European Adventure 2019, Leg 1: Preparation + Iceland
Travel and adventures are a strong facet of Danielle and I’s relationship. For our first big trip only months after meeting, we drove through South Dakota and Wyoming to spend a few nights in a B&B 10,000 feet high in the Colorado mountains. The following year we went on a couple camping excursions to Northern Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota I had not yet been. The summer after that we braved extreme heat and sweltering humidity to create a deeper connection to our country by visiting Washington D.C. As an aside, for those who ever wish to visit Washington in the summertime, in Parks and Recreation Leslie Knope quips, “I’m just tired, okay? I saw twenty-four historical sites in a day and it’s a hundred and twenty degrees out with two hundred percent humidity because this is a stupid swamp town.” and that is the most accurate description I have seen of a trip to our nation’s capital.
With the exception of our first road trip together, Danielle has always been more excited than I about these vacations. More often than not I require a tug on the arm to agree to go, even though in the end I always enjoy our trips and have no regrets about any of them. With that in mind, I am pretty sure she expected some resistance when she proposed going on the most ambitious journey we had ever been on together. However, in the winter of 2018 when she officially suggested an idea she had been teasing for quite a while, a trip to Ireland, I immediately agreed. I could tell she was surprised at the lack of compunction I had about her idea. We were not wealthy (and still are not) and we had debts and responsibilities like anyone else. However, I knew that this was Danielle’s favorite place in the world, and that this would mean a lot to her. Of course, I was thrilled for myself as well. It had been about 15 years since I had last left the country, and visiting Europe was something that had always been vaguely on my list of long-term goals.
Early in our planning phase, we realized that the cheapest way to visit that region of Europe was to take a connecting flight in Iceland. Around that time I watched a YouTube video about Iceland’s booming tourism industry, and I had long envisioned Iceland as a sort of idealized landscape for a nerd like myself who loved mountains, strange landscapes, and geologic chaos. We quickly agreed that if it was prudent to connect in Iceland anyways, we should make that a leg of our journey. Around that same time, Danielle recalled that her friend Alix lived in England, a short flight from both Iceland and Ireland. I added that if we were going to be on the same island anyway, I had always wanted to visit Scotland as well. We threw around other vague ideas for locations to travel to, but these four ultimately proved to be the most feasible locations to prioritize on our trip. Thus ensued months of planning, including hostels and AirBnBs to stay in, sights to see, places to visit. In hindsight, our planning maintained a solid middle ground between rigid structure and flexibility. Our trip itself maintained the same middle ground, which ended up being perfect.
Leg 1, Day 1: Travelling to Iceland
June 12th, 2019
Most of this day was spent in Minnesota. We did final loads of laundry, a final check-in with our cats’ caretaker while we were gone, and other last-minute preparations before our 6pm flight. These four bags, my trusty camo backpack that has been with me for over 10 years, her black camera bag/backpack, my blue rolling suitcase, and her blue rucksack, were going to be our life for the next 3 weeks. After dropping our car off at her parents’ house, her mom loaded all of our stuff up and took us to the airport to see us off.
Icelandair seemed to be a decent airline. The screens on the back of the seats and pamphlets in the seat pockets had a fair bit of tourism info, but I did not pay much mind to it. Out of only wanting to pack for necessity, the only headphones I had were some generic earbuds that came with my phone or something, so I didn’t want to delve into anything in their movie selection I was unfamiliar with or had to pay a lot of attention to. If I remember correctly, I think I ended up watching The Battle of Five Armies during the six hour flight.
Leg 1, Day 2: Reykjavik
June 13th, 2019
Due to the time zone change and the six hour flight, we arrived at Keflavik International Airport at 6am; a local time of twelve hours after we left. Possibly due to excitement, but more likely due to the pickiness of my body, I did not sleep at all on the flight. To put that into perspective, I had been up since 9am Minnesota time the previous day until now, 6am Iceland time. I knew that between navigating the airport, our transport to Reykjavik proper, unloading our bags at where we would be staying, and wanting to sight-see, I was not going to be sleeping at all that day. Knowing that, I mentally prepared for the very long day ahead. The sheer excitement of what Danielle and I were embarking on also helped to temporarily cure my lethargy.
