Icelandair Review – JFK to Reykjavik

IcelandAir review
IcelandAir’s “Surtsey” pulls into Gate 2 at JFK’s Terminal 7, ready to take another load to Iceland.

I originally wrote this IcelandAir review for Yahoo.com and its Voices platform. I’ve updated some info to give you an idea of what to expect today if you fly IcelandAir to Keflavík International Airport.

If you’re headed to Iceland from the United States, you don’t have many options. It comes down to Delta Airlines, WOW and IcelandAir. Here’s my IcelandaAir review to give you a first-hand idea on the original option for visiting Iceland.

A Step Back in Time

When was the last time you boarded an airliner and saw a pillbox hat and black glove-wearing flight attendant? It gives the IcelandAir staff a classy retro vibe. The airline even names its airplanes: The Boeing 757-200 that I boarded for my flight from New York to Reykjavik (and back) was named Surtsey after a new volcanic island that emerged from the sea in the 1960s.

IcelandAir review
Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

And crossing into the aircraft itself is a revelation of how pleasant a commercial airplane can be. Despite being just short of 20 years old, Surtsey was immaculately clean, softly lit and equipped with on-demand entertainment systems at every seat. I was able to watch a movie, some TV and even use the system to take a few lessons in mastering Icelandic phrases. Or maybe I should say "get schooled" rather than "mastered." That’s a tough language!

IcelandAir review
A chilly morning at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland.

There was also plenty of legroom between rows. Also kind of fun: Each seat had an Icelandic phrase and its translation on the headrest.

Stomachs Run on Empty

After boarding, it didn’t take long for the crew to start handing out free bottles of very nice Icelandic glacier water. That was especially considerate considering a nearly two-hour delay in taking off – we spent most of that time sitting on a taxiway.

Aside from the on-demand entertainment, that was the last of the perks. No free meals or drinks. Considering this is otherwise a slick, classy airline, I’m a bit dismayed – especially for the price. Flying to Reykjavik was only marginally cheaper than Qantas flights that were more than twice as long (Los Angeles to Auckland, Los Angeles to Sydney). In contrast, the Qantas flights also included free meals, snacks and drinks along with some very friendly service. The IcelandAir staff was uniformly pleasant, but nowhere near as exuberant as the Australian crews on Qantas. It was more like the polished formality of a premium Asian airline like ANA or Asiana. I keep going back to the words like classy and elegant.

Odds & Ends

Beautiful plane, good service, comfort, entertainment – all are impressive on an IcelandAir flight. Bring some snacks, and you can overcome the meal quibble. It makes IcelandAir somewhat less of a value than other airlines – but if you want to shop in Reykjavik, hit the hot tubs at the Blue Lagoon or backpack the Landmannalaugar highlands … well, you have few alternatives. Another word of advice: Sign up for the IcelandAir netclub. They will send you some legitimately good offers for flights, tours and accommodations. I wish I’d signed up before my trip. I really can’t imagine either of the IcelandAir competitors winning me over the next time I go to Iceland.

So what about WOW and its super-cheap fares to Iceland? I crunched the numbers to see if it’s really a better value than IcelandAir.

My Quick Iceland Travel Guide

Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Iceland. And my post about a suggested itinerary is one of my most popular posts. I think it might be handy, though, to do a Wandering Justin-style Iceland travel guide.

Here’s what I have to say about some of the common questions people ask me, beyond my suggested Iceland travel itinerary.

What’s the Food Like in Iceland?

Nearly everywhere we stayed, we woke up to a huge Scandinavian-style breakfast that was included in the price of our accommodations. We’d find grains, cereals, bread, jam, a variety of meats, plenty of cheeses, jam, tea, coffee -- well, you might get the idea. I even got into the pickled herring and shrimp spreads.

iceland guide
Roasted sheep, anyone?

When it came to lunch, we were a bit more on our own. We spent many of our days on the road, so we’d run into a roadside convenience store and grab sandwiches. This would usually get us a better sandwich than we’re used to in the United States, with more exotic sorts of ingredients.

Dinner, dessert and coffee is where Iceland really excels. I ate enormous amounts of fresh fish, lamb and smoked trout. If you like chocolate, you’re in luck – so does nearly everyone in Iceland. Many of the restaurants and coffeehouses feature some rich desserts. Oh, and coffee – the entire country seems to be full of classy coffeehouses. Though Kaffitár appears to be a country-spanning chain, its baristas turn out top-quality cappuccinos (my espresso drink of choice, and one that says a lot about the barista’s skills).

Iceland does lag in craft beer, though. There are some rather draconian laws inhibiting homebrewers, which is usually Ground Zero for any nation’s craft beer movement. The Icelandic government is hell-bent on getting a cut for alcohol sales, so it seems to view homebrewers as an economic threat.

iceland guide
Many of Iceland’s colors all in one photo.

What Historical Sites are in My Iceland Travel Guide?

I’m going to be straight-up on this one: I didn’t put many historical sites on my itinerary. I lean more toward scenery and geology. That’s not to say that Iceland doesn’t have plenty of of history – Vikings populated this country, and did their best to survive its conditions hundreds of years before modern conveniences.

If history is part of what makes you travel, though, Thingvellir National Park is a must. It’s the site of the world’s oldest parliament. And this list of historical sites offers plenty of ideas. But the very best resource I’ve found for getting ideas about historical sites in Iceland is the book "The Tricking of Freya." Though it’s a work of fiction, it is packed with for-real information about Iceland’s historical, archaeological and natural sites. It’s also a top-quality mystery.

iceland guide
You’ll see a reflection of Iceland’s culture everywhere, from bookstores to turf houses.

Now, if you’re also interested in natural history, I don’t even know where to begin. I loved the area near Myvatn, with its steam explosion craters, the Dimmuborgir lava field, Hverfjall crater and the Hverir thermal area. If you’re staying in the area, be sure to stay on the north edge of the lake – there are far fewer flies buzzing around on that side.

If you’re into hiking, a stop at Skaftafell National Park for a few days is a must. Looking back at it, I wish I’d known about Kristinartindar. It’s one of the coolest-looking mountains I’ve ever seen, and I want to go back to Iceland just to climb it. And it wasn’t in a single Iceland travel guide that I’d found. Oh, and don’t miss Jökullsarlon or any chance to hike on a glacier.

Icelandic Culture is Everywhere

Culture in Iceland isn’t reserved for museums. You’ll find it in the murals in neighborhoods, the independent shops selling hand-made goods and even at the geothermally heated city pools. You’ll definitely find it in the astounding number of bookstores, where you’ll find books from Icelandic authors (I’ve heard Iceland has the highest per-capita number of published authors). The culture is even embedded right into the language – a council of experts approves new words that enter the language, and rigorously keeps out influences that can erode it. I met some friendly Swedish travelers who told me that Icelandic is very much like Swedish would’ve sounded a thousand years ago.

iceland guide
Iceland resists chains, and its locally grown businesses thrive as a result. (PS – Kotturinn is a word for “cat.”)

If you just must have a museum recommendation, be sure to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (In a way, I’m sad it moved from the beautiful northern town of Húsavík – you should go there anyway). It’s in every Iceland travel guide for a reason: It is a perfect avatar for Iceland’s humor and curiosity – and willingness to take an idea further than anyone ever imagined. If you do decide to visit the museum, I also recommend watching the movie "The Final Member" before your visit.

The Views Outdoor

People like to say Greenland is white, and Iceland is green. Umm, that’s kind of true – but don’t go getting the idea that Iceland is covered in old-growth forests. The green comes more from moss and smaller, shrub-like plants. Glaciation and other factors are behind that.

iceland guide
You’ll lose count of all the spectacular waterfalls.

Iceland has a very raw, unfinished natural beauty with lots of colors besides green – I mean red, brown, yellow, white, just about everything. The mountainous terrain lends itself to great views, too. Here’s the truth: You will not fail to find a great view every single day, no matter where you go. From the coasts to the interior, the scenery will never fail to astound you.

You’ll be able to get around the most in the summer; from September until early June, many of the roads into the interior are closed. But the cold months will also allow a glimpse of the Northern Lights. In the summer, you won’t see so much as a single star – you’re up so far north that the sun will just dip below the horizon for a bit before popping back up. And cloud cover is also common.

What About Accommodations?

