During the fall of 2017, we traveled to Iceland to see beautiful sights, listen to spectacular music, and hang out with stellar friends. Above is a compilation video of the trip that my friend Phelan put together. The music is by the Icelandic duo Between Mountains. Below is stories from our trip as well as some additional photos.
October 30 - Reykjavik
We arrived in Reykjavik at around 6:30am Iceland time. The airport felt more like an Ikea furnished shopping mall. After asking for directions to the shuttle we found the waiting area outside in the dark. It’s kind of a bizarre feeling to be in a new country, on a different continent, but the only people around are Americans that were on your flight from New York City, and you can’t see anything except concrete, light poles, and the car lights in the distance. I imagine that standing in the middle of a parking lot in the dark probably looks the same just about anywhere in the world. It was tranquil though, and I was happy to be here.
The shuttle arrived and we loaded on. I hadn’t noticed that a long line of people had formed behind us. As everyone loaded on we were pushed toward the back of the bus and our bags were buried under many others, like the first layer of a brick wall. We rode for about 90 seconds and the driver pulled into Sixt, our car rental place. It quickly became clear that we were the only ones getting off the bus. We pressed through the isles bumping into everyone in their big coats and spouting our most sincere apologies, for being stupid tourists. Everyone smiled and laughed. They were just as clueless as us and just happy they weren’t the ones looking like fools. People helped pull our heavy bags from the pile and shouted to the driver when he tried to pull away.
At the rental office we filled out the paperwork and the attendant gave us our keys. She told us to go outside, click the unlock button on the key fob, and the flashing lights would indicate which car was ours. Karrie hit the button and we all saw lights flashing on a sizable Toyota sedan. We celebrated and made our way over, but as we tried to load in our gear the trunk wouldn't open. Neither would the doors. I asked Karrie to hit the button again. The lights continued flashing on the Toyota, but I also saw the lights flash on another car across the lot. "This isn't our car!" I laughed and pointed. Karrie hit the button again and the lights on a tiny Chevy spark lit up. "Oh my gosh, it's so tiny!" Everyone started cracking up. After many failed attempts, we finally puzzled our bags and bodies into the bite sized vehicle and headed toward Reykjavik. We never saw the sun but it must have been rising somewhere behind the clouds because it was getting light out. The landscape was just what I’d hoped. Vast, rocky, and covered in various mosses. Sigur Ros played as our Icelandic welcome soundtrack.
Our Airbnb was sleek, efficient, and European. A quick tour and baggage unload later, and we’re walking through the streets of Reykjavik to a grocery store. We settled for a mix of familiar and new. Cherrios, Skyr (Icelandic yogurt), something guessed to be ham, fruit, and euro-brand orange flavored soft cake cookies because they were the only thing under 3USD. We stopped in some shops on the way back to see what was selling. Phelan immediately digs an Icelandic snowflake design, Karrie needs a rain coat, and I'm seeking an authentic wool sweater that fits my style and price range. (Not going to be easy.)
We stopped at the apartment and dropped off groceries, and make a quick turnaround because we have to see the ocean and more of the town while there's still light. On the short walk to the water we saw an inconspicuous house that Phelan is convinced is of some historical significance because a tour bus stopped there for 30 seconds. Since the ocean isn’t going anywhere, we make our way over and discover that it was where the first formal discussions of ending the Cold War took place. Iceland the peacemaker. Pretty cool.
Across the street is the big blue ocean. We take it in from the rocks. We don’t want to leave, but it’s too cold to stay. Lucky for us Iceland built a designated walking trail that paralleled the coastline, and next to that a bike trail that paralleled the walking trail, and next to that a road. Trails! Priorities! Brilliant! We walked east, passed some intriguing public art, and ended at a architecturally baffling glass building. We had to go in to explore and when we did we learned that this is where you can pick up your Iceland Airwaves passes! We hadn't planned to fetch them today, but fate had led us here so we picked them up and enjoyed exploring the building and taking photos.
Upon leaving we decided we had enough time to see Reykjavik’s iconic church before sundown. Its peak is the highest point in the city and we navigated there simply by looking up from time to time. Out front is a statue of Leif Ericson and we crane our necks to see the top of the steeple. Inside a group is creating an art installation. We enjoy seeing what they’ve made and marveling at the potential power of the church’s huge organ. We don’t stay long because we’re all tired and it’s getting dark.
