The Golden Circle, Iceland

Friday, April 28, 2017

Ever wondered what it’s like to drive around Iceland in a 4WD vehicle and sleep in a tent on top of your car? Well today, I’m sharing all the deets about our camping adventure and our first day exploring The Golden Circle!

When we were planning our trip to Iceland, Mike and I absolutely 100% knew we wanted to spend at least half of it camping. We had seen a ton of videos on YouTube and heard stories from people who had done it and everyone said it was the best way to see the country. When camping in Iceland, you have quite a few options since it’s a pretty popular way to explore. There are full out RV rentals, there are Land Rovers with beds in the back, there are camper vans with mini kitchens, and then there’s our personal favorite, the camping car, which is basically a normal 4WD vehicle with a collapsable tent built onto the roof. 

Since we were planning to visit Iceland in September, we knew this would be a good option. The weather in Iceland in September is very much like the mid-atlantic's late-fall and we knew these would be the perfect tent-sleeping conditions. 

If you’re thinking about camping, I suggest you do your research when timing your trip. Once you get into October, the weather in Iceland changes dramatically as this is generally considered the start of winter. This isn’t to say that we didn’t see hail and temps below 40F in September, because we did, but once October hits, you should definitely be prepared for snow. Based on stories we’ve heard and our own experience, I highly recommend renting a covered van if you plan to camp anytime from October through April. The locals told us that spring and fall don’t exist for more than the five minutes between summer and winter, and they weren’t kidding. September and May tend to be the “shoulder seasons” as they transition between cold and warm weather, while summer typically last from June through August - which is also when all the tourists fly in. Since our anniversary falls in September and we had also heard September is the best non-winter month to see the northern lights, we knew it was fate. 

When it came to selecting a camping car company, we ended up going with … wait for it …  a company called Camping Cars. Despite the simple name, I cannot say enough great things about them (and no, they did not sponsor this post). Aside from the experience itself, the staff is probably the number one reason we rave about them. Throughout our entire experience with Camping Cars, they were extremely helpful and friendly. They were super responsive throughout the booking process, sent us resources and tips months before we got there, and even picked us up from the airport and dropped us back off again when we were switching rentals, for free! When we got to their office, they showed us how to operate everything, gave us all kinds of maps, gear and advice, set us up with wifi in the car (which is available in all their vehicles) and then quickly upgraded us on the road a few days later when we requested a larger package. They helped point out the best grocery stores to stock up on food (look for the Bonus stores with a big pink pig logo!), explained the super complicated gas station system (I’ll explain in a later post), and answered all the questions we had. They checked in throughout our trip via email to make sure everything was okay and genuinely cared about our experience of Iceland. The cars themselves aren’t the newest or most luxurious, but they’re reliable and sturdy, and when you’re riding on some of the rough gravel roads, that’s exactly what you want. 

Aside from the car itself, our favorite part of camping was setting up in a different spot every night and waking up with some of the most incredible views around us. Ahhh, the freedom! The good news is that in Iceland, you can pretty much camp anywhere. We tried to stick to camping pull-offs or established campgrounds though, since there were hot showers and bathrooms available, which we did not regret. After we had explored a bit of Reykjavik on our first day there, we made our way around what’s known as The Golden Circle before finding our first spot to set up camp. The Golden Circle includes three main stops with a couple of extras that you can explore at your leisure. The sites all form sort of a big circle to the east and north of Reykjavik and you can easily see everything in an afternoon. I think total, it took us about four hours. 

Our first stop was Pingvellir National Park, just east of Reykjavik. Pingvellir is unique for many reasons, with lots of interesting history, but one of the coolest features is the landscape. The park itself sits in a rift valley between two tectonic plates. We followed the main path and we could clearly see the continental drift as we walked between the the North American and Eurasian plates. There are faults and fissures all over the area, but the biggest crack separating the two continents is called Almannagjá. Pingvellir a beautiful place to explore and we learned quite a bit about Iceland's geology when we visited. 

