Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Iceland - Day #5 - The Blue Lagoon

After a quick 6 hour nap (thanks to arriving well after midnight) at the Geo Hotel Grindavik, we woke up to torrential rain and howling winds.  Our hotel was shaking from the power of the wind.  Our flight back to DC didn't depart from Iceland until 5pm that evening and we had big plans for the day... the famous Blue Lagoon.  Our plans were rain or shine, so although it wouldn't have been the weather we chose for our final day in Iceland, we didn't have much choice.  

After a quick breakfast downstairs in the lobby, a re-pack of our bags, and ensuring that we had everything we needed for our flight later that evening, we were off to the lagoon.  Thankfully, the downpour stopped as we loaded up the car for the short 5 minute drive.  However, the wind was insane as we walked from the parking lot to the entrance of the lagoon.

Due to its location near the airport, it's really popular for tourists to either start or end their trips at the lagoon.  We decided it would be the perfect way to wrap up our Iceland trip.

When reading blogs/trip reviews, most people recommended the "premium package," which included our admission, towels, drinks, slippers, robe, mud masks, and a reservation at the lagoon restaurant.  The other big recommendation was to go early in the day, as it tends to get more and more crowded as the day goes on.  We had a 9am reservation and the lobby was empty when we arrived.  When we departed around 1:30pm, the line was out the door and the facility was packed.

The walk to/from the lagoon is amazing.  You walk thru a path cut right into a lava field.

After checking in, we were given electronic wristbands that acted as our locker key, our credit card to charge drinks, etc.  It reminded me of the bracelet you get at Disney.  Nick and I each went to our respective locker rooms, put away our stuff, and showered (yes, you have to shower naked, but there are privacy stalls) before meeting up down in the lagoon lobby.  We were surprised by how modern everything is at the lagoon - from the wristbands to the design.  Everything looks brand new!

It's hard to even describe the state of the wind on this particular day.  Our phone apps said that the morning had 30-40 mph gusts and I fully believe it.  Due to the steam and low cloud deck, we could barely even see the lagoon and it was right in front of us! 

We left our robes/slippers in the lobby and sprinted into the water, which felt amazing.  It's definitely not hot tub temperature, but more like a warm bath.  

Because of the lack of sunshine on this particular day, the water looked much more green vs blue.

While we were there, we learned that the lagoon is actually a man-made "mistake."  It formed in 1976 when a nearby geothermal power plant was under construction.  In 1981, the first person who decided to try to bathe in the waters suffered from psoriasis and realized that the water did wonders for his skin due to the algae and mineral content.  It quickly became a popular place for people with all sorts of skin ailments to visit.  It's now one of the most popular attractions in Iceland.  National Geographic has named it one of the 25 wonders of the world.  Like everywhere else we visited while in Iceland, it's under construction and expanding due to the tourism explosion in the country.

Our first stop in the lagoon was the bar since our entrance fee allocated us one free drink.  We enjoyed our beverages while we wandered around exploring the lagoon and all the little separate areas and coves.

Nick also enjoyed some of the fresh Icelandic water available in the lagoon.  Yes, I call my husband a "moron" in the video below!  LOL.

We did our best to improve upon our wrinkles while we there too and tried out the mud bar!

We also tried out the steam caves and the saunas.  There's lots of different nooks and crannies to explore.  The temperature also varies around the lagoon.  We would find warmer spots and then accidentally wander into a colder spot.  The widest part of the lagoon was more exposed to the crazy wind and there were actual white cap waves hitting us from every angle.  We tried to hug the sides to protect ourselves from the gusts.  The lifeguards were dressed from head to toe in wet weather gear and looked more like fishermen than lifeguards. 

Even with the crazy weather, it was the perfect place to celebrate Nick turning 40!

After a few hours in the lagoon, we got out to enjoy our lunch reservation at Lava.  Since we were departing for the airport right after lunch, we went back to the locker rooms to shower and change.  I kept my hair in a bun the entire time that we were in the water since there are lots of warnings about getting your hair wet in the lagoon (many people complain about it turning their hair to straw).  You can apply conditioner before you go in, but I was fine with just keeping my hair on top of my head.  It got damp mostly from the wind blowing the water around, but nothing crazy.  I was able to blow it dry in the locker room after getting dressed. 

