Iceland Part I: Reykjavik, Day 1

As I mentioned in the previous blog post, we had a narrow window for this trip and it happened to be the peak season for going to Iceland. Late June / early July is the best chance for good weather. It’s Summer on the island. It also means no darkness which is great for exploration (although bad if you hope to see the Northern Lights).

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Our flight from the US had us arriving at 6:45 am after only a short 4-1/2 hour flight from NYC. This is one of those moments where I didn’t do my research. I didn’t think about the math. I knew we were leaving the Twin Cities in the later afternoon and, without researching the time change, I assume (wrongly) that it’ll be a longer, overnight flight. Nope. It’s a 4-1/2 hour flight from NYC. So while leaving at 9 pm NYC time has you landing at 6:45 am Reykjavik time, it’s not much of a “nighttime” flight. In fact, you fly right into the sun and the only reason the plane is dark inside for 3-1/2 hours is because the crew has to tell everyone to shut their windows. We also had an exceptionally crappy airplane for a transatlantic flight. I’m serious. It was a small aircraft – similar to what I’ve taken from MSP to Chicago. Just 5 seats across TOTAL and the squishiest of leg room. Add to that, my “movie screen” is non-functioning and I have a high-maintenance mom next to me who was checking on her (older) children a few rows back every 15-30 minutes.

No, not much sleep was had on the flight.

In fact, in addition to the crappy plane situation, I also manage to bust my newer (and expensive) eyeglasses by placing them in the seat pouch in front me which causes just enough tension to pop the hinge. Thank goodness, I brought a spare pair along! I now realize the over-anxious part of me that packs such things is a justified genius. Had I not brought an extra pair, I can only imagine what I would have had to do in order to be able to see for the next 2-1/2 weeks. So yeah, trip not off to the best start.

But we land soon. And we are in Iceland! And we are on vacation!

Customs and immigration are uneventful (although, the passport stamp not exactly as exciting as I’d hoped). The one thing we do make certain to do is purchase alcohol in Duty Free — something we’d been advised to do because of the cost of alcohol in Iceland (as well as the scarcity of liquor stores which we learn about later). [[ I guess this is where I also insert our very bizarre JFK duty-free experience where we use the stop-over in NYC to shop and yet none of any of the passengers’ duty-free purchases make their way to our plane. WTF? We get an announcement from the pilot and he is sure “we prefer to get to Iceland instead of wait for Duty-free” and we need to contact our credit cards to cancel purchases later. Weird-o experience to say the least. And the pilot clearly underestimates the importance of alcohol to some of his passengers]]

At any rate, we shop duty free in Iceland. We pick up some things we know (Reyka vodka) and some things we don’t know (Brennivin). Our group also begins to gather. There will be 8 of us in total – 5 of us having known each other from both Peru & Patagonia trips and 3 new additions.

5 of us arrive this first early Monday morning. Julie & Keith, from Richmond, and Lori, from Nashville. It’s a warm welcome (actually, we found Julie & Keith technically in NYC) and Lori is great to finally meet in person and, as history and crazy “small-world” stories go, is someone who went to high school with James although neither of them remember one another.

The first agenda item upon arrival is getting to Reykjavik. The airport is about a 45-minute drive from the city and upon doing my research, I knew in advance that cabs are VERY EXPENSIVE in this country. So we wander around a bit and finally find a bus company that can take us quickly. That said, it is still approximately $50/person. Not cheap (which becomes a significant theme of our trip — nothing in Iceland is really cheap).

Once on the bus, it starts to settle in that we are really here. The barren, treeless landscape makes that super clear. Purple Lupine is also blooming everywhere. It’s 50 degrees and cloudy, a gorgeous Icelandic day! 😉

The good news is that I manage to pack as light as possible for this trip. I’d learned from both Peru and Chile. Both times, I brought my medium-sized Rimowa suitcase as well as my 65L backpack. And during both trips, there were times when our luggage almost overtook the taxis we rode in and the rooms where we slept. It’s also a hassle having two bags and a purse and a tote bag. So much to keep track of. For this trip, I really focused on editing and stayed lean and managed to just bring my 65L backpack and a smaller 22L daypack for the plane (this was my purse and tote combined). In fact, I might just do a blog post about packing because I feel like I did a good job with the right amount of gear, clothes, etc. — for once in my life!