Our next stop was Geysir. Frankly, this was probably my least favorite stop on the circle. Geysir is Iceland's largest geyser, blasting 250 degree water up to 70 feet in the air. It was cool to check it off the list and to learn about geysers and geothermal energy, but really, you're just standing around a big watery hole in the ground with a bunch of tourists waiting for it to explode. Don't get me wrong, this can be really cool if you're interested in geysers, but our visit didn't last more than 30 minutes.

Here I am standing awkwardly, out of focus, waiting for the thing to explode behind me. 

Gullfoss was our third stop and the photos here do not do it justice. This place was absolutely incredible. There are two areas to park - one overlooking the falls and one right up close. We actually visited Gullfoss twice since it was a bit drizzly the first time and we'd heard it was most magical in the sun. We waited for the weather to clear up and headed back, and boy am I glad we did. The secret to the sun? Rainbows. They were everywhere we turned, shining in the mist. It was the first moment in Iceland (of many) where I stood frozen in awe of the beauty and power of nature.

Our last stop for the day was Kerid, a volcanic crater near the southernmost part of the circle. The volcano is no longer active since it emptied its magma reserve long ago, and now inside sits a beautiful turquoise lake. We spent quite a bit of time here since you can walk around the top and then down inside the crater. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful by the water, so we hung out for a while just absorbing the day. 

That evening, we found a spot to camp between Gullfoss and Kerid that had just closed for the season, but was open for people to stay for free if they wanted. Since there was no manager staying at the site, there was an honor system for the showers, so we left a couple bucks as a donation. We ended up passing out around 6:30PM and didn't wake up until about 7:00 the next morning. It had been a very long day of traveling and site seeing, so we needed the rest for our trek along the south of Iceland that we'd begin in the morning. I'll be back next week to cover this leg of our trip!

Reykjavík, Iceland

Friday, April 21, 2017

It's finally time to come clean about my love affair with Iceland. 

It's been six months since our first trip there and as you can probably imagine, it was nothing short of spectacular. I've been desperately trying to find an excuse to go back since the moment we landed back home and I seriously hope that we can find the time in the next year or so to explore more of this incredible country. My co-worker is from Iceland so I'm about to just tell her that I'm tagging along on her next family reunion. (Hook me up, Hildur!)

The series of posts that I'll be sharing over the next few weeks have been a long time coming. I would've had them out sooner if we hadn't taken four million photos that required hours of sorting, organizing, and editing. That being said, I've broken our trip up into seven different posts in order to avoid overwhelming everyone by sharing everything all at once. I know what you're thinking. Whoa, seven posts? I know it’s a lot, but you’ll thank me later. 

Just as a side note, I've had quite a few friends message me with questions about our adventures in Iceland since they are now planning trips of their own. If you are on the fence about making the journey or don't know where to start, I hope some of these posts can help. I'll be doing my best to cover as many details as possible, but if you've got more questions about where we stayed, how expensive something was, or any other specifics, don't hesitate to comment below or shoot me a private message. Chances are, I've already answered the question for someone else!

Alright, enough already. Today, we're talking about Reykjavík, so let's get started!

Back in September, Mike and I flew overnight on IcelandAir into Keflavik airport which is roughly half an hour from the capital city of Reykjavík. This was Mike's first transatlantic flight in years, so he was super impressed with the service on IcelandAir. Side note number two - if you're trying to decide between IcelandAir and WOW Air, I highly recommend dishing out the few extra bucks for IcelandAir. Everything, including in-flight entertainment, comes standard with IcelandAir, whereas WOW is more of an a la carte airline. It's the Spirit Airlines of Iceland travel, if you will, and unless you're looking to get there for pennies with absolutely nothing included and willing to risk the delays, it's not worth the pain. Ya feel me?

We landed around 6:30AM local time and couldn't wait to start our adventure. For the first half of our trip, we rented a camping car (an SUV with a tent on the roof) to roam around in. I'll be covering details about the car in my next post, so stay tuned if you're thinking about camping in Iceland (spoiler alert: WORTH IT). The car company actually picked us up at the airport, so we didn't have to worry about transfers, but if you're planning to rent a car in Iceland, you can do so easily at the airport.

