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Monday, 20 January 2014

Ice Ice Baby

Another plane, another new place, another adventure. What a way to kick off 2014! After ringing in the New Year in Canada, I boarded a plane on the evening of January 1st and headed to the land of... Bjork? ...because, really, what else do we know Iceland for?

Well, I can tell you now after spending four days in this amazing and isolated country that they have way more to offer than this electric artist.

This is a trip I've had in the works for a few years. A few times when crossing the Atlantic I had tried to make extended layovers on this Nordic Island, but it just never seemed to work out. So, this past summer I started planning. I knew I would be flying home to Canada for Christmas and figured this was my chance to make the trip finally happen. I got my roommate on board and we booked four days at an old biscuit factory turned hostel in Reykjavik.

My love for travel and adventure means I obsessively research destinations and have an endless list of places to see. However, I'm also a 'go with the flow' type traveler. I research the place, take note of what I think looks the most interesting, ensure I see what's on my list and then.. let the rest just kind of play out. This trip may not have been as well planned. Blame it on a busy December month, or a foggy Christmas filled head.. but silly me, didn't consider that visiting this area of the world in the dead of winter would mean very limited sunlight! 

Kex Hostel
An overnight flight, a new time zone, and some jet lag combined with complete darkness during a good part of the day made for a very confused sleep pattern. We arrived in Reykjavik in the very early hours of the morning and found a bus that would take us to our hostel. We were met with a ridiculously cozy hostel with such a relaxed and chilled out atmosphere. Many travelers were sitting near the lobby in the hostel's bar/restaurant eating breakfast. It was still pitch black outside (and boy, is Iceland pitch black!!!). The lobby and restaurant had lantern style lights which gave it a sleepy, cozy feel and made me extremely eager to hop in bed. Unfortunately, it was only around 7am and our beds weren't available until 2pm. We found some couches where we had planned to relax and have a snooze. An hour or two in and I was still wide awake, despite the fact it was still incredibly dark out. I decided to go on a hunt for a snack and brave the cold, crisp Icelandic morning air.

As I left the hostel I heard water and realized we were right on a bay! (A bonus of doing little research - you are greeted with fun surprises). Exhausted, yet curious, I walked along the ocean and had the cold North wind slap me in the face, I couldn't help but think a trip South would have been way more appealing! Thankfully my mind was soon changed as the sun came up around 11:30 and I realized how beautiful and vibrant everything was. Snowy covered mountains lined the bay, colourful houses and buildings reminded me of Newfoundland, pubs and restaurants made me eager for the meals ahead!

I continued walking, completely bundled head to toe with basically just my eyes left uncovered. The wind soon became so strong that I broke out my sunglasses and now had every inch of my body shielded. I was absolutely froze to the bone and couldn't wait to find a cafe or restaurant where I could warm up. I soon found the Reykjavik Concert Hall. Not knowing or caring what it was at the time, I grabbed the opportunity to be inside. As I entered I saw a huge thermometer displaying the outside temperature. The outside temperature was -2. Minus two?!! Here I am a Canadian born in Winnipeg, spent 22 years living out Canadian winters and I actually thought -2 might just be the death of me that day. In summary... I am moving South the next chance I get.

Hallgrimskirkja Churh - designed to look like Icelandic lava flows
After a quick warm up I was off again to explore the city. I walked along the Old Harbour, admired the ships, found warmth in a few shops and refueled on a quick bite of pizza (not the most authentic local food - but it was fast and easy). Upon returning to the hostel my bed still wasn't ready so I curled up on a couch with an Icelandic beer and watched a movie on my laptop. After a few hours, Sarah and I met up and booked a tour to see the Northern lights. This was a bus tour that drove us out into the remote dark lands of Iceland. Before going we filled up on some grub at our hostel's pub. As I mentioned this hostel was extremely mellow and had a lot to offer. The pub was cozy and the food left me craving for my next meal. Some of the meals I had here were fried cheese and honey with blueberry jam and redfish with capers and mustard potatoes. Delicious! The hostel used to be a biscuit factory and has many salvaged materials as decor throughout the place - including a little old-fashion barber shop where the factory workers used to go.

Bundled up with several layers and going on very little sleep, we boarded our bus and set out to hunt for the Northern Lights. Curled up on a comfy, warm bus listening to the tour guide tell stories about Iceland's famous elves and legends about the Northern Lights, I became extremely comfortable and extremely sleepy. It wasn't long before my jet lag and lack of sleep took over and I was out like a light. I woke a few times and saw nothing but pitch black and a starry sky. Iceland is truly the darkest place I have been. We finally made it to the designated stop in hopes of seeing some action in the sky. Our guide told us it is very hit or miss. Being near the water and having cold winds blasting outside, I decided to stay curled up on the bus and figured someone would holler if the sky lit up. Sadly, there were no Northern Lights to be seen that night..but I did have a pretty sweet four hour nap on the bus.