Back at the Airbnb we cook dinner and everyone is exhausted. It was still really early when we finished eating, but we all agreed to just sleep since we have a big day planned for tomorrow.
October 31 - Golden Circle
Woke up to the sound of a garbage truck out back. Karrie realizes it's 9am and we have to get moving. The sun only shines from 9am to 5pm this time of year, and we have the entire golden circle to see today. We're all up and on the road by 10:30. First stop, Thingvellir National Park.
As we drive it is clear that the weather is going to be nothing but wet and foggy. The visibility drops to 50 yards at times and I started to wonder if we will actually "see" any of the sights today. As we pull into the national park parking lot I see a viewing platform full of people who appear to be looking at the color grey. No mountains, no wildlife, no water. Just grey misty clouds.
We have to pay $5 to park and I am considering calling the whole thing off to save our money and avoid the letdown. We decide to go for it. Screw it! We came this far!
Stepping onto the viewing platform I was shocked to see a huge lake stretching across the barren landscape. There were solid grey clouds where mountains are usually viewed but at least we were seeing something!
We followed boardwalk trails along mossy outcroppings, saw huge fish in streams, a historic church, and a waterfall. On the way out, the clouds even cleared enough for us to take in some of the mountains from the viewing platform. Totally worth the stop. Even if the rest of the day was nothing but fog, we had seen something.
Fortunately for us, our luck wasn't out yet… Next, we stopped at Geyser. What geysers? The Original Geysers! No, really these were the first geysers to be discovered by Europeans and all others are named after the Icelandic word for "churn," which is "geysur."
None of us had ever seen a geyser before today. It was everything I hoped it would be and then some. Hot sulphuric water inexplicably bubbling on the earth's surface sending pockets of steam into the air. The strokkurgeyser erupts every 3-8 minutes. From a distance we saw it spray into the air and we rushed over to find a good place to watch. The water ebbed in the pool and we waited in high anticipation. Sooner than we expected a neon blue bubble of water expanded and then exploded into the sky! We were ecstatic and hooked. We watched it go off 3 more times before we could even consider moving on. The rest of the area offered more awesome hot springs and colorful pools.
Our limited time pushed us on to see the Golfoss waterfall. A part of us felt conflicted. We had never seen geysers before and it pained us to leave so quickly for a "waterfall." We've each seen many a waterfall in our travels, and while we've always truly enjoyed them we doubted it could awe us like these geysers had. But we went and again we were not disappointed.
Golfoss is massive. A 240-meter-wide river of sheer force, barreling over volcanic rock and plunging into the corner of a deep canyon. It's size and volume is difficult to comprehend. I felt like I would need to live in its presence for a month just to grasp it. We hiked to each available view point and soaked it in. (Literally, and figuratively.)
The last stop on the Golden Circle route is Kerid Krater. The sun was setting somewhere behind the clouds when we arrived, but there was enough glow left that we decided to check it out. The crater is known for its wildly colorful soil, which in better lighting really pops and makes for vibrant photos. We walked the rim of the crater and then walked down to the water in the center. While it didn’t compare in size or grandeur to the other sights along the Golden Circle, it was definitely worth the stop. I would guess that it is also more impressive on a sunny day too.
November 1 – Skogafoss and Laugavergur
Our plan for today had been to sleep in, hang around town, and go see shows in the evening. But we had been watching the weather and today was projected to be one of the only clear days of the whole trip. So we pushed our plans forward to see Skogafoss. Right before we left, Andy & Nicole arrived at the Airbnb. They had been up for some insane amount of time during their flight from Boise via Seattle. It was exciting to reunite with my friends, but we left them to sleep.
With clear blue skies, we drove along the south coast out toward skogafoss. ("Foss" means "falls" in Icelandic.) On the way, we see another awesome waterfall just off the main road and stop to explore. Turns out it was Seljalandsfoss, which is another waterfall that is known for its exceeding beauty. It plunges off a tall overhanging cliff, seeming to come from no where. The overhang allows you to walk behind the falls for a 360 degree view of the water. Such a cool place, especially considering that it wasn't even on our radar.
Continuing on our route, postcard worthy views abound. Soft green mountains, glaciers, and goats to our left, and ocean, shoreline, and jagged islands to our right. Pulling into the parking area for skogafoss, we discuss our plans. In addition to seeing the waterfall we had come out to do an out and back hike on the Laugavegur Trail. This trail runs 55km, Karrie and I hope to hike the whole distance someday, but today we'll settle for a small piece. Initially we all have the idea to skip skogafoss, which is only a short walk from the parking lot, and save it for the end of our hike, but as we start walking we are drawn to it. When we arrive at the junction for Laugavegur we can see skogafoss and it's casting a huge rainbow. We run over thinking the rainbow could disappear at any moment, but it just keeps shining on.
