Clearly it’s more difficult to travel abroad right now and everyone has to decide for themselves if it’s worth the risk and effort to do so. Though for my husband Christian and me, our global adventures lay the foundation for our entrepreneurial energy and creativity, and have become critical touch-points in our relationship.
Having come to rely on these trips as a pattern interrupt to reset ourselves and recharge our relationship, we recently traveled to Iceland and I thought I’d share the journey with you. Tourism is a huge business in Iceland and we were very pleased to help support their recovery by voting with our wallet and contributing generously to the economy!
What’s a foundational element of your energy generation? Are you blocking enough time in your calendar to attend to it? I hope you enjoy my article on Iceland and perhaps book a trip yourself!
In March 2021 we were searching for a doable summer trip abroad. Options were limited because of Covid restrictions but Iceland was in the lead in terms of reopening for tourists. Iceland had actually been on our list for some time, so we jumped on it and booked a 9-day exploration of an island I’ve always been intrigued by.
Our trip started with the no-frills IcelandAir Saga Premium class ticket. We paid $3,200 for two tickets in what I hoped would be a decent business class experience. No dice. The experience was more like a premium economy with barely reclining seats and a non-working entertainment system. The food was decent, but I was left wondering why IcelandAir was still offering such a basic business class product.
We landed in Reykjavik at about 6:30 AM after a short five-and-a-half-hour flight from Dulles. The airport is simple and small compared to most world capitals’ airports, and it’s efficient — in no time at all we were waiting for our luggage having breezed through a short immigration line. It wasn’t until we collected our luggage that they checked our vaccination cards before leaving the secured area. Note: when you fly to Iceland you need to fill out a special Covid entry form which should be provided to you by your airline. Every country seems to have these now and they are all different so if you travel a lot, watch for them.
Knowing we were likely to be exhausted upon arrival I tried to book an early check-in at the Canopy hotel but wasn’t able to secure it and so we took our time in the airport figuring the later we arrived the more likely it would be we could get into the room. I decided to exchange $100 cash to Icelandic Krona at the airport, not knowing if it was important to have cash on hand immediately. It turns out, it’s not. Credit cards are widely accepted everywhere.
When I booked our flights, I also booked a rental car through Hertz and so we quickly found the counter which was at the airport and not via a shuttle bus to an off-site facility. The line was short, and a lovely woman named Anna tried to look up my reservation. Nothing. She couldn’t find it by name or by reservation number which I thought was odd. First glitch of the trip, I thought. Luckily, I had the full confirmation email handy and showed it to her at which time she politely scolded me for booking my car for 10PM that day. I didn’t realize that of course and Anna said it would be 30-60 minutes for my car to get cleaned. Not wanting to wait an hour I asked if there was another similar car available to which she replied yes, and we ended up with a brand-new Russian Dacia Duster which would be ours for the week.
Our Duster was basic. 6-speed, no A/C. Which doesn’t seem to be necessary in Iceland (the AC part). We were in the car when we figured a GPS would be helpful, so we didn’t burn our daily allotment of international data at $10 per day (thanks Verizon international plan) and so I went back into the airport to speak to Anna about getting a GPS. Unfortunately, by then the line was very long and after an hour I found Kirstin who gave me a mini-hot spot which she said was better than the GPS. She was right. No matter where we went in Iceland our hotspot was hot and it allowed us to stay connected to Wifi the entire time and use our phones for directions.
The International Airport is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik which seemed longer given how tired we were. The drive passes through a rather impressive and expansive lava field, which is full of vibrant purple flowers called Lupine. It’s beautiful. Reykjavik is fairly small by world capital standards but “city” enough to feel like you’re in an urban area. We booked the Canopy Hotel by Hilton in the heart of downtown and discovered our first challenge would be parking.
I pulled up in front of the hotel and it was clear we were our own valet, so I double-parked in front of the hotel and ran in to inquire about parking and was told the public garage was available and right across the street. Easy enough, we pulled into the garage, not needing a ticket to get in. I thought that was odd and wondered if it was free. I later found out it’s not free. The garage reads your plate, and you have to pay via your plate number upon exit at a little payment kiosk. Later that next day I would be the guy trying to get out of the garage, waiving at the gate arm, trying to get it to open, only to realize I needed to awkwardly back up, pull aside, and pay at the kiosk. Making matters a little worse, the kiosk wanted my pin number for my mastercard. I never used my pin and had no idea what it was. I used my visa debit card instead. When we travel, I always carry my visa debit card for cash (or pin emergencies), my AMEX which I prefer but find it’s not accepted much, and my mastercard, plus some cash.
Anyway, back to the hotel… Hoping (praying) we could check in early (it was 9:30AM by that time) we got good news when told my gold membership meant a room was available immediately. We graciously thanked the front desk guy, dropped our bags, and went downstairs to grab breakfast which closed at 10. The buffett was really nice and it was just what we needed before settling in for a long nap.
