From what I understand, if a native English speaker tries to speak Japanese to a native Japanese speaker who also speaks English, the native Japanese speaker is delighted and will lean in with great interest and help with the nuances of this or that pronunciation of a Japanese word. If a native English speaker tries to speak French to a native French speaker who also speaks English, the French speaker will quickly sigh and say something to the effect of “Let us speak English. It will be less painful for both of us.” And, when it comes to Iceland, if a native English speaker tries to speak Icelandic to an Icelander, the Icelander will quickly say something to the effect of “Why in the hell are you learning Icelandic?”
Way back last year, after the absolutely awesome Disney trip, my buddy and I talked about other places to go on vacation. My ideas were pretty mundane. Maybe go to Vegas. Maybe go to Cedar Point. “Naw, dude”, he told me. “We should go to Iceland!”
“What’s in Iceland?”
“The Northern Lights! Volcanoes!”
“Yeah, that sounds great!”, I said. Thinking that it’d never happen.
Smack dab in the middle of last January, after some significant drama at work, his wife gave him an Ultimatum: “I need something to look forward to. We’re going on vacation.” He called me up and said “Dude. We’re going to Iceland. In April. I can get two hotel rooms with my points. You get the car.”
So I booked the car and my plane ticket and, jeez, it didn’t feel real.
As it turns out, it was real. We arrived at KEF around 5 or 6 in the morning. Our hotel didn’t want us to check-in until 4PM. We begged them to make it earlier and negotiated 2PM. At the end of the trip, my friends and I agreed that, were we ever to do this again, we’d get a hotel room and go straight to the hotel and SHOWER and then sleep for 5 or 6 hours and start off from noon instead of doing the drink caffeine and stay awake thing.
However, we had not yet learned the things that would make us agree on that when the topic came up later. Instead we drank caffeine and said that our goal was staying up until 7ish.
Our first stop was to get said caffeine and put a little something in our bellies. We stopped by a highly-reviewed bakery by the airport: Kökulist.
We picked up some sweet rolls that were, seriously, the best pastries I have ever had. Like, ever. As soon as I had finished eating mine, I ran to the display and took a picture of them.
Then I got a box of them to go.
Take it from me. If you ever fly into the Keflavík airport, like, go straight from the car rental place to Kökulist. Get some of the sweet rolls.
Okay. So now we have a little food in our bellies and some caffeine and we just have to make it until 2PM. Easy peasy.
We realized that we should go to Costco and pick up a handful of various things that we agreed we’d probably want over the next few days. A case of Coke Zero. A bunch of bananas. Some snacks.
And, heck, we were still reeling from a long plane ride and in a new country. It might be nice to go to a superficially familiar place and see how other countries do warehouse stores.
Well, walking in, the immediate floorplan felt like home. Look! Televisions the size of… wait. Where are the really, really gimungous ones? The biggest they had was 65″. I don’t know about your Costco but my Costco has 80″ televisions to walk past.
My buddy and I wandered up and down the aisles at a pleasant “I have been up for about 22 hours” mosey and Icelanders were passing us in the aisles angrily. Like, everybody else there was in this huge rush like they had 27 things to do that day and dang it, this was the fifth and YOU GUYS ARE IN THE WAY. So we did our best to stay out of everybody else’s way and watched them shop like they were upset about it.
You know the cookies they sell at Costco? The ones that are about the size around as a softball? Well, their cookies were about the size of a baseball. I immediately imagined Icelanders saying “Wow! Those are big cookies!” when they looked at the package.
We wandered up and down the various aisles and got our stuff. (A case of Coke Zero at the Costco in Iceland is 12 bottles, for the record.)
We got back to the car and noted that it was still about noon. 2PM was miles and miles away. Or kilometers, I guess.
Here’s a map from the US Geological Survey. I have taken the liberty of circling Iceland:
See that? Iceland has a handful of volcanoes and a bunch of little earthquakes every year. That’s because two tectonic plates meet and separate there.
Well, we drove out to a little place called “The Bridge Between Continents”. They put a bridge where you could walk from North America to Europe. Well, in the sense that the tectonic plate that has North America on it is “North America” and the tectonic plate that has Europe on it is “Europe”, anyway.
You know how everybody who goes to Pisa gets a picture of themselves “pushing” the leaning tower? Well, Iceland is doing this thing where you are supposed to go to the bridge and get a shot down in the black sand where you’re “holding up” the bridge. Down there, somewhere:
We didn’t do that. Instead we just walked across it and my buddy gave his wife a squeeze and said “There, Baby. I told ya I’d take you to Europe.”
