Iceland Diaries: Homeward Bound, Final Thoughts

Sunday, Feb. 19

The morning was spent packing our bags and cleaning up the Airbnb. We finished exactly at checkout time, 11 a.m., then made the 10-minute walk with our bags to the bus terminal, where we had 40 minutes or so to kill before our Flybus departed. As I was sitting and enjoying my coffee, one of my friends pointed out a girl walking through the station to me: “She’s got the same bag as you.” Sure enough, she also had a bright blue Deuter pack. I noticed her briefly before turning back to my phone and coffee. When we eventually boarded the Flybus, it was packed, with every last seat taken.

At the airport, we climbed off the bus and went to pick up our bags. We were near the back so most of the passengers had already grabbed their belongings. Kurt got his bag and pointed at the blue Deuter bag left in the cargo hold. As I picked it up, I spotted two Nalgenes tucked into the front pockets. I didn’t have two Nalgenes. My heart leapt into my throat and I froze in panic. “Wait, this isn’t my bag!”

“You better find her fast!” Kurt said, snapping out of my shock. Wearing the stranger’s backpack, I sprinted inside the airport and scanned the crowd for my pack. Finally, I spotted her in line at the WOW Airline counter, just about to check in. I ran over and tapped her on the shoulder, saying breathlessly “I think you’ve my bag.” She looked at my pack and hers.

“Oh my God! I am so, so sorry. Wow, that would have been terrible!” she said. We traded backpacks back.

“No worries! I’m just glad I found you!” I said. My heartbeat began to slow back down as I made my way back to my friends, relieved. If my friend hadn’t pointed out the duplicate bag back at the bus terminal, I might not have looked as closely when I picked up the bag and wouldn’t have realized until we got back home.

view of Greenland from our plane

Major bag crisis averted. We checked in, did some final shopping, got some food, and made our way to the gate. It was the beginning of the end of our smooth, uneventful journey back to Chicago. I stayed awake for the return flight, and took advantage of IcelandAir’s movie selection. After considering Frozen, I stuck with the Arctic theme and watched The Golden Compass, followed by the musical Chicago to bring it on home. I was sad that our amazing vacation was over, but was eager to get home and be reunited with our dog and two cats.

A few closing thoughts on our trip: Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country. The people are friendly. It’s expensive as hell, but an easy trip to make (only a 6-hour flight from Chicago, no language barrier, etc.). The country has a population of 323,000 and tourism is on the rise, with an estimated 1.5 visitors in 2016. That same year also saw the first time that American tourists outnumbered Icelandic residents. The people of Iceland were nothing but hospitable to us during our trip, and have talked of the economic growth and job boom due to the surge in tourism. But on the other hand, there’s the common complaint that Iceland is turning into ‘Disneyland’ for American tourists. Another local talked to us about the rising cost of food and nightlife; prices increase because tourists will pay it, but it is pushing out the locals who are finding it harder to go out to dinner that often. And then there’s always the issue of tourists who behave poorly (thankfully we didn’t witness any of this, except for a table full of British women who dine-and-ditched at a restaurant in Hella). Hearing and seeing these things is a bummer because it is a fantastic destination and I’d hate to see it change too much. I can’t imagine the solitude of the southern coast overrun by a rash of brand new hotels popping up and down the beach to accommodate the masses.

All that being said, I’m definitely glad we went, and I would still encourage others to visit. It was like living in a beautiful storybook illustration for a week. Here’s a few tips I’ll share:

  • Don’t be scared off of traveling during the winter; the crowds will be smaller and there’s still so much to do and see! But you will need to maximize the daylight hours so schedule your days smartly, or plan for a longer trip in order to pack everything in.
  • Don’t get your hopes up too much about seeing the Northern Lights, especially if you only have a week or less. You need a combination of the right conditions (a moderate or strong Aurora forecast and a clear night sky). It’s a matter of luck.
  • If you’re planning to drink, load up on booze at the Duty Free store at the airport as soon as you land in Iceland. It’s time to revisit the pregaming days of your twenties, because drinks at bars and restaurants are $$$.
  • Get out of the city. Reykjavík is a fun place to visit and you’ll surely enjoy the restaurants and bars, but at the end of the day, it’s a small town and you’ll get the feel for it quickly. Rent a car or book a seat on a tour bus and drive out of town for as much of your trip as possible to view the stunning sights and geographical wonders.
  • If you rent a vehicle, don’t mess around and get the gravel insurance.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle. All of the tap water is safe to drink and tastes great (just let the tap run for a minute if the hot water has been on recently, and the sulfur smell will disappear).
  • You can use credit cards everywhere, so don’t worry about converting USD into ISK. I didn’t touch cash once for our entire trip, and used my credit card for everything from taxis to beers to a single cup of coffee. And don’t look at your credit card bill until you get home; you’ll have more fun that way.
  • We turned off our cellular data on our phones and got by easily just using wifi, as it’s found in pretty much every hotel, restaurant, tour bus, bus terminal, horse farm, you name it.
  • Hang onto your shopping receipts because you can get VAT (value added taxes) refunds when purchasing goods for 6,000 ISK or more.
  • Bring your own towels and flip flops to the swimming pools to save some money (or in case they don’t have any). Consider a waterproof phone case or electronics bag if you want to take a lot of photos at the pool or in Blue Lagoon.
  • Wear layers and make sure the top ones are waterproof, especially on days when you’re hiking around waterfalls.
  • Don’t be afraid of Harpa; she’s a good horse. Rub her neck just under her mane; she loves it.

Skál!

Iceland Diaries: Nerding Out on the Game of Thrones Tour

Saturday, Feb. 18

We had only booked one tour bus day trip excursion for the duration of our Iceland trip, and because we are who we are, it was a Game of Thrones shooting location tour. Almost all of the regulars from our yearly GoT Marathon were on the Iceland trip, so it made perfect sense. We took a quick shuttle ride to the bus terminal, where we boarded a giant touring bus. Having no idea of what to expect, we were surprised by the amount of people who had signed up; the bus was nearly filled to capacity with people of all nationalities, ranging in ages from twenty-somethings to an unexpected amount of elderly Thrones fans. “Winter is coming” t-shirts were spotted throughout the crowd.

Our tour guide reminded me of an Icelandic Simon Pegg. He kicked off the tour by introducing his two young sons, who were tagging along for the day. All three family members wore Star Wars t-shirts. The bus ventured out of the city and rumbled along gravel country roads until we arrived at… the exact same horse farm I had visited the day before, ha. One of the stablehands had a black Iceland horse waiting for us in the paddock, which we could pet and take photos with. The horse had been featured in an episode, so we were meeting our first GoT celeb. We learned that the scenes at Castle Black are filmed in Ireland, but scenes North of the Wall are in Iceland. Keep an eye on the horses while watching the show; Irish horses are taller than Icelandic horses, so if Jon Snow’s horse seems to experience shrinkage issues, it’s because they switched up shooting locations.

Kurt in front of Þórufoss

The next stop and first shooting location was a waterfall called Þórufoss. As our guide explained, it was the site for a scene from season 4 wherein one of Daenerys’s dragons attacks a herd of goats while a horrified farmer looks on. Since we forked over 92 for a narrated tour, we got to learn fun facts like the name of the goat that Drogon set aflame, which is Casanova. Casanova is not only famous for being featured on Game of Thrones; he is also a local celebrity because he fell deathly ill and was saved by wearing custom woollen sweaters. Thanks to Icelandic handmade goods, Casanova can continue to go and have a thriving acting career. After our tour guide told this story, I turned to my friends and said “This is EXACTLY what I signed up for.”

