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.

Iceland Diaries: Blue Lagoon

Sunday, Feb. 12

We slept in soundly. For most of us, it was our first full night of sleep (I probably slept the most on the plane ride out of the 7 of us, and at most I got 3 or so hours of decent sleep). We had hit the gas pretty hard on our first night out, as evidenced later when we finally began checking our online banking accounts and saw those rounds of beer add up ($70 per round, wheee!). In a stroke of perfect planning, we had booked our day at Blue Lagoon for Sunday afternoon, so we had nothing but relaxation on the agenda.

Blue Lagoon is located back by the airport, but it’s easy to set up shuttle service to and from most hotels. Our Airbnb was a 10-meter walk from a boutique hotel that became our pickup/drop-off spot for the duration of the trip, with the bonus of having an easily pronounceable name, Hotel Holt (in comparison, our street’s name consisted of 17 characters). A friend and I managed to wake up relatively early, and we ran out for coffees and yogurt (I fell in love with Skyr on this trip). Most of the group, hit by the double whammy of jet lag and hangovers, stayed in bed right up until it was almost time to go for our 3 p.m. reservation. Finally, everyone got up, shoved their bathing suits and flip flops into bags, and made their way out the door.

Blue Lagoon is pretty famous for being a tourist spot, but it’s worth a visit at least once in your life. There are geothermal pools all over the country (even the tiniest towns consisting of a gas station, grocery store, and cluster of houses had a pool), but Blue Lagoon is notable for its milky blue water, rich in minerals including silica and sulfur. If you plan to visit, make a reservation in advance (time slots fill up quickly) and be sure to check the fine print on your shuttle reservation, as your ride may show up as much as 45 minutes early depending on where your hotel is located. We opted for the middle tier option, Comfort, which included silica and algae masks, a free drink, and a towel.

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took a gamble and brought my phone into the pool for a quick selfie

It was drizzling cold rain when we arrived. Our group consisted of two women and five men, so we split up into our locker rooms. I lost my friend at some point near the showers, so I entered the Lagoon area on my own. I walked onto the deck in my swimsuit in 40 degrees and light rain, and beelined into the warm water. It was heaven.

Within a few minutes, our group reassembled and waded over to the bar. Upon check-in, you are given a wrist band that keeps track of any food or drinks you purchase during your stay. I opted for the prosecco for my free drink (you are limited to 3 drinks per wristband for safety reasons). One of our friends struck up a conversation with a lifeguard, who shared some stories about recent celebrity visitors (Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Justin Bieber have all been to Blue Lagoon recently). The lifeguard tower overlooking the pool had a giant windshield wiper that would periodically clear the glass window.

After soaking for hours, checking out the sauna, and applying our silica and algae masks, we were ready to board a shuttle bus back to Reykjavík. To save some money, most of the group walked to a grocery story to get food we could prepare at the Airbnb. Sunday night was a much calmer affair, as we rested up for our next adventure. The next morning, Kurt and I would begin our Iceland road trip and leave the city behind.

 

Iceland Diaries: Arrival in Reykjavík

It’s impossible to visit Iceland and not fall in love with it. Kurt and I, along with 6 of our good friends, just came back from an 8-day trip on the northern Atlantic island nation, and I can’t stop thinking about it. With a few more friends planning upcoming trips and asking for advice, I figured I’d write up my travel diaries so I can keep my notes in one easy-to-access place.

Friday, Feb. 10/Saturday, Feb. 11

Our flight left O’Hare on Friday night at 6:30 p.m., and landed in Reykjavík the next morning at 6:35 p.m. We also learned shortly before our departure that the night of Feb. 10 would also see a full moon, lunar eclipse, and a comet passing close to Earth. Given these unusual circumstances lining up together, I joked that we’d have Outlander-esque conditions lined up to accidentally travel through time and arrival in feudal Iceland, to which my friend replied “Geothermal Tub Time Machine?”

