Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Iceland, January, 2015
I have always wanted to see the northern lights and what better place to see them than in Iceland!!!  Icelandair (www.icelandair.com) has a nice, inexpensive northern lights tour on their website so I booked it adding an extra day in Akureyri.  The tour includes flights to Reykjavik from many U.S. cities, 2 nights in Reykjavik, northern lights tour and 2 nights in Akureyri.

I flew to Seattle on January 20 at 10:00 a.m. from Orange County which was the cheapest way for me to connect to an Icelandair flight.  Arrived in Reykjavik on January 21 about 6:45 a.m.  Took the Flybus to the Icelandair Natura hotel where they gave me a bus pass for the day.  It was a little below 0 degrees F which was pretty cold for a California girl.  I had brought along long underwear, heavy windproof jacket, hat, gloves, snow boots, etc. so I put everything on and took the bus into the center of town.

There was snow everywhere but it was beautiful.  The city is clean and bright, people are friendly and walking in the snow felt wonderful.  Stopped at Sandlot bakery for coffee and pastry before heading down the main street to see the town.  No skyscrapers, only lots of quaint little shops, cafes, etc. along the way.    Walked around the harbor,  passed the city hall and walked up to the Church of Hallgrimur, at 244 feet, the largest in Iceland.  Construction began in 1946 and ended in 1986.  It also houses a beautiful large pipe organ by the German organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn.

I had read about the open air museum (arbaejarsafn) which had several old buildings taken from different parts of Iceland and that there was only one tour per day at 1 p.m.  I took a bus which took almost an hour but arrived just in time for the tour.  I was the only person as we first visited the old church and then a few other people from Ireland appeared which made the tour much more interesting.  We learned and saw how people lived several hundred years ago and even up until 1970.  We visited their homes, churches and farms and the guide gave an excellent explanation of their lives.  Afterwards, I was so fortunate that the people from the tour had a car and dropped me off at my hotel.  I was a bit hungry so had a nice hot coffee, chocolate tart and some fresh fruit before checking in and taking a nice hot shower.  It felt so good to get warm!!!

Later that evening I took the bus back into town and had a wonderful dinner at Foretta Bar Inn.  It is known for its little plates and I dined on house smoked salmon with potato rosti and yogurt sauce and smoked duck with dates and beets and goat cheese crumble.  Walked back to the bus and returned to the hotel which is really nice, very modern, quiet and clean.

Breakfast in the morning was an nice assortment of dark breads which you could slice and toast yourself, hard cooked eggs, cheeses, smoked salmon and fresh fruit.  We flew up to Akureyri which took only an hour and had the day to ourselves.  I wandered down into town dressed in my warmest clothes as it was 10 degrees below freezing!!!  Cute little town with low buildings and a great cozy bookstore.  I booked a dog sled ride for the next day and then walked towards the folk museum along the old houses, being careful as I walked as it was rather slippery on the ice.  The museum was open from 2 – 4 and I was too early so I walked back into town and decided to go there the following day.  Had a slice of deep dish pizza at the bakery and then walked back up to the hotel.  Later in the afternoon I went to the outdoor bath/swimming pool close by heated by hot springs.  First you shower, then put on your swim suit and then walk out into the freezing air and hop into one of the 9 pools all at different temperatures.  There is a large “swimming pool” with lanes to swim in, one heated to 38 degrees C and one to 43 degrees C with a few cooler ones in between.  It is a communal environment where friends and family meet and relaxed together.  There is supposedly one such “bath” in every town.  Took a shower at the hotel and later went down to R23 for dinner.  It’s a “sushi” restaurant mainly so I ordered a sushi platter which was quite nice, especially the sushi pizza, one of their specialties. 

About 10:00 p.m. a bus came and picked us up to look for the northern lights.  We stopped at several locations and our guide was able to spot some nice green and faint red lights which we saw move across the sky – quite lovely.  The camera seemed to pick up the colors better than the naked eye.  It was, however, VERY cold!!!!

Inpiration Iceland (www.inspiration-iceland.com )  picked me up at 10:00 a.m. for the dog sled tour and off three of us went, each in turn to lead a team of 3 Siberian huskies through the snow for about an hour.  It was great fun!!!  I rode behind 12 Alaskan huskies in July In Alaska (not in the snow!!) so this was quite different.  I would still love to do a full 12 dog sled ride someday but this will do for now!!!

