Iceland, December 2013

When I'd tell someone that I was going to spend a week in Iceland, in the middle of December, people thought I was crazy. I was told that it would be cold and we'd get 4 hours of daylight each day. Regardless, my friend Michelle wanted to go there for her belated birthday and a bunch of us decided, why not? Finally plans were made and the ball got rolling, we had around a week to work with. I actually knew nothing about Iceland, other than an episode of Top Gear and an Icelandic collegue of mine from Carnegie Mellon, so I didn't know what to expect, other than it being cold and dark.

When it got to around the time to make the trip, I had already gotten a new coat, snow boots, and some long underwear. We made all of our arrangements and left for the airport. The other members of our party, a couple from Washington DC, Michelle, and Mark & Mel & Georgia, were all scheduled to arrive roughly the same time at Keflavik airport, where we had a driver waiting for us to take us to an airbnb apartment at the heart of downtown Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland. While at JFK, we had a couple of drinks at the Sammy Hagar bar, it was actually the first time I've been in this terminal. Unfortunately, it was kind of nasty outside so our flight was delayed a little. Soon enough, we were on the plane, but it took a really long time to get to the runway for take-off. The weather was atrocious. It was storm and snow the entire time. I managed to get this picture of the winglet amidst heavy turbulence. After about 5 hours or so, we were nearly there. We were supposed to be one of the first to arrive, but because of our delay, we ended up being the stragglers and the driver had to wait for us before taking us all to Reykjavik.

The Keflavik airport was pretty small, understandably since Iceland was a pretty small country, with a national population just north of 300 thousand. Upon landing, I get a text from Michelle to buy more alcohol, and Amy noted that it is much cheaper at the duty free stores at the airport than at the stores in town. So we stop at the duty free and pick up the maximum, 1 bottle of wine and 1 bottle of liquor, per person. When we meet-up with the rest of the group, it was time to bundle up and venture out into the cold. This was my first experience of Iceland. As the automatic doors open to the outside world, we're met with below freezing temperatures and horizontally blowing snow in heavy winds. It looked like those National Geographic specials about Antarctica or something. Best thing about it was Georgia taking it like a champ, she just turned 2 years old. The drive into Reykjavic was a little harrowing because of the heavy wind, as you can feel the van drift completely sideways, sliding on the ice and snow on the roads. But we finally get to our airbnb place in Reykjavic, which suddenly had very little wind at all (this sudden weather changing theme is reoccurring throughout the trip). The place we were staying was called "Maria's place", and it was pretty roomy for just 8 people. When we arrived in Iceland, it was like 5 in the morning local time, so there wasn't much to do besides have a couple of drinks and go to bed.

Since we got in so early, we weren't out of bed until close to dinner-time, which also meant we missed what little daylight there was on our first day. I peek outside to see a bustling Reykjavik, just outside our front door. I'm notified by Mel that they're at a place that was recommended to them for some food, and that sounded like a grand idea. The place was called "Boston Bar" and it was burgers/sandwiches, and beer. Georgia had a pretty good time. There was this icelandic boy, around her age, maybe a little older, that tried to give her candy. Really cute. After dinner, we walked by a whiskey bar that had the approval of Chuck Norris and also a "Lebowski" bar, that had a bowling theme and Jeff Bridges pictures everywhere. We ended up going there later in the evening but I had to call it an early night.

The second day, I got up early enough to actually see daylight, and I got a few snapshots of the area around Maria's place:

At one point, there were carolers outside, I got some video of it, but I have no idea how to post just the video here from G+. We walked around to take in the feel of Reykjavik and eventually ate dinner at a fish and chips place. It was average. I was told that Iceland's food (at restuarants) was on the expensive side and wasn't that good, and coming from New York City, I can kind of relate. The fish and chips place, which was pretty good, was pretty pricey for just fried fish and some fries. I took a few more pictures around the apartment in the evening: The nightlife of downtown Reykjavik was a little toned down, and later I was told that it was because it was exams week for the students, so I guess a lot of the clientelle was preoccupied.

The third day was going to be a big day. We rented a 4x4 and was going to make our way out of the city to see some of the sights. I'll go ahead and note that during the Top Gear episode involving Iceland, everything was green. So I assume that wasn't filmed in December because when we left the city, everything was snow and ice. The main highway (I think it was "Highway 1") took us out of town but we needed to hook north in order to head to Geysir. And the road quickly turned completely devoid of other drivers and was marked only by reflective yellow poles. Some random pictures of the landscape, the white desolate landscape: 1 ,2 ,3 ,4 ,5 ,6. When we got to Geysir, there was a little visitors area that had some food and a store. I don't know the reason or history behind this all, but it appeared the place also had a history of what appears to be wrestling. There was a wall of old photos, belts and medals, and also a pencil sketch. The actual geyser area was pretty crazy. You're surrounded by ice and snow and it's below freezing but there's spots in the landscape that has boiling pools of water. There was even a part of the sidewalk that had split open slightly and the crack had bubbling steam coming out of it. Here's some more pictures from Geysir: landscape, this pool has a name, picture of the visitor center, panorama of the area, another, Geyser going off. I have some video of the actual geysers and bubbly stuff but G+ won't let me post them. From Geysir, we got back in the car and drove South and headed toward the southern coast of Iceland where the sled dogs were. This time the road wasn't even paved. I don't have a lot of pictures of the actual sledding and the dogs, but Emily posted a bunch of them:

After that, we drove back to Reykjavik, but the roads were even more desolate than before. Eventhough we ere less than 30km from Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland, the roads looked like we were on the moon (here's a post with some video of the ride). That night I think we ate at some Thai restuarant. There were two things I remember being told that there were a lot of Thai people in Iceland (I guess more than other demographics), but it didn't make the food any better. The place was small and had good TripAdvisor reviews, but the food was pretty mediocre; again, kind of pricey for not that great of food.

The group split up the next morning, with half of us visiting the zoo and the other half venturing back out of town to see the waterfalls at Gullfoss and the Althing. I went with the group that went to the Laugardalur Park and the Reykjavik Zoo with a possible trip to one of the many naturally heated outdoor pools afterwards. The excursion started with eating one of the famous Icelandic hotdogs, which was a beef/pork/lamb mix with some sort of dried crispy things underneath and a sweet sauce. The Laugardalur area was pretty rural in comparison to where we were staying. The snow was coming down hard which made it so there was a layer of fresh snow on everything (some picture taking, another). The park also had a long strip of trees that looked pretty awesome facing the setting sun (and it's like 1 in the afternoon, another, more of the park). The zoo itself wasn't really much of a zoo at all. There were some ducks and geese, some horses, and some sea lions and farm livestock; not all that interesting. On our way to the pools, Georgia fell asleep so we decided to take the bus back to the apartment. There was some pretty funny signs at this bar near the apartment: Free Beer and Husband Daycare.

Meanwhile, the other group ventured back out into the wild. Here's a bunch of pictures that Emily took:

The next day was going to be a chill day. I like seeing the sites of a country that I've never been to, but I really enjoy going around and soaking in the life of the city, going to bars, meeting the locals, eating the food, etc. First, we went to the famous church that was right up the street:

For dinner, we set out and tried going to this place called the Sea Baron, but the place was tiny and there was no way 8 people could fit in there. It was right on the harbor, that had a funny street sign, though there's like 3 or 4 seafood restuarants in that direction. Eventually, we wandered to a place called the Geysir Bistro, which had an interesting statue outside. The place was pretty good, both pricepoint and value. I had some lobster soup and an "Icelandic Sampler" platter. I thought it was innocent enough, it had 3 types of pickled herring (christmas, curry, onion), dried fish, and rotton shark. I think I may have read/heard in passing about this traditional Icelandic dish, but it must have escaped me when I had ordered it and it arrived at the table. So right away, I pop the jar open, stick my fork into the largest piece, and popped it in my mouth. All of this happened before the smell of what's in the jar hit me, and it was a pretty pungent, ammonia stench. Ends up what was in the jar was what people around here call Hakarl, greenland shark that's been buried in the ground for months to rot then hung to dry before being cut into cubes to be served. Moments after I swalloed my first piece of Hakarl, a rush of ammonia comes shooting out of my nose; it was kind of like a slap in the face. Pretty awesome, so I go back for another piece, same thing happened. Tried some of the pickled herring too, which was great, and then passed the platter around for everyone who was interested to have a taste. Only Mark was brave enough to have a piece of the shark, everyone else seemed to have gotten turned off from the overwhelming stench.

After dinner, we walked over to a local dive called Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, a Beatles/local music bar. We found a little nook in the back and got some beers. The walls were decorated with icons (including a really, really weird painting of Paul McCartney). I met a coupld of guys at the bar when I was getting my drink but they weren't all that interesting to talk to. Later, this deaf painter came in and started conversing with us. He drew a self portriat and signed it but I couldn't make out the name. He also showed us how deaf people clink glasses, making sure the back of our hands touch since they can't hear the sound. We left and went home after that and proceeded to crush a bottle of Jameson, and talk about farts.

Crushing a bottle of Jameson in one night has its drawbacks, but the next day was going to be one of the last days the Mark, Mel, and Georgia was going to be in Iceland so we had to do some stuff. I didn't do it by myself so I had some comrades in the same boat as me. We took the day easy, there was a great coffee shop not far from the apartment that made some great ham and cheese sandwiches that includes some spread that resembled mayonaise that was crazy good. That evening, a bunch of people tried to go to see the Northern Lights, but me and Mark had a prior engagement at a bar called Kaldi for a Puffin-sec meet-up with Charlie Erikson, who we met at last year's Summercon, real stand-up guy, had a good time along with a bunch of other local security experts in the area. We talked about maybe having a Summercon in Iceland in 2015. Eventually some of the guys who went out came back to the bar to report that there were no lights to be seen. After having infinite beers at this place, we stumbled home and I think I ate a subway sandwich.

