I know many people love hot weather and can’t wait for summer, but I’m not one of those people. I don’t do well with humidity; it messes with my head and upsets my belly.
So when we get “31 C feels like 35 C”, as we’re experiencing now, my mind wanders to cooler places….like Iceland.
One thing I learned about Iceland during my short visit there….it never gets hotter than +15 C in the summer and it doesn’t get (much) colder than -15 C in the winter.
They say in Iceland, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” and I could see why….within a matter of, literally, a few minutes, the weather would change from “oh my gosh the world is going to end!” with dark grey heavy clouds and what looks like a massive storm on the horizon, to “we should go on a picnic!“.
It’s very windy in Iceland, and that wind carries a lot of change. So, tip #1 if you’re going to Iceland: pack for four seasons and prepare to dress in layers. Speaking of packing, that brings me to the first thing to keep in mind when going to Iceland….
I did this trip a couple of years ago, so maybe Icelandair’s policy has changed now but I had booked myself on their least expensive fare, from Toronto to Reykjavik, Econo Lite, which included no free luggage allowance. If I wanted to take a bag to check in, the cost was something like $110 CAD ahead of time or $120 at the airport (don’t quote me on that….the exact amount isn’t relevant right now and also, fees and policies are constantly changing with all airlines, so you should always check what’s in effect at time of your travel).
Since I was only going for four full days, I decided to just go with a carry-on (keeping in mind, cramming four-season’s worth of layers was challenging), that’s all well and good, but it meant that I had to wear my heaviest things (ie my winter boots), so sitting around in the departure lounge (and later on, on the flight) wearing boots that are made to withstand cold of -40 C, well, my feet were boiling.
To “add insult to injury”, whilst sitting in the departure lounge in Toronto’s Pearson Airport, it seems a lot of people had the same thoughts as myself (that being that to have to pay over $100 CAD PER DIRECTION for one piece of luggage was a money-grab so they too packed carry-on only) so the airline staff made an announcement that, due to limited overhead space in the cabin, if anyone NOW wanted to check in their bag, the fee would be waived. Grrrr!!
I’d like to say that I DO understand why airlines charge for luggage, and a fee of $30 CAD, even up to $50 CAD per direction is, in my opinion, fair, but to charge over $200 CAD round trip for one bag is ridiculous; the cost of my ticket was less than $500.
SO….you either pay the fare that includes a bag (or two), or be prepared to be annoyed when they announce at the airport that now you can check your bag for free.
Not a fabulous start to the trip, but there was only one way to go from there, and that was up….right? Well, sort of. This brings me to point #2 that I’d like to share with you, to save you time, money and stress….
The Blue Lagoon is probably one of Iceland’s most popular tourist experiences (I believe it’s in their Top 10). I had done my research ahead of time and could tell that it was more touristy than what I personally like to experience (also, it’s man-made and not a natural hot spring), but as a travel consultant, I felt I SHOULD experience it so I could share that info with my clients.
I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to find that it was very crowded even in the off-season (I was there mid-March 2019). I won’t dwell on my time at the Blue Lagoon because it was just OK, not the best I’ve been to, not the worst, for the money, honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it, but if you want to go just so can say you went, then knock yourself out.
The important bit of info I DO want to share is this: every place I’ve been to, up to that point, in 30+ years of being in the travel business, I have never ever had a problem getting a taxi. Or an Uber. Or a bus. I had (to that point) had zero issues taking public transportation, and actually prefer that when I’m in a foreign country because then I can really experience that destination in a more authentic way.
After my time at the Blue Lagoon, when I was ready to leave, I gathered my belongings (keeping in mind I had gone straight from the airport….our flight had landed too early for me to go to the hotel to check-in and also, the Lagoon is closer to the airport than it is to city-center), which included my heavy carry-on (no wheels), my camera bag, my tripod, and my handbag, and went out to find a taxi.
After schlepping from one cab to another, each of which was parked out front, and getting turned down, I went to a bus that had a sign displayed in its front window that it was going to city-center.
