Thursday, April 10, 2014

Celebrating the Big 30 in Iceland; the Land of Fire and Ice

I think it is safe to say that April 2014 will be one of the most memorable months of my life. It's almost been a year since our engagement, and Christian and I are so excited to be leaving for our wedding in the USA next week! This past weekend, we took a break from all of the wedding planning and travelled with two of our good friends, Martin and Julia, to Iceland. I had always wanted to visit Iceland because it seemed like an unique place with majestic landscape and natural wonders to visit. I also thought it would be unlike any other place I have travelled to; so I thought what better excuse to plan a trip there than my 30th Birthday. That's right folks, this American is no longer in her 20's. Landing on a new country brought forth a new decade in my life, one I am sure will continue to bring exciting adventures my way.

Iceland is about a 1 hour 45 minute flight from Edinburgh. When we landed we picked up our rental car from the airport and were greeted by this massive sign. As you can see from the picture, the majority of Iceland is not accessible by vehicle. This is due to the nature of the landscape, volcanoes, and other natural formations that make it unsafe for tourist to drive through. Nonetheless, we had only planned a 3 day trip, and were able to see many exciting hot spots during our stay. 

Iceland is certainly technologically advanced when it came to money. For the most part we only used our international credit card. When we went to a visitor centre to use the restroom, you needed to deposit money in order use the facilities. As you can imagine, a lot of tourists don't have coins, so they even had credit card machines in the toilets! Pretty fancy if you ask me. As you can see from the picture the money was very colourful and the coins had various sea creatures printed on them. 1 Great British pound = 188 Icelandic Krona...or for my American readers 1US dollar = 112 Icelandic Krona. Basically, Iceland was expensive! 
While our flights and accommodation were reasonable, the food, drinks, and cost of doing activities was high. One thing that was great for our trip was the fact we decided to rent a self-catered apartment to stay in. It helped us keep our costs down since we were able to cook breakfast/lunch/dinner if we wanted to in the flat. It also was so nice to come back to a comfortable space we could all relax in together rather than a hotel room. I was surprised how modern and clean Reykjavik was when we arrived. One other random fact is the air smells of sulphur (rotten eggs/farts) often due to  natural water in the country.

We knew that we had 3 day trips planned for our stay, and decided to wait until the week to decide what do do on each day depending on the weather. As you can imagine, the weather was pretty unpredictable, but we were so lucky and really planned the itinerary as perfectly. The first day we arrived, the weather was supposed to be partly cloudy and in the low 50's so we decided to use the sunshine and do a tour called The Golden Circle. We knew it was going to about a 8 hour tour to some of Iceland's natural wonders, and wanted to use the sunshine (when it decided to come out). Our first stop about 1 hour from Reykavik was Pingvellir National Park.

When we first arrived there was still snow on the ground! Hard to believe it was still there in April, but I guess not when your winter is 9 months long!

The views really were stunning, and right after we got there the blue skies started to appear. 

Did you know that there are two continental plates that run right through Iceland? Don't worry, neither did I! But in fact, it's true. The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be visited in the National park.

It kind of reminded me of my family vacation to the four corners of the USA, where we each stood in a different state and then rotated.  I know, kind of corny, but when in Iceland...why not! Below you can see me on the American side and Christian on the Eurasian side.

The great divide with Martin and Julia! 

The park was really neat to walk around. For those of you who watch Game of Throne's ,  many of the scenes from "the North" are filmed in Iceland.

There was also a really lovely waterfall in the park. I was impressed, until our stop in Gullfoss later in the day. More to come on that in a minute. 

Did you know that Iceland has it's own breed of horse? Neither did I! Icelandic ponies  are ridiculously friendly and cute! We stopped and visited this group who was hanging out on the side of the road. Next time I am in Iceland, I want to plan a horseback ride. This is a popular tourist attraction for visitors, but we didn't have time this trip. They remind me a bit of Rod Stewart with their manes being so out of control, I loved it!

Martin feeding the Icelandic Pony.

Next on the Golden Circle route was the he Geysir geothermal area. I have visited Yellowstone in the USA, and this portion reminded me of that trip ~20 years ago.  Did you know that Geyser comes from the Icelandic word Geysir? Neither did I! There were signs everywhere not to touch the water as it was 100 Degrees Celsius (212F).

The water was boiling in some areas.
 Steam was also coming out of the ground like crazy. It felt like walking on another planet.
 Every 5-10 minutes on of the geysers shot up for about 5 seconds. It took a few tries but I was able to get some good action shots of the great gysir.

 Hot thermal geothermal pool


We spent about an hour exploring this portion of the Golden Circle and I think it was my favourite part of the route. By the way, Iceland has BIG cars with BIG tires.  Our tires had spikes on them, which continually made me think we had a flat due to the sound it made when they contacted the road. But I guess when you live in Iceland, you need 4X4 to get anywhere outside of the city!

Right down the road from the Geysir park was the last highlight of the Golden Circle, Gullfoss Waterfall.  
The sun and mist caused a rainbow, a perfect shot for the day! 

Hopefully you can tell from the pictures how violent the water was at the falls. We could hear the water all the way from the visitor centre about a 5 minute walk away. 