Þingvellir

Þingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and a popular tourist stop for the excellent reason that it is majestically, stunningly beautiful. It’s also the location for the path to the Eyrie and the Bloody Gate. IRL, the canyon between opposing walls of mossy rocks is the spot where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates separate. There’s also random waterfalls because Iceland. We spent a lot of time in this gorgeous spot, taking photos and enjoying a rare February moment of bright sunshine.

screenshot of the Bloody Gate

actual location minus the CGI

After boarding the bus again, we traveled a winding road through the park and saw other spots where some wildling camp scenes were filmed. The trails had been closed off to preserve the natural landscape, so we had to view it from the road. The next stop was an hour’s drive away, but first we had a lunch break at a small diner attached to a convenience store, where I had one of the best burgers of my life (no joke) (also, I might have just been really, really hungry).

those bloody Thenns

The final stop of the tour was a settlement-era Viking lodge in Þjórsárdalur Valley. In the show, the location doubled as a village ravaged by Thenns. You will recall this as the scene in which Ollie’s parents are killed by the tribe of cannibals. I love a tour where the guide says “This is the location of the human sacrifice.” He carried along laminated stills from the show at each stop, and I took a photo of one in front of the location to compare. He also was excited to tell us that his good friend appeared as an extra on the show, and brought along a screenshot of his buddy in full costume alongside Tormund Giantsbane.

After the tour wrapped up, we had an hour-long bus ride back to the city. My only wish was for more behind-the-scenes tidbits and juicy gossip, though I did appreciate the tour guide’s local observations, such as when he ripped on the town of Selfoss for being “famous for dairy production and their love of cheesy techno.” He also waxed rhapsodic about the romance between the actors who play Jon Snow and Ygritte, offering up their relationship as consolation for the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (the couple famously split up right after Katie visited Tom on the Icelandic set of his movie Oblivion).

That evening back in Reykjavík, we had our last dinner together as a group at Sægreifinn, which I had heard about from the Iceland episode of a now-canceled travel show that our group used to love called Three Sheets. The lobster soup lived up to our expectations.The night ended with a few rounds of beer at Bryggjan Brugghús, Iceland’s first microbrewery, then it was back to the Airbnb for one final night (insert all the crying face emoji).

 

Iceland Diaries: OMG! Ponies!

Friday, Feb. 17

Kurt woke up at 8 a.m. and quietly got dressed in our dark room before heading out. He and a few other of our friends had plans to rent a car and visit a geothermal plant (they are enginerds) and hike to the Hot River. I slept in a little bit longer, falling into the rhythm of the late Icelandic sunrise. I had my own itinerary for the day, and I was looking forward to a solo adventure.

First, I met Lauren and Charlie for coffee and croissants at Reykjavík Roasters. They had a little bit of time to hang out before catching their Flybus to the airport. The mugs at the coffee shop were some of the tiniest ones yet, but the servings were bottomless so I got a few refills. It took this trip for me to realize that my coffee addiction has reached Gilmore Girl levels. Lauren and Charlie told me a little more about their horseback riding excursion a few days earlier, as I had booked a ride at the same stable for the afternoon. They had done some galloping during their trail ride, and Lauren’s horse, Harpa, tripped while going down a river bed and tossed Lauren to the ground. “But don’t worry, it’s a fun time!” they both said. OK then.

I boarded the shuttle bus to the stables at the hotel near our Airbnb. I was the first one in the bus. The driver greeted me warmly and then asked me if I had any juicy gossip. Next, we picked up a man and woman from their hotel, who were best friends on vacation from Boston. They had arrived in Reykjavík at 6 a.m. that morning, got a few hours of sleep, and were heading out on their first excursion. The man got out his phone and started scrolling through news, saying “Ugh let’s see what Trump’s done since we left the States.”

OMG! Ponies!

We arrived at the stable, about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavík, and met the rest of our group. The stablehands sized us up with their eyes one by one, then handed us a one-piece rubber suit to put on over our clothes. The suits were bulky and cumbersome, but they would keep us warm and dry in the rain and through river crossings.

