her family. one of which is either her daughter or granddaughter who wore the brightest red lipstick. It was very out of place against her hiking gear and just so…unnecessary. The more I grew restless while waiting, the more I grew annoyed with it. It’s even haunting me now.

Finally, we were on our way to the Svínafellsjökull glacier in Skaftafell National Park (pictured above). If you click on the photo and enlarge it, you can see just how ominous and majestic the glacier looks. For those of you who have watched Interstellar, this should look familiar to you. It is when I yelled out (in my head) to Matthew McConaughey to stop following Matt Damon, as the organs rang treacherously in the background. Oh, Hans Zimmer, you magical soundtrack maker, you.

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The guides demonstrated how to secure the crampons onto our boots. These were more heavy duty than the ones we used in the ice cave and involved weaving a large lace into here and there and all around our boots to secure them tightly. With our ice axes in hand, we were ready for our adventure.

Male guide: “There are 3 things to remember. One, don’t fall. Two, don’t fall. And, three…”
Female guide: “Have fun!”
Male guide: “No, that’s number 4. Three, don’t fall!”

I didn’t have any worries before but, he did make me feel slightly anxious after that. I began to walk with extra caution but, once my feet gripped the ice, I realized it wasn’t difficult or scary after all. Ha.

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In the distance, another group had already begun their walk. This same group later found a nice little nook among the mounds of ice, and camped out there for a picnic lunch.

Throughout our walk, the female guide stopped early on and began to chip away at the ice. She picked up a piece and put it in her mouth.

Female guide: “These are made from pure glacial water. How old do you think this ice is?”

Guesses were shouted out. “A thousand years!” “500 years!”

Me: “In that case, 501 years!” Ya damn right, I was taught well by The Price is Right, except I should’ve gone one lower…

Female guide: “The answer is about 150 years.”

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Female guide: “Okay, let’s test your knowledge of Icelandic words. Who knows what Svínafellsjökull means in English? I’ll give you a hint – the first part, svína, relates to an animal.”

In my head, I was going through every animal. Cow? No. Horse? No. Lamb? No…

Someone else: “Swine!”
Female guide: “Yes! “Svína” means swine, “fells” means mountain and “jökull” means glacier. So, swine mountain glacier!”

Spock: “Fascinating.”

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One by one, we descended into a crevice in the ice that opened up into waves of the most beautiful blue, frozen in time.

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On our walk back to the minibus, we were instructed to rinse out our crampons and the soles of our boots in a nearby pond of melted glacial water. They had become muddy in the path between the glacier and the minibus. With one dip, everything was sparkling clean. We called it the magic water.

Female guide: “Who wants to get naked with me and jump into this ice cold water?”

I teased her and said, “Okay!” as I jokingly started to take off my coat.

Female guide: “Really?”

That’s when I realized she was being serious.

Female guide: “There was only one person ever who actually said “yes” and we both went in.”

I think she mentioned that the person was either French or German. I honestly was tempted to do it. Ya gotta live once, right? But, the thought of drying off somehow without a towel and putting back all the layers of clothing rendered me lazy.

We headed back to the rest area for some lunch. It was maybe around 2 or 2:30pm. The rest area had such a simple looking kitchen that you’d think the food would come out like NYC public school hot lunch. But, we had the juiciest burgers, chicken and ham & egg sandwiches ever. Everything tasted fresh and came with a side of paprika dusted fries in crunchy perfection. I’m not lying when I say that I haven’t had a single bad meal in Iceland.

On the long drive back to Reykjavík, we made a stop along the road, surrounded by vast land. One particular area was covered with little piles of rocks. Each rock added onto the top is supposed to bring good luck which is not an uncommon thing to do throughout the world. But, if I’m remembering correctly, there was a farmer whose land was destroyed by a nearby volcanic eruption, forcing him to leave this particular area. The piles of rocks were to bid him good luck in his journey. I wish I took a picture of the sign but, I had passed out on the bus earlier and was viewing this wonder in a sleepy haze. I was also distracted by the blue/orange sunset.

