Iceland: Sunsets, Geysirs, and Northern Lights

Iceland was one of those countries I never thought I would see in my lifetime. As a kid living in Texas, I would look at an atlas or globe and think, that is a land far, far away with impossible ways of getting there. But now, almost thirty years old, that far, far away land became incredibly close. Jeff and I decided to visit the land of ice and elves on a whim, but looking back on our perfect five days there, I wish we could have stayed longer.

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Renting a car was imperative to what we wanted to do. We could have easily stayed in the city since walking around was so easy, or there are dozens of tours that could have taken us around the picturesque spots along the Golden Circle and Route 1 but we wanted the independence and freedom four-wheel drive would give us.

We rented from Blue Car Rental right at the KEF airport. They treated us well despite keeping us waiting for nearly an hour. They were putting a ton of nails in our tires for snow safety, so we didn’t mind the wait. It would have been shorter than an ER wait. But I will say that the logic of putting a ton of nails in the tires was a little bizarre. In the mornings, we noticed that the low tire pressure icon lit up on the dashboard. So, a fun fact for anyone driving around Iceland is all gas stations have free air pressure hoses for you to fill up your tires before you drive off into the distance.

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Our AirBnB was a fabulous beach cottage about 10km south of Reykjavik, and it was perfect. It was quiet, warm, and had killer views of the black rock coast. Standing outside, all we could hear was the waves crashing on the lava rocks and the few birds that were still flitting around. We were just around the block from the Presidential Palace or Bessastadir.

It was first settled in 1000, and became a farm in the 13th century. It changed hands through history from the King of Norway to a poet in 1867 before being donated to the state in 1941 and made the official residence for the President. We did not go and visit the palace ourselves, but it was lovely to drive by every morning and night.

By the time we got settled, the sun had set and it was a good time as any to walk around city center. Parking in the city is really easy to navigate, and it’s also free after 6pm. Laugavgur Road is the main thoroughfare through the city. There are restaurants and cafes all up and down the street, but our first priority was The Lebowski Bar. Featuring 23 different White Russians and typical drive-in pub food, it was the perfect place to have our first meal. They were very accommodating with my sensitive stomach. No bun burger and soy milk White Russian.

The atmosphere was awesome with bowling alley artwork and graffiti artwork from The Big Lebowski everywhere. Four or five large projection screens were showing Silent Movie making it more of a drive-in experience.

Speaking of food, I had heard about the cost of groceries in Iceland. Everything, for the most part is imported, so prices can be outrageous. I brought some of my own staples, keeping our food cost down to just eggs and milk from Bonus, the main bargain supermarket. I would so recommend doing this, but between Bonus and the more expensive Hagkaup, you can always find things to cook at home.

The next morning, we woke early in complete darkness. It did make getting up and moving difficult thinking it was 5a when it was closer to 9a. While the sunrise and sunset lasted about an hour making magical skies, we didn’t get the first peak of light until nearly 10a. But in the early morning twilight, I caught my first shooting star streaking the sky. I made a wish as we piled in the car to drive along Route 1.

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Our first stop was in a tiny town called Selfoss. We pulled over after seeing a gorgeous rushing river and idyllic church against a robin’s egg blue sky. We were breathless as we got out to walk around. The other reason our breath was taken away was how cold it was! We had so many layers on, we felt like the little kid in A Christmas Story. “Ralphie, I can’t get up!”

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In our research of the country, we found that 99.5% of the population speak English. Well, as we wandered around this chapel in this small town, we found the one gentleman who doesn’t. We were looking at a map of the cemetery, and we think this man asked if we needed help. When we said we only spoke English, he said, “No,” and continued on his way. We did as well as we looked over the rushing whirlpools and took in the surroundings.

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As we continued on our way, we quite literally stumbled on the Kerid Crater. A quick £3.50 or 700ISK got you admission to walk outside. We were a little puzzled with the lack of real security, but the population seems very laid back and working on the honor system. We hiked around the massive crater and photographed every angle in awe. There were no words to describe this 6500 year old natural beauty, so I’ll let the photos do the talking.

We had heard about Fridheimar, a tomato greenhouse farm in between Kerid and the Big Geyser. It was a perfect lunch stop with an all you can eat tomato soup station, gluten-free bread, and Bloody Marys at the bar. We walked up and down the sodium lit house sipping our after-lunch teas and talking with the owner, Knútur Rafn Ármann.

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This farm is responsible for 18% of the tomatoes to the entire country. It takes 14 weeks from seed to ripe tomato in these conditions, and we were floored with how many varieties they have. It was perfect and a lovely, out-of-the-ordinary stop in Iceland. I highly recommend checking out this hidden gem.

The rest of our day was racing against the sunset. We made it to the famous Geysir, which Icelanders (and Brits) pronounce “geezer.” Our GPS lady has us rolling with laughter as we were “700 feet from ‘Geezer’ Parking.”

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Steam climbs out of the ground surrounding these little pools and rivers on the side of the road. Signs told us not to touch the water since it was at the boiling point, but we had to know. The heat that radiated off the water was welcome to our frozen hands.

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But we followed the line of tourists with cameras to the Stroker Geysir that erupts every 8 to 10 minutes. Each time it blew, it caused laughter and shrieks of delight. There are other little geysirs around that roll in a boil or sit stagnant, but they were no less gorgeous to look at.

Just a little further down the road from the “geezer,” is Gullfoss, a massive, multi-tiered waterfall. This one had no cost, but it considerable effort to not slip and fall down the icy stairs.IMG_3368

With the constant water spray, the sidewalks and gravel paths turned into skating rinks. But the views were well-worth the treacherous trek.

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We drove back from this point, about 110km away from Reykjavik via Thingvellir National Park. We didn’t go inside the park but rather drove around it because the sun was falling rapidly and it would have been difficult to manage through with no street or park lights.

Back in Reykjavik, we enjoyed some non-traditional sushi from Sakibarinn. There wasn’t a ton of seating, but apparently, you can enjoy your dinner in the cellar bar underneath the restaurant Kofinn. It made an awkward situation since we were the only ones eating in this little bar, but we didn’t care since it was a warm place and we were starving from the long day on the road.

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That night, we got back to our cottage and were beginning to settle in for the night. I was just climbing into bed when Jeff said, “Hey, do you think these are the Northern Lights?” We looked out the windows with our noses pressed against the glass in wonder as the faint lights were floating across the sky.

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We bundled up in our marshmallow jackets and ran outside. It was -5 degrees Celsius, and all we brought with us were breathable tennis shoes or trainers. We were completely frozen, but in front of our house was a field with a wooden stump that was a perfect tripod. We captured as many photos as we could before we completely froze.

I will say, what we saw with the naked eye was incredibly faint. Our camera had a 30 second shutter speed allowing us to get as much green sky as we could. If the day hadn’t already given us unforgettable sights, we were floored by the shimmering and dancing lights in the sky. But an added cherry was second sight of two shooting stars racing against the green streaks.

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Stay tuned next week for more sights and things to do in Iceland! But before then, enjoy this video on how to say a few common Icelandic phrases. Needless to say, we didn’t even attempt to speak the language.

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