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: 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.