The hotel was nice, well appointed, and beautifully designed. The room too was charming, except, it was hot! So hot. Not something we expected in Iceland. It was nearly 60 degrees which was just warm enough to really heat up the building and with no AC and only a tiny little window, we struggled to sleep even after securing a fan. We weren’t the only ones – shoes were holding room doors open up and down the hallway as people were doing whatever they could to get some airflow into the rooms.
We were also surprised the breakfast buffet was the same, exactly the same, every day. We stationed ourselves in Reykjavik for several days, so we did wish for a little variety.
Full Day 1
We decided to enjoy the famous Blue Lagoon on day 1. We had planned to visit it on our travel day if we had not been able to secure a room to take a nap, which I think is a perfectly good alternative. But since we did get that room early the Blue Lagoon was our first real stop. It is very unique and very well suited for tourists. Yes, it’s very touristy, and yes they push thousands of people through that place every week, but it’s really worth the stop if you like spas. The day we went was the warmest and sunniest day of the summer thus far and so it was like being at the beach pool. We bought the Premium Package which gave us a “free” drink and 3 mud masks to go along with our Lagoon experience. Normally I don’t go for things that seem overly touristy and come with large bus loads of my fellow Americans, but this time it was perfectly good and enjoyable.
Make sure you bring sunscreen if it’s a sunny day. I had some and was very glad because the sun was intense, and the white water made it even more so.
When you check in, you’ll be directed to a locker room where you can change into your swim gear before heading out to the pool. The facility was very clean, the staff very attentive, and the water incredibly warm. We stayed for about 4 hours which was two more than we expected.
After the lagoon, which is by the airport, about 45 mins from the city, we decided to drive to the little village of Grindavik, only 15 minutes down the road. The recently erupting volcano was near that town and we wanted to see if we could get close to it. The week we went the volcano was very quiet and only smoke was visible, so we opted not to hike the 90 minutes and just kept driving around the area, exploring a few hot springs and beautiful lookout points on our way back to the city. We took route 427 out of Grindavik and then turned left on 42 to connect to the main road back to Reykjavik. That was a great thing to do as the scenery and random hot springs stops were a perfect introduction on day 1.
The most important thing on our list on day 2 was to get to the Mt. Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall stop. It was about a 2.5-hour drive from Reykjavik so we knew we had a long day. We left the city about 11 after a good breakfast at the Canopy and set off. The drive was indeed stunning. Our 6-speed diesel powered manual Duster struggled with some of the hills, but we made our way with relative ease. We found it very easy to travel in Iceland given every little town seems to have a cute cafe restaurant with incredible coffee and pastries. I had some local currency but didn’t need it.
Kirkjufellsfoss is stunning and an easy stop right off the road. The lava fields and lakes that precede that area are equally impressive. The speed limit was 90 kilometers per hour (55mph) which made for a perfect, slow, easy day of exploration. The falls themselves are just outside the town of Grundarfjordur which has a picturesque church worth stopping to photograph. We had a bite to eat at Kaffi 59 and then made our way back to Reykjavik in time for a 9PM reservation.
We had an outstanding dinner at Sushi Social and began to understand how expensive food is in Iceland. Easily 30-40% more than in DC and NYC. The food scene is lively and world-class and while we didn’t have any trouble getting in, we were glad to have help from the front desk in making reservations.
Our plate was very full for day three, so we left the hotel about an hour earlier and set off for the Thingvellir National Park. The North American and Eurasian plates meet in the park which makes for a stunning natural attraction. We visited several different stops in the park to walk around and explore, and learned that most stops require a parking payment. The payment is either done by an automatic scan of your license plate when you enter, then requiring you to enter your license plate in the payment kiosk at the end, or via a parking system the produces a little piece of paper you can display in your car Either way, most tourist stops require payment of $5-$6. Credit cards are fine. We didn’t mind the fee because the bathrooms were extraordinarily clean.
After about 90-minutes at the park we drove to Geysir, which is, well, a geyser. Actually 2. One of which does its thing about every 6 minutes which was fun to watch and experience. While only 90-minutes from Reykjavik to Geysir, by the time we got there it was late afternoon and I found myself wishing we had reservations at the hotel and restaurant. We didn’t, so we kept driving to the Gullfoss Waterfall, and the Kerid Crater. Each place was a 30–45-minute stop to take some photos, walk around a little, pay the parking fee, use the restroom, grab a pastry, and be on our way.
We made it back in time for a 9:30PM dinner in Reykjavik at Sjavargrillio, a lovely little Icelandic restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. While it was a little too hot without AC, we enjoyed the dinner and then walked the city to see the cathedral and admire the midnight sunset.
We checked out of the Canopy and headed for our next hotel, Hotel Kria. We had reservations that night at 8:30 at the Dranger restaurant in the hotel. I’m glad we had reservations. It was busy and very good.
On the way we went to the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall which is particularly fun because you get to walk behind the waterfall. Be warned, you’ll get rather wet from the spray. And then right next to it is the Gljufrabui waterfall which is back in a cave and also unique. The Skogafoss waterfall was the most impressive to me. It’s a real treasure and also the trailhead to an impressive hike if you’re interested. There are waterfalls everywhere in this region, many visible right from the highway. It’s magical driving route 1 and seeing waterfall after waterfall. The route from Reykjavik to the hotel Kria was my favorite.
