Arriving at Keflavik Airport in Iceland was an overwhelming experience not only because we were hitting the 40 hour mark of our travel odyssey from Australia but also because Keflavik was the busiest airport I have ever been in bar none. The arrivals and departures hall was wall to wall people and the crowds barely thinned out as we progressed through immigration and baggage claim. I’m not sure if this was an anomalous day or whether the sardine experience is standard for Iceland in peak season (based on what I’ve seen since it may be quite possible).
Here is a shocker for you, Iceland looks much like it does in the pictures (say what!?). The drive into the city from the airport is an expansive rocky tundra but as you approach the city you can see some impressive snow capped mountains in green and black. This green and black pairing typifies many areas of Iceland and one of my favourite scenes is seeing the clouds move off of the shaded mountains. The impressive hills come alive as the sun hits them and illuminates their ridges and secrets. The unique colour I have termed ‘Iceland green’ glows in even the lowest light but when the sun arrives it becomes spectacularly iridescent.
After catching a prearranged Gray Line Bus (FlyBus also arrange door to door transfers) to our accommodation our first evening was spent in a zombified daze that consisted of finding the main street and falling into the first restaurant we could find.
We had two full days in Reykjavik to explore and prepare for our trek. If you are not taking any excursions out of the city, this is plenty of time to explore. Reykjavik is small and although it is a little confusing the first time you step out of your door it is easy to get a handle on things ones you have identified key marks such as the towering Hallgrimskirkja at the top of the hill. From there it is an easy stroll down to the Old Harbour and city centre.
The city was experiencing Euro Cup mania with flags and paraphernalia in every shop – even jewellery shops had soccer balls/ footballs in their displays. Most of the museums have an entry fee and as we were trying to start the trip on a frugal footing we didn’t visit any of the user pay sites. One of the most interesting things we came across though was a maps display on the waterfront that showed the history of shipwrecks around Iceland and the Faroe Islands. There were dozens of maps showing different types and eras of wrecks and it was absolutely mind boggling.
One of the best kept secrets we uncovered are the shows at Reykjavik’s very impressive cultural centre, Harpa. The Harpa building itself looks like a slightly smaller version of the Beijing Olympics swimming cube in more muted green and grey tones. It boasts beautiful views over the harbour and it is worth popping your head in to see what is going on. Harpa was offering several cultural comedy shows for the summer season, some traditional music and a Bowie photography exhibition.
We went to see Icelandic Sagas – a two person show that covers all 40 Icelandic sagas in 75 minutes. As a comedy, it was designed to be engaging and it a fantastic way to get the basics on some of the important stories that explain Iceland’s history. The sagas have their roots in real events and were relayed as verbal histories throughout out the 11th and 12th centuries before being recorded around the 14th century. There is a lot of A killed B. So C decided to take revenge and then C was killed by D and E, and so on.
The sagas, and Iceland’s political history in general, are fascinating and worth taking the time to learn about. There is much more to Iceland than the reductionist picture of big mountains, cute coloured houses and puffins (although there is certainly an abundance of those things too).
Our second day started with a quick trip up to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja for a bird’s eye view of the city before organising some supplies for our upcoming trek. On our second afternoon we headed out to the Blue Lagoon. In peak season you need to book ahead to guarantee entry as they cap the number of visitors per hour. It is well organised with regular shuttles and, given its proximity to the airport, the option to store large luggage so that you can swing by on your way in or out of the country.
In places like Iceland it is really easy to get hung up on how expensive things are and spoil a lot of experiences by carping on about whether it was ‘worth it’. Even the most basic entry to the Blue Lagoon will cost in excess of 70 Euro once you factor in a bus transfer so you need to decide up front if you can let that go or if you are going to feel rorted by paying a mini fortune to sit in what essentially is just some very hot, albeit very blue, water with a heap of strangers. You need to work out what an experience is worth to you and then just get over it. There are lots of ways to save money when you travel (we have been living off homemade sandwiches, skyr and corn chips most days) but when you decide to splurge on a meal or activity you need to forget about the cost.
I pretended the Blue Lagoon cost us $20 and subsequently had a fantastic time. It is a really nice way to relax after a lot of travel and it lovely to spend an hour or so just unwinding. You are fitted with wrist bands that allow you to purchase drinks from the swim up bar, (and the prices are not any more expensive than other bars in Reykjavik). There was something pretty magical about sitting in the toasty water while the air was a crisp 10 degrees, enjoying a beer and just absorbing the fact that we had finally arrived in Iceland.
After a much needed snooze on the 40 minute bus back to Reykjavik we arrived back in the city just in time to watch the first half of the Euro Cup on big screens set up in the city square – an absolutely perfect finish to a great start in Iceland.
Accommodation: Loki 101 Guesthouse.
We have booked almost all of our accommodation in guesthouses. Guesthouses are the most common type of accommodation and generally offer a private room with a shared bathroom and communal kitchen. We selected this option as it was cheaper than a campervan (even with accommodation plus car hire) and offered us the chance to save some money by preparing our own food.
Loki is a clean guesthouse with a large communal kitchen and laundry facilities (which was handy). The rooms were small but adequate and, like most accommodation in Iceland, the guesthouse offers free wifi. It is located just 50 metres from the Hallgrimskirkja which is very helpful from a navigation perspective and also means that most major sites are within a 10 minute walk.
The guesthouse is also on the pick up/drop off route for most bus transfers and tour pick ups.