Our trip to Iceland in March 2015: Reykjavik, Vik, The Blue Lagoon, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, and the south coast
We’ve always been a little curious about Iceland. My friend Daniel has been obsessed with the country for years and has been there three times, bringing back stories about gorgeous waterfalls, giant glaciers, copious amounts of hot springs, locals who believe in elves, and the crazy Reykjavik nightlife. When I discovered that we could get there on a direct flight from Seattle with Icelandair that was only 7.5 hours long, we decided it would be a great option for a quick one week trip in March 2015.
Iceland is often referred to as “the land of the midnight sun.” Much like parts of Alaska, the sun only goes down for about an hour or two around June, and only comes up for an hour or two in December. Summer is the peak tourist season in Iceland, as that is when the weather is best and the days are long. It never really gets that warm in Iceland (summers around 50-60 degrees farhenheit), but the landscape is beautiful and the hot springs are plentiful. Iceland is also referred to as “the land of fire and ice,” due to the on-going volcanic activity over the whole island, in addition to massive glaciers. Erupting volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields, and black sand beaches can be found right along side snow and ice.
Iceland is an expensive country. In summer time (June through September 15), the prices on hotels, airfare, and rental cars double throughout the country. We opted to go in March, when daylight is good (sun rise around 8:00 AM and sunset around 7:00 PM), prices are lower, and the weather is still wintry. We got plane tickets for $622.00 per person round trip, which is super low for an international vacation.
We expected a little snow, lots of rain, and wind. What we didn’t expect was a LOT of snow, and a LOT of wind. Reading the weather reports and news in Iceland in the four weeks prior to our trip, we began to get really nervous about the weather and road conditions. The winter of 2014-2015 was one of the worst winters Iceland has had in years, with stories of cars being blown off the road by wind, wind blowing snow and rocks through the windshields of 10 separate tourists driving near Skaftafell National Park, and all kinds of search-and-rescue stories of tourists getting stuck somewhere in blizzard conditions.
Unfortunately, a lot of tourists get stuck places in Iceland in the winter while underestimating mother nature–much to the chagrin of the locals. Search and rescue teams are comprised of volunteers, and they risk their lives to help stranded tourists. If you decide to go to Iceland in the winter, pay close attention to the weather report and the road conditions before venturing out. The weather can change on a dime. Ask locals if your travel plans are a good idea that day before venturing out, and heed their advice. Try and keep your plans flexible, as you may end up stuck somewhere. Plan your last couple nights close to the airport or in Reykjavik so that you have a little cushion of time in case you get stuck somewhere.
A note about clothing:
Most of Iceland’s attractions are outdoors, and no matter what time of year you go, waterproof is key. Sideways rain can happen at any moment. Make sure to bring rain pants, waterproof hiking boots, a rain coat, and lots of layers. In the winter, a down coat with a warm hood and snow pants are a good idea. We wore down coats and waterproof pants with long johns most of the time on this trip, and wore nice sweaters when we went out to eat in nicer restaurants.
We arrived in Iceland at 6:45 in the morning in a windstorm that made the plane swerve back and forth when landing on the runway. I had pre-arranged a Grayline bus to Reykjavik through Kex Hostel, which was very easy– they just told us they would add it to our room bill when we arrived, and emailed me a voucher for the bus. It was $15 per person one way, and took us right to the front door of the hostel.
After a 45 minute drive, fighting sleep while watching the sky lighten over the lava fields and listening to a group of American college frat boys talk about all the “clubbing” they were going to do in Reykjavik, we arrived at Kex Hostel.
Stepping out of the bus onto compact snow that was now essentially a big wavy sheet of ice, we collected our bags, “skated” carefully across the slippery sidewalk, and hauled them up the two flights of stairs to reception.
Kex Hostel is the quintessential hipster hostel of Reykjavik. It is probably the nicest hostel I’ve ever been to, however I can’t vouch for the dorm rooms–we reserved a private room. Because of our early morning arrival, I had booked the previous night as well so that we could check in right when we arrived (unlike the frat boys, who were trying to figure out how to keep their energy up until 2:00 PM when they could check in to their dorm). It was well worth it, we were dog tired and got no sleep on the plane.
Check in was easy, we pre-paid at the front desk and were given a key to our room on the third floor. It was a corner room at the end of the hall, and after seeing the photos of tiny private rooms on tripadvisor, I’m pretty sure we got the best one. It was huge, with an ocean view, large private bathroom with a tub, and a sitting area with antique furniture.
Don’t let the word “hostel” fool you, private rooms at Kex are not cheap like most hostels. Our room was about $150.00/night, just like a mid-range hotel room. In the summertime, the rate sky-rockets up to $350.00/night along with most hotels in Iceland. This is one of the biggest reasons we chose to travel in the winter.
**Money-saving tip: If you want to see Iceland in the summertime and are on a tight budget, consider bringing camping gear for the many campgrounds throughout the country, or at least a sleeping bag and a towel–many hostel or cabin accommodations charge less if you have your own sleeping bag vs them providing bedding and towels.
Our room included breakfast, and since we paid for the previous night we were welcome to eat at the breakfast when we checked in. The breakfast spread was typical of Icelandic hotels/hostels, but was probably the highest quality that we encountered. Included were several types of fresh baked bread, crackers, skyr (Icelandic yogurt, which is super creamy like Greek yogurt), muesli, tuna salad, deli meats, cheese, liver pate, tomatoes, cucumbers, little jars of fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, juice, tea, and coffee.
