I don't know when I decided I wanted to go to Iceland. After an emotional year and a second viewing of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I remember feeling the urge to go. To feel free, to push my own limits, to have an adventure that was no one's but my own. I don't (or didn't before this trip, rather) think of myself as an adventurer. I begrudgingly bought my first pair of hiking boots for a trip to Maine last year and didn't expect to get much use out of them. But Iceland called to me and luckily my best friend Nicole was trusting and adventurous enough to join me and my boots for our very own version of Wild. We both needed this trip and all that it entailed. We've been home for a week and are already talking about going back and completing the entire ring road drive. We both know we must return and return together to complete the magical journey we started. Here are some of the highlights from our trip:
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur / Famous Hot Dogs
Nicole and I love the book What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding and in it there's a phrase stating, "Do the thing you're supposed to do in the place you're supposed to do it." So in Iceland, eat all the hot dogs. They are other wordly. The hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur are famous and basically insane. We ordered them "with everything" to get crispy onions, white onions, and three amazing sauces that are sweet and tangy and so good I don't know how I'll ever eat an American hot dog again. We didn't even realize the hot dogs were made of lamb (duh! so many sheep in Iceland) until we got home. This article is awesome and sums up the hot dog culture... I had no idea Iceland doesn't allow livestock to be imported so all meat is grass-fed. So cool!
We stayed two nights in Vik, against the advice of our friends, but we loved it! Vik is the most adorable village on the sea, known for it's jagged cliffs that look like three sinking ships. The Icelandair Hotel is modern and brand new with wonderful staff and breakfast and super cozy rooms. Two nights in a row we had fresh-caught arctic char for dinner at the hotel restaurant and when it was time to checkout we were hesitant to leave.
Dyrhólaey / Black Sand Beach
The black sand beach around Vik is famous and has so many vantage points. The most breathtaking view though is from Dyrhólaey. We pulled up to the cliffside on the greyest, rainiest day and saw the waves crashing onto the black beach with not a soul on it and we both started to tear up. Nicole said, "You can't look down at waves from above like this anywhere else," and she was right.
Jökulsárlón / Glacier Lagoon
The drive from Vik to Jökulsárlón was the most liberating experience of our trip. The road is desolate, with another car passing by only every five minutes or so, we felt like we were really heading out into the great unknown. The landscape changes every few minutes — from lava rocks covered in moss, to streams, the ocean, mountains in the distance and then suddenly right next to you, waterfalls, sheep, horses and mini villages — it was so hard not to stop and photograph every little thing. This stretch of Iceland is where Matthew McConaughey and team filmed Interstallar, and now we get why. Everywhere we looked, we just kept saying, "Is this real life? I feel like I'm on another planet." We had rare Icelandic blue skies all day and by the time we pulled up to Jökulsárlón we could, once again, not hold back the happy tears. One sight of the lagoon and we were overcome with "Oh my god, there it is. We've come so far to see this and it's so beautiful" emotion. I can't describe Jökulsárlón in any way to make it comprehendible. I was continuously blown away by the blueness of the ice and the distance from the ice at my feet to the ice on the mountaintops so far away and then all the layers of blue ice in between. A lot of tourists don't venture out far enough to see Jökulsárlón, but had we not, our trip wouldn't have been anywhere close to what it was: worth every minute.
Seljavallalaug / Hidden Hot Spring Pool
I wanted to find Seljavallalaug, a hidden hot spring pool, since I started doing research on Iceland. The blogs I read stated it was kind of hard to find, so I was nervous we wouldn't make it. It was a ten minute walk into the mountains with the small challenge of figuring out to cross a pretty wide stream without getting our shoes wet (I took my shoes off). This pool is publically owned and the locals in the area take turns caring for it. Aside from a couple we met from Austria, we were the only two in the mossy-bottom, murky water. Finding this pool without anyone's help made me feel like I accomplished what I came to Iceland to do: find adventure is ways I hadn't before, see hidden parts of the world that seem almost like fantasy in photos and let go of my inhibitions a little. On the walk back, a group of six American travelers stopped and asked us if it was worth it, and all I could say was, "Yes!!!!"
Fontana / Hot Spring Pools
Fontana is like a classier, cleaner, and cooler version of American public pools mixed with a spa vibe. It has an adorably cute cafe and four different pools all heated by the nearby hot spring. All the pools sit right on the edge of a lake with mountains nearby. Although the air was probably in the high 40's / low 50's, we sat in the pool for hours without getting cold. Fontana has steam rooms and a sauna as well and because of the sulfur in the ground from the hot spring, the steam room has an overwhelming smell of egg-farts. Yes, you read that correctly. Egg. Farts. Nicole and I could barely stay in there for more than ten seconds, it seems that bad. WHen we commented on the smell, one of the locals said, "Smells like home." The sulfur smell is present is a lot of the areas where there are hot springs, so Icelanders are used to it. There were a mix of tourists and natives at Fontana on the Sunday we were there but it almost felt like a private party there were so few bathers. One of the coolest parts about Fontana is that they bake homemade rye bread daily in the ground from the heat of the hot spring. When we arrived, they were about to shovel a finished loaf out of the ground and allowed us to come with. The bread bakes for 24 hours in a metal pan and comes out looking literally perfect. We ate it within minutes of it coming out and it was so moist and amazing, sweeter than American rye bread.