Later, we also stopped right outside of Reykjavík in the hopes of catching the aurora but, there were some clouds in the sky and light pollution in the distance. When we exited the bus to try looking anyway, I realized that it had been snowing the past hour or so. The area all around was covered in snow so fresh that most of it hadn’t yet been disturbed. It was beautiful. And, also freaking cold.

We finally were dropped off at our Airbnb around 9:30 or 10pm and upon reading the owner’s instructions to enter a key code, we stared at the doorway looking for any sort of keypad. There appeared to be none. We double-checked that we were on the right street and at the right doorway. We felt a bit stranded without cell service. Luckily, a local passing by on the sidewalk let us use his phone but, without an actual phone number, we could only message the owner via Airbnb. Her response was the same as our printout – enter the key code. We went back to the doorway and stared at everything. Finally, we realized that this one little box placed above our heads opened up, and voila!, there was the keypad.

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The apartment itself was clean and super cute. Going through the options of Reykjavík apartments on Airbnb is like going through an Ikea catalogue. Maybe it’s all a scheme.

It was getting pretty late so, we quickly made our way to the famed hot dog stand, Bæjarins beztu pylsur. It seemed to be the only place nearby still offering food at this time of night on a Sunday. We got one “with everything” – ketchup, mustard, fried onions and sweet relish. The hot dogs definitely hit the spot.

#iceland #icegnomes #day2

Iceland

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We had the option of going ice caving around the Vatnajökull glacier at either 9am or 2pm, with the remainder of the day at our disposal. So, we decided to go in the morning when we were freshly awake and ready for an adventure. It was a bit cold and pretty cloudy (the weather had been on average around the mid to high 30’s °F during the day, with the wind chill at night making it feel even colder). Extreme Iceland offers hiking boot rentals which is great for anyone who wants to pack light and isn’t planning on hiking much during their stay. We rented boots and they had good ankle support, were nicely worn-in and also were in great condition. Just make sure to wear thick socks.

We parted ways with Ingo and had a new tour guide, someone who is an expert with ice caves and whose name I don’t think I ever knew. Instead of a minibus, we went inside what looked like a Korean church van on monster wheels. The drive started off on paved roads, then gravel roads, then completely off the road. We would hit large snowy puddles that completely drenched the van once they were hit, and we continued on in our moon exploration on terrain that became extra bumpy. “Are we even on the road anymore?” “I was wondering the same thing…” At this point, the driver was completely relying on a compass and a sixth sense to get us to our destination. I began to laugh to myself. “Whoa, where are we going??” Bumblefrack. That’s where.

Finally, we saw another van with steroid wheels parked in the distance. We had arrived at our destination. The tour guide gave us helmets to wear and crampons to attach to our boots so that we could walk safely on the ice. I looked into the distance and all I saw was flat land leading to flat sheets of ice. Where exactly was this cave and how far did we need to walk?

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The walk was only a few minutes and we were led to a huge crevice in the ice with an opening to an underground cave surrounded by ice. Definitely Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

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Without the people in these photos, you would completely lose perspective and not know if you were looking at the wall, ceiling or ground. Over time and with extreme pressure, air bubbles were gradually squeezed out of the ice and the ice crystals grew larger to reveal a clear blue color. I can feel a nice life metaphor lurking around somewhere.

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On the opposite side of the ice cave, less light made the atmosphere an eerie darker blue and more alien-like. In some areas, melting ice created small showers and water was trickling down along a small part of the wall.

Jenn: “Oh, a tiny waterfall! I’m going to wash off the dirt on my gloves.”

[cleans gloves and puts them back on]

Jenn: “Oh. These gloves aren’t waterproof.”

You could feel the sheer disappointment in her voice as she had this realization and I couldn’t stop laughing for some reason. I think it was the quick change from “Oh, yay! I have this great idea” to “Dammit, WTF, BAD IDEA!” And, the fact that she had been duped by the waterproof look of the gloves. This is also probably only funny to me.