**Money-saving tip: We found the Icelandic breakfast buffets to be so hearty that we were able to eat enough to last us all the way until dinner. We didn’t really eat lunch the whole trip.
After breakfast, we headed up to the room and crashed for most of the day. We finally got up around 3:30 to head out and explore. Normally we wouldn’t sleep so long in an effort to regulate our schedules and combat jet lag, but we had heard that Icelandic weekend nightlife doesn’t get good until around midnight, so we figured we might as well be up late that night.
First we explored the rest of Kex Hostel and had lunch at the bar downstairs.
We were hungry, and I’d read great reviews on the Kex Hostel restaurant, so we decided to check it out. We found a table by the window (made from an old sewing machine table). It didn’t look like there was table service, so we ordered at the bar. I had the baked goat cheese and pickled onions on grilled bread with a side of the sweet carrots, and Paddy had the grilled chorizo. Both were about $18 each, which is actually a pretty good price for Iceland.
We were impressed with the quality of the food. There seemed to be quite a few locals at the bar as well, and I had read that the good food and good prices bring a lot of locals to the hostel. Several tables in the bar area had reserved signs on them. Overall, the prices are good (compared to other restaurants in Reykjavik) and I would recommend coming here for a meal even if you aren’t planning on staying here.
**Money saving tip: Tipping isn’t part of the culture in Iceland, so while the restaurant prices are expensive, you don’t have to factor in a gratuity at the end. Restaurant servers are paid a decent living wage, but if the service was really excellent, it isn’t rude to leave something if you feel like it.
After we ate, it was around 4:00 PM, and we had about three more hours of daylight left. We ventured out to walk around the city and take stock of our surroundings. We headed a couple blocks up to Laugavegur Street, the main shopping street in Reykjavik.
We found the “Bad Taste Record Store:”
The Chuck Norris Grill:
Instructions on how to tie a tie:
And some interesting grafitti:
After exploring some of the little shops (most of the ones that stay open later are souvenir stores), we reached the city center and were getting a bit cold and ready for a break. We stopped into the Laundromat Cafe for some hot tea and beer. It was a funky little spot with a laundromat in the basement, lots of book shelves around the bar, maps on the walls, and a good looking menu. We weren’t hungry yet but we enjoyed the atmosphere and friendly service.
We continued walking around a bit more and eventually got hungry for dinner. It was around 9:00 PM and most restaurants seemed to be either packed or touristy. We were also making a solid attempt to avoid tourist restaurants with whale and puffin on the menu, two animals that are close to being on the endangered species list. While whale was a traditional food in old Icelandic times, it is no longer sustainable or necessary to eat. The really sad thing is that most Icelanders don’t eat whale, a good 60% of the whale eaten in Iceland is consumed by tourists. With tourism exploding in Iceland in the past few years and only continuing to grow, it is worrysome to think of what this could mean for whales.
Fortunately there is a growing local movement against whaling in Iceland, IceWhale.is which discourages consumption of whale meat in Iceland and promotes environmentally friendly ways of enjoying the whales of Iceland with their slogan “Meet us don’t eat us!”. Their website also provides a list of whale-friendly restaurants.
We eventually stumbled into a Scandinavian restaurant (Called “Scandinavian,” fittingly enough) that had been packed all evening and was now starting to thin out. We were in the mood for local food, so we ordered some Icelandic beers and the marinated salmon with mustard sauce appetizer. We weren’t super hungry, so we had soup for our entrees, which was delicious. Paddy had the Icelandic lamb soup special of the day, and I had the lobster soup. The lobster soup was very tasty, although very rich. I couldn’t quite finish all of it and I’m probably better off not knowing exactly how much butter and heavy cream I consumed.
**Money saving tip: Icelanders make great soup, and just about every sit-down style restaurant has it. It usually comes with fresh bread and makes a great inexpensive meal.
After dinner we were ready to check out the nightlife. I’d read up on a few places and received a few suggestions from my friend Daniel, who has been to Iceland three times. Our first stop was a new bar I’d read about, Bar Ananas. I’m a sucker for theme bars, and this one had a tropical theme (ananas means pineapple in Icelandic). We walked in to what appeared to be someone’s birthday or bachelorette party, as it was filled with women and balloons. It didn’t appear to have any cocktail menus with specialty tropical cocktails, and the bar was completely blocked by gabbing ladies. We moved on.
Our second stop was the Lebowski Bar, which is a bar with a theme dedicated entirely to the movie The Big Lebowski. It was packed, but we found a couple of bar stools at the end next to a local guy at the bar by himself. On the cocktail menu were 13 different kinds of white Russians, but after all the cream I had just eaten in the lobster soup, I opted for a cosmo. It was weak and expensive.
We made conversation with the local guy who was kind enough to move over for us to sit together for a little while, until two staff members showed up and told us they had to take away our bar stools because it was “turning into a pub.” Deciding that it wasn’t really our scene, we finished our drinks and moved on. We thought we might try coming back the next day before it got busy.
Paddy wanted to go to a rock bar, so we walked up to the next block and went to Dillon Whiskey Bar, which I’d read is a good place to see live bands. There was a live local rock band playing in the upstairs bar, and it being around midnight I figured we were arriving right when things were getting going. Unfortunately, the show ended shortly after we arrived and no one came on after that. The songs we did see were good, and the bar cleared out a bit afterward and we were able to have a table. The atmosphere was nice and much more our style, and the bartenders filled my wine glass almost to the brim each time.