Oh, I forgot to mention, it was raining, and cold, and windy as I schlepped around the parking lot.
The bus driver SAW me standing at his door but didn’t open the door.
To paint a picture for you…..I’m a middle-aged woman, with rain streaming down my face, my hair is stuck to my scalp, I’m carrying about 50 lbs of gear, I look sad and frustrated and cold and am clearly a tourist in need.
The bus driver didn’t open the door until I knocked on the glass and asked him to open the door. He said he can’t take me to city-center, that I need a ticket. I explained that I just arrived from Canada and then asked him where can I get a ticket? He said in the city-center. Ummmmm. How can I get a ticket at the city-center when I can’t GET TO the city-center without a ticket?? Clearly, he was no help to me, so I went back into the main building to ask what the deal is, why can’t I get a cab?
As it turns out, you MUST arrange transportation from the Lagoon onward ahead of time.
Now I was starting to panic. I had no transport from the Lagoon to my hotel and apparently nobody was willing to take me. FINALLY a cabbie, a van-cab, agreed to take me, but since he had watched me going from cab to cab asking for a ride, then watched me go to the bus and back into the main building, he knew I was desperate AND he would be losing money by just taking me vs a van-load of people, he quoted me a ridiculously high fare, but I had no other option, so I basically paid four times what I should have paid.
OK, so NOW there was nowhere to go but UP, right? Right! Those first two experiences were not the best impression of travel to Iceland for me, but that was soon remedied by G Adventures, and our charming CEO (Chief Experience Officer), Francois.
Day One – Our first night in Reykjavik was at the Storm Hotel. The hotel is in a good location, it’s modern, clean, and my room was huge (I had, for some reason, been assigned the wheelchair accessible room despite not having any mobility challenges, so I had a washroom that you could wheel a wheelchair into and turn around with absolutely no problem, and it had bars beside the toilet, vertical bars, attached to the wall beside the toilet so people in wheelchairs could get from chair to toilet without any issues).
Once I arrived at the hotel, I checked-in, but still had plenty of time until 6 pm when I would be meeting the rest of the group, so I took a walk (in the rain, which I don’t mind at all, after all, it’s just water) and came across Harpa.
Harpa is a beautiful concert hall and conference center in Reykjavik; the building features a distinctive colored glass facade inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland….from the outside it looks ok, but once inside you really see how cool it is (photos don’t do it justice).
You have to get inside this place to really appreciate how it’s been done
I made my way back to the hotel (on foot, I think it took only about 30 minutes each way) and got changed and ready to meet the rest of the group. We met in the lobby of the Storm Hotel, there were 14 of us including me, as follows:
- a family of five from British Columbia (Grandmother, Mom and Dad, an adult child and a youth about 17 years old)
- 2 couples from the UK (I would guess, in their late 50’s/early 60’s)
- Mother (senior…but a very active senior, she could easily put people less than half her age to shame with her vitality!) and her adult daughter from Scotland
- a single man from Ireland (I would guess in his early to mid-30’s)
- a single woman from the USA (guessing her age to be late 20’s/early 30’s)
- me, a single woman from Canada, in my early-50’s
I mention the ages and where people are from because this is typical of a G Adventures trip (unless you sign up for 18-35’s program); people from all age groups and from around the world come together to take advantage of the small-group experience.
One of the safety tips G Adventures offers their guests is, prior to leaving your hotel, take a hotel business card with you.
This is a good tip if you’re visiting any foreign country, but especially if you’re visiting Iceland! If there is one thing I were to critique Iceland for it’s their language. Oh my goodness! I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it! Did you know that Icelandic is one of the Top 10 Toughest Languages to learn (for an English-speaker)? The other nine are: Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, Hungarian, Korean, Finnish, Basque, Navajo and Polish.
Icelandic is spoken by less than 400,000 people in the world! That means only 0.005% of the population of the world speak this ancient language, which is from the ninth or tenth century.
When I visit a foreign country, I like to learn a few phrases that could come in handy, but I gave up trying to learn Icelandic.