After putting on our suits, boots, gloves, and helmets, we watched the stablehands bring horses into the paddock. I had been looking forward to getting close to Icelandic horses the entire trip. They’re adorable with their shaggy coats and short, stout frames. The breed is incredibly pure; no other horses are allowed into Iceland, and once an Iceland horse leaves the country, it can never be brought back in. The animals in the paddock were feisty and spirited, whinnying, nipping at each other, and rearing up in small acts of dominance. The guy from Boston nudged his friend and said “That one horse looks really agitated. I want you to get that one.”

The trail leader, a thin blond woman with a no-nonsense demeanor, went down the line and asked each of us how much riding experience we had. Everyone said that they’d done a few trail rides before, “but not in a few years.” I took riding lessons through junior high and used to jump, but it’s been literally decades. After I replied to her question, she pointed to a brown horse by the fence and said “You take Harpa.” Of course.

Harpa and me, BFFs

We mounted up on our horses, then followed another young, blond woman who was the assistant guide (everyone in Iceland looks vaguely like Margot Robbie, and no, it doesn’t give you a complex, like, at all). The horses followed each other, nose to tail, out of the paddock and along the gravel road to the trail. Harpa liked to be right up front, behind or next to the leader. As we began our trail ride, muscle memory of my old riding lessons came back. I relaxed in the saddle, letting my hips swing with the horse’s movement. Our guide brought her horse to a trot, and the rest of us followed suit. I looked forward to doing some cantering in the rolling farmland hills.

Unfortunately, we never worked our way up to anything more than a trot. About 40 minutes into the 2-hour ride, Margot Robbie #2 paused the train, told us to wait, and then dismounted and walked towards the back of the group. Up at the front, I couldn’t see what was going on behind me. A few minutes later, she returned on her horse, leading a riderless horse by his reins. What happened his rider? I wondered. Then I recognized the horse as belonging to Margot Robbie #1. Our guide led us down the road a bit further, then told us to stop and dismount to give our horses a little break. Once I climbed down off Harpa, I saw Margot Robbie #1 walking on the ground while holding the bridle of another horse. The rider had apparently been having some control issues.

As we stretched and let our horses nibble at grass, the Margots conferred with each other for a moment, then asked us in their usual brief, all-business manner: “Everyone OK with going fast?” We weren’t sure what they meant: more trotting? or would we move up into a canter? Would we get to try the famous Icelandic fifth gate, the tölt? We never did find out, as a few of the beginner level riders quickly said that they didn’t want go any faster than the trot. Margot #1 nodded crisply, and we mounted back up. Almost immediately, a horse named Sparkles decided that she was over it and took off the wrong way down the trail, despite the panicked shouting of her rider. Two other horses decided to follow for funsies, adding to the rebellion. Margot #1 had to shoot down the road after Sparkles and grab the reins. We got back on the trail. About 20 minutes later, we stopped again because someone fell off while walking. For the rest of the ride, the Margots had to run a tight ship to compensate for our group’s lack of horsemanship skills.

Next time, I’ll sign up for the intermediate group.

I do want to thank Harpa, who was nothing but a dream for me. She did have a tendency to try to kick any other horse who got too close to her rear, but I get that. We reached the horse farm, ending our leisurely afternoon ride. I dismounted, gave Harpa lots of pets and neck rubs, and hung up her bridle, then changed out of my rubber suit. The group of us clambered back into the shuttle bus, smelling horsey, and got dropped off back in the city.

Back at the Airbnb, I showered and dressed. With our group reassembled after everyone got back from their day’s activities, we walked into the city center and ate dinner at Frederiksen Ale House, then stopped into Pablo Discobar solely because of the name. Their signature cocktail involved Cocoa Puffs. We ended up not staying, and decided that the wise decision would be to make it an early night. The next morning, we needed to be up bright and early for our final excursion: the Game of Thrones Tour.

Iceland Diaries: Karaoke North of the Wall

Thursday, Feb. 16

The alarm went off at 7 a.m. Outside of the Land Rover, the sky was still dark. We’d never fully see the forested area where we spent our last night on the road. I got dressed, put my clothes in my backpack, and then tucked myself as small as I could into a corner of the Rover so Kurt would have room to change and pack. We set the GPS for Reykjavík and began the 2-hour drive back to town.

family reunion!

family reunion!

