Iceland is fantastic. There is a reason it is a very popular destination, and there is no arguing about it. The people are nice, and the landscape is beautiful. There is nothing hectic about it, and there is something of a clean living vibe while you are there. You relax, enjoy yourself, and rarely overdo a vice.
There was a joke in our house when Samer mentioned the idea of visiting Iceland. I proposed this trip 10 years before, and he immediately shot it down, saying it would be too cold. Then in December, he suggested we go after a work colleague came back from Iceland raving about it. Of course, I did not let this slide and reminded him about my idea for this trip in 2012! Even 10 years after my original proposal, I am very happy that we went. I got to see the northern lights and am so happy. That evening is one of the most amazing wonders in my memory.
I’ve wondered if choosing winter was a good idea. I certainly chronicled all of the missed attractions because of the weather, but that does not dissuade me from recommending the winter. In the winter, smaller crowds and beautiful snow-covered vistas force you to slow down. Because of that pace, I enjoyed Iceland a little bit more, and I used my vacation to actually recharge my own batteries. Winter in Iceland can be stressful, but it can be equally cozy.
I happily join the chorus of people recommending a trip to Iceland to you, my readers. Thank you.
This was supposed to be our last day, but plans changed. More on that later. We were leaving Reykjavik to visit our third and final thermal pool, the Blue Lagoon, before the airport. However, before we got on the road, we stopped by Brauð & Co for a few pastries. The Danish was excellent. In addition, Samer bought a whole loaf of Icelandic bread to bring home with us for the week. We are practical in some ways; hell, we started grocery shopping for the weekend while on vacation.
The wind was powerful that day. The gusts made our drive challenging to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is nothing like the other thermal pools we’d visited. It’s a massive complex with many staff moving tourists in and out like clockwork. It’s expensive, efficient, and a bit overwhelming. This pool is manufactured and is blue from the silica in the water. There are many tales of the waters of this pool rejuvenating your skin. The big light blue colored pool was supposed to be a relaxing and healing moment, but the winds were so strong the pool had waves. Most people stayed near the edge because the waves would smack you in the face when you went into the middle. My favorite parts of Blue Lagoon were the “no cell phone” area of the pool and the waterfall. The pool was warmer and calmer than other parts of the lagoon, and standing under the waterfall gave a warm pressure that felt like a massage. I loved it.
When we left the pool, we discovered our flight home had been canceled due to the weather. Through the icelandicair.com chat option, I got us rescheduled on a flight for early Sunday morning. It was not a direct back to Newark, so we had to fly to London and then back to Newark, but it was worth it. We stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson in the nearby town of Reykjanesbær. It’s a nice modern hotel, and Iceland Air reimbursed us after we returned home. Oddly enough, our last meal in Iceland was Polish food from a local restaurant called Polskur Matur. If you find yourself in Reykjanesbær and are sick of Icelandic cuisine, try out Polskur Matur, they make a great schnitzel.
Reykjavík is very small, and there is not much to it, so we centered most of our time in the town around eating, and we ate a lot. We slept in and enjoyed the luxury of the room before we made our way to the bakery, Brauð & Co. This place is very famous for its cinnamon rolls, so we started with one of those. It is excellent. The pastry is relatively thin, so it gets a lot of swirls in each roll. I love cinnamon rolls, and these were very good. I did find the pastry in the center to be a bit underdone for my liking. We didn’t fill up because we wanted to try another bakery, so we went to Sandholt for a few more baked goods. Sandholt is a fancier bakery, but we were not impressed with what we had from there. Brauð & Co is the baked goods winner!
It was a cloudy and rainy day, but we did what we could explore Reykjavik on foot. We walked along the harbor, checked the Sun Voyager sculpture, and visited the Harpa Concert Hall. It was all charming.
We visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which I enjoyed and thought was quite silly. A museum dedicated to dicks makes me chuckle. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I am drinking coffee as I write this from a mug I bought at the gift shop. However, Sam didn’t love it. Have you ever gone to something and accidentally synced up with another group just because you entered simultaneously? Well, this happened to us, and an annoying British incel-looking dude was mansplaining to these 2 women he was with at the museum. It was annoying, but I ignored it. On the other hand, Sam couldn’t overlook this bro and was annoyed with him every second of our time in the museum.
Believe it or not, this is the only museum we have visited while in town. I regret that a little bit. I would like to see the Icelandic Punk Museum and the National Gallery of Iceland, but we skipped every time. Even in the gloomy weather, it was nice to enjoy the ocean air.
We enjoyed walking through Reykavik and eventually stopped at Seabaron (Sægreifinn) for a bowl of lobster soup. The place is well known, and the soup was delicious, but it was particularly comforting on a gloomy and rainy day. It’s the type of place that normally has a line snaking out the door but was nearly empty when we were there. We quickly got a table and enjoyed our soup with an Icelandic beer. For dessert, we walked to a patisserie shop, Sweet Aurora Reykjavik, run by a french woman who moved to Iceland. It’s nice and very elaborate compared to most Icelandic desserts. The French know how to impress.