We drove to the hotel and got checked in and, oh my gosh, showered. Whew. The hot water smelled of sulfur. Not, like, to the point where it was unbearable, mind… but if you are used to showers that do not smell like sulfur, you’d quickly notice “hey, this smells like water that was heated geothermally”.
After a delicious (if stinky) hot shower, I wandered over to the window and looked out upon a lava field (granted, one mature enough to be covered with lichen). See that over there on the left? The snow dappled mountain? That’s the volcano.
Here’s a shot of the power plant at the base of the volcano:
The hotel had a hot spring (or, more accurately, a little pool that was about two feet deep that had water diverted from the hot spring). We sat in the lightly sulfuric water and discussed the flight, the timeline, and the goals for the coming days. We had a somewhat short list. We wanted to see a glacier. We wanted to see the waterfalls. There was a little chocolatier we wanted to visit. But, mostly, we wanted to be on vacation. I mean, we were… but, jeez, we were beat up and beat up *BAD*. We needed to make it to 7PM and then fall asleep and, maybe, we could be on vacation in the morning.
7PM rolled around. I crashed into bed.
At 2AM, I got a knock at my door. “Jay. The Northern Lights.”
I threw on a hoodie and we went outside. Now, I don’t want to oversell what we saw. We didn’t see the roiling green ocean storming above us like they show you on the Nature Channel. We, instead, saw a barely-there flickering cirrus cloud that winked into existence for a second before fading away again. It winked in and out 3 or 4 more times before winking out and not coming back.
We stood there in the parking lot for a few more minutes before we realized how cold we were.
After waking up a second time and digging into the box of Kökulist pastries we brought with us, we hammered out that we had a reservation to see Solheimajökull. The Glacier. Nothing crazy, we said. A nice little beginner’s hike.
That stands for “Sun Home Glacier”. Our guide told us that this was sarcasm on the part of the folks who named it. We were in a place, she said, that only got about 60 days of sunshine a year. More than 300 days of rain.
We lucked out. We got there on one of the 60 days of sunshine and it was *GORGEOUS*. We met up in the parking lot and the guide explained that we would need to be wearing the proper kind of footwear, the proper head gear, and we’d have to take an ice axe with us. Wait. What? I was assured that this was a beginner’s trek. “Oh it is. It is.”, the guide assured us.
Doc Martens were not proper footwear. They found some appropriate boots for me in the back of the truck.
First off, we had to trek on uneven rocky ground for about a quarter of a mile. When we reached the base of the glacier, we put on our crampons.
Then we climbed the glacier. Well, not the whole thing. If you think of the glacier as a finger, we went from the fingertip to the top of the nail. We didn’t get anywhere near the cuticle (let alone the knuckle). The guide pointed out a small pool, a little bigger than a water bottle, through which water was running down from the top of the glacier. She encouraged us to fill our water bottles in it.
The water tasted like it came from the Garden of Eden. Like it came from the birth of the world. It was amazing.
She gave us a speech about the importance of fighting global warming, we took some pictures, then we climbed back down.
“Whew. So now what do you want to do?”
“While we’re on this side of the Island, let’s go to the basalt columns.”
We drove up and immediately recognized some rock formations out in the water from several different movies:
You may have seen the basalt columns in Dragon Age: Inquisition or Dark Souls 2. If you’re more of a Star Wars person, you may remember the columns from The Last Jedi.
They are even better in person:
Like, they come across as some serious alien structures. “This isn’t natural”, your brain screams at you. “This was made. Maybe Aliens? I’m not saying it was Aliens… but it was Aliens.”
Absolutely beautiful rock formations. Words and photos don’t do them justice.
We walked around and boggled for a bit more before declaring defeat and going back to discuss the events of the day and the plans for the next in the hot spring.
Tomorrow? The Falls.
Gullfoss translates to “Golden Falls”.
I will say that if you absolutely love waterfalls, you will love Gullfoss. If you have been to Niagra Falls and want to know how Gullfoss stacks up? Well… remember talking about the cookies at Costco? It was kinda like that. Niagra is, like, the big cookies you get here. Gullfoss is the smaller cookies you get there.
I mean, sure, it was gorgeous, but if you decide to go to Iceland and you’ve already been to Niagra, you can probably put Gullfoss on the bottom half of your list of things to do rather than near the top.
HOWEVER, on the way back to the Hotel to discuss the waterfalls, we saw a geyser.
Quick! Think about the word “geyser”. What is its etymology? Well, my immediate guess was that it was a very old word that dates all the way back to something Proto-Indo-European. As it turns out… not so much.
