Saturday, September 24, 2016

Final Thoughts on Iceland

What a truly beautiful country, both the scenery and the people.   Everyone I came across was more than welcoming.  You can tell they are proud of their country and want to show it off.   I felt completely safe.   Never did I feel like I had to watch my back, watch my bag or anything.  The country is just so warm and inviting.

I  heard the rise in interest in visiting Iceland was due to Game of  Thrones.   I don't watch the show, but it is filmed here.  However, they also had a big surge in tourism after the volcano erupted in 2010 and shut down European flights for a several days.   I guess all that news coverage got people thinking about and interested in learning more about Iceland, which brings me to the scenery!

For the most part they seem genuinely pleased by the growth in tourism.  They have been converting a lot of the apartments into hotels and there are a lot of people offering up guest rooms.    I wonder though, how a country with just over 300,000 people, more than half of which live in/near Reykjavik, will be able to sustain millions of visitors.  I read somewhere they are expected to have over 1.75MM visitors this year/next year, not sure how accurate that estimate is, but the growth in tourism is significant in recent years. I'm not sure they have the infrastructure to handle it all.   I can't imagine it won't be a drain on all their natural resources. 

The Scenery
It is a country worth seeing!   It truly is magical and a country of such diverse landscapes; lava fields, volcanoes, glaciers, rivers and streams.  Despite the rise in tourism and all that comes with it, it still seems undisturbed.  There were often times where I thought it looked like Hawaii, if Hawaii didn't have a ton of resorts built up.  With all the rivers and streams, at times it looked like Montana.   It was actually nice to be in a place that hasn't yet been overbuilt or doesn't have long lines for everything you want to see.   That may be changing though with the growth in tourism. 

The People
I've traveled a lot and you have different experiences, different impressions of each country or even city within a country. After coming back from Budapest several years ago, I told people it was liking going to grandma's house for dinner.   Everywhere you went, people wanted to feed you and the food was always warm, good comfort food.   Iceland is similar, but given the average age of its residents is only 37, I can't quite say it's like going to grandma's house.   But it is just as warm and inviting.   The people are incredibly friendly and inviting.   Always ready to listen and help out, always ready to tell a great story about their country.  

While it is fairly cheap to fly to Iceland, these days you can get flights for a few hundred bucks from NY and LA (book early though to get those kind of rates) once you arrive, everything is very expensive.   I don't think I had meal that was less than $20 US dollars, and that was for a sandwich and chips bought at a market, similar to Duane Read for you New Yorkers.   There are several larger hotels, like the Hilton Nordica and  the Foss Hotel Reykjavik, but none are truly luxury hotels, despite the luxury prices.   

It may not be for everyone, especially if you're a Four Seasons/Ritz Carlton kind of traveler, but for the adventure traveler or nature lover, The Traveling Hillbilly highly recommends a visit to this magical country and maybe sooner rather than later before it changes too much.

The Northern Lights....Robbed Once Again

A lot of you know the Traveling Hillbilly spent the holidays in Finland a few years ago with friends.  We went in the hopes of seeing the increasingly elusive phenomenon known as the Northern Lights.   After nothing but cloudy days in Finland, we never saw them, not once.  Heading to Iceland, I was excited about this second chance!   Maybe this time I would finally get to see them. 

My first day in Iceland started out as very promising.  It was a bright sunny day, despite the forecast I'd read before I arrived predicting nothing but rain for my entire stay.  And the northern lights forecast was pretty high.  They were actually expected to be pretty active all week.   However, by the late afternoon, the rain would start and as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, the chance for the northern lights dimmed as well.   The chance to see them continued to decline each day, despite some sunny, clear mornings, each afternoon the clouds rolled in and the rain started once again, distinguishing my hopes of seeing this natural wonder.  

It was my last night and last chance to see them before I had to leave.  It had pretty much been raining all day, but I went ahead and booked my spot on a boat that was scheduled to leave at 10p in search of finding the northern lights.  Unfortunately I got the email about 6pm, that due to weather conditions, the search for the northern lights was canceled.    They've proved  elusive once again!

Maybe one day, I'll be in the right place at the right time and see for myself if they're truly real!

FInally tried the local speciality - Meat Soup

It was yet another cold rainy day and a bowl of soup was just what the Traveling Hillbilly needed.  Now I’m not a big soup eater, but it is the local specialty so I decided it was time to try the meat soup I’d been hearing so much about.  I headed back to Laugavegur to this little steakhouse I’d passed by the other day.   What better place to try meat soup than a steakhouse?  