After dropping off the Land Rover at Kúkú Campers, we took a taxi to our Airbnb. Our friends wouldn’t get back from their Höfn road trip until that evening, so we had the place to ourselves. Thursday was also the only day that our trip overlapped with my sister Lauren and her husband Charlie’s Iceland trip; they had flown out a few days earlier than us and went on a 3-day ice caving expedition. We met up with them and exchanged vacation stories. Most excitingly, Lauren and Charlie had seen the Northern Lights the night before! A lucky combination of a clear night sky and a 4 on the Aurora forecast had allowed them to view the lights from the courtyard of their hotel. Lauren showed us some of the amazing photos she took on her camera; they got a light show for a solid hour.

our most frequent Icelandic lunch: hot dogs

our most frequent Icelandic lunch: hot dogs

We walked downtown to get lunch at a hot dog stand and do a little shopping. We discussed checking out the Icelandic Phallological Museum, but it a long walk away, and I said “I feel like the whole world is a penis museum.” Instead, we had a few pints at an Irish pub called Drunk Rabbit.

Back in Chicago, my friend Ray (part of the Höfn crew) and I have a monthly get-together with friends called Karaoke Club, where we visit a new karaoke bar every third Thursday of the month. Since February’s third Thursday fell during our Iceland trip, we made a plan to hold a club outing in Reykjavík. During our vacation preparations, Ray did some research and found a hostel on the west side of town that has a private karaoke room. Before leaving for Höfn, Ray left a note in the kitchen for us with the name of the hostel and a start time of 9 p.m.

Karaoke Club: Reykjavík edition

Karaoke Club: Reykjavík edition

It was Lauren and Charlie’s last night in Iceland, so we splurged on a really nice dinner at Lobster & Stuff, a restaurant on the water, then walked over to Oddsson Hostel to meet our friends for karaoke. Oddsson is the swankiest hostel I’ve ever seen, more of a hotel hybrid. The karaoke room is a soundproof mirrored cube in the middle of the restaurant/bar of the hostel, so people can watch you but can’t hear. It’s pretty much the greatest thing anyone’s ever invented. We loaded up our song choices in the self-service karaoke machine, and proceeded to drink, sing, and have a blast for the next few hours. My song choices: “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Björk (I had to), “Break Free” by Arian Grande, “A Whole New World” duet, “Love on Top” by Beyoncé. There may have been some Carly Rae Jepsen too; it’s hard to remember after we were a few Einstoks in.

The karaoke machine shut off promptly at the end of our rental period (fittingly during Ray’s rendition of “We Gotta Get out of this Place”), so we met up with the rest of our friends and walked back to the downtown area, hit up one more bar for a round, and went back to our Airbnb to finish off our remaining Duty Free alcohol while keeping an eye on the Aurora forecast. The website didn’t look promising, but we didn’t want to give up hope just yet.

Iceland Diaries: Fire and Ice

Wednesday, Feb. 15

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I woke up like this

We fell asleep in total darkness, and woke up to desolate beauty. In the distance, wisps of fog floated alongside the ridge, and the glacier sprawled across the horizon. I was so glad that after my scare the previous night, I had told Kurt we could go back and camp in this spot.

On our way to Jökulsárlón, we got our mini coffees at a gas station filled with Japanese tourists putting on crampons and harnesses for a glacier expedition. I had some FOMO since Kurt and I hadn’t signed up for an ice caving expedition, but on the other hand, leaving our schedule open and flexible was allowing us to get all the way to Jökulsárlón and back in 3 days while making plenty of stops along the way.

Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

Out of everywhere we’d been so far, Jökulsárlón, or Glacier Lagoon, and Diamond Beach felt the most otherworldly, closer to a Star Wars set than anything we’d seen on any of our North American camping trips. As icebergs calve from the glacier, they float downriver and gather in the lagoon before drifting off into the ocean. While we took in the scene, we spotted a few small heads bobbing in the water. A trio of seals swam among the icebergs, occasionally diving into the water searching for food. On Diamond Beach, the black sand is covered with a collection of grounded ice boulders, some so pure and clear that you can see right through them.