We stayed out until around 1:30 AM, and then figured we should probably get to bed so that we could start getting on some sort of a more normal schedule. We thought that Kex Hostel bar would be busy at that hour, but there was just a couple people at the bar talking to the bartender by candlelight. I think the “party gets going at midnight” rule applies mostly to dance clubs and bars like the Lebowski.
The next morning we ate breakfast at the Hostel and headed out to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yes, it’s a penis museum.
The penis museum was founded by local historian and teacher Sigurður Hjartarson. His fellow teachers who worked summers in the whaling industry used to bring him whale penises as a joke. Eventually he began preserving and collecting penises of other mammalian species, and in 2011 he opened the museum. His collection includes 282 penises from 93 different species of mammals, including a human donation. Sigurður Hjartarson maintains that no animals are killed for the sole purpose of collecting a penis.
While we were looking at the exhibit, I overheard a little British boy ask his mother, “Mummy, why are we at a pee-pee museum?” I didn’t hear her answer.
There is a recent documentary called “The Final Member” that came out about Sigurður Hjartarson’s quest to obtain a human speciman for the museum, that waffles between hilarious and a little disturbing. We would highly recommend it. Trailer below:
**Note: Just about everywhere in Iceland takes credit cards, except this museum. Be sure to stop by the cash machine to withdraw some kroner before visiting. Admission is 1250 kr, or around $9.50.
After the penis museum we continued down towards Reykjavik’s main harbor to the Kolaportið Flea Market. I’d read that this market is a great place to look for an authentic used or new Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa). The flea market had all kinds of booths selling everything from antiques and trinkets to rock t-shirts and funky sunglasses. There was also a large grocery section of Asian food imports, and a little cafe area selling open-faced sandwiches and other snacks.
There were many booths selling sweaters, and some were used. I didn’t find any that I thought I would really wear that much though to justify the $80-$200 price tag. The wool is thick, and I think that it would be too hot for Seattle weather except for the one or two weeks every December where we have a big freeze and the weather drops into the 20’s. If you are looking for a good price on a lopapeysa, however, this is the best place to look. The market is only open on weekends.
Another great place to shop for an authentic hand-knit lopapeysa is the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland, which also has a shop in Reykjavik.
We wandered around the city a bit more, finding lots more interesting and detailed graffiti:
We were starting to get a little cold and tired so we stopped into Te og Kaffi for some tea and coffee, just off the main square.
After warming up, we headed back up Laugavegur street to do some souvenir shopping, with a quick side detour to take a quick peak at Reykjavik’s iconic church, Hallgrimskirkja. The winds were picking up, and it was getting pretty cold.
We finished our souvenir shopping and went back to the room for a nap.
For dinner that evening, we had made reservations far in advance for Dill, which is arguably the best upscale dining restaurant in Iceland. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason takes Nordic cuisine to new and innovative levels, using local ingredients–much along the lines of the world-renowned restaurant Noma in Denmark.
We may not ever be able to afford Noma ($300 per person for a seven course meal), but we were able to make room in our budget for Dill (much more reasonable at just under $100 per person for a seven course meal). Don’t get me wrong, it was really expensive, but worth it. In this culinary realm, food begins to cross from sustenance to art, bringing new flavors and textures and ideas to the dining experience that have not been done before.
Wine pairings with all seven courses were also offered at an additional $100 per person, but we stuck with one glass of champagne and one glass of red wine each. Our bill at the end was $250, which was slightly less than we had budgeted.
The meal came with four small amuse bouche starters and house-made sourdough rolls. I don’t eat lamb, so I was going to do a 5 course meal instead but the server said that the chef could make something different for me instead of the lamb tartare course, so I went ahead and did the 7 course meal as well. The chef did a scallop tartare dish for me which was very good and extremely nice of the chef to make a subsitution.
Each course was small and complex, and dinner took two hours total. We left full and happy, and the experience was worth every penny.
Afterwards we walked up to the Lebowski Bar to try one of their White Russians and get a look at the place before it got crowded. It wasn’t that crowded yet, but when we approached the empty tables, there were reserved signs on all of them. As much as I love the theme bar idea, it wasn’t really our crowd so we decided to move on to Dillon. That night they had a local Icelandic folk singer singing traditional Irish and Gaelic songs. The singer was pretty good, and the whole upstairs bar was singing along after awhile.
The downstairs bar was full of rowdy drunk Brits with neon glow stick raver glasses singing along to Oasis songs on the jukebox. We stayed upstairs.
My friend Daniel had suggested his favorite club Dolly (named after Dolly Parton–Dolly also has a sister bar in Copenhagen called Jolene), which we were curious about but it was in the opposite direction of our hostel, and we were enjoying the live music at Dillon. Maybe another time.
It started snowing quite a bit, and we walked back to the hostel around 1:00 AM in the falling snow, stopping for a couple quick tipsy photo-ops
Snowed-in in Hveragerði
The next morning we checked out of Kex, and went outside to meet Blue Car Rental, which we had arrange to pick us up at the hostel. We thought they would be picking us up and taking us to their downtown location where we would go over a whole bunch of forms, have copies made of our passports and drivers licenses, given directions and be on our way in the Kia Ceed that we reserved online. Instead, we were met by a man with our car, who had me sign one form in the entryway of Kex, asked to take a look at my driver’s license, gave us a couple pointers about the car (don’t use the parking break at night because it could freeze and snap off and hold onto the doors so the wind doesn’t blow the doors off), and sent us on our way.
