At long last the time has come for me to pack up my eBag, give my doggie smooches and embark on a new adventure. As the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics have just concluded, I’m reminded of 8 years ago when I took my first “international” trip to Canada. So maybe it wasn’t over an ocean, and maybe it was only 35 miles across the border, but it was the first time I’d ever traveled outside the United States, and I was rolling solo. This was a BIG deal for a midwestern girl from a small town of 2000. One stoplight, guys. I’d finally made it!
Fast-forward these last 8 years and I have traveled to 17 countries! Things that get easier: adding more countries to my travel bucket list. Things that don’t: leaving my pup. You’ll all recall (or maybe you won’t as I never finished the Singapore/Thailand trip blogs), but as I was traveling home, my dear little Mina suffered a stroke and died before I made it to her. I know, devastating, right?
Ironically, my Iceland trip departed on the one year anniversary of her death. As I was in the shower getting ready to leave, I finally decided it was time to open the card from the vet. The card had remained secure for the last year in a magnetic clip, inhabiting the side of my refrigerator. I carefully took it down and steadily moved my finger under the envelope lip. I pulled out the card and opened it to find condolences from the veterinarian staff, and her sweet little paw print. Rather than be overwhelmed with sadness, I smiled at the thought of my sweet girl and then turned all of my attention to Merrick. After forcing him to take a million pictures with me – no, really… a million – I finally set my phone aside and took advantage of every opportunity to soak him up. Speaking of soaking, that big ol’ slobbery tongue got me a little soaked, too, but who am I to turn away doggie kisses?
Too soon, I was picked up to go to the airport. Joining me for this adventure are two dear friends from work, Sarah and Taylor. Should we encounter any trauma patients, they will be in good hands.
To my delight, IcelandAir has announced direct flights from Kansas City. This is huge for the midwest, as I routinely have to find cheap flights to the east coast, and then book my international flights separately. Not only is this risky, but it’s a real pain to try to coordinate. However, it generally saves me several hundred dollars, and (so far) has been completely worth the risk and trouble. With IcelandAir’s direct flights from Kansas City, we now have a quick and comparably inexpensive alternative to overseas travel! The only drawback is that our tickets were booked 6 months ago, so we were not able to benefit from this opportunity… yet.
We three gals left Kansas City, dropped in on Chicago and then took off for a short 5 hour and 40 min flight to Reykjavík, Iceland. Upon landing I was astounded to encounter the shortest passport control in this history of all my travels. I walked to the line. I was motioned forward. My passport was stamped and I was in. The process literally took less than 30 seconds. Iceland, you have my attention.
We piddled around duty free looking for a bottle of wine for dinner. Alcohol tax in Iceland is the second highest in Europe at 94% taxation. (Perhaps a contributor to their incredibly low crime rate)? Sarah picked up her Trawire pocket wifi and we sat to regroup. Trawire offers unlimited data at $9/day for up to 10 devices – a great bargain and handy to have while trying to navigate through a new city. We bought our shuttle bus tickets only to find the next shuttle was leaving in 1.5 hrs. After nearly 12 hours of travel, we took refuge in a little airport cafe called Joe & the Juice – aptly named as I ordered a cup of Joe, and a blended juice. I also got an amazingly delicious turkey pesto sandwich. I purchased all of these for the low (not so low) price of $27! The rumors are true. Iceland is stupid expensive. My only comfort was knowing my $27 paid for a really really good meal.
While on the subject of expensive food and drink, I should point out that you are allowed to bring in 3kg of food. When I travel, I aim to only carry on. This trip was no different. Yet somehow I had to figure out how to bring as much food as possible to avoid spending my life savings on sustenance. My packing went a little something like this:
All the food in the front.
Cold weather party in the back – base/insulation layers, coats, hiking boots, some t-shirts, some long-sleeved shirts, some leggings, a dress and sweater inside.
The weight limit was 22 lbs, and I made it work! There is nothing more cumbersome than rolling luggage through old cities. Give me my backpack any day. If you ever need packing tips, hit me up. I’m a Packing Master. The key: selectivity.