Lounging on Diamond Beach

Lounging on Diamond Beach

Glacier Lagoon marked the turning point for our drive back to Reykjavík. I was sad that our little road trip was already coming to an end, but at least there was another stop to look forward to.

Around mid-afternoon, we arrived in a small town just off the Ring Road and began looking for Seljavallalaug. A friend who has traveled to Iceland several times recommended the spot to me; she had me at the word “Instagrammable.” There were no signs prompting us where to go but we knew we had a 20-minute walk ahead of us, so we parked the Land Rover in an area where we saw a handful of other cars and campers. A group of twenty-somethings had just arrived back at their car holding bags of towels. A girl leaned against the bumper and dumped a liter of water out of one of her Doc Martens. We were pretty confident we found our spot.

After tossing our towels and suits into a backpack, we started walking into the valley. Ahead, a few other hikers in brightly colored rain jackets helped lead the way. The trail was made from the bootprints of every swimmer who proceeded us. We came to a river that was probably flowing more heavily that usual at this time of year due to the warm weather and consistent rain. Kurt easily hopped from rock to rock with his long legs, but it took me a little more maneuvering to get across; the last thing I wanted to do was slip on a wet rock and crash into the river. As we got further down the trail, the telltale sign of rising steam led us straight to the spot. “Instagrammable” was right.

Seljavallalaug

Seljavallalaug

Seljavallalaug is a pool nestled against a rock wall; hot water tumbles down the rock face into the pool, warming the cool water into temperatures pleasant enough to swim in. The pool is unguarded, with no entrance fee or anyone attending it. There’s three changing rooms available for getting in and out of your clothes, with some hooks on which to hang your things. As more people made their way to the pool, it took some knocking on doors and inquiring if each room was in use by men, women, or a group of both.

When we first got there, only one other couple was in the pool. We arrived at the same time as a pair of women, and we climbed in together, exclaiming over the gorgeous scenery. It was tranquil and perfect. As we soaked and swam, more and more hikers appeared. Two girls emerged from a changing room wearing bikini bottoms and posed in the water for pictures while flashing the peace sign. All of a sudden, a large group of dudes showed up, outnumbering us all, and the atmosphere changed from peaceful to rowdy as it quickly became a German sausage party. We and the other couple decided it was time to hike on out.

Back on the road, I wanted something hot to eat and a beer sounded pretty good too. We had ventured off the Ring Road onto some of the smaller local routes, and the GPS wasn’t helpful in finding much in the area. We almost gave up and stopped at a rest stop for another night of cold cut sandwiches, but suddenly spotted some lights in the distance and decided to investigate. It turned out to be a small hotel with an all-you-can-eat buffet and cold Gull on tap, everything we wanted in that moment. The dining area was mostly overtaken by a gaggle of high schoolers and their teachers on a school trip. We ate as much salad, lamb, fish cakes, potatoes, and pudding as we could fit in our stomachs. Gotta get our 4300 ISK worth.

Satiated, we found a rest stop in, of all places, a wooded area. Iceland is fairly devoid of forests, so parking among tall trees and pines almost made me feel like we were back in Wisconsin. A dark, overcast sky above us didn’t look promising for Northern Lights, and soft rain pattered on the roof of the Land Rover. Settling in for the night with the rest of the boxed wine, we drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain falling on the trees.

Iceland Diaries: Chasing Waterfalls

Tuesday, Feb. 14

Sleeping in the back of the Land Rover is what I imagine it’s like to sleep in a Japanese capsule hotel. There’s not quite enough room to sit up so you are stuck sort of propping yourself up on an elbow. In order to change your clothes, a complicated process ensued that included lying on one’s back to shimmy into pants, then sliding through the window into the front seat to put on one’s boots.

