There & That

Advice for world travelers.

ICELAND

May 25 - June 3, 2015

We went to Iceland on our honeymoon, and Martha Stewart led us there. I've never taken Martha's advice, with this one exception. When we were planning for our wedding, I went - very briefly and very intensely - down the "bride magazine" rabbit hole. I'd never been a bride before, so that whole section of wedding magazines at the bookstore was sort of like a blind spot to me. But then I got engaged! And, as if in a fever dream, I found myself spending $60 on an armful of expensive wedding ideas bound in glossy paper. One of the magazines I bought was "Martha Stewart Weddings" and I as I flipped through the pages, eyes widening with fear, I stumbled across one page called "Alternative Honeymoons", and in the far right corner was a small photo and the suggestion of ICELAND. 

Jack and I had been hemming and hawing about where to go for awhile. Hawaii? Felt cliche. Europe? We wanted somewhere we'd never been. Australia? Too expensive and too far. It was like Martha KNEW we needed her steady guidance. I'll never forget sitting crosslegged on the bench in our dining room and saying to Jack, "Okay, so I know this is from a wedding magazine AND it is Martha Stewart, but listen to this...". By the time I finished the paragraph and shown Jack the photo, we had decided. 

Booting up before hiking in Þórsmörk (and having a love affair with that rental car). 

PRACTICALITIES

You MUST GO TO ICELAND. It is like being on another planet. It's Lord of the Rings meets Bjork meets Europe meets adventure. By the end of the trip we were like, "Look, there's ANOTHER beautiful waterfall, UGH." 

It was still a little chilly when we were there, and from what I understand t it isn't ever HOT there, but it does get warmest in July/August - see my packing list below for further advice. We didn't do a group tour (I don't think it is necessary) but as you'll see we did a few guided day-trips/excursions, which is highly recommended because you should not walk around on a glacier without a guide. Tourism is Iceland's number one industry, so all of the services were very good, of high value and unique. 

We rented a car from the airport (an awesome red Jeep) and, rather than doing the whole island (doing the "Ring Road"), we decided to keep ourselves to just the south - we drove east as far as Skaftafell and then worked our way back, ending in Reykjavik before flying home. Depending on how much time you want or don't want to be in the car, you can plan your route.

GO THERE, DO THAT

  The very first photo taken of us, at the Blue Lagoon - we had been married for about 72 hours. 

The very first photo taken of us, at the Blue Lagoon - we had been married for about 72 hours. 

1. Lean in to tourism and go to the Blue Lagoon
We all want to be cool, hip travelers above "tourist traps" but you will kick yourself if you don't go to the Blue Lagoon. It is right by the airport, so swing by before you head off on your adventure.

The Blue Lagoon is an amazing hot spring, and a perfect introduction (or, if you go right before you leave, a kiss goodbye) to the Icelandic experience. If you can, go early in the day - we were there by 10AM and when we left at noon, the place was packed. You need reservations and I suggest watching the "how to" video on their website, it was helpful to know how to navigate the Lagoon before we arrived (I cannot believe I had time to watch their website videos while I was planning my wedding - props to 2015 me). You'll need a swimsuit but otherwise are provided with towels and robe. Take their/my advice and slather conditioner all over your hair (and put it up on the top of your head if you have long hair) - the water does something to your hair and you'll spend the rest of your day trying to detangle it if you don't condition liberally. You can skip the restaurant - we had yummy lunch there but our positive experience didn't hinge on that meal. 

  IT WAS VERY BRIGHT IN ICELAND. 

IT WAS VERY BRIGHT IN ICELAND. 

2. Walk the Black Beach of Vik and stay at the Gardnar Cottages.
The Black Beach is truly lovely - the site of famous and much Instagramed rock formations and, obvs, the titular black-pebbled beach. Jack and I walked around for about two hours, dazed by the 360 degree views. There isn't a LOT to do in Vik, but our accommodations at the Gardnar Cottages were our favorite during the entire trip. The Cottages are steps from the Black Beach, right next to the water and are surrounded by sheep (so.many.sheep.in.Iceland).

