land of fire and ice and soup and bread

Last week the family and I went to Iceland! It was, in a nutshell, amazing. We opted to stay in Reykjavik and did day trips from there (versus driving the Ring Road, which would have required a few more days - maybe an extra week - that we didn't have). Here's a slide show that condenses the week into 50 images over about a minute and 15 seconds. And here's what we did:

We flew to Iceland from Oakland via Seattle on Saturday evening, arriving in Keflavik at 9:15 am on Sunday. I wasn't very impressed with Icelandair, provided with just one beverage for the entire flight, and no free food, not even a bag of pretzels. On the other hand, the country on the whole seems pretty kid-friendly/centered, with the 11yo the only member of our family to receive a snack box and a little goody bag including a sleep mask and a small puffin stuffie. Everywhere we went her ticket price was less expensive than the adults or, in many cases, free.

There are a handful of rental car companies located at the airport, but most are a short drive away. Not unusual, but the way you find the rental car shuttle was unclear and chaotic, with tired travelers milling about near the exit and drivers coming in holding up signs with the rental car companies listed. So it took awhile to get our rental car after landing but we enjoyed hot coffee/chocolate while we waited (it was cold and windy!). 

From there we drove straight to our Airbnb in Reykjavik, our host allowing us to check in early. After settling in and freshening up, we walked 15-20 minutes into town and saw all the key sights, sharing a couple of sandwiches from Plantan Kaffihús on the way: Hallgrímskirkja (and up the tower for the views!) the Leifr Eiricsson statue out front, on down to the harbor to see the Sun Voyager sculpture and the Harpa concert hall. We walked back to the Airbnb via a grocery store to pick up breakfast and lunch items for the week. I could have easily fallen asleep at that point, but we rallied for dinner at Loving Hut. I didn't make it to the midnight sunset that night but I was awake again around 1 am and took a quick video of the light outside and - the weirdest part - the birds chirping.

On Monday we did the Golden Circle day trip, albeit in a sort of noncircular way since we had lunch reservations at Friðheimar, a restaurant in a greenhouse where they grow tomatoes year-round. The all you can eat tomato soup and bread there was probably my favorite meal of the week. The tomato soup was brothy (as opposed to creamy) and a bit sweet. The bread was amazing and there was coffee included after. Otherwise, we spent time at Þingvellir National Park (free that day because it was Iceland's National Day!), Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss. After a quick detour at Secret Lagoon (I'll write more about this later), we made our way back to Reykjavik via Kerið Volcanic Crater and a late dinner of veggie burgers at a hot dog joint in Selfoss (the sun may set at midnight but, as we quickly learned, most of the restaurants still close at 9 pm). 

It was about 10 pm!

On Tuesday, we headed to the South Coast, stopping first for a quick pic, Oaklanders that we are, next to the Hella sign. From there we continued to Hvolsvöllur to check out the Lava Center. We ate PB&J sandwiches on the way to Sólheimajökull, hiking to but not on the glacier (you need the right gear and a guide for that and in general we opted for things we could do on our own to manage expenses and maximize what we could see in a week). Thank goodness there was a Hungarian street food vendor there in the parking lot because it was another late dinner of pizza back in Hvolsvöllur after a visit to the Reynisfjara black sand beach and Skógafoss on the drive back. I would have liked to check out one more waterfall (Seljalandsfoss, the one you can walk behind!) and the old plane crash but we ran out of time.

On Wednesday we'd booked tickets to the Blue Lagoon. Our plan to drive a bit less that midweek/mid-trip day was somewhat thwarted by the detour caused by damage to the road to Blue Lagoon due to the recent eruptions near the fishing town of Grindavik. We drove over relatively recently cooled lava and steam to get there, which was pretty wild. The Blue Lagoon caters more to non-Icelandic visitors and is pricey but I felt was totally worth it. And if anyone in your group is squeamish about the customary communal shower sans swimsuit, I would recommend it over a more traditional/local lagoon like Secret Lagoon or really any of the pools. But if you're OK showering with strangers, you'll have a lot more options for a warm soak during your time in Iceland. More PB&J sammies on the drive back to Reykjavik, where we spent the rest of the day searching for cats and secondhand Icelandic sweaters and popped into plant-based Mama for dinner before walking back to our Airbnb.