The night had been too overcast for any potential Northern Lights viewing, and the morning greeted us with soft rain. We snacked on granola bars for breakfast and got teeny cups of coffee from a gas station. I’m all for downsizing ridiculously gigantic American portions when it comes to pretty much everything except coffee. I could easily go through 3 Icelandic-sized coffees each morning, but that would cost me over $12 so I savored each sip of my little cup.

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“Where’s my precious??”

Tuesday was a day full of waterfalls, which made for a lovely scenic backdrop for Valentine’s Day. The first stop was Seljalandfoss, which is one of a series of waterfalls along a rocky ridge. We wandered up and down the road, getting closer glimpses of each set of falls. Plenty of people were out in their rain gear, taking group photos and selfies. I saw a tourist climb up a small hill to pop into a tiny cave-like opening in the rocks for a photo. Since I like to think that I am half woodland creature, I clambered up the muddy slope so Kurt could take a photo of me in the same cave. As I tried to make my way down, I lost my footing on the slippery mud and skidded the rest of the way down on my bum, sentencing myself to wearing my other (snow)pants for the rest of the road trip. In his rain jacket and waterproof pants, Kurt ventured into one of the cavernous openings and got right beneath Gljúfrafross. Changing in the Land Rover promised to be even more interesting after this outing.

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

After a brief drive, we arrived at Skógafoss, a gigantic waterfall which now also has the dubious distinction of being featured in a Justin Bieber video. We climbed the giant set of stairs to see the falls from the top to get some photos, then spent a little more time at the base of the falls. In the parking lot, Kurt was slowly backing the Land Rover out of our spot when another car suddenly honked at us. It was our friends, who had left the Airbnb a day after us for a road trip to Höfn and coincidentally pulled into the parking spot right next to us. Small world! We chatted for a bit before we continued back on our separate journeys.

By the time we reached Vík, the town at the edge of the black sand beach, visibility was practically nonexistent. A thick fog hung over the area, preventing us from being able to see much of anything. We followed another car up a steep series of switchbacks to arrive at a scenic viewpoint, but the detour was worthless as we could see nothing from what was probably a scenic vantage point (later, we deduced that we were atop the Dyrhólaey peninsula). We white-knuckled it back down the switchbacks and found another place to park and view the black sands beach and a few of the rock formations in the water.

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We had a late lunch at the Black Sand Restaurant, giving ourselves time to dry off and warm up while utilizing their wifi. The sky was already growing dark when we got back on the road, but we wanted to get some more miles in before we stopped to camp. Our plan for the next day included Glacier Lagoon, which is in southeast Iceland. Stuck as a perpetual passenger due to my lack of manual driving skills, I played DJ while Kurt navigated the wet roads in the dark. Just west of Skaftafell, we pulled over at a rest stop. According to our map, we were on a small unmarked road that led straight to Skaftafell National Park (there’s a funny story about this which I wrote about in detail for Drinkers with Writing Problems and I will entice you to click the link by mentioning it’s about a brush with death, sorta). Parked out on the open road, we got a taste for the legendary Icelandic wind that the car rental place had warned us about–the kind of gust that can damage a car door if you don’t open it cautiously with two hands. We ate sandwiches in the back of the Land Rover, drank boxed wine, and watched some Netflix shows Kurt had cached on his iPhone while the wind howled outside. Not a bad way to spend Valentine’s Day, not bad at all.

Valentine's Day dinner

Valentine’s Day dinner

Iceland Diaries: On the Road

Monday, Feb. 13

Kurt and I woke up at 8 a.m. and repacked our backpacks, leaving our city clothes behind in the Airbnb which our friends and I had rented for the full week. We only brought along stuff we’d need for our 3-day camping road trip. Iceland was having an unseasonably warm winter, much like Chicago, with temperatures for our entire trip staying in the 40’s during the day. I left my winter coat back at home and wore my nano-puff jacket, which I layered over a wool hoodie and t-shirt. I packed my rain jacket, which could fit over all of my layers. I also brought a pair of camping pants and waterproof snow pants. For pajamas, I packed long underwear and a Thermawool base layer.

