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A Week in Iceland

Sunday, August 7

Flying into Keflavik Airport, we pass a glacier in the distance, followed by isolated farmhouses, a green meadow, and then this post-volcanic moonscape of mud and rocks. The airport is tiny and very laid-back. We found out that buses into town run very sporadically once most people have gotten out of the airport after a flight, and it can be a while before the next one. Luckily, we caught the last bus that had come in for our plane. It's about 40 kilometers to Reykjavik, but it takes a full hour, gong through fresh lava fields where nothing grows, old lava fields, where after a few centuries, grasses have begun to take root, and nondescript suburbs. The air is fresh, but thin.

Reykjavik itself is easy to navigate. Dozens of tourist offices provide free maps, and streets tend to go more-or-less in one direction (though not always keeping the same name). We're staying the first two nights just east of the downtown core, which is considered to end at Snorrabraut. From there, it's only about 15 minutes to the central historic district, along shop-lined Laugavegur: jewelry stores, weaving and craft stores, galleries, restaurants, casinos-a lively street.

The old part of town has some beautiful buildings, some of which are original and some have been restored. The national Parliament meets in a smallish but fortress-like stone building at the edge of a lovely and much-used park and behind the Tjörnin, the town pond. On the water's edge a few blocks away, the modern glass Harpa, a brand new arts and culture center, dominates the view.

From there, we followed the Saebraut, which hugs the shore and offers views of mountains on the other side, then turned up Frakkastigur, which leads straight to one of Reykjavik's most photographed landmarks, the Hallgrimskirka: a large church or small cathedral in the shape of a pipe organ, and with a magnificent organ inside. Outside, almost framing the church doorway from certain angles, stands a statue of Leif Erikson on a curved pediment that echoes the lines of the church.

In the evening, we had our first experience of Iceland's geothermally heated water spas. Our choice among several water parks in Reykjavik was Lagardalslaug, on Sundlaugarvegur, offering a cold pool for lap swimming, a modestly hot pool for swimming, kid play, water basketball, a tall water slide with a tunnel that was largely in the dark, several hot tubs with temperatures ranging to 44 degrees Celsius, and even a steambath. Very nice, and very affordable at 450 Icelandic kroner, or about $4 USD, as of this writing.

Iceland is known far and wide for its seismic activity and use of geothermal power for heating. The whole of Reykjavik has a faint (and sometimes not-so-faint) smell of sulfur, and the water smells rather strongly of it. The pools are very popular with both locals and visitors; we met groups of people from Sweden, UK, North America, Spain, and Mexico.

Monday, August 8

A beautiful day, again, and we took full advantage, renting bikes and riding around the outer harbors. After interviewing several tour agencies for the rental, we settled on Reykjavik Backpackers, Laugavegur 28, reykjavikbackpackers.com-which turned out to be a great choice. Every staff member we dealt with was both ultra-helpful and very knowledgeable both during the rental process and during later interactions about various tours, and they also offered a lower price for an extra hour's rental in the half-day package. They also run a hostel, and we were told by someone staying there that it's quite nice. This also became our wi-fi lounge for the three days of our trip where we didn't have Internet where we were staying.

Once we'd ridden the few blocks to the central intersection, we headed down to the Old Harbor (just west of the Harpa concert hall), and explored several of the docks, some of which were home to very old ships. The bike and pedestrian path does not exist at that section, and we did have to do a few rather yucky blocks going west along Gerisgata and M´yrigata (the same street) before picking up one of the most beautiful bikeways I've ever ridden on, paralleling Ananaust, Ei?sgrandi, and Noróurstrand, along the seacoast into suburban Seltjarnes. This section offered great views of the Grotta lighthouse and magnificent Snaelfossjokul, the snow-capped volcano 120 kilometers north of Reykjavik that greeted us as we flew over the harbor into Keflavik yesterday, visible on clear days from many parts of the peninsula perimeter.

At the northwest corner, we parked our bikes and followed the footpath to Grotta lighthouse, a bird sanctuary almost overrun with wild caraway. The lighthouse door was open, but the moment we set foot in the doorway, someone appeared to tell us it wasn't actually open to the public, only to the group of American teenagers doing relay races and getting ready for a barbecue in its shadow.