When we arrived, we were met by the proprietor, Ragnar (I know) and we had this intensely wonderful moment when he showed us around the cabin and then stood on the deck of the cottage. He, in his thick Icelandic accent, while he looked wistfully out at the water, said, "You are on honeymoon. So you have honeymoon rate. It is very beautiful here." We were like "Yes it is Ragnar...yes it is." It was so intimate and kind - we immediately created a whole narrative for Ragnar's simple and lovely life as a sheep farmer with his little cottages. STAY THERE AND REPORT BACK TO US ON HOW HE IS DOING. In Vik there aren't a ton of places to eat, but Halldorskaffi was cozy and they have beer!

  Outside our Vik cottage - still the best picture taken of me anywhere, ever. 

Outside our Vik cottage - still the best picture taken of me anywhere, ever. 

Af góðu upphafi vonast góður endir (a good beginning makes a good ending).
— Icelandic proverb

3. Do a glacier walk with Iceland Mountain Guides. 
Not digging a pair of crampons into an Icelandic glacier is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Towel. Driving from Vik, we went to the Skaftafell National Park to hike the glacier Svínafellsjökull.  We were in a group of about 10 and the glacier - as seen in Interstellar - was just challenging enough (there were some tween kids with us and they had no issue). After the glacier hike, on our own we hiked through the park to the Svartifoss ("Black Falls") waterfall. Absolutely wear a good pair of hiking boots (see packing below), layer, layer, layer, and bring some snacks. There was a food truck with way overpriced but tasty fish and chips, but I got the sense that they probably pack up and drive away once they run out of food. 

  Jack on the glacier Svínafellsjökull. Manly. 

Jack on the glacier Svínafellsjökull. Manly. 

4. Search for a hidden waterfall in Porsmok.
From Vik, we then traveled back west, stopping in Porsmok (pronounced Thorsmork because Thor!) and did some hiking (really more of a walk, but over some tricky rocks and little brooks). We had heard that there was a hidden waterfall, so we drove in and took our chances. We found the waterfall but truly I have no idea how to tell you where it is. My advice: go there and take your chances - find a spot that looks promising, park your car and go for a little adventure. You might find a different, but equally magically, hidden waterfall yourself. Check the roads - if things are all melted the rivers rise and you can't drive in. 

Me, suddenly understanding ALL those Bjork lyrics. 

  PROBE THE CROSSING. 

PROBE THE CROSSING. 

I love hiking in Iceland most, there are lots of brilliant paths.
— Bjork, 2012

5. Stay in the middle of nowhere, and then hop on a horse at the Ion Adventure Hotel.
The Ion Hotel is a bit of a swanky spot, but if you, like us, are celebrating something like getting freaking married, it is a great option to treat yourself.

The hotel is truly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lava fields - barren in the most beautiful way. The hotel has a terrific bar with a stunning view, the excellent Silfra Restaurant (where we ate baby lamb that made me swoon because it was so good, but cry because it was baby lamb) and a well positioned outdoor pool.

You can easily go there, bring a good book and relax, but the best part about Ion Adventure is the "adventure" part - the hotel offers a number of daily excursions that start from the hotel: hiking, snorkeling, helicopter rides, etc. We chose a full day horseback ride and that day was one of the best of our lives, without a doubt. The ride was the better part of a day and it was just me, Jack and our wonderful guide.

We were driven to the horse farm, carefully assigned horses and then headed out - up mountains, down mountains and eventually to natural hot springs, where Jack and I shimmied out of our clothes and into our suits (being bare ass in the middle of a hot spring valley in Iceland a memory for the record books). Lounging in the warm water, with our horses feet away from us, was heaven. A simple lunch was provided and we journeyed on. There were serious moments of wind and cold (bring gloves/take some of theirs - they had a bin full) and there were times when I was genuinely scared (we were on a legit mountain). But I remember our guide saying to me, "Listen, the horse doesn't want to die. It doesn't really care about you, but it *does* care about itself. You'll be okay."

On the return of our journey, our guide taught us how to trot and then gallop with our horses. I'm NOT a horse rider - I think the last time I was on a horse I was about ten years old and terrified - but these Icelandic ponies are so kind and gentle, I cried a little when I had to say goodbye to mine. After our ride we were invited into the horse farm proprietor's home, where we ate amazing homemade tomato soup with cheese and bread. We slept like babies that night. 

  My lovely, brave and loyal horse. 

My lovely, brave and loyal horse. 

  Steamy hot springs and mud pots along our epic horse hike. 

Steamy hot springs and mud pots along our epic horse hike. 

