A Modern-Day Icelandic Saga
This post about Iceland is written by our friend and fellow traveler, C. Enjoy!
A year and a half ago, B, R and I went to Iceland for a long weekend. We spent a couple of days in Reykjavik and one day touring the Golden Circle. We had such a great time that I knew I had to go back and explore more. I also really wanted to take my family, because I knew how much they would enjoy the scenery and ease of travel.
Eight Days in Iceland
We got our chance this spring. My parents, sister and I spent eight days, seven nights on the island. As our plane was descending into Keflavik airport, I could see the ocean and the lava fields, memories from my last trip came flooding back, and I was so excited to share them all with my family!
Here are our top 10 favorite memories of our trip to Iceland (old favorites and new discoveries):
Action Figures on Street Signs
On our first morning in Reykjavik, we went on an I Heart Reykjavik walking tour of the city. I would highly recommend it as a great way to not only get a lay of the land, but also learn fun and quirky insights into the culture. Our tour guide, Ásta, was delightful and knowledgeable. She told us about a “toy bandit” that has recently started super gluing action figures to inconspicuous street signs and window ledges around town. Sure enough, if you look closely you’ll spot these hidden treasures all over the city.
I wouldn’t say Iceland is known for their food. However, there were a few items that we discovered and now can’t stop thinking about. First and foremost is Skyr, a flavored yogurt like substance that is actually a soft cheese. We stocked up on Skyr at a grocery store most mornings and then rationed it out throughout the day. I really wish you could buy Skyr in our grocery stores at home.
Now, don’t judge me, but our second favorite food was filet of foal. Yes, foal, as in baby horse. We were at Brasserie Askur in Reykjavik, and it was the most recommended dish on the menu according to Yelp. Dad ordered it, and we all tried a bite. The idea of eating baby horse made me a little sad, but I had to try it to say I’d eaten it, and I have no regrets. It tasted like meat butter…so smooth and savory!
And of course we had our fair share of pylsur, or hot dogs, at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur! This trip I learned that the actual hot dog is made from lamb, and that they top it with three types of sauce (one more mayonnaise-y, one more ketchup-y, and one more mustard-y), fresh onions, and fried onions.Top it all off with a Fanta to drink, and that’s what I call fine, fast food right there!
We did not eat fermented shark. I was not even tempted after I heard it smelled like urine.
Iceland has a lot of basalt columns, which are formed when lava cools rapidly. The columns are typically hexagonal, so you see this shape repeated a lot in nature. For instance, we stopped at Kirkjugólf, where glaciers have eroded the basalt columns to look like a floor of natural, hexagonal tile. Kirkjugólf translates to “The Church Floor.”
Another cool thing I noticed is that this pattern is repeated in some of the architecture and design in Reykjavik. For instance, the Harpa walls and ceiling mimic the hexagonal and honeycomb patterns you see across the island.
This trip left me wishing I’d paid more attention to the geology portions of my science classes in high school.
Horses, Lambs, and Reindeer… Oh My!
Driving through the countryside, the fields are full of Icelandic horses and sheep. I affectionately refer to the horses as “Justin Beiber horses,” because of the manes that swoop across their foreheads and cover their eyes. They’re shorter and stockier than the horses in America, but they’re so beautiful!
Lambing season must have been a week or two before we arrived, because there were also lambs almost everywhere you looked. Most of the momma sheep had twins and sometimes triplets.
The most surprising animal we saw were the reindeer. Yes, reindeer! We were driving near Höfn, and we saw a caution sign with a reindeer on it. I laughed out loud because I’d never read or heard anything about reindeer in Iceland. However, I nearly drove off the road when I turned a corner and saw a herd of them standing in a nearby field! They looked just like reindeer in the Christmas movies, complete with velvety antlers.
Chasing Waterfalls (or Foss)
Another surprising discovery was the number of waterfalls in Iceland. You often see pictures of Gullfoss, the popular tourist attraction near Geysir; however, there are dozens of other waterfalls across the island, and no two are alike.
I had two favorites: Seljalandsfoss and Hraunfoss. As you may have guessed by now, foss means waterfall. Seljalandsfoss is a tall, narrow waterfall off Route 1 in southern Iceland that you can hike behind. My sister came with me, and we were soaking wet. We had rain jackets and waterproof shoes on, but our jeans were wet through. We took some good pictures from behind the waterfall, but it was hard to shoot, because of the spray. To say you’ve hiked behind a waterfall in Iceland…worth it.
Hraunfoss is off Route 518 about 45 minutes from the town of Borgarnes. It’s not as tall as Seljalandsfoss, but it’s a series of waterfalls that come out of a lava field. What impressed me was how brilliant the water was. Pictures can’t capture the turquoise color adequately.
After going to bed late and waking up early only to find the sun up all the time, we began to wonder if it ever gets dark in Iceland. To find out, we set a time-lapse video on my phone before going to bed one night. When we watched the replay, we saw that it got dusky, but never really dark. It’s called “midnight sun.” During the summer, the days are much longer, because Iceland is so far north. Conversely, Iceland goes through a period in the winter where there is very little light the day.
One of our favorite, albeit simple, stops was at Laufskalavaroa. Local legend is that there used to be a farm there with something like 27 gates. Passersby would stop and add a rock to one of the gates for good luck. It is now tradition for travelers to stop and build a cairn out of lava rock for good luck. We thought we’d better add our own cairn to the landscape, and it certainly worked! We need to start a similar tradition in one of the desert lava beds in Idaho.
Hands down, the best site we visited this trip was Jökulsárlón. You have to pay close attention to find this landmark coming from the south, because there’s hardly any signage. Watch for the parking lot pull offs on the west side of the road. You hike over the edge of a caldera, and there in the basin is a beautiful, shimmering, turquoise lagoon with huge, blue chunks of ice that have calved off the glacier. On the black sand beach are perfectly clear chunks of ice that have washed ashore. It was as spectacular as I’d hoped.
Wool yarn is plentiful in Iceland. Most places carry a selection of Lopi, including the grocery stores. I found some for 130 kroner a skein, which is about $1.10, at the Netto discount grocery store in Höfn! Collecting a skein here and a skein there, pretty soon I had well over a dozen skeins and I was worried it wouldn’t all fit in my pack going home! If you’re a knitter, Iceland is a great place to stock up!
In most parts of the island, the hot water is pumped in from nearby hot springs, which means it can smell like sulphur. Similarly, most of the cold water comes from nearby glaciers (and tastes delicious). One of my favorite memories is of my sister asking, “Do I smell like rotten eggs?” after showering one morning.
The trip was exactly what I hoped it would be—relaxing, adventurous, and quality family time. It was bittersweet to leave, but I’ll be back for a third visit some day. I’m already scheming a camping trip around the perimeter…