Swimming, Sliders, and Sulfur: Three Days in Trendy Iceland

Blue Lagoon, Iceland
The Blue Lagoon

There are a lot of words I would use to describe myself. Trendy isn’t one of them.

(I’ve always had a great admiration for trendy people. I aspire to become trendy myself someday. But for now, having the latest styles and coolest gadgets almost always comes in second to planning our next trip. I just love passport stamps more than shoes I guess.)

But last year, on a whim, I booked two tickets to trendy Iceland.

Everyone seems to be heading to Reykjavik these days. Its proximity to the USA’s east coast and great connections to Europe, Icelandair’s – and now WOW Airline’s- relatively inexpensive flights, and the incredible landscapes romanticized by Hollywood blockbusters make it difficult to ignore.

Usually, any trip I book is the result of a good amount of research. Because the trips we take tend to be short, sandwiched in between work deadlines and government holidays, we are very selective about where I go. Iceland was the opposite of that. I stumbled upon an incredible deal one cold February DC day- an almost all-inclusive trip for under $900 per person for three days!- and booked the dates before checking with Adam to see if he could get the time off from work. It was spontaneity at its finest. It was in the hours after clicking ‘submit’ and purchasing the trip, as the excitement that comes with getting a great deal started to dissipate, I realized I knew exactly nothing about where we were going. Or even how to spell Reykjavik for that matter.

Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja

Reykjavik is a quick overnight flight from DC, which for us meant that when we landed at 6:30 AM local time it was 1:30 AM body time.  Ordinarily, I’m pretty good at sleeping on planes (the white noise relaxes me). However, Icelandair is a pretty comfortable, thoughtful airline. Between the USB port in the seatback that kept my phone fully charged to the seemingly endless supply of Family Guy and New Girl episodes, sleep really didn’t happen for me. The adrenaline of arriving in a new country fueled me straight through the airport, on to the shuttle bus, and through hotel check in. As soon as my eyes connected with the hotel bed, though, it was game over until 10:30 AM, when Adam gently awakened forcibly removed me from the bed so we could get the day started.  When you’re on the kinds of short, action-packed trips we favor, you really can’t lose a lot of time to sleep.

Here’s what we learned in just three days in Iceland:

Sólfar - Sun Voyager
Sólfar – Sun Voyager

There is a ton to do.

We started off from our hotel and, within just a few hours, had explored views from the coastline, the Sun Voyager statue, and Hallgrímskirkja church. We wandered down charming side streets and visited dozens of shops.  We spent a significant amount of time in Bonus, a grocery store chain, and marveled at the range of weird and wonderful food they sold (Bonus deserves a blog post of its own, actually). We took a late night cruise out of the city to catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights (and saw them! Just a flash, and just for a moment, but we saw them!). We visited the Blue Lagoon and marveled at how we were outside in a giant swimming pool of sorts with mineral facemasks, drinking fresh juices in 40 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. And we talked about how there was so much we weren’t going to see. A week would have been better. A month, better still. Which leads me to our next lesson:

You’re going to want more time.

I initially thought three days would be plenty of time to explore the city, and I was dead wrong about that. Reykjavik is the biggest city on the island and home to plenty of fun things to do, but it’s also the gateway to a country immersed in gorgeous landscapes and natural wonders. We focused our time on the city- sightseeing, shopping, and eating until our flight home- but we did that at the expense of seeing what lay beyond what was right in front of us. We punctuated everything we did with the phrase, “We really should spend more time here.” Iceland is beautiful and welcomingly different- foreign, but invitingly so- and we could have spent much longer there.

The food at Grillmarkaðurinn was excellent
The food at Grillmarkaðurinn was excellent

The food is delicious.

There may be bad meals in Reykjavik, but we never encountered a single one. Two meals stood out: one was delectably gourmet, the other scrumptiously simple.  We had one of the best meals of our lives at Grillmarkaðurinn, or Grill Market. We feasted on delicious cocktails, fresh fish, and lamb, and we still talk about the delicious bread, butter, and sea salt we snacked on while we looked at the menu. The most interesting part of the meal was the sliders we ordered. We tried lobster (a known favorite), reindeer (tasty, but made me feel a little bit guilty about devouring Rudolph), and whale (chewy like steak, but without any real flavor). I initially picked the restaurant because we were exhausted and their menu was translated into English (lazy, I know) but it was one of our happiest discoveries during the week. On the other end of the spectrum we found Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a tiny hot dog stand. Hungry and sleepy on our first morning, we stood in the cold and ordered a couple of lamb and pork hot dogs covered in ketchup, fried onions, sweet brown mustard, and a remoulade made with mayo and sweet relish. Not much of a mayo fan, especially on hot dogs, I was skeptical. One bite later I totally understood why locals flock there at all hours of the day. The flavor profile was completely unexpected- hot dogs usually aren’t tangy and creamy and crunchy all at once- yet they were so delicious they were practically addictive.  For just a few USD, we enjoyed hot dogs and Coca-Cola Light in the bitter cold every day we were there.

It Kind of… Smells.

Some of the best hot dogs we've ever had
Some of the best hot dogs we’ve ever had
If you’ve seen pictures of Iceland, you know it looks pristine and untouched. It just doesn’t smell that way. We noticed this pretty quickly on our way to the Blue Lagoon. We took a day trip to swim and soak in one of the country’s most popular attractions, and as we got closer Adam noticed I was wrinkling my nose and looking around our bus. “It’s not me,” he said. “Actually, I think it’s coming from outside.” And that’s when it hit me- we were about to spend the afternoon soaking in sulfur springs. Sulfur, which smells like rotten eggs. I have no idea why, despite knowing we were going to sulfur springs, it never occurred to me it would smell like sulfur as well, but it was a pretty unpleasant surprise. Truthfully, you get used to the smell pretty quickly- and your skin doesn’t retain it (thank goodness!). I found it to be a pretty cruel practical joke- Mother Nature gives us incredible beauty to behold with one of our senses while completely assaulting another one.

The Blue Lagoon is Worth a Visit.

Touristy and expensive, the Blue Lagoon is still worth a few hours of your trip. We spent the better part of an afternoon relaxing in the hot spring, and my skin has never felt softer. It is a different experience than most people would expect, though, especially for Americans. Be prepared to shower before and after you go to the lagoon- and be prepared to be yelled at if you try to shower with your bathing suit on.  I attempted to wear a bathing suit into one of the showers, and the attendants did not like that idea. Most women were very comfortable walking around without clothing in the changing area, and while I never warmed to that (I am a prude American after all) I did appreciate their efforts to keep the lagoon sanitary. One word of wisdom: the sulfur in the lagoon will dry your hair out, so coat it well with conditioner before you get in the water. Conditioner is free in the showers, and I applied a lot of it and put my hair in a bun before going into the lagoon. When I showered again at the end, my hair was very soft and smooth- not dry and snarly like a lot of women I saw by the lockers.

Three days was all it took to see why so many people are visiting and falling for trendy Iceland. In fact, we loved it so much that when we saw yet another round of incredible flight deals, we booked a return trip for New Years 2016. So stay tuned: there’s more to come for us in Iceland in just a few months!

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