Let’s Go Exploring! Iceland: Fire and Ice and Surprisingly Nice

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FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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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?

Three words.

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!

Reykjavik

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:

source: Daniel Williams @ Flickr

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.

Super fun!

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.

Iceland has hot blue holes. Now I’ve seen everything.

You can also enjoy an easy hike up a small hill behind the Geysirs to get a nice 360 degree view of the area:

Gullfoss waterfall

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.

Source: Luc Van Braekel @ Flickr

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.

Hello new BFFs!

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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44 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Iceland: Fire and Ice and Surprisingly Nice”

  1. Well, I am glad you got to Iceland. My wife and I love it. The food is not as good as Europe, but we have lobster there and it was the best I have ever had (and I live in New England, the mecca of lobster).

    Did you do the runtur? (pub crawl on Friday and Saturday nights)? Blue Lagoon? Saga Museum? We thought the Golden Circle was fab and loved the times we have visited. Looking forward to next week’s post.

    1. I have a feeling if I ordered lobster they would put lamb all over it 😛 Even a simple pastry with cheese and spinach had goat cheese in it 🙂 I think Icelandic food and I just don’t get along.

      Did not know about the runtur, but we figured since we were going to Poland afterwards, why spend $20 on a pint on beer, when you can get 10 beers for the same price?

      We mostly focused on nature rather than museums and bars. And it did not disappoint 😉

  2. We absolutely love Iceland. We have a bunch of friends there and need to get back to visit them.

    It’s definitely a very unique place. And everything about it is cool.

    The hotdogs are amazing!!! You’re missing out.

  3. We stopped in Iceland for a couple days on our way back from Bavaria and Krakow last fall, and we loved it. We did the Golden Circle which was cool but I really loved the southern coast. Views were absolutely stunning. In Reykjavik there is a Fish and Chips near the Opera house that wasn’t too terribly expensive and the fish was really good. We mostly bought some sandwich stuff and snacks at the Bonus store and then splurged one night on sushi! Blue Lagoon was expensive but we enjoyed our day there as well. Overall great time.

    1. Ahh good ol Bonus 🙂 Saved our butts from the ridiculous prices. Good to know Fish and Chips weren’t too bad.

      Southern coast is amazing and better than Golden Circle for sure. I’ll be raving all about it in an upcoming post!

  4. Whoa, no lamb? Sorry about that. We love lamb and really enjoyed eating those yummy little cutie pies. I hope you like fish. 😀
    The Golden Circle exceeded my expectation too. I didn’t think it was going to be that good, but we really enjoyed it. I didn’t even want to stop at Thingvellir. It didn’t sound interesting to me, but I’m really glad we went. It was actually pretty awesome to hike around and cross the 2 plates. The kids really enjoyed the Geysir stop.
    We went to the secret lagoon after Gullfoss. That was a nice stopover and we got to relax a bit before driving back to Reykjavik. All in all, pretty good for a one-day road trip.

    1. Yeah, sorry Joe. Lambs and I just don’t get along (or maybe we extremely get along because I can’t eat them).

      We tried to book the secret lagoon on our last day, but the time slot we wanted was sold out. We did end up going to the Blue Lagoon though, which I’ll write about in my next post.

      Glad I could read your Iceland write up before I went to get a feel of it! Your assessment was pretty accurate.

  5. We decided just 2 days ago to travel to Iceland with another couple next summer, so you can imagine my surprise when this post showed up in my feed! I can’t wait to read the other posts!

  6. Thanks guys for keeping up the promise of posting iceland trip this Friday. But little disappointed that i have to wait until few more Fridays to have the full breakup and other places review 🙁
    I am leaving in few weeks and i would love to read your full TR before i make my bookings and accommodations.
    btw, Sorry to hear about ur hate towards lamb, lucky me i enjoy lamb over beef.
    Eagerly awaiting to read your rest of trip report.

    1. Don’t worry. All you really need to know is “Blue Cars Rental” for car rental, “Airbnb” for accommodations, stay a day or 2 in the town of Vik so you can visit the Glacial Ice lagoon (Jökulsárlón), and buy groceries from “Bonus”. If you want to go to Blue Lagoon, book in 2-3 weeks in advance (though, in my opinion, there are better alternatives).

      That’s all you really need to know for pre-booking before you go. We didn’t do any off-roading so if you’re planning to do hardcore hiking, camping, and get a 4×4, I don’t have much advice for that.

