Throwback Travel: Icelandic Winter Day Trips

Into the Blue – Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure

One of the top things on our Icelandic “To Do” list was the Arctic Adventures excursion called  Into The Blue. We met at the Arctic Adventures office and packed into a van headed to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park to snorkel in the Silfra fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Snorkeling in Iceland, you ask? No, it wasn’t in a hot spring or geothermal heated water. The water was glacier run-off, a nice 34 degrees Fahrenheit. We spent the first hour of the tour getting into our sleeping bag, bear-like suit material, topped with a dry suit. I had to have the tour guides hug me five or six times before my suit leaked enough air that I no longer looked like the Pillsbury dough boy and a condom had a baby – I just looked like a condom at that point.

iceland_pingviller.jpgThe snorkeling trip was fun! While the suit protected us from the frigid water, our hands unfortunately were covered with wet suit material gloves. My hands were freezing and felt like they were being stabbed by pins and needles toward the end. Still, I enjoyed the adventure. The water was crystal clear, with long range visibility; it was amazing to be snorkeling, with the snow falling above us.

The Golden Circle

One of our favorites parts of the trip was our day trip around the Golden Circle. We rented a car from the main bus depot and headed out early, with our first stop at Þingvellir national park. The park was gorgeous! We drove to various parking lots and walked around, looking at the landscape. It was chilly, but definitely worth walking outside. The drive had a lot of scenic areas to stop and admire the view.

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We headed to Geysir. It was cool seeing the boiling water coming from the ground and the geothermal field, but the geyser itself was a little underwhelming. It’s possible that we didn’t see one of the larger eruptions, but we definitely had to wait over 8-10 minutes to see the eruptions. Still, I’m glad we saw it! There was also a dining/gift shop area adjacent to the parking area. We warmed up with hot drinks and mushroom soup, so I’d call it a success. 🙂 Our last stop was seeing the Gullfoss waterfall.

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It was definitely odd driving up to the parking lot. From the parking lot, you really don’t see much of the waterfall. We were questioning if we were even in the right spot! We had to walk past the parking lot, and on the wooden walkways for a bit before we finally saw the waterfall coming into view! The waterfall was really cool to see, especially the falls that seemed to domino into smaller falls. I’m sure this area is beautiful in the summer!

Blue Lagoon

The famous Blue Lagoon! We knew we had to visit, after hearing about how it’s one of the top destinations in Iceland. We bought our tickets online ahead of time, since we hear that spots can book quickly.

The Blue Lagoon entrance was really cool – the walkway surrounded by black rock formations topped with moss.

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The facility was really nice inside. The bathing areas were packed! We got bracelets that automatically secured our lockers, so we rest assured that our stuff was safely locked away. The showering areas were also decent – there were two areas, the open showers and the curtained showers for the shy American variety.

The Lagoon itself was awesome! If I could do it over (and maybe someday I will), next time I would bring cheap flip flops. The ground was freezing (of course, what did I expect? Geo-thermal heated concrete would have been nice :)) The Lagoon was undergoing construction, so some parts of it were closed off. Regardless, it was easy to find some less crowded places to escape. There were clay stations off to the side, so you can lather yourself in the famous white clay. I would recommend not picking up or looking at the clay at the bottom of the lagoon. You definitely don’t want to have a mental image of yourself bathing with other people’s hair and skin cells. Ignorance is bliss. 🙂

There were some rest areas inside with chairs and seating areas, but they fill up quickly! There is also a large dining area, so you can enjoy food while overlooking the lagoon itself. I would definitely recommend going, especially if you have time to kill before a flight out of the city. I think next time, I would opt to try a smaller, natural spa, but I’m glad I got to experience this one at least once.

Throwback Travel: Icelandic Winter and Meeting the Natives

When we told our friends that we were planning a winter excursion to an island, this statement likely conjured an image of a warm, tropical Carribean island with throngs of tourists all with the same idea – escaping the winter cold. Not exactly what we were thinking at that time…

What is there to do in Iceland during the winter? Are you crazy?

Iceland had been on my bucket list for ages; I’ve always imagined that someday, I would visit and take a long road trip in a rugged vehicle around the famous Ring Road to see the entire island and all of its natural beauty (I definitely plan to go back to do this!).

I started to do a lot of online research, and undoubtedly there are many more articles about things to do in the Land of the Midnight Sun during the summer months; the winter months even restrict tourists from certain activities and venturing to specific areas. It’s dark! It’s cold. Ice is in the country name! What could we possibly be thinking?