There is something about airports that makes me feel comfortable. Maybe it is the very clear signage of where things are, maybe because they are melting pots of globalism, but I think it is because whenever I have been in an airport, I know I am about to do something that I will never forget. It never really feels like you’ve arrived until you’ve left the airport, so as exciting as it was to go through international customs for perhaps the 3rd time in my life, I was not satisfied in our arrival until I stepped outside and felt the clear, cool, North Atlantic air.
The Reykjavik International Airport is actually in the smaller city of Keflavik, roughly 45 minutes from downtown Reykjavik. On that bus ride I caught my first glimpse of what looked to be a truly alien landscape. To my frustration, whenever we were on any sort of bus ride during the entire trip, Danielle was able to nap with little difficulty. I was pretty much the opposite. Most of the time that made me jealous that I was not able to catch some extra sleep, but at this moment I wanted to take in as much of my surroundings as I could. From our bus tickets, to the other passengers, to how traffic worked on that long stretch of highway between cities, to the fog over the ocean, in that moment everything I saw was interesting to me.
Our first time spending money outside of the US was paying our taxi driver to take us from the bus station deeper into Reykjavik proper. I had heard that most Icelandic citizens speak English, and that is true, but our taxi driver did not speak it well at all, which was more of an amusing surprise than anything else. It was actually still a little bit too early to check into the basement room we would be staying in, so we continued to shoulder all of our bags to a local cafe which was really the first cultural experience we had in the country.
When we finally checked in, you would think that would have been the ideal time for me to nap, but we had a 9am walking tour scheduled to begin at Hallgrimskirkja, a towering Lutheran church that can be seen almost anywhere in the city.
By the statue of Leif Ericson we met our tour guide Lalli. Danielle and I were apparently the only people he had scheduled for his tour, which turned out to be for the better. Lalli was one of the most wonderful people we met on the entire trip, and the tour was made all the more personal since it was just the three of us. He started off by taking us through the back alleys of some residential areas, showing us his favorite graffiti art. Graffiti is not only allowed but encouraged in certain parts of Reykjavik in order to give it more character. We made several stops along the way, seeing historical sights and learning intriguing history lessons about Iceland’s homogeneity and early viking settlements. We made a pit stop in city hall, where there is a massive topographic map of the island, which hit all of my geography nerd buttons. My favorite things I learned on the tour were regarding cats and social disobedience. Cats pretty much roam free around the city, nobody really owns any of the cats. They are all collectively taken care of by everybody. Secondly, Reykjavik citizens do not trifle when it comes to making demands of their government. If there is a law that does not make sense, bands of citizens will literally go to the square in front of parliament and perform the prohibited act and dare the government to arrest them. When that happens, it sounds like the laws change very quickly.
Lalli finished the tour by taking us to a local eatery where he seemed to be friends with the owner. It was my first of almost a dozen times eating fish and potatoes this trip, and do not think for a second that is a complaint. He explained Icelandic cuisine to us (his favorite is the lamb stew) and we talked politics for a few minutes, then we thanked him profusely for the wonderful tour and went on our way.
The house we stayed in, as well as many markets, shops, and restaurants, was on Laugavegur, which funny enough for a twin cities native translates to Lake Street. We realized we really had no reason to go back to our room just yet, so we spent a couple hours exploring the city.
Eventually I was completely beat, so we finally returned to our room where I only napped for about an hour. It was late afternoon at that point and I did not want to sleep too long or else it would ruin my acclimation to the new time zone. It worked, I did not have jet lag at all the rest of the trip. After I woke up we really had nothing else to do but explore the city more, so we walked through the less touristy areas, past residential districts and foreign embassies, down to the coast. I do not have a ton of experience with ocean coasts, but the rocks by the shoreline and being able to see land on the other side of the bay reminded me a lot of Duluth. The Opera House is a testament to the perseverance of the city and the willingness to take Iceland into the future, and you might recognize it if you have seen Black Mirror.
After what for me was a very long day, it was finally time to go to bed. Our room’s curtains were thick, which was necessary, since the sun did not set until close to midnight. Our room was small but adequate, and we could hear people drinking and socializing until the midnight sun set, but we knew we needed rest for the following day, and I was very tired.
Leg 1, Day 3: The Golden Circle Tour
June 14th, 2019
This is what I considered to be the main event of our time in Iceland. The Golden Circle is an 8 hour bus tour that brings you to several natural wonders and offers a candid glimpse into the beauty that Iceland offers. We stopped at a bookstore cafe on Laugavegur on our way to the bus for coffee. The barista was very sweet, and it was the first of several times on this trip I would bring people to shock by how much coffee I drink.