Once our host from G Adventures joined us, he quickly put us all at ease, we each introduced ourselves, Francois answered any questions we had, and then he escorted us to dinner (on foot, short walk).
I have written previously about why I love G Adventures (see my post about the Amalfi) so I won’t reiterate all that here, but one of the reasons is that their CEO’s know the destination like the back of their own hand.
Francois didn’t take us to a four star restaurant, in the hopes of impressing us with fine dining…..he took us to Kex Hostel Restaurant (Sæmundur í Sparifötunum), which I believe is now permanently closed (if you’re reading this in Iceland and you know for sure if it’s closed or not, please let me know in the Comments!!).
The menu was priced for the hostel crowd, which I, for one appreciated, because not only was the food delicious and authentic, but also affordable. Which brings me to my next point about Iceland…
Even if you have boatloads of cash, I can’t imagine anyone going to Iceland and NOT mentioning at least once how expensive it is there. GETTING to Iceland is not expensive, as I said, my flight from Toronto was less than $500 including taxes, but once you’re there, woah! It’s pricey! Everything from accommodations, to transportation, food…..for example, these are some prices I noticed at the grocery and liquor store (as of 2019):
- Coca Cola, case of 4 1.5L bottles is 798 Icelandic Krona (ISK) or about $8 CAD
- Cheerios, 518 g box is 669 ISK or about $7 CAD
- Bacardi White Rum, 750 mL is 5,999 ISK or about $60 CAD
- Reyka (local, Icelandic vodka), 1.75L is 6,699 ISK or about $66 CAD
- Yellow Tail Merlot, 750 mL is 2,999 ISK or about $30 CAD
- Jagermeister, 1L, 8,499 ISK or about $84 CAD
- Kahlua, 700 ML, 4,599 ISK or about $45 CAD
- Bailey’s, 1L, 5,790 ISK or about $57 CAD
- Grand Marnier, 1L, 10,890 ISK or about $107 CAD
Day Two – Another thing I love about G Adventures is that they DO have a day-to-day itinerary but you don’t feel like you’re marching to someone else’s drum-beat. Their CEO’s are aware of anything that might make the planned experience less than it should be, and since the weather is a big factor in Iceland, that was taken into account during our time there. We still did what was set-out in the itinerary, we just didn’t do it in that same order, which was totally fine with me (and everyone else in the group).
Also, there are natural phenomena, such as The Northern Lights, which are dependent on weather conditions so of course G Adventures can’t guarantee that travelers booked on this tour will experience the Northern Lights.
So if you enjoy a very regimented vacation, you won’t like G Adventures, but if you’re like me, and you understand Life has plans for us we can’t control, and you enjoy spontineity whilst also having a loose itinerary of possibilities, then you will like G Adventures a lot!
After breakfast, we loaded into the G Adventures Mercedes Sprinter and Francois drove us to a small underground cave, which, unless you know it’s there, you won’t know it’s there. It’s not like a hill-side or cliff-side cave, which you can easily spot, this was a lava cave near the Bláfjöll Mountains and if you were driving down that wind-swept road you would be hard-pressed to spot the cave in the ground.
I’ll be honest, this cave wasn’t especially exciting, beautiful or impressive (my favourite caving experience was in the Azores–will talk about that in a future post) but it was still a fun experience.
If you’re into photography, for sure put Iceland on your must-visit list because the lighting TRULY is special on this magical island.
We went to Kerid Crater, which is located in southern Iceland along the “Golden Circle”. Kerid is unique among crater lakes in that its caldera likely didn’t form from an explosion as most do. The Kerid volcano is thought to have formed when the magma in the center simply depleted itself, and the empty chamber beneath caved in. It’s much more colourful in the summer months, but I thought it was cool (no pun intended) to see it during wintertime.
There is free parking at Kerid Crater, entrance fee is about $4 CAD, kids under 12 are free, and they do not allow drone photography.
As I mentioned earlier, the Blue Lagoon is a tourist hot-spot (again, no pun intended) but Francois took us to a place that I liked better (I didn’t bring my bathing suit and couldn’t bring myself to rent or buy one there so I didn’t get into the hotsprings, but I wandered the grounds and took photos).