6. Eat well in Reykjavik.
We saved Reykjavik for last, and it was a lovely spot to come down from all the nature and remember, "oh yeah! We are in Europe!" Reykjavik is a wonderful place to wander, do a little shopping and eat great food. My top breakfast recommendation is Reykjavik Roasters, home of the BEST croissant I've ever had in my life. Bonus: all the people that work there are beautiful - *lots* of man buns. Grab a lunch hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which is the top-touristy dog (and really good). Bill Clinton ate here! Get a dog and a Coke and sit in the sun if it is shining. For dinner, head to Matur og drykkur for dinner, where everything was delicious and fresh.

The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes.
— Stephen Markley, 2013

7. Allow yourself to pull over and explore. 
The best part about Iceland is that, assuming you don't have a really aggressive schedule, you can and should take the time to pull over when you see a waterfall or a cairn field, or stop at one of the many gas stations and get a Icelandic hotdog with all the fixins (they are good, I promise). Iceland, though active, was probably one of our most relaxing trips. Allow yourself to relax too. 

  The ubiquitous Icelandic hotdog.

The ubiquitous Icelandic hotdog.

  Reykjavik Roasters: cheese, butter, jam, croissants and man buns. 

Reykjavik Roasters: cheese, butter, jam, croissants and man buns. 

8. Yeah, go to Gullfoss and Geysir.
It's touristy, and ultimately we thought Geysir was a little meh (it's water that shoots up from the ground, which is spectacular but you spend a good chunk of time standing around like a bunch of jerks, waiting for it to do its thing) but Gullfoss? Gullfoss don't play. The shear force of nature of this waterfall will astound you and it is absolutely one of Iceland's top sights.

PACKING

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  1. Layers, layers. You can never go wrong with layers, and in Iceland they are probably more critical than ever. We went from chilly mornings to warm mountain tops, and shed or added layers as required. There are a number of Icewear shops around the country, so if you realize you've forgotten something, you can pick it up there (for a price). I was especially thankful for my thermal shirt and thermal pants (both mens styles that I found on the clearance rack at an outdoor shop and have served me well). 
     
  2. A swimsuit, maybe two. Blue Lagoon, hot tubs, saunas. Icelanders are really into a good soak. 
     
  3. I do love a crisp white shirt, and I literally have four of this version from Madewell. Substantial fabric, perfect length and a crisp collar make this shirt look smart with jeans or under a sweater, and can even be dressed up in a pinch. 
     
  4. A good pair of jeans. You won't want to wear these hiking, but they are totally appropriate for most meals and absolutely were the uniform for Reykjavik.
     
  5. Hiking boots. I ADORE the Lowa Renegade and wore them everyday outside of Reykjavík. I actually broke them in in Iceland and had zero problems. Consider investing in these boots - I've had them for over two years and miles of hikes and they are still perfection. 
     
  6. Moisturizer. The air was fantastic, so take advantage of the clean breeze and hot spring exfoliating and moisturize liberally. Bonus, make sure it has an SPF, especially if you plan on doing a lot of outdoor excursions. 
     
  7. Big thick wooly socks and a warm hat. Depending on the time of year you travel, bring more warm gear or less (I'm always cold, so I used all of my cold weather gear). 
     
  8. Waterproof hiking pants. I *never* thought I'd own a pair of those ugly convertible hiking pants, but I truly ended up wearing mine almost every day over the thermal pants or my jeans. When you go to Gullfoss and get soaked with waterfall spray, you do NOT want to be shuffling back to your car with wet denim.
     
  9. Sunnies. Please see the above squinting photo for reference. 
     
  10.  A warmer coat. This Helly Hansen has served me well when traveling to locations that will be deeply chilly but not frigid. 
     
  11. SWEATERS cause it's SWEATER WEATHER EVERYDAY!
     
  12. A puffy vest - again, layers. Also these usually can get smooshed into your suitcase without taking much space. 
     
  13. Yeah, bring some gloves. I bought these gloves at the Blue Lagoon's gift shop because I realized my hands were going to be freezing if I didn't cover them. They were great: warm but still thin enough that I could grip on to rocks on some of our hikes.
     
  14. Sneaks. Good hiking boots are crucial, but when you aren't hiking and tromping, you want some comfortable kicks. These are appropriate for walking around the city too. 
  A roadside cairn field - WHO MADE THESE CAIRNS?! 

A roadside cairn field - WHO MADE THESE CAIRNS?!