What to do in the Island of Fire and Ice

Iceland is known as the island of fire and ice for it’s many volcanoes and glaciers.  In addition to the sheer beauty of its landscape, there are plenty of activities that one can enjoy such as glacier walking, ice climbing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding. While in the countryside, we climbed up a glacier with our tour guide, Erling from Iceland Encounters, and explored the south coast with it’s spectacular mountains, waterfalls, and black sand beaches.  We also paid a visit to the renowned folk museum at Skogar, which provides an intriguing glance into Iceland’s fishing and farming past.

We went horseback riding in the countryside.  It was two of us with a guide in the font and one in the back.  The Icelandic horses are so beautiful and smaller than our horses in the United States, so for those who have never been horseback riding before, like myself, it made for a nice first ride.

There are a few staple tourist attractions that everyone sees, but while they may be touristy, they are that way for a reason and I would not skip them.   They include the Golden Circle Tour, which includes a visit to the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir Hot Springs and Pingvellir National Park.  The park is located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge where the continents of Europe and America drift apart, causing earthquakes and volcanic activity.  The Blue Lagoon is also a must stop, which I’ll tell you about later.

What if I told you I went scuba diving in Iceland? Would you believe me?  An interesting place to dive is Silfra in the Pingvellir National Park where you can literally touch both continents.  It’s the area between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates.  We went with the company Dive.Is.  They will pick you up at your hotel in Reykjavik and offer a few different diving and snorkeling tours, the Sifra being the most popular.  We went for two dives with an hour break in between for cookies and hot chocolate.  They do provide you with dry suits and all the gear you’ll need to keep warm.  All you have to bring is your long underwear and thick socks.  I decided to wear two layers of long underwear and socks just to be sure!  Also be sure to check your dry suit and have them inspect the seals before jumping in the water.  Also make sure there are no rips in the suits because it can make for a very unpleasant dive.  The water was about 35 degrees and while your body stays warm, you will feel it in your hands through the gloves and on your face.  It takes a little getting used to, but if you can put mind over matter, you’ll enjoy a beautifully clear dive with visibility of 150 meters.   You won’t see any fish in this lake, but it is neat to say that you went scuba diving or snorkeling in between the continents in Iceland!

While in Reykjavik, you’ll want to experience one of their geothermal spas they are known for.  It only costs around $3 and you can swim in an Olympic size warm water outdoor pool with no chlorine!  Because the water is constantly being renewed, there is no common bacteria and no need for chemicals.  They also have several hot tubs or hot pots as they call them, at different temperatures.  There’s nothing more refreshing than sitting in a hot pot with the crisp air around you.

Whale watching is also very popular in Iceland, with a few operations down at the harbor.  We went with Erding and saw some really cute white striped dolphins and a few whales and porpoises in the distance.  The woman on our boat was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic when searching for the whales and dolphins!

For our last night in Iceland, we stayed at the Clinic Hotel, part of the Blue Lagoon.  Most people stop at the Blue Lagoon on their way to Reykjavik since it’s fairly close to the airport or on the last day as they head to the airport.  We decided to stay over so we would be there in the morning and get in a few hours before leaving.  I had a wonderful morning after a great night’s rest.  I walked the five minute path to the Blue Lagoon.  The Blue Lagoon is made up of 6 million liters of geothermal seawater that is cycled through every 40 hours and is heated over 6500 feet below the ground.  The silica and salts in the water having healing properties and silica mud is provided free of charge to put on your face and body while relaxing in the lagoon.  There is a bar and a waterfall, which feels great on your back!  You’ll just have to be prepared for the sulfur smell and your hair will get very dry, so either wear a hair cap or put a lot of conditioner in before and after.

While the lagoon is really beautiful and fun to do on its own, I would highly recommend adding one of their beauty or massage treatments to your stay.  They offer massages in the lagoon and facials and beauty treatments in their indoor facility.  I went for the facial and hand and arm treatment which were both amazing.  They use only Blue Lagoon scrubs, mud, cleaners and creams which left my skin really soft and moisturized and the massages that went along with the treatments was so relaxing.   While their locker rooms can accommodate up to 700 people at a time, they offer an exclusive section you can rent for a few hours.  This includes your own private shower, towels, flip flops, robes and Blue Lagoon shower gels and lotions.  They also have an indoor lagoon in which you can start after your water, coffee or chocolates.  It definitely enhances your whole spa experience.

