Monday, June 6, 2011

Trip Report: Iceland 2011

 

Thursday 6/2

Jonathan has always wanted to visit Iceland and so once Delta announced they would begin flying to Reykjavik he scooped up tickets for us.

We left for Iceland on Thursday, one day after Delta began their flights to Reykjavik.  It’s always a gamble to fly during the inaugural week of a new route especially when paired with a new ground crew. Our outgoing flight was well piloted and smooth but the lead flight attendant for our cabin (couch; economy comfort) was completely unprofessional. A rowdy crew of good looking thirtysomething gents were seated in our area, en route to a bachelor’s weekend in Reykjavik. The lead personality in the group immediately started flirting heavily with our attendant and she was quite visibly flattered. This caused her to be distracted which only led her already poor service to slip even further. She didn’t smile at any of the customers except for the bachelor group; she gave short and snippy answers; she didn’t acknowledge the medallion members and she threw attitude our way when Jon called her on skipping him for lunch. Because of her inappropriate interaction with the bachelor group she endangered passenger safety- a couple members in the group drank past the point of intoxication and not only did she accommodate that but she turned a blind eye while they continued to serve themselves wine from the FA’s prep area. At one point while the lead FA was serving customers in the back of our cabin, the drunkest of the bachelor group got up, moved over to the plane exit door and started touching things. He was trying to look through the little window and I watched him in a bit of panic wondering if he’d try to open the door handle that his hand was getting closer to. People do stupid things when they’re drunk. That was all just a little too much, so I was *that girl* who complained to the FA in the business class cabin. She immediately secured the wine out of reach from the rowdy bunch, ordered them to sit down, and went to have a word with the lead FA. It got a bit quieter after that- forced to sit down the gents fell asleep. Unfortunately I didn’t get much sleep myself, so I went into our first day of sightseeing very tired.

 

Friday 6/3

Once we touched down in Reykjavik, we were off quickly through immigration (no questions; just a quick stamp and nod) and then to pick up our rental car for the day’s adventure. A chilly day (coming from spring on the American east coast) greeted us. With the weather in the upper 40s  it was definitely sweater weather. The plan for the day was to tour the region of Iceland know as the Golden Circle. It’s a circular scenic auto route leading from Reykjavik onto Þingvellir, Geysir, and then Gullfoss before returning to Reykjavik. The total drive time is about five hours, but it’s broken up by stops at the scenic points. The more we drove, the more I remarked how much Iceland reminded me of the American southwest with its wide open spaces, distinct lack of trees, low height vegetation and endless sky.

Along the way we stopped at a random gas station to try a famous culinary creation: Icelandic hot dogs. A blend of lamb, beef and pork (as compared to American all beef or beef/pork blends), it’s typically topped with fried onion strings, thousand island type dressing, ketchup, raw onions and mustard. I had mine ‘Clinton style’ (so named b/c President Clinton had his served this way) with just fried onions and mustard. I really liked the crunch of the onions, but the dog itself was not to my liking.

 

First stop: Þingvellir

This was the site of Iceland’s first parliament (AD 930). The name literally means ‘Parliamentary Fields’. What’s quite unusual about the location is that it lies directly on the fault lines of the North American and Eurasian plates. Continental drift in action! A little too slow motion to see however- it’s separating at a rate of just a few centimeters per year.

 

Þingvellir fault lines

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Þingvellir with river, church and mountains in the distance

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Scenic view along the drive to our next stop

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Second stop: Geysir

Geysir is the name Icelandic folk lent to the phenomenon observed in this spot whereby hot water and steam bursts forth from an opening in the ground, ‘powered’ by geothermal forces under the ground. Of course, we are all familiar with this phenomenon since the English word ‘geyser’ is derived from the Icelandic term. The original geyser, dubbed Geysir, has sadly fizzled out but another geyser (Strokkur) has taken its place as the main draw at this location. For Americans who have visited Yellowstone, the geysers and bubbling mudpots here at Geysir may be a bit less impressive, but the increased access is inviting. The Icelandic government is very hands off when it comes to public safety – it’s been said that there are so many dangerous natural elements within the country that the treasury would quickly bankrupt if an attempt to put up the requisite warning signs and guardrails was made. It’s pretty much everything at your own risk.  This means you can get *very* close to the natural attractions such as the geysers; close enough to let them rain down on you – which is what several people did.

 

Strokkur geyser

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Third Stop: Gullfoss 

Gullfoss is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. It’s quite lovely with its stair step configuration.

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After our tour of the Golden Circle we spent the early evening relaxing in the famed Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Probably the most unusual spa experience I’ve ever had. It’s a very large outdoor geothermal pool with a sandy bottom, an in-water bar and massage area, and buckets of white silica mud to be used by patrons for self-serve beauty masks. It’s conveniently located near the international airport, which made it an ideal stop on the way to return the rental car. The spa promises that the water is clean and rejuvenating (documented to clear up skin problems) and for the the most part I found that to be true. I did notice that if you dig your feet or hands into the sandy bottom you will pull back up human hair mixed in with the seaweed. I tried not to think about that after I made the unfortunately discovery when pulling up sand. 

