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Vík to Reykjavík

I tried hákarl. It’s on Anthony Bourdain’s list of foods he’ll never eat again. And after this, I’ve started a similar list.

Tuesday morning opened with cloudy skies and strong winds. We left the Hvammból Guesthouse by 10 AM and stopped in the village of Vík for groceries and petrol. It was about this time that our hardy little Jimny once again exhibited issues with the emergency brake. Getting the car into reverse or first gear demanded a bit of patience and finagling on Nicole’s part.

Leaving Vík, we continued west on Ring Road 1 and once again toward Seljavallalaug. The drive there is relatively easy. Heading west toward Reykjavík, turn right on the second road named Raufarfellsvegur and follow that road toward the mountains. In the light of day, the hike out to the pool was so much quicker and nowhere near as creepy as our attempt the previous night.

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This warm swimming pool is one of the oldest in Iceland. Built in 1923, it was part of an attempt to teach the Icelandic people how to swim.

We braved the strangeness of a shared changing room to switch into swimsuits and dip into the dark water of the pool. It was a unique experience for me as we floated in the spring-fed water, surrounded by steep hillsides and multiple waterfalls.

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Our next stop along the way to Selfoss was Seljalandsfoss. I’m sure you’ve seen this one on Pinterest. It is the waterfall that you can walk behind. It was nice (I’m becoming a waterfall snub) but Gljúfrafoss was far more affecting. We found a situation similar to that of Dettifoss where the majority of tourists stopped for the “main” waterfall and then left, ignoring other amazing sites nearby.

The path to Gljúfrafoss begins right at Seljalandsfoss and heads north along the cliffs. If you’re nimble enough, you can climb up a steep path to the top of falls and look down into the small canyon. Nicole and I ventured to the top and while the view was beautiful, the lure of actually going into the canyon kept us moving.

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I went full “Southern” on our walk into the canyon. My minimalist Merrill’s were awesome for hiking, but they were in no way waterproof. So I pulled them off and walked barefoot through the icy water into the canyon. First things first, Nicole continued her campaign of providing photography service to groups across Iceland.

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Leaving Gljúfrafoss, there’s the opportunity for an amazing view of the falls including Seljalandsfoss.

And now for an idealistic side note. Views and moments like this encourage me that while the world can be riddled with horrible things, there are beautiful things and sights across the globe, near and far.

I’m under no delusion that it’s easy to recognize that while standing in front of a massive waterfall but I like to think of traveling as an exercise in seeing beauty in the world around me…and then bring that discipline home to practice in everyday life.

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That afternoon, we reached Selfoss and checked into our Airbnb. We had intended to seek out the hot springs of Hveragerði and squeeze in a stop at Hrunalaug, but decided instead to enjoy some downtime at our newest accommodation. The fast-paced speed of our trip was settling to a crawl and we were all okay with that. After a hot meal at Kaffi Krús we settled on just finding Hrunalaug, an adorable hot spring near the village of Flúðir.

I later found out that this small spring is on private land (as are a lot of sights in Iceland) and the landowners are encouraging folks not to visit. Overuse and abuse by previous visitors have caused issues with the surrounding land. So…don’t go?

The late hour meant fewer visitors. It was us three and a small Spanish family. The family didn’t stay for long, leaving Nicole, Lacey, and I alone to enjoy the long Icelandic sunset. (It lasts for a couple of hours.) Nicole and I had every intention of staying in the pool until dark in an attempt to catch the lights, but it seemed wise to return to the car before it was too dark.

I was rather let down as we left. This was our last best chance to see the lights before ending the trip in Reykjavík where light pollution would be too great an interference.

Nicole drove us back to Selfoss and I maintained my post as navigator and now temporary “Light-Watcher.” It all began with a very slight glow in the southwest corner of the sky. I must have sounded crazy, screaming out “Wait, wait. Is that it? That’s gotta be it!” Nicole stopped the Jimny and we jumped out…and it was freaking amazing.