  7. Perfect timing! This is great!

    I have exactly your same concerns about Iceland!
    I HATE cold, and since we’ve been living in London for over 12 years (I have enough clouds and rain here to last me forever!), I’ve always found an excuse not to go, but we finally decided to visit it next year.

    I can’t wait to read all about it in the other posts to come!

    1. Ah good ol’ UK. I was immediately reminded of UK weather the minute we stepped off the plane in Iceland. UK is the only other place we had to wear a jacket and long pants in the summer.

      The nature in Iceland is worth putting up with the cold though, you’ll see 😉 Glad you’re visiting it next year!

      1. The thing about the UK is not just that it’s cold in summer, but it’s also cold inside in winter because many places don’t have heating! argh! More expensive accommodation does, but if you’re staying at your friend’s tiny flat, then there might be a tiny space heater, for example… good way to keep the costs down.

  8. Blue lagoon rocks! Hope to hear in later posts that you went. And come on, Toronto is not that cold! I have been roasting when not in my frigid cubicle all summer.

    Maybe Toronto is cold vs the hot blue hole 😉

    1. You guessed it ;). Blue Lagoon is coming up…

      I used to think Toronto wasn’t that cold, but then we experienced endless summer with travel. And now I’m a total wimp and never want to see a snowflake ever again 😛

  9. Love Iceland. Can’t wait to go back. Rented an Airbnb in Reykjavik so we had a kitchen to cook some of our meals. They have a Costco!

    1. We did the same, Debbi! Really enjoyed being having a kitchen in our Reykjavik Airbnb. Though since we spent most of our time on the road, we mostly ate sandwiches for convenience. I didn’t know they had a Costco though! That’s good to know for next time.

    1. I had to break the post up into parts (because it was turning into a 4000 word monstrosity!), so I will tally up the expenses in my final post.

  10. It’s a beautiful country for sure, but when I look at pictures it looks like a kind of very expensive Alaska. Not that Alaska is extremely cheap. Maybe iceland has more hot springs.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but all the cold places in the world seem to have beautiful nature don’t they?

    1. Never been to Alaska so I can’t compare. However, your hunch on hot springs is correct 🙂 (that post is coming up) It’s really the volcanic activity that makes Iceland unique.

      And yes, I agree that many cold places in the world have beautiful nature. Though, I’ve also found the nature in warm places equally beautiful. So it just depends on what you’re into.

  11. First off, Iceland is one of my most favorite places to date. I could not take my eyes off of Hallgrimskirkja and literally took about a million pictures of it. The waterfalls were absolutely beautiful and the ponies just too cute and fluffy. I hope one of the follow up posts includes Silfra. Did you by chance make it up to the northern coast?

    1. Strangely, I thought Hallgrimskirkja was just okay. Maybe I’m spoiled by seeing too many unique historical buildings in Europe.

      I also loved the ponies! They are too fluffy and cute!

      Yeah, I heard about diving in Silfra! Didn’t get a chance to do it this time (my teeth are chattering just thinking about it though), but maybe next time. We stayed just a week this time so mostly explored the south coast. North coast will have to be saved for a future trip.

  12. We absolutely love Iceland, it is my favourite country I’ve ever been to simply because you can’t compare it to anywhere else. We spent 3.5 weeks there for our honeymoon and drove around the entire country, camping along the way, and going to every Sundlaug we could find for the best “shower” you could ask for. If you want to stay on a budget in Iceland you definitely can with all the free camping spots, shopping at Bonus for food, spending ~$4 USD at the sundlaugs for relaxation, and taking in SO many free sites. The food is no great shakes but you don’t go there for the food. You go there for the otherworldly experiences you can’t find anywhere else. Black volcanic rock, mixed with pristine white snow, mixed with intense green moss, mixed with waterfalls, oceans, and rivers. Can’t be beat. We wrote a blog post about it years ago when we went.

    1. “The food is no great shakes but you don’t go there for the food. You go there for the otherworldly experiences you can’t find anywhere else.”

      This is exactly how we feel about Iceland too. Didn’t fall for the food, but definitely fell for the nature. And you’re right, as expensive as it is, Bonus does help, as does all the free nature sites to visit.

      Very cool that you guys visited for 3.5 weeks!