 Rapids at the top of the falls

Overall the Golden Circle was a great way to see the Icelandic landscape. With the three major attractions, it made the long route feel manageable as we were able to take breaks from the car and enjoy the outdoors. It was also great to have our own vehicle as the tour bus excursion's we looked into were way more scheduled than we like to be when on vacation. I would recommend this as a must see for anyone visiting the country.

When I started to think about my upcoming new decade back in the winter, I really knew I wanted to do something that I would remember for the rest of my life. One of the places I had always heard about was The Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa outside of Reykjavik.  It has been on my bucket list for a while, and it really is what sold me on going to Iceland in the first place. When I woke up on Saturday morning, I really felt butterflies for what I was about to experience. The 45 minute drive felt like it was never going to end. The Blue Lagoon was seriously in the middle of no where! We kept driving and driving and driving, and then off in the distance I saw steam coming out of the ground. I knew we were close (if not for the GPS telling me how far to go haha) and before I knew it we had arrived! Now I have been to spa's before, but let me tell you the the Blue Lagoon was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

I learned that the lagoon was actually formed by mistake. Down the road there is a geothermal plant, and water was expelled from the plant and put into the volcanic ground. Because it was high in silicone, it clogged the ground creating this lagoon effect. The water temperature in the swimming area averages 37–39 °C (98–102 °F). When it first formed, people called it the poison pit and were scared to go into the water. In the 80s, locals started claiming the waters were safe and had healing powers for skin ailments. In the 90s the Blue Lagoon company took over and it has been a popular tourist attraction ever since. 

 Entrance to the Blue Lagoon, built right into the volcanic rock.

The weather was cloudy and a bit misty, but it really added to the atmosphere!

Christian and I enjoying the waters

As I mentioned before the water is full of silicone. They have buckets of silicone around the lagoon, and you are encouraged to put this on your skin for 15 minutes. It is kind of like a mud mask, and really felt great.
Part of my birthday gift from Christian was an underwater spa massage/facial treatment in the wellness lagoon. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was AWESOME! 

We waited in the wellness area where our masseur picked us up on a water raft and then covered us with a heated blanket. Then we were given an underwater massage similar to Swedish massage. It might sound odd, and perhaps it is due to me having recently watched Gravity, but when I was so relaxed I really felt like I was floating in space.  Every so often we would get lowered in and out of the water and it really gave me a weightless feeling. We also got facials with special lagoon scrub. My skin feels wedding ready now!

The day was so relaxing! I even found the German napping in the relaxation room.

Christian and I enjoying the view of the lagoon.
I know spa's aren't for everyone, but if you ever find yourself in Iceland make sure not to miss this unique place! Later that night, we enjoyed my last hours in my 20's with a surf and turf meal with steak and lobster. Christian said it was the best steak he has ever had, but honestly I was more a fan of the lobster. Needless to say, dinner was excellent!

After dinner we headed to a local pub that had a live musician playing cover songs. It was a fun night out and at midnight Julia busted out the 30th birthday banner! Then the entire place sang me happy birthday in Icelandic. I must admit it was pretty cool!
Enjoying a birthday cocktail courteous of the singer at the pub!
 Yeah for being born in 1984!
 We had a nice lie in on Sunday, and decided to spend our last day walking around Reykjavik. Did you know that it is the world's northernmost capital? Neither did I!

I really loved the city. It reminded me a bit between a mix of Juno, Alaska and a trendy hip town like Burlington, VT. There were lots of street art and colorful buildings. 

 This made me laugh....single gloves speed dating.

There was also a famous Church where you could see great views of the city below from the steeple.
 The Lutheran Church was called Hallgr√≠mskirkja (good luck with that pronunciation).

It had a pretty unique architecture from the outside and quite the organ inside. 

Of course the views did not disappoint. 

One of the must see stops in our tourist book believe it or not was a hot dog stand in the middle of the city. Our friend Martin actually owns his own German Bratwurst Business in Edinburgh, On the Roll, so as you can imagine he was very excited to try out this stand in Reykjavik. Even former president Bill Clinton has visited this stand when he was in Iceland, so we stopped for a dog. We saw the stand late on Saturday night with a line of locals wrapped around the place, so we knew it was going to be good!

The hot dogs were really tasty, and unlike most things in Iceland, really cheap! They came with a special mustard, fried onions, and other special mayo sauce.

 Now for some of you healthy readers, eating a hot dog sounds like adventure enough, but wait until you try fermented shark. Yes, that's right, Iceland is famous for fermented shark. Let me tell you, its disgusting in my opinion. But when I had heard about this delicacy I told my self I would give it a try.

 One tiny taste was enough for me!
 You could even by shark jerky in the market. Not my cup of tea but I am sure there are people out there who can't get enough of this stuff.

The final stop before the airport was a Viking Village outside of the city. It had traditional decorations, and cool buildings. 

Writing this blog post and remembering back to the weekend makes me realise how lucky I am to see such amazing places in this world with great friends and a supportive partner. It was fantastic getaway and perfect way to celebrate the start of my 30's. I can't wait to see what the next decade has in store.

 Next up, the USA for the wedding. Until next time, we will see you on the internet.

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