Hotels in Iceland can be pricey, well past $100 a night. But if you’re a good shopper, you’ll find some good deals. When I go back to Reykjavik, I’ll book a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. It’s more bed and breakfast than hotel, but it was was than $100 US per night, friendly and comfortable – and just the right proximity to the downtown area. Elsewhere, camping is a great option. Free-range camping is allowed with certain limitations, and campgrounds are about $25 a night … a nice option since they include bathrooms and often kitchens. I also liked the Hotel Laki, Efri-Vik, Guesthouse Frost and Fire (Frost og Funi) and Hotel Lundi Restaurant. Hotel Laki and Frost and Fire were a bit higher-priced, but nice indulgences after camping – and they were also very stylish. Hotel Lundi was a bit less expensive, and much more homey; I felt like I was visiting a family friend’s house.

iceland guide
In Husavik, horses graze just a few minutes’ walk from the harbor and downtown.

Other Good to Know Iceland Travel Tips

  • It’s astoundingly easy to get around Iceland, even if you don’t rent a car. The bus service is reliable and punctual – and the buses take credit cards. Even far into the interior, the drivers use wireless devices for busfare.
  • If you do rent a car, don’t expect American-style travel times based on getting around at 70 mph. Speed limits are slower because of smaller, narrower roads. Renting a car is great if you’ll stick to the main roads because you’ll have the freedom to be more spontaneous. But if you want to head into the interior, especially on the F Roads, I’d recommend you take a bus. The interior roads are unpaved, and they can challenge drivers not accustomed to the conditions.
  • It might be a quick stopover that brings you to Iceland – many people ask me what they can do in three days. My answer: “You can make yourself wish you stayed longer.” Look, spend enough time to get a true taste of what the country offers. It’s magnificent, and it’s a more unusual and adventurous destination – why go the same places everyone else does?
  • Iceland also really wants you to stick around. Aside from the considerable hospitality, there’s also the VAT tax refund. So you can do some shopping and get a little cash back. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s just kind of nice.

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Scenes from a Glacier in Iceland

It’s easy to dismiss a glacier as a big, boring slab of ice. I get it. But you will never again think that way once you’ve stood on one. You hear water rush under and over it. You’ll hear the groans and cracks of its movements. You’ll never truly fathom how dynamic glaciers are until you spend time near them.

I can’t replicate the experience here … but I can give you some of the flavor with these photos of scenes from a glacier. I hope you like what you see enough to visit someplace where you can spend a day on a glacier. I promise, it will exceed your expectations.

In these photos, you’ll see Falljökull, a glacier on the southern portion of Vatnajökull, which is the largest ice cap in Europe. It’s also near Skaftafell National Park, which is a must for any outdoor adventurer planning a stop in Iceland. Glacier Guides guys Gisli and Robert equipped and led us. Click any photo to get a closer look.

scenes from a glacier

Here we are starting our approach to Falljökull. This means “falling glacier,” and you can see why as it tumbled down this mountain. By this point, we’re wearing crampons and harnesses … and we have ice axes!

scenes from a glacierHere, I’ve aimed a 200mm lens at an icy outcrop. All the gray stuff you see is probably soot from the then-recent Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption.

scenes from a glacier

A little bit more ice. Just imagine how many gallons and gallons of water this one glacier contains.And it’s just a baby as part of the larger ice cap.

scenes from a glacierMy advice – don’t fill up on water before you go to the glacier. Just stick your bottle or hydration bladder under some flowing water for some of the tastiest glacier meltwater you’ll ever drink

scenes from a glacierWater and movement carve out incredible nooks from the nice. This one is just one of my favorite scenes from a glacier.

scenes from a glacierAnother cranny carved by nature.

scenes from a glacierI love all the stripes in the ice, along with all the ripples and folds.

scenes from a glacierWhite ice with streaks of blue, with the darkness of rock in the background.

scenes from a glacierLooking back toward the flatlands and ultimately the ocean. My camera faces south in this photo.

scenes from a glacierOur hike didn’t go up high into the folds and spires, which was a bit disappointing. The glacier guides say it’s too dangerous up there.

scenes from a glacierSarah, a German hiker and Robert from Glacier Guides.

 

Great Backpacking Destination: Iceland

backpacking destination
On one of Iceland’s best-known trails.

Iceland is made for backpacking. It has a wealth of trails that are supported by smart amenities and relatively easy to access. The country has embraced the backpacker, with plenty of touring groups, sports shops and hostels. Here are some other reasons why it’s a great backpacking destination.

Incredible Scenery

Icelanders realize what makes the country special: incredible scenery. Much of the land is young since it straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Some lava flows are just 20 years old. This creates some dramatic landscape unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. The scenery also changes quickly. Walk three miles, and the scenery changes completely.

backpacking destination
Trails everywhere. And lots of solitude.

High-Quality Huts

Major hiking routes have sturdy, high-quality huts ever eight miles or so. You can book reservations there, or just pitch a tent nearby (you’re not supposed to camp outside designated areas along the hiking routes). “Hut” is a bit of a misnomer since these structures actually have bathrooms and cooking facilities. Those who are tent camping can still use the bathrooms, but not the cooking gear.

backpacking destination
How’s that for a sweet hut? Amenities like this make Iceland a perfect backpacking destination.

Iceland isn’t the only backpacking destination to have incredible huts – New Zealand is also solid in this respect, as are many Scandinavian and Nordic areas.

No Dangerous Animals

I live in Arizona. Backpacking here brings the risk of rattlesnakes, scorpions and other potentially painful creepy-crawlies. We might have the Grand Canyon and very diverse scenery, but the state is just not set up to be backpacking destination. Iceland is a different story. Aside from sheep and harmless insects, the only animal you might encounter in the Icelandic back country is the Arctic fox – or possibly a Speedo-clad German taking a dip in a natural hot spring. In reality, the foxes are seldom seen and are too small to present a real threat.

Lots of Daylight During Summer

One of the challenges of backpacking can be the sudden drop in temperature when night falls. In Iceland, that’s not much of a concern. That’s because you’ll have about 22 hours of daylight. Even when the sun dips below the horizon, the sky still stays fairly light. That means no rushing to set up camp and dive into your tent and sleeping bag before the temperature turns frigid.

Solitude for Your Inner Hermit

Iceland is a decent-sized country. But it has only about 300,000 people in in it. So it’s slightly smaller than my home state, yet its population is about the size of a Phoenix suburb. That adds up to some empty space. Even at the popular Landmannalaugar hiking area, I hiked for hours at times without encountering another person. You’ll feel like you’re in some post-apocalyptic world with that sort of scenery, silence and solitude. Even areas like Dimmuborgir and the psuedocrater fields near Kirkjubaejarklaustur seem remote and rarely traveled.

Words of Warning

Though Iceland’s summer temperatures are often mild, things can change quickly. A driving rain can appear out of nowhere, with howling wind to accompany it.

The weather can do more than make you uncomfortable: It can kill you. In the mid-90s, a hiker died during a freak summer blizzard. He was just about a mile from the safety of the Hrafntinnusker Hut.

Plan ahead. Dress well. Bring the right gear. Then, you’ll be ready to have a great experience at any Iceland backpacking destination.

Visiting Filming Locations Around the World

filming locations
One of Iceland’s many waterfalls. But this one freezes in winter to become The Wall in the HBO series “A Game of Thrones.”

Years ago, I got hooked on A Game of Thrones. I was surprised to see HBO take the ambitious step of turning A Game of Thrones into a series – and doing a pretty good job of it too. Sure, some of my favorite background characters didn’t make the cut; a few situations changed too. But overall, HBO did a nice job preserving the essence of A Game of Thrones.

My first glimpse of The Wall, which the Night’s Watch guards to protect the realm from all sorts of encroaching bad stuff, added some fun for me. I realized that I’d been to there in-person. That revelation made me think of movie and TV filming locations I’ve visited in my travels. These were the first three that came to mind.

The Wall from A Game of Thrones

The real-life version of The Wall is Godafoss Waterfall, a waterfall between Akureyriand Myvatn in northern Iceland. I visited in summer, long before the first movie crews arrived to turn it into a filming location for A Game of Thrones. So what appears on your TV screen as an icy monstrosity 750 feet tall was considerably smaller, and flowing with milky-green water. I admire the creativity of the people who decide on locations for A Game of Thrones. I wouldn’t have looked at Godafoss and said “this is The Wall.”

filming locations
Climb Mt. Ngauruhoe – it’ll be one of the coolest things you ever do.