 

Blue Lagoon

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Disaster struck just after returning the rental car at the airport. I had planned for us to take the Flybus shuttle from the airport to downtown Reykjavik and had carefully consulted the company’s schedule online. What I had failed to realize was that the schedule applied to the Reykjavik to airport route and not the reverse. For the airport to Reykjavik route, the shuttle *only* departs 45 minutes after each incoming flight. We had arrived at the airport to drop off the rental at 7pm, and the next incoming flight wasn’t until 9pm! As the taxi to Reykjavik is over $100, we decided to wait it out and take the next shuttle. We were tired, hungry, and so of course a lot of bickering ensued. Not the best moment of our trip.

Things quickly improved once we finally got into downtown Reykjavik. By now it was 10:30pm, but I felt energized by the daylight. As Reykjavik is close to the Arctic circle, the sun never sets in the summer. Apparently the rest of Reykjavik was energized by the extended daylight as well because most of the restaurants are open well past midnight and a lot of residents and tourists can be seen milling out and about at all hours of the ‘night’.

After checking into our hotel (Hotel Fron; cheap, spacious and friendly) we set out for the Seafood Cellar for dinner. Jon had chosen this restaurant based on its stellar reputation and it did not disappoint. We enjoyed their four course menu, savoring each course of Icelandic cuisine. The dishes reminded me of Thomas Keller’s work (Per Se, French Laundry, etc) in the way they captured flavor. 

Walking back to the hotel (near 2am) from dinner I was struck with the sudden insight on how much context defines our everyday experiences. Many times I have seen drunken twentysomethings stumbling out of bars and clubs. Loud and uncoordinated they wind their way down the sidewalk, stopping occasionally to steady themselves or sometimes get sick. And of course  the ladies are usually wearing a lot of heavy makeup and skin tight club dresses paired with heels. I tend not to really think much of any of it. Suddenly, when the actors and their costumes were transposed into daylight (because, again, the sun never sets) it all seemed ridiculous and theatrical. 

Saturday 6/4

The next morning, after entirely too little sleep, we were up bright and early at 6:30am to catch breakfast in the hotel before our pickup by Grey Line for their Southern Coast tour. I was really excited about the sights advertised on this tour but that didn’t stop me from falling asleep on the tour bus in between stops. That’s the nice thing about the lack of darkness – you can have a second chance to see everything on the way home if you’re on an out-n-back tour without worry of it getting dark. I’ll tell the tour story simply in pictures…

 

Scenic trickle of a waterfall along the route

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Skógafoss waterfall

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Sheep at play

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Mesa

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Lava field

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Glacier

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Bridge over the glacial river (meets the ocean just beyond)

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Glacial lake

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Iceberg

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Aside from enjoying the sights, over the course of the day’s travel we learned a little more about Icelandic history from the tour guide and enjoyed another signature Icelandic dish – Lamb soup (which was fabulous; reminds me of Caldo).

After a full day of sightseeing we arrived back in downtown Reykjavik a little after 10:30pm and ventured out for dinner. Jon had picked out a Tapas joint – Tapas Barinn – and we both really enjoyed the cuisine. We had jumped in feet first to Icelandic cuisine the day before and loved everything so we threw all caution to the wind and all prejudices out the window on this evening and tried everything that was put in front of us, however controversial.

A large bread basket with hummus and olive tapenade was brought out first, to be enjoyed alongside the entire meal. Our first course was smoked puffin with a blueberry sauce. Puffin tastes a lot like fish crossed with duck. The meat is tender, but I found it to have a strong ‘gamey’ flavor and only the blueberry sauce made it acceptable. Next was Icelandic sea-trout with a roasted pepper salsa and it was exquisite. The third course was lobster tails baked in garlic and those were very similar to the crab claws we had in Madrid on our tapas crawl (very tasty!). Next they served duck breast in Grand Mariner – also very good. Our final course (here comes the controversy) was grilled Minke whale steak with cranberry sauce. It’s actually the best meat I’ve ever had; reminiscent of lamb and beef. I did a lot of research on the Icelandic whaling industry and I’m very comfortable with bringing whale to the table in the fashion they do (small harvests, efficient hunting and focused on a species of whale that is not endangered).

Full with gourmet deliciousness, we walked back to our hotel (at nearly 2 in the morning and again in daylight) and crashed into bed. We knew we needed to be up bright and early again for our departure from Iceland.

The return flight was smooth (very professional crew this time around) and the ground crew in Iceland was really top notch and focused on security.

We are looking forward to a return to Iceland again soon. It’s just a short 5 hour flight from JFK and Delta’s pricing is attractive. Next time we will take a few more days and explore Northern Iceland.

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