The “Secret Lagoon” is a natural lagoon where the temperature of the water is 100 C. Entrance fee for Adults is 3000 ISK (or about $30 CAD), Seniors 67+ and persons with disabilities 2200 ISK, children 14 under free. You can buy a towel for 1,500 ISK, or rent one for 700 ISK. Likewise, you can buy a bathing suit for 4,000 ISK or rent one for 700 ISK.
We arrived at our home-away-from-home for the next few days….the Alftrod Guesthouse which was a really nice surprise as it it’s located on a large plot of land, the guesthouse itself is very spacious, very clean, and I really felt like I was staying in Iceland, not at a cookie-cutter hotel that could be anywhere in the world.
The kitchen and dining area was very large…
My bedroom (as a single) was small but I’m not in there to throw a party, I’m there to sleep and get freshened up for the next day. As long as my bed is comfortable (which it was), my private bathroom is clean (which it was), and I have a nice view (which I did), I’m happy!
We came to learn that not only was Francois our host, guide, and driver, he was also our chef! We (the guests) were his sous-chefs, and those who didn’t help prepare meals were on cleaning up duty (this was all, of course, on a voluntary basis). Again, to some people, this might not sound like a vacation, but with 15 pairs of hands doing the work, it took no time at all and gave us a good opportunity to chat with one another.
The guesthouse is secluded, so in the evening it’s very quiet, we typically played cards. There was also a hot-tub on the property, which, had Mother Nature decided to present us with a view of the Northern Lights (no light pollution there at all), it would have been lovely, but it was too cloudy during our stay there, so we didn’t see the Lights. Even so, laughing over a game of cards felt like I was on holiday with my own family, and not someone else’s.
Day Three – After breakfast, we went to Þingvellir National Park, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of the most-visited sights in Iceland.
Here you will also find Silfra, which was formed in 1789 by earthquakes, and is a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Silfra is the only place in the world where you can dive or snorkel directly in a crack between two tectonic plates.
After hiking around the park in the blowing cold wind, Francois had another surprise up his lopapeysa sleeve. He took us for lunch to Friðheimar. What is Friðheimar? Friðheimar is a geothermally heated tomato (and cucumber) greenhouse with a restaurant inside featuring all things tomato on the menu.
Imagine, you’re outside, it’s windy, it’s cold, you feel like you’re in Siberia and then you enter this deliciously warm cocoon made of glass and you see a sea of green goodness.
The restaurant is open 12 pm to 4 pm daily, all year round and advance reservations are recommended.
Friðheimar Greenhouse covers 5,000 sq meters, yields 300 tonnes of produce annually (none of it is exported, it’s all for domestic consumption) and they contribute 18% of Iceland’s tomato market. Four different varieties of tomato are cultivated in the greenhouses, using a volcanic growing medium in place of soil. Tomatoes are vine ripened, hand-picked, and immediately sold in supermarkets throughout Iceland. Friðheimar tomatoes are tasty, sweet, and organic.
90% of Iceland runs on clean bio sustainable geothermal energy and Friðheimar greenhouse is a great example of how a country can use high technology and geothermal energy to produce food without harming the environment.
You might be thinking, “OK, wait a minute, how do the tomato plants get pollinated? One queen and hundreds of worker bees are flown in from Holland every few weeks. They arrive in a box, ready to work. Worker bees live 6-8 weeks. There are up to 600 active worker bumble bees at any one time at their greenhouse.