And I know just about everyone hated Prometheus. I was less harsh since I’m not an Aliens fanboy. I saw the problems with it, but there were still parts I enjoyed – like the opening credit sequence, which pans over the landscape you’d see in the first stage of the Laugavegur trek leading away from Landmannalaugar. I annoyed my friends by chanting “I camped there, I camped there!”

Mordor and Mount Doom
I’m not a big Lord of the Rings fan. But the scenery is pretty epic. You can see Middle Earth filming locations throughout New Zealand – all the locations are there, and I’ve been to many of them. But nothing is cooler than saying you’ve climbed Mount Doom – in real life, it’s called Mt Ngauruhoe. To get there, you have to hike through the Rangipo Desert, which is also Mordor (but just known as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the real world). I still keep meaning to go back and watch the corresponding movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

filming locations
Follow in the footsteps of the man in the hat.

If you like Hercules:The Legendary Journeys or Xena: Warrior Princess, you can scope out many of their locations in New Zealand, too. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to run into Bruce Campbell.

Indiana Jones on the Run
Raiders of the Lost Ark gets off to a rolling start, with Indiana Jones out-sprinting a giant stone marble that wants to squash him flat. He hightails into an amphibious plane and flies to safety.

You can kayak up that river with a visit to Kauai. It’s called the Hule’ia River, and it’s a major point for tourism in Kaua’i. I’m a big fan of Kauai since it’s more laid-back than anywhere else I visited in Hawaii. It’s mind-bogglingly green and verdant, and the Kauai topography doesn’t stay flat very long. Add the Raiders of the Lost Ark factor, and it’s obvious why so many film crews choose to work in Kauai.

Adventurous Ideas to Go to Iceland

go to iceland
A hike you shouldn’t miss if you go to Iceland.

I started this blog for one reason: to give people ideas for finding the right adventure for them. My favorite days as a blogger are not when an advertiser throws some cash my way. It’s when someone writes and says something like "Hey, I got the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe using your tips."

So I was fired up to get a message from a friend who decided to go to Iceland -- and promised to mine my blog for ideas.

Rather than make my friend Katie leaf through dozens of post, I decided to compile some ideas to help her go to Iceland. These will be perfect for anyone who plans to go to Iceland. Katie did say "you probably went more rugged than I will go." Fair enough -- I think I can help Katie find the right adventure for her taste.

Katie has her plane ticket and her new hiking boots -- let’s see what we can do for her! (And be sure to check out a more recent post with even more Iceland info!)

Go to Iceland, Go Inside a Volcano

I love volcanoes, especially if they’re still spewing something. But an extinct volcano can offer something, too. Especially Thrihnukagigur volcano, which is just a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik. It’s the only volcano in the world that I know that is extinct, yet has a its magma chamber fully intact. The Inside the Volcano tour takes you more than 400 feet into the depths of Thrihnukagigur.

I was in Iceland before this tour started, and I wail at my misfortune on a daily basis. This is not something any visitor to Iceland should miss.

Sign up for the Miđnæturhlaup

June 23 is the date for the MiÄ‘næturhlaup, a great race in Reykjavik with 5k, 10k and half-marathon distances. All the races start and finish at the Laugardalslaug geothermally heated pools – a perfect way to kick back after running -- and to meet locals. It’s also a good shot at glory: I love telling people that I was the first American finisher the year I ran. Of course, there were only three Americans, and my wife would’ve cooked me if we’d run the half-marathon instead of the 10k.

Since this is right in the middle of Reykjavik, it’s easy to sign up and get to the venue.

Glacier Lagoon, go to Iceland, Jokullsarlon
The Jokullsarlon, or glacier lagoon. Awesome!

Blue Waters, Ancient Ice

Just try pronouncing Jökulsárlón like an Icelander: I dare you. It translates into "glacier lagoon," and you’ll see the word "Jökull" all over the place. Anyway, the word sound cool – but seeing the Jökulsarlon in person will blow you away. Check the image, and bear in mind that it’s straight out of my camera. No photo editing or processing whatsoever. I’d also recommend the boat tour. Our guide fished a hunk of ice out of the glacier lagoon and chipped bits off for everyone to taste. We did a full day of glacier hiking combined with a visit to the glacier lagoon, which we arranged through Glacier Guides. I recommend them highly, especially if they’re still cruising around in a yellow school bus with a cute dog named Hekla.

Jökullsarlon is a haul from Reykjavik. We spent a night camping nearby at Skaftafell National Park, and a second night further west in Vik. Vik is nice, but not a must if you’re crunched for time when you go to Iceland.

landmannalaugar, go to iceland
My GPS track for a hike in Landmannalaugar.

Be a Highlander

OK, I know Katie thinks she doesn’t want to go too rugged. But I think she must get out to the highlands. I’d recommend that she takes a morning bus from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar. From there, she can do an eight-mile hike on the Laugavegur trail through some of the most unearthly scenery she’s ever seen. By the time she arrives at Hrafntinnusker Hut, she’ll have hiked past volcanic plugs, fumaroles, Technicolor rocks of all sorts, an incredible field of glossy, black obsidian boulders and the scenery used in the opening shots of the movie Prometheus. What’s really funny is when a ranger at the trailhead says "Oh, it’s really crowded today" and then you don’t see another person for the next two hours. Have a look at this post for more photos.

You can turn this into a three-day hike by pressing on toward Thorsmork, or you can return to Landmannalaugar and catch a bus to Skaftafell National Park or Kirkjubaejarklaustur (aka Klaustur, for short).

waterfall iceland
One of Iceland’s many waterfalls. But this one freezes in winter to become The Wall in the HBO series “A Game of Thrones.”

It takes a good four hours to get to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavik. Much of the trip is over bumpy dirt roads that have, by early June, been open for less than week (many of the highland roads are closed during much of the year – the terrain is that rugged). But I can’t in good conscience tell anyone to go to Iceland and give this area a miss. If you don’t travel with a tent, you can book a bunk at Hrafntinnusker hut.

To the North

66°North is an Icelandic clothing brand you’ll see everywhere – at trailheads, at coffee shops, you name it. Icelanders seem to pride themselves on enduring the north, and doing themselves up in 66°North was a manifestation of that pride. But there’s north and then there’s NORTH! To get further up the globe, I recommend that Katie hops on a plane to Akureyri, and then either rents a car or takes a bus to the area near Myvatn (which means Midge Lake). There are hotels and hostels around the lake, but I’d stay on the north side near the Vogar Farm Guesthouse campground. From there, Katie would be close to the Myvatn Nature Baths (a less-touristy and less-expensive Blue Lagoon), the Dimmuborgir lava field, Hverfjall crater and other cool spots. It’s also a very serene area. Do avoid the chocolate-covered black licorice at the gas stations, though.

Something else cool: The road from Akureyri to Myvatn passes a waterfall that freezes in the winter; when it’s frozen, it stars as The Wall in the HBO series A Game of Thrones.

City Living

Reykjavik is as cool and artsy a city as Katie will find anywhere. She likes coffee shops if not coffee, and the city is loaded with them. And they are all regional – as far as I know, Iceland has kept the Starbucks invasion at bay. Katie is a reader, so she’ll love all the bookstores. It’s hard to walk a half-mile without running into one, a sign that this is a very literate society (another sign – all the beds have reading lights on both sides). Reykjavik also has a huge interest in fashion; women there cruise around in some pretty wild styles. And I saw a huge number of independent fashion businesses selling their wares for reasonable prices.

OK, so I hope this gets Katie started on her plans to go to Iceland. Next up, I’ll share some advice on gear for her trip.

Find out even more in my Quick Iceland Travel Guide.

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Iceland Soccer – Why I Want Them to Beat Croatia

People love underdogs like the Iceland soccer team. Hours ago, they wrapped up a scoreless draw against Croatia at its Laugardalsvöllur national football stadium. Even before the result, Iceland soccer has been getting all sorts of great press.