Instead of steeping ourselves in the cultural treasures at the museum, we spent the rest of the day shopping. There is nothing “cheap” about Iceland, but everything we got was nice. First, we went to Kirsuberjatréð, which is a collective of women artisans. The products in the store are very well made. Samer bought himself a belt made from Icelandic fish skin. I bought a watercolor of the Hvalfjörður fjord. The artist is Frieda Roolf. It’s set in the summer, but I love the painting of places I’ve had a fond memory of. We bought a watercolor of Huayna Picchu in our living room in Peru, where I proposed to Samer.
We bought a few other gifts for friends and went to The Handknitting Association of Iceland. The one gift I wanted was a lopapeysa, the traditional Icelandic sweater. The sweaters are costly, very warm, and handmade, so you must try on many sweaters. We were in the shop for a while, and I had people from around the world giving feedback on how each sweater fit me. The women from Ohio did not hold back when I tried on the ones that looked terrible.
It’s not lost on me that we must seem profligates now. We spent a day eating, shopping, and napping. What more can be done? Well, our decadence only increased once we woke up. In December, I made a reservation at the only restaurant with a Michelin star in Iceland, Dill. Even 2 months in advance, we could not get a reservation before 9 PM on our way to dinner. We strolled through Reykjavik and stopped at Kokteilbarinn for a drink. This bar’s gimmick is that they have an old passenger train that they can seat you in. They refer to it as the Champagne Train. Obviously, we did not know this was an option, and when the maître d’ asked us, “Would you like the champagne train (my ear heard ‘shampytrane’)?” I was flummoxed at the offer and said, “sure.” Only then were we escorted into a train car. Frankly, I prefer my cocktails in a dimly lit, nice restaurant. If I wanted to be around drunks on public transit, I’d ride SEPTA (zing).
Dill is a nice restaurant and easily the best meal I had in Iceland. It was very high-end without some of the absurd pretension this type of restaurant often carries. We started with a glass of champagne and added the wine pairing. The wine pairing was the weakest part of the dinner. The first paired wine was a German rose that would have been good on its own but did not follow the champagne well and only paired well with about half of the starting course. Additionally, the final wine was not wine. It was cider from Norway. The middle wines were excellent, so this was a real letdown, and it didn’t pair with rhubarb cake at all. They were very generous with the pours, so we left Dill more than tipsy when he the street. We thought we’d hit Reykjavik’s one gay bar, but there was a line to get in, so we passed and had one last hotdog from the Bæjarins beztu hot dog stand.
We had a great night’s sleep. The night before, the staff had asked us when we wanted breakfast because, with only 2 rooms booked, they did not want to set up a full buffet. So we told them we would be down at 9:00, and they brought a smorgasbord of food to our table. Eggs, beans, cold cuts, cheeses, bread, croissants, fruit, etc.
I eat more cold cuts and cucumber for breakfast whenever I am in Europe. I really like that? Why don’t I eat cold cuts for breakfast in the USA? It was enough food for an army and was all quite good. The sun was rising, so the fjord sparkled in the light. The white backdrop of the snow-covered landscape framed the fjord’s beauty like a painting. It was stunning to watch it all light up from the front room of the hotel.
Once we got on the road, we went to our second thermal pool. The Hvammsvik Hot Springs was different from the Secret Lagoon. This was a high-end luxury spa, and it made you feel like it. We were the first customers there, so we had the entire complex to ourselves. The pools sit on the fjord’s edge, so while you enjoy the hot water, you enjoy the scenery. There is a pool that fills with seawater when the tide is up and then eventually heats up after the tide recedes. We considered going in it, but it was still frigid while we were there. After enjoying the pools and the steam room, we had a drink in the restaurant. We loved the soap in the showers and bought some to bring home. I loved the Hvammsvik Hot Springs.
This ends the road trip. We drove south into Reykjavík and stayed at the Reykjavik Residence Apartment Hotel. The property was called The Prime Minister’s Residence at Hverfisgata 21. We splurged on this hotel, but it was really nice. It felt a bit like an AirBNB-Hotel hybrid. The apartment was gorgeous, with beautiful big windows and good amenities.
For dinner that night, we signed up to take a food tour with the Funky Food and Beer Walk. Our guide’s name was Lalli, and he is the company’s founder. We don’t usually do food tours, but I recommend this one. I thought it was quite good. There is a ton of food, and no one will leave hungry, but it starts with old Icelandic food. This is how I tasted the infamous Hákarl, Iceland’s fermented shark. I did not need to eat it again, but it was not as bad as I had imagined. It had a blue cheese funk to it. You end up eating a lot of food on the tour and end a craft beer bar. The food is far more memorable than the Icelandic craft beer scene. We had a hotdog from the Bæjarins beztu hot dog stand, and I loved it. Even Samer, a man who hates hot dogs, liked it.
Lalli is a nice guy. His tour is very good, and he is happy to discuss various subjects with you. We talked about politics, and he told us he was close to an Icelandic activist named Haukur Hilmarsson. Hilmarsson fought as a team commander with Kurdish militants and was killed by the Turkish military. That story really sticks with me, and there is a tangible sense of solidarity for a comrade who lost a comrade. Presente Hilmarsson!
