Iceland: November 2nd to 5th,
Left Baltimore Thursday
evening. The flight was not full.
The dinner was meatballs and
thing on the side. Not as bad as
it sounds. Arrived in Iceland
around 6:00 AM, the sky was
still dark. Took the SkyBus to
Reykjavic, a 40 minute trip,
stopped at the bus terminal and
then a shuttle to the hotel. The
Grand Hotel will not let us check
in early. We have an assigned
room and they wonít give us
another or let us in until the room
is cleaned. The problem is that
we have a tour scheduled at
noon. I change clothes in the
bathroom a store the luggage
with the front desk.
The Golden Circle Tour We took the shuttle back to the bus station, should have just stayed there. Had a snack, Steven bought a favorite Icelandic candy, liquorish covered with marzipan and chocolate. This was not a good thing.
The bus trip to the geysers was long. The bus stopped at a greenhouse / giftshop called the Garden of Eden. Totally tacky. This place must be a zoo in the summertime because the place is huge with many tables for eating. Today only our group of 7 is here. Icelanders are very proud of their greenhouses on top of thermal vents. This allows them to grow fruits and vegetables that the cold climate would not allow. Bananas are a very big thing. The sun starts to break through the clouds around 2:00. Lots of rainbows. The mountains are beautiful, some snow covered, with glaciers in the distance. The landscape is truly stark. There used to be forests, but the Vikings cut down all the trees for firewood. Icelandic trees are very small, no higher than 3 to 4 meters tall. We see scattered farms with some sheep and horses, but not much else.
Bus Driver tells us the recent history of Iceland. It used to belong to Denmark. During WWII, Northern Europe was occupied by Germany. Iceland Gained independence but was occupied by the British, there were so few people living here that they really didnít have a choice. The military forces built a small airport near downtown Reykjavik, which is still a sore subject with Icelanders. The rich people in the country, afraid that the Germans would bomb Reykjavic, built summer houses outside of the city and sent their families away. This has become a custom and people are still building these summer houses. We passed many of these and it seemed most odd. They are single level ranch houses placed randomly around the landscape. There are no stores or gas stations or paved roads. Other than the spectacular view of the mountains, that you get pretty much everywhere, there is nothing around these houses to justify their existence.
We stopped briefly at a volcanic lake, basically a hole in the ground filled with water. The chief attraction of this spot appears to be that the pop-singer Bjork gave a concert in the lake a few years back, when she was popular. After a long ride, we arrived at the geyser field. It was worth seeing at least once. Sulfur laden steam pouring out of the ground. Little vents of boiling water, bubbling and steaming, leaking hot water down a hillside coated with mineral deposits. The old geyser has become less active, erupting maybe 3 to 4 times a week. People used to put soap into the water to force a spout, but the government put a stop to that. Ever since an earthquake in the 1980s, a new geyser has become more active.
The gyser pool is about 15 feet around. Filled with gray roiling water. after a few minutes the water starts to dimple, a comcave bowl of scalding hot liquid. The surface sucks in and out a few times like something breathing. Suddenly a spout of steam shoots from the water into the cold air, a tall fountain of brilliant white, glowing in the low-hanging sunlight. Then the column blows away, dissipating into nothingness. The geysers have their own giftshop with all the related crap. There is also a Ďmultimediaí presentation. This consists of lighted black-and- white pictures that show important people from long ago boiling eggs in the geyser pool; a movie of the geyser spurting; a few panels about the geology of the area; and inexplicably, the projection of a womanís face onto a mannequin head suspended in the middle of the room. She is speaking Icelandic so I donít know what she was saying, but I doubt that it would be of much interest.
Our next stop was at a large waterfall. The history of the falls was probably interesting, but by this point we were just too tired to care. Something about a farmers daughter who threatened to throw herself off the falls if the government build a hydroelectric plant there, so she go some politician or other to get the falls turned into a tourist trap. The waterfall was impressive, but cold and windy. The spray formed abstract ice shapes on the cliffs alongside the river. Some people walked on the trail next to the falls and got soaked by the spray.
Bus Driver decided to take us back through the national park because the weather was good. This was not officially part of our tour, but he was being nice. We saw where the Viking leaders met for Parliament; where Bill and Hillary Clinton planted a tree; drove across the point where the North American and European continental plates are pulling apart from each other.
We got back to the hotel after dark and finally got into a room. Two double beds, a flat screen TV with only 5 channels. The shower was just a glass door that swung out from the wall across a drain below a spigot in the ceiling.
That night our tour package included dinner at Hotel Reykjavic with a drink a the ice bar. This was such a sham, the bar was just a meat locker with blocks of ice stacked against the wall. The only alcohol was just a bottle of vodka, all other drinks had to be ordered at the regular bar outside. The two ice chairs were already occupied by a nice Scottish couple who actually paid to get in. The coats given to us were just nylon ponchos that were not exceptionally warm. It was so cold that my teeth were chattering after 5 minutes and I made Steven come out with me.