So as you can see, there are many options for activities depending on the type of trip you’d like to have.  I’d mix it up with a bit of adventure, exploration, nightlife and relaxing…and of course trying the Icelandic food.  Let me know if you taste that fermented shark!

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Iceland: Where to Stay and What to Eat

When I told my family and friends, I was headed to Iceland, some responses I got were, “Why Iceland?” or “really…your flight is only four and a half hours? I thought you were going half way around the world!  I think many people have a huge misconception about Iceland and most had never even considered it before hearing about the volcanic eruption in April that blocked European travel.  However, I had heard Iceland was a great place to go to see incredible beauty and experience adventure so I decided to take the trip right after peak summer season but before the days started to get shorter.  During the summer, they experience the midnight sun, where there will still be sunlight at midnight and in the winter, they have a span of about 4 or 5 hours of daylight.  At the end of September, daylight averages that of the United States.   Keep in mind if you go after October, there is still plenty to see and do, but many tour operators do shut down.

I had heard you could do Iceland in four days or a few weeks and still have a lot to explore.   I decided on a week and it was a terrific trip, despite the unprecedented torrential downfall that they haven’t seen in years.  I did come prepared with my waterproof jacket and pants, hat, gloves, scarf, and a bunch of shirts and long underwear to layer.   It is very important to bring layers because the weather can change on a dime from perfectly sunny and beautiful to extreme wind and rain.   We flew into Keflavik airport aboard Iceland Air, which is a great economical way to fly direct from JFK to Iceland.  They also fly to many other places in Scandinavia and Europe, so it’s great for booking additional flights around your Icelandic adventure.  The flight is very comfortable with ample legroom in economy and the flight attendants are extremely friendly and helpful.  You may want to bring food on the flight or eat beforehand because the only food in economy is for purchase.  But since the flight was only four and half hours there and five and a half on the way back, I didn’t mind.   On the way back, I purchased a veggie wrap with hummus, vegetables, and feta. They also had a few hot options that sounded good as well.

After we landed from our quick overnight flight, we hopped in a cab to Reykjavik and spent the afternoon on a walking tour and exploring the shops of the city.   We worked with the tour company, Iceland Encounters, which specializes in personalized tours to travelers from the United States.  Erling and Kristina Asplund run the company and they are really wonderful.  I went back and forth with Erling many times with questions in planning the itinerary and he was always very helpful and knowledgeable before and during the trip.  He has his own 4×4, which is great when exploring the areas filled with lava rocks.  The rain had made for some tough driving conditions, but we were able to get through everything.

While many companies offer excursions from Reykjavik, we chose to split our trip between the city of Reykjavik and the countryside.  While in Reykjavik, we stayed at the Radisson 1919, which is a contemporary hotel right in the center of the city.  I would highly recommend staying there as the beds and rooms are comfortable, it’s close to the harbor and all of the bars and restaurants.  This will be convenient when you want to go out on Friday night.  Friday is definitely the night you’ll want to be in Reykjavik when everyone goes downtown from the different parts of Iceland and parties from about midnight until 4am.   We were out dancing at my one place and I was in my sweater, so it was nice to be able to walk a few feet back to the hotel, change and go back out.  The breakfast at the Radisson 1919 is delicious and a perfect way to start the day.  They have a selection of breads, lox, herring, deli meats and cheeses, cod liver oil, which is a staple in Icelandic breakfasts, yogurt, dried fruits and nuts, an assortment of cereals, eggs, sautéed mushrooms, beans, bacon and potatoes.   To drink, there’s  a variety of juices, coffee, tea and they will even make you a cappuccino.   For those of you who can’t drink milk, you’ll be thrilled to know, as I was, that they serve soymilk!   Everyone in the service department was very friendly and helpful in giving recommendations.  While I did not have time to use it, they also have a gym for those looking to burn off the hotdogs they may eat since what is known as the best hotdog or pulsyr stand is right outside the hotel.  The hotdogs in Iceland are made primarily of lamb, with some beef and pork and this place piles on the ketchup, mustard, mayo and fried onions.  I also liked staying at the Radisson 1919 because I know the Radisson Blu brand and no matter what country I am in, it is going to be a good place to stay.  They have properties throughout Europe and Scandinavia and are always expanding so you know no matter where your travels take you, you’ll have a reliable hotel.