Things to know about renting a car in Iceland:
There are tons of threads on Tripadvisor about renting a car in Iceland, many of them filled with horror stories of being charged hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for dings, dents, etc. After reading through many of them, I determined that the big name car rental companies had the most horror stories, and Blue Car Rental had the least horror stories, so we went with them. In general, here is what you need to know:
1. The insurance barely covers anything.
If you damage the car in any way, there is a high deductible that you have to pay. This includes small dents. Blue Car Rental’s deductible was $1,100.00. If the windshield is cracked and needs to be replaced, you pay $100.00. If the chassis/underside of the car is damaged due to off-roading or driving too fast on rough bumpy roads, you are responsible for the whole amount of the damage. If the strong winds blow the doors off the car (it happens), you will be responsible for the damage as well.
2. You must pre-pay with most companies.
Reserving a car online was very easy, and I asked a couple questions via email to Blue Car before reserving, and they were very responsive and helpful. However–you have to pre-pay, and if you cancel your trip last minute, you might not get all your money back. (Your might consider travel insurance for emergency cancellations on your trip).
3. Rental rates double in the summer.
Consider going in the spring, or after September 15th to get the best rates. Like hotel rates, everything is double the price in the peak summer season.
4. Get the sand and ash protection.
Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.
5. In the winter, pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports.
The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans.
6. American credit cards and debit cards don’t work on Icelandic gas pumps.
Hopefully this will change in 2015, but as of now the American banks and credit unions have not gone to the “chip and PIN” card model that has been used in Europe for years. Most bars, restaurants, and shops have card machines that can process the old-style magnetic strip that American credit cards have, but gas pumps don’t. We were able to get around this by pre-paying the gas station attendant, either by having them open the pump or put a pre-paid amount on the pump, or the N1 stations could provide a pre-paid gas card that could be used at the pump. If you are going out into no-man’s land, make sure you fill up your tank first. You may also want to buy a pre-paid gas card at the N1 to use at any N1 stations that might not have an attendant. Worst case scenario, have some cash on hand for emergencies–you might have to wait for someone with a card to come along that you could ask to buy the gas for you in exchange for cash.
Here is a video about driving in Iceland that I found on Icelandair’s video selection on the plane. It was corny, but pretty helpful.
With all the snow and quickly changing road conditions, you can imagine that we were nervous. Our car was equipped with snow tires, and I’d had a small amount of experience driving in snow before. The weather was pretty clear when we left Reykjavik, and we took it slow. Hveragerdi is about 40 minutes from Reykjavik on the main highway 1 (Ring Road) and it didn’t take us that long to get there. Our original plan was to drive the Golden Circle, and then head to Hveragerdi for the evening, but with all the snow we were just concerned with getting there in one piece.
There is a small mountain pass that you go through just before Hveragerdi, and then descend down into the town on a windy road. It wasn’t so bad, but we were glad to make it through without high winds and blowing snow.
I’d reserved our cabin through Icelandic Farm Holidays, and it was relatively easy to find, just outside of town. The icy winds were picking up when we arrived, and our cabin wasn’t quite ready yet. We drove into town and had some coffee and pastries at the little bakery, and checked out the grocery store and souvenir stores in the town’s main shopping center.
The main attraction in Hveragerdi is the natural volcanic hot springs in the area. Many of Iceland’s fruits and vegetables are grown geothermal greenhouses in the town. Our original plan was to hike to the hot river in Reykjadalur valley just outside of town, but the snow put the kabash on that plan.
Finally, we were able to check into our cabin. It was adorable, and reminded me a little of my Danish host family’s ski cabin in Norway.
We got settled in as the winds were starting to pick up. We relaxed for awhile, and then when the wind and snow died down a bit, we took stock of the kitchen equipment and went back into town for groceries for the next couple of days.
The grocery store prices were surprisingly good, pretty much like the prices at any US grocery store. My Danish language knowledge helped me decipher some of the Icelandic items in the store, I was surprised at how many food words were very close to Danish. We were unable to find any fish that was not frozen, and the vegetable selection was small. We did find some very tasty salmon and tuna salads, and some really good cheese. We bought a fresh loaf of bread from the little bakery where we had coffee earlier, and it was delicious.
We had a cozy afternoon and evening reading books. Unable to thaw our fish until the next day, we had salad and a mediocre frozen pizza for dinner. We found the cabin to be stocked with tea lights, which made it very cozy.
**Money saving tip: If you like to drink wine or hard alcohol, bring it with you in your checked baggage. Wine and booze in Iceland are very expensive, and have a high tax. Icelandair allows each person two free checked bags, and you can bring four litres of wine or two litres of wine and one litre of spirits per person into the country. We packed box wine and it lasted us the week and saved us a ton of money.
We were really hoping the weather would get better the next day, so we could go back and do the Golden Circle drive to see Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t stop snowing. We didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a blizzard, and the road conditions weren’t looking very good. While it was disappointing to not be able to see the Golden Circle, we made the best of it with a relaxing snow day reading books and soaking in the hot tub.
We were glad we played it safe, because when we got home I saw this article about 500 tourists getting stuck on the Golden Circle road, which happened the next day.
The hot tub was heated by a natural hot spring. The wind wasn’t too bad so we enjoyed relaxing with some drinks and watching the snow fall.
That night Paddy cooked a yummy Scandinavian-style salmon dinner with hollandaise sauce, potatoes, and sauteed leeks, zucchini, and mushrooms.
Heading east to Vik
The weather report told us that the morning would be pretty clear and mild, but that a storm was moving in that afternoon. We got on the road as early as we could, headed east on Highway 1 to the coastal town of Vik. The drive wasn’t too bad in the beginning, and we stopped at two of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls.
