(with minimal contribution from Saqib Siddik, who was asleep on the plane ride home while I was writing most of this blog post 🙂 )

my husband, Saqib, on ice

my husband, Saqib, on ice

Iceland. Land of Fire and Ice. Nature in the colors black and white: black sand, soil, and dried lava; white snow-capped mountains. A place of stunning contrasts. This trip was something we have thought about doing for years, and our schedules finally lined up for us to make the journey. We knew from our research that Iceland has epic, otherworldly landscapes. And seeing the majestic mountains, ominous glaciers, steamy sulphur springs and geysers, bubbling mud pits, lava flows, volcanic ash, and dangerously beautiful terrain in person was breathtaking. We lost count of the number of times we would crest a hill and be blown away by the scene in front of us. Iceland is an island of extremes, few trees, shortage of farmable land, and wildlife specially equipped to handle the harsh cold — an isolated island where locals and tourists alike must be resourceful, if we are to travel around the entire country. We did. And we would change hotels and cities and log several hours on the road every day for an entire week on our own Viking saga.

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Day 1

  • Reykjavík: We began our journey in Iceland’s capital in the southwestern part of the island country. We flew in via Icelandair, which teased us with “Northern Lights” along the tops of the overhead compartments. The weather was still cold in late March — near-freezing temperatures but with very gusty winds that made it feel much colder. We shopped and dined on Laugavegur Street in the afternoon, after checking in at Fosshotel Reykjavík, the hotel chain’s flagship location. The hotels chosen for this trip all turned out to be quite nice and cozy.

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

  • The Blue Lagoon: We enjoyed a couple of hours relaxing, swimming, and applying a silica mask to our faces in this mineral-rich, geothermal pool in the middle of a lava field, where it was freezing above water but toasty and comfortable below. Locker rooms include showers and other bathroom facilities. Dinner was at LAVA Restaurant, with rock formations right outside the windows providing a natural setting. The Torched Arctic Char starter with fennel, pearl onion, cucumber, toasted bread, and aioli was exquisite. We ate much more fresh fish (every day) in every city we dined in, including salmon, tuna, haddock, cod, and more. Saqib also had lobster and shrimp. Lamb is also an Icelandic specialty, so we had that too.

Day 2

  • snorkeling in Silfra

    snorkeling in Silfra

    Silfra: After departing Reykjavík to head southeast, we spent the afternoon in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, where we suited up in a warm suit and dry suit with thermals underneath to go snorkeling in the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The water was crystal clear, giving us a pristine view of the underwater moss and rocks. Shallower parts required us to meander through without hitting the rocks, or else we risked putting little tears in our dry suit, which would get us completely soaked. Porous gloves on our hands let water in but warmed the water as it passed through. The mask left our lower cheeks and lips exposed, so at the end of the roughly 45-minute swim from one end to the other, our lips were so swollen, we looked like we had gotten lip injections.

  • Geysir Hot Springs: active geysers shooting into the air.

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    steam from underground

  • Gullfoss: Stunning waterfalls plunged into the deep canyon of the Hvita River.
  • Icelandic horses: We saw many (super cute) Icelandic horses standing out in fields along our route throughout the entire country. Icelandic horses are an extra-furry, small breed the size of a pony. We approached a group of them. They were very friendly, letting us pet them. We interacted with a few more groups of horses in later days in other parts of the country.
  • Minilik Ethiopian Restaurant: We had a delicious dinner at a very well-rated, rare find in Iceland. Service was slow, but the ambience was cozy and warm. An unexpected charm in the middle of Iceland.

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    Icelandic horses

  • Northern Lights – 1st encounter: After nightfall, on our way to our next city, Vík, we kept an eye out for the #1 item on our bucket list: the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). We were traveling on Ring Road, which goes around the country, more or less along the coast. The stars were out on this clear night, and I (Julie) was checking the Northern Lights forecast. All of a sudden, Saqib (who was driving) spotted a white streak across the sky to his left and alerted me to it. We didn’t know if it was a cloud or what we hoped it was. We then spotted a couple of cars ahead that had pulled over to the side of the dark road, so we optimistically followed suit. I quickly grabbed Saqib’s camera from the back seat, and in the next several minutes, he captured our first sighting of the magnificent Northern Lights — faint but clearly green and dancing gently in the night sky. We were giddy but still hoped to see better aurora in the days to come. We also saw the Seljalandsfoss waterfall lit up at night, which was powerfully eery.
  • Icelandair Hotel: This was the first of two Icelandair Hotels we stayed in, and both had humorous no-smoking notices in the rooms, complete with ridiculous folktales.
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Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Day 3

  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach: We started the morning on one of my favorite excursions of the trip: running around on exotic black sand as roaring waves crashed onto the beach in Southeast Iceland. Impressive rock formations jutted out of the Atlantic Ocean and towered over us on land. One inspired the architectural design of a church in Reykjavík which we would visit on our last day. Black sand and soil can be seen over much of Iceland.