Before we got to Vik, which is the town Hotel Kria is located in, we also made it to the Dyrholaey lighthouse and the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Breathtaking. Really. If you like to hike, most stops along the way have extended hiking trails that could keep you busy for a long time. That’s not what we did. We were in and out fairly quickly because we had a list but had enough time to really see the places and take some incredible photos.
It gets much more rural after Vik and so we decided we should get my husband’s tooth checked out. He had his wisdom teeth out a few weeks prior and the area was bothering him again, so we had the pleasure of experiencing the Icelandic health care system. It was easy, thank goodness. We got the clinic’s number from the hotel front desk, called and made an appointment, and were seeing a doctor within an hour. $160 and 90 minutes later we had some penicillin and were on our way. We carry catastrophic insurance coverage in the event we get into real trouble abroad and need to be evacuated, but for something like this we pay cash. This is the only time we’ve had to visit a medical clinic abroad in all our years traveling together.
Day 5 and 6
Our next stop was the Fosshotel and Glacier Lagoon which was about 2 hours from Hotel Kria and about 5 hours from Reykjavik. There are a bunch of Foss Hotels on the island so if you book one, make sure you know which one you book. This was our favorite hotel. It’s in the middle of nowhere but you wouldn’t know it by the service and the food. We stayed at this hotel for 2 nights and ate at the hotel restaurant, which was very good, both nights. This allowed us to visit the Fjallsarlon Glacier via a Glacier Adventure tour. This was the only tour we booked, and you need one for a glacier. While you could just walk out there, that doesn’t strike me as a good idea. We booked the half-day walk and the boat ride. The weather was mostly in the 60s, but it was much colder on the Glacier. We didn’t really have the right clothes and while we made it work, I recommend you bring outdoor hiking clothes and good boots. They provide boots and spikes if you need them. The weather changes a lot out there so one minute we were freezing, the next roasting hot. Dress accordingly. And I guess it goes without saying, hiking the glacier is difficult so if hiking a steep chuck of ice sounds like too much for you, it might be. I kept thinking I was glad we were in good shape because the hike to meet the receding glacier, the hike on the glacier, and the hike back was about 4 hours total. This is a must do in my book. We actually skipped the boat tour later that afternoon opting instead to admire the lagoon ourselves from the shore. We had had enough adventure for one day.
While we were in the region, we also visited Vestrahorn and Stokksnes beach. This is privately owned land, so you have to pay about $7 per person but it’s worth it. Have I said how breathtakingly beautiful Iceland is at every turn? It is and this stop was no exception.
While you’re in the area you also have to hit the unique and interesting Diamond Beach. Chunks of the glacier melt into a lake and flow to the ocean in this area and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was actually free to stop here and is a meeting place for a lot of boat tours of the Glacier Lagoon.
You’ll also notice sheep are everywhere in this region. What I found interesting about that is that the sheep roam freely and then the second Saturday of September all the farmers go out and gather the sheep and sort them. 80% of the sheep in the country are collected and sorted that weekend and by the end of September all the sheep are back with the right farms. The sheep are everywhere, sometimes way up in the mountain, but apparently, they come down closer to the road as the weather gets colder. I’d love to return and watch that process.
It was time to head back to Reykjavik and we were both ready. We had been going non-stop for a week at this point. Ideally, we would have built in a rest day somewhere and if you were continuing on the loop to the north, I think this region would be a perfect place to stay longer. We left the hotel at noon and slowly made our way back. For lunch we stopped at The Soup Company in Vik. Wow, that was good! I highly recommend you find yourself there for lunch.
For our last night in Iceland we stayed at the Hotel Borg which wasn’t anything special. But they did recommend Kopar which was an excellent meal for our last night.
We got to the room about 11PM and took our rapid covid test through Emed. I ordered the tests before we left the US and took them with us. You log into their system, connect with a live test proctor and after 20 minutes you have your results on your phone. It’s FDA-approved and much easier than finding a lab for a PCR test.
We did a little bit of shopping and so we had some tax-free receipts to process at the airport, so after our check-out, a brief scare that the hotel had lost my backpack (they did not, must have misplaced it), we were on our way 3 hours before take-off. Getting tax-free refunds is often a huge pain, but not in Iceland. Before we checked our bags we took our receipts to the kiosk, already filled out. It’s important to do this before you check in because sometimes, they want to see what you bought. We learned that the hard way somewhere in Eastern Europe one year and left about $500 behind. 5 minutes later we were in line to check in which was a pretty standard process.
Flying business, we had lounge access, which was ok, but nothing special compared to many other world-class lounges and before we knew it, it was time to board our flight back to DC.
We are fortunate to have traveled to many places in the world and can say Iceland really lives up to its reputation as being uniquely beautiful. It’s also so easy to get around and well suited for tourists. There are a lot of ways to travel Iceland, including group and private tours, but we really enjoyed our self-guided tour and can’t wait to return to the north side of the island someday soon.