Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Icelandic saga, part 4 (the final chapter)

This way to the Blue Lagoon

We may have only been in Iceland for four days, but we packed a lot in. Monday 04 March was our last day there. We checked out of our hotel and took a special bus out to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's famous geothermal spa. Everyone said to wait until the day we were going back to the airport since it's just up the road from Keflavik. So that's what we did. Of course, Monday turned out to be the coldest day we were in Iceland. The temperature was about 22F/-5C, but the wind chill made it feel even colder. It figures!


The Blue Lagoon

Despite the cold, nothing could have stopped me from going in the water, which averages around 100F/38C. The water is naturally heated because the Blue Lagoon sits in a lava field and the water contains lots of minerals that are really good for your skin, so it doesn't just feel good -- it's therapeutic. My muscle aches and pains disappeared. In fact, it's been over a week now and I still don't have the horrible pains I usually have in my neck and back.


Inside the Blue Lagoon

I'll admit that once I got in, I didn't want to get out. Not only because I was scared I'd freeze to death on the way back indoors. But because it felt so GOOD!!! I enjoyed it so much that when we got back home, I looked up 'mineral baths' online to see if there was someplace closer to home that we might go to sometime.

But nothing else on Earth is like the Blue Lagoon. So if you ever go to Iceland, you must go. On your way back to the airport. Because that turned out to be really good advice.

Well, that was it for the Iceland trip. It was a short trip, and we used our time wisely. Thank you, Iceland, for a great time. We like you very much! :)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Icelandic saga, part 3

The road to Thingvellir

Sunday 03 March was our third day in Iceland and on tap was a "jeep" tour of the Golden Circle. We were the only two people on the tour, so we had a guide and a ride all to ourselves. The "jeep" was a very nice Nissan Patrol with leather seats and serious a$$-kicking 44" tires. Our enthusiastic guide took us down snowy roads to Thingvellir (Þingvellir in Icelandic -- Þing means meeting or assembly, vellir means plain or field), a national park where back in the year 930, the first Althing (Icelandic parliament) took place.

Thingvellir


The Mid-Atlantic ridge runs through the plain, technically separating North America from Eurasia, and it's slowly splitting Iceland at a rate of about 1 inch per year. Someday, the island will split. Hopefully not anytime in the next several million years.

It was cold up there on the plain. I mean, really cold -- the coldest day of our trip yet -- probably around 28-30F but with a wind chill of what felt like 90 degrees below zero. Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon: We're here. Take photo. OK. Let's go. I'd love to go back in the summer, though, when everything is green and the weather is warm. Er.

Next up was the Hvítá River (which is supposed to be awesome to raft) and the nearby geothermal area where there are several geysers including The Great Geysir and Strokkur. It wasn't as cold here, which is a good thing, because until then, I'd never seen a geyser before and I have to say, it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. Strokkur goes off about every 5 minutes or so, and I must have stood there for half an hour . . . in total awe.


Strokkur, I think. Maybe it's The Great Geysir.


We had lunch and shopped for souvenirs at the visitor center. Then it was time to move on. Our next stop was Gullfoss ("gold waterfall"), and as we were driving up, a 'rainbow' suddenly appeared over the waterfall. We ran out to get photos, and for a few minutes we could even see a double rainbow. We were spellbound and ended up hanging out there for quite a while, walking around the many pathways and taking photos from every possible angle.


The 'rainbow' at Gullfoss.
Someone being silly at Gullfoss.

Somewhere along the Golden Circle route, we stopped to see the beautiful Icelandic horses. We slid out of the 'jeep' and walked toward them, and they returned our curiosity by eagerly meeting us at the fence. I've seen lots of horses in my day, but these horses had the sweetest temperaments of any I've ever been around. ***S wants me to point out that Icelandic horses are special and you should read more about them here.***


Sweet Icelandic horses

We kept going to Kerid (Kerið), a volcanic crater lake where, according to our guide, some really good concerts are held. He said they put pontoons on the water, and the bands set up on the pontoons. The acoustics are supposed to be amazing.

Funny thing though, I've not been able to find any photos of any concerts here, so I think maybe our tour guide was pulling our legs on that one.

Kerid

We made a few more stops, briefly visited a geothermal power plant, and went four-wheeling through a river. On the way back to Reykjavik, our tour guide sang to us. He told us that he'd visited a fortune teller, who told him he was supposed to be a great singer. Yeah, right. At the volcanic crater. On a pontoon.

After dinner at the hotel, we went back to our room and opened the curtains, hoping to see the northern lights without going back out into the cold. Around midnight, we looked out the window and saw a sort of green mist in the sky. The northern lights! OK, so they weren't the bright, dancing lights we were expecting. But we did see them.

