Monday, January 4, 2016

Chasing The Aurora - A Journey Around Iceland (Part I)

While it has taken me a few months to put this post together, I am committed to sharing the amazing scenery and overall experience of our recent trip to Iceland. As we covered a lot of ground, I have decided to break this up into several parts, with this initial post being about the planning process and the first few days of the trip.

We did most of our research online and borrowed the latest edition of the Lonely Planet Iceland guidebook from the local library. Once we committed to the trip, purchased our plane tickets (on 4/16/15), and reserved accommodations and the rental car, we basically didn’t do anything trip-related for several months. We had plenty to keep us busy and distracted:  I joined my extended family’s vacation in Alaska in May; we attended Greg’s youngest brother’s wedding in Indiana in June; we moved and both started new jobs in July; and I returned to Indiana for my uncle’s funeral in August. Thus, it wasn’t until about two weeks before departure that I started really finalizing the details of the trip.
I eventually ordered the Lonely Planet Iceland guidebook and DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Iceland from Amazon. We also decided to purchase a 1:500,000 scale road atlas at the Ferðakort map store in Reykjavik as it was not available in the U.S. and we weren't enamored with the foldout maps we found at Powell's. By the way, we are now selling all three books (in like new condition) so please send me a message if you’re interested!
Here are a few of the websites that I found most helpful for research and planning purposes:

I will discuss our budget and expenses in a future post, but know that, as it relates to our overall itinerary, we did not let money i.e. cost dictate the duration or route of the trip. We could have easily tacked on a third week, or at least a few more days, so we wouldn’t have to be on the go so much and cover so much ground each day. But we were limited by Greg’s vacation days as well as the airline’s flight schedules.
Thus our itinerary was essentially a “Greatest Hits of Iceland” with the exclusion of the remote West Fjords and the Highland Interior, which require a 4-wheel drive vehicle (and more time). We basically circumnavigated the island counterclockwise via Route 1 aka the Ring Road, deviating only to reach more remote sites and parts of the East Fjords and the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Based on our research, we decided to travel in the shoulder season, which generally starts in September. At that point, prices drop as the weather can change quickly and there is less daylight (13-14 hours, compared to 24 hours in the middle of summer) for sightseeing. By mid-September, many hotels and restaurants are closed and activities are limited. But there are fewer tourists and an increased chance of seeing the northern lights. This is why we chose to travel over the first two weeks of September.
We departed Portland on Wednesday, September 2 at 6:30 a.m. We had a scheduled, long (7+ hour) layover in New York City during which we took public transit into lower Manhattan to visit the World Trade Center Memorial site for the first time. We met up with my friend Corey outside of St. Paul’s Chapel and wandered around the memorial pools and the new/ongoing construction. After a nice sunset stroll and dinner along the esplanade overlooking the Hudson River and New Jersey skyline, it was time to head back to the airport. Sweaty (it was 91F) and exhausted, we boarded our flight to Reykjavik and departed on time at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

We landed on schedule just after 8:00 a.m. on a gray, rainy 52F day at Keflavik. We shopped the airport duty free, as our research indicated that alcohol was significantly cheaper there than anywhere else in the country. Then we crammed all of our purchases into our already stuffed suitcases and boarded the Flybus into town. Our next two night’s accommodations were at an Airbnb in the city center, which was walking distance from the BSI Bus Terminal. Unfortunately, it was raining steadily when we got off the bus, so we donned our full rain gear and pack covers for the 1 km walk to the apartment. Our host was just arriving to clean, so we left all of our excess gear with her and headed out on foot to the tattoo studio where I had made an appointment via email in advance. After a lengthy consultation, I ultimately decided to wait until the end of the trip to get my new ink, so Greg & I began searching for a warm, dry and reasonably priced spot for lunch. We found a cute little cafe serving fresh sandwiches and soup which was the perfect comfort food for our tired minds and bodies. Afraid that we would sleep the rest of the day if we went back to the apartment to take a nap, we simply took a few minutes to regroup and map out some sights of interest, then initiated a self-guided walking tour of the city using my trip research notes and our two guidebooks. After a couple of hours spent visiting the Hallgrimskirkja, Einar Jonsson Museum sculpture garden, and buildings in Old Reykjavik, we browsed the main tourist office for any useful free maps and other info. At this point it was after 5 p.m. and we were completely exhausted. We headed back to the apartment for a hot shower and had no trouble sleeping through the night.

Friday, September 4, 2015

We awoke to snippets of blue sky, a welcome respite from yesterday’s dreariness. We spent a leisurely morning in the studio apartment, plotting an extended walking tour of the city as well as researching where to eat, buy groceries, buy a road atlas, and later in the evening, pick up our rental car. From our Airbnb on the shore of Tjörnin, a small lake with abundant bird life, we walked east to what I call Embassy Row, enjoying the unique architecture of the brightly painted homes in the area. We then meandered our way into the heart of the city and it’s main pedestrian street, Laugavegur. Greg, the history buff, wanted to see Höfði House, site of the 1986 summit meeting of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev which effectively marked the end of the Cold War, so that took us farther east through a newer business district. After sharing a big bowl of beef noodle soup for lunch, we walked along the Sæbraut waterfront promenade, enjoying scenic views of the harbor, city skyline and iconic Sun Voyager sculpture, capped by the shimmering Harpa concert hall. After all that walking we decided to splurge on a craft beer at Skúli, but at $10 for a snifter glass pour, we vowed to stick with drinking our duty free purchases going forward. By then it was after 4 p.m. and time to head down to the Old Harbor to pick up our Sixt rental car. We had opted for the cheapest 2WD model, which turned out to be a manual transmission Chevy Spark. It was most definitely an economy car; we even had to put our luggage in the back seat because the tiny trunk wasn’t big enough. As it turned out, over the course of the trip, the trunk made a handy food pantry / refrigerator of sorts and occasional drying rack for wet clothes. We left the car in a nearby parking lot while we ate dinner at Sægreifinn, a tiny place in an old fisherman’s hut by the harbor. “The Sea Baron” is known for their lobster soup, which is what Greg and I both ordered. Served with a loaf of French bread and a few packets of Icelandic butter, the soup was loaded with chunks of lobster in a perfectly balanced broth served steaming hot. It was simple but absolutely delicious and a steal at only $10 per bowl. I had promised Greg that he could have one more treat before we retired for the evening, so we walked along the harbor to the famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, where we waited in a short line and then ordered one, with everything. At $3, you really can’t go wrong with this tasty local snack. By the time we walked back to the car and made our way to the apartment it was already 8 p.m., so we had just enough time to wind down with a beer from our duty free stash while we went over our plans for tomorrow, the beginning of our driving tour of Iceland.

Photos from Days 1-3 (all taken with my iPhone 6):
New York City layover

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