If you’ve looked through this blog at all, you’ll know already that I love Iceland. And part of that love started with Iceland soccer fans. On our first day in Iceland, Sarah and did what we always do in a new destination: We walked. Our ambling took us to the Laugardalslaug public pools – a complex of geothermally heated pools where we wound up relaxing for hours.

After we had our fill of relaxation, we resumed our wandering. Just a few minutes from the pools, we found the Laugardalsvöllur. We noticed a crowd of people, including a long-haired, bearded guy with his face painted blue and white. He carried a staff. He seemed just like the person who could tell us what’s going on.

Iceland Soccer
The friendly Stjarnan faithful get rowdy.

It turned out that kick-off of a Premier League match between Stjarnan and Fram was about to kick off – this is the high point of Iceland soccer in domestic leagues. The Face-Painted One (named Ragnar) gave us a free ticket. I bought one more, and Sarah and I enjoyed 90 minutes of fun soccer action. OK, it wasn’t exactly the UEFA Champions League. But it was still a ton of fun, made better by the fans. The Stjarnan fans banged drums, blew trumpets and sang throughout the match. And the Fram stadiums were perfectly gracious to the noisy interlopers in their home stadium (which the team shares with the national team).

It was a pretty incredible start to our first day in Iceland. And it makes me root for a victory in the return leg in Croatia. Nothing against Croatia, but my personal connection to Iceland makes me favor them. If they win, they will be the first Icelandic soccer team to play in the World Cup. That will be an incredible achievement for a nation of just more than 300,000 residents.

I even have an Iceland soccer shirt in my closet, and I wear it often. But here’s the truth: I really wanted to find a Stjarnan shirt, but came up empty. I’d still like a Stjarnan shirt, but I’m glad to have the national team shirt now … you can bet I’ll wear it whether they win or lose to Croatia.

  • Iceland secures 0-0 draw vs Croatia in playoff
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Running Abroad – Our Travel Tradition

Running Abroad
Finishing a half-marathon at the top of the world.

I’m late to the starting line. I’m cold. I’m disoriented from a trip that started yesterday – kind of – in Phoenix and left me 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The pack for the Midnight Sun Run 10K left without me moments ago. I have the road through Tromsø, Norway, all to myself. This is my initial glimpse into the country, a barometer of its personality.

I’m the first to say that I’m not really a runner. I’ve coaxed myself through several half-marathons, plus sundry shorter races. Yet 10K races have become my way of tapping into the countries I visit. This is my third race abroad; they each leave me with a medal – and plenty of thoughts.

Running Abroad: Travel Tradition for the Active

One morning in New Zealand, I slept in while my wife, Sarah, went for a run. Her path intersected with a local race. She didn’t have a number plate or a timing chip, but she followed its route for awhile. And she decided on our new travel tradition – we’re going to race wherever we travel.

A half-marathon is barely enough time for Sarah to warm up at home. But during a vacation, that or a 10K is a good distance. We pile the miles on when we travel, taking in multiple hikes that stretch as long as 15 miles. We walk as much as possible in every city. For me, a 10k is a good challenge … especially to keep my time at less than 50 minutes.

Running Abroad
One of these days, I’ll be photogenic in a racing photo.

We got the plan rolling during a trip to Iceland. We found the Miðnæturhlaup, or Midnight Run. It’s a nice cruise through Reykjavik. The course passes a zoo, athletic fields, churches. Best of all, it ends at a city-run geothermally heated pool called Laugardalslaug.

By the time we ran the race, Sarah and I had embraced Iceland’s love for its hot tubs. We saw families and friends lounging in tubs, which they usually followed with an ice cream bar.

The Miðnæturhlaup also reinforces our impression of Icelanders as cool and laid-back, more so than people we encountered in recent trips. They weren’t likely to strike up conversations like Kiwis or Aussies. They wouldn’t tell you all the insider spots to visit, unprompted, like a Costa Rican.

And don’t expect them to "woo-hoo!" like Americans do at passing runners. Sure, running races prompt wacky spectacle in Americans. Some racers revel in outrageous outfits and costumes. The spectators love screaming at passing runners. If you go running abroad in Iceland, you’ll find the inhabitants are are made of cooler stuff. I heard an occasional golf clap, but that’s it. Later, Sarah told me she waved her hands in the air at spectators and gave a yell, which seemed to boggle their minds.

The racers themselves are matter-of-fact. They get on with their run, and save the grins for the pool afterward. When it’s time to run, run. When it’s time to hot tub, get communal.

A Party with a Run in the Middle

I figured out what happened in Iceland: It exported its love for race hooplah to South Korea.

The Hi Seoul races started off with cowboy boot-clad cheerleaders leading the entire pack in warmup stretches. A news camera crew milled about, noticed me, then shot footage of my entire stretching routine.

Running abroad Hi Seoul 10K Run w/Walter!
Happy runners at the Hi Seoul race

And in South Korea, it’s never too early or too bright for fireworks. A brace of rockets whistled into the air, and the boom echoed among the tall buildings. The theme to Star Trek: Voyager followed, and the 10k was underway. So if you want commotion when you’re running abroad, this is your race.

The race passed workaday portions of Seoul, far from the palaces, the souvenir shops of Insadong and the carts selling boiled silkworm larvae. It connected to the Han River, and ended in a public park.

As we ran, spectators yelled "Ite!" I can only guess it means "go" or something like it. The race, the runners, the spectators added up to a lively and outgoing experience. At this point, I had been in South Korea for more than a week. It confirmed my impression that South Korea is happy to see you and wants you to have fun -- even if the population wonders why you’re here instead of in Japan.

At the finish line, I collected my second foreign race medal – plus a technical t-shirt and a can of spicy chicken. Perfect for post-race recovery!

Racing at the Top of the World

The Midnight Sun Run is the first time I’ve ever run a race the day after arrival. The previous races came mid-trip, after we’d had a chance to mingle, to form impressions. We slept through most of our first day here; we woke at 3 p.m., which doesn’t look much different from 3 a.m. at this latitude.

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Here’s where you can run a 10k race 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

So, what is Tromsø, Norway, all about? As I start reeling in stragglers, I notice lots of revelers in skimpy dresses. A desert dweller like me wonders how they handle the cold.

The cityscape changes from businesses to homes. The residents line the course, cheering the runners as they pass: "Heja, heja, heja!" They wave, they smile, they clap.

The course drops to the shore. Even in June, snow covers many of the surrounding mountains. I forget that I’m even running, that I slept my day away in a tent, that my timing chip might not even work since I started so far behind.

I cross the finish line, get a finishers medal and settle in to wait for Sarah’s half-marathon to start. Her race is a far bigger event, with runners carrying their home countries’ flags – quite a few people are running abroad. The Norwegian spectators cheer the foreign visitors, sometimes throwing out a phrase of Spanish or Italian.

And once again, I experience the connection that brings runners together at races. And I look forward to my next race in a foreign country, wherever that happens to be.

My next adventure running abroad will be the Song Hong 10K in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Glacier Hiking – Why You Should do It

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Heading into a crevace.

I’ve written about glacier hiking a few times in the past. I started with some tips about Franz Josef, and added a look at Falljökull in Iceland.

But looking back at the posts, I could’ve done better. I want to take another shot at it. So let me swing back to the glacier hiking on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

Look, I really want you to go to Franz Josef Glacier. I think you’ll take something incredible from the experience. If you’re fit enough, sign up for an all-day session on the ice (You can’t just go glacier hiking on Franz Josef unguided – I was skeptical of the need for guides at first. But you need them, for real).

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Epic size. It took us 3 hours to get just past the black rocks. Click the photo for a bigger look – and try to find some people for scale.

Part of what amazes me about this is that Franz Josef is one of the few places on the planet where you can go from hiking through a tropical rainforest to glacier hiking in, oh, about 30 minutes. That’s right.

This isn’t a very technical glacier experience. You won’t need training or ropes or anything crazy. At some point, you’ll strap crampons to your feet. A short way into the day, you’ll need ice axes. And you’ll always need to mind your guides to the letter and keep your wits about you.

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High up on Franz Josef glacier.

OK, I have that out of the way. But here’s the really big deal about glacier hiking: It’s a chance to see the Earth -- alive, changing, noisy, real. And to feel something about it.

