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Geysir, Golden Circle, Gulfoss, Iceland, Reykjavik, Travel

The (Frozen) Golden Circle & Our Return to Reykjavik

Gulfoss at sunrise

We wake early in Selfoss, forfeit a shower in order to make sunrise, make a quick cup of coffee and get on the road. We head towards Gulfoss, which is a 72 kilometer drive, and in good conditions should take us about an hour. The winds are still high, but after being very cautious for the first part of the drive, we realize the road conditions have improved dramatically. And for this, we are thankful.

We head to Gulfoss and arrive with plenty of extra time. We’re the only ones about, and when the sun slowly begins to creep up into the sky, showing little slivers of pink, we’re still the only ones about. The winds are just as fierce as yesterday, and they’re cutting through us. Add to this the fact that the winds are blowing a steady mist off the waterfalls and onto us and our camera lenses, and it seems like we’re fighting a losing battle. It’s a white, winter wonderland all around the falls, and the surrounding pathways are closed, seeing as they’ve frozen into sheets of ice.



We attempt a few shots, but decide that we may have better light and angles at Geysir, so we hop into the car and drive the 10 minutes down the road. I take this opportunity to dig my long johns out of my backpack and slip them on under my jeans. The temperature is hovering around 0°C, but it’s about -4° with the windchill. Despite the cold temps, Geysir is just beautiful, and we’re blessed with a golden sunrise as a backdrop to every eruption. However, today, we’re finding it more difficult to stand outside for long periods of time. My body isn’t that cold, but my hands actually hurt from holding my camera up waiting to capture the geysir’s eruption. I tell Bill to take his time, but I need to head back to the car. He agrees it’s too cold to stay out much longer, so we head over to the visitor’s center across the road and warm up with some soup.


Conditions on the drive back to Reykjavik

We decide to make one more trip back to Gulfoss to see if we have any luck with better conditions. We arrive to hoards of tour buses, but manage to get a spot to shoot overlooking the falls. The light is better, but there’s still a mist rising. However, now because we have brighter light now, a rainbow is forming and hanging over the middle of the falls. We’re not here long though, because today, it seems as if the cold has got in our bones and we just can’t shake it. We decide to call it a day and head to Reykjavik, where we will spend our last night.


Our Suzuki Swift

Reykjavik’s OK Hotel

It’s just over an hours drive to Reykjavik, but we take our time, seeing as the winds seem to be just a fierce as yesterday’s. And at times, the wind is whipping so much snow across the road, it’s like we’re driving through white out conditions. When we finally clear the worst of it, we’re about 30 minutes from downtown Reykjavik.
When we do arrive, we find a parking garage near the OK Hotel and make our way to check in. Instead of a normal hotel, we have rented a studio apartment for the night. It’s small and cozy, but the decor is trendy and unique, and we manage to get a sense of what it would be like to be a Reykjavik resident. I dive right under the duvet with my jacket and hat on and proceed to power nap for about 30 minutes. We have nothing on the agenda for the afternoon. Our only plans are to go out and treat ourselves to a nice dinner seeing as it’s our last night and we’ve had one sit down dinner so far this week.

Scallop App at Old Iceland Restaurant

Delicious Icelandic Lamb at Old Iceland Restaurant

We head out around 7pm and venture two doors down to the Old Iceland Restaurant. This place received awesome reviews on TripAdvisor, but what sealed the deal was how close it is to where we’re staying.

Considering alcohol is taxed at 26% in Iceland, we haven’t had a drink all week, so we decide since it’s our last night, we’ll split a bottle of wine with our meal. We indulge in scallop appetizers and Icelandic Lamb for dinner. It’s a treat from start to finish, and worth every bit of the $200 it costs us!

As I do at the end of any journey, I look back and wonder how these five days passed so quickly. This has been an epic journey, and Bill and I toast to our incredible adventures.  Despite being my second time here, I am still as awed by the natural beauty found here. It truly is unlike any other country I’ve visited. And even though we had fewer hours of daylight, some incredibly cold conditions, two near car crashes and a very very bad waterfall hiking experience, in my mind I’m already plotting as to when I can get back here for a third visit. There’s just something so special about this island country! Tak, Iceland!


Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland, Jon Gunnar Arnason, Kalfafellstadur, Reykjavik, Ring Road, Sjellandfoss, Travel, WOW Airlines

Ice Driving to Kalfafellstadur & When Not to Hike Behind a Waterfall


Frosty window panes


Our morning drive back to Reykjavik

I wake rested, with no signs of jet lag (thankfully), have a long overdue shower and pack up. Laura has brought breakfast over to our apartment – a spread of breads, jams, meats, cereal, yogurt, coffee and juice. It’s nice to not have to go outside just yet, seeing as the wind and rain have picked up again, and a frost has gathered on the outside window panes.

Over breakfast, we decide to head to the easternmost point on our itinerary, Jokulsarlon, and we will spend the rest of our time this week making our way back to Reykjavik. So, today, we have some driving to do. We decide to break the drive in Reykjavik, tour the city a bit and then head on.


Wild Icelandic horses



The weather forecast calls for 100% precipitation again today, and we leave Arnarstapi around 10:30 a.m. and begin a snowy drive to the capital city. The sunrise is taking its time and a beautiful scene unfolds. Fjords are glowing pink ahead – the early morning sunlight illuminating the snow that covers them. To our right are fields of wild horses. Needless to say, there are quite a few photo stops.

We arrive in Reykjavik around 1pm and find free street parking behind Hallgrimskirkja, which is a perfect place to begin our city tour.

Hallgrimskirkja is a Lutheran Church and one of the tallest structures in Iceland. Construction on the church began in 1945, but it would take over 40 years to complete it. It is truly one of the most unique structures I have ever seen. The outside columns, which grow in height as they reach the main tower, remind me of the basalt rock formations found around many of Iceland’s waterfalls, and the inside is starkly beautiful, just like Iceland itself. It’s simple and puritan in style, but still stunning.


The view from Hallgrímskirkja’s tower

We take the lift up 240 feet to the top of the tower for panoramic views of Reykjavik. Clouds are parting, providing us with perfect afternoon light.


Jon Gunnar Arnason’s ‘Sun Voyager’

From here, we walk down the main street, grabbing a hot chocolate to go from one of the many cafes, and head to the harbor area. The Sun Voyager, a stainless steel structure, resembling a viking ship, sits on Reykjavik’s waterfront. Constructed by Jon Gunnar Arnason in 1990, he calls it an ‘ode to the sun.’ On a plaque nearby, he offers his own interpretation of the structure: “We all have our fantasy boats, vessels that we dream of sailing away in, into the dream. In my ships, I unite my own fantasy, precision and the knowledge that boat builders have developed throughout the ages. The sun ship gives us a promise of a primeval land.”


Harpa, Reykjavik’s Fine Art’s Center


Goofing off at Harpa

From here, we walk along the waterfront to Harpa, Reykjavik’s fine art center. This beautiful structure looks like a combination of various colored panes of glass – highlights of green, blue and purple catch my eye, depending on how the light is hitting the building. The inside is even more interesting, and we spend about 30 minutes taking pictures (and thawing out).

Time is marching on though, and we’re aware of a long drive to Jokulsarlon, so we decide to head back to the car and begin the journey. We pick up S1 – Iceland’s ring road, and immediately notice that conditions have worsened throughout the day. A strip of ice lines the middle of our lane, and our tires are positioned either side of it. At any time we ascend, the conditions worsen, and at one point while trying to change lanes, we hit ice and skid out. Bill is driving and fortunately rights the car and we continue on…. very carefully!



Conditions improve briefly and just outside of Hella, we see a waterfall lit up in the distance. As we get closer, we learn that this is Sjellandsfoss, the waterfall I’ve been wanting to photograph since my last visit here four years ago. The neat thing is, you can actually hike behind the falls and photograph from a completely unique viewpoint. We decide to pull off and do some night shooting, and we’re getting some pretty good shots, but we debate hiking up behind the falls. Another guy has just returned and told us the spray isn’t too bad, despite the high winds, so we decide to give it a try.

Moments before we reach the first set of stairs, we realize this is a terrible mistake! It’s as if someone is standing in front of us with a hose, spraying us down. Half way up, and we are drenched, but we keep going hoping to clear the spray. The path has turned muddy now and I look up to see Bill turning around, his camera tripod coming inches from my face as he does.


Evidence of a waterfall hike fail

As we make a quick descent, I realize that the tops of my legs are burning from the cold. We hightail it to the car and see two public restrooms in the parking lot. We grab our backpacks, pray that the bathrooms are open and head in to change into dry clothes, hoping that our jackets and boots will dry overnight. We get back in the car and check our gear. Not surprising, my camera is acting up from the cold and damp. I try not to think about this as we drive the last three hours to Kalfafellstadur. Conditions have improved, but only slightly, and Bill has a death grip on the wheel.