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    Skaftafell National Park: Vatnajökull glacier

  • Skaftafell National Park: We strapped crampons over our winter boots (spikes to walk on ice) and hiked up onto the Vatnajökull National Park glacier. I thought we were going on an easy stroll on flat ice, but it turned out to be a somewhat strenuous 2-hour trek across very uneven, unstable ice and densely compacted snow with large cracks and steep drop-offs to avoid. But the scenery was awe inspiring and in fact, the filming location for the movie Interstellar’s ice planet scene.
  • Hotel Skaftafell: Not the most luxurious of accommodations but more than decent and a welcome respite from the active afternoon we had just had, this hotel was set against beautiful, snow-capped mountains.
Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

Day 4

  • Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave Tour: We saw a seal swimming in the Jökulsárlón Lagoon, surrounded by large pieces of glaciers that had broken off from the much larger sheets lodged between mountains. Another round of strapping on crampons. On this morning the bottom of Saqib’s shoe had fallen off, so the staff at the glacier park taped it together with electrical tape until we were able to buy him a new pair later that day. An off-roading vehicle took us on a very bumpy roller coaster ride with small drops and steep inclines to get to another glacier and an ice cave. We walked onto the glacier and explored the ice cave.

    Saqib in an ice cave

    Saqib in an ice cave

  • Höfn: We had lunch at Restaurant Z Bistro in a city called Höfn in South Iceland, where we experienced small-town charm at its finest. We asked our server where we could find new winter hiking boots for Saqib, and she directed us to a camping operation with a store, Pjónustumidstöd SKG, run by a relative. They weren’t open for business at that time, but our lady server called her relative, who met us there right away. No luck in finding the right shoes in the right size, though they had a nice selection. Still, the owner was most helpful and circled on a map a few other stores we should check out. A convenience store and a hardware store both sold shoes! But we ended up buying from the apparel store she told us about.
  • Herad: We took a most scenic drive to our next city of Herad, with looming mountains on one side and steep cliffs into the ocean on the other, going through long mountain tunnels, and watching the sun set against a haunting, deep blue sky. We stayed at another Icelandair Hotel that night.
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coastal drive to Herad

Day 5

  • Café Nielsen: a restaurant in an old house with a small lunch buffet and shop.

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    Dettifoss

  • Dettifoss: Getting to this misty waterfall required a good, long hike across icy, hilly terrain.
  • Lake Mývatn: Boiling mud pits, twisted lava formations, extinct cinder cones cover the area surrounding this lake and serve as a reminder of the active volcanoes dotting the nation that can erupt at any time.
  • Húsavík: This northern Iceland town is known as the whale capital because of its frequent whale sightings and associated tours. The nice lady at the front desk of Fosshotel Húsavík informed us that the Northern Lights were active and that we could observe them from a dark lookout at the top of a hill, just a few minutes north of town. We spent an hour and a half up there in the car, but no luck seeing any aurora. Still, it was part of the experience of seeking the aurora, and we were glad to have done it.

Day 6

  • Akureyri: This is the second largest city in Iceland, also dubbed the capital of the
    Rub 23, Akureyri

    Rub 23, Akureyri

    North. We had sushi at the well-reviewed Rub 23 restaurant (it was good but not sublime), then spent some time photographing Akureyri Church, which sits on a hill overlooking the seaside city and its sloped streets.

  • Húsafell & Northern Lights – 2nd encounter: A long, scenic drive brought us to Hotel Húsafell, a picturesque destination two hours north of Reykjavík. The helpful staff added our names to the Northern Lights wakeup call list, and we headed to an elegant dinner at the hotel restaurant. As it turned out, we didn’t need the wakeup call because as we finished dinner, we were told that the Northern Lights were already out. We and the other dinner guests headed out to the center courtyard, where staff had already turned off the building lights to help us better see the elusive Northern Lights. There we were dazzled by a light show of green, purple, and white that felt unreal, something that seemed too spectacular to exist in nature. Atmospheric conditions were perfect, and we also managed to see several satellites orbiting overhead against a backdrop of millions of shimmering stars. Later that night we continued gazing out our hotel room window, which had the perfect view of the aurora.
Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Day 7

  • Lava Cave: Our final excursion was a trip to The Cave (Víðgelmir), which is a lava tube 30 minutes north of Husafell. We donned helmets and headlamps and descended deep into the earth to observe the remains of lava flow from a thousand years ago.

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    icy stalagmites inside a lava cave

  • We concluded our road trip with a final scenic drive back to Reykjavík. Rather than pay a toll to go through a long tunnel, we took the long way around and were treated to some wonderful curving roads nestled between the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The Westfjords were spectacular. After checking in at Fosshotel Baron, where we had a harbor-view room, we walked a few minutes to revisit Laugavegur Street, had dinner at Nepalese Kitchen Restaurant, and enjoyed ice cream at Eldur and Is — both food establishments have earned top nods in online reviews.