Fridheimar / Greenhouse-Cafe
This place. Nicole and I had read that there was great tomato soup served in a greenhouse. It seemed beforehand like a non-touristy thing that was right up our alley so we put it high on our priority list. I didn't expect it to be so put together and iconic. I also don't think I've ever seen Nicole so happy, as she cut small snips of basil into her soup off our own little basil plant. Fridheimar is owned by an adorable Icelandic family, who we decided are like the Vantrapps of Iceland. They are beautiful people inside and out, you can tell, making sure every single customer feels like their biggest priority, and everyone — dad, mom, and kids work equally hard. We were blown away. The self-serve, unlimited quantities of tomato soup, freshly baked bread and cucumber salsa made for the best meal we had in Iceland.
The Kex + Reykjavik
It seems like everyone stays at the Kex hostel in Reykjavik. It's the nordic version of the Ace Hotel with perfect decor in every square inch. We opted for a private double room and giggled as we showered side-by-side in the communal bathroom, realizing how far we'd come in four short days abroad together. We started the night with some wine at the bar and get the carrot soup and beet salad (greens are few and far between in Iceland so we were dying for salad) and then we walked down the street to the Kex-owned "pizza place that has no name," but simply an address, Hverfisgata 12. Before returning home for the night, we stopped by the Laundromat Cafe for surprisingly strong white russians.
Blue Lagoon / Hot Spring Pool
The Blue Lagoon is one of the 25 Wonders of the World and, surprising to some, is manmade. The water is turquoise blue from the run off from a very-nearby power plant and actually contains silica, the substance found in those little white packets that come in leather goods that say "Do Not Eat." Although it's one of the main attractions of Iceland and is really for tourists, it's a must-do! it's ten miles from the airport, so we saved this for the very end and we were so happy we did because we were relaxed, knowing we'd seen all there was to see in the time we had and could relax in the water until our flight. The water ranges from super-super scalding hot to just warm enough that it's hotter than the air. Being there on a super cloudy day was wonderful, as it made the water appear moody and steam rose off the surface. We did two mud masks, had champagne as we soaked, and marveled at how smooth it made our skin feel. We were in the water about two and a half hours and were able to fully shower, change and dress for the airport in their awesome locker rooms. It was a perfect way to end the trip!
If you go to Iceland and can fly out of either Baltimore (like we did) or Boston, fly Wow Air. The price difference was $550 compared to $1288 had we flown Icelandair. Wow Air is a discount airline, so all bags including carry-ons are weighed and paid for accordingly, but otherwise you'd never know how they cut costs. The plane was a month old, the flight attendants are so kind and dressed in adorable, old-school, purple uniforms with matching magenta lipstick. Wow has seriously great customer service. A day before the flight I tweeted asked for upgraded seats and within minutes we had free seats for both outbound and inbound flights.
We had such a great trip with hardly any mishaps, but there are a few things we wish we'd known before going:
1. It is not customary or expected to tip in Iceland. We realized this after tipping 20% on expensive dinners three nights in a row. Although in hindsight, the Icelandic wait staff were so kind we were glad we did.
2. You don't have to take your shoes off at the airport. We got some weird looks when we put our sneakers through the scanner.
3. We only got about $60 exchanged into Krona and it was plenty. Most places accepted credit cards.
4. Don't stay at the Ion Luxury Hotel near the Golden Circle. Although it looks as advertised, the place was so pretentious and snobby. This was something we were so excited for and totally disappointed by. Not worth it!
5. All the flights into Iceland from the US are red eyes and when you land at 5 am Iceland time (1 am Eastern time) you are fucking exhausted. Like hungover-but-not exhausted.
6. The wifi option that comes with the rental car only allows you 3GB of service but no one tells you that. We thought ours broke after two days and when I asked for a refund I was laughed at in Icelandic. Numerous other travelers mentioned they had the exact same frustration and felt dupped. Lesson learned: Get the wifi but don't stream John Mayer "Free Falling" from the cloud or Instragram from the road.
7. The sun rarely comes out for an entire day. We got a bit discouraged because our forecast looked dreary, but a popular Icelandic saying is, "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes..." So true! We saw sun, rain, hail and snow all within the first 24-hours of our trip.
If you want to peep the rest of our adventure in 120 photos, have at it!