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We climbed out of the ice cave right before another group was making its way down, and stood around to take in the blueish gray sky. Our tour guide also made his way out with another girl from our group trailing behind him.

Tour guide: “I’m going to take her back to the van. Do you girls want to follow?”
Us: “Umm, no, it’s okay. We’re just going to walk around for a bit on the ice.”
Tour guide: “NO! You can’t walk around. Some areas might be dangerous.”
Us: “Oh, don’t worry. We’re just going to stay close in this area.”
Tour guide: “Nooo.”

Okay, so, his initial question was clearly a rhetorical one. After the second group went inside the ice cave, we began to follow him back to the van.

Tour guide: “Watch out for this small crevice! You can fall through!”
HyeMi (whispering to us 3 girls): “I was actually just about to step on that small crevice…”

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We finally made our way up onto the icy paths leading to the van. Every 30 seconds or so, the tour guide kept turning around to make sure we were following him. We were walking very slowly to take some photos (above photo credit: HyeMi), and every time he turned around to look at us, I could feel his fear emanating towards us, fear that we’d run off course as soon as he turned his back.

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I’m sure the tour guide breathed a huge sigh of relief and cooled himself off using all ventilation zips on his jacket once we reached the van. Before heading back to get the rest of the group. he gestured for us to go inside the van but, we wanted to stay outside and insisted that we’d stay nearby on the rocky ground where the vans were parked. He started to react but, seemed to have thought the better of it and gave up. “Okay, but DON’T GO FAR and BE CAREFUL.” Haha…

Although it was mostly cloudy throughout the morning, the gray shadowing made it seem that much more moonlike and I loved imagining that we were on another planet. I actually preferred this to sunniness.

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We were back at the guesthouse in Höfn by noon and had the rest of the day free. After the jam-packed day we had the day before, having a free half day felt amazing. We grabbed lunch at the other restaurant nearby which was attached to Þórbergssetur, a small museum dedicated to the local writer Þórbergur Þórðarson. For lunch, I had an asparagus soup and smoked Arctic char on Icelandic bread (the fluffiest and chewiest carbohydrates) topped with a sliced hard-boiled egg and dill sauce. Pure delight.

The attached museum is actually a small room with a model of the writer’s/locals’ early 20th century home situated inside. The model was very simple, with 2 semi-floors showing the beds on the top floor next to spinning wheels used for sewing, and a small barrel and plunger on the ground floor used for churning butter (a possible kitchen). The home was surrounded by anecdotes, excerpts and bits of history of the author, the land and the country’s literary heritage. Though small and quaint, the exhibit was thoughtfully put together. They really tried.

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We walked back to our guesthouse to ask if there were any hiking paths in the area. The receptionist had told us that we could roam around anywhere and jump any fences since the land was shared by 3 guesthouses. When we headed back out minutes later, the sky had cleared out and the sun dominated the very blue sky. It was warm enough to leave our coats unzipped.

Upon seeing horses in the distance, we decided to roam in that direction so that we could go see them but, we ended up trudging on marshes that became increasingly waterlogged the further we walked only to realize that the horses were not only further than expected but also unreachable due to the way the shore was structured. So, we took our photos of the ocean and decided to head back to fill our flasks with the crowberry liqueur, grab a bottle of wine and drink somewhere outdoors.

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HyeMi: “Okay, guys, I remember seeing a picnic table by the road and I remember it being near trees. I see trees in the distance over there so, it might be right there. Want to hang out there with our drinks?”

So, we began walking towards the road and it became so windy, I had to hold onto my sweater hat to prevent it from blowing away.

HyeMi: “I also remember the picnic table being red.”

We continued walking in the cold wind and peered out into the distance.

Me, Christina, Jenn: “Uh, are you sure there was a picnic table? I don’t see anything red.”
HyeMi: “Uh…there definitely was a picnic table but, I’m not sure of the distance.”

I could hear the slight nervousness in her voice.

