Friday, August 14, 2009

Things to pack for Iceland

If you are planning a trip to Iceland, here at a couple of items you might want to have on hand: Conditioner. If you are planning a visit to the Blue Lagoon, the minerals really do a number on your hair. The best prevention is to tie back long hair or even use a swim cap. A heavy-duty conditioner used in the following days should help at least get a comb through it. A set of utensils and a Tupperware container or two. Iceland is big on picnics and facilitates them by placing a picnic table in virtually every beautiful place. That, plus the high cost of eating out and the fact that there may not be many choices when traveling in remote areas means it can be helpful to have some food ready. Binoculars. To spot birds, puffins, whales, porpoises, seals, etc. Layers. It can be hard to imagine 55 degrees in summer when you are sweltering somewhere else. But it is chilly and you’ll probably wear 2-3 layers a day. Long sleeved shirts are a good base, followed by either a lightweight or heavy sweater, then a windproof jacket or shell. A wool cap. This can be easily purchased in Iceland. A towel. Some hotels provide towels that aren’t large enough to wrap around your leg. Others are worn and scratchy. At pools, you have to pay to rent a towel. It’s easiest and cheapest to have your own. A credit card. Everything can be purchased with a credit card, from a soda to a taxi ride. Preferably a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees (Capital One is one option). A small computer. If you’ll want access to email on the road, you’ll have an easier time picking up wi-fi with your own computer than you will finding a computer to use.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The best museums in Iceland

While I didn’t make it to nearly all the museums in Iceland, I did visit quite a few. Here are the ones that stood out:

The Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik is centered around the remains of a Viking longhouse, dating from 871 plus or minus two years that was located in what is now the city center. It has been artfully preserved and shown, visible from the street through a glass cover. The museum uses multimedia technology to help visitors see what the house was like back in the 800s and how the first settlers in Iceland may have lived.

The Einar Jonsson Museum in Reykjavik is small but really packs a punch. The sculptures are full of emotion and feeling. You can walk amidst his great works, then take a peek upstairs at a few of the rooms from his house.

The National Museum is well worth a visit. It outlines in a clear and interesting fashion the original settlement of Iceland. Just when you get tired of reading, the hands-on exhibits appear, which are fun for kids and adults. Try on clothes from different periods in Icelandic history, or lift the metal of a jacket of armor. You may feel like a relic in the second floor modern history display upon seeing an Atari or a photo machine on display. The museum has a good gift shop, free lockers in the basement and a café.

Folk Museum in Skogar. A top-notch folk museum that allows you to crawl through sod houses, a schoolhouse, church and other village buildings, as well as tour an extensive collection of the implements used in daily life. The adjacent transportation museum (included with admission) shows the early heavy-duty cars to reach Iceland, the appearance of modern appliances and the advent of radio.

The Bustarfell museum is a turf-covered house that was lived in until 1966 and that belonged to the same family for over 400 years. It's an extensive and elaborate layout and very well-maintained. The museum is well-worth a visit, but even better is visiting the attached Croft Café for fresh-baked country cakes and breads.

Petra's Stone Collection (Sunnuhlio; 755 Stodvarfjordur; Tel: 475-8834;;) is one of those things you don't expect to like, but it may impress you more than you think. Some may dismiss the vast collection, one of the largest rock collections in the world, arrayed through the home and extensive gardens, as kitsch. Others will appreciate the effect that Petra, now in her 80s, put into assembling one of the world's greatest private rock collection. Either way, it's unlike anything you'll see elsewhere in Iceland and worth a stop if you can make it. There is a picnic table in the garden and comfortable chairs in the sitting room, where you can enjoy tea or coffee.

If you’ve read anything by Icelandic literary superstar Halldor Laxness, it’s fun to visit his home and workplace to see where his creations originated. Admission comes with an audio tour.

Two places I didn’t make it to that are worth mentioning are:

The Witchcraft and Sorcery Museum in Holmavik. Our tour guide recommended this highly. We were sorry to not have time to make it up there.