There had been a small trickle of water over the footpath as we'd walked in, but 30 or 40 minutes later when we departed, the tide was coming in and it had become a small river, perhaps 15 inches deep in some places. And wading through it was COLD!

Still, we dried off and warmed up quickly, and continued to the next little peninsula, home of the very odd and charming Su?urnes golf course. Golfers still use hand-pushed carts exclusively here, and it's located in a marsh. We joked that the many geese looking on could do a nice business selling back the recovered golf balls that roll into the marshes. Our intention was to go back along the south coast of Seltjarnes all the way to southwestern Reykjavik, and we did for a while, until we missed a turn and found ourselves back on the north shore. That was okay; it was so lovely, we were glad to repeat it, until the trail stopped briefly due to erosion and we ended up in the icky and smelly Örfissey industrial park, which includes a petroleum refinery and a bunch of warehouses.

Fortunately, that was only a short detour and very quickly, we finished that leg of the bikeway, navigated back down M´yrigata and Gerisgata, and picked up the bikeway again at the Harpa, where we continued east along the bikeway-once again both paved and scenic-on another amazing seaside ride that took us past the 1909 Höf?i House, a villa right on the water that hosted the historic Ronald Reagan/Mikhail Gorbachev summit of 1986. We turned off at Laugernestangi, hwich led us to the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum (one of the three non-contiguous museums that comprise the Reykjavik Art Museum). Unfortunately, both during this visit and a later attempt, the museum itself was closed, but we enjoyed the outdoor sculpture garden immensely.

Abutting this museum is the wonderfully quirky Raven's Nest Recycled House: the charming and whimsical home of film director Hrfan Gunnlaugsson, a property replete with almost-huggable statues made of old junk.

From there, we could connect with the bikeway over a short section of gravel by a small beach, or backtrack and pick up the main path where we'd turned off. We chose the gravel path, because we could see a really interesting old building ahead. It turned out to be Vi?eyjarstofa, one of the oldest houses in Iceland, built in 1755. It also turned out to be on Vi?ey Island, and we didn't have time to take the ferry over and still return our bikes on time. But we did pick up a detailed brochure and plan to explore later in the week.

Instead, we pedaled back downtown, returned the bikes, grabbed something to eat (they called it a falafel, but it was more like an undercooked veggie burger), and then, for a change of pace, walked along charming Skólavör?ustigur, lined with interesting stores (including several vegetarian-friendly restaurants as well as one of the larger Nordic shops), but much less touristed than Laugavegur-a very pleasant walk that terminated at Hallgrimskirka (the pipe-organ church).

Tuesday, August 9

A wonderful day in Hveragerdi, which translates as "hot springs village" (just over half an hour on the #51 bus from the Mjodd bus station, which is served by many local buses from all corners of Reykjavik). Hveragerdi is indeed well-endowed in the hot springs department, even by Iceland standards, with probably hundreds in and around the village, and starting several miles out along Iceland's Highway 1 from Reykjavik

This is a small town; the bus station is a sign in front of a Shell gas station on a side street just off the highway. Turning left out of the gas station, we went a block and a half to the main street, Breidamork, whose limited but worthy attractions included the Hverabakari sf at #10-a fine bakery/cafe-and an Icelandic handcrafts shop whose woolen goods were about two-thirds the typical prices in Reykjavik.

On the same street was the amazing Geothermal Park, with free admission and a dozen or more hot springs. Signs in Icelandic, English, and German provide a somewhat minimalist self-guided tour, and the staff are glad to answer questions. In addition to watching the steam spew and water bubble, you can also buy an egg for 100 kr (less than a dollar, as of this writing) and cook it in one of the hot-water pools. And you can sample the local delicacy: molasses bread baked overnight by geothermal heat. Imagine geothermal activity approaching the scale of Yellowstone but lacking the dramatic tall plumes of water and compressed into one square block.

From there, our goal was to find the hot spring that's cool enough to swim in. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a four-hour hike, which was more than we'd bargained for. But we enjoyed a lovely hike along the river and up the mountain for over an hour, (like many parks in the American West, not forested but cutting across open meadows and rock faces), and were rewarded with terrific views. If you have a way to get driven to the trailhead at the stables on the edge of town, you can walk to a good waterfall in about 45 minutes (or so we were told), or three hours from there to the swimming hole. However, we had walked from the bus station all the way through town, including a detour on one of the other hiking paths first, and we had neither the time nor energy to verify that. Instead, we hiked to the first ridge line, probably 20 minutes from the trailhead, and had a nice picnic in a very scenic spot.