Use Natupol for:
Pollination of a wide range of indoor crops such as round and plum tomatoes
One hive with one colony of bumblebees including a queen, workers, brood and sugar water
After our brief tour, it was time for lunch. I had a look over the menu (which I can provide to my clients)….a few goodies to choose from:
Virgin Mary, 300 mL – “home-made fresh tomato drink made from well-ripe tomatoes” is 1,100 ISK (about $11 CAD)
Bloody Mary (arguably the best Bloody Mary in the world – it’s actually been written about in the press), same as Virgin Mary but with vodka and a drop of Tabasco for 1,790 ISK (about $18 CAD)
Healthy Mary, 300 mL – “refreshing drink made from green tomatoes, lime, honey and ginger. Served chilled with sparkling water” for 1,100 ISK
Happy Mary, 300 mL – “here we take our green tomatoes to a new level. One part Hendrik’s gin, two parts Healthy Mary and glass filled up with Bitter Lemon” for 1,790 ISK
Tomato Schnapps (which is what I had) – 33 mL – “a hollow tomato filled with Birch schnapps” for 1, 050 ISK was the cutest and tastiest $10 CAD shooter I’ve ever had!
To continue with our liquid lunch, we had the Tomato Soup (BEST tomato soup ever!!) which you can enhance (it does NOT need it, but this is of course to personal preference) with freshly snipped basil which they provide in a small pot on your table along with a small pair of scissors.
As good as the soup is, the BEST part? The bread! By the way, the soup is all-you can eat and the bread is all-you can eat. I thought the bread I had in Italy was the best, because it was SOOOO delicious, but this bread, oh my gosh, it was orgasmically good!
The soup also comes with sour cream, and cucumber salsa, but honestly, the soup didn’t need either of those accompaniments and the bread is so great it doesn’t need butter. I’ll admit it….I had a second bowl of soup and two more slices of bread.
For dessert, likewise, everything is tomato…..Tomato Ice Cream, Cheese Cake, Green Tomato and Apple, each for 1,450 ISK. I was so full of soup and bread, I didn’t get dessert but those who did said it was yummy too.
After a belly-warming lunch, we boarded the beautiful Mercedes (tonnes of room to stretch out, huge windows, leather seats, WiFi) and headed off to Strokkur, which is Iceland’s most visited active geyser. You can’t get CLOSE to it, but we got as close as is allowed and that’s because we weren’t there during peak season. Mind you, you don’t have to be “front row” to appreciate this natural phenomenon, but it was really cool to be standing so close to it. Francois pointed to us the spot we should be looking at as there’s a split-second “warning” of what’s to come if you look at that spot. Strokkur erupts a spray of boiling hot water straight into the air about every ten minutes.
From there we went to Gullfoss. Iceland has over 200 named waterfalls and Gullfoss is one of the most impressive! This massive waterfall cascades over three “steps” before spilling into a large crevice. Fed by a glacier lake, the water passing through the falls can be a dark grey depending on how much sediment gets pushed through the river but when we were there is was a gorgeous dark aquamarine color.
Before heading back to the Guesthouse, we pulled over to have a brief visit with a few Icelandic horses.
The Icelandic horse is just how Iceland likes to perceive itself: little but strong. They are squat and muscular and in winter they have long shaggy fur (the horses that is, not the Icelanders). The Icelandic horse has become popular outside of Iceland for being easy-going and friendly (similar to some Icelanders haha).
Day 4 – After another delicious (it’s about quality not quantity) breakfast which included the amazing Alftrod Bread (made with yogurt, spelt, seeds, honey and dates–a small slice will keep you satiated all day), we went for our optional excursions. I chose to do the Sólheimajökull glacier hike.
Equipped with crampons, harness, helmet and an ice ax, we hiked through the dramatic glacier valley, enjoying stunning, panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Our wonderful guide explained the volcanic history of the area to us, as well as the effects of global warming.
It was an excellent optional activity, our guide was very knowledgeable and patient and kind. I actually fell toward the end of our hike–I did exactly what our guide told us NOT to do, of course I didn’t do it on purpose, but I wasn’t walking with a wide enough stance so one of the cleats on the crampons–which are massive by the way!–got caught in another cleat and down I went. The physical pain of the fall–landed on my knee–was bad, but more painful was the embarrassment as I was at the front of the line. Our guide was wonderful though and gave me well-enough time to get back up to my feet and once I was up, again he made sure I was OK (and I was).