Suddenly, I spotted a regular brown wooden picnic table by the road.

Me: “Hey! There really is a picnic table but, it’s not red!”
Christina/HyeMi: “Maybe it’s a mirage.”

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We sat down at the roadside picnic table, took out our flasks, bottle of wine and assortment of snacks (Haribo gummies, almonds, Cadbury mini eggs and a mistakenly-bought bag of chocolate covered licorice) and engaged in girl talk for around 1-2 hours. We may have looked like stragglers to the drivers and passengers passing by in their cars, trucks and tour buses. (Exhibit A: see above, plus Christina, the photo taker). For all of you who may be curious, the crowberry liqueur wasn’t all that bad, at least to me and Jenn. It tasted raisiny to us but, like cough syrup to HyeMi and Christina.

Once we finished our liqueur, HyeMi realized that she forgot to bring the funnel to pour the wine into our flasks. After attempting to pour on her own for a few minutes, she was left with wasted wine spilled onto the table and only about a sip of wine in the flask. So, in true straggler/hobo style, we passed around the bottle clockwise until our supply went dry. We sat at the table a bit longer until the sun began to really irritate our faces. It was amazing being outdoors in the warm sun, with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other side in the distance, drinking with great friends at a really random roadside picnic table. “Cheers to us!”

We spent the remaining time before dinner in the panoramic lounge with more girl talk, Instagram, celebrity/fashion magazines and one more bottle of wine. There was a lamb slow roasting in the oven that teased us during those hours and I kicked myself for not pre-ordering that. Since the restaurant is small and there was a decent amount of people, we all needed to choose what we wanted for dinner earlier in the day. Two of us got the chicken and two of us got the vegetarian (a chickpea patty prepared like falafel). Again, everything was cooked to moistness perfection and very savory. After dinner, we retreated back to the lounge to wait for the Northern Lights. The sky remained clear of clouds by nighttime and everyone was hopeful for a showing. We bought a bottle of wine at the bar (we exhausted our duty free supply) and drank some more, as Jenn and I dozed off for a 20 minute nap (the deepest sleep in a nap ever).

After I woke up, I headed to the bathroom and saw a woman glued to the window down the hall. “I see the Northern Lights!” “Whaaaaa….?? REALLY???” The rest of the girls heard my voice echoing down the hall and began to run towards me with one arm in their coats. I ran to get my tripod and camera and ran outside after them. It was around 10:30 – 11pm.

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It was a faint showing but, so exciting to all of us. I kept shouting, “This is fantastic!!!!” and squealed with joy when my camera captured the green in the night sky. The aurora was fantastic, the twinkling stars were fantastic, everything was fantastic. Fantastic(aurora + twinkling stars + everything) = this night. Yea, math equation!

We all slept really well that night.

Travel tip: We weren’t sure if it was customary to tip the tour guides, especially since no one else was doing it. We nervously asked Ingo if it’s a typical thing and he said that although it’s not too common, it is definitely accepted. So, we collectively tipped each tour guide around 2,000 ISK (about $15) which we weren’t sure if it was enough but, each guide appreciated the gesture. Also, if you’re wondering what to wear on this trip, the tour itinerary explains it well. Most of us wore sports tights with heat technology (Nike, Under Armour, etc.), and I wore regular tights underneath a loose pair of pants. Layers is the key since the weather changes often. Waterproof/windproof gear isn’t always necessary but, if you have them, it can be a convenience. Definitely bring a winter hat and gloves.

#iceland #icegnomes #day1

My friend Jenn and I have been wanting to see the Northern Lights for awhile and have contemplated going to Alaska or Canada to see them. But, our schedules never really matched, particularly mine since working tax busy seasons ruled my winters. Actually, work ruled my life. Then, we began talking about Iceland. It was possible to see the aurora borealis in March, which due to an early deadline was a month during which I could spare a few days to travel. Also, Iceland had been on both of our lists of places to visit. Bingo. It was going to be me, Jenn and her husband Eli.