I've got one more entry I want to do about our last day in Iceland. I'll write it as soon as I can. Check back soon.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Icelandic saga, part 2

Mýrdalsjökull, South Iceland

On Saturday -- the second day of our Iceland trip -- we went on an organized tour called Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Excursion. Our guide picked us up at the hotel, and we very quickly noted that his English sounded as if he'd lived in the States or Canada. When we asked, he replied: "I grew up in North Carolina." Turns out his parents went to professional school at UNC, so he lived in Chapel Hill during his elementary years. This wouldn't be the only "small world" moment we'd have that day. I'll get to that shortly.

We drove south, past hundreds of steam holes coming out of the ground. Iceland's electricity comes not from coal or nukes but from geothermal energy. We drove past an impressive geothermal power plant and what seemed like miles of orange steam pipes laid out in zigzags. We saw several large greenhouses, and were told that a great deal of the food in Iceland is home-grown. We even saw a strawberry farm. In Iceland!

Get your free steam here!!!

Our journey took us through the city of Selfoss and beyond to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, which is easier to pronounce than you might think. Often referred to as "E15" when air traffic between North America and Europe was disrupted for a couple of weeks back in 2010 -- maybe you remember -- Eyjafjallajökull isn't a volcano at all, but a glacier (jökull is Icelandic for glacier -- or more specifically, for ice cap) that sits on top of a volcano. 

Our destination was Mýrdalsjökull, the glacier which sits on top of an active volcano called Katla. OK, I'll confess. Had I known we were going to be hiking on top of an active volcano, I might have never gone. Fortunately, I didn't know until the glacier hike was over. So it's true what they say: Ignorance is bliss.

I'm not good on ice. And I'd never worn crampons before, so when I put them over my hiking boots and started walking, it felt weird. Our guide kept saying: "Feet flat and wide! Feet flat and wide!" and that became a mantra that ran through my head, along with "Stand tall! Don't you fall!" (to the tune of that old song from the 70s). In the photo below, you can see the concentration on my face. Oh, and for the record, I was wearing four layers of clothing, including a very thick wool sweater that my Mom made me several years ago. And the Icelandic wool hat I bought on Day 1.

Feet flat and wide!


In case you're wondering, here's what else that was going on in my head: OMGOMGOMG. What if I fall. What if I break something. We're so far out, they'd have to call a helicopter and Medevac me outta here. Wait. I didn't sign a waiver. They didn't ask me to sign a waiver! If this was the States, not only would we all have to sign waivers, we'd also have to watch a 30 minute safety video AND wear helmets! And there'd be guardrails everywhere! And . . .

And on and on.

Fortunately, it didn't take long for me to get the hang of it. Up I went. One step at a time.

The 'blue' ice is kinda special and we were lucky to see it.

The view from the top.

When we got to the top and I looked down, I was nearly overcome with emotion. I had what can only be considered A Religious Experience, a moment when you realize how amazing and beautiful the world is and how it can't just be a bunch of randomness.

And then it hit me that I was going to have to get back down.  Going downhill is ten thousand times scarier than going up. But look at me here, standing tall, walking (not sliding) down the hill.

Focus! There shall be no sliding!

Actually, once I got over my initial shock, I found out that crampons work going downhill, too. Soon we were back where we started. I felt this amazing feeling of accomplishment, and I was ready to do it all over again! But the glacier hike was over and it was time to move on. As we drove away from the site, that's when our guide told us that we'd been walking on a volcano. "One day you're going to hear on the news that Katla has blown and you can say you walked on it. They're expecting Katla to erupt any day now."

And I'm thinking: Dude, thanks for sharing that after the fact.

Our next stop was just down the road at Skógafoss. By the way, foss is Icelandic for waterfall, and Skóga means forest. So Skógafoss is forest waterfall -- which is kind of funny, since apparently there are no trees in Iceland. Regardless of what it means, it's beautiful.

Skógafoss

It started to rain while we were at Skógafoss, and the clouds just kept thickening. Our hopes of seeing the northern lights on the so-called Northern Lights Excursion were fading fast. But there was still dinner at the Hotel Anna to look forward to, so off we went. 

And this is where the other "small world" incident took place. When we sat down to dinner, I looked over at the young woman sitting next to me and asked where she was from. "Northern Ireland," she said with a smile. Turns out, she grew up in Dungiven, which is just down the road from where S lived when she was a kid. During the conversation we learned that the house where S and her family lived (which eventually became a hotel -- we stayed there when we visited in 2005) has since burned and is now derelict. We were shocked at this news and could hardly wait to get back to internet land to confirm it. I'm sorry to say that the story is true.