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That small patch of glowing light writhed and expanded across the sky, then faded away. Not five seconds later, another glow appears from behind us and again it danced up and across the sky, growing in brightness and intensity. The best part aside from Nicole and I mutually freaking out was the fact that we were both wearing our bathing suits, still wet from the spring. I had put on a sweater and my insulated vest…but no pants. So yes, I was dancing pant-less under the most amazing night sky I’ve ever seen, freezing cold, and loving every moment of it.

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As we sat in and on the Jimny, stopped on the side of the road, another vehicle came our way. It was a group of Icelandic women and they stopped to ask if we were okay. When we pointed to the lights and excitedly exclaimed they were the reason for us stopping, the women sort of smiled and nodded…and looked at us like we were crazy. I guess when you live with this daily, it’s not a huge deal.

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We stayed out for over another hour, watching the lights evolve in different shapes and colors. Around 1 AM, they faded for a final time. And now, I think I’m hooked. Even though I checked off a bucket-list item in seeing the aurora borealis, I don’t think I’m good with this being a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.

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And so ended our trip around the island. The next morning, we reached our last AirBNB and our amazing host Embla. She rents out a small part of her artist loft in Reykjavík. It’s a cozy and lovely home. She helped as we wrestled with choosing to extend our car rental or relying on public transportation. We decided on keeping the Jimny for the remainder of the trip. The cost of buses and taxis was outweighed by the convenience of our own car…and then we wound up getting a deal from the rental company.

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After settling our transportation issue, we headed downtown. First on our list was to try the world-famous hot dogs of Iceland. We stopped at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur near Harpa, the beautiful Reykjavik Concert Hall. The best part of the hotdog is the toppings and sauce. However, Lacey wasn’t super stoked.

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Following the hotdogs and a short walk around downtown, we stopped for coffee and a kleina at Konsúll Kaffihús. I still can’t get over how amazing each cup of coffee was in Iceland. Those people don’t play around with their caffeine.

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Another on our list of must-do Icelandic experiences was to try the infamous hákarl or fermented shark. Originally, the meat was prepared in this manner to remove poisonous toxins that occurred naturally in the flesh of the Greenland shark. (Yes, Greenland, not Iceland.) Cafe Loki was referenced in multiple blogs as the place to have this experience. It sits across from Hallgrímskirkja, the tall Lutheran church in the heart of Reykjavík. The cafe is inviting and cozy and the upstairs dining area features a beautiful mural depicting the legend of Loki.

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We ordered a vegetable dish and also a sampler plate which featured delicious smoked meats and fish…with a very small helping of hákarl. It’s the small white pieces with the Icelandic flag displayed.

And…it was terrible. I’m proud to say that I didn’t gag at all or spit it out. But it was truly and profoundly disgusting food. It reeks of ammonia in smell and taste. Following that first bombardment on the senses, there is a hint (more like a slap in the face) of earthiness…like rotten mud and weeds. It finishes with a disturbingly fishy flavor akin to the smell of a dock full of fishing boats sitting in the sun.

We learned from the barista at Konsúll Kaffihús, that most Icelanders don’t eat hákarl but rather enjoy harðfiskur, which most simply is dried fish. You can see it below behind the hákarl. It’s eaten as is or with a spread of butter. We tried it with butter…and it was very fishy…papery…and not my favorite.

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Between the hot dogs and Cafe Loki, we ran into a group of Sicilians whom Nicole and I had seen at the Black Beach in Vík. All I’ll say is one of my amazing forward traveling companions invited them to dinner with us…which didn’t happen but evolved into an invite for drinks after. Ask Nicole about it.

We did wind up at Café Rosenberg. Nicole wanted live music and this was a recommended stop. The acoustic band Autonomous was performing. They reminded me a bit of The National with the lead singer’s deep voice and the slower-paced tempo.

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The next midday, we stopped in the city for breakfast at The Laundromat Cafe. The food is delicious and the restaurant is kid-friendly with a whole downstairs area dedicated to entertaining children. True to its name, there are also washing machines on the lower level. So…you can eat, drink, and do your laundry.

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A little after noon, we arrived at The Blue Lagoon. This geothermal spa sits about an hour outside of Reykjavík and is close to the Keflavik International Airport. In fact, many travelers will stop at Keflavik and visit the lagoon as their layover.