What’s a great way to follow-up an ice-cold adventure? For me, it’s to fill my belly with warm food. Francois drove us to Fossbúð Restaurant and made sure that I had a vegan option (I had the Dan Dan Noodles). Everything on the menu was 1,000 ISK or about $10 CAD, (Beef Burger, Chicken Burger, Icelandic Lamb Soup, Dan Dan Noodles, Stir Fried Noodles, Deep Fried Fish) except the Fish & Chips which was 1,500 ISK and the French Fries which were 500 ISK.
This restaurant is more like a large cafeteria, but I think people mostly go there for a quick bite as it’s in a good location….close to our next stop….
Skógafoss is one of the largest (25 meters/82 feet wide with a vertical drop of 60 m/200 feet) and most recognizable waterfalls in Iceland and likely the most Instagrammed one too because as the mist floats through the sunny air, it creates a lovely rainbow or two. If you can manage to climb the 370 steps up to the top of the falls, you’ll be rewarded with a view for as far as the eye can see.
A legend is connected to Skógafoss waterfall; it’s believed that behind it you can find a chest filled with gold and treasures. The story goes that Þrasi Þórólfsson, the Viking Settler at Skógar (Eystriskógar) in around 900, hid the chest and it is said that the first person who goes there will find great treasures. Be that as it may, for me, the treasures were the waterfalls themselves.
Right next to Skógafoss (short walk) is Seljalandsfoss, which is a 60 meter/196 ft tall waterfall; behind the flow of water is a path, allowing visitors to peek behind the curtain of water cascading over the rocks above. We didn’t venture behind these falls as it was icy but also quite crowded.
And right next to Seljalandsfoss is Gljúfrabúi (which translates to “Canyon Dweller”).
The 40 metre/131 ft tall Gljúfrabúi is a little hidden behind a cliff but it’s definitely worth checking out because a stream, the Gljúfurá, runs through a cleft in the cliff, and after walking only a few metres through a narrow valley, a small space opens up, and here, Gljúfrabúi tumbles onto a huge boulder, which is easily climbable for some great photos. With the open sky above, mossy walls, silver mist and surrounding black lava, it really felt pretty spectacular (leave your vanity at home….visiting waterfalls, and especially here at Gljúfrabúi will give you a very bad hair day lol).
One thing I thought was extra-thoughtful of Francois was that he had created a play-list of tunes for us to listen to during the drives. One of the guests (the sweet senior from Scotland) was celebrating her birthday so he played “It’s Your Birthday” by 50 Cent and once we reboarded the Sprinter after visiting these three waterfalls, he played, “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” by TLC (so of course now anytime I hear either of those songs on the radio, I’m taken back to Iceland and the wonderful memories made there). Thanks Francois!
Day Five – This was the end of our time in Iceland (for most of us) so it was a bit sad for me as I hate good-byes.
My last night was back at the Storm Hotel. As it turned out, there was a massive strike in Reykjavik, something that apparently RARELY happens, which included all hospitality employees, so the restaurant wasn’t open for breakfast. Instead, they delivered a large paper bag of goodies to us, left outside out door which included sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, snacks and juice.
Also participating in the strike were cabbies, which made finding one a challenge, so the single Irishman in our group and I decided to share a cab back to the airport; his flight was much earlier than mine but I would rather sit around for an extra hour or two than have to try to track down another taxi driver (my arrival fiasco replayed in my head) AND pay double the fare.
And so ended my unforgettable time in Iceland. It was a common sentiment with a few of us in the group that we HAVE to get back to Iceland some day. As lovely as the G Adventures program was, it has served to whet my appetite to explore more of this small but impressive island…..next time I’ll be doing it in a 4 X 4 van.
Thank you for giving up fiveish minutes of your day today to read this post! Ok, maybe it was more than five minutes, tenish? Fifteenish? Regardless, I hope it was worth your time and that it’s maybe inspired you to put Iceland on your travel list.
Please note: I am not being paid or incentivized by any business I’ve mentioned here, however all photos are my own, so if you’d like to purchase a print, please send me a private note and we’ll discuss further.