Soon we arrived at the central Reykjavik bus terminal. On the 45 minute drive from Keflavik airport we encountered beautiful scenery and a few flurries. It was 33F with wind chills of 17 mph. I’m really looking forward to the wind chill on this trip. Nothing says vacation like windburn and hypothermia!
As we couldn’t yet check in to our Airbnb, we stored our luggage in the apartment storage our host had provided us, and took off for Austurvöllur Park. I had discovered a free Reykjavik walking tour that started at 12:00pm. As it was a 2 hour tour, we’d be able to see some of Reykjavik and then immediately be able to check into our Airbnb when it was over at 2:00pm.
Our tour guide was Eiríkur (Eric) and he was absolutely fabulous. As a historian, he knew so many interesting details about Reykjavík and Iceland. There wasn’t one question he couldn’t answer. Additionally, he added quite a bit of humor to the tour, which made it both educational and entertaining! At the end of the tour you are asked to provide a donation – whatever you thought the tour was worth. He advised us 1000 ISK would buy a beer, 2000 is the average admission to a museum, but 3000 ISK would let him buy flowers for his mother. Charming as he may have been, I met him in the middle. Sarah, Taylor and I were all so pleased with the experience and already have a list of places we want to check out tomorrow!
We learned so much. Iceland was settled by Norwegian criminals (Vikings) who first hit up Ireland, burned their homes, killed the husbands and kidnapped the Celtic women, taking them as their own to a new land. As “Viking” tends to have a negative connotation, they lovingly refer to their forefathers as “explorers.” Iceland used to be under Danish rule, but in WWII, Denmark was Nazi occupied. Iceland took advantage of the situation and used the opportunity to gain Independence. What is now Keflavík Airport used to be a United States Army Base as the US was a supporter of Iceland during WWII. The agreement was that they would stay until the war was over. There were 50,000 troops in Iceland at the time – more US men than all the population of Iceland at the time. Interestingly, the war ended and yet our troops stayed until 2006. Iceland had the closest US military base to Russia during the Cold War, so we just hung around for a while. A long while. As you’ll recall, WWII ended in 1945. It’s only 61 extra years…
Iceland has no military of their own. They have three helicopters and three coast guard ships, but that’s it! We saw one of the coast guard ships at the harbor – one third of the fleet!
The Parliament building sat directly across from the park where we started the tour. At the top is a crown, meant to honor the Danish king from when the building was built in 1881. Even though they are an independent country, they still are reminded of that rule every day they look at it. Our tour guide said despite the way the Danish treated them years ago, they now have a “friendly rivalry” with Denmark.
Iceland’s heat and water system is 100% geothermal. They are able to provide so much energy from the water alone, they haven’t even had to tap into the wind power that could provide additional energy needs. In fact, the geothermal energy alone is expected to provide energy for the entire country for the next 50 years. I found it especially interesting to learn hot water flows under all the roadways in the city to melt off the snow.
We also learned there are about 250,000 free range sheep in Iceland. There are 330,000 people. Personal pet sheep, anyone?
The Prime Minister lives in a little white house right on the side of the street. There is no security at all. No guards. No gate. You can walk right up to her front door if you want to. Iceland has the lowest crime rate per capita of any country in the world. There is one prison in the country and it’s full at 64 inmates. Those who can’t “get in” so to speak, are on a waiting list. They’re just chilling every day, continuing in their daily lives, going to work and just waiting on that phone call. I don’t know all the details, but I believe most of the criminal activity is drug related and there is an excellent rehabilitation process in place for these offenders. I found all of this information so fascinating. Interestingly, for a country founded by criminals who pillaged and murdered, it’s been named as the most peaceful country in the world for the last 10 years. Our guide credited the Celtic women for this. 😉
Gender equality and equal pay is also of great importance. There are now 8 political parties. When women were given the right to vote, they weren’t allowed to be a part of any of the existing political parties at that time. Rather than sit back and allow for discrimination they formed their own coalition called, appropriately, The Womens’ Party. With a party for women and a country full of women who could vote, the other parties didn’t stand a chance. Needless to say, they eventually were allowed to participate and now much of the country’s success is attributed to strong female politicians.