But, after some thought, Eli became uncomfortable with the idea of being a third wheel and kindly backed out. We mentioned the trip idea to our friends HyeMi and Christina and, within minutes, they were on board. #GirlsTrip (I had to capitalize the 2 letters or else people would’ve thought this involved clothing removal in a sexy manner.)

We all booked our flights based on the particular week and the number of days we all could spare at the same time. Other than the Blue Lagoon and the Northern Lights, we didn’t really have an idea of what else there is to see and do…and proceeded to book our flights without knowing if we allotted enough time. All we thought was that we’d rent a car, drive a shitload of hours, relax and see the lagoon and lights. So, when we finally discussed a possible itinerary, we luckily found a 3-day group tour that covered the sights we wanted to see, pre-booked round trip transportation to/from the airport as well as our Blue Lagoon admission and found a Northern Lights tour to complete the trip. All the pieces came together in the end.

Iceland

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We took an overnight flight and landed at 6:35am, which was 4 hours ahead of Eastern Time. There is no daylight savings in Iceland and the time difference is 4 hours for most of the year and 5 hours for only a few months. My friends who’ve visited before have set my expectations low for the Northern Lights since it is usually unpredictable and highly dependent on weather conditions. The weather forecast was filled with rain clouds but, I was told that the weather changes frequently throughout the day. A t-shirt quote in a souvenir shop confirmed this – “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.”

With that, I came to Iceland expecting nothing but to have fun. We washed up in the airport bathroom near the gate which had individual rooms with a toilet and sink. The sinks were equipped with a 2-in-1 faucet and Dyson hand drier. I only mention this because this is when I began to realize how current with technology Iceland is, with wifi provided almost everywhere and credit card machines even in the most remote areas of the island. It was more than what I’ve seen in larger European cities. I stopped by the ATM for some Icelandic Krona (ISK) and later realized that I didn’t need cash at all. (Actually, I needed some to tip the tour guides.)

As you’re exiting baggage claim, you are led into a huge duty free shop right before the point of no turning back. It is Iceland’s way of saying “Are you suuuure you don’t want to purchase some liquor for your trip?” Drinks are expensive throughout the country due to high government-imposed taxes and one piece of advice my friends gave me was to buy alcohol at the duty free. So, we each grabbed a bottle of wine and I also grabbed a bottle of Reykjavik Distillery’s Crowberry liqueur for the flasks HyeMi brought for us. There were less bottles of it than the blueberry and rabarbara (which we later realized was rhubarb) so I thought it was the most popular and the most Icelandic. What the hell is crowberry? I still don’t know.

Before heading onto the bus towards the Reykjavík city center, we had some time to grab a bite to eat and ordered sandwiches, coffee and freshly-made juices at Joe & The Juice. This may have been our most favorite meal. The bread they use looks like large thin crackers but, when you take a bite, the initial crunchiness gives way to slight chewiness on the inside. We tried looking for this in the local supermarkets but, to no avail. It would’ve been the perfect souvenir…for myself.

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As we were heading out of the airport, we overheard people talking about solar storms that had occurred and a solar eclipse that was supposed to happen this very morning. We didn’t know what to expect but, about an hour later, we found ourselves in the Gray Line [bus] main office in the city center looking at the sun through a green piece of glass. And, lo and behold, we saw the moon in its gradual covering of the sun, the crescent of a sun becoming as thin as a fingernail clipping between 9:30 -10:00am. Did we just unexpectedly stumble onto something that doesn’t occur too often at the exact time it was happening? Yep.

Our Extreme Iceland tour guide, Ingo (short for Ingoskjallfossjokull…kidding, but, the full name rolled off the tongue in one indecipherable noise), came to pick us up at the main office and continued on to pick up more people from their hotels in our minibus. We were already running late and he was hurrying us along. He made a stop at Hallgrímskirkja, the main church, to wait for the remaining people and gave each of us a green piece of glass to continue watching the solar eclipse. The area around us had become eerily darker and if you looked briefly at the sun with your naked eye, you could see the crescent before it became overbearing for your eyes.