Seljandsfoss waterfall is just a very short drive off the main highway 1, and there are signs for it. In warmer weather, you can actually walk behind it which is pretty awesome. It was icy and cold when we visited, so we didn’t attempt the walk behind it. There was also a fair amount of icy spray from the falls so we didn’t get super close. This waterfall is definitely worth a stop.
Just a short ways down the road from Seljandsfoss is Skogafoss, which you can actually see from the highway. This 200 foot, 25 meter-wide waterfall is one of Iceland’s biggest and most impressive. There are bathrooms at the falls, as well as a little restaurant if you’re hungry. We had packed sandwiches and ate them in the car to save money and use up our groceries.
We didn’t have far to go to Vik, but the black storm clouds on the horizon warned us that we had better hurry it up. It started getting a little dicey right before we descended into the town, but we made it. The winds were picking up and the powdery snow was blowing across the road, making it difficult to see.
We finally reached Vik, very relieved to have made it just as the storm began raging.
We were staying at the brand new Icelandair Hotel in Vik, which had just opened in June 2014. At $175 a night, it was one of our most expensive accommodations on the trip, but very comfortable and modern. In the summer, forget it–the rates shoot up to $300/night. Way out of our budget.
We checked into our room, happy to be out of the weather. I had woken up with a sore throat that morning and it became apparent by afternoon that I was coming down with a mild cold. We decided to relax in the room the rest of the afternoon and watch the stormy sea from our huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows in the room. I was glad that I had packed some cold medicine and vitamins just in case.
For dinner that evening, we asked the receptionist what our restaurant options were in town. The town is tiny and there aren’t a lot of choices. She talked up the Icelandair Hotel restaurant on site, and then mumbled disdainfully about “the grill across the street,” and “another place up the road and to the left.” I suppose it’s her job to steer us to the hotel restaurant.
Berg Restaurant at the hotel was very expensive, and looked a little overpriced. The grill across the street was a very affordable option, attached to the gas station, but we also weren’t in the mood for fried food. I consulted Tripadvisor and decided to check out Halldorskaffi up the street.
The main street in Vik is Vikurbraut, which has a small grocery store, post office and liquor store (you do need to buy beer and wine at the liquor store, which closes at 6:00 PM), and two restaurants–HalldorsKaffi and the Lundi Restaurant in the Puffin Hostel.
Service was very friendly. The best deal they have is their daily soup special, which is a self-serve all-you-can eat soup station with homemade bread. I had the soup of the day (cauliflower) and it was delicious. I also ordered the smoked salmon appetizer and it was also very good. Paddy had a burger and fries. They serve full entree dinners (mostly fish and lamb), pizzas, burgers, salads, and sandwiches. The prices were very reasonable.
There isn’t any nightlife in Vik, and I wasn’t feeling so hot because of my cold so we spent the rest of the evening in the hotel room reading and listening to the storm.
We were super excited to find out from the front desk lady that the storm was supposed to pass overnight, and that we could actually expect some sun the next day.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and the Southern Ring Road
Much of the snow had melted off the road overnight, and the weather forecast was actually good for the day. We got up early, ate some yogurt, bread, and leftover tuna salad for breakfast (we just used the car as our refrigerator for the night), and set out to do a marathon sight-seeing trip on our one unicorn-day of good weather.
An hour past Vik, there is another small town called Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but not much else for miles. (Be sure to have a full gas tank). Just a short ways past Vik is an area where part of Game of Thrones was filmed, and we could definitely see why. We realized that we were really out in the “wilds of Iceland,” with nothing but snow, ice, and glaciers. It was beautiful and humbling at the same time.
After two and a half hours or so, pretty much driving on a solid sheet of ice in some parts of the road, we reached our main destination: Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. It is one of the big attractions in Iceland, and in the summer I’ve read that it is a conveyor belt churning out loads of tourists through boat tours. It was busy, but not too busy when we were there.
The sun was starting to peek out, but the wind was brutal. We walked towards the lagoon and climbed up on top of the grassy hills to get a good view, and were almost blown away.
We descended to the beach, which was better but the wind was still icy cold. It was a beautiful site to see, but we didn’t stay as long as we wanted, the wind was just too much. No boat tours were being offered either, which was fine. The view from the beach was pretty good by itself.
Fortunately, there is a small cafe and gift shop selling seafood soup, pastries, and hot drinks. We had some seafood soup for lunch, which was mediocre but hot and warmed us right up. We used the restroom, picked up a couple souvenirs and turned around to head back.
On the way back we stopped at Skaftafell National Park. Visiting Skaftafell and hiking to glaciers and waterfalls in the park had originally been part of the plan, but we realized that this was a much better destination in the summer or early fall. We didn’t have a lot of time, but thought we’d pull in and see if there was anything to be seen within a short walk of the visitor’s center. There wasn’t. Even nearby Svartifoss required crampons to even attempt the trail. We checked out the visitor’s center and then moved on.
The sun was out full force while we drove back, and we were just happy that we got to see the Glacier Lagoon and the rugged, wild winter terrain of the southern Ring Road. It was even more beautiful on the drive back, as the blue sky and bright sun added some more contrast to the landscape.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
Arriving back at the hotel in Vik, we stopped by the room to freshen up and then got back on the road a short drive west of Vik to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. We were hoping to catch a sunset but snow clouds were rolling in, and it began to snow a little bit. It was still a nice stroll on the beach, with the snow coming down.
Reynisfjara Beach is a must-see stop just off the Ring Road in south Iceland. The beach is covered in black sand and lava rock, with towering jagged sea stacks that look like monster teeth jutting out of the raging ocean. To the west is a rock arch going into the ocean.
