Iceland

Author’s note: I am not particularly athletic, outdoorsy, or adventurous. Hence the absence of exploring caves, snorkelling the Artic ocean, discovering the bowels of a volcano, from my list (All of which I’m sure are exhilarating things to do).

Iceland. The land of fire and (Wait for it….) ice.  This nation of 300,000 people discovered by the Vikings in 800 AD, made headlines in 2008 for going bankrupt. Six years later, the country’s back on its feet, welcoming tourists who seek something different.

The something different I sought a few months ago, was one of the seven wonders of the world: the Northern Lights. And so I did a bit of research. The Aurora Borealis is most visible between the months of November to April.  March seems like good timing!   I tried to look for travel companions, but ended up going solo. Which wasn’t too bad, in retrospect.  Though it would have been nicer to be oohing and ahhh-ing with someone.

Anyway, here are my top tens!

(10)  View from the Hallgrímskirkja Church – I set up base in Reykjavik,  the capital of Iceland. My home for four nights, the Hotel Leiffur Ericsson, had a location which made up for my tiny bed (was this a Nordic thing?). It was right across the Hallgrímskirkja Church, a commanding Lutheran church, shaped like a viking ship!  I thank the modern facilities of this church, because for 700 Icelandic kroner, I rode an elevator up to the top, where a fantastic view of the city awaits.

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(9)  Waiting for geysers – Not everything in Iceland is icy or covered in snow. It is in fact a paradise for geologists and volcanologists. There are over 130 volcanoes all over the country. Similar to Hawaii,  there are relatively frequent eruptions and earthquakes. As such, there aren’t a lot of trees in Iceland! Lots of lava fields, mountains, and rocky flat lands.  As part of the Golden Circle tour, I got to see a geyser (According to geology.com, a geyser is a vent in Earth’s surface that periodically ejects a column of hot water and steam) up close. Much like most of the places in Iceland, Haukadalur, the area we visited, had steam coming from the ground and geysers aplenty! We waited patiently for one to ‘erupt’, and we weren’t disappointed.

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(8) Friendly icelandic horses – One tour guide said, “Please don’t call our horses  ‘ponies’.”  By golly they are cute! They’re not as tall and majestic as other horse breeds, but these four legged beauties had a heart warming charm about them. The Icelandic horses has shorter legs and were fluffier!  The ones we saw had their winter coats on. Just like the Icelandic people, these horses are friendly.

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(7) Walking on a glacier – Version one of my bucket list, if I had one years ago, would not likely have ‘Walk on a glacier’. I never really thought I’d travel as far north (or south) of the earth to actually see one.  But I did, as part of the Icelandic South Coast tour I did with a local travel company. My inner kiddie cinephile immediately thought about the Ice Age pose, Manny, Sid, and Diego, when I saw this enormous block of soil ice. Up close, it looked almost crystal like, with hues of blue.  Although the walking area had sand and rocks, we were cautioned to still be careful. We were walking on solid ice after all!  We didn’t do a full hike,  as that requires special climbing gears (grapples, ropes, pics, and whathaveyous). We did manage to spot a few groups who braved the slippery slopes, and the sight of them walking single file in their colourful winter garb made for a dramatic photo.

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(6) The Blue Lagoon –  While I was visiting my aunt in New Jersey last year, I saw this breathtaking photo of a rocky, snow capped mountain, and in front of it,  a light blue body of water. I later found out that my cousin went to Iceland a few years back, and she took that very photo of the Blue Lagoon. It’s fair to say that photo prompted this whole Iceland trip. This man-made geothermal spa of sorts, although very touristy, is still a site to be seen. Visitors come to soak in the hot springs, a nice relaxing finish to a day of activities. I was sans-swimsuit, so I lunched at the Lava restaurant, which was surprisingly pretty good!

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(5)  Lamb Vegetable Soup, Kjotsupa – Simple yet immensely satisfying. This traditional Icelandic meaty soup brings new meaning to the phrase ‘hits the spot’. What’s in it? Pieces of meat, potatoes, carrots, and a few other things. After a few hours exploring in the freezing cold, this soup warmed my insides and brought me to a happy place.  Immensely comforting and surprisingly filling.  Icelandic people have been making this soup for generations, and it’s a wonderful example of how greatness can be found in simple things done right.