Afterward, we explored a cute little botanical garden at the corner of Breidamork and Skolamork, followed the river through the ruins of an old weaving mill and a series of small waterfalls, and then turned left on Reykjamork, which parallels Breidamork, onto the rather sparse campus of Iceland Agricultural University. Supposedly there's a spot where an earthquake fault line has split the ground, but we couldn't find it. Nice views of the town from up there, though. We followed that street all the way back to the bus station and found that we had enjoyed ourselves so much, it didn't matter that we hadn't attained our goal.

Wednesday, August 10 Frugal and at least mildly intrepid travelers that we are, we tend to be very judicious in our use of prepackaged tours-especially in a place like Iceland, where prices start (for anything that we couldn't easily do on our own) at around $130 and go up rapidly and infinitely from there.

Still, we allowed ourselves one super-splurge, because there's a lot in Iceland that would be pretty much impossible to do on our own, especially without renting a car. And we were quite clear that driving was not on the agenda; we don't love driving, we'd heard the roads are terrible in much of the country, and navigating through a maze of 16- or 20-letter place names that all looked similar to our untrained eyes did not sound like "fun vacation" to us! Plus it wasn't going to cost much less than the tour we chose.

So we wanted something that would give a big thrill for relatively low cost, something that was definitively Iceland and couldn't be done at home, and something that suited our skills and abilities. We chose a trip involving several hours driving to walk on a glacier for two hours, at about $175 per person.

W O W ! This was a really cool thing to do, and totally worth the expense.

The trip was actually a lot more involved than we realized, including driving a bit in the spectacular fjorlands (and through a 6-km tunnel underneath the Whale Fjord, which shortened the trip by a full hour when it was completed), another hot spring that was also selling their own greenhouse tomatoes (6 for 200 kr, and we were thrilled), 20 minutes hiking at Lava Falls/Children's Waterfall, a beautiful spot with a stunningly attractive several-kilometer-long chain of lava waterfalls on one side, and a magnificent series of pools and falls descending to the lava falls chasm on the other. The latter is called Children's Waterfall to commemorate two children who, centuries ago, lost their lives falling from a natural stone bridge, and the bereaved mother who had the bridge destroyed in the aftermath.

The glacier itself was about an hour down a gravel road, and is the second-largest in Iceland. We were met at the glacier's edge by a truck-bus about 15 feet tall and probably about the same in width. The wheels alone were about five feet high. And we rode out on this contraption onto the ice. After a while, we (and one other family) got off, and everyone else continued to the scenic view on the summit, while we (and a very knowledgeable guide) spent the next two hours exploring, watching crevasses develop (they start very small, but in a few weeks it would not be safe to go), eating chips of 400-year-old glacial ice, filling our water bottle in a glacial river, and getting a lesson in all the features of this ice-world, which is much more diverse than it seems from far away. There are the parts shaped by lava absorbing heat and melting, whirlpools and waterfalls where the rivers cascade under the ice so far you can't see the bottom, and other cool stuff.

On the way back, one more good place (though for less time than I'd have liked: Ţingvellir National Park with great scenic overlooks of beautiful Lake Ţingvallavatn-one of several places in Iceland where the European and North American tectonic plates are separating at the rate of 2 cm (1 inch) every year and at this spot, are now 7 km apart. This was also the place where Iceland's Parliament (the oldest in the world, founded in 980) met for most of the last thousand years-and not by coincidence, because the continental drift created a natural amphitheater where a speaker at the parliament (open to any citizen of the country, according to our knowledgeable guide/driver, who gave us a running commentary along the entire trip) could be heard easily at a good distance..

We finished the day hot tubbing at as municipal pool (admission included in the Reykjavik Welcome Card we'd bought the previous day) and dining at the Shalimar, a homestyle Pakistani restaurant, with good food, generous portions, and prices less than most restaurants around here (especially if you choose the daily special at 1550 kr, as we did.

