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.

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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The Iceland Epic – Husavik and Reykjavik

whale penis, husavik, iceland
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.

Husavik, Iceland, horse
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.

Grazing, horse, Iceland, Husavik
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

Husavik, Harbor, Iceland
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.

Iceland Travel Tip – Is the Winter Fare Sale Worth It?

Check out a chunk of Iceland this winter with IcelandAir's special fares.

November 4 is the last day to book an IcelandAir flight from the United States to Keflavik for as little as $379 for a round trip (check out the complete list of deals). Here’s the deal: The price is for flights from Jan. 10 – March 31, depending on your point of origin.

That means you’re flying straight into Iceland when it is – how should I put this? – really freakin’ cold.

That means you can’t stay outdoors as much. Glacier Guides, one of the better-known tour companies, doesn’t run tours to the glaciers near Skaftafell National Park during that time. You certainly can’t get to Landmannalaugar for a few days of backpacking among some of the most mind-boggling terrain on the planet. So should you bother?

Heck, yes.

There’s still plenty to do in Iceland. Reykjavik is extremely lively. There’s a thriving cafe scene. If you’re a fashionista, you’ll have no problem finding some shopping. And let’s not forget – hotels in Iceland can be expensive … especially in Reykjavik. So there’s no better time to score a deal than late winter.

If you have an adventurous streak and don’t want to be confined to knocking back espresso in the morning and brennivin (the infamous Icelandic schnapps) at night, there’s still hope. Arctic Adventures runs some winter tours to Sólheimajökull, a glacier near the small town of Vik. You can also dig into some ice climbing.

IcelandAir is a pleasant surprise for fliers use to the brutal grind of domestic air travel.Â

Oh, and remember that it’s a good time to catch the Northern Lights. If you can schedule a few nights somewhere remote like Vik, you’ll have no light pollution and some really awesome skies.

So for a $379 flight on an excellent airline, I say check it out. Then come back in the summer to hike Landmannalaugar, hike the glaciers near Skaftafell and explore the crazy terrain of Myvtan.

Outdoor Adventure in Iceland

Find out about the incredible outdoor adventure you can find on the Landmannalaugar - Hrafntinnusker hike in Iceland.
Ice covered in fresh volcanic ash from the recent eruption.

On most trips, Sarah and I have allowed ourselves a few days to settle into our surroundings before an outdoor adventure. Not this time. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Iceland, we had our packs loaded again. And we were walking back to the BSI terminal to catch a bus to the centerpiece of our trip.

Outdoor Adventure
On top of the lava flow, less than a half-mile into the hike.

The roads to the Landmannalaugar region had just opened when we arrived. They were finally free of snow and mud – at least enough to allow buses to get through. And when I say "roads," for much of the trip that means dirt roads. Narrow dirt roads.

We quickly left Reykjavik behind – Sarah and I were already starving since we had to leave our guesthouse too early for breakfast (this caused a bit of consternation – they told us that they’d be willing to pack sandwiches for us next time -- very nice of them!).

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6 Things You Won’t Find in the Iceland Travel Guide

Iceland travel guide
From Reykjavik, Iceland (Photo credit: Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi)

It was nearly midnight as my wife and I strolled back to our guesthouse on Barugata in Reykjavik. The sky was still light, and the partying was just getting started since this was a Friday. Music was blaring out of the upstairs window of a house we were passing. Someone noticed us as we walked by.

"Hey!" he yelled, sticking his head out the window. "How do you like Iceland?"

I yelled back that we were having a great time.

And it was the truth. And part of the enjoyment came from noticing all the interesting quirks of Icelandic society. Here are a few random tidbits that give the place flavor. These are all things you won’t read in an Iceland travel guide.