I am convinced that every person needs this sort of connection to the world. Think about how many of us live among concrete. It’s all so static, so dead. It’s easy to see how a person can forget that we’re on a giant ball of interlinked organisms and matter. It’s easy to see how a person can just shrug and say "screw the environment."

Here’s my promise: If you stand on a glacier, you will change. You’ll hear the water rush under you. You’ll feel the vibration as ice grinds against rock. And you’ll desperately wish that most of the world’s glaciers weren’t disappearing. And just maybe, you’ll think about ways you can help reverse the process.

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Starting from the bottom of Franz Josef Glacier.

If you’re like me, you’ll spend some time feeling like a hypocrite. I drive too much. I fly too much. I wish I rode my bike to work more.

But hey, maybe you’ll do something smaller and less grand -- and it will start to add up.

When I look at my day glacier hiking on Franz Josef, that’s the real takeaway. It’s far important than the beauty – though I promise the views will captivate you.

Now, go. Take a trip to New Zealand. Book your tour. Come back, and tell me what your day at Franz Josef Glacier did for you.

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Looking out from a high point on Franz Josef Glacier.
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Silfra – One of the World’s Great Diving Sites

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A view of Iceland’s Silfa Rift
Photos of one of the world’s coolest diving sites put SCUBA diving on my "to do" list. Yes, it even trumps my inner desert dweller’s disdain for water that’s 36 degrees F.

But it’s not the low temperatures that make Iceland’s Silfra Rift one of the world’s most unusual diving sites. It’s the scenery. This is where the American and Eurasian continents collide. Underwater cliffs mark the division. SCUBA divers can swim among cliffs that tower up to 65 feet over them on both sides.

And back to that cold water: The low temperatures give a clarity to the water that creates visibility of more than 300 feet. So why is the water so cold? It’s meltwater from a glacier -- chilly!

I’m kind of a big baby about water in general. Cold water makes things even worse for me. Plus, I wasn’t looking for diving sites during my visit to Iceland. I wanted to stay as dry as possible considering Iceland’s wild weather and often-cold (even in summer) temperatures. And now, that’s one of my regrets. Next time I go back, the Silfra Rift will be high on my list. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors dive center in Iceland is my go-to resource to find a way to check out the Silfra Rift.

I get excited about seeing the planet in action. And the collision between the plates is pretty dramatic … not as much ash and lava as other places around Iceland. Not even a monstrous pile of glacier – but still worth slipping into a dry suit to witness, if the pictures are any indication.

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A SCUBA diver at Silfra Rift. (Photo by Gunnar Powers via flickr.com)

Enjoy the photos -- you can see more from someone who chose to snorkel instead of SCUBA dive. And if you’re a SCUBA diver, I’d like to hear about other diving sites. What are some of your favorites?

Silfra is in Þingvellir National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Just before 1000 AD, it’s where Iceland’s inhabitants formed its first parliament. It’s worth a stop to see a bit of Iceland’s history after you’ve seen tectonic plates collide at one of the most famous diving sites in the world.

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An out-of-the-water look at Þingvellir National Park, home of the Silfra Rift. (Photo by Jen via flickr.com)
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Heading into the water. (photo by Bernard McManus via flickr.com)
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You can see the clarity of the water. (Photo by Bernard McManus via flickr.com)
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Jagged underwater rocks at Silfra diving site. (Photo by Gunna Powers via flickr.com)
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Inside My Head – Fear of Heights

Looking into the crater - for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.
Looking into the crater – for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.

I wish I could stride along the rim of this volcano’s crater. After months of waiting, endless hours looking at photos of it, and then finally marching from the Rangipo Desert up the thick scree on its slopes, I’m here.

And I’m too afraid to appreciate it.

I find an off-camber lip. The wind pushes me toward the inner lip, and every rock seems to slip out from under my feet. The very ground under me frightens me -- it buttresses out
unsupported, ready to crumble and swallow everyone on the rim.

A wind-swept ridge.
A wind-swept ridge – with a steep drop on either side.

I don’t how to put my fear in a neat compartment with the right label. Am I afraid of heights? Hmm, I love to fly -- helicopters, airplanes, from a Cessna 172 to a 747.

No – it’s a fear of falling from a high place. And imagining the anticipation of hitting bottom.

Here at the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, it nearly freezes me. I hunker down to lower my center of gravity. I grit my teeth through a few photos and then plunge down the slope – which is steep, but covered in cinders that won’t let me fall far or fast.

Just try finding a better view. Oh, and this is the start of the drop down the scary ridge.
Just try finding a better view. Just be sure you can enjoy it past a fear of heights.

I can count on this sort of paralyzing, stomach cramp-inducing anxiety at least once per trip. There’s always some sort of epic hike everywhere I go. And epic hikes usually mean some high place with lots of exposure.

What I felt that day in New Zealand has already repeated itself. On the Laugavegur hike in Iceland -- there are plenty of spots where a false step could send me sliding hundreds of feet down an icy slope with an 80-degree angle. Near Busan, South Korea, scrambling up a rope headed to the peak of Geumjeongsan. On the Besseggen trail in Norway’s Jotunheimen, the trail plunges more than a thousand feet in barely a half-mile. The hand- and foot-holds leave me little margin for error. Straight down, a rocky pitch. On either side? Two frigid glacial lakes.

I know this is something I’ll never master. My gut will clench every time I look down and envision possibilities that could lead to the last few moments of my life. I wish I could not only contain my fear, but also keep it to myself. But I also project it to my wife, who handles this sort of thing so much better than I do. As I worry for the both of us, it scrubs some of the shine from what should be perfect moments in life -- I anticipate these places so much. I think about them every day leading up to a trip, and the anticipation makes it hard to think straight or get any decent sleep the night before.

Like they say in Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before and will happen again. No matter where I go, there will be a high place that waits for me, someplace where I have to just keep moving forward.

My goal isn’t to be free from fear. No, that’s too much to ask. All I want, all I will try to do, is to not let my fear ruin the moment.

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Serenity Now! – Four Places to Find Quiet

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Morning outside the Gaia Riverlodge.

Sometimes, the din has to stop. You need to get away from TVs, traffic and the white noise of people-people-everywhere. But where? A slice of quiet seems harder than ever to find, but I have some ideas.

The Cayo District, Belize
Far from the legless beggars, heat and general unpleasantness of Belize City, you’ll find the Cayo District. People go there for Mayan ruins, limestone caverns – and quiet. There are probably dozens of cool places to stay. Our stay at Five Sisters Lodge – now known as Gaia Riverlodge – was my wife’s work, not mine. Finding the Gaia Riverlodge involves dirt roads – and it’s at least 30 minutes by car away from the small city of San Ignacio.

And what a find – you won’t hear so much as a hair dryer. Gaia Riverlodge gets its power from a hydroelectric dam nearby. The power flickers according to the flow, and there’s nowhere near enough for power-sucking stuff like televisions. Mornings are misty and serene – perfect for a hike or a mountain bike ride. Nights are great for a stroll -- just know that those little sparkles you see reflected in your flashlight are the eyes of thousands of spiders.

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Find serenity in Monteverde – along with herds of curious coatis.

Monteverde, Costa Rica
Getting to Monteverde by road involves pummeling – the road seems like it was paved by having a B-52 carpet-bomb the jungle with a line of bowling balls. Monteverde is your reward. the first thing I noticed was light rain floating down despite the sunshine – locals call the fluffy, vapor-like rain pelo de gato, or cat’s hair.

Yoga retreats are big in Monteverde thanks to the solitude. But you can still find good food everywhere, from Italian staples to the best damn veggie burger I’ve ever had -- served from an unnamed outdoor kitchen by the roadside. Take a hike and see coatis and purple hummingbirds the size of sparrows. And let’s not forget the zip line thrills of the Original Canopy Tour.

Our "room" at Woodlyn Park. We even had the cockpit!
Greenery, blue skies, quiet, cool

Waitomo, New Zealand

The search for cool caving expeditions put Waitomo on our radar. And when I found out about Woodlyn Park, I was sold. No normal hotel, this one: The rooms include suites made from a Bristol freighter plane, railroad cars, a yacht and even Hobbit holes. We booked a room in the airplane, which has a mini-kitchen.

