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flying home on the hekla aurora

no freaking way! my flight from london to reykyjavik was on icelandair’s hekla aurora aircraft! the one with the interior aurora borealis lights. the one that i was tweeting at icelandair to see if it would be flown on any of my routes.

the bummer? because my flight was during the day, the lights wouldn’t be on. how’s that for irony!? still, i took it as a sign and was pretty happy to end my vacation on the hekla aurora aircraft. but next time, i hope that i can experience these northern lights on an overnight flight. or better yet, outside my window, as we fly 35,000+ feet above the earth.

here are some shots of the amazing earth from above:

baffin island
i just love the view from up here.

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reflections on iceland

now that a long-time dream has been fulfilled, what are my reflections on iceland?

first of all, it exceeded my expectations. pictures can only do so much, but the beauty of iceland is truly out of this world. and one that must be experienced in one’s lifetime. where would you be able to find mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields, continental ridges, lush green grass, mud pools, geysers, the greenest grass and other natural wonders in one place?

the people are generally friendly and helpful but have an island mentality. they’re very chill and not at all in a hurry. a couple of young locals i encountered seemed apathetic to tourists. granted, the country is absolutely heaving with tourists during the high season.

i felt very safe traveling around iceland, as there’s very little crime here. mother’s leave their babies in their strollers outside stores and cafes without fear of abduction or harm; an unheard of thing in north america. when i forgot my monopod in the rental car after dropping it off at the depot at 10pm, the taxi driver assured me that there’s nothing to worry about. it’ll be there when i come back for it in the morning. and it was.

iceland relies on geothermal power to heat their homes. the water that comes out of the tap smells like rotten eggs, but you get used to it. and it’s only for a few seconds. the water is also soft, so it feels like i can’t wash off the soap and shampoo enough.

i ate like crap. i ate a lot of sandwiches when i was out, as food is expensive as all heck here. especially fruit and any brands that are imported. for example a big bag of lays potato chips that would cost $3CDN cost $8CDN in iceland. and don’t get me started on oranges, blueberries and strawberries. i didn’t eat a single piece of fruit because cost anywhere from $5-$12. interesting to note that iceland imports insects to help grow produce, flora and fauna because insects wouldn’t survive the cold there.

side note: i can’t wait to get to london, if only because i. can. eat. there. london might be considered an expensive city too, but after iceland, i would not ever complain about the price of food again.

driving the golden circle only used up half a tank of gas (bensin). approximate cost to fill up a yaris is around $65CDN

speaking of costs, i held back on buying souvenirs, save for postcards. i would’ve loved to buy some for myself and others, but it was so expensive. a souvenir cup cost around $24 CDN, a handknit icelandic wool scarf cost $70 CDN and a handknit icelandic wool sweater, a whopping $199CDN. my airbnb host told me that the wool sweaters are considered an investment as they last many, many years, but unfortunately, my pocketbook could not take that kind of hit this time.

i never realized there were camper vans available for rent. i saw so many of them on the road. a good way to save on accommodations and travel at your own pace. something to consider for next time, although i do like the idea of a hot shower, a proper bed and free WIFI that guesthouses, hostels and airbnbs offers.

and last but not least, there’s a saying in iceland that if you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.

farewell, iceland! thanks for a great first visit! i’ll be back. there’s so much more iceland i need to see.

to take a gander at what i saw on my trip, press play or click here for my flickr. enjoy.

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one day in keflavik

monsters and men
one day in keflavik turned out to be not enough for all the things i wanted to see and do. another case of eyes are bigger than the stomach, i overestimated just how long it takes to get to where i’d like to go and then the time needed to enjoy the attraction.

i rented a car (stick shift this time!) at the airport and had hoped to check out:

  • the bridge between continents at sandvik
  • iceland’s largest mud pool at gunnohver
  • the hot springs of seltún/krýsuvík
  • the lavarock formation at brimketill
  • the lighthouses of garoskagi and reykjanesviti
  • plus lava fields, fissures and other geological wonders

but when i got to my first stop at the icelandic museum of rock n’ roll, the staff there said that drive to all those places would require another few more hours, of which i didn’t have because i also wanted to hit the blue lagoon. well, if that isn’t an incentive to allot more time next time i’m in the reykjanes peninsula.

but i did get to enjoy a couple of things…

because i’m a huge music nerd, i had to check out the icelandic museum of rock n’ roll featuring björk, sugarcubes, sigur rós, of monsters and men, emilíana torrini and countless more.

paul oscar
visitors can find out the back story of their favourite bands, as well as, walk through the history of icelandic pop and rock music. cool thing too – once you arrive, you’ll be lent an iPad to access their app and headphones to listen to band’s music while you take in the exhibit.

sigur ros
and of course you can’t go to iceland without a visit to the blue lagoon in grindavik. it’s an over-priced tourist trap, but it has to be done. my airbnb hosts told me that icelandic people used to go to the blue lagoon, until it was overrun with tourists years ago. after that happened, locals just went to the swimming pools in their neighbourhood – of which i’m told, comparable. plus it’s apparently where they get all the good gossip on everyone.

blue lagoon
fun blue lagoon facts:

  • it’s a man-made lagoon surrounded by black lava fields
  • the water is supplied by geothermal power plant svartsengi
  • the lagoon is renewed every two days
  • the mineral rich water will do a number on your hair, so everyone slabs on the free conditioner beforehand. or else deal with dry, brittle hair for days (i didn’t put nearly enough conditioner in my hair)
  • your electronic wrist bracelet accesses lagoon, lockers and is used to pay for food
  • you have to shower before entering lagoon. diagram emphasizes cleaning head, pits + groin region
  • there’s a swim up bar, sauna, steam room, hot and cold waterfall

is it worth it? as a tourist, i would say sure. at least do it once. i mean, would you visit new york without seeing the statue of liberty or empire state building? or visit paris without going up the eiffel tower? it’s there, you go.

blue me
the blue lagoon is one of iceland’s most visited site. and besides the lagoon water is the most beautiful milky blue colour imaginable. would i go again? if i was with someone who never went, probably. but otherwise, i think i’d hit up a local pool because it’s not cheap. but it’s one of those once in a lifetime experiences and i’m glad i went. it was relaxing and a good way to end the trip. this coming from me – i’m not even a hot springs kinda person.

