Nordic Adventure: Iceland, Day 1

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I’m back from a week-long Nordic adventure–three nights in Iceland, three in Denmark. I searched and searched but found neither elf nor suitable horned viking helmet to bring home. I do, however, have tons of photos from the fantastic week. To do the vacation justice, I’m going to work on a day-by-day blog, with photos, starting right now.

DAY 1

Iceland. The population when we arrived was 319,723. It was up to 319,724 by the time we left. I only know that because they keep tabs at Hamborgarafabrikkan, a gourmet burger joint in Reykjavík (see day 3 for more on that). Nearly three-quarters of that population lives in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, which is where we stayed.

So the first question to answer: Why Iceland? Aside from traveler’s curiosity, a love for off-the-beaten-path destinations and a magnet to quirk, I’d read about the ubiquitous thermal pools, the 24 hours of sunlight in summer months, the 20 hours of darkness in winter, the lively nightlife (hotel rooms don’t just serve up soap and shampoo–they also provide ear plugs to help you sleep through the raucous weekend nights), the eccentric natural landscape, the educated population (best read/most prolific writers in the world), the clean air and water, the widespread belief in elves (see day 2) and the list goes on.

When we started looking into a trip there more seriously, and saw that Iceland Air allows for a stopover in Iceland for up to a week en route to its European destinations with no extra charge. So we booked a trip to Copenhagen (no need to justify why we went there) with a three-day stopover in Iceland. Badda bingin, badda burgendurgen.

We flew from Midway to Minneapolis St. Paul Friday, leaving MSP around 6 p.m. for a six-hour flight, and landing in Iceland at 6:30 a.m. Knowing we’d be off-kilter from the time change and inability to sleep on planes, we had no plans for the day other than floating at the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is the most popular tourist attraction (and a draw for the locals) in Iceland. Located about 20 minutes from Keflavik International Airport, it’s ideal for relaxing as you’re coming or going.

Driving there in our rental car, we watched the sun rise against the lunar-like landscape as we searched for breakfast (easier said than done in a town where businesses don’t open til about 10 a.m. it seems on the weekend…luckily we found a bakery and I had some sort of savory pizza pastry while Neil ate something sugary and pink). Ahead of us, fields of sharp, black lava rocks rolled into the horizon, their texture a whimsical contrast to the plush, green peat that coated them. In the distance, we saw plumes of steam and knew we were closing in on the Blue Lagoon.

Even after looking at photos online, the Blue Lagoon has a complete “wow” effect, not unlike the Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon or any place outside of your realm of expectation. The lagoon is a strange phenomenon. It’s created from the runoff from the geothermal plant in the background (hence, the plumes). The conditions are perfect for a trifecta of algae, silica and minerals that make this pool an opaque blue, the color of the sky in “The Simpson’s.” This is the color that swimming pools aspire to through chemical treatment and colored plaster. Temperatures range from about 98 to 102 degrees fahrenheit–i.e. soothing to hothothot. We floated in the salty waters, sometimes venturing into the steam rooms, until our suddenly soft skin turned prune-like. Then we walked inside in search of coffee, only to find a machine with buttons for cappuccino, coffee or latte. Skeptical, with visions of bad vending machine beverages in mind, we both pressed the latte buttons, and watched as a deep stream of espresso filled our cups, followed by steamed milk with the perfect amount of froth. The flavor? Delicious. Starbucks should be very, very afraid (Note: We did not see a single Starbucks in Iceland, nor did we see a McDonald’s, which left the country after its currency collapsed. We did see a Quizno’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and KFC).

From there, we hopped in the car and searched for lunch. We were going to visit a pizza spot (Neil eats pizza in every country he visits, generally more than once) but it was packed, so we went to an ice cream/hot dog shop. I’d read quite a bit about Icelandic hot dogs and was eager to try one. They’re actually known for having amazing dogs–in fact, the most popular restaurant in Reykjavik is a hot dog restaurant (as the Iceland Air trivia reminded us over and over and over again). I’d read that they’re a blend of beef and lamb (lamb in Iceland is said to be some of the world’s best) and are sold in nearly every convenience store. We each ordered one, and a teenage girl drew each one out of a trove of hot water. I got mine with ketchup, mustard and raw onions, and Neil opted for ketchup and fried onions. I was entirely unimpressed, but I hate the flavor of lamb, and didn’t expect it to be quite so strong (also, the ketchup and mustard were both very, very sweet). The casing was snappier than I’m used to and the hot dog, itself, softer once you got through the casing. I ate what I could to be polite and then balled it up inside the paper pouch, which had pictures of happy cartoon hot dogs, similar to Superdawg.

From there, we drove into Reykjavik, hoping that we’d be able to check into our apartment early (it was around 1 p.m.), but learned that check-in wasn’t until 3 p.m. We spun our wheels around town, eating a not-so-good slice of pizza, popping into 66 Degrees to look at coats, hats and gloves, wandering through a viking store, admiring signs outside of restaurants advertising puffin and whale menus. In the distance, we saw a beautiful obelisk of a building and wandered toward it, stumbling into the most beautiful church (Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church) I’ve ever set foot in.

Finally, it was time to check in. We’d booked a budget studio apartment with Apartment K, a hotel-like apartment company that had great reviews. When we checked in, we were thrilled to learn that we’d been upgraded to a one-bedroom. I can’t say enough good things about the place. It had a small kitchen and cappuccino machine, a comfortable, modern sitting area, a large bathroom with a stone, dungeon-like shower and a bedroom with a ridiculously comfortable bed (the feet and back rose with a touch of a button–one on my side, one on Neil’s so we could adjust it to our own liking). One of the best parts was the artwork. Namely, the cloud structure in the bedroom. It was made from a mattress pad shaped like a cloud, fitted around lights. When we turned it on, it was illuminated and started slowly moving, making a hamster-style squeak as it sprung to action. We loved it so much we took video so that we could share it. Words simply don’t do it justice.

From there, exhaustion really ruled. We went to dinner and ate amazing seafood and lobster soup at a place called Fjalakotturinn. Then we stopped in at a grocery store for bottled water–the water in Iceland is clean but we couldn’t get past the sulphur smell–and couldn’t resist picking up some local candy bars (a couple of which involved black licorice…ew), before we managed to pass a waffle truck (note to Chicago food trucks: We need more waffles!). Then we fell into our bed and a long, blissful sleep. Too long, apparently.

Read about day two of the adventure here.

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