Hálsanefshellir sea cave is to your right (as you face the ocean), made up of hexagonal basalt columns much like the ones we saw at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The columns are a natural geological wonder formed from lava pouring out of the land and cooling slowly over time. They are very rare but found randomly all over the world, and also make up the waterfall cliff at Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. The columns at Reynisfjara are also called the “organ pipes.”
**Note: The waves and current at Reynisfjara are very dangerous. Do not wade in the ocean or get close to the edge of the shore, waves have been known to come out onto the beach further than expected and the current can pull you in, even from knee-deep water.
After the beach, we went back into town and had dinner at Halldorskaffi again. Paddy had the lamb burger and I had a chicken sandwich with fries. Both were delicious, but we were starving and it didn’t quite fill us up. We picked up some snacks at the convenience store across the street from our hotel on the way back.
Back at the hotel, we went down to have a drink at the swanky hotel bar with (yak??) fur barstools. There were a few other tourists down in the lounge area, but it was otherwise pretty quiet. There were a few people eating in the restaurant.
Before coming to Iceland, we watched a few travel documentaries which all featured the infamous Icelandic liquor Brennivin, otherwise known as “The Black Death.” Brennivin literally translates to “burning wine” and is a type of schnapps made from potato mash and flavored with caraway. It has a very herbal flavor to it, and after doing a shot of that, my cold went away. No joke. It was a pretty mild cold, but I’d like to believe that the “Black Death” brought me back to life.
We had a couple beers and enjoyed the ambiance for a bit, but the drinks were expensive so we didn’t stay long.
Regarding Icelandic beer–beer was actually banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1989. The most popular and widely available beers are Gull, and Viking, which we found to taste like cheap, watery Budweiser or some other comparable American beer. Paddy did find a couple Icelandic beers that he liked, and said the Viking Classic wasn’t too bad. My favorite was the line of beers from the Einstök microbrewery. I didn’t get to try all of the Einstock beers, but the white ale and the toasted porter were delicious. Give Iceland a few more years, I think more craft beer may be on the way.
The Blue Lagoon
We decided on our second morning to go ahead and pay the $18 per person for the breakfast buffet at the Icelandair Hotel in Vik. It was a good buffet, but not that much different than most other Iceland hotel breakfast buffets. We did enjoy the smoked salmon and the pickled herring. We really think that for what they charge at that hotel, breakfast should be included. That was our only beef with the place, otherwise it was a very nice stay.
We got on the Ring Road road headed back to Reykjavik, but took a quick detour to the coastal town of Stokkseyri. I’d read of a restaurant called Fjorubordid that specializes in lobster and supposedly has the best lobster soup in Iceland. We thought we might check out the town and have some lobster soup for lunch.
Unfortunately, it seems the whole town is really only open in the summer season. Fjorubordid was open for dinner only that night. If you are traveling in the summer, Stokkseyri looks like it would be worth a stop, and has an elf museum (also only open in the summer).
We weren’t super hungry anyway, we had filled up on the overpriced hotel breakfast buffet to get our money’s worth. We headed back to highway 1 through the pass to Reykjavik, and then west towards The Blue Lagoon in Grindavik.
The pass from Hveragerdi to Reykjavik is supposed to be a pretty drive. We wouldn’t know–all we could see was white.
We only had a couple days left in Iceland, and we still had not tried the Icelandic hot dogs that everyone raves about. The hot dog (pylsur in Icelandic) is very popular in Iceland, and probably the cheapest meal you can get. You will see pylsur stands all over the place. We pulled into the Reykjavik suburb town of Hafnarfjörður and found a pylsur stand. Everything was in Icelandic, which I could decipher a little bit with my Danish, but there were so many options to choose from it was a bit overwhelming. We just decided to ask the English-speaking employee to give us the best typical Icelandic pylsur with everything. It came with remolade, a sweet spicy mustard, and raw onions. They were delicious and cheap, we’d recommend them.
We got back on the road and within a short time arrived at The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel.
The Blue Lagoon is the number one tourist attraction in Iceland, and I have to say, it was also one of the things that I was looking forward to the most. The Blue Lagoon formed from the mineral and water runoff of the nearby geothermal power plant that harvests geothermal energy from the lava field near the town of Grindavik. The pale blue color of the lagoon is a result of the white silica mud at the bottom, giving it a milky blue color. In the 1980’s, locals discovered the lagoon and began sneaking in for a swim.
Eventually, it was developed into the giant hot spring swimming lagoon that it is today, and The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel was built nearby. The silica mud is supposed to be good for your skin, and particularly good for people with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is also a clinic for people with doctor referrals for skin treatments, but for the most part it is a nice hotel with a spa-like atmosphere and it’s own smaller private lagoon for guests only. It is small, although it has plans to expand by next year. It is recommended that you make your reservations far in advance.
We arrived at 2:00 PM, which was check in time. The lady at the front desk told us our room was not ready and to come back at 2:00. When we informed her it was 2:00 she apologized, it had been a crazy day for the housekeeping staff and she asked us if we wouldn’t mind waiting about 30 more minutes. They had a nice guest lounge area, so we didn’t mind. We sat and read for a little bit. When she came back and told us our room was ready, she gave us a gift pack of Blue Lagoon lotion products as a thank you for waiting. We learned later how expensive those lotions were–about a $40 value. It was pretty nice of her.
Our room was very nice, with a really comfortable bed and a view of the moss and snow covered lava fields. It included a mini fridge, fluffy bathrobes, and even had a towel warmer in the bathroom that ended up being perfect for drying our bathing suits.