One mistake that Nick and I both made was not thinking ahead to bring in our toiletry bags.  I didn't even think about make-up, since I had given up on wearing any days earlier due to the rain/wind.  I was using my fingers to comb my hair and was quite jealous of all the women around me who seemed much more prepared with the toiletries and products.  I had to wait until we got back to the car to even apply deodorant!

Au naturale yet again
The restaurant was beautiful and I loved that while some people were in their street clothes, many people were still wearing their bath robes (once you are in the lagoon, you can stay all day long).  The restaurant is fairly upscale so seeing people enjoying a beautiful lunch in bath robes is quite a sight.

Nick and I both decided to go with the 3 course lunch tasting menus.  I went with seafood and he went with meat.  Of course, we also needed to have some drinks with our fancy lunch.

The food was AMAZING.  By far, the best meal we had in Iceland.  Earlier in the week during our snowmobile tour, one lady commented that her partner was a chef and claimed it was the best meal she'd ever eaten!  It was definitely up there for us.

My appetizer - langoustine soup
The best cod that I've ever eaten!!

Nick's lamb dish

It was nice to get pampered and eat a delicious meal before we headed off to the airport.  

Happy 40th!

I'm not sure what else to say about Iceland.  It was incredible.  It's beautiful.  It's wild.  It's definitely unlike anywhere else that we've traveled.  It's also unlocked in me a desire to travel more and explore new places.  Thank goodness for Mimi!!!!

We returned our rental car and grabbed the shuttle back to the airport terminal.  Checking in one of our bags was super simple.  We scanned our ticket and put the bag on the belt, which immediately recognized it as our bag and rolled it away for us.  Unfortunately, our other bag was overweight, so we still needed to wait in the super long line to get that checked in.  Little did we know that all US bound flights depart Iceland at the same time, so we waited for quite awhile to check in that one bag.  There was also some sort of crazy going on with a flight that had arrived from Ireland.  Apparently the Dublin computer systems were down and everyone's tickets got deleted, so they were all in line trying to re-book their connecting flights.  The lines were so crazy that they didn't even charge us the overweight fee once we made it to the counter.

Security was quick and we made it through with no problems.  Immigration/customs was a little nuts.  Thanks to 10+ departing US flights, there were lines everywhere, but they moved fairly quick.  Of course, Nick and I both got flagged for an extra security check, which was slightly bizarre, but we were joined by dozens of other tourists also getting a "random screening."  We were literally given a ticket like you would receive from the deli counter (looked identical) and waited until our numbers were called.  They went through my carry-on, scrubbed down my hands and then I was on my way again just minutes later.

The most interesting thing about the airport was the lack of seating.  Everyone just lines up under their flight's signage.  To our left was a flight leaving for Dulles.  Our flight was departing for BWI.  The flight to our right was heading to Boston.  The lines continued all the way down the hallway with flights heading to NYC, Chicago, Seattle, Orlando, Toronto, and so on with all the flights departing between 5-6pm.  Just long lines of people standing around waiting for their flight to start boarding.  

Upon arriving home, Nick immediately got to work on our Iceland video.  Enjoy!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Iceland Day #4 - Dyrhólaey, Reynisfjara & Skógafoss

The final leg of our trip across Iceland would bring us ALL the way back to the southwestern corner of the country, where we started our adventure the previous Friday morning.  We knew that our final day would be long and involve a lot of miles and time in the car, but it was crazy how fast the time went by (sunshine until 11pm doesn't hurt either!).  250 miles flies by when you're driving by volcanoes and glaciers.

250 miles from the southeastern coast and iceberg lagoons to our hotel reservation in Grindavik that evening
We saved some of Iceland's most famous and iconic landmarks and attractions for the drive back, which also gave us some things to look forward to and opportunities to get out of the car during the drive.  Our only concern for the rest of the day was making it to 
Dyrhólaey by 7pm.  Due to it being nesting season for many bird species, the area had restricted hours in place.  So, we put our rental car to the test and flew back toward Vik as fast as we could.

I think if we could do the trip over again, we would have spent one additional night back in Vik.  Meaning, gone to the iceberg lagoons and then came back to Vik for one more night in this particular area of the country.  There was just so much to see and do, but only so many hours of the day to get stuff done.  But, we had a flight back to the US the next day, so we needed to squeeze everything into this one final day in Iceland.