Soon after, we were on our way on the Jökulsárlón and Ice Caving Three Day Tour. (The tour offering seems to have changed to include the Golden Circle which we didn’t have on our tour.)

Travel tip: While I definitely recommend this tour and had an amazing time, you should still take the time to research other tour offerings and tour companies to see what fits you/your group better. We had looked into doing private tours with Discover Iceland and Eskimos Iceland but, it became too costly. We also compared super jeep vs. minibus tours and, while I hear the super jeep is more comfortable (and also more expensive), it is probably more worthwhile when there is extreme snow conditions (around December). Much of the snow had melted by the end of March. Renting/driving your own car could be too tiring and somewhat risky. We overheard a group of girls who had rented a car and, after getting stuck in the ice/snow, had to figure out how to get themselves out. In the end, I was glad we went on the group tour. It was nice having other people around (there were 17 of us in total). We also booked our bus roundtrip to/from the airport through Extreme Iceland.

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Ingo: “We will pass through the town of Selfoss and make our way to the first waterfall Seljalandsfoss, about a 1 hr 45 min drive.”

I thought, “Yes!!” as I gradually dozed off with my head dangling backward (dry mouth problem) for part of the way and dangling forward (excessive drooling problem) for other parts of the way. We were all exhausted and fell asleep in phases without warning. The landscape was other worldly and moonlike, flat for miles with mountains as the backdrop. We passed by several greenhouses before I dozed off. Since there isn’t much natural vegetation in Iceland, these greenhouses are used to grow certain vegetables and fruits, one being bananas. Ingo told us a story that when the Icelanders presented Winston Churchill with a basket of bananas when he visited the country, he had asked why they used great resources to import the bananas for him. They responded, “They were grown here.”

At the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, it is possible to walk behind it. However, the paths were still coated with blocks of ice which my boots couldn’t grip onto and, with the sprays from the waterfall and the constant wind, anyone who tried became drenched head to toe like a vegetable in the produce section of a supermarket. If you google Seljalandsfoss, you will find really awesome photos from the side and behind the waterfall.

The sun gave way to clouds which then gave way back to the sun.

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On our way to the next waterfall (another half hour drive), Ingo spotted horses in the distance.

Ingo: “Maybe the horses will come to us. It doesn’t look like they will but, we’ll stop here and see.”

We all filed out of the minibus and HyeMi called out to the horses as she eagerly waited by the fence.

HyeMi: “I think they’re walking over here!!”

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HyeMi successfully earned the title of Horse Whisperer (and Horse Photo Taker as seen above). These were the softest and friendliest horses I’ve ever encountered. They still had on their winter coats and their manes flowed in the wind in an emo-like behavior, very Owen Wilson in a Wes Anderson film. The horses continuously nuzzled their faces into the crowd of people standing on the other side of the fence and one kept sniffing me out as if he/she expected to find a snack hidden in an inside pocket. Sorry, horsey, this fatass already ate the snack.

Horses are so highly regarded in Iceland that the locals were said to prefer starvation to the eating of horse meat and Icelandic law actually used to ban the eating of it. The ban had since been lifted.

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The climb up to the top of the Skógafoss waterfall was longer than expected and thigh-trembling to most but, it was definitely worth seeing the view of the water and vast landscape.

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Icelandic homes and buildings are so simplistic, many of which have statement red roofs. I want one for myself. On the way back down, the rainbow by the waterfall became more prominent and radiated outward.

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This was probably the first time I ever saw a full rainbow from its beginning point to the end. To my disappointment, there wasn’t no damn pot o’ gold! Legend has it that treasure was hidden in the cave behind the waterfall and that when it was once found, it had disappeared again as soon as it was grasped from the side.

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Another half hour drive brought us to the Reynisfjara black sand beach, with the cliffs of Dyrhólaey in the distance. The now gray sky added onto the cool moonlike quality of the landscape.