It’s a word that dates back to Icelandic. Why? Well, as it turns out, there aren’t that many geysers in the world. Only about a thousand of them. They aren’t particularly evenly distributed either. More than half are in Yellowstone. The next quarter are in Russia, Chile, or New Zealand. After that? Iceland. Unlike Niagra, I’ve never been to any of those places. I don’t know what my response would have been had I spent a day in Yellowstone but, since I hadn’t, it was pretty dang cool.
As it turns out, we had stumbled across the one in Iceland that spits out every 8-10 minutes. We pulled over, watched it spit twice more, laughed and made adolescent jokes, and then got back in the car to spend another couple of hours in the hot spring back at the hotel.
“How was the food?”, you may be wondering. Well… it was mostly unseasoned.
We ate at a couple of pinky-extended gourmet restaurants and a couple of little hole in the wall places for locals and a weird amalgam of the two which was a deep-fried hot dog place that had lines around the block whenever we drove past. They had a picture on the wall of the various workers that had been there since 1986. In the center of each picture was the same lady. She also happened to serve us.
Get the Deep-Fried Paprika Dog. It comes with a small handful of french fries between the dog and the bun.
The next day had a theme. A geothermal power plant and a lava tube.
First the plant:
The Geothermal Plant tour was mostly educational and targeted to middle schoolers. This wasn’t like the Geothermal ground pumps to heat a home. This is taking hyper-pressurized water that is in the hundreds of degrees Celsius (the guide apologized for not being able to translate to Fahrenheit on the fly) and the steam turns turbines as well as heating fresh water and sending it through a giant tube down the road to the city and only loses a couple of degrees (Celsius) along the way.
The tour covered the joys of free heat, free carbon capture, and free hot springs.
I think I’m a hippie now.
After a lovely tour, we drove off to a local lava tube (inactive). This was positively fascinating. A cave that was formed when lava flowed through it and then receded. The tour guide explained that the lava cave had been a party spot of choice until the farmer whose land it happened to be on swore that he’d brick it up (local teenagers dragged a couch down there, piled up beer cans, and used the cave as a toilet) and an enterprising Icelander put up public restrooms, a coffee machine, and sold tickets to walk down into the deep cave with a lighted helmet on.
Walk down we did. We learned that the temperature in the cave was a delightful 38 degrees throughout the year which was the *PERFECT* temperature for chilling beer. We learned about the water dripping from the ceiling (don’t worry, the guide told us. The cave was efficient. Any rocks that were going to fall from the ceiling had already done so hundreds of years prior) and we learned stories about the various people who got lost down there and their flashlights died. (Moral of the story: Be the kind of person that people look for.)
We turned out the lights and got to experience total darkness for about 30 seconds. Then we trudged our way back up the lava tube.
It was awesome.
Then we ate at a pizza place that bragged about using geothermal ovens to make pizza and geothermal energy to make beer.
Then back to the hot spring.
Finally, the last full day there was the day we had to run around getting gifts. The best place in the world for that is, of course, any given artisanal chocolatier that also happens to sell ice cream.
Then, after running around and getting sweaters and blankets and earrings and refrigerator magnets, we finally went back to the hotel and got in the hot spring. “What do you want to do for dinner?” “I’m good with whatever.” They googled for a bit and then… “Jay, plug your ears.” I plugged and watch him show his phone to his wife and she nodded.
We got showered and dressed up and got in the car and the phone navigated me to drive up in front of a Viking Longhouse.
They served “Viking” fare that catered to tourists (lamb, duck, horse) but the ambiance was a delight and it was nice to sit in a great big room with friends and eat horse for the first time.
The big thing that I said that I wanted to do when I went out to Iceland was stand in a field of flowers for, like, an hour. Sadly, April isn’t a good month for flowers in Iceland. Heck, May isn’t particularly good. Late June and July is what you want.
I did get to stand in a field of lichen. It was pretty cool.
Then, the next day, we got packed, we got in the car, we went back to the airport, and we came home. Home sweet home.
All in all, how was it? Well, if I were 17 or so, I can imagine *HATING* it. Absolutely hating it. It was so dull. All we did was hike and climb and go to a power plant! And sit in a hot spring! It was an EDUCATIONAL vacation! Like on PBS!
As someone who is kinda old? It was an amazing vacation. We wandered around a piece of the world that felt raw and brand new. Absolutely gorgeous landscapes still dappled with snow and since we went there in the off season between the wintry Northern Lights season and the summery Go Hiking season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We did fun stuff and then, at the end of the day, sat in a hot spring for a few hours feeling the accumulation of the last couple of years start to melt away.
You should go. It’s absolutely gorgeous.