We pulled onto the beach access road around 6:40pm and were informed by a guide that we'd need to be out of the area at 7pm when they were planning to block the road off for the evening.  Plenty of other tourists were also pouring into the place and many were not even aware of the limited access, so we were just thrilled to make it.

Dyrhólaey translates to "the hill island with the door hole" and that's exactly what it looks like!

Zoomed in on the "hole"
If we had more time, we could have walked all along the above ridge, but due to our time constraints, we were only able to explore a bit of the area.  The real reason that most people tour this area in the spring/summer is to spot the puffins!  Those darn birds are quite elusive and are super quick!  They nest in the dark cliffs and on the green grass, along with tons of other birds.  You really have to stare for long periods of time and slowly move your eyes around to spot them.  At one point, I was standing next to an older gentleman who pointed one out to me that I would have completely missed.  In my opinion, they are much easier to spot when they're coming in from the ocean and landing on the cliffs since they have black backs.  When they're on the cliffs, I struggled to see them and Nick couldn't spot them at all.  It also helps to find someone with a long lens camera and stick close to them!

Looking toward Vik.  You can also spot the Reynisdrangar sea cliffs jutting out from the ocean.
We spotted a seal playing in the waves, but no puffins!

It became VERY clear that they were not going to be able to clear this particular area by 7pm given how many people were still standing around/walking around.  But, being a goody-goody, I made Nick move at light speed to tour the cliffs.  In fact, I left him behind and started walking back up the hill at one point.  Nick, not the goody-goody, was 100% certain that they weren't going to lock all the tourists up there for the night.  In retrospect, he was probably right (don't tell him that I admitted that!).  That was the moment that Nick decided that I'd make for a good tour operator and we had a good laugh about me waving around the Go Pro like a flag trying to get everyone to leave the area and get on the bus!

I'll proudly state that we left the area at 7:01pm and waved to the poor guide working the gate who was turning around DOZENS of cars trying to get up the road to the cliffs.  He needed a buddy!

Our next stop, Reynisfjara, was actually backtracking for us as we headed east again toward Vik and away from Reykjavik.  Because of the 7pm closure at Dyrhólaey, we had passed by that beach in order to make our timeline.  Although the beaches are right next to each other, they are still a 20-30 minute drive away from one another.

When we arrived at Reynisfjara, the first thing we did was stop to eat.  They had a small restaurant, the Black Beach Restaurant, right at the entrance to the beach and we were starving by the time we made it there.  It seemed only right to order fish and chips on the beach, so we both ordered the same dinner... and it was amazing... or we were just starving after a long day of travel.

Once we ate, we headed out to visit the famous Reynisfjara, which has been voted one of the best non-tropical beaches in the world.  It's also known to "Game of Thrones" fans from this last season of the show, so I may have been humming the theme song as we walked out onto the black sand.  There are warning signs everywhere as you approach the beach about the famous "sneaker waves."  There have been a number of fatal accidents at the beach with unsuspecting tourists getting hit by waves or sucked out to sea by strong rip currents.  Numerous warnings tell you not to turn your back to the ocean while visiting.

I told Nick that I'm buying him a red jacket if we ever return to Iceland!  He blends in too much with the colors of the island!
Looking west towards Dyrhólaey (you can spot the hole!)
Another one of my favorite pictures from the trip...

Legend says that there were two trolls pulling a 3-mast ship to the shore at this very spot.  Dawn arrived and the sunlight turned the trolls into stone!  There may not be any trolls on the beach, but it's definitely a magical place.

The cliffs and caves along this stretch of beach are so cool.  The basalt stacks seem to twist and turn in every direction when you stare at them.

Where's Waldo?  Nick Edition.

While reciprocating and taking the photo of a nice couple that we met on the beach, we finally spotted a puffin up on the cliffs!  I tried to snap several pictures with my iPhone, but the distance was just too much for it.  While not looking away, I reached into my backpack, felt around and grabbed my Cannon camera.  It did a much better job capturing the little guy!

Spot any puffins?  Me neither!  Puffins are the Achilles heel of the iPhone!
Max zoom!  You can finally start to spot the little guy right in the middle of the shot.
Popping his head up in the middle of the grassy area of the cliff

Iceland happens to be the breeding ground for 60% of the world's Atlantic puffins.  They spend the majority of their life at sea, but come spring, they nest here.  We also learned that they flap their wings very fast!