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(4)  Icelandic fare: Whale meat, herring, and hotdogs! – Oh wow. Where to begin with these Icelandic eats?!  I ought to list all of them separately to be fair.  I was prepared to have my fill of fresh seafood this trip, and I was not disappointed. I helped myself to herring , a staple in Scandinavian kitchens, everyday for breakfast. Loved, loved, loved it! They serve it pickled. I can’t exactly describe how it tastes like. It’s like a sashimi, but creamier and fishier? Words fail me. Quite a popular dish in most restaurants, albeit controversial, is the Minke Whale. Now I don’t really have a strong opinion about the whole thing, but the foodie in me demanded that I try it.  I had a grilled Minke Whale at Sjavargrillid, a great restaurant not too far from my hotel. which I ate with conflicting feelings. On one hand, it was certainly a satisfying experience, its texture was more meaty than fishy. Like a cross between beef and tuna.  A medium rare cut went perfectly with a glass of red wine. On the other hand, I felt guilty, trying to reconcile my enjoyment and the thought of how this mammal came from the sea to my plate.  And finally… the world famous Icelandic hotdog, which the locals call pylsa!  The most popular pylsa is right smack in the middle of town. You could tell this was the place. A humble kiosk with long queues all throughout the day!  My initial reaction after taking the first bite of the hotdog was ‘Ehh.” Nothing special. But the greatness of the hotdog revealed itself when I was halfway through it. The ratio of meat to bread was perfect. I loved the mustard and the crispy fried onions.

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(3)  Chasing waterfalls –   There is an abundance of waterfalls in Iceland. While I have yet to see the majestic and powerful Niagara waterfalls, I quite enjoyed these Icelandic sites. I saw Skógafoss, Gullfoss, and a few others in the south coast peninsula. In Iceland, you get up close and personal with these beauties.  I don’t what it is about them but, there’s something quite enticing  and inviting.  Something that draws you in, pulls you close.  Perhaps it’s the power of the water, and the contrast of the serene brook that flows from it.  We went on a walk to go behind Seljalandsfoss, which was one of the exhilarating highlights of this trip. While there is a path trekkers take, the climb and descent through/over rocks was a combination of scary and exciting. I was surprised at how my trusty four-year old, slightly worn out Uggs, kept me stable and prevented me from slipping!

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(2)  Breathtaking landscapes – One word. Surreal! The views and landscapes in this country is just out-of-this-world. It’s one of those places that doesn’t seem real, or looks other-worldly. Snowy mountains, mysterious black flat lands, black beaches and rock formations jutting out of the sea… Wow. Tolkein spent quite a bit of time in Iceland, and the country inspired him. The HBO hit series Game of Thrones shoots on location here as well as a few films (Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, Russell Crowe’s Noah, and Ben Stiller’s The secret life of Walter Mitty to name a few).Dozing off during drives feel like a crime. We can mostly  thank the volcanos for the stunning views and landscapes.

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(1)  The elusive Northern Lights – After four days of cancelled Northern Lights tours, I excitedly got on the tour bus at 9:30pm on Day 3 of my trip, hopeful that I would finally see (with my own eyes) the reason why I came to Iceland in the first place. The Northern Lights postcards I saw all over town were mocking me!  I was armed with a trusty tripod, my camera manually set to capture the spectacle, gloves, a thick jacket, and a load of optimism.  The tour bus took us to an old lava field, south of Reykjavik, where they said the Aurora Borealis could make an appearance. (Side note: Two things are essential to see the Northern Lights: Aurora activity and a clear sky (absence of clouds). And so, I set up shop a few meters from the bus, hands freezing. An hour and several shots later, the tour guide regretfully announced that this was not our night. Cue the sobbing.  Although I couldn’t see anything, my camera managed to catch a glimmer of the lights. The heavy clouds were indeed concealing them. Sigh. With a heavy heart, I packed the tripod, and reluctantly accepted my fate. Such  is nature. She holds all the cards. Tonight just wasn’t my night. As we boarded the bus and headed back to Reykjavik, in my mind, I threw a determined fist up in the air. ‘We shall meet again Aurora Borealis!’

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Did not make my top ten…

The Iceland nightlife is  legendary! I must go back with friends to party till dawn next time.

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