There are many great restaurants in Reykjavik ranging in price, serving up Icelandic delicacies.  Iceland is known for its lamb, whale meat, puffin, langoustines, salmon and cod and for the more courageous, ram testicles, horse, and fermented shark.   We had dinner at the Fish Market and Fish Company and lunch at Icelandic Fish and Chips.   Normally I do not eat fried food, but at least three people had told us that Icelandic Fish and Chips weas so good.  They were right.  The fish was fried in spelt and barley, so a little healthier than normal and the wolfish, which I had fried, was amazing…so juicy.  They are a very reasonably priced option.  The Fish Market and Fish Company are a bit more upscale and pricey, but if you want an incredible meal,  it’s well worth it.  The Fish Company is also quite romantic, set in the basement of the Zimsen building which dates back to 1884.  We got the Icelandic tasting menu, which consisted of skate and shrimps with cottage cheese smoked celery root, rhubarb and a homemade spicebread.  Each dish had so many flavors with wonderful ingredients in every bite and with each course, they explained in detail what we were eating.  I would love to tell you what went into every dish, but it’s very involved, so you can read their succulent menu on their website at www.fiskfelagid.is.  We also had arctic char, cod, lamb, puffin, whale, and a desert of rhubarb cake and custard with cinnamon spiced oatmeal, sheep sorrel syrup and sour milk foam.  The day before we had eaten there, I was told the chef just won the 2010 chef of the year award for Iceland.  I can definitely understand why.  The lamb dish alone was a masterpiece to look at and eat.  It was so tender and juicy and after eating that dinner, I agree that Iceland has terrific lamb, but you have to go the right place.

At the Fish Market, we also did the tasting menu, which was eight courses, and while each dish was better than the last, it was definitely a lot of food and I was stuffed by the fourth or fifth, but of course I kept eating because it was just all so delicious!  There we had king crab, pork ribs, a tomato and watermelon salad, sushi that was so fresh, cod, salmon and lamb.  The wild salmon is caught locally and is also wonderful.

After we spent a few days in Reykjavik, we rode out of the city about two hours and stayed at Hotel Ranga.  It seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere, but it’s the place to stay if you would like to spend time outside the city exploring the volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs, waterfalls and national park.   The hotel has a cabin feel with private hot tubs for hotel guests.  If you get a room on the lakeside, the hot tub is right outside your back door leading onto your terrace.  We were told this is the best place to stay to see the Northern Lights, but unfortunately, it rained while we were there, so they were not visible.  The breakfast buffet was terrific with the traditional Scandinavian breakfast items and dinner was delicious.  The restaurant is romantic and the food excellent, but be prepared to spend a bit.  We had their fish soup for lunch, which had chunks of fish, shrimp, lobster and scallops.

For our last night in Iceland, we stayed at the Clinic Hotel, which is part of the Blue Lagoon.  It’s very relaxing a great place to stop to wind down your trip.  They also serve a good breakfast and their beds are made of memory foam with a comfy topper, which made for a terrific night’s sleep.  Your room’s back door leads into the dramatic lava rocks with the mountains as a backdrop.  The Clinic Hotel and the Blue Lagoon are known for treating patients with psoriasis, but it’s great for anyone looking for a little R & R and healing skin treatments.

I also discovered Skyr, a traditional Icelandic food that is very similar to yogurt, but very creamy, I was surprised when I saw how few calories there were for such great texture!  You can buy it in the grocery store and it’s also included in many desserts.

You can definitely eat well in Iceland and it’s important with all the activity you’ll be doing!  Pictures coming soon!

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