It’s a really fun experience to visit Bláa lónið. The water feels amazing. The spa services and setup are on point. Visitors get their own personal locker, nice showers, changing stations, and more. The actual lagoon features a section for massages (which you must pre-book), a steam room, a bar area, and many places to sit and relax. We spent most of the afternoon enjoying the mineral-rich water full of silica and sulfur. It’s all reported to be very good for the skin, with positive effects on ailments like psoriasis.

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The rest of the day was spent packing and preparing for the trip home the following day. Nicole instructed Lacey on several packing methods, reducing her backpack to carry-on size. We also saw a rainbow.

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Friday was a bit of a blur. We ran a bit behind schedule getting to the airport, but dropping off the car and getting to our gate was a breeze…so we killed time in one of the main sitting areas. Unbeknownst to us, international flights require extra check-in lines through customs. So while we were in the airport on time, we found ourselves waiting in long lines to rush to our actual gate.

However, we did run into the Sicilians again. Actually just one of them. But ask Nicole about that.

The flight back wasn’t terrible at about 6 hours. I think it was longer because we were flying against the gulf stream, but don’t quote me on that. And so we made it home, safe and sound. Overall, we racked up a total of 2236 kilometers, several bruises, and some good stories.

For all those who love the natural world, visiting Iceland is a must. Someday, I’d like to return.

If you need a car rental, use Go Iceland. Ask for Alex…or if you’re brave, Alexander the Great. If he asks, let him know we sent you…the three American girls who reserved the Jimny and made him blush. And no, we didn’t lose Lacey on the glacier.

Travel Notes:

  • Make Friends: The Ring Road is a giant circle and it’s likely that you will run into people again. And again. Especially if they’re Sicilian.
  • Tax Refund:If you spend more than ISK 6,000 on non-perishable items at one location, keep the receipt and ask for the VAT refund form. You can submit these at the airport before you leave and receive money back for the taxes you paid. See more here »
  • Gas Cards: N1 only takes gas cards. They are located around the whole island. However, Shell is better at taking different international credit cards. And they will pump your gas for you.
  • Bring Cash: Have actual kronas on hand. It’s accepted everywhere and I got the feeling that the Icelanders appreciated it.
  • Flashlights: Bring them. And be sure that batteries are charged and working well.
  • Hitchhikers: I’m not saying to pick up everyone you see, but if you want a fun interaction with fellow travelers, Iceland might be the only place I’d say to do this.
  • Conversations with Locals: From our interactions, I learned that the people of Iceland are very proud but also generous. They are also very sarcastic and witty. Be prepared, for if you prove to be friendly, they will make fun of you. Sarcasm might be their love language.
  • Reusable Bags: Bring at least one reusable shopping bag. You have to pay for plastic bags at the grocery.
  • Be Spontaneous: When there’s a whale tour in 15 minutes, just do it.
  • Petrol/Gas: Make a point of filling up your vehicle’s tank before leaving any “major” cities. There is no guarantee of stations outside of the towns and you could face over a 100km before an opportunity to refuel arrives.
  • What to Wear (During the Summer): Rain jackets and windbreakers are a must. Dress in layers as the weather will shift from sunny and calm to chilly and drizzling, to windy and rainy with no warning.
  • Umbrellas: Not needed. Instead choose a high-quality rain jacket with hood and zipper pockets.
  • Driving: The roads can be treacherous between unpaved sections and steep inclines and declines. Choose a 4×4 for your rental vehicle. (If it’s in your budget, go big and get the Defender.) Also, keep your lights on at all times. It’s the law. And don’t stop in the road to take pictures. Wait for a space to pull off the road before you get snap-happy. Don’t fear the gravel roads. Speed is your friend. Keep both hands on the wheel, but aim for 40-60km/h. Try it and you’ll believe me. Keep your eyes peeled for awesome sites and sheep crossing the road.
  • Food: It’s expensive to eat here. A good budget option is to pack your lunches. Stop at groceries and buy supplies before heading out in the morning. Bring snacks as well, along with extra water. Hiking will leave you hungry and dehydrated…and in general, it’ll be miles (kilometers) before you reach a place to eat.