The price per night was about $250.00, which is the off-season rate. It is pretty expensive, but worth it. The price includes a breakfast buffet, use of the private blue lagoon for guests only, and one daily admission per person for each day to the main Blue Lagoon, which is about a 10 minute walk through a path in the lava field. The regular admission price at the Blue Lagoon is about $50.00 per person, which doesn’t include a towel or robe. The hotel guest vouchers include towels and robes, and no advance reservation or ticket purchase is needed.
**Note: If you are visiting the Blue Lagoon without a tour group or staying at the hotel, you will need to make advance reservations. This is a new rule as of 2015, due to increased tourism maxing out the lagoon’s capacity.
After getting settled, we were ready to check out the lagoon. We put our bathing suits in a plastic shopping bag, collected our voucher from the hotel, and walked across the slushy, icy path to the lagoon through the lava field.
Checking in was easy, there was a separate line for people with vouchers and we breezed right in. We were given electronic bracelets that lock and unlock your chosen locker, and are used as a running tab for any purchases from the little cafe or the swim up bar in the lagoon. When you leave, you give your bracelet to the cashier to pay for anything you purchased while in the lagoon. It was a pretty awesome system.
In the locker room, you are expected to take a shower with soap before putting your bathing suit on and going out to the lagoon. There are even attendants in the locker room to help people find the next open shower stall (and tell you that you need to shower). There are even diagrams in the shower showing you what areas to wash–armpits, feet, crotch. It was very specific.
I had a hard time figuring out how to lock the locker with my bracelet at first, but figured it out after a few tries. You have to close your locker door, and then scan your bracelet on the main scanner on the locker block, which locks it and confirms your locker number.
Paddy didn’t have the best experience at first–in the locker room he set his robe and towel down for a second on the bench and turned around and his towel was gone. Super lame. Watch your towel….maybe more so in the men’s room than the women’s.
Once out of the locker rooms, you walk out the door onto the deck and it is a mad dash in the bitter cold to hang up your robe on the outdoor hook and get in the lagoon.
The water is really nice, and the bottom of the lagoon ranges from sandy and a little rough to soft squishy silica mud. There are geothermal heat regulators in various areas, and the water gets a lot hotter near them. We got beers and little packets of algae face mask from the swim-up bar.
There is a wood box on the far edge of the lagoon full of the white silica mud to use on your face as well. The lagoon also has a steam room, dry sauna, and a steamy cave that looks like a hobbit house, all located off the deck on the right side of the lagoon facing the main building. On the way out, you can get a good view of the lagoon from the observation deck at the top of the building–accessible by stairs in Lava Restaurant.
**Note: The silica and sulphur in the water really dry out your hair. My hair felt like it does after swimming in the ocean but amplified. It took two deep condition washings to finally get it back to normal, so some heavy-duty conditioner is advised for longer hair. They do provide conditioner at the lagoon in the showers, but it wasn’t very good. Wearing your hair up can help, but it gets so steamy that it’s difficult to keep it from getting wet.
After a good soak, we went back to the room to change and head into Grindavik for dinner.
Grindavik is a very tiny coastal fishing town. There isn’t a lot to see, aside from the Saltfish Museum. There are a few small restaurants, and after reviewing the options on tripadvisor, we decided to eat at Salthusid. We drove into town thinking there would be a main strip with restaurants or something by the waterfront, but there wasn’t. It was actually a little hard to find. Saldhusid is located just off the main road behind the grocery store Netto.
Salthusid was cozy and inviting, very Scandinavian. The name means “The Salt House” in Icelandic.
The waitress was very friendly, and it ended up being one of the best meals of our whole trip, second to Dill. We shared the lobster soup to start, and it was amazing. If Stokkseyri has the best lobster soup in Iceland, I would be very interested to compare their soup to Salthusid’s. It was so flavorful without being too heavy on the cream, with big fresh hunks of lobster in the bottom.
Paddy had a lamb tenderloin and I had cod with ratatouille. Both were outstanding. We had read that they make very good chocolate cake at Salthusid, but we were too stuffed to eat another bite. If we ever come back to Grindavik, we will be making this restaurant our number one dinner stop.
On the way back to the hotel we could see the geothermal power plant all lit up and hard at work:
Friday was our last day in Iceland, and while the snow was melting now, it was WINDY. When we had left the Blue Lagoon the day before we had been leaving right as a huge tour group was coming in, and we were wondering if we could have the same luck of timing on our second trip. We went to the front desk to retrieve our daily voucher and to see if the tour groups come at certain times (they don’t), and they told us the weather was only going to get worse this afternoon, so it was best we go as soon as we can.
We seemed to luck out and get in between big tour groups again, fortunately. It was busy, but not crazy busy. Paddy slipped on the ice on the trail from the hotel to the Blue Lagoon and cracked his elbow. If you are walking on a snowy or icy day, be extra careful.
It was much windier than the day before. While the water was still really warm, the cold wind was uncomfortable on our heads. We went between the dry sauna and the lagoon, sitting under the walking bridges to shield ourselves from the wind. We finally found the best spot for a sheltered soak under the bridge and around the corner from the bar, up against some lava rocks. The water is hotter over there and the rock behind us blocked the wind a bit.
We didn’t stay as long this time, we figured we had a good time the day before and the wind was getting to be a little much.
When we left, there was another HUGE tour group line waiting to get in. We were so glad we left when we did. At the end of the line near the parking lot we could hear some Germans shouting obnoxiously. We made it a little ways down the path to the hotel when I realized that I left my bathing suit bag in the gift shop at the front counter. I ran back to get it, and the whole time, the Germans never stopped shouting. It sounded like they were drunk….or angry? I don’t know. It was unbelievably obnoxious.