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insta-iceland: jökulsárlón glacier wall

glacier wallbetween an amphibious boat or a zodiac inflatable speed boat, always choose the speed boat. got up real close to the jökulsárlón glacier wall. close enough to hear the crackling and seeing chunks break off into the lagoon. plus seals (!) and zipping through the entire lagoon at high speeds. got myself a wicked little burn on the cheeks as a result. a small price to pay, right?

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traveling iceland’s south coast: svínafellsjökull

there are 13 main glaciers in iceland, covering 11% of the country – the biggest is located in skaftafell national park. the svínafellsjökull glacier tongue is a breathtaking outlet glacier of the vatnajökull glacier. and today, we hiked it!

the wintery terrain is so cinematic, that the movie interstellar was filmed there. our guide told us that we might even be lucky enough to find leftover pieces from the hollywood shoot. (we didn’t)

we were all required to wear hiking boots and outfitted with a helmet, crampons and an ice ax, while our guide, who has survival training, carried a 20lb pack with a climbing harnass, rope, fissure-rescuing equipment.

some fun facts:

  • the glacier is made up of fallen snow, not frozen water
  • the accumulated snow gets compressed over hundreds of years, eventually turning it into ice
  • the ice eventually gets so compact that most of the air is forced out of it, resulting in that crystal blue colour
  • the older the ice, the better
  • where glacier flows more rapidly, giant cracks called crevasses or fissures are formed, which can be covered over by snow
  • the glacier is constantly changing shape as it melts and freezes under warm daylight and freezing nights
  • the marbling on the glacier is what happens when crevasses opened and closed up again

a few safety pointers from our guide:

  • the glacier has crevasses in many places
  • always walk in single file on the glacier because the snow conceals such deep crevasses
  • minimum number for hiking on a glacier with crevasses is 5-6 people
  • for balance, we were told to walk like a cowboy – the more exaggerated the stance, the better

as i never hiked on a glacier before, i was a little nervous at first. i was afraid that i’d lose my footing or fall down in a deep crevasse 165 feet deep. but after a few minutes of bendy legged walking with straight back and small steps, and the sound of ice being crunched underfoot, i was able to relax and enjoy the lunar-like landscape.

and instead of being at the front of the line, closest to the guide for the most assistance, i was one of the last ones. all the more to lag behind and take more photos.

the drive back to reykjavik was a little brutal though. with no other stops along the way, save for washroom pitstop at gas stations, it took nearly 5 hours. i was exhausted by the time i was dropped off at my airbnb.

but what an adventure! i even made a friend on the tour. another solo traveler from japan named kaoru. and after a shower and decompressing, we met up at the famous saegreifinn aka sea baron by the reykjavik harbour to partake in what was touted as the “world’s greatest lobster soup.” and it didn’t disappoint.

lobster soup
at $12 CDN a bowl, it may have been pricey, but it was tasty and hit the spot. just don’t mind the wax figure of the owner. a great way to celebrate my last day in reykjavik.

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traveling iceland’s south coast: jökulsárlón

only a trip back to jökulsárlón glacier lagoon would get me up at an ungodly hour without any complaints. and after breakfast, we must have arrived at the beach just before 8am. the black sand beach and luminous milky white and blue-tinted icebergs felt mysterious and otherworldly this early in the morning. littering the beach are the remnants of the icy giants. definitely a different flavour than viewing the lagoon during the golden hour. both times are beautiful beyond belief and truly worth seeing at least once.

some fun facts:

  • jökulsárgljúfur canyon, now subsumed into the vatnajökull national park, is perhaps one of the best known canyons in iceland.
  • huge icebergs calve off the vatnajökull glacier and drift along the lagoon, which is about 18 sq km. 
  • the lagoon started to form in 1934 when the glacier started to retreat and is getting larger ever year.
  • the ice is approximately 800-1000 years old
  • the combo of salt water from the sea prevents the lagoon from freezing over, while the temperature prevents the icebergs from melting too quickly
  • there’s a second glacier lagoon nearby called fjallsarlón. though without access to the ocean, the glacier flower there is suppose to be even more dramatic (note for next time i’m there!)

we had the option of going on a boat tour of the lagoon either by amphibian boats (or what i call land yachts on water) or zodiac boats. and given the choice, there was no chance that i wouldn’t go via zodiac. although it’s around $40CDN more, it’s WORTH IT. you cover more of the lagoon and get as close as safely possible to the glacier wall and icy giants. plus if your guide is a speed demon, you can go insanely fast. like so fast, i got a windburn on my cheek by the end of the day. iceland slapped me across my right cheek and i couldn’t have been happier.

we got close enough to hear the glacier wall cracking and falling into the water and we saw a couple of seals on icebergs. the icebergs can and do flip in the water but we didn’t see any of that action. our guide showed us an iceberg that flipped over because the day before it hadn’t looked like that.

although you could explore jokulsarlon in half a day, i ask (incredulously) WHY!? i would be as happy as a clam, spending the entire day here. unfortunately, we couldn’t stay that long because we had our next adventure lined up – glacier hiking!