Our caving adventure was amazing, and so was the pastoral quiet. Between the comfy room and the silence, we slept deep. When we wanted a bit of pre-sleep fun, Curly’s Bar (which burned down in November 2012 – thought the website is still up) isn’t far away. Or we could drive up the road to the Thirsty Weta on some quiet streets. Convenience, yes – but you’ll feel far away from it all.

wandering justin myvatn iceland
On the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

Myvatn, Iceland
Solitude is hardly in short supply when you visit Iceland. But certain places are more peaceful than others – just try getting any sleep when a bunch of college kids are singing Joan Osborne songs at the Skaftafell campgrounds! The campsites in Reykjahlid are a different story.

Not only is the area quiet, but the shoreside campground are nice and grassy. Put up your tent, crawl into the sleeping bag, relax -- and you’d swear you’re on a mattress. After a busy day of hiking the Krafla Fissure, Dimmuborgir, Hverir Crater and other crazy places nearby, you’ll be ready for a rest. And if you really want to apply the knockout to a restful night, visit the Myvatn Nature Baths. It’s like the famous Blue Lagoon, minus the price and crowds.

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Hike Destinations: Landmannalaugar Versus Tongariro

hike destinations
Unearthly and unbelievable – a few miles away from Landmannalaugar in Iceland.

Bacon or chocolate? A pint of craft beer or a wedge of aged gouda? The family dog or cat?

Picking my favorite hike destination is just as hard. I can narrow it down to two:

The stretch of the Laugavegur trail (which the Best Muffin Blog calls the “oh wow” hike) that goes from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker in the remote highlands of Iceland. I once described the hike as a rip in the space-time continuum, especially in the perpetual gray of summer. The Technicolor mountains, volcanic fumaroles, lava plus and ash-dusted snow just adds to it.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If I overhear any so-called “traveler” blather about how everything worth seeing in New Zealand is in the South Island, I stop listening. Tongariro is why. From a barren, blasted volcanic hellscape to verdant rain forests, you’ll see some incredible stuff. Oh, and my ratings are for those who take the side trip up Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s just an incredible hike destination.

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Inside the Volcano: Thrihnukagigur Tour

The Thrihnukagigur volcano in Iceland just gave me another reason to visit again: a tour company that takes people down a 400-foot descent into a volcano’s intact magma chamber.

The Thrihnukagigur volcano is 20 minutes from Reykjavik. It last erupted 4,000 years ago, one of the staggering number of volcanoes you can see in Iceland. But this one is just a bit different: A company called 3H Travel is set to begin tours into the magma chamber of Thrihnukagigur.

Inside the Volcano: One of a Kind Experience

Into the magma chamber -- this is incredibly rare. No other volcano I’ve seen has an intact magma chamber. Instead, they just have a bowl-like crater; I imagine the magma chamber’s remains are below, buried after a collapse of the lava above. To see this wonder, visitors hike the volcano; at the vent, a mechanical lift brings handfuls of people in at a time. (See the video at the bottom.)

The Inside the Volcano tour group claims Thrihnukagigur is unique in every sense of the word. I’m inclined to believe them since I’ve never seen or heard of any other volcano like this – much less one with a tour into the magma chamber.

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Inside the magma chamber

The season for this tour is short: June 15-July 31. Future plans call for 3H Travel to bore a hole in the side of Thrihnukagigur; that will spare the squeamish a ride in a lift, and the less fit a trip up the volcano’s slopes.

Go See it and Tell Me About It!

I can’t emphasize this enough: The Thrihnukagigur Inside the Volcano tour is the most amazing opportunity I’ve ever heard about, and I am completely deflated that I missed out on it. I was just too quick to get to Iceland, I guess!

And now that Denver has seasonal service from IcelandAir, it’s an even better time to get out there. The Denver flights are great for the Southwest and Rockies – no more slog to JFK or Boston, nor a backtrack to Seattle.

So there you have it: a one-of-a-kind attraction and an easy way to get there. Could you ask for a better time to go to Iceland and go inside the volcano? Nope. You can also borrow some other ideas from my Quick Iceland Travel Guide.

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The Iceland Epic – Husavik and Reykjavik

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Specimens from whales on display

One false move, and I could wind up impaled on a taxidermied whale penis. The walls bristle with them. All species. All sizes.

There are also clear acrylic capsules filled with them. Floating in preservative, maintaining their original glory.

Yes, whale penises are the centerpieces of the Iceland Phallological Mueseum in Husavik. It’s Husavik’s star attraction, and rising in fame internationally. (Bad news for Husavik – the museum has moved to Reykjavik since my visit. Too bad. It’s a beautiful town, and you should go there anyway.)

You’ve come to the right place.

The building is crammed with penis specimens. Field mice, cetaceans -- just about everything under the sun.

Human? Yes, it’s on its way. You may have seen news reports of the recently deceased Icelandic man who pledged his manhood to the museum upon death. I guess he beat out the guy pictured at the museum: an American, sitting on a stool. Wearing nothing but a smile. I’m guessing the room was chilly.

Ready for a whale of a time?

Iceland, by the way, is also crazy for team handball. You can see casts made from the members of the members of the Icelandic team after winning silver at a recent team handball World Cup.

When you enter, the curator gives you a thick binder and a "how to tell what sort of wang you’re looking at" primer.

This attraction is definitely worth ejecting a few krona. The lighting could be better for photography. And it should open earlier (we had a flight to catch in Akureyri in a few hours).

Iceland, Husavik
Husavik – a pleasant town in the far north.

We started our day in Reykjahliđ, our base for nearly three days of tromping around Myvatn. We broke our camp at Vogar and headed west in our Suzuki Jimney. We headed in the back way to Husavik, up Road 87. The Jimney gamely cruised along, even after the road turned to dirt.

We saw few cars. The scenery was green, but not exactly lush. No surprise there: Less than one percent of Iceland’s land is arable. Yet there was still the occasional farmstead and meandering herd of sheep.

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A horse grazes near Husavik.

You have to be careful on unpaved roads, so it’s best to keep the speed down. Especially in the successor to the Suzuki Samurai! After a few hours, we arrived in Husavik.

30 Miles from the Arctic Circle

This is as far north as I’ve ever been. A chilly wind blew in from the water. Husavik is a very beautiful town, though. Since the Phallus Museum isn’t ready for action until 11 a.m., we had some time to kill. We roamed the town, had coffee, petted horses.

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More horses!

It’s very tranquil. Groups of kids going to and from soccer practice roamed around. It’s the sort of place where people probably don’t lock their doors – ever. Some rolling hills, beautiful views of the ocean, snow-capped mountains not too far distant.

We also hit a bakery for a few snacks while we waited.

Racing to the Airport

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The harbor at Husavik.

I drove the Jimney for all it was worth. We pulled into Akureyri with time to spare, long enough to grab a falafel. We turned in our Jimney, boarded the plane and headed back to Reykjavik.

We checked back into Guesthouse Isafold, our reliable Reyjkavik base. And then we finally rested. Because our day isn’t over: Tonight, we’re running the MiÄ‘næturhlaup, a 10k race that starts at 10 p.m. The name means Midnight Run.

It’s perhaps the most pleasant 10k ever: Two laps through the zoo/botanical garden area, followed by a nice free soak at the Laugardalslaug swimming pool we’ve come to love. All in nearly full sunlight, by the way. The clouds broke and we had beautiful temperatures in the 50s. With sun and sweat, that was perfect. And the hot tubs were crammed with our fellow runners and their families. Good times!

How’d I do? First American finisher! You can read my full post about it.

The Iceland Epic – Hverir, Viti, Krafla

Viti Iceland crater
Viti explosion crater - and its bright water.

Glowing magma from horizon to horizon. A never-ending blanket of fire. I’m captivated just thinking about what this area looked like as recently as 1984.

If I’d been standing here back then -- well, I don’t even want to think about it. Even now, the ground still spews fumes. I can smell the beanie, farty, rotten-egg stench nearly everywhere.

Blackened slabs of sharp-edged lava. A grey sky. Bleak desolation. I know it doesn’t sound appealing … unless you’ve wondered what the world was like when humans were billions of years into the future.

For me, that’s the wonder of my ninth day in Iceland, exploring the Krafla fissure area.

Hverir Iceland geothermal
Hverir is a contrast from the surrounding lavascape.

A Day in the North

ReykjahliÄ‘ is a town of about 300 people. You might think that means there’s not much to do. Yet I plan on a day packed with activity. Just like yesterday.

