Why Iceland?

Iceland

When I told people that I was going on a vacation to Iceland they invariably said, “Why Iceland?”  The most direct answer was that Jeff, the kids and I had flown through Iceland on the way to Europe on two occasions.  Icelandair offers the best prices to points all over Europe.  The catch is that you have to go through Reykjavik to get where you “want to go.”  We were curious.  We wanted to see more than the rugged rocky terrain that we could glimpse from the airport windows.

When Icelandair sent me an email about a “Northern Lights” package way back in March, I knew this was our chance.  I quickly booked the trip to secure the screaming deal that they were offering and, life having caught up with me, I didn’t think any more about it until we were somewhere over Greenland.  I had no idea what to expect.

Those that know me well know that I tend to be meticulous in my planning.  (Jeff would say “over-meticulous.”)  When I am preparing for a big trip, I typically do months of research to educate myself, and my kids, about our upcoming destination.  What was there to know about Iceland?  I didn’t think that there was any research to be done.  There was certainly no time to do it.  So I didn’t.  I imagined that we were bound for the North Pole.  (Isn’t that what you picture when you hear “Iceland?”)  Come November, I packed my bag, throwing in a few last minute Iceland guidebooks from the library, and we were off to see the Northern Lights.

First let me say, Iceland is misunderstood. It is an island nation born from the divergence of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. It is literally being born, just as the Hawaiian Islands are, growing out of the fissures of the planet. Knowing nothing about it, we assume many things: that it is cold, unlivable, uninteresting, not worthy of our time.

First off, the climate is nothing like the North Pole.  During our stay in early November, the average temperature in Reykjavik hovered around 32° F.  In the northern town of Akureyri, where went to search for the Northern Lights, it was snowing quite heavily but the temperature didn’t dip below 15° F during the two days we were there.   In the summer, the highs don’t even touch the 70s, mostly hovering in the mid 50s.  The mild weather is a result of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream current.  I was glad I packed my long underwear, but I didn’t need anything more than I would on a chilly day in the Northwest.

The whole of Iceland falls just south of the Arctic Circle, yielding short winter days and long sun-filled summer days (and nights).  During the time that we were there in early November, the sun rose around 9:30 am each day and made its way over the horizon just before 5 pm.  This was ideal for the dark skies we needed to see the Aurora Borealis.  In the height of summer, the sun stays above the horizon for 21 hours or more.

Iceland is not unlivable either.  It was settled by Vikings in the year 874 and has been consistently inhabited ever since.  In fact, there are 320,000 inhabitants.  That is just enough to earn Iceland the distinction of the most sparsely populated country in Europe.  To put that into perspective, at 635,000, Seattle has roughly twice the population of the entire country.  Two-thirds of the population lives in Reykjavik and the surrounding areas in the southwestern region.  Ironically, that is also the area where the Vikings first settled.  They found a good spot and stuck it out – for 1,100 years.  Akureyri, on the northern coast, is the second most populated city in the entire country with around 17,000 people.  That’s about the size of Port Angeles.  It reminded me a lot of Port Angeles, too (if you replace the Fjord Eyjafjordur with the Strait of Juan de Fuca).

When examined more closely, you quickly discover that Iceland is worthy of your time.  It is interesting.  In actuality, it would require several trips to experience it fully.  In the short amount of time that we had to explore, I learned a myriad of interesting things that only left me wanting to come back for more.

Iceland is exotic.  It is rich in history.  It is picturesque.  From Seattle, it takes a short 7-hour flight to transport you to another world.  A world that I hope to see again soon.

Why Iceland?  Why not?

 

 

Iceland: Day Four

November 7, 2013

Thursday:

Neither Jeff nor I stirred until almost noon today. Maybe we’re not astronaut material, but I still think I would’ve made a good Viking.

After the nice lie in, I enjoyed a refreshing shower in the most awesome shower in all of Iceland (in my experience). It had one wall of windows with a view out on the snow covered hills, fjord and surrounding city. It may have been a nice view (or a wretched one) for someone looking in, but that’s what you get for looking. I keep kicking myself for not taking a picture of it.  It was way beyond fabulous.