It was a small little restaurant just downstairs off the street, called Gamla Vinhusid Steakhouse.    I was glad to discover it was actually open since it was past lunch time and too early yet for dinner.    The placed looked exactly what I had expected, small, cozy and warm.    There were only a couple of other diners there besides me.   The waiter/bartender was a friendly gent.  I ordered the meat soup, some cheesy garlic bread and an ice cold beer from the tap.    And a warm apple cake for dessert.

Basically the meat soup is like a vegetable stew, made with lamb meat.    Perfect food for cold wet weather.  I can see why it’s so popular, especially washed down with a good beer.   Then it was time for the dessert.   The warm apple cake, looked delicious, it had little chunks of caramelized apples in the center and came with a scoop of ice cream and whip cream on the side, both drizzled with caramel.   The cake was a little overcooked but was still pretty good.  The ice cream however was magnificent.   I’m not sure what it was, maybe the overall experience, but it was probably the best ice cream I’ve had.  I don’t know this for sure, but given how healthy they seem to be in Iceland, I bet it was made from all natural ingredients.   I had bought more than one food item at the grocery mart that I actually knew what all the ingredients were, things like flour, sugar, vanilla.      All in all, a great way to end the meal.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Walking Behind a Waterfall

On the way back from Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, possibly the most famous waterfall in Iceland.  While waterfalls are in abundance in Iceland, what makes this one unique is that you can actually walk behind it!  There is a little cave behind it where you can stand and listen to the power that is Seljalandsfoss.   I warn you, the walk is a little treacherous.   While there are some stairs that lead up to the waterfall, once you get about midway up, the stairs stop and you have to walk along the ridge of the cave.  Getting around to the other side is even more of an adventure.  It's nothing but wet, slipper rocks that you have to climb up and over.  This would be a small challenge during the day but we were doing it at night!   I have to admit, the Traveling Hillbilly was a little nervous.  At first, I didn't even want to go all the way around, I was just going to turn back and go back the same way I came.  But a few others wanted to go too, so we decided there was safety in numbers and went for it.   I was about halfway up the rocks, when I realized two of our party had turned back around once they saw all the rocks.   Unfortunately, I didn't get a great picture for you since it was so dark, but here's a shot starting to walk behind and then one  taken from directly behind it.

Starting to Believe in Trolls

Today the Traveling Hillbilly went to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.    Wow, magical, exceptionally cool.    It really is other worldly.  It felt like stepping into a movie set and I believe a few movies have actually filmed here, including a couple of James Bond movies.   Now I have to admit, I have not seen a bunch of glaciers in my day, so maybe they are all this magnificent.   Don't
get me wrong, these are not huge glaciers by any means.  I'm sure in other places in the world glaciers are much more grand and significant in size.  But what make these so unique, is we are not in freezing temperatures and the area all around the lagoon is green, it's not all covered in snow and ice.  It's like a black beach you'd see in Hawaii, but with glaciers in the water.   It just doesn't seem really.   Oh and there are smaller pieces/chunks of ice that wash up on to the black shore. Some of the glaciers look like blocks of ice, but most of them look like art.  It's like an art display built into the water.  The blue color, contrasting with the lava ash color creates beautiful works of art.

Wet, Wet, Soaking Wet on the Amphibious Boat

Once we got to the #Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, we had a few minutes to walk around the black sandy beach before our boat tour that would let us get up close and personal with the glaciers.   While it was drizzling when we arrived, the rain suddenly started to come down harder and the wind picked up.   Suddenly we were all wet and cold as we waited on the "dock.".  But there really was no dock, we were waiting on the side of a hill.  Then I saw the "boat" we would be getting in to.  It's one of those boats that can go from land to sea.  It had huge tires that allow it to drive on the land and then it just floats into the sea.
Of course we had to sit down before the boat could drive into the water, so now we were all really wet.  And with the wind, the waters were a little rough and more than once, water splashed into the boat, drenching several of us.  So while we were already cold, we were now wet and cold for the long drive back to Reykjavik.   Despite this, the Traveling Hillbilly would totally recommend this trip.  It was still worth it. But be prepared, it's a long day.   For more info check out... They are one of the companies that offer a tour to this area.  There are several others.  Or you can do the tour, without the boat ride and it's a little cheaper.

Now my next post, will be on the lagoon itself.

Mountains, Lava Fields and Glaciers - WOW

It started out as a beautiful morning with clear blue skies but you could see the dark clouds forming on the horizon.  We are off to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.  This is one thing the Traveling Hillbilly wanted to be sure to see on this trip.   I had read about the "diamond beach" and seen pictures of the chunks of glacier that roll up on the shore.  I just had to see it for myself.    But more about that later.

