Mystical Iceland: It’s anything but a vast, icy landscape

Article & Photos by Rika Dockery

If you’ve never been to Iceland, you may imagine it as a vast icy landscape. The Iceland I saw featured a lush green moss-covered lava fields, bountiful waterfalls, geysers and hot springs.

There were volcanic mountains and glaciers, oceans, fields with sheep and horses, along with quaint colorful villages. About the size of Kentucky with a population of just over 330,000, Iceland is gaining popularity as a travel destination. Plagued by economic collapse just a few years ago, Iceland depends on a vibrant tourism economy with a plethora of home sharing and vacation rental properties to choose from.

For my inaugural week long trip, I was joined by my daughter Katie to celebrate her college graduation. I arrived around 11 p.m. in early June and was welcomed with an eerie glowing sky painted by the “midnight sun.”

Because Kevlavik Airport is about forty-five minutes from Reykjavik, I opted to stay at a boutique hotel near the airport called Hotel Jazz and took advantage of the free airport shuttle. I found the hotel to be clean and was delighted at the idea of free Wi-Fi and a complimentary European style breakfast. In the morning, the hotel manager and I chatted over a cup of coffee as she shared Iceland’s history and made suggestions of must-see sights.

Since Katie arrived after me, I had a chance to get the rental car and practice as I was a bit nervous about driving in another country. By the time I picked Katie up at the airport my fears dissipated because, like in

the US, Icelanders drive on the right-side of the road and traffic is light.

Katie wanted to stay in an Airbnb since she was more used to this lodging option after a semester spent studying in and traveling throughout Europe. Reykjavik has more Airbnb listings per capita than large cities like San Francisco, Barcelona or Amsterdam. While not my preferred method of vacation lodging, the upside of staying in someone’s home is that you have the opportunity to connect with a host. Our hostess Havdis and her son Mani also gave us great insider tips on where to shop, eat, and sightsee.

The weather in early June was cool as expected.

We both brought layers of clothing and each wore a thin rain jacket most days. A couple of days we needed our gloves. We decided one rainy day was a good day to visit museums in Reykjavik. Havdis told us it is uncommon to see umbrellas in town. So, we wandered around with only our jacket hoods protecting us as we didn’t want to stand out as the tourists we were. We walked to the National Museum of Iceland and learned about the country’s history over the last 1,200 years from Viking to Norwegian to Danish Rule, then independence. We walked to another museum, the National Gallery of Iceland – home to an eclectic mix of art. Next stop was the Culture House, filled with artifacts and more artwork.

One of the must-see attractions in Reykjavik is the church, Hallgrimskirkja. The city of Reykjavik is very

walkable and this church is centrally located in town. Katie enjoyed climbing the tower for an amazing view of the city.

We had been warned about the high cost of food in Iceland so we prepared accordingly. We purchased groceries at a local market to keep in our room for breakfast and snacking. We typically ate something light at lunch then would stop for a nice meal for dinner. Just a bowl of soup and or glass of wine was around twenty dollars.

Rika’s Tip: I recommend purchasing any beer or liquor you think you’ll consume during your trip when you arrive at the airport’s duty-free shopping area.

Since we both like fish, Iceland was a gastronomical delight. At the Reykjavik Fish Restaurant, I had Plokkfiskur, which is baked dish made with mashed fish, potatoes, milk and and flour. Both of our meals were delicious.

Reykjavik is known for its nightlife. I’m sure Katie would have enjoyed some of the venues we walked past had she been traveling with her friends.

Because it doesn’t really get dark at the time of year we visited, it was easier for me to stay out later than I do at home, so we enjoyed walking around the city and trying a few restaurants. We felt safe and found the locals to be very helpful. When it rained on our first night out, our restaurant’s owner (101 Harbor) offered to drive us “home.” Customer service is a given in as country where a majority of its citizens are somehow involved in the tourism industry.

We had preregistered for a South Coast tour with Your Day Tours and walked to a nearby hotel for pick-up by our van. This 10-hour tour was a relaxing and informative way to travel to sights such as the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. We climbed the 375 steps to get above the waterfall for some amazing rainbow pictures. Here Katie saw her first double rainbow.

Then we headed to Reynisfjara – Black Sand Beach near the village of Vik for an extended lunch break. The black pebble beach features rocky cliffs that look like steps and inspired the architectural design of the famous church in Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja. The next stop was Solheimajokull Glacier, where some choose to trek further and actually hike on the glacier (photo to the right).

We also stopped at a house where elves supposedly live – though we didn’t see any. Another stop included the volcano that erupted in April 2010 and disrupted air travel between Europe for several days. This eruption caused confusion in the media, as the pronunciation of the volcano’s name, Eyjafjallajokull, is “Áya fyatta yágood.” Just try to say that!

Our final stop was Skogafoss Waterfall, where there is a path to hike behind the waterfall. We must have seen hundreds of waterfalls on this tour and we were blessed with a somewhat warm sunny day- of course,
it’s relative.

This Iceland trip was in part a reconnaissance mission, as I plan to return with my husband. I also reconfirmed my preference for stand-alone houses for vacation accommodations. I spent part of my week searching for the “just right” vacation rental home to return to. There are over 300 listings on VRBO in and around Reykjavik. My choice was a rental home just south of Lake Thingvallavatn by the Þingvellir National Park.

Just under a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik is this 3-bedroom, 1-bathroom home with stunning views called the Holiday House. The host Björn had his father, Larus Helgason, meet us at the property that offers a stocked kitchen, two living rooms, wrap around porch with mountain and lake views, and

an outside hot tub enclosed by retractable wall and ceiling. The views from this property are just amazing. Larus took us in his jeep for a 4WD tour of the area. When we returned to the house, he took us down to the garage to show us where the elf lives under the home. Guests will need a car, and during winter months, one with 4WD.