We arrive at Kalfafellstadur B&B by 11pm, and Thora has waited up to greet us. She shows us to our room downstairs, which she says is warmer and asks when we’d like breakfast. We settle in and hang our wet clothes over the radiator and read the note she has left in the room. It advises us to sleep like Icelanders, with the radiator off and the windows cracked, to prevent them from “crying.” We leave the radiator on in hopes our clothes will dry, but we crack the window and crawl into bed. Despite the long day, we’re wired from the drive and excited for sunrise at Jokulsarlon… sleep feels a long ways away.


Geysir, Gulfoss, Iceland, Pingvellir, Reykjavik, Ring Road

Day 1 – The Golden Circle

Both needing more sleep, Carolyn and I sluggishly pack up and check out of the hostel in Reykjavik, not before chugging two cups of coffee each. We walk across the street to ProCar, and within a matter of 10 minutes, we are proud renters of a silver Nissan Mica compact car. It will serve as our wheels for the next four days as we circle Iceland’s ring road, Route 1.

A small church on the outskirts of Reykjavik
We head in the direction of the Golden Circle, which is made up of three main sights, Pingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir and Gulfoss. We head first to Pingvellir, driving next to ThingvallavatnIceland’s largest lake, 83 square kilometers!
We arrive at the park and hike up to a waterfall before standing in the place where according to history, parliament was first formed. This is the site where Iceland was declared to be a free republic in 1944, and where their Independence Day is still celebrated today. This is one of the most historically important places in the country. We are also starting to get a sense of why they say Iceland is “a place of lonely beauty.” We seem to be in the middle of nowhere.
Pingvellir National Park


Only 30 minutes away, after driving through remote farmlands, fields of horses and rolling hills, we come to the small village of Geysir. The “village” is actually a gift shop and restaurant, and to the left is a small looped walking trail around three geysers. The most active is “Strokkur,” which erupts with force every 5 minutes or so, shooting water and steam 30 meters up into the sky.  

From Geysir, it’s literally a stones throw to Gulfoss, one of Iceland’s most well-known waterfalls. I was expecting something tall and beautiful, but the roar of water was audible from the parking lot.

Gulfoss is considered to be Iceland’s Niagra Falls, and as we approach, I understood why. We stand in awe as we watch water descend first from an upper terrace of fall to a lower section before crashing into a riverbed below with such unbelievable force. The mist rising from the falls keeps creating a small rainbow above us.

End of day rainbows over Gulfoss

From Gulfoss, we don’t have much daylight left, so we begin our drive to Vik, where we are spending the night. The skies are clear the entire drive and we hope for a chance to see the northern lights, but as we get closer to the seaside town of Vik, the rain clouds are impending and slowly those chances dwindle away.

We check into a cozy hostel, Nordur Vik, and make plans to meet Doruk and Cha in town for dinner, as they are driving back from their trip to the glacial lagoon. We decide to meet at Cafe Puffin… I just hope there is more to the menu than the name implies…

Blue Lagoon, Iceland, Reykjavik

The Blue Lagoon and Runtur in Reykjavik

My friend Carolyn arrived this morning and we met up at REX hostel. She was in the same condition as I was the morning prior, so she went for a quick catnap to recharge for the day. The day had dawned wet and windy, but our plans consisted of a trip to Iceland’s iconic Blue Lagoon so we weren’t overly concerned with getting wet.

At 12:30, we board a bus from the hostel to The Blue Lagoon and arrive around 30 minutes later to a first-class facility. We check in, hire towels, and scope out the surrounding facilities- gift shop, restaurant, cafe and viewing platforms. We receive bracelets with a chip that activates the locker system and allow us to purchase anything on premise. All we need to do is stash our belongings and scrub down…The Blue Lagoon awaits.

In the locker room, the attendants are running a pretty tight ship, specifically making sure things are kept clean. Shoes come off and can go nowhere near showers, showers need to be taken prior to entering the lagoon, and you have to shower sans bathing suit. There is an attendant making sure you comply. We are also told again and again to make sure we condition our hair prior and leave some in, so the chemicals in the lagoon don’t wreak havoc on our dreads. (Thank you!)