Coming in for a landing!
We found the best way to watch the puffin was to zoom in with my camera and then record them using the video option.  Of course, I finally get the little guy in sight and someone starts flying a drone nearby (they were banned at the location, so Nick didn't bring his out... and there were WAY too many birds around to dare fly it!).

I was just so happy that we finally were able to spot one of these little guys and watch him for a bit.  Our trip to Iceland during puffin season wouldn't have been complete without finding a puffin!  Of course, once you spot one puffin, we were able to spot a few more up on the cliffs.  They are apparently BFFs with our mortal enemy, the Arctic tern, because those guys were everywhere too!

We spent about an hour or so at the beach exploring the black sands, watching the crazy ocean waves, spotting puffins, checking out the caves and cliffs and so on before we decided it was time to hit the road again.  However, I had to stop again on the way out because I saw the two cutest baby sheep watching us leave the beach.

We rolled out of Vik for the final time around 8:45pm and retraced our footsteps back to Skógafoss.  

Although we had seen the waterfall briefly on our way to Vik, we never got out of the car since it was raining hard at the time.  Since it was a gorgeous evening, we were able to get out of the car and fully explore this time.  A lot of people consider Skógafoss to be THE Iceland waterfall.  It's amazing.

It is possible to walk right up to it... if you want to get drenched!  Since I spent a few days of the trip already soaking wet, I passed on that one.  However, we took the longer way up - all 527 steps to the top of the waterfall to the viewing platform.  It was a long walk up and we were totally winded when we got to the top.  But the view from the top was truly breathtaking.

View from the observation platform
As we were walking up the stairs, we passed a few groups coming down who told us to make sure we kept walking up beyond the platform, through the metal gate and up onto the hiking trail above the waterfall and we're so glad we listened to them.  The Skóga River is filled with small waterfalls and we walked for quite awhile up the river.  If time had been on our side, we may have explored the area for much longer.

Nick standing above the waterfall
One of the smaller falls upriver
If we had to take a vote, I think Skógafoss won my heart on this trip in terms of Icelandic waterfalls!  The following photos were taken between 9:30-10pm.  There was something so special about this place.  It may have been the twilight hour, the quiet (besides the roar of the river and the waterfall), the rolling green hills, the bright white glacier in the distance, or just because it was our final night in Iceland and it was a gorgeous evening.  It was awesome.

Unfortunately, like with everything in Iceland, we had to move along.  In this case, we really had to start making our way to our hotel for the evening.  It was after 10pm by the time that we made it back to the car and we still had 2.5 hours left in our drive.  I actually had Nick call the hotel to make sure that someone would still be at the front desk since we wouldn't be arriving until well after midnight!

As we made our way toward Grindavik, an amazing site came into view and stayed in view for a good stretch of our drive... Hekla.  Since it was raining on our drive out to Vik, we missed this amazing view on the drive out.

Sidenote - Yes, that is American music on the radio!  It was all we heard the entire time we were in Iceland.  They talk in Icelandic (which sounds like the elvish language straight out of "Lord of the Rings!") in between songs, but all the music was straight off the American Top 100 charts!

Hekla is considered THE most active volcano in Iceland and it has erupted more than 20 times since 874.  It last erupted in 2000 and its nickname is "the Gateway to Hell."  On the flip side, she's also known as the "Queen of Iceland."  All I know is that driving near her is both mesmerizing - you can't stop looking over at her - and slightly terrifying!  Rising almost 5000 feet, she's hard to ignore.  Throw in some clouds moving in and twilight in Iceland around 11pm and it was quite the viewing experience on this section of road.

Not long after passing Hekla, the next batch of torrential rain moved in on us.  We finished up our drive in crazy wind and rain.  When we arrived at our hotel, Geo Hotel Grindavik, it was well past midnight and POURING.  Nick ran into the hotel to check us in while I tried to shove everything into bags.  We knew that we would be packing up our luggage the following morning for our return flight and we had boots, coats, hats, gloves and all sorts of stuff thrown about the car.  

Like all the hotels we stayed at during our time in Iceland, we were highly impressed by the hotel, even though we only stayed here for a few short hours.  After showers (in a HUGE bathroom), plugging in electronics to recharge overnight, and a quick repack of bags, we were able to catch a few hours of sleep before our final Iceland adventure the next morning... the Blue Lagoon.