Our dinner reservation was not for half an hour so we went to an Irish pub across the street for some real drinks. The bartender looked Icelandic, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, blue eyes, multiple tattoos; but his accent was almost American. He said that he had lived in the States for a while including CA and Utah. When I jokingly asked if he was Mormon he said yes. Turns out that there are about 600 Mormons living in Iceland. He had heard of Big Love, but didnít like it. Dinner at Hotel Reykjavic was not great. The 3 course meal promised by our tour turned out to be a fish buffet of not so fresh fish. Steven was disappointed by the lobsters, calling them little better than crayfish.
Saturday was dark and overcast. At this time of the year, the sun came up around 10:00 in the morning. We slept in until 9:30 and then went down to breakfast where we had to fight for food. There were two groups meeting in Iceland that weekend, an on- line gaming convention and a sports governance group. For this reason the guests were all either overly fit sports jocks or pot-bellied computer freaks. Both groups tended to eat vast quantities of breakfast food, and for this reason the pickings were mighty slim by the time we made it to the buffet.
Our afternoon activity was horseback riding on a lava field. Icelandic horses are small because those were the only ones that would fit on the Viking ships. These horses are very cute, standing only about my shoulder height. Most of the people on the tour with us were Northern European, and I truly think the guides ignored the English speakers. Have been given no instructions other than to leave our backpacks behind, we were up on the horses and out of the paddock. I expected that my horse would just follow after the others, but no such luck. I was on the lazy horse. The guide told me to keep up with the other rider, but I told her I didnít know how. She looked at me with scorn and said to kick it in the stomach, as if everyone should know this. In the end they gave me a riding crop because I couldnít get the hang of horse belly kicking. I have always heard that horse back riding is difficult because of the chafing and bone-jarring ride, so I have never had much / any desire to try it.
Everything I had heard was true. As I write this two days later my back and legs are still sore. A slow walk was OK, but every time the horse started to trot I had to hang on for dear life, feeling like I was about to be bounced out of the saddle. I also felt that the sadistic guide chose to go fast down the hills, which made the chance of falling much worse. Steven rubbed his hand raw by clinging to the saddle. The lava field was breathtaking, all black basalt covered with vibrant green moss; dark snow covered mountains surrounding us. Unfortunately we were both concentrating too much on staying in the saddle to really appreciate the landscape. After a half hour we both felt that we had enough riding and were ready to stop. The weather was cold and windy, overcast clouds pellet us with occasional bursts of rain and sleet.
After an hour of riding the guide finally led us through a raging river onto a soggy island where my horse raced to its favorite grazing spot. Now this is the point on a tour when they should offer light refreshments and maybe an alcoholic beverage to take the chill off. Did they do that on this tour? No they did not. These people could learn a few things about tourism. One guide actually squatted down and drank water from the river. Now I know that all these rivers are from glacier run-off, but really, drinking from a muddy river out of your cupped hands that have just been clinging to a smelly horse, yuck. An interminable time later we finally got back to the stable; cold, cranky and jarred to the bone. Iím glad that we did this once, but never again.
We returned to the hotel to find that the room had not been made up. Oh was Steven pissed. He made his displeasure known to the front desk and to the poor girl who was sent up to clean. That night we had scheduled the Northern Lights Tour, for which we had paid extra because it was not part of the package. The day had been overcast and that evening was even worse, dark and rainy. Tourguide picked us up in a large SUV. There was a couple of people from Poland who were scheduled to go as well, but they were no-shows, so it was just Tourguide and us. The drive to the South coast of Iceland took about an hour through pitch black driving rain. The rain was not falling that hard when we drove onto the beach where there was the best chance of seeing the aurora, but is was still hopeless. The was not our time to see the Northern lights.
Tourguide took us to a great seafood restaurant for a lobster dinner. The meal started off with a shot of traditional Icelandic schnapps, a potato vodka flavored with coriander. The drink wasnít bad. Icelandic lobsters are very small. They brought us a bowl full of lobster tails steamed in butter and served with new potatoes. We ate the lobsters like shrimp, peeling off the shell and eating the meat in one bite.
Tourguide was very nice. During the long wet ride we learned that he was divorced with two kids that he shared custody with his ex wife. How his son called a woman about a puppy and how she drove for six hours to give them the dog. How he is looking for someone to take the dog because it has gotten to big for anyone to walk but him. We also learned that Iceland is not isolated from the problems of the rest of the world. How there is a growing drug problems, with the police arresting more people acting as drug mules for the cocaine dealers. How thieves steal the lights from greenhouses so that they can grow marijuana. How kids will spray paint any public building or run down house. Sometimes the parents will even buy the spray cans for their children.