When visiting the vacation rental home near Thingvellir National Park, we accidentally ventured into what is known as the Golden Circle, a route that forms a loop from Reykjavik out to several scenic spots. We booked a Golden Circle tour, but our hosts convinced us to save the money and drive ourselves to allow us more independence. So the next day we returned to the Golden Circle route that took us past the National Park again and on to an area known as Kaukadalur. Here you can see the well-known geyser Stokkur, that erupts every 5-10 minutes or so.

A little further down the road is Gullfoss Waterfall, which was much more impressive in person. It was windy and I was content to stand at one end of the viewing area while my daughter hiked up above to get another view of the falls. This waterfall (above) was one of my favorite sites on the trip and worth the drive.

A couple of years ago while on a work trip in Bangkok, I had met a woman from Iceland Jonina, who gave me her card. I contacted her and she invited us to visit Friðheimar Farms, where she is restaurant manager. We made reservations and drove there for lunch. This family-run farm grows tomatoes year-round in greenhouses. Reservations are recommended. The restaurant features Bloody Marys, tomato soup with home baked bread, and fresh pasta with homemade sauce. Even the desserts are tomato inspired with green tomato and apple pie and tomato ice cream. Jonina gave us a tour of the greenhouses and the farm’s horse stable. The farm

owners breed horses and host an international horse show during the summer season.

At Friðheimar Farms we also learned about the Icelandic breed of horse. They are much smaller than our US horses. By law, other horse breeds can’t be brought into Iceland and once an Icelandic horse leaves the county, it may not return.

Driving throughout the countryside, we passed many pastures with horses and later learned that there are around 80,000 horses throughout the country. We also saw many short-tailed Icelandic Sheep which may
explain why Icelandic wool sweaters are so popular.

There were plenty of shops throughout the Golden Circle trip that sold beautiful knitwear; it was easy for me to purchase this year’s Christmas presents. Our host suggested we purchase items at the Hand knitting
Association of Iceland a store in downtown Reykjavik.

Rika’s Tip: Save receipts and submit a tax form at the airport before departing. This value added tax (VAT) refund is returned a few weeks later and provides a discount of about 24%.Our final stop on our own Golden Circle tour was the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths. This is one of the more touristy public baths. We learned later from our Airbnb host that we could have gone to our local bathhouse for a quarter of the price. But Laugarvatn was still delightful with several pools and varying water temperatures to choose from.

Our host recommended we spend a day visiting the Snaefessness Peninsula as it is less crowded than the Golden Circle and South Coast routes but has amazing scenery. One day we packed the car with snacks and headed out to tackle the vast landscape.

Our first stop was a mountain with a crack in it. You can hike through this crevice in the mountain and see the daylight coming in from the other side. Katie ventured in for some good picture taking. Our next stop was the town of Hellnar where the cliffs over the beach provided breathtaking views.

We drove on to Grundarfjordin for a stop at the local library/museum/café for fish soup. Our host encouraged us to drive as far as Stykkisholmur, a colorful fishing village where Katie ate what she said was the best fish and chips of her life. While

she hiked to another cliff for the view, I walked to a local restaurant Sjavarpakkhusid, where I ordered a steaming hot bucket of fresh mussels (pictured below) and glass of wine. On the way back, we stopped at Trri Tunga to see the seals.

Rika’s Tip: It is worth paying the little extra for a car with Wi-Fi. We were able to use our phone’s GPS to navigate throughout our trip. We brought the Wi-Fi adapter anywhere we needed internet access.

I look forward to returning to this magical land hopefully to glimpse the Northern Lights, which can be seen between September and mid-April. More elusive than the Northern Lights are the elves and fairies of Iceland. Many of the locals believe in elves and hidden people and there are many stories about encounters with these mystical creatures. I had read an article about “Elf School” and dragged Katie to a three-hour class taught by the headmaster of

Elfschool and the Elfmuseum. We both received a diploma and enjoyed meeting fellow classmates who came from all around the world.

Our next excursion was by boat in search of puffins. We could have gone on the longer trip that included whale watching but it was cool and rainy out so we opted for the shorter trip on a boat that provided inside seating. Fortunately puffins were easier to spot than elves, and we learned a lot about these cute little seabirds.

Though we didn’t see any elves on our trip, we were blessed with nice weather for most of our week’s stay. We saved the Blue Lagoon for our departure day and even though there was a light rain, this attraction didn’t disappoint. Thankfully, we had reservations as it gets crowded at this tourist destination. We purchased the tickets that include robes and slippers and a couple of mud masks.

The pool is one enormous man-made spa in a lava field with blue-green water. To add to the therapeutic nature of this experience, they offer various mud masks that are applied and washed off while in the pool. We tried three versions: the silica mask, lava scrub and algae mask. We stayed in the pool until we were withered but relaxed.

Rika’s Tip: The Blue Lagoon is near the airport so I recommend either scheduling a visit on arrival or departure day.

When I looked at the map of the country, I realized we only saw a small part of this vast land. Some brave souls drive the outer highway Route 1, known as the Ring Road, which circles the country. My daughter and I both agreed that a week-long visit is just the right amount of time to get a flavor of the scenery, food, and culture of this beautiful country.

The warm waters of the Blue Lagoon were a physical reminder of the warm, friendly people that we met during our week-long adventure. While we were sad to leave this magical land, we hope to return someday

Thinking of Exploring Iceland? Contact Björn at the Holiday House by clicking here.

Rika Dockery owns and manages two vacation rental properties in the greater St. Louis area. Until her website is up and running, you can connect with her on Facebook.










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