The tour was filled with all sorts of interesting historical and cultural information, but I’ll stop there and leave some intrigue for you!
Upon getting settled at our apartment, we walked across the street to the Bonus grocery store. The Bonus store is considered discount (think Aldi), but a dozen eggs was $5, and a pound of ground beef was $20. Oddly enough, nearly the same amount of beef pre-packaged as two hamburgers was only $5. We decided to save some cash and will pull apart burgers tomorrow for our pasta sauce. Nobody said we had to be fancy on this trip, and I’m really proud of our thrifty shopping! We purchased tomorrow’s dinner, and two days’ worth of breakfast for $10/each. Can’t beat it – especially in Iceland.
Our evening was spent checking out the local cuisine at Íslenski Barrin. Eric was kind to provide us with a list of nearly every type of recommendation we could possibly need, and this little restaurant was on the list. It was just down our street and on the way toward the Harpa Center, so we opted to try it! On our tour, fresh Arctic salmon and fermented shark were two foods highly recommended to try. While I’ll probably eventually bring myself to try fermented shark, I opted for the safer, and very fresh salmon with roasted potatoes and lobster bisque sauce. For $50 I got a delectable meal and one cocktail. Our server recommended a cocktail that was “like a whiskey sour,” so I went for it. It was made with Icelandic birch Schnapps, which is only sold in Iceland. It was mixed with lemon juice, powdered sugar and egg white. I loved it – refreshing, and not too sweet. Fifty dollars is a little more than I’d generally spend at home if I was going out, but, when in Reykjavík…
Hot dogs are actually kind of a big deal in Iceland. This hot dog was $22, but it was a lobster hot dog after all. I was fortunate to get a bite, and I fully intend to go back and get my own lobster dog before this trip is over!
Following dinner we continued down toward the bay where the Harpa Center is located. This building is stunning and was just as beautiful in person as in all the edited photos I saw online. The building was constructed to look like fish scales, as the fishing industry is what put Reykjavík on the map. Also, the coloring of the windows was made to reflect and mimic the colors of the Northern Lights and basalt landscape. It’s just fantastic site to see, and the grounds were gorgeous.
As we entered the Harpa, we took time to appreciate the beautiful interior architecture as well. A look off the back showed the beautiful harbor and snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Showtime was approaching so we attempted to take our seats in the beautiful Eldborg Hall where we would be so fortunate to see and hear the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra play one of my all time favorites, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 67. However, it was difficult to make sense of our tickets, printed completely in Icelandic. We managed to discern which floor to go to, and then the row (4) was fairly easy. Row 4 happened to have our assigned seats 24-26, so we sat down and nobody ever made us move. I guess our Icelandic translation skills are right on par. Interestingly enough, there were ushers throughout the concert hall, but their sole purpose is to check tickets. There is no one available to help people find their seats.
After a very long day and night and day, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t doze off during the symphony. In my defense, Sarah discovered at one point during the evening that the entire Row 4 was asleep. (Except her, of course. She’d just woken up).
The music was wonderful, and the relaxation and peace it provided was what these weary bones needed. The performance was outstanding and I’m so thrilled we had the opportunity to experience some of Iceland’s arts and architecture.
Despite little to no sleep over the last 24 hours, I stayed up late to write this blog because: 1) I know some of you are waiting, and 2) there was a high likelihood of viewing the Northern Lights tonight. While it’s not likely to see them in the city, I held out until 1:00am with hopes I might catch a glimpse. I just took a peek and all I see is a clear, dark blue sky and a giant, bright full moon.
That means it’s time to rest up for tomorrow’s adventures! Reykjavík is the coolest little place and I am so captivated with it’s charm and so thrilled to experience it with good friends. It’s near freezing, but I’m all warm and fuzzy inside.
Featured image PC: Taylor Hinderer