Iceland – winter 2018

Just a few days in Iceland during winter with the hope to see the Aurora Borealis. When I last traveled to Iceland back in 2014, it was late June so there was midnight sun. But since its winter, I can finally experience the night and look up at a starry night sky and possibly some northern lights. We took the overnight flight from JFK to KEF airport. Couldn’t sleep on the plane so we slept for 4-5 hours at the hotel.

Day 1:
We woke up at 3pm and just walked around Reykjavik city for a while. During the day, the city’s weather feels similar to a NYC winter. However, the weather can change suddenly and hit you with windy rain/snow so bring your waterproof gear (umbrellas don’t work here) .

Of course there is the Hallgrimskirkja church and Laugavegur street (many shops) with Mt Esja in the background on a clear day. Restaurant Reykjavik is the only seafood buffet I know of so it had to be done. If you love seafood and skyr, then this country is for you. The food prices in general are high even for a New Yorker so brace yourself and your credit card.

So we booked a northern lights night tour like almost every tourist seems to do during winter. It turned out to be a cloudy and occasionally rainy night; not ideal conditions. However, all the tour buses seemed to have an idea of where there was some activity in the sky and we all headed there. After an hour, we all got out and looked up at the sky for an hour and a half in the cold. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. Even though I saw something that looked more like a moving cloud in the dark, the professional cameras were able to capture the green color with the right settings. So I suppose the aurora was above us even though it wasn’t as bright as we all hoped that night. At least the night tour was not cancelled. That happens on some nights when the weather is bad.

We got home a little after 1am. Just enough time to shower, pack, and get a few more hours of sleep for a 2 day south Iceland tour.

Day 2:
We met our tour guide and our travel companions early in the morning. We drove along the south coast of the country all the way to Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon while making several sightseeing stops in between. Unlike December with very few hours of daylight, February has 9-ish hours of daylight and I believe you can cover a lot in the South within that time.

Before reaching the southernmost town called Vik and before the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajokull, the first major stop is a waterfall called Seljalandsfoss. In the summer you can walk behind the waterfall but it is too dangerous in the winter. But still, it is nice to walk around and explore.

Then we stopped at the Eyjafjallajokull sightseeing spot. This is the monster that erupted in 2010 and stopped many flights for 2 weeks or so due to all of the ash in the air.

Not too far away is everyone’s favorite waterfall, Skogafoss. Winter, summer, always impressive.

Vik town was next and typically used as a lunch spot. Not too far from Vik is Reynisfjara black sand beach. The black sand beach doesn’t change much across the seasons. It’s always fun to climb the basalt columns, check out the giant cave, spell out your name in the sand, collect rocks, or just take a stroll along the coast without getting caught by the waves.

 

Afterwards, we proceeded along the coast having Vatnajokull glacier to our right. The largest glacier in Europe is quite massive. Right before Skaftafell is the Gigjukvisl bridge memorial. This bridge was washed away by glacial floods following an eruption of Vatnjokull glacier in 1996.
Hardly anyone around for miles.

We drove passed Skaftafell national park and headed to Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. If I return to Iceland, I would definitely allocate several days to explore the Skaftafell area. So anyway, the glacier lagoon during sunset is a wonderful sight.

On the other side of the bridge is Diamond beach. Some of the ice chunks that break off the glacier and float to sea can get pushed back onto the shore; ice diamonds. Pretty cool.

Our hotel was not too far from the glacier lagoon. After a tasty lamb/fish dinner, some of us waited outside for hours looking up at the night sky in the freezing cold. The conditions were ideal but unfortunately there was no aurora activity that night. And even worse news, a big storm was forecasted to hit Iceland during the following day. So many tours were cancelled, even some roads were closed off temporarily. The weather in Iceland does not play around. Our ice cave tour was also cancelled and we were looking forward to that. See some YouTube vids of the ice cave and you’ll agree that it’s impressive. Well, maybe next time.

Day 3:
The following day was pretty much a long drive back to Reykjavik through the storm waiting for roads to open back up. I wish I had more to share but the weather was actually that bad. Cars were slipping off the road and some of us didn’t even want to get out of the tour bus once we heard the wind and rain. It’s the third windiest country in the world, and I can see why. We at least got to stop by Dyrholaey which is very close to Reynisfjara black sand beach. Dyrholaey looks unique to any beach I’ve seen.

Once back at Reykjavik, we headed to the Resto restaurant. This was a good way to end a blah day, the ling and char were the best.

Day 4:
Before leaving Iceland, we had one more opportunity for a meal and headed to Saegreifinn to eat the best lobster soup and skewered fish. Then we just hopped on the Flybus airport shuttle back to the airport.

I would totally go back to Iceland, but in the summer. Winter tours are very sensitive to the weather conditions so it’s a roll of the dice for seeing the northern lights and other tours like ice caves. But if you’re feeling lucky, go for it!

 

Iceland 2014 – Part 6

Iceland.

Day 7: Golden Circle
I knew this day would come. It’s the final day of the trip. I tried not to think about it and instead just focused on enjoying the day. A visit to Iceland is incomplete without doing the Golden Circle tour. But before embarking on the Golden Circle, the day began at the Friheimar horse farm. Not only do you get to see a brief Icelandic horse show, but you get to spend some time with the horses (and perhaps rearrange their hairstyle). It also turns out that the horses can gallop so smoothly that you can ride these horses while holding a beer mug without spilling a drop. True story.

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Before the official Golden Circle tour, yep, another waterfall, Faxi Falls (Vatnsleysufoss).