Thursday, August 11

We first headed back to the sculpture museum we'd seen on our bike ride, but even though on the web it's listed as opening at 10, it didn't open until 2. So we crossed it off the list and headed back to the municipal pool for a quick swim before catching the ferry to Vi?ey Island. Here, we walked through the beautifully restored 1755 mission house, saw pictures of how decrepit it had been before the 1986-88 renovation, and picked up bikes from the free-loaner stand behind the house. Unfortunately, the bikes were terribly maintained. It took me three tries to get one that was rideable at all, and it was a one-speed geared absurdly low. Then Dina's chain slipped off while she shifted and got jammed next to the hub where we couldn't get it out again. Fortunately, the island is not that big, and it was easy enough to walk. Helmets not included.

The most interesting part of the island, for me, was the former main street of an abandoned and mostly demolished village, some with foundation or occasional wall ruins, and each with a sign that told about the history not only of the houses that had stood there, but the people who'd built and lived in them. As the road neared the waterfront, the structures had been commercial and industrial, mostly related to a fish processing plant that had gone bankrupt in 1931. The only building still standing is the school house.

Detouring on a foot path to the north shore, we found a lovely scenic spot for our picnic, then crossed the island to the Imagine Peace monument erected by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon. This was a very simple low tower with "imagine peace" carved in various languages, in random order, some of them repeated a few times. Then back to the mansion for beer and coffee on the restaurant patio, with nice views of the harbor and also the boat dock, so we could see very easily when it was time to catch the boat again.

Back downtown, we stopped at the Reykjavik Art Museum main building (free with our welcome card, as were the swimming, the bus, and the ferry). This was pretty avant garde, and mostly not curated with our sensibility in mind, but we did enjoy the special retrospective of 170 collages by the artist Erro, from the 1950s to recent years-much social and political commentary.

Our next adventure was more fun than we'd expected. Every summer Thursday at 5, the Reykjavik public library (two buildings down from the art museum) offers a 90-minute walking tour of literary Reykjavik. We expected a dry recitation of 'this poet lived here', and 'this one liked to drink there', but it was far better than that. One of the two leaders was the guide, giving us narrative about the spot we were in (which in some cases had a historical connection to the literary work, and sometimes simply a thematic relevance), with a witty and upbeat delivery, and then the other woman, who had a small walkabout public address system, would read a translated excerpt from the work. I found myself wanting to go out and read three of the works we heard.

For dinner, we finally got there in time to get our version of "comfort food" from Noodle Kitchen, 8 Skolavor?uatigur: Thai noodles with vegetables, cilantro, and hot sauce, and the same noodles and vegetables prepared with tomato, garlic, and basil-and at only about 1000 kr each. We were totally delighted.

Friday, 8/12

Started the morning walking along the wall of the old cemetery downtown, very evocative. Every gate we came to was closed, but we did see one person walking inside. From there, we wrung a bit more value out of our Welcome Card with an hour and a half at the National Museum of Iceland, which has a very good exhibit on the history of the country from 870 to the present, with lots of slide shows and audio narrations alongside the artifacts. It's arranged chronologically, and had quite a bit of interesting information-such as that many churches were built by wealthy farmers who hired the priests and collected 50 percent of the tithe.

From there, we walked a short distance to the Perlan, a fascinating domed building built over several former water storage tanks. An architectural gem, it's now the Saga Museum (which was not on the Welcome Card-and having just gone through the history of Iceland, we skipped it)-and also an observation deck with lovely views of the city and beyond, open to the public at no charge. Best of all, in tree-deprived Iceland, the Perlan sits in a forested park, where we picnicked.

Saturday, August 13

Our last two nights were with a host family in Keflavik, near the airport (convenient, since we had a morning flight out). Gunnar, our host, drove us around the Reykannes Peninsula. First, we crossed a bridge between the continental plates, much closer together than they are at Ţingvellir-just a few meters apart, and a clear sign at the demarcation. Then, one of the most powerful hot springs in Iceland, where the clouds of steam were so thick we couldn't see each other. Following a very short drive, we walked on a crater from a volcanic eruption around the year 1300 (only just beginning to be colonized by grasses, and with a very evocative lunar-style landscape), then a short hike up a hill that was a gentle grassy slope on one side, and a steeply eroded sea cliff on the other. There had been a lighthouse on this hill, but it was rebuilt on the neighboring knoll, slightly farther from the sea. A beautiful spot, kind of coastal Maine meeting volcanic Wyoming, and several ecosystems all coming together (bare ash, lightly colonized lava, heavily colonized lava, and grassy meadow with topsoil, as well as the ocean, of course). This spot (actually, an island just offshore, still home to a colony of migratory seabirds at other times of the year) was also the last home of the long-extinct Great Auk.