Afterwards I warmed up a bit at the hotel and then walked down into town for a flaky croissant sandwich and hot tea for lunch.  Slowly and carefully, I walked back to the museum which was closed yesterday and found it very interesting.  In the basement were exhibits of life in Akureyri, i.e. people catching and selling fish, using geothermal water for heating and electricity, doing daily chores, etc. 

Dinner was at Strikid overlooking the harbor that night.  The chef had been part of a culinary competition whose team had come in 5th so he was recreating some of their winning dishes on his menu.  Starter was arctic cod wrapped in spinach mousseline which just melted in your mouth with langoustine, main course was slow cooked lamb with potato croquette and vegetables, beautifully prepared and, for dessert, their signature flourless chocolate cake with raspberry drizzle.

After breakfast I was picked up by saga travel for the myvatn winter tour which was very interesting.  Saga offers many other tours, i.e. four wheel drive tours to ice caves,  horsebacking riding, etc. but the myvatn tour interested me the most.  We visited Dimmuborgir, a lava labyrinth where Game of Thrones was filmed, Godafoss waterfall, Namaskard, the high temperature geothermal zone, Drjotagja, a popular underground bathing cave which is now too hot to bath in and Hverfjall, an explosion crater formed about 2800 years ago.  The landscape is very stark with few trees and miles and miles of snow. 

We stopped for lunch at a little local restaurant where the cows were settled inside.  During the winter it is too cold for most of the animals, except the Icelandic horses, to remain outside.  Food was delicious.  I had the grilled arctic char with potato pancake and a fresh salad with tomatoes and feta cheese.  Afterwards we visited the Myvatn nature baths, an outdoor geothermal lagoon, before returning to our hotel.  After a hot shower, I walked into town to get alittle exercise and had some tea and a delicious chocolate cookie at the bookstore before turning in.

We flew back to Reykjavik in the morning and when we arrived there was a big storm.  It was snowing and very windy and I was disappointed to find out that my horsebacking riding tour had been cancelled…So, I took the bus into town and visited the Settlement museum.  In 2001, as construction on a new building began, a perfectly preserved ancient Viking longhouse was uncovered which is in this museum.  It also houses excavated artifacts and exhibits which explain how these tools were used by the Viking.  Very interesting. 

Afterwards I had a slice of delicious chocolate hazelnut cake and hot coffee at Sandlot Bakery and about 5:30 p.m. headed out to Kjallarinn Kitchen Bar for dinner.  As I was so early and no one else would arrive for awhile the chef created a delicious 5 course menu for me which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The food was cutting edge and the chef came out occasionally to pour some sauce or add some liquid nitrogen herbs to my dish.  Each course was served in a different glass, bowl, dish or even a jar.  The meal went as follows:   Black and blue tuna on tomato marmalade with bacon popcorn, langoustine and cauliflower served in a jar with foie gras and chile sauce, shrimp cocktail served in a champagne glass with egg slices, ocean perch on a horizontal plate with crisp potato croquette, lemongrass sauce and white asparagus, thin slices of rare duck on a bed of cabbage with twice cooked bacon and roasted nectarine and chocolate “bombe”, i.e. like a large truffle except inside was a creamy chocolate mousse.  Absolutely outstanding!!!   It might just be the best restaurant in Reykjavik!

In the morning after a leisurely breakfast, I was picked up and delivered to the Blue Lagoon en route to the airport.  It is a geothermal spa located in a lava field in Grindavik, about 20 minutes from the airport.  The lagoon is man-made and fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant.  The water temperature averages 98 – 102F and is rich in minerals such as silica and sulfur.  First you have to check your baggage, then buy your ticket and get a towel, shower and finally walk outside into the cold air and get into the lagoon as quickly as possible!!!  It was very relaxing and an excellent way to end my trip, especially as it was my birthday!!! 

Bus picked us up and delivered us timely to the airport.  Luckily I was heading West as there were big storms in the East and many flights had been cancelled.  I relaxed at a little table and throughly enjoyed  a delicious open-faced smoked salmon, egg and cucumber sandwich on rye bread,  a very plesant ending for my trip.  I would love to return to Iceland someday, perhaps in the Spring or Summer when the weather is a bit nicer!!!

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