Day 8

  • We took one last stroll along the harbor in Reykjavík and a drive by the Hallgrímskirkja Church inspired by the large rock formation at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Then we headed back to Keflavík International Airport to fly WOW Air back to the U.S.

    Hallgrímskirkja

    Hallgrímskirkja

Soundtrack

(music we played on our road trip around Iceland)
  • Enya: various albums
  • Sarah Brightman’s Dreamchaser
  • The Lord of the Rings: soundtracks of all 3 films
  • Paul Schwartz’s Aria 3: Metamorphosis

Extra Tidbits

  • Many hotel bathrooms have warm floor tiles, which is good in the cold weather.

    Photo Mar 27, 4 30 12 PM

    in an icy crevice off of a glacier

  • Roundabouts, one-lane bridges, and random sections of gravel are common on streets and highways.
  • The Icelandic language uses a lot of really long words that sometimes incorporate all vowels and seemingly as many consonants as possible.
  • Some street signs bear the last name of the owner of the home they point to.
  • Appelsín is an Icelandic soda favorite — it tastes like the typical orange soda and is refreshing after a salty meal.
  • Icelandic food is similar to American/New American — not spicy or particularly flavorful.
  • Tipping isn’t commonplace at restaurants.

    climbing ice along a glacier

    climbing ice along a glacier

  • Some gas stations have attendants who pump your gas at no additional charge.
  • Everything else is expensive, from food to clothing to souvenirs — at a casual restaurant, we paid $60 for the two of us for lunch. Dinner at a nicer restaurant easily can cost you $150 for just 2 entrees and an appetizer (no drinks).
  • Discover card is accepted almost everywhere, which is great for earning rewards while you spend a fortune.
  • Stores close earlier than in the U.S., with some grocery stores closing as early as 7pm and restaurants halting lunch service at 1:30pm. There are few gas stations and bathroom facilities along long stretches of road, so prepare accordingly. Snacks are a good idea.
  • We ran into Chinese tourists from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong at every stop. There were a good number of American and European tourists too. Not so much from other places. (I’m Chinese-American.) There are few people on the roads, so we ran into the same people at various attractions, lookout points, and random stops — funny and nice to see familiar faces at the same time.
  • We also saw several sheep and a couple of elusive reindeer.
me on a glacier above an ice cave

me on a glacier above an ice cave

Iceland is a peaceful, low-crime nation, where most of the population lives in one city, its capital. Every direction you look, there is a view that evokes a childlike wonder and amazement. Around every corner is an adventure. It’s definitely a place we want to return to, and next time, we will find time for a ride on horseback and in a helicopter.

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Alaska

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

My mom and I took a Holland America cruise in August 2001 along Alaska’s southeastern coast. It was the most pleasant time of year to visit America’s coldest state. The views were breathtaking in the daytime. One night, we ventured out onto the dock… big mistake. It was freezing cold, terrifyingly windy (howling), and as dark as dark could be out in the middle of the pitch-black waters. We scurried back inside immediately.

 

 

 

MUST-SEE

view of Juneau from helicopter

view of Juneau from helicopter

1. Ketchikan. The salmon hatchery at Deer Mountain offers a good learning experience, since Alaska is famous for its salmon industry. The best fried fish I’ve ever had was at Halibut Hole along the dock. It was heavenly — smooth, fresh, white fish from cold waters.

 

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

2. Juneau. Go on a salmon bake, if you want to watch a cook make your Alaskan meal in the wilderness and eat it in the same rustic surroundings. Take a helicopter ride over the beautiful, snow-capped mountains, land on a glacier, and go mushing (dog sledding) — we got to experience the speed of retired Iditarod dogs, an exhilarating ride. Seeing Alaska from the air, barely above the mountain peaks, is like watching one of those nature videos that shows sweeping shots from an aircraft, but you’re actually doing it and seeing it firsthand. Breathtaking.

Sitka Pier

Sitka Pier

3. Sitka. Kayak in Wilderness Sea — what a peaceful adventure in crisp, refreshing air. The Sitka pier is picturesque, like a postcard. From there, cruise on through Disenchantment Bay, Glacier Bay, and see Hubbard Glacier. Our ship was so close to the glaciers, I had a Titanic moment; I felt like we could almost touch the glaciers.
4. Valdez. Famous for the big Exxon oil spill but also a nice place for whitewater rafting. The waters are frigid and choppy, which made for a bad combination for me, when the water splashed into my whitewater rafting “warm” suit and ran down my back. Brrr…

Disenchantment Bay

Disenchantment Bay

5. Anchorage. Visit the Alaska Zoo, where you can see animals that roam the Alaskan wilderness, like bears. Of course, you can pay a lot more money for shore excursions that take you on bear-watching expeditions but don’t guarantee you’ll see any bears. From our cruise ship, we did see whales in the waters around us.