Still, we were determined to spend part of December in a winter wonderland. We wanted to go somewhere that felt like it was winter and perhaps even see Christmas markets. Iceland is also a lot closer than mainland Europe. All these factors helped us finally bite the bullet and book our tickets. We were headed to Reykjavik!

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View of the city from the Hallgrímskirkja

One of the first things we did in Iceland on our first night was visit the Tin Can Factory for its Meet the Natives session. We were able to walk from our AirBnB booking on the main street, Laugavegur. We booked the only reservations that night for the Meet the Natives session. We spent several hours at the Tin Can Factory, learning a bit about the history of Iceland, sampling Icelandic cuisine (which included fresh Icelandic butter and geothermal bread, pumpernickel bread, herbs and spices), and learning a bit about the language. We were even assigned our own Icelandic names!

Toward the end, we learned how to make Icelandic pancakes, and sat down to enjoy our creations. The pancakes with cream, fruit toppings, and homemade whipped cream were amazing. The classroom was dark, because the sun had long set by the time we started class. Here’s what the classroom looked like:

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The Tin Can Factory classroom

We also got to try some Christmas food and the Icelandic Christmas drink Malt go Appelsín.

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Icelandic food sampler

We headed back to our booked apartment, with stomachs stuffed and ready to spend a week exploring Reykjavik and the surrounding areas. So far, Iceland in winter was a winner!

London, UK: The Last Hurrah

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Happy New Year! I’ve been a bit of a slacker; the holiday season makes it easy to lose track.  I’ve been sitting on writing my final London musings, so here they are. 🙂

We started our day by strolling through Hyde Park. It was a grey (gray!), drizzly day, the type you always hear about when someone talks about England, with the added bonus of the occasional thunderstorms and wind. Many people proclaimed throughout the day that we were in the midst of a hurricane! Regardless of the official rainy day nomenclature (I’m not sure if an English hurricane is the same as a U.S. hurricane), we set off to make the most of our time in the city.

The stroll through Hyde Park was nice, with its perfect fall foliage. The leaves covered the ground and the park foot traffic was light, as people were likely avoiding the rain. It’s definitely hard to believe that that much open space is right in the heart of a huge metropolis. We walked by the Princess Diana memorial, using the park as a shortcut to make our way to Harrods.

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Hyde Park

See, I’ve wanted to go to Harrods for a long time – probably after seeing it on some Travel Channel special. I had heard about the glorious food market, which is the primary reason I wanted to go. The food market did not disappoint. I loved strolling past the glass displays of macarons, chocolates, and other house made chocolates. I grabbed some elderflower  loose leaf tea – a flavor I don’t typically see a home. We spent a few minutes admiring the shops, mostly because the room fixtures and ceilings were adorned with fancy decorations, not because I dare buy something from a couture shop. My wallet thanks me!

We walked by Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t as grand as I had imagined. I don’t know – maybe I had never really paid attention on television or in movies when it showed the palace and the changing of the guards? I guess I was expecting an imposing palace, with large grounds and gardens in the front. Don’t get me wrong – if someone offered me the place to live rent-free, I wouldn’t refuse. 😉 But I guess I was expecting something… more magnificent? To me, Buckingham looked like it could be another government building, rather than what my mind conjures up when I think of a royal palace.

We also checked out Westminster Abbey. Initially, the line in front made us worry that the wait would be long, but it moved pretty quickly! The Abbey was a bit pricey (something I noticed about London in general). It was really nice inside, and I enjoyed seeing the numerous interior rooms, and watching the history unfold by seeing the different era styles evolving as we walked through. It was hard to believe that some of the shrines, flooring, and marble there was from the 13th century! There were a lot of different historic periods represented and a lot of recognizable individuals from history buried there – Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are in chapels opposite to one another; Elizabeth had the grander setup, from what I remember.

Our last stop in London was visiting the Tower of London. We got there with about an hour to explore before the doors closed. It was cool walking along the walls, and enjoying the night time view of the Tower Bridge. We saw the Armory building and some of the weapons/cannons/knights armor (armour ;)) displayed. Our last stop on the grounds was seeing the opulent crown jewels. They were a sight to see, and the building even had a moving sidewalk in one portion to make sure the crowds didn’t monopolize the standing room in front of the displays. It was crazy to think of how valuable those jewels are. It kind of makes me wish that I had somewhere to wear a crown.

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Tower Bridge from the Tower of London