We exit through large glass doors to an otherwordly sight. The wind is whipping and the rain is still falling, but the blue-green lagoon sprawls out in front of us like a giant hot tub, bubbling away. A mist hovers on top of the water, hiding bathers in the distance. We climb in and search for the hot pockets, extra warm areas which you luckily discover now and again. We rub silica on our faces, chat with Icelandic locals and tourists alike, and purchase a glass of bubbly at the swim-up-cafe. Any remnants of jet lag leave my body.

A few hours later we are looking and feeling more like prunes than humans, and the wind is picking up, spraying sulphuric water in our faces. Put it this way, it’s a little less relaxing than when we had arrived, so we ask some friendly fellow bathers to snap a photo of us, and decide it’s time to dry off and head back to Reykjavik.

The bus is leaving at 4:30, so we have plenty of time…or so I thought. After inquiring, we realize the bus actually left at 4. So we head to the cafe for a snack and run into our friends from the lagoon, Doruk and Cha, who kindly offer to give us a lift back to the city. They drop us back at REX and we make plans to head to dinner with them a few hours later. They want to try authentic Icelandic food. I can’t help but think, “been there, done that,” but remind myself to maybe not get so adventurous tonight.

We meet up with the guys and walk through the city center. It’s Saturday night and things are slowly starting to show signs of life. We end up at Einar Ben, one of Iceland’s award-winning restaurants that sits on what feels like the second floor of someones home. Having dinner there was more like dining in a formal living room than a restaurant.

After browsing the menu, we are all feeling a bit lost. We confirm our hunch that Blue Ling is indeed a white fish and we order four. We think we’re playing it safe, but I’m not sure I would have ordered the fish if I knew it looks like this. However, dinner is amazing – one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. We are refueled and ready to tackle Reykjavik’s nightlife head on.

When we leave Einar Ben, Reykjavik has turned from a sleepy daytime city to a bustling nighttime hot spot. It’s 11:00 and people are everywhere. (I’m not sure where they all hide out during the day!)

They are all partaking in what Iceland calls, Runtur, or “round tour.” Apparently, the Icelandic people behave all week and let loose on the weekends. To say they let loose might be an understatement, Binge drinking, blacking out, falling over, and peeing in the street – all of this is acceptable, as long as it occurs between the hours of 11pm and 4am on Friday and Saturday nights.

We begin our runtur at a local pub with great live music. We sample the local brew on draught, Viking, and a bottled pale ale called Einstock – which could possibly convert me to a beer drinker (or maybe I just like the viking on the bottle.) We love this pub, but it wouldn’t be a round tour if we stay in one place all night, so we head to the next place on the list, Kaffibarrin. A London tube sign sits above the door, and I immediately feel at home. When we enter, it’s like we’ve entered someone’s winter lodge. It’s cozy and dim-lit, warm and festive…and PACKED. Come to find out, this bar is owned by the lead singer of the band Blur and the local clientele consists mostly of Icelandic movie stars. Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone I recognize.

We cozy up to the bar and sample shots of Brennevin, Iceland’s infamous liquor, which tastes like a less harsh version of vodka with a hint of caraway. We finally head home around 3:30, but it seems that many are just finding their groove. People are still lining up to get into bars, and this will continue into the later hours of the morning, but we have a rental car to pick up this morning, so we play the responsible card and head back to REX for a few hours of shut eye.

Iceland, Reykjavik

Iceland – The Beginning

Iceland – the land of Bjork and Sigur Ros, Puffins and Minke whales, never-ending sunlight in the summers, and only 2 hours of light total in the dead of winter. Many people asked me “Why go to Iceland?” I thought, why not?? An island that sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, directly between New York City and Moscow is bound to have a culture different to any I’ve experienced before, and one I hoped would posses parts that have remained untouched and unspoiled by western influence.

So, I order Lonely Planet Iceland and began planning. After looking up a few places online and checking out some photos, I am sold. I visit IcelandAirlines webiste and see very reasonably priced tickets from Boston and NYC to Reykjavik. Unfortunately, I wait too long to book my ticket and those fares go up, but as part of a “stopover promotion,” I manage to get an Economy Comfort ticket from NYC to Reykjavik and then a ticket onto London at the end of my stay in Iceland.

Ok- I have to spend a bit more than I want, but the ticket enables me use of the BA lounge at JFK and a seat in the first row behind First Class with extra leg room, an empty middle seat, a meal and free wine. Oh and did I mention I sit next to the lead guitarist from Anthrax, who I must say might be one of the nicest guys ever! I’d say the trip is off to a good start.