Our bus was late, but there were a lot of other tour buses picking people up in the same location. Between the countless tour buses we saw, the airport shuttles, and the city buses, if someone told me that Iceland had the most buses per capita of any country I would believe it. Eventually our bus came, and our tour guide for the day seemed a little rough around the edges at first but as we started leaving the city and he introduced himself and the driver it was clear he was funny and well-mannered. If anything, the driver provided an amusing contrast to him. He had the look of someone who spends their vacation bouldering in the Rockies, and his possible frustration with not being on any adventures himself materialized in his driving. Our bus was very tall and top heavy and there were times where it seemed like we would tip over from the way he brought us down some of the back roads. I loved every second of it.
Our first stop before any real landmarks was the town of Hveragerthi, about 40 minutes from Reykjavik. There was coffee and food, but there was a small tourist attraction there revolving around the earthquake that damaged the town in 2008. My nerdy ass was once again drawn to the maps as well as one of the walkways which showed direction and distance to dozens of major cities around the world.
What I enjoyed as much as the sightseeing stops was observing the land itself as we shuttled to our next locations. The geologic anomaly that the island is in addition to its proximity to the arctic circle creates a truly unique landscape.
Our second stop was the Kerith caldera. It was formed by a volcano about 3000 years ago. The minerals in the water made it shine with unearthly colors in the sunlight. There was a path that led down to the edge of the crater lake, and it was much more beautiful up close. This was it, I was here. My expectations for Iceland were unfamiliar locations in a faraway fantasy land where the forces of earth itself show the rugged beauty they are capable of producing, and I was not disappointed. I’ve seen vast forests before, I’ve been on top of mountains and seen plenty of untamed land, but something about Iceland seemed innately alien.
Our third stop was the first of our unplanned stops. Our tour guide informed us that the driver knew of a wayside rest that only was only a few minutes off of our path. If you only knew the driver for 30 seconds, it would not surprise you if he knew probably dozens of hidden locations pockmarking the Icelandic countryside. He drove us to a gravel parking lot beside a short ravine, and more evidence of Iceland’s unique climate and topology laid itself bare. Iceland’s Eiríksjökull glacier created a river of runoff that flowed through the southwest portion of the island. In this small, intimate area, the murky, mineral-thick water carved a small canyon and plateaus. Many would find this an otherwise uninteresting location, but I found it beautiful and intriguing. I think the main reason for its beauty is because in this particular location there was a stark contrast between the purple flowers and an otherwise dull-colored surrounding. These flowers are ubiquitous in the uninhabited parts of the country no matter the landscape, but interestingly they are not native to the island. They are Alaskan lupines, they were introduced in the 20th century to try and infuse life into the soil, but they easily became invasive.
Our next stop was a gorgeous 30 or so minutes away, Iceland’s Gullfoss Falls. This is neither Iceland’s largest nor tallest waterfall, but it is a majestic combination of both factors. Like the majority of our trip, the skies were slightly cloudy, but the spray from the falls was raining on us the entire walk to the edge of the falls themselves, and the 30mph winds certainly added to the rainstorm effect. Some things seem alluring from a distance but become increasingly plain as you approach, but I have now learned that waterfalls become even more impressive as you approach them. This was upstream from the intimate miniature canyon we had just visited, and the speed of the water slightly disguised its murkiness. My favorite part of the area was not the falls itself, but the spray causing erosion and an infusion of nutrients which created a rich and grassy elevated plain that overlooked the river below. Unfortunately it was blocked off for safety reasons, but I would have loved to walk down there.
At the end of the path was a rocky enclave right next to the water itself with a token fence in case of accidents. I had never experienced the immense power of water up close, and I am glad I was able to do so here.
Our fourth official stop was the longest, it was lunchtime and this location was evidently much more tourist-oriented than the previous ones. There was a full a la carte restaurant and gift shop across the street from the main attraction. After a much-needed lunch, we strode across the street to see the great geysers Strokkur and Geysir. We were told Strokkur erupts every 8-12 minutes, so we had barely enough time to see three eruptions. Full credit to Danielle for the patience and instinct to capture some amazing footage of it. The larger of the two, Geysir, is at least twice as large, but it has become increasingly dormant in the last few decades due to over-soaping of it to induce eruptions. I do not remember the last time they said it had naturally erupted, but I think it had been at least a few years.