Sarah and I start off at Hverir. It’s not just another geothermal area: It’s a single slab of mountain that is many shades lighter than the surrounding area. When we approached Myvatn yesterday, I thought the sun was shining through a hole in the clouds. But now, that’s just the brightness of the rocks.

The flatulent stink is at its strongest here. It’s the smell of the earth reconstituting itself. There’s something I love about the odor. It tell me the world is alive, not just lifeless rock and concrete. It’s awesome.

The Krafla fissure Iceland lava
The lifeless and barren Krafla fissure.

There are plenty of trails. Obey the signs – the ground is soft in many places. And you don’t want to get scalded in a mud pit. You can summit some of the large hills in the area for spectacular views.

The Road to Hell

There are two craters in Iceland called Viti. That’s Icelandic for hell. One of them is up the road from Hverir. The crater is filled with electric green water. The wind is absolutely howling, making me reluctant to get near the edge. I wonder if anyone has ever fallen in. The water must be freezing, and scrambling out and back to safety would be a real test. Best not to find out.

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Sarah, with Krafla in the background.

Nearby, there’s some machinery from the power station. It’s harnessing heat from a nearby fumarole. The power is astounding: The roar from the fumarole is loud as any jet engine.

This was about 45 minutes of walking.

To the Fissure

This is not the Caribbean. It is not warm, inviting, relaxing. Harsh, barren, stark – at best. And a reminder of your own insignificance to this planet. A signal that you are nothing.

The Krafla Fissure has tried hard to drive people away. It’s nearly destroyed ReykjahliÄ‘ more than once. As implacable as the lava can be, it isn’t sufficient.

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Sarah walks past a little fumarole.

I picture the lava fountains, the winter sky contrasting with the orange radiance of the magma. I wonder how many lava tubes lie under the wasteland, just waiting to be found.

I could spend weeks here walking the lava flow.  As it is, a few hours is all I have.

This is an amazing place among amazing places.

One the way out, we made a quick stop for the presentation Krafla Power Station. You can check out parts of the inside, and watch a movie about the fissure, the eruptions and the station itself. It’s more fascinating than it sounds.

Myvatn Nature Bath
Myvatn Nature Bath (Photo by Petr Brož)

Time to Kick Back

Currents of murky blue water swirl around me. The water temperature changes every few steps. One moment, I feel like a live Maine lobster getting cooked. Seconds later, I’m scrambling to find a warm spot.

This is the Jarðböðin við Mývatn (Myvatn Nature Baths). If you’ve heard anything about Iceland, you’ve probably heard of the Blue Lagoon. It’s only one of Iceland’s main attractions. This is its more remote, more scenic, more laid-back relative.

It’s smaller, but still filled with amenities like saunas and steam rooms in addition to the naturally heated, silicate-rich water.

And the most important amenity of them all: ice cream bars. Sarah and I have noticed the Icelandic tradition – families will hit the local pools together. They’ll swim some laps, lounge in the hot tubs, then top it off with an ice cream bar. Sounds sensible to me!

That’s most of our day, minus a repeat visit to the Cowshed and a decent pizza at Papi’s. It’s another nice night at Vogar. It wasn’t our busiest day. But I loved every second of it.

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Don't we look happy in this stinky place?
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Stinky earth vapors escaping the cracks of Krafla.
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Looking from the top of Hverir

The Iceland Epic – Day 8 (Reykjavik – Akureyri – Myvatn)

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Wandering Justin gets all black metal at Dimmuborgir.

Can a cloud of flies lift a person off the ground? I am about to find out on the south shore of Myvatn (Mee-VAH-ten).

That name, by the way, means business. Vatn is Icelandic for "water." What’s "my?" Midge. As in those pesky flies that are threatening to carry me off. They’re everywhere. This means we are in a place that means "Fly Water." Myvatn is a shallow lake ringed by some spectacular scenery: more pseudocraters, and one of the most bizarre mountains ever. More on that later.

As for the flies, some folks at a convenience store sold Sarah and me a lovely matched set of insect nets for our heads and faces. Problem abated. Somewhat.

Suzuki Jimney
Our rented Suzuki Jimney

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flight to Iceland’s Northern Big City

To get here, we started with an early Flug Island (or Air Iceland, the domestic arm of IcelandAir) flight from Reykjavik’s domestic airport. We walked from our guesthouse right to the terminal. Our fellow passengers were mostly English, and they were dressed from some horse-riding fun.

We landed in Akureyri, the main city of northern Iceland. We rented a Suzuki Jimny and rattled off to the west. We had some epic mountain scenery, and we enjoyed a brief stop at a waterfall. We made another brief stop to get our anti-fly nets – and had a nice lunch of soup and trout that had been smoked over sheep dung. Regardless of the fuel source, it was delicious.

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One of Iceland's many waterfalls.

We followed that up with a 45-minute hike around the pseudocraters.

And then for a major centerpiece of my Iceland experience: We headed for Dimmuborgir.

But before we got near Dimmuborgir, I noticed something strange: One single mountain that seemed illuminated. It was an overcast day, and it was like one single ray of sunshine penetrated the clouds and fixed on this mountain. This is the Hverir thermal area. It stands out from all the surrounding terrain. We plan to make a thorough visit tomorrow.

This is also the name of well-known black metal band, and it means "Dark Castle." This region gets this name from the massive expanse of hardened lava that froze in all sorts of interesting shapes. It sprawls for quite a distance. There are massive spires, tiny lava tubes, holes -- it’s too unearthly to really describe well. It’s stark and scorched, and completely engrossing.

Hverfjall: As Cool as it Sounds

If you’re up for a long hike, you can follow a trail and climb to the top of Hverfjall explosion crater. Sarah and I circled the base, climbed from the (easier) northern trail, fully circled the rim, and descended the south trail before heading back to Dimmuborgir. Total distance is a little more than 6 miles.

pseudocrater
Part of the pseudocrater field near Myvatn

Relaxation, Trout and Stout

By this point, we were a little peckish. We’d heard about the Cowshed Cafe, so we stopped. It’s a working dairy in addition to a restaurant. You can eat while watching cows get milked.

As we were eating more trout, a salad and some fresh geysir bread, one of the cafe staff made the rounds to all the tables to pass out little cups. They were filled with fresh, unpasteurized milk straight out of the teat of the cow getting milked.

Warm, creamy, frothy -- but not as heavy as I expected. A clean finish!

Our next step was a little relaxation at the town pool (we were in ReykjahliÄ‘). Despite this being a town of 300, the pool facilities are superior to what you’ll find in my city of some 1.4 million people. Hot tubs, weight rooms, lap lanes -- nice!

From there, we headed to the Vogar campgrounds. We put our tent up on the northern shore of Myvatn. Here on the north side, the midges are considerably less active. Once we had the tent up, we wandered the main street a bit and met some of the local horses.

Hverfjall Iceland
Looking toward the huge crater of Hverfjall

We also wrapped up the day’s gustation with a nice chocolate cake and a shared bottle of Lava. This is an imperial-style stout brewed in the south of Iceland. It was the only good beer we found in Iceland, and it was the equal of just about any microbrew from the United States. I’d say it is on par with the Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy of Longmont, Colo.

Snoozing by Myvatn

After all this buzzing around, we were pretty tired. Though the sun only peaked below the horizon for a few hours and the sky never fully darkened, we got a great night of sleep on the soft grass of the Vogar.

dimmuborgir iceland wandering justin
Lava formations at Dimmuborgir.
wandering justin hverfjall iceland
Atop Hverfjall
dimmuborgir iceland wandering justin
Looking south to Dimmuborgir
myvatn wandering justin
Looking toward Myvatn.
wandering justin myvatn iceland
Our tent is right on the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

Kaffitar Stands Out as Reykavik’s Best Espresso

I’m in Iceland.But I feel more like it’s high noon on Main Street in a dusty Old West outpost. The barista looks friendly, but I know I’m being sized up.

"What can I get you?" she asks – the shot-puller’s equivalent of "your move, pardner."