  13. Just came back from six days in Iceland and a Baltic cruise. Loved it. We did a Golden Circle Food tour which included a full three course dinner at a working farm hundreds of years old, a visit to a geothermal tomato green house that harvests a ton of tomatoes a day and a site where the old turf houses have been preserved. Loved the food but we are lamb eaters. Seafood amazing. Best meal seafood stew in a bread bowl. Westman Island is a short plane ride away. Two other groups of friends doing Iceland at the same time in a camper van and a car had totally different experiences. Iceland’s story of buying up the banks and becoming a tourism power house after the 2008 crash is an integral part of their history that is not to be missed. People are fantastic and everyone speaks English and all signs are translated. Whole island heated free and electricity provided by geothermal heat. No ethnic diversity as immigration is almost impossible. More jobs than people but workers can only come on 6 month work permits. As you can tell I’m a political and economic nerd and those aspects of the story fascinatinated me. And the beautiful design and colours of Icelandic clothes and household contents. Winter darkness would drive me bonkers though.

    1. “As you can tell I’m a political and economic nerd”

      Oh really? I couldn’t tell 😉

      And yeah, continued darkness and cold would drive me nuts too…though you would have the northern lights to keep you company.

    2. What possible added benefit would “ethnic diversity” bring to Iceland? The allure of Iceland is precisely in it’s unique history and heritage.
      In fact, can you give me a single example in a real life application where loss of cohesion is beneficial? Entropy means chaos, disintegration, lack of order or predictability, gradual decline into disorder. Same end result as with the leftist touted “diversity”.

  14. A friend visited Iceland a few years ago, and said everything was expensive except salmon. Thus I thought salmon would be more plentiful than lamb by a long shot.
    He told me about having eggs and salmon every morning for breakfast. I could get used to that!

    1. Interesting! I didn’t notice the salmon prices, but yeah, if they’re reasonable having eggs and salmon for breakfast would be pretty sweet!

  15. Iceland has definitely been super popular recently. I hear that even cheaper than Bonus is bringing in one’s own food. There’s a limit to how much food you’re allowed to bring in, though.

    Cold places probably have more striking nature (rocks) because the green stuff can’t grow all over the rocks. Who knows what rocks are under the rainforests… well, Squamish has a lot of rocks that are visible, but that’s because they are in cliff form.

    Another place with interestingly coloured hot springs is Beppu in Japan, where we ran away to after it rained on every other part of Japan and we couldn’t take the rain anymore.

    1. I’m weary about bringing fruit or veggies because some countries are pretty strict about that. We did bring some noodles with us, which ended up being super helpful.

      Going to have to check out Beppu, Japan the next time we go back. Thanks for the tip!

  16. So excited that you went to Iceland! It’s one of my favorite places I’ve traveled to. I am the opposite of you though with travel temps – I love cold places and can’t take the heat. If I was retired and traveling – all north of 60 destinations…yes!!! Okay maybe not all, but I’m a rare Canadian that complains that the summers are too hot, but I don’t complain on the cold winter days.

    1. Looks like you are the ideal Canuck 🙂 If you love cold places, Iceland is perfect–as is the UK and the Scandinavian countries.

      Did you go to Iceland in the winter to see the Northern lights?

    1. Awesome. I think you’ll enjoy it! Especially if it’s a stopover–because then you get to rest after flying just 5 hours instead of 7 or 8!

  17. Oh Iceland. The place I hope to spend some time in my early retirement. We say we will move there for one year and if we have to, will pour coffee for living expenses (no way we can afford to live there wit our ER fund).

    They do fish well. Potatoes and cod baked together with cheese and cream sauce, sort of a gratin. But yeah, they don’t have cows, so goats and sheeps are their go to Foods!

    We will definitely be back there.

    1. Yeah, I noticed they don’t have a lot of cows. And the handful we saw while driving around were super skinny. I guess it’s much easier to graze sheep there.

      If you find work there, you could probably move there. Seems like they have a relatively low unemployment rate due to all the tourism.

  18. I am not into lamb and I absolutely loathe fish and seafood (was cilantro a part of islandic food? That would be the food circle of hell for me!). Guess I’ll have to bring my own food to Iceland when I visit there, lol. Great post, can’t wait for the next part!

    1. I didn’t see much cilantro, but then again, we hardly ate out. I would definitely bring my own food–with the exception of fruits and veg (some countries don’t allow that).

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