We tried to get some decent sleep on the plane, and landed in Rekjavík without incident or unexpected time travel. First things first, we followed the advice of our Airbnb host and stocked up on beer, wine, and booze at the airport Duty Free. We had been warned that alcohol in Reykjavík is extremely expensive, and we could get it for nearly half the price at the airport, which is something even the locals do.  Afterwards, we took a Flybus (roughly $20 in USD per person, a pretty good deal) for the 50-minute drive from the airport to the Reykjavík bus terminal. Our Airbnb wasn’t ready until 2 p.m., so we stowed our luggage in the large lockers at the bus terminal, which were roomy enough to fit 2 fully packed bags, or house a down-on-his-luck muppet.*

Reykjavík

Reykjavík

We walked into town, and kicked off our trip by taking the elevator to the top of the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja, a cathedral. It offered one of the best views of all of Reykjavik and was a nice way to start our day. Afterwards, we got coffee and a traditional breakfast across the street at Cafe Loki. I picked a sampler plate and gave the fish paste on toast and sheep’s head jelly a whirl (mostly because I wasn’t entirely sure what I ordered). I’m a pretty adventurous eater and finished most of my plate.

img_0159After walking around a bit and checking out some shops, we picked our bags up from the bus terminal and checked into our Airbnb. Our house was conveniently located just a few blocks from all of the bars and restaurants on Laufásvegur. Even with 7 people, the house was roomy and comfortable. A few people napped while the rest of us sampled our Icelandic beers in the kitchen. We weren’t that into the Viking Light, so we’d have to give Viking Hev** a shot later.

Once everyone woke up, showered, and assembled themselves, we had our first group dinner at Vegemót Bistro Bar. Just as we’d been warned, it’s pretty impossible to get a meal in Rekjavík for less than $25-30, even a burger and fries. Beers are an additional $12-14. The flash sales on IcelandAir may convince you that Iceland will be an affordable vacation spot, but once you land, it’s an entirely different story. At least dinner was good. We followed up with drinks at Ölstofan, which reminded me of the Ukrainian Village bar scene circa 2002. Memories get murkier after we moved on to Bar Ananas, a tiki bar where Icelandic rappers happened to be performing. Outgoing Americans that we are, we chatted with a few locals including one performer who I decided to call “Icelandic Justin Timberlake” for the rest of the night (it was the hair). After many rounds of Einstok, we staggered back to the Airbnb to catch up on an overdue full night of sleep.

*Who doesn’t love a Great Muppet Caper reference?

**similar to Bud Hev

St. Maarten/St. Martin

The view from Oyster Pond Beach

I am extremely lucky to have a job that takes me to places like St. Maarten. Recently, I spent 4 days on the Caribbean island for a work conference and also had enough free time to get out and enjoy myself also. I went on a sunset sail on a catamaran, drove a rhino boat, snorkeled, and celebrated Mardi Gras on the French side of the island in Grand Case. Not bad for a work trip.

St. Maarten (the Dutch side) has legalized gambling so there was a casino right past the entrance of my hotel. St. Martin (the French side) has a clothing-optional policy for all of their beaches, which is a little awkward when you are traveling with people you work for.

This hill damn near killed me

I love to run outdoors when I travel as a way to both get some exercise and explore a new place, so one day when I had some free time in the afternoon I followed a route recommended by the hotel. Immediately, I realized that this particular run was not for beginners. For starters, the island roads weave through hills. Really, really, really steep hills. The roads are narrow and there are few sidewalks, so I turned off my iPod Shuffle so I’d at least hear the car coming around the blind turn that would kill me. Coming down the steepest hill, I slowed down until I was barely moving, watching where I placed each foot to ensure that I wouldn’t slip on loose gravel and roll down to my demise. There were also lots of stray dogs roaming around, some of them eyeing me suspiciously as I ran past. After I made it back to the hotel alive, I decided to stick to the indoor gym.

Someday, I would love to revisit the island.

Fat Tuesday in Grand Case