The Settlement Centre in Borgarnes. We arrived just before closing, so didn’t manage to see it, but it looked like it would be worth a trip.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The festival I must go to someday

We’ve spent the past few days in the Westman Islands – or island, since only one of the 15 is habited. This little place has a lot of interesting sites – puffins, great hiking and the ability to see the effects of a major volcanic eruption that took place only 36 years ago, in 1973.

But the event that has brought people to the Westman Islands for decades is the music festival held every year during the first week of August. We tried to attend, but not only was all the accommodation booked (though camping was available), but all the ferries and planes were full.

It’s a four-day event, which includes one day where people hook up with another partner, one day of bonfire, one day of firecrackers and one day in which a local leader who served time in jail for corruption led everyone in song. For all four days, bands take the stage day and night.

Friends say it can get wild and is primarily for the young. But one middle-aged woman I spoke with on the island said that everyone attends. “It’s good for the parents to be here too and keeping an eye on their kids,” she said.

This year, over 14,000 people attend, increasing the usual population of 4,100 multiple times during a week of festivities. We visited the site of the festival, right next to a beautiful 18-hole golf course (the world’s only golf course on a crater) and it was remarkably clean just one week after the party.

I’d still like to attend. But next time, I’ll book accommodations well in advance, and perhaps I’ll wait until my son is old enough to enjoy it, so that I can join the Icelandic parents keeping an eye on their kids.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Favorite food in Iceland

Due to the high prices in Iceland, I subsisted on groceries more often than usual while traveling. However, I tried to get in at least one local meal per day. Here is where I found the most delicious food:

Vogafjos Café, near Lake Myvatn – The grilled trout portion was large and perfectly seasoned. A sampler meal allows you to taste a variety of smoked meats and fishes with complementary sauces. For a real treat, try the geyser bread, baked in the ground or the creamy, homemade ice cream. Enjoy all this with a view of farmland and the lake and a shed full of cows next door. Open from May to October.

Ensku Husin, just outside Borganes. An 1800s English fishing lodge, restored to its original character in 2007. Each evening, from 7 p.m. to 8:30, the restaurant serves a prix fixe menu. On the night I visited, it included mushroom soup, grilled salmon with potatoes, tomato salad and mashed sweet potato, chocolate cake with ice cream and coffee or tea. The fish was superb and the variety of vegetables in the side dishes unique for Iceland. Exceptionally friendly service and the unique 1800s décor with a view of the river make this a place to experience.

Cakes at Conte’s Café at the Bustarfell turf farm museum – Country cake (made with oats), rhubarb cake, chocolate cake. All are fresh, warm and topped with a mound of whipped cream. This is the place to relax with a hot drink and one of the best desserts you’ll try in Iceland.

FossHotel Baron in Reykjavik. Perhaps the pricey Reyjavik hotels do better, but hands-down, this was the best breakfast I had in Iceland. The waffle iron gets big points, as does the wide selection of meats, cheeses, fruits, breads, cookies, cereals, skyr and toppings.

The Seafood Cellar serves food in its most exquisite form in Reykjavik's oldest stone cellar. Everything is a symphony of flavors, mixed creatively, blended perfectly. It's worth it to cut back for a few days in order to afford the tasting menu. It will be the best meal you eat in Iceland, and perhaps anywhere. Reservations suggested. Open only for dinner.

For a treat from the supermarket, try the marshmallow filling dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut. Light , fluffy and full of calories, this is an Icelandic treat to take home to the kids.

Soft serve ice cream cones available from gas stations are rich, creamy, delicious and cheap. Skyr can be purchased in single-serve or larger containers from the grocery store.

Whipped cream – Icelanders love their whipped cream and no waffle or dessert is complete without it.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Favorite accommodations in Iceland

In the time I was in Iceland, I tried out several different types of accommodations, in many different locations. The best, of course, was the time we spent in a private home. But for those looking to book a room, I’ll share my favorites among the places we stayed.