One of the biggest reasons we would recommend staying at the Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is that it has it’s own private lagoon for hotel guests only. That way, you can enjoy soaking in the lagoon again after you get back from the main one, and it is quiet and much more relaxing. They also have an indoor lagoon area for when the weather is bad.
The indoor lagoon has a door in the corner for you to go out to the outdoor lagoon from the water, which was nice. I braved the wind for a little while that afternoon, but it was too much. It was a little disappointing, because I was hoping to get some relaxing time in at the private lagoon as well before we left.
One thing the hotel doesn’t have is a sauna or steam room, which I think would be a great addition.
We relaxed the rest of the afternoon and read books. Some people may find the Grindavik area a little boring, but we were really enjoying the relaxation time before heading home and back to our jobs.
For dinner, we had made prior reservations at Lava Restaurant at the main Blue Lagoon, our last and final splurge dinner. Head chef Viktor Örn Andrésson specializes in modern Icelandic cuisine and won Iceland’s Chef of the Year award in 2013 and Nordic Chef of the Year in 2014.
The restaurant is huge, and a more traditional style than Dill with an a la carte menu featuring starters, entrees, and desserts.
The wine list was pricey, and their selection of US wines were a bit questionable (Barefoot Merlot? Turning Leaf Zinfandel? Those are cheap $6.99 bottom shelf grocery store wines…on the wine list for $40). Not that we wanted American wine, but their American selection made us question the value of the rest of the wines. We stuck with less expensive house wine by the glass.
For starters we had the slow cooked arctic char with fennel, pear, and char roe, and the smoked haddock with apple and sun chokes. Both were outstanding, but the arctic char was the clear favorite for both of us. The char roe exploded in your mouth and added an unexpected complimentary complexity to the pear and char.
For our entrees, Paddy had Viktor Örn Andrésson’s winning dish from the Nordic Chef of the Year competition, which was fried rack of beef and beef cheek with carrot, potato, morel and port wine glaze. I had the pan fried cod with roasted langoustines, cauliflower, fennel, pear, and dill. My cod was good, cooked perfectly and the flavor was great–however it was a little overly salty. Paddy practically licked his plate clean, he said the beef dish was truly award-winning.
For dessert I tried the “award-winning” Nordic Chef of the Year dessert: Cranberries and organic dark chocolate with marzipan, lemon, hazelnuts, and meringue. Paddy had the apple and brown butter dish with brown butter ice cream, apple and celeriac foam, apple, caramel, brioche. Both were fantastic.
Overall, we spent about the same amount of money at Lava as we did at Dill in Reykjavik. They were both great meals, but if you only have room in your budget for one big splurge in Iceland, I’d go with Dill. They are two completely different restaurants, however. If you’re not into 7 small tasting courses and would rather have a starter, larger entree, and dessert, Lava might be the one for you. We liked the tasting courses and variety at Dill, along with the very Icelandic and less-touristy atmosphere.
The next morning, on the day we were scheduled to fly home, we woke to hurricane-force winds shaking the windows. Our flight wasn’t until 5:45 PM, so we waited until 11:30 to check out. Our flight status still said on-time, so we just decided to head to the airport and wait.
Keflavik Airport is only about a 15 minute drive from the Blue Lagoon, which is very convenient if you make the Blue Lagoon your last stop on your trip. We had to fill up the gas tank before we dropped the car back off, so we pulled off at a gas station in Keflavik town off the highway. There were signs everywhere in English stating to pay at the pump. Unable to pay with our cards, I went inside and was ignored for a few minutes by the attendant, who finally came over to the counter and told me to pay at the pump. I explained that American cards don’t work at the pump and that we could pay cash if he could open the pump with a pre-paid amount. He said the machine also took cash, but when he went out to show us he discovered that the cash pump was not working. He wasn’t able to sell us any gas.
We drove further into Keflavik town until we found the N1 station, and we were able to pre-pay cash at the counter to fill up there. Hopefully by the next time we make it to Europe, our stupid American credit cards will have that damn chip.
We arrived to the airport a few minutes later and dropped the car off at Blue Car rental. Our car was found to be damage-free (whew!) and the employee drove us and our stuff across the parking lot to the airport entrance. We then waited another hour for the check in counters to open, and finally made it through security to the terminal to wait for our plane.
There is no shortage of duty free and last-minute souvenir buying opportunities at the airport. In fact, as soon as you get through security you have to walk through a duty free shop to get to the terminal. If you plan on purchasing some Brennivin to take home, be sure to do it at the airport duty free. It will save you a lot of money without the hefty tax.
We were able to fly out pretty much on time, thankfully. The winds died down enough for us to take off. We did end up hitting some bad turbulence over Calgary during the last hour or so of the flight back to Seattle though, which caused me to make use of three airsick bags. Good times.
Overall we had a great trip. The weather kept us from driving to as many sights as we wanted to see, but it was one of the most relaxing vacations we’ve ever had. Sometimes it’s easy to cram too much in and come back feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation. If we go back to Iceland, I think we’d go in late September or early October, or in May when the weather is better. I’ve heard great things about the remote and beautiful west fjords and I’d love to see more of the North. I feel like we had a pretty unique experience, it seems like all the travel photos I see of Iceland are green and mossy from the summertime. We really saw the definition of Iceland–wild, icy, arctic winter beauty. It isn’t all green moss and puffins, although that is nice too.