Fire and Ice

Iceland; the land of Fire and Ice. Although I had travelled to Iceland two years earlier, when the prospect came up as a way for me and my college bffs to begin celebrating our respective 40th birthdays (by taking a trip for each), I was more than willing to go back. I had warned my friends it would be dark and that the weather wasn’t always pleasant, but what I had not prepared them for, nor myself for that matter, was the monsoon-like winds that greeted us square in the face as we exited the Keflavik International Airport on a pitch-dark, 8:30am morning.

After the ensuing chaos that included wind knocking over our bags, blowing off our hats, and swirling our bus tickets into the air, we gratefully hopped aboard the Gray Line transfer that would drive us down the dark, wet roads of Iceland, arriving at the Blue Lagoon just after 10am. Arriving at the Blue Lagoon in the dark, with no sign of the weather clearing up, I reminded myself how fickle the weather can be in Iceland, and vowed to make the best of each situation. If worse came to worse, laugh at it.

After dragging our luggage down the dark and windy path that leads to the Blue Lagoon, a helpful, Nordic looking woman at registration told us we would need to check in with the hotel in order to get our entrance tickets to the lagoon. She kindly called a shuttle for us, and we proceeded to drag our bags back towards the main entrance, in the dark, in the wind, in the cold rain…WELCOME TO ICELAND!

Thanks to the extreme generosity of my friend Jenn (whose 40th we were celebrating) and her husband, Keith, our first evening in Iceland was spent staying at the Hotel Silica; a luxury spa hotel that is located a short walks away (so we were told) from the Lagoon. With raging winds and ice pellets dancing through the air, we opted to take the shuttle instead.

When we arrived back at the Blue Lagoon, we went into the locker/changing area where I reluctantly reminded Jenn and Danielle of the rule that before you entered the lagoon, you had to shower sans bathing suit. I retold the story of how the last time I visited, one could tell the Europeans from Americans because the latter walked around sheepishly, crowing and hiding, while Europeans proudly paraded themeselves from changing area to open showers, before putting on their suits and entering the lagoon. A few minutes later, as we entered the shower area, wearing only our robes, we noticed every single person was wearing a bathing suit. Without a word, we looked at each other and ran back to the changing area to get our suits. While Jenn and Danielle laughed at me for getting this rather large detail wrong, we found out later that those were indeed the rules, but it seemed as if nobody followed them anymore. I chalk this up to the drastic increase in tourism that has occurred over the last couple of years.

When we finally walked down the stairs, I pushed open the wooden glass door that leads out to the deck area at one of the entrances to the Lagoon, running out into the freezing cold “oohing and ahing” our way into the warm, steamy water. After the initial relief of having our bodies in the lagoon, we began to laugh as the skies proceeded to pelt our faces with wind and ice. The wind was so bad, that the lagoon essentially turned into a giant, steaming wave pool. “Isn’t this relaxing?!”

In perhaps a more realistic attempt at enjoying ourselves, we went back inside and found our way to the relaxation room that sits on the second floor overlooking the lagoon. Hanging out in our robes in lounge chairs, with hot chocolates by our sides, it seemed as if this was the best the lagoon was going to get. Then, by the luck of the Yulelads, the sun, with all the strength and glory it could muster at 3pm in the afternoon (keep in mind, the sun sets around 4 in the winter), began to peak out and rise behind the surrounding hills. We knew this was our moment to thoroughly enjoy the lagoon, get a geo-thermal clay facial, and finally, relax.

In the evening, we celebrated Jenn’s birthday with dinner reservations at the Lava Restuarant located at the Blue Lagoon. The next morning, we slept in a bit (which is easy to do in Iceland, being that the sun doesn’t rise until 10am in the Winter) before grabbing a shuttle into Reykjavik, the northern most capital city in the world, and a place that has slowly worked its way into becoming one of my favorite places on earth. With around 300,000 people living in Iceland, and just over 200,000 of them living in and around Reykjavik, this colorfol, harbor-side city has been able to maintain its old-world charm, while simultanously growing its infrastructure to accomodate the increasing number of tourists pouring in from all over the world. Getting our bearings in the city after being dropped off at a random hotel, we eventually found our way to the cute Airbnb apartment we had rented for the next few days. Located in the old city, just at the top of Laugavegur street, the apartment was a stones throw away from cafes, jewelry shops, gift stores, restuarants, and bars.

After settling in a bit, we made our way up to the Hallgrimskirkja Church, which sits at the top of a hill overlooking the city. Designed so as to symbolize an erupting Volcano, the church has become an internatinally recognizable symbol of Reykjavik.