Sydri-Vik (690 Vopnafirdi; Tel: 473-1199; Fax: 473-1449), a member of Icelandic Farm Holidays, has beautiful and quaint red summer cottages, with extra large windows offering amazing views of the nature and the bay. The cottages are cozy and comfortable, with everything a traveler could need - bath, microwave, fridge, kitchen, TV, dining area, sofa and three bedrooms. A patio outside has chairs and a grill and the cottages are just steps from a river. From Egilsstadir, take road 1 for 85 km. Turn right on road 85. God 50 km. Turn right on rd. 917. It's 3 km on the right. If you decide to travel on rd. 917 from rd., be forewarned that there is a large single-laned mountain crossing that would be very difficult in wet or cold weather. The views on this route, however, are stunning.

Hotel Framtid in Djupivogur is a warm, welcoming place at a reasonable price. It offers beautiful harbor views – a perfect Icelandic hotel.

The Fosshotel Baron (Baronsstigur 2; Tel: 562-3204) is a short walk from the center of town and attractively perched on the harbor. Rooms are comfortable and quiet but the real attractions are the location, the easy FlyBus dropoff and pickup and the delicious breakfast buffet, the best I had in Iceland.

Blue Lagoon Clinic. Wow, this is perhaps my favorite hotel of all time. Where else can you stay in a room with a view of lava fields? A wonderful, luxurious way to experience the magic of the lava fields and the blue lagoon without the hordes of tourists. The pricetag is steep, but it includes entrance to the Blue Lagoon (for two days, if desired) and a wonderful breakfast with fresh-baked breads. Best of all, guests receive access to a private lagoon from 8-10 a.m. and 8-10 p.m. that is even better than the lagoon itself. This magnificent hideaway is well worth the money. There is a footpath directly from the clinic to the blue lagoon that takes 5-10 minutes to walk.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Sleeping bag accommodation

When I travel overseas, I enjoy finding unique hotel arrangements that make the lodging arrangement more convenient for the traveler and still profitable for the innkeeper. One of my favorites is the 24 hour stay in parts of Eastern Europe and Russia, where for the price of one night’s lodging, a guest is allowed to stay for 24 hours from the time they check in. I think the hotel industry in the United States could do a lot to break out of the standard mold and offer services that are more valuable to travelers.

I came across another good idea here in Iceland. It’s called sleeping bag accommodation. When you book a room, you ask for either a prepared bed or sleeping bag accommodation. A prepared bed is what you get in a standard hotel room. In sleeping bed accommodation, the room is the same as usual, but without bed-linens. The guest is expected to bring their own sleeping bag. As a result of not having to clean and replace the linens, the innkeeper charges the guest less.

Sleeping bag accommodations can come in two types – either a dorm room shared with other guests, or standard singles and doubles, identical to typical hotel stays but without linens.

We booked our first sleeping bag accommodation last night at the Hotel Framtid in Djupivogur. We had the option of a prepared room for 10,100 kroners, or a two-person sleeping bag accommodation for 6,800 kroners. Both had shared bath. For the 3,300kr savings (about $28), we were ready to ditch the sheets. We ended up with a cozy room with a nice heater and a view of the harbor. I’m a new fan of Icelandic sleeping bag accommodation.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Real Icelandic Weather

Before coming to Iceland, I read that I should be prepared to protect myself from the rains – a windjacket and rain pants were on the packing list. Until today, we had only occasional light showers. We experienced bouts of cold and some light wind, but nothing like what hit us today – almost an entire day of downpours and screeching, powerful winds.

In this kind of weather, in which you are wet and feel almost powerless against the strength of the wind, the temperature doesn’t matter too much. It’s cold no matter what.

As a result, we spent much of the day driving. At times, the wind was so strong we could barely keep our little Suzuki on the road. Our back window vibrated so hard I worried it would implode. Giant mountain ranges disappeared under a layer of fog.