But light packing aside, we are still dropped off, loaded down with our stuff, in downtown Reykjavik at 9 am and our AirBnB isn’t available until noon. We also have whale watching reservations at noon and there is no way we can bring our bags with us onto the small inflatable boats that we’d booked.

Luckily, we don’t have to wander long with bags in hand. We grab some of coffee and end up in a little square that looks like a park. There is a big “i” for info on a building nearby. One of us peeks in. No restrooms, but they have luggage storage for $10/bag. SCORE! I’d read online about storage lockers around the city, but we have no idea where they are and I think they’re more like $15-20. This is a perfect solution. We drop our heavy packs and are free to wander the city prior to our boat ride.

The first rule of business, though, is to find a restroom. Another theme of Iceland: not very many public restrooms! And many of them charge. So, if being “called by nature” is something that happens frequently, you need to have plans and $$. City Hall in Reykjavik does have nice, clean and free toilets. So we head there and enjoy our first walk through the city streets. The Hall is on a pond and has interesting sculptures out and around as well as a very, very large topographical map of the country inside which is mesmerizing and fun to look at and identify all the places you plan to visit.

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After City Hall, many of us are hungry. By this time, it’s 10-11 am and not much is open at this time in the morning. Julie, James and I settle for our first Icelandic Hot Dog at a stand downtown. Lori sticks to a chocolate croissant from the coffee shop and Keith gets a sandwich because, I can only assume, a morning hot dog is not that appealing. Beggars can’t be choosers, though. And I knew that hot dogs in Iceland were a thing. I was ready to try one out. And while the brownish, sweet sauce (pylsusinnep) I was a little jarring, the crunchy fried onions underneath the weiner are pretty darn yummy.

At this point, we decide to head to the Old Harbor and find where our whale watching tour starts from. Unfortunately, our address and GPS mapping and name of the tour are a little confusing and we end up wandering around for about 45 minutes up and down every little streets and storefront in the harbor until we finally called the tour company and realize that we are looking for the wrong tour company name. Gah! It had been right in front of us all along.

We arrive with just minutes to spare and soon we find ourselves suiting up in these crazy immersion suit things and getting a gander at our boat which really *is* a rubber inflatable boat with seats that aren’t really seats and handlebars (???). It looks more like an amusement ride that a watercraft, really.

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The boat fits about 12 passengers if I recall correctly. And when we get on board, we are instructed to straddle our seat and not sit on it while the boat is in motion. Instead we are to slightly bend our knees and hold on to the handlebars to brace ourselves from the impact. This is unlike anything I’d ever done in my life and I am amazed at how quickly we go right out of the gate. These boats are fast and they crash the waves and bounce up and down. It’s really quite exhilarating. A Dutch woman in front me of kept shouting, “THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT” every time we have a particularly hard crash from a wave and it makes me giggle. Soon, we are out of the harbor and into the ocean.

Our first sight isn’t a whale, it’s actually a submarine. Apparently, a Norwegian boat is doing some military exercises in the area. It’s crazy how close we got to the craft and we even see people emerging from the top, almost like a movie.

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After hanging out for a bit around the submarine, our captain speeds the boat back up and we are once again heading further out. They said they had seen some humpbacks in the area earlier and we are headed in that direction. We get some quick instruction on what to look for (lots of birds congregating, spouts of water) and our boat comes to stop to drift and spot.

It doesn’t take long. We haven’t drifted even 5 minutes before a Humpback and it’s calf are playing nearby. We’re given permission to move around the boat and I take a spot at the front. The breaching noise made is probably one of the most zen things I’ve ever heard in my life. And seeing the dorsal fins glide in and out as well as their tales slap the water is nothing less than magical.