We finished by exploring downtown Keflavik on our own, a very quiet place on a Saturday afternoon. One of the few places open was the Nero Cafe, a delightful little place with good coffee and a very friendly owner (Daniel) who had only opened three weeks earlier.

Travel Tips and Observations

People are extremely helpful here. It seems the entire society has not just a consciousness about the crucial role of tourism, but in many cases a personal mission to ensure that your trip is everything you wanted and more, hassle-free. One exception is the tendency of Reykjavik bus drivers to ignore waiting passengers or those who try to flag them down. We were not personally stranded, but I saw three sets of other people who were, in one case standing at the bus stop well before the arrival. And since it's often 30 to 60 minutes for the next bus, that is a big problem.

Passes on the Reykjavik local bus are available in one-day, three-day, and monthly versions, and are a good deal if you're primarily staying in town. An even better deal, if you're planning on seeing a lot of attractions is the Reykjavik Welcome Card, which includes not only the bus system but free admission to many museums and attractions, as well as discounts on many stores and even a few tour companies (there are also coupons in some of the tourist literature). You can see a list of what's included at http://www.visitreykjavik.is/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-113/355_read-1389.

However, the transit benefit of the Welcome Card only works on the buses serving the city itself. If your itinerary takes you farther out, you may be better off doing what we did on our trip to Hveragerdi: we bought a strip of 11 350-kr bus tickets for 3000 kr, saving 850 kr over buying them separately. Local buses are one ticket, but the trip to the hot spring village was three tickets each way, per person (we paid the last 350 kr in cash), then bought the Welcome card for a later portion of our trip. The trip-strip option is not widely advertised, but very useful for day trips. You can also buy a bus pass that covers more zones, but if you're only taking one or two trips, that will probably cost you more than buying the trip strips as you need them.

What we saw of the road system was far better than many other parts of the world we've been to (including some sections in our own area of Massachusetts. Yes, we were on bumpy gravel roads for hours at a time, but they seemed well-maintained. Of course, we have been just lucky. We heard from some who'd gone deep into the back country that sometimes a deep stream floods certain roads, and even crossing in a Jeep is dicey.

In Reykjavik, Toyotas of various flavors seem to outsell everything else combined. Plenty of Nissans, Mazdas, Subarus, and Hondas, too; Japanese cars seemed to have about two-thirds of the market, with a few Hyundais and various European brands (especially VW, Mercedes, Renault, Citroën, Opel, and of all things, Skoda. Very few American cars, mostly Jeeps-and it wasn't necessarily a size thing. While small cars predominate, a lot of the Japanese SUVs (very popular, with the rough terrain and snowy winters) are quite huge.

While not entirely litter-free, Reykjavik is one of the cleanest cities I've ever been in. Litter is rare enough to be shocking. However, recycling and conservation consciousness are very low. We saw no one separating trash, and because water and energy are so plentiful, they are often squandered. There is enough of a green consciousness that someone has put together a map of the city highlighting all the green organizations and activities (as well as all the social service agencies). The map has a whole lot of information, but it conveys it poorly, with multiple icons crowding several intersections.

Food is expensive both in stores and restaurants, but occasional bargains can be found. Bakery bread is comparable with upscale stores in the US, and of very high quality. Spelt breads, expensive and rare in the US, are ordinary and priced at the same 500 kr or so as wheat or rye breads. Items like cheese and peanut butter and chocolate are considerably more than in the US, but still provide the makings of a pretty affordable meal. Fresh fruit looks awful and is absurdly high, so we bought dried fruit instead. Food, for the most part, is about twice to three times as expensive as in the US. You can dine out very cheaply on pizza, burgers, or hot dogs, but not much else.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook. His most recent book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.


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