Akureyrarkirkja After we got dressed we headed out for some lunch. Once we had eaten, we decided to climb the icy steps to the renowned Akureyrarkirkja or the Church of Akureyri.  Total stair count 111. Not quite St. Paul’s Cathedral, but it did have the added degree of winter weather difficulty.  Akureyrarkirkja is a Lutheran church that sits prominently on the hill above the fjord. It was built in 1940. I wanted to check out the stained glass window that was “stolen” (perhaps bought at a flea market) from Coventry Church in England after WWII air raids, but it was only viewable from inside and the church was locked up tight.

Jeff wanted to see the harbor and I wanted to see the shops, so we spilt up for a few hours. I headed into the commercial district and virtually had the stores to myself. I went in one for thirty minutes or so only to emerge to a see a sky full of fluffy white flakes. It was snowing quite heavily so I took my time browsing around and then trekked back up the hill to find the other “grocery store” for some cultural education. Grocery stores are one if my favorite places to visit when I’m traveling because you can learn so much about the culture and people from the things that you find.    This store was more on caliber with what we would call a “convenience store” but I browsed heartily and tried to take pictures on the sly so as not to look like such a tourist. I guess it worked because when I checked out the clerk had a one-sided conversation with me in Icelandic. I just smiled and said “thank you” as I slipped out the door. One thing I have noticed traveling in Iceland is that the language is so difficult to speak and understand that few English speaking tourists, myself included, even attempt to learn the few token words that are typical of traveling in other places. I have since learned that thank you is “takk.”

Jeff and I met back up at the hotel for our “free” welcome drink that we missed the night before and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Aurora. I had deep fried Camembert cheese with banana bread and Icelandic blueberries. Yes, for dinner! Who knew it could be so damn good? De-lish.

We were scheduled to try again for the Northern Lights, so after dinner we layered on our warm clothes and tromped down to the lobby to meet the tour group. It turns out that the bus was full so we were able to get in a mini bus with the same group from yesterday’s tour – minus Gísli. It was nice because we had become familiar with each other and had a nice chemistry. We all piled on the mini bus and set out of the light-polluted town in search of a break in the snow clouds and another chance at seeing the Aurora Borealis.

It was close to midnight and we had almost given up when our driver decided it was time to serve the cocoa. A few of us climbed out to help and there they were, dancing across the sky!  It was a fabulous experience made even more dramatic by the sparkling stars, drifting snow and the crashing waves below. We sipped our cocoa and took it all in. Most of us tried in vain to get photos before deciding that the mental pictures were going to serve us best.

We had had a successful night so we all headed back to the hotel to get some sleep before most of us were bound for an early morning flight back to Reykjavik.

Iceland: Day One

Keflavik AirportNovember 4, 2013

Monday:

We’re off to Iceland to see the Northern Lights (weather permitting) and more!
The airport was a breeze leading us to the dreamy assumption that the plane would be half empty. We were wrong, but it was nice to fantasize about it for a moment.
When I get on a plane bound for a time change at the destination, I like to try to reset my clock by “fast-forwarding” to the time it will be when I arrive. In this case, our 3:30 pm flight is “actually” departing at 11:30 pm Reykjavik time. I snuggle up with my tiny airline pillow and my cootie filled airline blanket and try to go to sleep. I am very (very) sensitive to sound and don’t typically sleep well, even at home. I have maybe twice in my life slept on flights and NEVER soundly. I quickly realize that this flight will be no different. I am surrounded by sound sleepers, movie viewers, a few women having a conversation that they should not be having, particularly at 11:30 Reykjavik time. The woman that OF COURSE is sitting behind me is apparently clicking through every possible movie option that is on her “complimentary entertainment center” which just so happens to be on the backside of MY headrest.
Much to my disappointment, this trip seems destined to begin like most others where I stay awake for 24 hours or more to reset my clock.
Our trip is only 5 days and nights, the first night of which is right now. There’s no time to waste.