We were lucky to have a clear patch for long enough to take a one hour hike in Skaftafell National Park. We ventured out for a short walk across moss covered lava blobs in a drizzle and I wished for mittens, my wool hat and long underwear when we went out on an amphibious boat to see icebergs fallen from a glacier. Most of the time we just drove, happy to have a warm vehicle to shelter us, even as we lamented the views we missed due to the obstructed scenery.

Worst off were the poor bikers. Just yesterday, I envied the cyclists I saw traveling the Ring Road. It’s a beautiful road for biking, flat, endless scenery, not too much traffic, easy to follow, plenty of space to camp. It reminded me of the wonderful experience of cycling Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan and I wished I could join them. However, today I saw the downside – bikers hiding between rocks to seek shelter from the wind, bikers pedaling slowly, or walking their bikes in winds so fierce they could barely stand up, bikers soaked to the skin, with no signs of civilization for miles and miles in either direction. For anyone thinking of biking the Ring Road, you should know that it offers great possibilities. However, when the weather gets bad, it’s really, really bad and changes occur quickly. I’d advise bikers to either have some kind of back-up plan or be prepared to endure potentially miserable conditions for many hours.

In the evening, we reached the pretty and welcoming harbor village of Djupivogur. The Framtid hotel is warm and inviting, with beautiful views of the harbor and it has a nice restaurant. There, we were told that with the exception of a break in the weather yesterday, it has been raining for the last week. Rain is forecast here for the next nine days.

Due to how quickly the weather patterns change, it’s hard to make plans based upon the weather. We had been hoping to go horseback riding tomorrow, perhaps a boat trip, perhaps some hiking. Now we’ve learned to play it by ear. At the very least, we are experiencing real, Icelandic weather.

The video is from a roadside stop. The mangled metal is a former bridge that was ruined by the weather.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Faces of Icelanders

I have a deep respect for people who live their lives in Iceland. This respect is ever greater for those who lived in decades and centuries past.

We’re enjoying our visit to Iceland very much and I’m spoiled daily by so many striking sites and interesting things to learn about. However, Iceland is one of those places that is great to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. Why? It’s cold. Even now, at the height of summer, with beautiful sunny days and little rain, I dress in three layers and carry around a wool hat. Also, the winters are dark. And the land is far from other places.

Reading books, such as the recent novel, The Tricking of Freya, and the opus by Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Haldor Laxness, Independent People, gives me further understanding of what life was life in earlier decades and centuries. They had to contend with volcanic eruptions, with limited diets and high infant mortality.

Those who endured the hardships to build their life and their families here strike me as noble and courageous. Today I visited the Skogar Folk Museum, where I was able to take a closer look at how life was lived. This is a top-notch folk museum, with extensive collections of implements and excellent creations of dwellings and other buildings, including sod houses. For those who visit the southeastern part of Iceland, this is well-worth seeing. A bonus is that it’s located right next to a stunning waterfall.

More than anything else, the faces that peered out from the old photographs struck me. Here are a few of them, faces of Icelanders:

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle refers to the circle that takes in the three highlights near Reykjavik – Thingvellir – the site of the world’s first Parlimanet, the magnificent Gulfoss waterfall, comparable to Niagara, and the Geysir geyser.

We took the Golden Circle classic tour offered by Iceland Excursions. This tour stopped first at the geothermal power station. I had expected that we’d go into the power station and see how it worked. Instead, it was just a view from afar. But it was still worth seeing. The surrounding landscape was stunning and filled with hiking trails. The sight of steam rising up from amidst mountains and the long tube that follows the road, carrying warm water to the city, is worth seeing.

The tour included only transportation and the guide in the 60 euro charge. There were plenty of opportunities to buy food along the way. I think if I had it to do over again, I would have brought a picnic and eaten besides the Gulfoss waterfall. The best food was at the cafeteria on the site of the Catholic church headquarters. The final stop, supposedly a religion museum but really just a big gift shop, is best used to try the creamy Icelandic soft serve, at a very reasonable 100 kroners per cone.