The Laugavegur climbs up a series of metal steps to the top of skogafoss. It's touristy here, and with people coming up and down going all sorts of different speeds. It's a bit tedious. Everyone seems in good spirits though, and how can you not be when you're surrounded by such incredible views. At the top most people gather around the viewing platform. We stop briefly but then continued upstream. The crowds vanished almost immediately. It's just us the river, the rocks, and the trail. Cool fresh air, nature, solitude; it is at this point I feel very much at home in Iceland, and I couldn't be happier. The river is a series of canyons and large waterfalls. As you approach the next fall you hear it before you see it, and as the Canyon gets deeper and deeper you wonder how tall it will be. When one comes into view we gasp, point, take photos, and marvel. Then it's on to the next one. Each fall has its own flavor, some unique feature that we appreciate. "Just one more waterfall!" we'd say, over and over. "A little further and maybe we'll see the glacier?" We were so enthralled, I think we would have hiked the entire 55km right then and there if we had brought the gear we needed. Ultimately, we had to turn around. The sun was about to set and we didn't have headlamps. (This hike out is the final clip on Phelan's video.)
(Pointing at a glacier)
(Our shadows above the falls)
(Top of skogafoss)
Driving back toward Reykjavik, the sun set slowly over the ocean. It kept getting more and more beautiful until we couldn't bare it any longer and pulled off just to take it in. Because Iceland is so far north the trajectory of the sun is much shallower in the late fall it makes for longer sunsets, making this scientifically the longest sunset I've ever experienced.
Back in Reykjavik, the Iceland Airwaves music festival was getting underway. We walked to the venue “Gamla Bio” and saw the Icelandic band “Valdimar” first. They put on an excellent show and I was hooked. Not only on their sound, but on the festival as a whole. We met up with Andy and walked around Reykjavik, seeing new parts of the city and a few more bands and venues. This was Andy’s third trip to Iceland and it was cool to have his insight on Icelandic culture and to hear stories from his previous trips. We ended the night at a small venue where Mangus Johann was playing. Karrie and Phelan were both really excited about to see him live. His tracks that we had listened to online sounded very orchestral and romantic, but we soon found out that his live show is more like abrasive freeform jazz. We only stayed for two of his nine-minute-long songs before everyone was over it and we left.
Our spirits were still riding the high of it all though, and we were looking forward to sleeping in and seeing more performances this week.
November 2 – Hot Potting
Slept in for the first time this trip. I was thankful since we were up late and will be up late the rest of the week going to shows. After a casual morning Andy and Nicole suggested that we all go “hot potting.” Apparently, that’s an Icelandic phrase for soaking in hot pools. Since geothermal activity is so common on the island, many of the local recreation centers have multiple hot tubs. (Another note about geothermal, 100% of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable sources, and 98% of it is geothermal energy.)
At the center where we went “hot potting” there were five small pools that were each heated to different temperatures. The first was pretty mild, but the second was plenty hot for me. Most everyone else in our group dipped into the hotter ones just to give them a try, but didn’t last long in the heat. It was a cold windy day and this seemed like a good way to get through it. Fair warning though, this is definitely a locals’ place, and as you may have heard, Europeans really don’t care about nakedness the way Americans do. The center requires that you to shower naked before entering the pools and there’s really no way to avoid walking by other naked people when moving from the lockers to the showers. If this is going to be a problem for you, then just don’t go.
None of my “must see” bands were playing today so Pheland and I decided to follow Andy and Nicole around town so we could all hang out and see what music they were into these days. (After a relaxing morning of hot potting, Karrie decided to stay in and enjoy a down day.) We first saw a russian punk band play at the KEX Hostel. The band had great energy and really filled the room. Later we saw For a Minor Reflection and GKR. For a Minor Reflection is a dynamic, instrumental, ambient rock group that has a sound not too unlike Explosions in the Sky. They put on my favorite show of the day. GKR is an Icelandic Hip-hop artist that I found entertaining in more of a comedic way, just because it was over the top ridiculous, although I’m not sure if that was what he was going for or not.