For some reason, the geysers did not impress me as much as other natural geologic displays, but it is certainly not an experience I would have missed. The surrounding landscape and the rainbow-colored water were undeniably gorgeous in their own right.
For our second unofficial stop, There were adorable horseys on the side of the road, and the driver and tour guide immediately agreed that we should pull over to pet them.
Our final stop was an area called Thingvellir. For me, this was the main event of the main event. Thingvellir is a valley in between two cliffs about a mile or so from each other which also contains Iceland’s largest lake. It just so happens that these cliffs happen to be walls of the European and North American tectonic plates. The geography nerd in me was jumping out of his boots, and I will forever remember the picture I took of Danielle and I not standing on a continent, although yes I am aware that it does not exactly work like that. Unlike the other stops, the bus dropped us off on one end of a path, then drove around the main visitor center at the other end where we would meet it.
Historically, this plain is where Icelandic nobility would meet for hundreds of years. It was chosen as a neutral location because there was adequate room and water, it was relatively centralized, and it was flat meaning that symbolically no one noble would be higher than any other. No other location we had seen that day combined the rugged geological forces at play to create this astounding island with its Nordic history. I was in awe with every step, processing the ages of tectonic chaos undergone to create such a location. When we finally reached the top of the European plate to catch our bus, I stayed around for one more look at the landscape, even when it occurred to me that being on top of it was less interesting than being in the midst of it.
The time had come to return to Reykjavik. We grabbed some food at a local eatery and wandered around the city a little bit before returning home for bed, but after what I had seen that day, nothing in the city was as interesting to me. I was pleasantly satisfied by the culture of Iceland’s people. I was awestruck by the story of its formation forged in its stone.
The following day would be a luxuriant combination of both of those.
Leg 1, Day 4: Blue Lagoon
June 15th, 2019
Our bus to Blue Lagoon did not leave until late morning, so we wasted some time by Hallgrimskirkja and investigated a couple more cafes before becoming very lost in one of Reykjavik’s non-tourist districts trying to find our confusingly marked bus stop. We finally made it, although one shuttle later than we were scheduled, and settled in for undoubtedly the most lavish day of our entire trip.
The route brought us over halfway back to the airport before turning south, bringing us deeper into Iceland’s far southwestern peninsula. On our tour the previous day, it was mentioned how Iceland is able to harness a significant amount of energy for itself from geothermal vents, and strong evidence of that could be seen in the distance. Then into view came the milky blue waters, surrounded by jagged igneous rocks which laid any possible doubt to rest concerning the cause of this water’s unnatural warmth and heavy silicate mineralization.
Inside we went, the parking lot surrounded by more jagged black rocks, and because of the package upgrade I had purchased we skipped all of the lines. We felt like royalty as we were given towels, flip flops and sunglasses, and led up to the changing rooms. I am sure spas similar to this exist in the US, I’ve never been to one, but I have never heard of one naturally heated, cleaned, and recycled by geothermal vents and natural processes. If that were to exist anywhere, Iceland would certainly be the place.
There were a lot of people in the lagoon itself, but it never felt crowded, there was plenty of space. My package included an upgraded natural silica face scrub, which I hated, but I’m pretty sure Danielle loved. The mask itself was ok, but what really sucked was washing it off in the already silica-laden water. What I enjoyed significantly more was the in-water bar. If you have never sipped sangria in a silica pool naturally heated by geothermal vents, well, I have.
Eventually it was time for dinner in Blue Lagoon’s Lava Restaurant. One of the few times in our trip planning we were very unlucky was when we discovered our friends’ wedding was happening on this day. We had finally nailed down the dates and found plane tickets that worked for us, and as the fates decreed, the save-the-date for their wedding came in our mail mere days after we had bought the tickets. As we waited for our food, we were there in spirit as we used the spotty wi-fi to send them a video.
The food was fine, certainly fancy. Much more excellent was the view from our table and the fact that I was on the greatest trip of my life with the person that I love. This was easily the classiest I had ever felt, and quite possibly will ever feel, which if is the case will satisfy me until the day I die.
Going to bed that night, I knew our time in Iceland had come to a close, but our journey was only just beginning.