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The next stop was the final waterfall of the trip, Gullfoss (Golden falls). As we drove closer to Reykjavik, the crowds became larger, especially throughout the Golden Circle. Interestingly, we finally heard English coming from mouths other than our own for once (most tourists we encountered were from non-English speaking countries).

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And right next door was everybody’s favorite, the Strokkur Geysir. Capturing the fountain eruption moment requires patience and strong deltoids for steadily holding your camera since it shoots every 5-10 minutes. I heard that several tourists per week are scalded for putting their hands in the thermal pools, mostly due to curiosity. When up close, the Geysir definitely catches everybody by surprise since there is no warning signal. I found that the best way to capture the height of this thing was to climb to the highest peak as usual. The Geysir can shoot up to 120 ft, and I may have caught the big one. Score!

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The last piece of the Golden Circle and the final stop in our grand ring road tour was Thingvellir (Parliament Plains) National park. This is where the old Icelandic parliament was founded. It’s situated on the tectonic plates that divide Europe and North America. The main path takes you between the edges of the plates.

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Toward the entrance, there were water streams that were transparent enough that you could see the bottom clearly. Although my camera wasn’t state of the art like most people, it was waterproof, and so I was able to dip my hand in the freezing water to see what it looks like under there. I hear that there are snorkeling and diving tours close by.

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Before we knew it, we were back in Reykjavik. For our final meal, we maneuvered around the soccer crowd in the city center and dined at Restaurant Reykjavik. We were lucky to have seats since this place books fast, and I soon found out why. The buffet blew my mind away. If you ever visit Iceland, reserve a spot here and have a seafood party. Even whale is on the menu, which actually tastes pretty good.

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I usually look forward to returning home after a long vacation, but not this time. I’m hooked and I’m not alone in the Iceland addiction. This is definitely a country to revisit. It’s never taken more than 2 posts to summarize a trip. A one week sampler in Iceland took 6 posts, and that was scratching the surface. You could snowmobile on a glacier, hike up volcanoes and snow-capped mountains, go kayaking or horseback riding, trek through all types of landscapes, encounter every waterfall, climb every hill, bathe in every geothermal pool, walk every trail, and witness the northern lights. My message is simple–put this country high on your bucket list. Iceland is like another planet on a small island. As a going away present, Iceland gave me a view of Greenland on my flight back to the dirty, muggy, and fast-paced city of New York, the place I call home.

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Goodbye Iceland, for now.

Iceland 2014 – Part 1

Iceland. It’s not the typical summer vacation destination, but it’s definitely one of the best in my opinion. It’s an expedition to another planet and a massive playground for those who enjoy outdoor activities. When you leave this country to return home, it’s as if you’ve awoken from a dream. Leaving Iceland behind is the hardest part.

ringroad

As always, with a limited amount of time (8 days), I wanted to see and do it all. The best way to explore this country is by driving along the ring road; the main road that circles the entire country. My only complaint is that this ring road eventually brings you back to where you began, which means that the trip is over. Iceland is almost as large as Pennsylvania with around 300,000 inhabitants (Forest Hills, Queens and Flushing, Queens combined already has that many residents). And yes, I managed to squeeze in some workouts and running sessions.

worldicelandmap

Iceland is around 5 hours from New York so there’s no excuse for not stopping by. My wife and I embarked on our 4-year anniversary trip to the land of the midnight sun. Yes, the sun never really sets during the summer. Looking up at the moon and stars in the night sky is something that won’t be happening this week. And forget about the Northern Lights this time. The weather was perfect (for me); 50F-55F during the day. It definitely felt warmer than I expected, people can actually get a sun burn. Although the Icelandic language uses the English alphabet, you soon realize that it’s futile to pronounce anything. Give this a shot: Eyjafjallajokull.

The journey begins in the largest city in Iceland; Reykjavik (Smokey Bay).

 

Day 0: Reykjavik
From our hotel in Reykjavik, we went to the top of Hallgrimskirkja church to get the Googlemaps view of the city. Reminds me of the model town in Mr Rogers’ neighborhood.

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We then explored the city a bit. We checked out some shops, the Sun Voyager, and the Harpa building. Everybody eats ice cream cones like it’s a hot summer day here.

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After a long walk around the Old Harbour, we went on a brief boat tour which sailed to Lundey; a small puffin island. Then we ate some catfish and lamb before heading back to the hotel to sleep off the jet lag.

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Day 1: West Iceland
Before leaving Reykjavik with a group of 20 others and starting the ring road in the clockwise direction, we stopped by the Pearl building. The top floor is a fancy rotating restaurant.

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After driving through valleys and fjords, we stopped by Hraunfossar lava falls and Barnafoss (children falls). Hraunfossar flowed from a volcanic eruption under the Langjokull glacier nearby. By the way, some Icelandic: Foss means waterfall, Jokull means glacier, Nes means peninsula, Hraun means lava, and Fjord means fjord. After sampling a Hraun chocolate bar, I was immediately hooked (jumbo Kit Kat with lava rock chocolate design).

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The next stop was the Deildartunguhver hot springs; the most powerful hot spring in the world. The sulfur smell had me avoiding hard-boiled eggs for days.

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Then we summited Grabrok volcano crater (510 ft) and walked around the rim for some epic views of the mossy lava field landscape.

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Even when you finally arrive at your hotel after a long day, you can’t help but go back outside for a stroll. The Borganes area felt like “the hills are alive, with the sound of music”.

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TO BE CONTINUED…