November 3 - Grotta and Music
Karrie, Nicole, Phelan, and I woke up relatively early and crammed into our tiny rental. We were heading to Grotta, an island and lighthouse that is only accessible at low tide. (Hence our waking up early.) From the parking area you walk across sand and rocks that are underwater for about half of everyday. We saw a surprising number of dead jellyfish that had been stranded on the bar when the tide went out.The thought occurred to me that there might be sea glass here. I looked down and almost immediately found 3 pieces. I spent a good amount of time looking after that but couldn't find even one more.
Karrie was on her own search, but for something else entirely. We had read that there was tiny thermal pool here, but our source gave no indication the exact location. Karrie clambered over slippery round rocks searching high and low. At one point all four of us fanned out in search of it but to no avail.It was a cold and windy day so we made our way back to the car to warm up and decide if we wanted to explore more or head back. Before the car could even warm up Karrie spotted the thermal, right next to the parking lot! We all jumped back outside. The pool was only about 2 feet in diameter, but it was putting out great heat so we all dipped our hands in. It offered a nice contrast to the weather.
Driving back we realized it was much later than we'd thought. Karrie and Phelan both really wanted to see this band called "Between Mountains." They were playing a crazy amount of shows during the festival though. So when we were running late I mentioned that we could skip it and see another one later. I got a firm response, "No! Are you serious? We've already missed them twice! We're going." So from the parking lot of our Airbnb the three of us walked straight to the venue, and I'm so glad we did because this ended up being my favorite show of the trip.
The band consisted of two young girls, and they were performing in the lobby of a movie theater. The space was cozy, with a coffee shop vibe. As the band set up, the spectators helped each other find chairs, which were a hodgepodge of shapes and sizes and scattered about the floor. (During the performance the audience was silent, smiling, and hanging on every note.) Their music was simple yet creative and their voices and harmonies couldn't have been more on point. We enjoyed every song, but the best was the finale. A song about the northern lights. We didn't get to see the actual northern lights on this trip due to unfavorable conditions, but seeing this song live, in Iceland, it felt like we had seen them. (This is the song in the video at the top of this post.) All three of raved about the show on our walk back. I was happy that Karrie and Phelan had both enjoyed it so much. We agreed to go see their second show of the day later on in the evening.
That night we saw Omotrack, Between Mountains (again), Amiina, and Vagabon. Omotrack is a poppy Icelandic band that had the crowd dancing and put on a fun show. Between Mountains played their same set as earlier in the day, it was still stellar the second time around. Amiina is another Icelandic band that writes dynamic and emotional instrumental music. They have played with Sigur Ros and write music that can be used in movie soundtracks. Fittingly, their show took place in a movie theater. Amiina's most recent album was written to lineup with a 1920s French silent film. How or why they chose this particular movie, I have no idea. The film was projected on the big screen and the band performed live below it. The music was enjoyable but the movie was impossible to follow. Overall we didn't love it, but it was definitely a unique experience.
We wrapped up the night with a rocking, all female band from New York, Vagabon. The venue was a bar with an inclusive vibe that I liked, but their PA system sounded like a tin can. We were in the second row and they put on a great performance. I only wished it was longer. But alas! More music tomorrow!
November 4 - Fleet Foxes and Manni
I bought tickets for Iceland Airwaves as soon as I heard Fleet Foxes would be playing. I didn't know any other bands on the lineup, but I didn't really care. Fleet Foxes! Iceland! Close friends! I'm in.
The day before we flew into Reykjavik I learned that spots were not guaranteed for the Fleet Foxes show. The number of passes sold for the festival was greater than the seating capacity for the venue where Fleet Foxes was playing. If you wanted a seat, you'd have to wait in line. I wasn't thrilled about the idea of spending a few my valuable Icelandic daylight hours sitting indoors, but we went early and made the best of it. Karrie, Phelan, and I were about 30th in line, which basically guaranteed us tickets. Andy's mother, who had also made the trip out, was only a few places behind us inline. I hadn't seen her in years and it was really nice to catch up while we waited.
When they began handing out tickets people realized that they weren't handing them out in order. So some folks were being handed tickets that were in a different part of the venue than the friends they had lined up with. The staff was doing their best to sort through it, but as we stepped up the masses started to become restless wondering why the line wasn't moving. A manager walked over and hastily handed us three tickets and said, "Sorry, you going to just have to take what you get." Karrie and I had luckily been handed a two seats that were next to one another, but Phelan's ticket was completely different than ours. He was understandably annoyed, and speculated that they had placed him somewhere in the rafters.
