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I have to confess. I didn’t want to go to Iceland. Not, initially, anyway.
So many traveller friends raving about the land of “Fire & Ice”, and all the episodes of Game of Thrones being filmed there made Iceland, in my head, so hyped up it would have been impossible to live up to it, I figured. But hype or not, every time I heard the word “Iceland”, a little voice in my head would scream “WHY ARE YOU PAYING to go to a place with the word ice in it?! if you want to freeze, just go back to Canada!”
Long time readers of this blog (love you guys) probably know that I’m not a fan of the cold. In fact, the main reason we decided to go nomadic is so that we’ll never have to see a f***king snowflake ever again. I HATE the cold. I LOVE the sun.
So why on earth did I decide to go to a place even colder than Canada?
Discount plane tickets.
Specifically, WOW Air plane tickets which started as low as $187. Since we had to fly back to Canada for a friend’s wedding anyway, we figured, why not stop in Iceland?
I even badgered our friends to join us, which apparently didn’t take much convincing because unlike wimpy me, they love the cold and couldn’t wait to see Iceland!
Let me just tell you, planning a joint trip with another couple (provided you have similar travelling styles and can get along without killing each other) turned out to be a lifesaver! Because not only was renting a car during high season crazy expensive, there are very few (worthwhile) places you can get to in Iceland without driving. This took some getting used to, since having been in so many other European cities, we’ve never had to drive. Plus, I suck at driving (cue Asian stereotype) and I LOATH it. Subways, trains, and buses are so cheap and convenient in Europe, driving never even crossed my mind. This is not the case in Iceland.
So if you plan on going, definitely rent a car and add at least one other driver to share the load. We recommend checking out “Blue Car Rental” which has great service, reliable cars, and good value.
Anyhoo…so even before we went, Iceland had two strikes against it—the cold and the lack of public transportation.
I didn’t know that there would be a third strike until I got there–bad food. Now, I knew that the food was expensive and nothing to write home about, but I didn’t know every other thing I ate was going to be poisoned with lamb.
It’s a long story, but the thing is I can’t eat lamb—even the faint smell of it makes me gag.
And in Iceland, even the hotdogs (one of the few affordable things they serve) have lamb in them. BLEGH.
So needless to say, I was not having high hopes for Iceland on the first day.
But, before you think this post is going to be a full-on Iceland rant, let me assure you, this is not the case. Because what happened on the second day, third, and fourth day made me fall so hard for Iceland, I couldn’t fit my experience into a measly 1500-word post!
I guess I kind of feel like Iceland and I are like the male and female leads in a cliched romance novel. At first, we HATE each other, and there’s a lot of screaming and fighting, but then ever so gradually, Iceland gets more and more sparkly, and I end up falling for this thing I once loathed and then I can’t possibly imagine life without it. Oh God, did I just make a Twilight reference? EWW.
Anyway, that’s Iceland for me in a nutshell. Despite it being expensive, despite me not liking it very much initially, I grew to love it.
Are you ready to find out why?
Okay, here we go!
Even though 1/3 of the entire Icelandic population lives there (122K people), Reykjavik wasn’t the most exciting city (though it does have some cool art). You can see everything you need to see in a day. But what it lacks in attractions and breathtaking nature, it does make up for with some intriguing history.
Did you know Iceland was invaded by the Brits during WW2? In fact, it was the politest invasion of all invasions.
Basically, even though Iceland stayed neutral during the war, Britain was afraid that Germany would use Iceland for its strategic location and got ahead of it by sending troops on May 10, 1940 to disable communication networks, secure military bases, and arrest the German citizens there.
They were met with zero resistance from the Icelandic government, and the only pushback they got was an annoyed letter. Funnily enough, when they arrested the German ambassador, he also protested accusing Britain of flagratantly violating another country’s soverienty. This, I assume, was met with the biggest “are you f**king kidding me?” look from the Brits.
In addition to the interesting history, the city also had some interesting architecture.
Like the Hallgrimskirkja church:
The Harpa Concert hall:
The Viking ship sculpture:
And some cool art:
I also really enjoyed the local community pools in Reykjavik. Because of the volcanos on the island, they have hot springs all over the place, and as a result, even their local pools are more like upscale spas with saunas. And there are 18 of them in one small city, so you should be able to find one in every neighbourhood.
During our time there, our favourite pool was Sundhöllin and at a cost of only 950 ISK (or 9 USD) per person for the whole day, that’s one of the best deals you can get there!