After a bite to eat and a few hours kip, I land in Reykjavik, a bit bleary-eyed and in need of more sleep. I take an airport express bus to town and arrive at REX hostel, the nicest and cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Unfortunately I can’t get into the room until 2, so I get my camera out and venture out to see Reykjavik.

First impressions- it’s 8am and the sun is just rising, but the city is clean, colorful and beautifully set, surrounded by snowcapped fjords in the background. The city is orderly too, typical of the surrounding Scandinavian countries. This makes it easy for me to get my bearings. I walk close to the harbor, passing a steel statue of a viking ship and then head into the center of the city to make my way to Hallgrimskirkja, one of Reykjavik’s most recognizable structures. Completed in 1984, this structure looks more like something out of Star Wars than a church, but the inside is plainly beautiful and an elevator up the tower affords panoramic views of all of Reykjavik. Thankfully, the unpredictable weather is on my side today. It’s a clear morning, but it IS cold, and the sun still hasn’t risen.

A few steps from the church, we stumble upon a sculpture garden. I find out that these bizarrely beautiful works of art were created by Einar Jonsson , and his work can be found randomly placed throughout downtown Reykjavik.

In need of a coffee, I head to Te & Kaffi, a chain of coffee shops throughout Reykjavik. The caffeine powers me through Reykjavik 871 +/- 2, a museum built on historic remains from 930 AD that were just discovered in 2001. I learn about the development of Iceland, from the Nordic settlers who farmed the land, to how Reykjavik became the capital it is today.

Then, I head to the National Gallery, which is a bit disappointing to say the least. Either the art is sub-par, or the caffeine is wearing off. Sadly, I think it’s the first. I head back to REX for a well-needed nap.

I wake up hungry and decide to venture out for something that has had me nervous since the idea of this trip came about… Food! From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure I’m going to be a fan of Iceland’s cuisine. Rumors of smelly fermented shark, herring and puffin have me sure I’m going to lose weight while here. But as a true believer in the fact that food is one of the most important parts of a country’s culture, I decide to throw caution to the wind and get adventurous. I head with a friend to The Icelandic Bar, a place we’re told serves  very “authentic” food “just like your mother would cook.” After stomaching the fact that meals on average are going to cost about $20, I look more closely at the menu choices. Minke whale and puffin soup, herring, fermented shark, reindeer burgers…it’s all there.

I settle on a sampler basket, which is full of various delicacies, some I know are safe and others I decide I should try while here. The basket consists of smoked salmon on a scone (safe), lamb terrine (pate = safe), mustard marinated herring (not sure), smoked lamb (not sure), fish jerky (really not sure) and fermented shark (totally not sure)

Fish jerky (left) and fermented shark (right)
Smoked salmon, smoked lamb, herring and lamb terrine.

The fact that the fish jerky and fermented shark come out in sealed jars leads me to believe that the rumors are true- these things are pungent. And after a quick whif, which causes a gag-like reaction, I’m not even sure I will be able to taste either of them. I seal the jars and venture back to the basket. I start with what I know I will like because I am indeed hungry. The smoked salmon is delicious and the lamb terrine with red onion and blackcurrant jam is a treat, a really nice combination of flavors. The herring is fishy, but is covered in enough mustard and mayonnaise that the taste is somewhat covered. It is indeed a meaty fish though. The smoked lamb is ok, but at this point in time, I am thankfully getting quite full.

I do have to try the two sealed delicacies. It wouldn’t be right not to. So I remove the lids again and try to convince myself that they may taste differently to how they smell. The fish jerky doesn’t smell that bad, but it doesn’t smell good either. On the other hand, the shark smells like the stinkiest brie cheese has been dipped in formaldehyde. I take my fork and tear off the tiniest of pieces… and I bite down into a gelatinous substance that does indeed taste as bad as it smells. It leaves an almost spicy aftertaste in my mouth. I decide I can not sample the fish jerky. My Icelandic food journey has finished. I wash down the last of my water, pay my bill and head to a local cafe for a hot chocolate. I need to get this taste out of my mouth.

The hot chocolate is delicious, maybe one of the best I’ve ever had, and slowly Iceland is redeeming itself in the food and beverage department. I decide to try not to be such a tough critic. I have plenty of other opportunities to sample some less eccentric dishes while here. And after all, the country is known for pizza and hot dogs, funnily enough. At least I know there is a solid backup plan in place. TBC…