After the humpbacks, we progress on. We see Puffins swimming and flying. We have a dolphin swim right towards the boat. We even see Minke Whales gliding along swiftly.

The time out at sea is about 90 minutes and it is so amazing. It’s hard to put in words the experience. It is way more than I ever imagined and each time we start to head back, another whale makes itself known. Almost as a finale when we are really, finally headed back, we see another Humpback, a HUGE one, surface near another Whale Watching boat. It is incredible and the size of the boat gives scale to this magnificent animal.

At that point, I’m pretty content. We’ve gotten our money’s worth (and we did choose one of the spendier options). But before we can call it a day, our captain takes us on an epic ride back doing donuts (do you call them that in a boat?) and jumps that have us bouncing around and laughing our butts off. At one point, we jump the wake of a large fishing boat and literally lose our stomachs as the boat sinks back to the surface of the water. Seriously, I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.

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Getting back to shore around 3pm, all of us are filled with adrenaline which is a good thing after so little sleep. We’d also built our appetite back again and head to Reykjavik Fish & Chips for some sustenance.

The first fish & chips of the trip: DELICIOUS.

The first beer of the trip: reality of how expensive things are — $15 for a pint. Um, okay… But it is worth it and hits the spot.

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After whale watching, we head back to claim our bags and check into our AirBnB. Julie did an amazing job with the location and our place is not even a 5-minute walk from the luggage storage location. It’s also right smack in the middle of the city which makes everything extremely walkable.

Back at our place, the fatigue starts to set in. We’ve been up for almost 2 days straight. But we have dinner reservations!!!! So, everyone takes a little nap and then forces ourselves to rally instead of call it a night. We are headed to an award-winning, Michelin recommended restaurant that we booked reservations for months ago — we can’t miss this just because we’re a little sleepy.

We decide to walk the mile to dinner which is a good way to wake up a little more and soon we are on the outskirts of the city and slightly questioning our location. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. Now, I realize, that’s because it was an old salt fish factory in a past life. Matur og Drykkur is the name of the restaurant which means food and drink. And once inside, we are smitten. The place is adorable. The menu looks fantastic. Service is amazing. I still regret not going there with a stronger appetite because of how interesting the 7 course menu looked. I want to try everything. The place specializes in regional food, local ingredients. Julie and I settle on the 3-course tasting menu while both the men order the cod’s head. We also get some additional small plates and it is all spectacular.

I’d say that I had two highlights from the meal. The first is my cocktail which is made with Bjork Liqueur (made with Birch) and Birch Syrup and comes complete with a birch twig. It is spirit-forward and earthy but also smooth and delicious. Who knew such good alcohol could come from birch?

The second highlight is the seaweed chip, skyr (Icelandic yogurt) and lumpfish roe appetizer. It is a magic combination of briny, creamy, salty and a hint of sweet. The lumpfish roe isn’t fishy either and the little eggs burst in your month with the taste of the sea. The rest of my tablemates were not so interested in the appetizer when I order it, but everyone is a fan after trying. So good.

My favorites aside, the men’s cod fish heads are also quite a spectacle. I can’t bring myself to try the meat (which I guess you pull from the cheeks and the back of the head) because of the gelatinous texture, but both James and Keith say it is quite delicious. It also must be a crowd favorite because even after receiving ours, they keep coming out of the kitchen to other tables where they are flambeed at the pass as a final step in the preparation.

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All in all, we are so happy we rallied. This meal is really a good one.

We head back to the AirBnB with full bellies and sleep nearby. What a perfect first day. Whales, puffins, adventure, good food.

As we settle into bed at 11 pm, it’s still light out as it never truly gets dark in Iceland this time of year. But it isn’t that hard to nod off, especially once the sleeping masks are on.

We still have three friends joining us (their flight was delayed out of Canada ). We have much more adventure to come. But I’m already starting to drift into that yummy vacation zen space. Days like these are what life is all about.

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