And while sitting in a hot tub, we were recognized by a Toronto reader, who was on vacation. See, you know the pool is a good deal when you meet a Millennial Revolution reader there.
So overall, Reykjavik was a great home-base for us while we explored the nearby nature, but I was happier when we drove out of it.
So when you come to Iceland, it won’t be Reykjavik that you fall for. It’s a cute town with some great Spa-like local pools, but that’s about it. All the cool shit is outside the city.
The Golden Circle
Everyone who goes to Iceland is told they need to drive the “Golden Circle”. A 300km (190 miles) loop containing 3 main tourist attractions (a national park, geyser, and waterfall), the name “Golden Circle” is actually a marketing term and has no roots in Icelandic history.
So I had pretty low expectations for it. How great can it be if we’re going to surrounded by tourists and fighting for parking with tour buses?
Turns out, I was both right and wrong.
It was touristy, as expected, but the crowds weren’t nearly as bad as I thought.
And being surrounded by nature, was spectacular. When they say Iceland looks like nowhere else, it’s true. Sometimes you feel like you’re on the moon, sometimes you feel like you’re in Ireland, and sometimes you have nothing to compare it to because the environment is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Here are the 4 ( we added an bonus detour) attractions we visited on day 2:
Þingvellir National Park
This is a unique area where you can walk between 2 continents! Situated where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, by standing in this valley, which was created when the plates pulled apart, you’re standing between North America and Europe. So you can totally do that Homer Simpson thing where you stand with one leg on each side while yelling “Now I’m in North America!” “Now, I’m in Europe”, “Now I’m in North America”, and on and on until a guard comes and smacks you on the head.
It also happens to be the site of the world’s oldest parliament, since the Vikings choose it as their meeting place back in the 10th century.
But of course, my eye glazed over at all the parliamentary stuff until I noticed “Judging Rock” or (“Law Rock” as the Vikings called it), where you could look down from a rock at the crowd and sentence perpetrators to pay for their various crimes.
Now that I can get behind. So needless to say, I spent a lot of time at Judging Rock judging all the plants and animals below. They didn’t seem to notice or care.
Strokkur (The Geysir)
This was, by far, my favourite attraction out of the 3. Not only do you get to see a Geysir spray an obscene amount of water into the air every 10 mins, there are lots of other thermal pools (too hot to get into but fun to look at) with various depths and colours that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Some of them even had this ethereal, other-worldly quality, surrounding you with mist and fog.
You can also enjoy an easy hike up a small hill behind the Geysirs to get a nice 360 degree view of the area:
A big-ass waterfall overlooking a valley, but that’s about it. If you’re into waterfalls, you will LOVE Iceland, because you can’t throw a rock without hitting a waterfall here. But not being a waterfall-fetishist myself, I was more enamoured with the story of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, which was told on a plaque on the way to the falls.
Sigríður was the feisty daughter of a farmer who owned the land around the waterfall. And even though she has no formal education, she took on rich and powerful foreign investors who wanted to build a dam and use the waterfall for hydroelectric power.
Using her own money, she hired a lawyer (who would go on to become Iceland’s first president) to prevent buyers from exploiting the falls.
At one point, she even threatened to jump into Gullfoss if construction on a hydro project began.
So as a result, the hydro project never happened. Since then the falls has been sold to the Iceland government to protect and make sure no foreign business men can ever buy the waterfall.
If that’s not bad-ass, I don’t know what is. Sigríður is credited with being the first environmentalist in Iceland and thanks for her efforts, now we have this big ass waterfall to look at:
Bonus: Kerid Crater
A crater lake you can walk around, this attraction is the only one that includes an entrance fee (400 ISK or 4 USD).
I don’t have too much to say about this one, other than that it’s fun to walk around and take pictures:
And finally on the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at the side of the road to marvel at some super friendly Icelandic horsies. And I couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot when I got to pet them within an inch of their lives.
So that’s the Golden Circle in a nutshell. It was touristy but had some surprising stories I wasn’t expecting.
But seeing the geyser and the “hot blue hole” is the point I stopped getting annoyed at the bad food, bad prices, lack of public transportation and falling for nature. Little did I know there were WAY better things to come.
The Golden Circle was just an appetizer. We hadn’t even gotten to the mind-blowing main course yet—which I will talk about in my next post…
So how much did we spend? Did we go bankrupt? Is our retirement over?
Since I had to split this into multiple posts, I’ll show you the final expense in the end, when I tally everything up. Stay tuned!
Have you ever been to the Golden Circle in Iceland? If so, what was your experience like?
Click here to read Part 2.
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