"A cappuccino, please," I reply – the espresso lover’s equivalent of "draw"

Ah, the cappuccino. It will quickly reveal with this Kaffitar place on the Laugavegur in Reykjavik is all about. There’s no sugar or syrup or fancy ingredients to hide behind. This is no double-mocha-latte-pumpkin-spiced frappe with sprinkles and extra whipped cream. Just espresso shots, milk and a bit of steam. And every smart barista knows it.

It took a few minutes for my cappuccino to emerge. Between the crowd and the care, that’s a good sign. Then I took a look: It was a wet cappuccino, which I prefer to the "dry" variety capped by about two inches of airy foam. Here, I saw a nice, dense microfoam.

I took a careful sip. The temperature? Perfect. Hot, but ready to drink right then and there. No trace of bitterness from over-roasted beans or nuclear-hot water.

There’s more to a cafe than just even the espresso drink, though. Kaffitar was filled to the gills, locals, travelers and tourists alike. Some pecked on laptops. Some  read. Some talked to a friend. Others struck up conversations they didn’t know a few minutes ago.

Perfect.

We spent several days in Reykjavik, and we had to explore the other cafes. There’s no excuse for marching back to the same place. But Kaffitar set the standard. Some espresso drinks came close – but they couldn’t quite match the barista skills on display at Kaffitar. Some actually bested it in atmosphere: Cafe Rot is about as friendly as it gets, especially when the World Cup is being shown on a big-screen TV in the basement. The desserts at Sufistinn were spectacular.

But overall, Kaffitar is the one I’d bring home with me if I could magically transplant it walking distance from my house.

Iceland Diaries – Day 6 (Skaftafell, Vik)

Kristínartindar
This is one of the coolest mountains I've ever seen.

There’s a magnificent mountain in the distance. I can see spires and steep slopes. It looks like the ruined castle of an evil wizard.

It’s mezmerizing. I want to go to it. It’s called Kristínartindar. It’s spectacular. But it’s too far away – soon, a bus will pull up in Skaftafell to haul us off to Vik. We’re a bit low on food and water. If we were fully loaded, I’d head straight there.

When we return to Iceland, this will be a major point of the trip. We’ll come back with our camp stove and enough food for a few more days hanging out in Skaftafell. And we’ll go to Kristínartindar. Oh, yes. But as it was, we just finished a loop of about six miles.

Skaftafell Campground
The cheery Skaftafell campground.

Before Kristinartindar came into view, we stopped at the famous Svartifoss waterfall (foss = waterfall). Its basalt columns inspired the architecture of the Hallgrimskirkja (kirkja = church, and klaustur = convent) that’s such a landmark in Reykjavik. It’s pretty and picturesque, and relatively empty for a place that’s in every guidebook.

We folded the tent, repacked and boarded the bus to Vik (which means bay).

Us!
Us at Svartifoss.

It’s a fairly quick shot to Vik, which is home to about 300 people. We have a room at the Hotel Lundi (lundi = puffin). It’s here that I accomplished another major goal of my trip: eating hákarl! This word means "shark," and it’s pronounced "howker." I have an entire post dedicated just to the next five minutes of my trip, and you should read about it and watch it.

Vik
The cliffs and church near Vik.

We walk the town a bit, and have a fairly greasy roadside meal. Vik is a small town, after all! The black sand beach is a site to see, along with rocky spires in the ocean a few miles away. The sun often pokes out of the clouds, but it’s very windy. And the mountains are ridiculously beautiful.

We return to the hotel. I fall asleep while reading, and Sarah slips out to poke around a bit.

She rousts me at about 9 p.m. with the sun shining brightly, promising puffins and some sort of hobbit house.

We gamely trudge up the side of a mountain. It’s steep, and it’s about to get windy. But first, the hobbit house. You could easily miss it. It looks like a mound of grass-covered dirt with a door lying on it. And a smokestack popping out. Unfortunately, it’s locked and nobody’s home. I’d love to see inside!

Hobbit House
It's a hobbit house!

We get to the top of the mountain, which is completely flat. There are trails everywhere, including one to the other side. The wind was absolutely howling up there, effortlessly blowing us around and making it hard to even walk like a normal human.

The daylight would last, but our energy was on the wane. So we headed back down for a good stretch of sleep (my watch said it was night, but I wasn’t buying a word of it).

Tomorrow -- back to Reykjavik.

Cliffs near Vik
10 p.m. in Vik. No, that's not a typo.
Three Sisters
Three sisters in Vik.

The Iceland Diaries РDay 5 (Skaftafell, Fallj̦kull, J̦kullsarlon)

Falljökull
Sarah is ready to demonstrate her ice ax prowess.

It’s not easy to rattle Icelanders. But I’ve just figured out how to get a sure-fire rise out of an Icelandic glacier guide while hiking on Falljökull: Tell them you’ve been on New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier.

"People die there!" Gisli exclaimed, sounding dismayed that we’d go there.

How’d this come up? Well. I’d guess it was my polished crampon and ice axe technique. And maybe knowing a few tidbits about glaciers – like what makes the ice turn blue. After talking to me for awhile, Gisli’s fellow guide Robert said something like "you’ve done this before."

Falljökull
Gisli is ready to lead us onto the glacier.

Darn tootin’, we had. Nearly five hours on the ice at Franz Josef. That thing’s a monster. Apparently, a tourist-eating monster that just weeks earlier had claimed a few more lives. To be fair, it’s not the glacier’s fault. Don’t do stuff your guides tell you not to do.

Falljökull
We’re thrilled to be back on a glacier.

So far, the crew at Glacier Guides had found Sarah and I to be pretty much model glacier hikers. We take care of our gear, we pay attention to their instructions and we have one helluva time. (See more info about Glacier Guides at the end of the post).

It’s easy for us to have a great time on a glacier. We loves the things. This time, we were on Falljökull (pronounced Fall-yuck-cultl), which means "falling glacier." That’s because of the way it seems to spill over the nearby mountain, plunging down the cliffs. It’s a seriously beautiful glacier, with an epic, sweeping view of the landscape. I could’ve sat in the same place all day and just looked at the landscape.

Falljökull
A view of Falljokull from the bottom.

We were also pretty enthralled by the rushing water pouring over Falljökull. You could drink it and enjoy some of the purest water you’ve ever tasted. Most of the guides had carabiners duct taped to plastic water bottles – they started the trip empty, and just filled them on the glacier. Silly me for showing up with a full Camelbak!

Falljökull
A view from the top.

As you can see in the photos, it was actually warm on Falljökull. It wasn’t what I’d call physically demanding. At the high point of the route, we ate the lunch the guides packed for us and headed back down. Yet again, Sarah looked sad when she handed her ice axe over.

Falljökull
A wall of ice.

Soon, we were back at our old school bus. We boarded and headed from Falljökull to Jökullsarlon, where we’d take a boat ride in the famous glacier lagoon. This was more fun than I expected. The lagoon and its icebergs will blow you away. And it looks different every time, too. So you won’t see the same bergs and growlers, but a whole new set.

And maybe your guide will fish a hunk of glaicer ice form the water and break it into chips for everyone to taste. It was a cool experience -- sucking on a thousand-year-old ice cube.

There’s also a place to grab a snack. Go for the seafood soup if it’s a chilly or windy day.

Glacier Lagoon, Iceland, Jokullsarlon
The Jokullsarlon, or glacier lagoon. Awesome!

After about 45 minutes in the lagoon, we boarded the school bus for the trip back to Skaftafell National Park. There, we gathered our packs from the Glacier Guides office, pitched our tents and caught up on our sleep. Some nearby backpackers also kept us entertained by singing Joan Osborne tunes. It was a most magnificent day on the glacier. I’d call it an essential part of anyone’s visit to Iceland.

Ice, guide, jokullsarlon
An icy treat that’s nice to eat.

About Glacier Guides: This is a very friendly, competent guide service. They gave us a lift from Skaftafell to Hof the previous day so we could get to our guesthouse (our bus didn’t go there). Then they picked us up for the Falljökull hike the next day and stored our backpacks while we were out having fun. They were accommodating and informative. I highly recommend Glacier Guides. If you see an Icelandic sheep dog named Hekla with one of the guides, give her a scratch between the ears and tell her Sarah and Justin say hello.

icebergs, glacier lagoon, jokullsarlon
Icebergs floating in the lagoon.
Skaftafell, camp, Iceland
Campsite, sweet campsite. Bring on the Joan Osborn sing-a-long!