After we were set with our car, we headed straight up to Reykjavík to begin exploring. When we got there, shops were just opening so we went to Reykjavik Roasters to caffeinate and grab breakfast. I had heard great things about the place and it did not disappoint. The inside was cozy and trendy, and with a few pastries and a pair of lattes, it was the perfect way to wake up. 

We took the rest of the morning to wander around admiring the street art, taking in the view of the sea near the harbor, popping into a few shops, and scoping out stops for when we came back to Reykjavík later that week. Our itinerary had us passing through twice more, so we didn’t try to cram everything into that first day. We did manage to stumble upon a big flea market (Kolaportið) down by the harbor. It was popular with the locals, so we knew we couldn’t lose. There was an endless supply of handmade lopapeysa and wool blankets (which we definitely bought) as well as fresh fish and fermented shark (which we definitely did not). We did however try a few samples of dried fish with the creamiest butter I’ve ever tasted and it was quite the treat!

On one of our return trips through the capital city, we made sure to stop by Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic giant church in Reykjavík, and head to the top of the tower for the prettiest view. The line to get a ticket wasn’t too long, but since there was only a small lift taking you to the top, we had a bit of a wait as it only accommodated roughly six people at a time. Still, it was definitely worth the 6 Euro.

Now for my favorite part - THE FOOD. 

As I said before, we passed through Reykjavík a few times, so luckily we got to try several different restaurants. And aside from Reykjavík Roasters and the fish at the flea market, there are a bunch of awesome options!

First on the list is Saegreifinn - The Sea Barron. Several friends had recommended this place and it’s the perfect spot to grab some fresh fish and beer for lunch. It’s not at all fancy with its long wooden tables and giant barrels for chairs, which was totally our speed. When we wandered in, we were immediately greeted by the girl behind the counter who directed us to the case on our left full of fresh fish options. We each chose a cup of their famous lobster soup and giant salmon skewer, which they grabbed directly from the case and grilled up on the spot. The tables are a bit awkward since they’re all kind of crammed together so it’s not really a place to bring large groups. I hear that they do have alternate seating upstairs or outside, but for a quick lunch, it suited us just fine. 

Another great spot for local cuisine is Sjavargrillid (aka seafood grill). I read about this place on one of my favorite travel blogs and hands down, they’ve got some of the best dishes in town. It’s also the perfect little dinner spot to grab a cocktail and relax, so keep it in mind if you’re staying in downtown Reykjavík

Last up is Baejarins Beztu Pylsur and when I tell you what it is, you’ll probably shake your head think I’m crazy, but just trust me on this one. So what kind of place is this? Well, folks, it’s a hot dog stand. When I had first told people that we were planning a trip to Iceland, I was shocked by how many people kept raving about the hot dogs. “They’re incredible! You can even get them at gas stations on the side of the road!” they told me, at which point I immediately pictured a three-day-old greasy 7-11 hot dog rotating under a heat lamp. Ew. But then, I went to Iceland. And then, I tried the hot dogs. And then, I saw the light. I’m not sure what it is about them - maybe it’s the toppings (they traditionally come with remoulade, crispy onions, and pylsusinnep or sweet brown mustard) or the fact that they’re made from Icelandic lamb, but damn they’re good. So do me a solid and visit the stand and discover the magic for yourself. Just be prepared to wait. The line was around the corner when we went at 11:00AM.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any recommendations for hotels Reykjavík since we didn’t actually stay there, but many friends say that the airbnb selection is awesome, so keep that in mind if you’re looking for a place. For us, the main draw to Iceland was the dramatic landscapes, so while we wanted to experience some of the city, we were more interested in spending as much time in the rest of the country as possible. So, if craters and waterfalls are your thing, be sure to swing by next week since I’ll be sharing all the details about The Golden Circle!