On Thursday we headed north to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (we'd changed our itinerary a bit due to the rain all week...it was mostly dry up north on Thursday!). A bit more driving than I'd like before the first stop (and again at the end of the day), but in the end all that driving was worth it. We did a little hiking around Kirkjufell mountain and waterfall (yes, we had PB&J sandwiches for lunch; no, we did not climb all the way to the top of the mountain) before moving on to the Vatnshellir lava cave via a brief pit stop at the Snæfellsjökull National Park visitor center. After the cave, we hiked to and just inside the Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge, then backtracked a bit to Hellnar Church and an early dinner (more soup & bread!) in Arnarstapi. Final stops on this part of the itinerary included Búðakirkja (Black Church) and the seal colony at Ytri Tunga beach

I was pretty tired of driving by this point in the week but Friday being my son's 16th birthday we gave him the option of having a final full chill day in Reykjavik (museums! more cats! more food options!) or stick with the plan and head to the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) by ferry. He opted for the latter and I think he made a fine choice. It's about one hour, 45 minutes of driving to the ferry and since we hadn't made advance reservations, while there was no problem getting seats we did have to wait until the literal last minute to know if we'd be able to take our car there and back. Hard for me to imagine now my original idea of renting bikes to explore the island. It's not very big but it is hilly and was pretty cold and crazy windy that day. I was very happy we had the car, after all! After a quick snack at Vigtin Bakery we drove to the first of two spots for a brief hike and attempt to see puffins. No luck at the first stop, though the views were amazing, but we did spot puffins from a distance (and some flying pretty close to us) at the second spot. From there we made our way around the island to the Eldheimar Volcano Museum to learn about the 1973 eruption that added to but also buried part of the island and then hiked the Eldfell volcano we'd just learned about. After that we had dinner at Gott before taking the 7:30 pm ferry back to the mainland.

On Saturday, we had a few hours in Reykjavik before we needed to head to the airport so we squeezed in one museum (the Saga Museum), explored nearby Þúfa, and had lunch (more soup & bread!) at the plant-based restaurant at the Nordic House on the University of Iceland campus. Returning the rental car went much more quickly and smoothly than getting it a week earlier so we had plenty of time at the airport to check out the duty free shopping and buy some sandwiches for the flight to Seattle. The first flight was uneventful; I read several chapters of Alicia Kennedy's No Meat Required and watched Bullet Train, which I enjoyed, then tried to watch Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, which I did not enjoy, and fell asleep for a couple of hours instead. We had a nearly 4-hour layover in Seattle which, due to delays, extended to over six hours in the Seattle airport. We could have flown almost all the way back to Iceland in that time! We did get a meal voucher out of the ordeal, however, and enjoyed a second dinner at P.F. Chang's. We were all so tired by the time we finally got home around 2:30 am but managed to get a few more hours of sleep so jet lag hasn't been too awful this week. Yesterday was the first day I didn't wake up at 4:30 am and feel dead tired by 5 pm.

In summary, Iceland is a truly magical place and I highly recommend a visit if you can swing it. This was definitely a bucket list trip, as they say. One thing we briefly considered after reading about it is planning a trip to mainland Europe with a one or two-day layover in Reykjavik. I'm glad we devoted this trip to Iceland only but that's an option if you ever find yourself in that situation, content with visiting the capital city and maybe one day trip. We created a pretty detailed itinerary for this trip, inspired in part by a combination of Rick Steves, one of Neal's coworkers who'd done the ring road a few years ago, and, just for fun, an AI-generated itinerary, combining all of those and our own research into a schedule that we mostly stuck to, adjusting for weather and not getting to one or two things each 11-12 hour day. We all wore hiking boots every day and had our rain layers for, well, rain, but also waterfalls, hiking into ravines, that sort of thing. It's a very active, rugged place and while we were pretty well-prepared for everything we did, I was a little skeptical a couple of times, coddled American that I am, I guess, about the safety of some attractions, like the stairs to the top of Skógafoss, or the hike into the Rauðfeldsgjá ravine, scrambling over wet and slippery rocks with huge chunks of ice dangling precariously overhead (okay, maybe not all that precariously...I'm sure they melt slowly over time but what if a chunk broke off and fell on your head?? It could happen!). But that's part of why it's all so magical and it was refreshing to get out of our comfort zone a bit.

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