The next day I awoke to dark skies again. I had managed to sleep in much later than planned, but after realizing it was still pitch black outside, I suddenly felt less guilty for sleeping in on a vacation. (Take note if you're ever planning a trip to Iceland - go in the summer! Although beautiful in the winter, there isn't nearly as much to do with such short hours of daylight.) Late that afternoon we ventured to the famous 'Blue Lagoon'. This was definitely the highlight of my trip. I arrived just as the sun was setting and the colours in the sky and water were beautiful (sadly, my pictures do not do this place justice). After buying my pass and changing into my swim suit I nervously began the journey outside. This was the part I dreaded! I hate the cold.. I mean really, really HATE the cold. The thought of walking outside in my bathing suit in below 0 temps seemed like torture. The short walk from the main building to the springs wasn't actually as bad I expected. I quickly hung up my towel and booted it to the water (possibly knocking a child over on my way). The water was the perfect temperature. Certain areas were boiling, but the majority of the pool was exactly right. The sun quickly set and the dark skies took over. The pool was lit up by torches and thousands of twinkling stars in the sky. As I swam around I continued looking at the sky, hoping the Northern Lights might make an appearance. Sadly, they did not, but nonetheless the evening was so relaxing and enjoyable. This is definitely a must do if you find yourself in Iceland!!

After journeying back into the city, we prepared to head out for the night and check out the nightlife scene. The city centre is full of cozy pubs - exactly my style. No loud, crazy clubs..just great places with live bands, friendly people and great drinks. We ended up at an English pub of all places and met some other expats and enjoyed local brewed beer with some Icelanders! It was a fun group of people and by the end of the night we were all cheering together to countdown a fake New Year!

The next adventure was whale watching. A definite recommendation if you're in Iceland! (Staying at the local pub until 4am and waking up in the early hours to board a boat on the cold, choppy seas is not, however, recommended.) Sarah decided to hike a glacier, which looked amazing, and I decided to take to the seas. I have a strong love for the ocean and always feel so content when I am on a boat or at the sea. My Grandpa was a fisherman in Newfoundland and my Dad always said I've got the fisherman's blood in me. Truly, nothing makes me happier than a day on the ocean. When I arrived to the Old Harbour and found my boat I was met by the assistant Captain who was handing out sea sickness pills. She said that the tour had been cancelled the past few days and they were about to cancel it today as well because the seas were too rough and the winds too strong. For whatever reason they decided to go ahead with it but were strongly recommending every passenger take a pill. I politely declined thinking "I'm made for the sea, I don't get sick!!" I was again strongly pushed to take the pill. I decided to take it and put it in my pocket (just in case). An empty stomach, a late night out and some truly rough waters and it wasn't long before that pill came in very handy!

As we sailed out of the harbour we could see the sun slowly setting over Reykjavik. Off to the side we could see a tall tower of light. This was the John Lennon peace tower! The guide explained that normally it is turned on on the 9th of October (Lennon's Birthday) and turned off on the 8th of December (the day Lennon was shot). However, it was early January and still very much lighting up the sky. The guide said this may be because of the extreme darkness in Iceland and every extra light is appreciated. Iceland was chosen for this memorial due to it's ecofriendly nature. The light is powered by Iceland's geothermal energy. In fact, 85% of the population uses geothermal power to heat their homes. This energy is produced from Iceland's volcanoes and vents!

As we continued to sail around the bay, passengers began to fall over due to extreme winds. At one point we were ordered off the deck and back into the cabin while the boat turned itself around. Once back on deck everyone was using every ounce of energy to walk without falling. Every object quickly became a safety rail to hold tightly. Several people were literally blown to the ground of the boat as they let go of the railing and tried to walk around. Yep, this was definitely the time to take my seasickness pill. As we got closer to the shoreline of some mountains the wind became much more bearable. The temperature continued to drop, but at least now we could walk around without having a death grip on the railings. In the distance we saw two whales breach the surface and also a baby seal swimming along side our boat. After almost 4 hours I was beat. The cold, the wind and my growling stomach were taking over. I headed back to the cabin and curled up in my coveralls (note: this horrendous looking snowsuit is not mine. They are supplied by the boat!) and took a short nap before heading back to shore.

The next morning we checked out of the hostel and headed back to the airport ready for a seven hour layover in Germany and ready for a new year in Italy!

I will leave you with some fun facts about Iceland:
- Everyone including the Prime Minister is listed in the phone book
- Everyone goes by their first name. This is due to a Norse tradition in which everyone in a family may have a different surname (the name of their father with the suffix of son or daughter). 
- In the winter months Iceland sees approximately 4 hours of sunlight per day.
- In the summer months Iceland sees approximately 23 hours of sunlight per day.
- There is an Icelandic legend that states if a woman sees the Northern Lights while pregnant, her baby will be born cross-eyed.
- The first settlers were Irish monks.
- Iceland is not as cold as most people believe it to be with an average   winter temperature of around -1 degrees celcius.
- There are roughly 4x as many sheep as people in the country
- Iceland is expensive for tourists and prices are comparable to Scandinavian countries
- The Icelandic language is one of the oldest languages in Europe! 
- Icelanders are big into folktales and believe that elves live throughout their country. (I recenently read an article in CBC news about a highway project being put on hold due to upset from the people because they feel the elves' territory will be damaged.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome pics! Iceland is pretty high on our list of places to visit..but maybe we'll plan for the summer :)