Tourguide was so eager to sow us something on this trip that we stopped at a geothermal power station and at Yoko Onoís peace light, which is just a big search light that is to be lit every night from John Lennonís birthday in October to the day of his death in December. Although we paid good money not to see the Northern Lights, we did get a taste of what Iceland is like outside of the tourist attractions.
Sunday we slept in, but not as long, so got to breakfast before the ravenous horde. Because it was still dark outside we took an after breakfast nap while a Dr. Phil marathon played on one of the few TV channels. Awake by 11:00, we had a little us time, showered, and went to explore downtown Reykjavic. Not a pretty city, the houses and buildings are all made of cement with metal roofs. With all the graffiti and a fair amount of litter on the streets, Reykjavic does not fit the stereotype of a fastidious Northern European capital.
We had coffee and french fries at cafť Paris while I went over the guide books, Steven doesnít do maps. Next we climbed to hill to see the funky cement church that is in all the pictures of Iceland. It was bitter ande the wind was brisk. We were just about the only people out walking. The church was nothing special but is one of the few distinctive buildings in Reykjavic.
We next visited the modern art museum. The first floor was devoted to wall-sized canvases that were painted in the style of Lichtenstein. They were fun to look at but were so cartoonish that they left no lasting impression and were forgotten immediately. The second floor was like every parody of modern art you have ever seen on TV or the movies. The Ďartistí put a shoe on the floor with a mirror and called it pair. The other shoe and matching mirror were located in a separate room. A cardboard box on the floor was called floor element. A similar box glued to the wall was called sanctuary. Colored dots pasted to the wall was called landscape. I couldnít help but laugh at this farce, but Steven told me not to be rude because some people were actually taking it seriously.
We had a classic Icelandic treat, the hot dog, at a stand close by. These franks are famous, even Bill Clinton has eaten at this hot dog stand. They were good, but not worth the 15 minute wait in line it took to get them. Our next stop was a large flea market. This was the most crowded place we saw in Iceland. The crap was the same junk you can see at any American flea market. The only difference was that the used books were in a different language.
The last trip was to the Blue Lagoon. This tourist trap was entirely man-made. A geothermal power plant uses steam from lava heated water to power an electrical turbine. The waste water is harmless and is released as run-off. One of these power plants went on-line and they started to release the waste water, expecting that it would seep back into the ground, but instead it formed a lake. One guy started bathing in this warm water and told everyone how great it was. Soon lots of people were doing it and a whole complex has grown up around the lake. The mineral water supposedly has healing properties, and there is a clinic for the treatment of psoriasis.
This is now Icelandís biggest tourist attraction. Think of it as the worldís largest hot tub. There are many alcoves with benches, areas that are deep enough to swim and others that are only 6 inches deep. We arrived well after dark. At the check-in counter we were issued a wristband and directed to the locker room. This place was very high tech. The band served as the locker key as well as a credit card for any purchases made during the visit. Guests must shower before entering the pool. The men there had little to no modesty, wondering around naked as jay-birds. There was some good naked, but a whole lot of bad naked.
You enter the lagoon through an atrium inside the building. The water is warm, almost body temp or pee warm. After you open the door to the outside, the icy wind cuts across your face, though your body is warm enough submerged in the water. The pool was surprisingly large. The water steamed in the cold night air, smelling of sulfur. There were few people in the pool that night, and they were clustered in tight groups, so the place seemed almost empty. We splashed around for a while, exploring the various nooks and crannies. There was a steam room (too hot) and a cascade of frigid water (too cold). There was a white silicone goo that was supposed to be used as a exfoliant mask, but which felt disgusting. Parts of the pool floor were covered with the silicone mud. It felt like walking in pudding. Steven enjoyed the feeling but I found it unsettling.
The pool was lovely but the cold air made it hard to stay out long. We went back inside and had a couple of $15.00 sandwiches. We went back out into the lagoon for a while, watching the steam rise off the water and enjoying the warm currents that eddied about us. After showering and dressing, we went to the restaurant for a cocktail while waiting for the bus. We then took the long bus trip back to Reykjavic, relaxed and happy.
The next morning we did not much at all, checkout was at noon but the bus to the airport didnít arrive until 1:30. Steven took a bath while I walked around the neighborhood around the hotel. The trip back to Baltimore was uneventful except that Steven left his passport and cell phone in the airport. Fortunately a good soul turned it in to airport security so all was well.
In summary: the trip was great although there were some problems. The landscape was breathtaking; the food was atrocious; the prices were outrageous; and the people were friendly but reserved. All in all the trip was well worth it. Four days was just enough time to see all that Iceland has to offer.