With a long line to get to the top of the church, we opted to wait until the following day and headed across the street to one of my favorite places from my previous trip; Cafe Loki. Here we tried some traditional Icelandic foods such as mashed fish, smoked salmon, pickled herring, fermented shark, and ryebread icecream. After eating we meandered downtown popping in and out of little gift stores that sold weaved hats, gloves, and sweaters, puffin decored everything, northern lights themed souvenirs, and Icelandic Christmas decorations starring their version of Santa Clause; the 13 yulelads who come down from the mountains each Christmas to bring children presents. We eventually made it to the bottom of town, just above the harbor, when we came across a little market with an ice-skating rink surrounded by a handful of street vendors, one of which was sponsored by The Drunken Rabbit.  This helped us warm up with mulled wine and Irish coffees. That evening, we had booked ourselves a northern lights tour through a company called Having done a bus tour the last time I was here, I thought the jeep tour might be a little more secluded with less people. When the jeep finally pulled up to get us however, after a long wait where I was convinced every white vehicle on 4 wheels was our driver, we realized we would not be the only ones in our car. This wouldn’t have been a problem, but unfortunately, we were on the tour with two rather snobby women from Los Angeles, one of whom kept talking about how much she loved the Icelandic folktale of the Christmas Cat who eats children. Not.Weird.At.All. Not only would we not be the only ones in our jeep, due to the overwhelming number of cancellations the previous few nights due to inclement weather, the company was trying to get all of those bookings to see the lights as well. So when our jeep arrived at the first viewing spot outside of the city, we soon realized we would be joined by about 25 other vehicles for the show. Nevertheless, seeing the Northern Lights on my previous trip, I knew it wouldn’t matter how many people were there. If we were lucky enough to see them, it would be a special moment know matter the circumstances. I also knew that the lights never appeared to the naked eye quite as bright as they do in pictures and post-cards, and so not to be disappointed. As the company said they had not seen the lights since Dec. 20th, we felt fortunate to be seeing them on our first attempt.

After the first viewing spot, we all piled back into our jeeps and drove further away from the city, until we reached a secluded side road that drove us up into the woods. As we arrived, a tour guide from the leading car announced over the radio to pay attention to the guy in his car smoking pot as we pulled into a giant open field. This poor guy wanted seclusion and instead, was greeted with 25 jeeps and vans filled with wide-eyed tourists armed with smart phones and cameras.
The lights at this spot seemed a bit brighter, though it may have been due to the hot chocolate and vodka the guides were enthusiastically pouring for everyone. Add in a fireworks display and a little history of the Northern Lights, and you have yourself a pretty decent night.

Although seeing the Northern Lights can be a pretty hard act to follow, celebrating New Years Eve in Iceland is, in my opinion, among the greatest travel experiences one can have.
We started off the day working our way back to the Hallgrimskirkja church just in time for the sun to rise. After taking a few pictures outside, we headed up to the top where one is treated to magnificent panoramic views of Reykjavik and the surrounding harbor.

In the afternoon, we ate “clean brunches” at the Laundry Mat Cafe before resting up for our big night out.
What makes New Years Eve in Iceland so special is the traditions. Every year, starting in the late afternoon, stores and restuarants close up and workers go home to spend the evening celebrating with family and/or friends. Remembering that it was crucial to have dinner reservations locked down months before, I had contacted Apotek Restuarant, located in an old pharmacy building near the city center, and reserved us a 6 oclock seating. Rated as one of our top experiences of the trip, the 5 course festive menu coupled with an outsanding drink selection, great wine, and a cozy window table made this the perfect beginning to a long night.

From dinner, we set out on foot through the cozy residential streets of Reykjavik trying to find one of the many bonfires that takes place all over Iceland. Icelanders believe that the bonfire is a symbolic way to burn away the past year and begin a new. As we were walking along the streets, we came across a couple of people with their cameras and tripods looking up at the sky. The Nothern Lights were shining over Reykjavik! By the time we made it to the waters edge, a good portion of the sky was illuminated with them.

The bonfire usually fizzles out around 10pm when families go back to their homes to watch the Áramótaskaupið, which translates as “the New Year’s Comedy” and is a satirical take on the events of the previous year. When the show ends at around 11:30pm, you begin to hear fireworks being shot off all over the city. Though, to be fair, people had been shooting them off all day.

After heading back to the apartment to freshen up, we found our way back to the church which is one of the three main places to see and shoot fireworks in the city. For over an hour, beautiful displays of fireworks lit up over the artic sky. These are not done by professionals however, rather individuals who purchase their fireworks from the Icelandic Resue Organization, as a fundraiser.