The Sarko-Trumpbour family had to leave today so they all went to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spas. They were going to go there first then drive to the airport (I think it was on the way to the airport) then the rest of the guys were going to drive back to the apartment. I've heard both awesome and not very awesome things about the place. The main thing is that the silica in the water will kind of mess up your hair (though only temporarily); it was a tourist attraction but it looked amazing. Instead, I got another ham and cheese sandwich and when the others got back, we went to the Pearl in Reykjavik, a hot water storage facility that also had a museum and a restuarant.

The Pearl looked like a pretty serious place. The outside of the dome and a small section of the cantilever gave me memories of the old Igloo in Pittsburgh (R.I.P.). There wasn't all that much there aside from the museum and rotating restuarant on the very top, but you can go to the 4th floor (one floor below the restuarant) and go out onto a mezzanine area and walk outside for a 360 degree view. Several photos of the view: (panorama, sunset, inside looking at the dome. The museum was kind of cool, knowing very little about the history of iceland, the tour was interesting and I think one of the life-sized human props was actually a real guy made up to look like a statue. Outside of the Pearl was some sculptures. All throughout Reykjavik are these sculptures, which are pretty cool. But I think these ones in particular is a quartet of musicians, maybe.

We then got back into the car and drove back out into the wilderness toward the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Station, the largest geothermal power station in the world and supplies power and hot water to Reykjavic as well as local industry (mostly aluminum). When we got there, it looked as if we were the only people there. And that was almost true, the entire plant is only run by 18 people, and only 2 people after hours and on the weekends. The plant opened up in 2006 so it's still pretty new, but it's got a bunch of high pressure steam turbines the spin gigantic electric generators. Here's one of the turbine blades. And here's a couple of steam/water separators, this is what separates the steam and the water from what comes out of the ground. Here's a model of the power plant and the site. Hot steam/water is piped down from the mountains into the separators. There was a funny interactive tour of the entire process. One corner of the station had this weird little thing on the ground. After the tour and a look around, I bought a T-Shirt and we headed out, with the sun just setting. Here's some of the network of power lines that run out of the power station.

This was going to be our final night in Iceland so the others went back out to try to see the Northern Lights again, but since me and Amy didn't go the first night, we'd have had to pay and it wasn't worth it (there ended up being nothing to see anyways). Amy took a nap and I made some instant ramen. The streets where starting to bustle on a Friday evening, and since there was no exams this weekend, people were out in full force, our street was bumper-to-bumper traffic (as bumper-to-bumper as Reykjavik gets, I guess). I went out and stopped at a few bars, I went back to the Beatles bar and had a glass of whiskey, then tried to go to a couple of others but they wouldn't let people in because it was too full. I took a walk near the lake and the bridge. Along the way, I walked by places filled with people, some filled with young people rocking out on some hardcore electronic music, next door was a coffee shop filled with people drinking coffee and working on their laptops, next to that was a bar filled with much older people reveling in some Icelandic drinking songs, and next to that a bar filled with sports enthusiasts watching what appeared to be football (not NFL). Later that night, after the others got back from their attempt to see the Northern Lights, we all went back out to try to find a bar that wasn't too full. We ended up at the Karaoke Sports Bar, which had karaoke but it was mostly quiet. We had several pints of some of the local drafts then went home and polished off whatever alcohol we had left at the apartment.

The last day started with packing and cleaning the apartment up. After packing everything into the rental car, we went and grabbed some lunch at this place called The Launddomat, which was literally above a laundromat, and had a wall of pictures of different laundromats from all over. They also had an interesting selection of books. Then it was to Keflavik to check in and wait. It was considerably less windy than when we arrived a week ago. After checking in, there was a guy with a keyboard playing Christmas music on the next floor, and the employees from the surrounding duty free stores joined in, it was pretty funny. At the gate, we got some food and a beer and I got one last hot dog. And the rest was pretty routine, except maybe the sick bags, which the guy behind us took full advantage of. We arrived back in JFK in the evening and the weather was worse than in Iceland; it was colder and snowing hard.

Iceland is a small place, with a small population, but you can definitely see that everyone is well educated and there is literally no crime. In Reykjavic, people would have their babies in their strollers, and they'd leave the stroller outside (it was well insulated), with the baby, as they went into shops. It's an easy place to visit, everyone's chill, they're very friendly and they all speak English. I hope to come back at least once more during the summer when everything's green, and hopefully that can happen if we can get Summercon 2015 to happen in Reykjavik.

All photo albums (may need to by in my G+ circle):

Filed under: Travel & Events