Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Trip to Iceland, inevitably with copious photos of gorgeous scenery

I got back from an incredible long weekend in Iceland last night and have been wanting to post photos, but am having trouble whittling the number down. This is the issue of traveling with a talented photographer. I've decided to make two posts to break it up a little to disguise the fact that I'm posting around 30 photos. Thus this post will be of the day trips we took around Iceland and the next one (probably tomorrow) will be of just Reykjavik which was our home base for the weekend. Iceland in winter is a fascinating place (as I'm sure is Iceland in summer, but I have no frame of reference there). It stayed dark until about 9:00 in the morning (an inconvenience we mostly avoided by being unable to properly operate the hotel wake-up call system and sleeping until 9:30 every day), but the sun wouldn't set until 6:30 or 7:00 at night which is actually later than it sets here. This is because Iceland is set to Greenwich Mean Time despite being significantly west of the prime meridian, although I'm not sure why that is.

But that's all kind of boring, isn't it? On with the photos!

We went on an all day tour on the Golden Circle (which is far as I can tell is just marketing language for a route that is popular with tourists and takes you vaguely in a circle). The first stop on the tour was at Pingvellir, a national park in the middle of a rift valley. It's where the Viking Parliament was established in the early 900s. I think our guide said something about them choosing the place by throwing an axe in the water and choosing the spot based on where it landed, but I can't find that verified in my cursory google search. It's probably true though.

There's me a Pingvellir. Standing on the same ground as Viking warlords past and tourists present.

Pingvellier is also home to Pingvallavatn, the largest fresh water lake in all of Iceland. It is also one of the clearest freshwater lakes in the world (I think because the volcanic stone strains the glacial water or something). The point of this picture is to show how clear it is--look at all the Icelandic Krona that tourists have thrown in and how clearly you can make them out! Because it is so clear, it is a popular place for scuba diving. There were even people diving when we were there despite the weather. Icelanders are a very hearty people. I think it's partially because they leave their children outside in their strollers when they go into coffee shops to meet up with friends. Walking around we saw tons of strollers outside cafes, and it wasn't until I heard a baby crying that I realized they contained children. This is both a testament to how safe Iceland is (our guide said there are around 1 or 2 murders a year) and how much Icelanders just don't give a shit about the cold. Perhaps if my parents hadn't coddled me by taking me into restaurants with them in the winter than I wouldn't be the type of weakling who wouldn't go snorkeling in a freshwater lake in February.

The next stop on our Golden Circle tour was Gullfoss or the "Golden Waterfall."

Here's the lower part of the falls. I could have included about 20 more pictures of this waterfall, each special in it's own way. I'm just saying, you should take a moment to appreciate my restraint.

This was somewhere along the road on the Golden Circle, but mostly I just dig this photo. Naturally, I can't take credit for it.

Our next stop was a geothermal area. The main attraction was Strokkur, a geyser that goes off reliably every 5-7 minutes. Unfortunately, its spurts were short lived and very difficult to photograph. Any attempt just led to a photo of steam. I won't waste your time with such inferior imagery, but we did get some lovely ones of the rest of the hot springs.

I've always had a soft spot for hot springs. The unique coloring, the delicate wafting of sulfur, the fact that if you step off the designated pathways you could die; there's just something very special about them.

After the thermal springs we went to a nearby thermal spa (not pictured). Basically the steam rooms were just little huts they built over some hot springs. Thus they had no way of controlling the temperature or telling you which one was the hottest. And sometimes you'd be relaxing in a nice steam room and suddenly find you were boiling up and unable to breathe. The thermal pools were very nice to laze around in though. And after the spa we were treated to a delicious lamb dinner with a chocolate mousse for dessert. I can now say that Icelandic chocolate is something to write home about, and I can see why Puddin' goes that extra mile to acquire some.

Post lamb eats, we concluded our tour by going in search of the Northern Lights. I'm sorry to say there is no attached picture of this because we completely failed to see them. There was total cloud cover that night. We decided to try our luck the next night and go out with a tour group that only leaves if there is a good chance for clear skies. We were rewarded for our efforts with clear skies, but sadly the solar activity did not put on a show. We saw some awesome stars though! I've decided Northern Lights tours are very much like whale watching tours. You trade the discomfort of sea sickness (in my case) and cold winds for the discomfort of standing in the dark in below freezing temperature with your neck craned to the sky. And instead of searching a seemingly endless ocean for signs of surfacing cetaceans, you stare at a canvas of stars willing yourself to see the start of a green tinge and trying to avoid any lights that might destroy your night vision. Basically, it's incredibly frustrating, but no doubt totally worth it if you actually see the elusive humpback breach or the apparently equally elusive Aurora Borealis. Originally, 2012 was supposed to be the peak year for solar activity, but now they think 2014 is the real peak year. I might give you another chance in 2014, Iceland, or I might just defect to Manitoba.

The next day, we went horseback riding over the lava fields near Reykjavik. The Icelandic horse is a unique species that has evolved independently of other horses because other horses are illegal to import. They are just tall enough to be considered horses and not ponies and are sturdy and short in stature. Perhaps the coolest thing about them is they have an extra gait beyond the normal walk, trot, canter, gallop business called the tölt. It's similar to an amble, I think--basically a four-beat gait that's faster than a walk but smoother than a trot. Unlike on many trail rides, they let those who felt comfortable try out some of the gaits and go a bit faster.
The lava fields we rode over. It's hard to get the beauty in this photo, but it's truly an alien landscape. Green from lichen and with short birch trees and shrubs as the only other growth.

My horse was named Jaspar. He was more interested in burrowing into my jacket than getting his photo taken.

After a day of horseback riding, we relaxed in the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland's most famous geothermal spas. You can't really tell in this photo, but it's a brilliant blue color because of the silica. You can also rub the silica on your face as it's supposed to be very good for your skin (although very bad for your hair). Another perk of the Blue Lagoon is the swim-up bar.

Okay, I hope that wasn't too exhausting. Tomorrow's post will cover the time we spent chilling in Reyjkavik, the capital, and actually only, city of Iceland! Stay tuned.


  1. Welcome back Susan! This looks incredible. I liked the shot of you at Pingvellier. I am so excited to hear the rest of your story. Was a long weekend enough time there?

  2. I'm so impressed I want to go there!
    Who is Puddin? Did you buy that cute parka just for the trip?

  3. That is SO amazing that you got to go there!! Loved the pictures, even if you didn't take them. :)

  4. Marla--Yes and no. Yes in that it felt like longer than a weekend and we did a lot of stuff, but no in that there was more I wanted to see and I would be up for going back! We should get together and brunch or dinner soon!

    Anon--I think I answered your jacket question already, but Puddin' was a reference to two posts ago about that pudding place in the East Village that said it used special Icelandic chocolate.