    • Iceland loves trampolines – In every town, a really surprising percentage of the homes had trampolines. I would guess a good 25 percent, versus fewer than 1 percent for the U.S. It was actually rare for me to walk past five homes and not see at least one trampoline.
iceland travel guide
Iceland loves its trampolines. (via wikimedia)
  • Homebrewing is illegal – Well, you CAN brew your own beer or other alcohol in Iceland if its ABV is 2.25 percent or lower. And what would the point be? The government has a huge hand in the alcohol business. The consequences are pricey spirits, beer and wine. And the beer? Well, this is certainly no craft brew hotspot like Oregon. We ran across one brew that was outstanding – Lava, an imperial stout brewed by Brugghús. Enjoy it with a rich chocolately dessert for best effect. Anyway, it would be nice for Iceland to open the door to homebrewers.
  • Guesthouses go Rick and Lucy style – Every place we stayed at had twin beds. It was easy enough to push them together, but it was just kind of odd. Nowhere did I see this in an Iceland travel guide.
  • Signs of a literary society – There’s an old Viking proverb that says something like "It is better to go without shoes than without books." Iceland also cranks out a lot of books each year. Thus, you have a book-loving society. That’s why every hotel/hostel/guesthouse bed is flanked by reading lights. That’s refreshing – I can’t tell you how many times I try to talk about books with someone, and they say "I don’t have time to read." I’m pretty sure that could get an Icelander exiled.
  • Stirring the English pot – Icelanders are very good at speaking English. Many of their signs are in English. What’s amusing is the mix of British English and American English. For example, most signs refer to a bathroom as a Water Closet or WC in the U.K. fashion. On the other hand, it’s gasoline and not petrol.
  • Iceland puts its kids to work – We arrived in the summer, when kids weren’t at school. But they were busy, taking on work projects such as tending gardens in public areas. Putting kids to work is apparently encouraged; it’s more for giving the kids spending money. They standard of living is high enough in Iceland (economic crash or not) that their work isn’t really for the family to make ends meet.

 

 

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Stjarnan FC Soccer Fans the Highlight of First Day in Iceland

stjarnan FC fans
Stjarnan FC fans bring the noise and show the Fram fans how it's done.

Want to make friends in a foreign country? All you need to do is embrace its sports, and you’re well on your way. I first learned this in Costa Rica when I became a Saprisista. And I continued the tradition during my latest trip. Hours after touching down at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland, I wound up next to a wild bunch of fans supporting Stjarnan F.C. (pronounce it as “startna,” pretty much), a team in the Úrvalsdeild (Icelandic premier league).

My wife and I had just introduced ourselves to another Icelandic tradition – lounging around in hot tubs. Afterward, we were walking along when I noticed a group of people outside a stadium.

Since there was a red-bearded guy wearing blue and white facepaint, I figured he would be the one to ask “Hey, what’s going on here?” So I did, and soon had the info that there was a Monday night match about to start. And he offered a free ticket, on one condition: “You must support Stjarnan!”

Who am I to argue with a bearded, face-painted dude wielding a 6-foot-tall staff topped with a skull? So support Stjarnan we did! I bought a second ticket for Sarah, and into the stadium we went.

As it turns out, Stjarnan only got promoted to the top division a few years ago. At gametime, they were ranked in the middle of the league table. Meanwhile, their opponents (and the hometeam … aiiiy!), Fram, were ranked first. But the Stjarnan fans provided most of the spirit on display in the mostly empty stadium, which is called Laugardalsvöllur. Organized cheers and songs from the Stjarnan faithful largely drowned out the Fram supporters, even in their own 10,000-seat grounds!

Even going down two goals did little to silence them. And they added more noise when a Fram player was sent off late in the game, allowing Stjarna to score a goal. They pressed for the equalizer as the clock ticked, but weren’t able to level the scoreline.

Still, I adopted Stjarnan as my Icelandic team. I searched all over the city on a wild goose chase for a Stjarnan shirt. Each store seemed to refer me to a different place, but I was completely out of luck. I wound up with an Icelandic national team shirt instead, but I still will try to find some way to get a Stjarnan shirt.

One thing that surprised me is that Icelanders are really into soccer, but they disdain their own premier league clubs, unfortunately. Instead, most seem to follow English teams – especially Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

I’ll admit there’s a gulf in quality – but I think everyone should show some pride for their hometown sports clubs. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the best league in the world, or the worst: Your home is your home, and you have to support the local teams! One thing I did really like is that the rivalry between fans was really friendly. They just wanted to cheer on their teams, not battle each other (unlike Saprissa and Alajuela down in Costa Rica, for instance).

Here’s a video – if you know any of these characters, pass it along to them and tell me who they are. I’d like to hear from any Stjarna fans. Your team has a fan here in the U.S.!