Having plenty of time to burn before the show started we went across the street to check out the Flea Market where I ended up buying an authentic sweater from a lady who owns a farm on island, raises sheep for their wool, and then knits the wool into sweaters herself. I really appreciated her talent and enjoyed talking with her before making my purchase.
Back at the Airbnb, Phelan, Karrie, and I contemplated a good three-person card game to play. (Three is honestly is the most difficult number to work with in terms of cards.) We took our search to the internet and Phelan managed to find an Icelandic card game called "Manni" that coincidentally only works with three people. After learning the rules and playing a few practice rounds we were hooked.
That evening we saw Fleet Foxes put on a solid performance at the Harpa venue. Phelan's seat ended up being incredibly close to the stage, which hopefully made up for having to watch it alone. This was just the beginning a joyous night. We walked around Reykjavik reliving the Fleet Foxes performance and eating delicious local ice cream. We then went on to see more shows including the Glintshake (the Russian punk band we'd seen earlier in the week), Childhood, and the very talented all women ensemble Deep Throat Choir. It was after 1am when we returned to the Airbnb, but we were so hyped that we all stayed up even later talking and playing cards.
Earlier in the trip when we were walking around Reykjavik we came across a small outdoor Christmas tree in a public area. It was probably 7 feet tall, it wasn't decorated with lights yet, but it was strapped down with steel cables and massive concrete blocks. We all joked about how heavily fortified Icelanders had made this one lone tree, "I guess they really don't want that tree to go anywhere!"
They were calling for bad weather today so we decided to sleep in a bit. When I finally arose and looked out the front window the flag polls across the street were bending over sideways and their flags were holding on for dear life. A man walking on the street was being tossed around by the wind struggled to keep the hood on his raincoat pulled over his face. This was some nasty weather, and it made me wonder about the Christmas tree we'd seen earlier this week. It would probably still be standing, but would it have any needles left?
We really lucked out, because we somehow didn't have any plans for the day. We bummed around, made a big breakfast, and played more cards. Eventually we did gather the courage to go out. We returned to the Flea Market where Karrie bought herself a sweater and we picked up some of our favorite foods to take home and share. This included a heap of lava bread, Icelandic chocolate, and Icelandic donuts.
November 6 – Flight Delays and A Happy Marriage
The gnarly weather subsided overnight and the five of us were able to take one last walk around Reykjavik in the morning before leaving for the airport. The small city felt very familiar at this point. We'd only been here eight days, but this felt like it was my life now and I would have been happy to stay and keep living it. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. We said our goodbyes to Andy and Nicole as they departed to the airport via shuttle and Phelan, Karrie, and I crammed into our tiny rental once again.
At the airport it seemed that all hell had broken loose. All of the festival goers who had filtered in over the course of the week were now all trying to leave at the same time. In addition to that, flights that were supposed to leave yesterday had been canceled due to the storm, and the computer systems had crashed so everyone had to check in manually. We felt lucky to have arrived early. As we stood in line for over an hour we made friends with the people around us. Most everyone had been at the festival so we shared stories of our favorite acts and sight seeing excursions on the island.
We bump into Andy and Nicole in the airport as they are trying to sort through the chaos. They have priority status with Iceland Air so they get to jump the line. They have a lot further to travel than we do so I was glad to know they would make their flight. They find us one last time on the other side of security and we're able to bid one another one more proper farewell.
Before loading on the plane I buy some trail mix so I have something to snack on during the flight back to NYC. Karrie, Phelan, and I are all seated apart, but I tell Karrie I'll share the trail mix with her sometime during the flight.
I'm sitting next to a nice lady who is a huge Mumford and Sons fan. She tells me that she has been to over 40 of their shows and that the band is on our flight. One of the stewardesses then comes on the mic and informs us all that we cannot open or consume any nuts during the flight because one of the passengers is deathly allergic. The superfan leans over and informs me that it's one of the members of Mumford and Sons who has the allergy. So, now I don't have anything viable to eat for the next six hours, unless of course I want to risk killing someone. I pull out the inflight snack menu from the seat back and wince at the prices. The least expensive options are "humus and crackers" and something called "happy marriage cake." So I order humus for myself and a “happy marriage cake” for Karrie and have them deliver it to her seat. It felt nice to celebrate another successful journey and a continued happy marriage with her, even if we weren't sitting next to each other.