On our way back to the house, we stopped by a bookstore/music venue bar called Hús máls og menningar and listened to a cover band. It was fun and a nice wind-down.
Calling Skyggnir Bed and Breakfast a B&B is a misnomer by US standards. There was a cabinet of shared bread, cereal, jam, coffee, and tea that you had to prepare for yourself. When I woke up to make toast and tea, I kept thinking, “this is not what I want for a vacation.” It was funny, but I was being a grumpy snob, and I like to eat on vacation, so I was ready to leave as soon as I woke up. Skyggnir Bed and Breakfast is a nice place for a traveler keeping an eye on their budget, but I wasn’t. If I had a time machine, I would probably do this itinerary:
Start the previous day at Secret Lagoon and have a quick lunch there.
Visit Gullfoss (doing that today)
Sleep at Efstidalur Farm II (last night)
Oh well, you live and learn.
We started the day at the massive waterfall, Gullfoss. It is vast and has multiple stepped falls. In safer seasons, there are hiking trails in this area, but they were inaccessible while we were there. It was spectacular. Unlike Skogafoss or Seljalandsfoss, this is a waterfall you can see from the top down rather than the bottom up. We had a coffee in the visitor center and left.
The next stop was the Efstidalur Farm II. Samer is an ice cream fan, constantly prattling on about the superiority of Lebanese ice cream. This dairy farm specializes in making ice cream on the premises. I did not tell him we were going to this place and surprised him when I said we should pull into a random farm. The Íshlaðan Ice Cream Barn serves delicious ice cream, and the seating is in the barn. The animals are sealed off by a glass window, but you can see all of the cows eating while you are enjoying your ice cream. Even Samer gave it a passing grade.
I grew up around beef cattle. My family kept a couple at our house, and my grandparents and uncle all had a herd. I hated visiting the barn. It was always dusty, and it smelled like shit. While I was sitting there, I kept thinking about what tourists will do now. Go sit with cows and eat ice cream. These Icelandic farmers know how to make money.
There was a restaurant on the premise, but it felt a bit early for lunch, so we drove into the town of Laugarvatn and ate at a place called Lindin. I had a burger made from Reindeer meat that was quite good. The owner was a gay guy a bit older than us who was quick to tell us about some great partying he did in the United States back in the day. He was eager to chat us up, and lest we think he was flirting, he told us he had a boyfriend. Traveling to a country where being out is as easy as it is in Philadelphia is very nice.
We started getting a little tired of driving at this point in the trip. The weather was wearing on us, and we were both tired of the road trip. We headed to Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir). When we arrived, the snow was blowing hard, and getting out of the car felt exhausting. We headed into Thingvellir, which was nice, but I am confident we only experienced a fraction of it. The park staff person told us we could drive to another entrance to see the waterfalls at the park. We had passed it on our way in and weren’t interested in turning around on these roads. The weather prevented us from taking some of the side trails. This is a place I would love to return to in the summer.
When we finished at Thingvellir, we drove to Hotel Glymur. It takes an hour to get there in good weather, but I am sure it took us more than 90 minutes. It had stopped snowing, but the roads continued to be quite slippery. We drove along the edge of the beautiful Hvalfjörður fjord, which was stunning and serene. It was quite different from the violent ocean waves of the south.
I loved Hotel Glymour because I love an out-of-date fancy hotel. (It’s the same feeling I have for all of Bermuda.) When you arrive, you realize this place was extraordinary 20 years ago, but everything feels dated. There were only 2 rooms booked in the hotel, and there was a lot of helpful staff. The lobby had comfortable couches and wool blankets, which I enjoyed while having a pre-dinner beer. The kitchen was ready to prepare something nice, so I felt bad for only ordering soup for dinner.
After dinner, we were chatting when the front desk attendant announced you could see the northern lights from the back of the hotel. We rushed outside, and there they were. It was beautiful green streaks coming over the hilltop north of us. They are lovely and startling because the sky, though changing, is also relatively consistent. It’s always been there with us, and I know the parameters in which it can change. This was alien and beautiful. I felt so lucky to be witnessing it.
I said to myself to enjoy it before trying to get a great photo of it, and I honestly did take a moment to appreciate how lucky I was to be witnessing it. I then sprinted back to my room to grab my camera, tripod, iPad, and coat. I recently traded my old camera in for an upgrade, and this one had a remote shutter that you can take with an app. So I rushed back to my spot outside, set up the camera, and struggled to get the app to connect. I was trying to keep my eyes on the lights but could only see a black screen when the app connected. I was frustrated, and my fingers were freezing.
I finally decided to give up on my first (and last) opportunity to photograph the northern lights. It was a minor defeat but greatly overshadowed by the fact that I saw them.
When I returned to the room, I sat my camera still attached to the tripod on the couch and saw that my lens cap was still on my camera. ARGH!!!! The black screen means it was connected; it was just reporting back the color of the cap. Very frustrating and somewhat embarrassing.
The rooms in Hotel Glymur were fantastic. There were multiple levels, and the beds were very comfortable. This was a significant upgrade from the Skyggnir Bed and Breakfast the night before.