The drive itself was an experience.   The rain started and a mist formed over the tops of the mountains, giving it an eerie kind of look.   It kind of reminded me of Hawaii and had a Jurassic Park kind of feel.   Then we passed a few snow covered peaks.   I was expecting a drastic change in scenery as we got closer to the glacial lagoon and while we had beautiful scenery, it was not what I was expecting.  While there were a some snow covered peaks, for the most part it was green mountains, lots of rivers and an abundance of waterfalls.    Almost every farm we passed, had it's own waterfall right in the backyard.   How nice would that be, to have a waterfall in your backyard.  But the reason is more practical.  When these farms were originally established, they were based near a water source. 

We also passed through lava fields and even the volcano that erupted here a few years ago, stopping all European air traffic for a few days.  I'm sure many of you remember that.
We stopped at the stunning #Skogafoss on the way and while it's not as grand as the Gullfoss, it was still a beautiful sight to see.
I'll let you judge for yourself.


Monday, September 19, 2016

The Famous Blue Lagoon

So after a great night's sleep,  I finally crawled out of bed and decided to head to the Blue Lagoon.  Since I'm staying at the Silica Hotel my entrance fee to the Blue Lagoon is included.   I get my voucher from the from desk and walk over. The walk itself is an adventure. It's less than a 10 minute walk and you are basically walking thru a lava field.

Finally Time to Relax

After an amazing day, full of incredible sights, it was time to head to the hotel.   After being up for more than 36 hours straight, I was ready to settle in to a nice comfortable bed.  I had booked a room at the Silica hotel for 2 nights.  The Silica is located next to the famous Blue Lagoon, where people come to relax in the ice blue geothermal seawater.  Given the blue lagoon happened to be closed on the 18th, the day of my arrival, there were NO buses running there for the day.  They usually run from Reykjavik and back every hour.  So I had to take a taxi, which was extremely expensive, despite it only be about 30-40 minutes away! 

I got to the hotel, checked in, dropped my luggage in my room, put on my bathing suit and immediately headed to their private lagoon for a nice warm soak before curling up in bed.

The Golden Circle Tour- Part 1

The first stop, Frioheimar greenhouse, were they use the warm geothermal waters to grow completely organic tomatoes.  I'm not a huge tomato fan.  I do like them, but with something, not by themselves.  But these were really good.  They serve tomato soup and apparently their bloody mary is on the list of Top 10 things to do in Iceland.   I did not try the bloody mary, but I did order a Good Mary, which is made with green tomatoes, ginger, sparkling water and lime.    It was delicious!

Then it was on to see Gullfoss waterfall.  The Traveling Hillbilly has seen quite a few waterfalls, including Niagra Falls but they never cease to amaze.    They are a reminder as to the true force of nature.



The Golden Circle tour - Part 2

The third stop was the Geysir geothermal area, home of the famous Strokkur geyser that shoots up almost 100 feet in the air every 4-7 minutes.   It's an interesting site to see the steam rising in pockets everywhere, then there is the amazing orange clay, contrasted agains beautiful greenery.    A very interesting site to see.  The water is beyond the boiling point, so too hot to touch!  Luckily there is the Blue Lagoon area, in Grindavik for some nice warm water soaking.  But more about the Blue Lagoon later.

Geysir geothermal area

Don't touch the water!

The famous Strokkur geyser

The final stop was the Thingvellir National Park.   But it deserves it's own posting.

Thingvellir National Park

This place is a must see while in Iceland.  Added to the World Heritage List in 2004, it is one of the most visited tourist sites in Iceland.  And for good reason, it's simply stunning.   As someone who loves landscapes, I could have spent all day here.   It is the most beautiful place the Traveling Hillbilly has seen since Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.    A lot of folks go here because it is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart (almost an inch a year) and they want to see the Almannagja,the biggest crack.  Or you can also go diving in the area, which I can't speak to, but as clear as the waters are, I'm sure it's amazing.

I loved it because of the amazing scenery and beautiful views.  I'll let the pictures speak for me.



Day One in Iceland

I guess I wasn't really paying attention to details so it was just an hour before I was heading to LAX that I realized my flight to Iceland was landing at 4am, not 4pm!   So my plan to land and head straight to the hotel for a nice dinner and a good nights sleep had to change.   I took an a bus to the main bus terminal in Reykjavik in the hopes of finding a half day tour or something to do before heading to Grindavik for my stay the Silica Hotel at the Blue Lagoon.  So just hours after landing at KEF, I was experiencing some of the most beautiful and unique landscapes I've ever seen.

I bought a ticket for the 7am Golden Circle tour from Reykjavik Excursions.  They also have a 9am tour, but there was no need for me to wait until 9.    The tour included visits to some of the main wonders in the area, including the Gullfoss waterfall, a geothermal area and the Thingvellir National Park..