As the fireworks died down a bit, we made our way down one of the side streets that leads to the main drag, hoping to get a seat at a bar before they filled up. As we meandered down the street, we came across a gathering group of people dancing and singing on the stairs outside the Dillon Whiskey Bar. When we inquired with a British couple waiting on the stairs, we were told that they were waiting for the bar to open at 1am. We decided to wait it out also, with the hopes of grabbing a good seat. When the doors finally opened, everyone ran into the bar like chickens with heads cut off, grabbing different chairs at different tables. After the chaos settled, we eventually would up at a window seat table looking out on the street. For whatever reason, perhaps the company, perhaps the snowy streets, and definitely the music, this bar reminded me of one of our favorite watering holes in college.

Around 3 am, we finally headed home to get a couple of hours sleep before we embarked on what wound up being a 12 hour New Years Day Tour.

Most people who visit Reykjavik go on day tours outside the city to see the natural wonders that are the real draw of Iceland. We decided to do the same, although in retrospect, planning a 12 hour excursion outside the city for the morning after New Years Eve might not have been the best idea.

An early start to the morning took us to Tingvellir National Park, home to the Alping; the world’s first democratic parliament established by the Vikings. It is also home to where the two continental plates of North America and Europe meet.

Although it was great to visit this place again, the early visiting time made it a bit dark to take great pictures, and contributed to icier than usual pathways, one of which threw me into the air, only to come crashing down on my back. Ouch!

From the National Park, we drove about another 40 minutes to reach the Geysir; the first geo-thermal hot water spring whose name has been adopted by all other hot springs around the world. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, some tourists clogged the Geysir with rocks to see what would happen, and it has not properly gone off since. Fortunately, the Strokkur hot spring that sits next to it is impressive in its own right.

From here we travelled a bit further away from the coast to arrive at the Gullfoss waterfall, just as the sun began to poke its way up, over the horizon.

For the second half of the day, we had signed up to go snowmobiling along the Langjokull; the second largest glacier in Iceland. Around 2pm we piled into a giant monster jeep bus that drove us across fields of snow until we finally reached the basecamp of Moutaineers of Iceland. After our brief instructions on how to ride the bikes…”two to a bike, if you flip over roll with it, if you get lost, don’t find us, we’ll find you, blah, blah blah”…we hopped aboard and headed off on a snowy caravan with about 20 vehicles in tow. Due to my back hurting from my wipe out earlier in the morning, I sat on the back with Jenn driving, and Danielle teamed up with a lady from a group we had met on the ride over. As the snow started to pick up, it became increasingly difficult to steer, although it probably didn’t help that when Jenn would tilt her head one way, I would lean the other, mostly so I could see. Eventually, this technique must have back fired because we found ourselves tipping over. When we finally fell to the side, and after Jenn realized my leg was not trapped underneath the snow mobile, we couldn’t stop laughing. Shortly thereafter, that laughter soon turned to internal panic however, when we realized, in our quest to get back on track with the rest of the group, the guides who had stopped to help us and were now in our charge, were seemingly lost. With the sun rapidly setting, and visibility rapidly decreasing, we drove one way, then another, then stopped and watched as our two guides pointed this way and that way, looking around to get their bearings straight. Thoughts began to race through my head…”I can’t believe I’m going to die like this” “Maybe we won’t die, but we will surely suffer from frost bite and lose toes and fingers” What will the headline be? ‘Two idotic women celebrating 40 die snowmobiling a blizzard in Iceland'”. The list could go on. But wait! We stopped! Jen asked “Are we lost?” to which the guide responded with a knowing chuckle “Lost? No! He (points to other guide) knows this area like the back of his hand.” Really? I think to my self. What area? There was nothing but white in every direction. Regardless, happy to be alive and not lost, I shared my thoughts with Jenn, who apparently was having her own survival conversations inside her head which revolved around her dissapointment that the guides weren’t that “meaty” should we need to eat them to survive. I laughed at the prospect that we might actually survive longer than them to have to make that decision.

Needless to say, eventually we were reunited with the group and Danielle, who, on her own adventure, realized that her friends had been missing for quite some time.

Grateful to be alive, and following a long ride back to Reykjavik, we had dinner at Prikid; the oldest cafe in Iceland (allegedly), and proceeded to pass out for 12 hours, until we had to be up the next morning to pack and catch our flight home.

Although Iceland is one of the most stunning and fascinating places one can visit, it was really being able to spend quality time with my two best buddies from over 20 years ago that has made this trip so special. Over the years, we have always been there to celebrate the important moments in each others’ lives, like this…

…and to share the little, but wonderous moments (like seeing the northern lights) that can make life so special. From the Blue Lagoon, to the Northern lights, to the glaciers, Iceland is undoubtedly a “fantastical” place that everyone should visit. Being able to spend 5 days there with my two closest friends from college? Well, in the words of the now infamous Mariah Carey’s New Years Eve performance:”That was..(longpause)..AMAZING”.

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