We took a cab to Kúkú Campers, the company through which we booked our rental. The cab driver was a friendly local who, upon hearing our American accents, proceeded to grill us on our thoughts on President Trump. He chuckled while listening to our moans of outrage and disbelief over what was going on back home. “I have a friend from Oakland who wants to move to Iceland,” he told us. “I told him to wait 2 years and come here as a political refugee.”

At Kúkú Campers, we checked in and got the keys to a rental Land Rover, our home for the next few nights. The team at Kúkú has an irreverent sense of humor; their business card reads “In case of emergency, use this card to wipe your ass.” Along with your camper, you can rent items both practical (sleeping bags, pillows, GPS) and recreational (guitars, surf boards), and purchase the unexpected (an ‘outdoor sex mat’ along with a map of good locations for doin’ it, with a disclaimer “P.S. This map is not intended for gingers”). The Land Rover’s back cab consisted of a folded-up bed, a seat that could be turned into a bench with storage underneath, a small cooler and butane stove, and a wall of cubbies to keep kitchen items from rolling around.

Our first stop was at a local grocery store so we could save money on meals, and picked up bread, lunch meat, plenty of Skyr, burgers, hot dogs, and snacks.  After that, our journey officially began. Instead of doing the classic Golden Circle loop, we skipped Pingvellir National Park (knowing we’d get there near the end of the trip as part of our Game of Thrones tour, but more on that later) and drove to Geysir, with a quick stop at Keriô, a volcanic crater lake.

Strokkur

Strokkur

Geysir is the inspiration for the word we use in English, ‘geyser,’ so you can say it’s OG. It’s located in an area with high geothermal activity by a few other hot springs, including Strokkur, which erupts roughly every 10 minutes and has a pretty metal name. A walkway circles each of the hot springs, and the whole area is flanked by a restaurant, parking lot, and souvenir store. It reminded me a lot of Yellowstone, both for the scenic wonder, sulfuric smell, and hordes of tourists buying overpriced sweatshirts and shot glasses.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

From Geysir, it was a quick drive to Gulfoss, another incredibly popular tourist attraction and one of the waterfalls you’d most likely recognize from photos. The Hvítá River widens and drops dramatically into a giant waterfall which from certain views, looks like it vanishes into a crack in the earth. Some legends say that Gullfoss (‘gold’ and ‘falls’ in Icelandic) got its name because of a farmer who couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else taking his gold after he died, so he locked it up in a chest and threw it down the waterfall. This would not be the first time on our trip that we’d hear an old tale of someone not wanting anyone to touch their stuff so they threw it down a waterfall, hence, many waterfalls being named after gold or discarded mistresses.

Secret Lagoon

Secret Lagoon

During our last few hours of daylight, we visited Secret Lagoon in Hvammsvegur. Secret Lagoon is a natural pool with a much more local vibe than the sprawling Blue Lagoon (though there’s still tourists aplenty). The steamy hot water was a welcome treat at the end of the day. Kurt and I waded through the pool, walking across the pebble-covered bottom to make our way closer to the bubbling hot spring just beyond that was the obvious source of heat. A few tourists in parkas stood on a path by the spring, taking photos. Light chatter in an assortment of languages filled the pool area. We soaked and watched the sunlight slowly fade, but not before creating a double rainbow in the distance.

With the last of our light, we found Airhus Restaurant in Hella, which offers a winter campground. The facilities (bathrooms, rec hall and dish cleaning station) were closed for the season, but we were allowed to park the Land Rover for free in a small grove hidden by a row of trees, creating a nice private space. After cooking burgers on our butane grill, we went inside the restaurant for a drink and to use the wifi for a bit. Right before close, we used our headlamps to find our way back to the Land Rover in the darkness. We folded down the seat to make our bed and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the tree-lined grove far from any main roads, we had our first night of outdoor solitude under the stars, just on the cusp of the Arctic Circle.