Ingo: “Don’t go too close to the shore and never turn your back on the waves! Three people have gotten pulled under and drowned. If something happens, I’m not going in to save you! One life lost is better than two!”

The waves did appear very powerful but, I can see how people can underestimate just how dangerous they are and want to get closer for better photos. People tend to think “Oh, that won’t happen to me.” The four of us stood pretty far from the shore and while Jenn was taking a video of the waves, they had hit the shore so powerfully that the water went so far inland and we had to yell at Jenn to watch out. The video clip starts off with a steady view of the shoreline then quickly becomes wobbly as the focus drops to the pebbly ground with Jenn running and yelling “AHHHH!” The undercurrent is said to be one of the strongest in the world. Scary bizznazz.

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The basalt columns around the cavern of Hálsanefshellir are so unreal. They remind me of the elaborate organ pipes of a huge cathedral or the inside of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (I just googled “Superman cave” and learned that it had a name).

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Naturally, we had to climb onto these columns (yea yea, that’s what she said) like little monkeys. Wedge booties never got in the way of HyeMi’s adventurous side.

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How does nature create something so beautiful? I was talking about me.

Afterwards, we headed to the nearby town of Vík to grab a late lunch around 4pm. The town is so small that we were probably dining in one of two total restaurants. It was in a rest area, attached to a souvenir and snack shop. Although the restaurant looked dingy, the food was delicious and hearty. I had the traditional lamb stew, while the other girls had chicken with rice and a gyro-like sandwich. Everything was flavorful and we later concluded that almost every meal seemed to be flavored with Old Bay seasoning.

We explored a neighboring souvenir shop which was well-stocked with Icelandic sweaters. Think Fair Isle in shades of gray and white, woven with wool that was scratchy to the touch. The locals probably wear undershirts or else it would bring a new meaning to the Itchy & Scratchy Show.

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On the way to our lodging in the tiny town of Höfn, we made a stop at the lava fields of Eldgjárhraun, to the east of the lava sand flats of Mýrdalssandur. The mounds of lava are now covered by moss, again, leading us to believe we were on another planet. Not only does the weather change every 15 minutes but also the landscapes, like going from one potentially habitable planet to the next from the Lazarus missions of Interstellar. Yea, I may have watched the movie on the flight here…and on the flight back. Mind explosion.

We finally reached Guesthouse Gerði where we were to sleep for the next 2 nights. It was around 7pm and dinner was being served soon after. The rooms were extremely clean and though simple, they were still very cozy. Wifi was available and, in our particular house, there was a lounge with an extra kitchen, comfortable seating and large windows giving way to a panoramic view of the land and ocean. There was plenty of hot water for the showers and the tap was pure glacial water. No hint of sulphur. For dinner, we had the option of haddock, cod, chicken, lamb, vegetarian and a side soup, which for that night was delicious mushroom (possibly the best mushroom soup ever). We all chose haddock which was cooked to moistness perfection and again, seasoned with Old Bay. It came with a side salad and roasted potatoes, and we washed it down with a local beer, the Borg Úlfur India Pale Ale Nr. 3. Yummay. Equipped with food pregnancies, we then retreated to our rooms and drank 2 of the 4 bottles of wine from duty free. When we went back to the dining area to get a corkscrew:

Us: “Excuse me, could we borrow a corkscrew for 2 nights?”
Lady: “I can open it for you here. We’re very protective of our corkscrews because if we lose it, we cannot easily go to a corner store to buy a new one.”

Fair enough and completely understandable. After all, we were literally in the middle of nowhere. She then offered to give us wine glasses to bring back to our rooms. Yea-uhhhhh.

It had become too cloudy and drizzly outside by night and chances of seeing the aurora were slim to none. So, while the rest of the guesthouse became quiet by 10 or 11pm, we stayed up past midnight in wine merriment. We started off this trip with a declaration, “It’ll feel so nice not having cell service, and being completely disconnected from the world.” We ended the night with a wine glass in one hand and an iPhone in the other. I love and hate you, wifi. But really, I love you.