We did not see the northern lights that evening. It was way too cloudy. We got back to Reykjavik late, and once in our room, we couldn't sleep. So we channel-surfed, landing on an episode of The Walking Dead, which was subtitled in Icelandic. We thought that was a funny way to end our second day in the Land of Fire and Ice.



Icelandic saga, part 1

Reykjavik as seen from the top of Hallgrimskirkja

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to visit Iceland. It always seemed so lonely-looking up there on the map by itself. Well, except for big old white-capped Greenland to its west. I'd see photos of Reykjavik and it seemed so quaint, with its colorful buildings and red rooftops next to a blue sea. And then there's the otherworldly landscape. Iceland is one of the newest and most geologically interesting places on Earth. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs through it, separating Eurasia from North America. Every day the earth is moving. Iceland has earthquakes every day. It also has geysers, volcanoes and glaciers. No wonder they call it the Land of Fire and Ice.

Last December, we found a great package deal: airfare, four days/three nights, and a glacier hike/northern lights tour for a very good price. We just had to get ourselves to Boston. From there, Icelandair would take over. So last Thursday (28 February), we set off on this adventure. We arrived in Reykjavik (a 4 hour, 45 minute flight from Boston) early on Friday, but it seemed earlier because at this time of year the sun doesn't come up there until 8:30-8:45AM. It was still dark when we arrived at our hotel, the Reykjavik Natura. Fortunately, you get to check in early on the package deal, so we were able to quickly get our room and then crash for a few hours as by then, jet lag had set in.

After a quick nap, we grabbed a free bus pass from the hotel and headed to downtown Reykjavik. We probably could have walked it, but due to the chilly weather and our unfamiliarity with the city, we decided to take the easy way. By the way, the buses are on time in Reykjavik. :)

Our first destination was the gigantic concrete Hallgrimskirkja or Hallgrim's Church. On the flight over, we'd watched a couple of short tourist videos, and it was recommended to visit the church first and take the elevator to the top to get a really great view of the city. The photo above is one of those views. Hallgrimskirkja is an example of expressionist architecture and was designed to represent the flow of lava. To see what the church looks like from a distance, click here. It really does stand out.

 
Hallgrimskirja and the Leifr Eiríksson statue

In front of the church is a statue of Leifr Eiríksson (that's the Icelandic spelling of Leif Ericson, the Norse explorer who's considered to be the first European to visit the North American continent). The statue was a gift to Iceland from the United States. The backside of the statue has the following inscription:


Leifr 
Eiricsson
Son of Iceland
Discoverer of 
Vinland
The 
United States 
of America to
the People
of Iceland
on the One
Thousandth
Anniversary
of the
Althing
A.D. 1930




(Read about the Althing here. I'll mention it in a later entry, when I write about our visit to Thingvellir.) 

Eventually, we took a random street down to the harbor, not really having any idea where we were headed. As luck would have it, we ended up exactly where we wanted to be: The Sun Voyager statue, which for some reason I insist on (affectionately) calling The Viking Bone Ship. 


The Sun Voyager

I guess you can see why I call in the Viking Bone Ship. :)

We made our way to Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik, where we found a nice (if touristy) shop where they sell Icelandic woolen goods and other souvenirs. I really wanted to buy a handmade Icelandic sweater, but honestly, I knew I'd probably never wear it since it doesn't get that cold here in North Carolina. So we both settled for Icelandic woolen hats. I got a black one, S got an off-white one. (See Icelandic saga, part 2 for a photo of said hat.)


Beautiful Icelandic wool sweaters

We walked up and down Laugavegur looking for the perfect place to have dinner. There were lots of choices, but we both kept thinking about a certain soup shop we passed earlier. The restaurant was quite crowded with people eating soup in bread bowls and drinking beer and having apple cake for dessert. (Best. Apple. Cake. Ever.) There were a few other tourists in the soup shop, but we also got to listen in on some Icelandic language conversations. This was interesting to me because I'd read that Icelandic is the most like the old 'Viking' language than any other modern-day language. This appealed to my ancient 'Viking' heritage. I didn't understand any of it, though! :)

Speaking of language, almost everyone in Iceland speaks English, so language was never an issue. We were told that Icelanders start learning English very early (in elementary school) and most also study Danish, since Iceland was formerly a part of Denmark.

That was our first day in Iceland. My next entry will be about our second day -- the glacier hike, and our tour of South Iceland. I'll write it as soon as I can!