Dispatches From Iceland

20160326_145307And now for the explanation for the lack of posts from Wednesday the 23rd to now: The wife and I went to Iceland for an extended Easter weekend that I got her as one of the most inspired presents I could come up with, despite not knowing it was Easter at time of booking. Years ago at Boston University, we each had Prof. Michael Corgan for IR271, and he is a renowned expert on Iceland and would work them into many of his lectures. This was my first ever trip outside of the U.S. and Canada. Let’s get to it!

Wednesday

Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time so it is four hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone now, so this was an overnight flight. I just so happened to be blindsided with the regular six month cleaning from my dentist that I had scheduled for Wednesday morning. Since I was leaving the country, of course there was a problem with an old filling, but the hygenist informed me the dentist was out sick so I would have to come back next week. Have fun on the remote island with your dental problem!

Flight is at 9:30 PM so there was plenty of time for the random charcuterie place in Logan Airport Terminal E, aka The Most Happening Place on a Wednesday. People hanging out outside waiting to get in, getting served wine even if they weren’t in the boundary of the establishment. Quite a sight as I milked some salmon rolls. As for IcelandAir, I do wish they had an inch or two more in seat pitch in coach, but more on them for the return trip which was far more eventful for me.

20160325_135204Thursday

Landing at Keflavik at 6:00 AM is a double-edged sword: You do get more time to have a full day but with the flight only a bit over four hours there isn’t much time for a night’s sleep. Coffee would be needed before catching the FlyBus to Reykjavik, which is about 45 minutes to the East. The landscape on the way is not like anything I’ve ever seen; if anything it is most like the American Southwest desert but this is pockmarked with lunar-like craters. The bus service is excellent, taking passengers to a station just outside the city center and moving us to smaller shuttles to head to hotels. And they were playing American classic rock hits starting with Meat Loaf and working their way to Springsteen.

I knew the deal with the Fosshotel Reykjavik: no early check-ins. But I can wander the streets of Reykjavik like a zombie. The Laugavegur is the main street through downtown and it was nearly deserted at the early hour so we could check everything out. Acting on a tip, we went to C is for Cookie for a breakfast and I learned that bread in Europe is better than in the States. It seems that they actually give a shit about having it be full of flavor. The sunny side up egg was a bit strange to see, since it was bright orange instead of the yellow I am used to but it was fine.

The hotel was nice enough, but the room still wasn’t ready at the 2 PM check in time. This seemed odd since it is the largest hotel in Iceland. As it started to sleet outside (it was mostly like snow though instead of rain), we hunkered down at the bar and prayed for the room to be ready. A beer was recommended: Magðalena Nr.41 from Borg Brewery. It is brewed for Easter season and is an Imperial Wit. Well, we didn’t know it was over 8% because it was not too boozy. Perhaps it was the cause of the three hour nap, but that was okay.

Going to Iceland and not having a great seafood dinner would be like going to Northern Arizona and skipping the Grand Canyon. The place for dinner literally translates to Seafood Grill: Sjávargrillið. After some careful examination we both ordered a multi-course fixed price option. A taste of baby scallop was followed by some shellfish soup. Baked haddock with cauliflower and greens is superior to what I’ve had in New England. And any meal is great with a slice of chocolate cake for dessert. As a bonus, the people next to us in the restaurant were quite the characters. Things we overheard from these two (who were from Baltimore of all places) included “What do you mean by Asian [person]?” and “I want to work as a barback, in a bar that primarily has a lesbian clientele.” Goes well with glass after glass of that high quality Icelandic water.

20160325_103008Friday

It is worthwhile to take a walk along the water to downtown, but holy crap it is windy. Iceland itself isn’t as cold as the name suggests because of jet stream patterns. But the wind whips in off that water so you must be prepared.

A highlight is a little sign along the water that simply says something to the effect of “This is a crevice between some rocks along the water in Reykjavik”. Very dry humor there. One regret about the walk was it took me until the last day to see this sign in the area:

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Okay. That sign is really something else, because it had to be sent out to be professionally made. I wonder how that conversation went about everything: the Hall and Oates, placement of the ampersand, everything.

Reykjavik has several museums but I suggest the National Museum of Iceland as the first stop. It gives a great overview of the country’s history before you go and do anything else. The Penis Museum might get more, ahem, headlines but if you truly want to learn about the country the National Museum is where it’s at.

Of course there is a freaking Dunkin Donuts downtown. Oddly there is no McDonald’s but there is a Subway. Not much in the way of “fast food” there which is fine with me. After all there would be a tour in the evening that would involve an all you can eat buffet of Icelandic food. But first I had to stop in a Christmas themed store to buy ornaments, something so wholly out of character for me that I am shocked that I bought several things.

The name of the tour we took that evening is “Warm Baths and Cool Lights”, included in the IcelandAir package. There is a trip to the Laugarvatn Fontana baths which is a less touristy alternative to the more famous Blue Lagoon. It is about an hour to the east of Reykjavik, so we had a stop along the way: at the end of the North American tectonic plate. It’s a bit spooky to learn that there are literally constant earthquakes in Iceland but they are all relatively minor. The North American plate is separate from the European plate, and in between is the Icelandic plate which is like a valley. Even without a tour guide you can tell where one of those things ends because it juts out of the ground in comical fashion.

At Fontana, the food was perfectly fine but I was obsessed with the Icelandic brownies. So very chocolate-ty. From there it is time for the baths and that 100 foot walk from the locker area outside in 36 degree weather (2 Celsius) which involves strategy. Get in the first pool and tie up your towel. It warms the body, then get to the next pool with the rocks which is slightly warmer. Once in that pool, find a spot with fewer rocks, wedge yourself in and sink into the water. It is not as warm as a hot tub, but it is really the perfect temperature. I was amused by the people who insisted on discussing the Canadian health care system while taking a soak because it is literally the last place I would want to have a serious discussion. All I cared about was keeping my spot. That, and making sure my towel did not blow away. On my way back in to the locker room, I jumped in the other pool again and had to re-tie my towel. The sauna was a bit sulfuric and I could only last 40 seconds there but that kept me warm for the short walk back.

As for cool lights: We stopped at Thingvellir National Park in hopes to see the Northern Lights, but it was not to be. However in driving back, there was a small sighting so the bus stopped, did an odd turn and literally drove off the road so we could get a peek. Let me phrase what we saw in baseball terms: it would be like going to see a player like David Ortiz play, but he only pinch hits in the 8th inning and is intentionally walked and then pinch run for as well. That’s the extent of what we saw, but still that’s fine. Mother Nature can be a fickle bitch.

Gullfoss
Gullfoss, place of great wind

Saturday

The Golden Circle Tour is a common one to take in Iceland. Just like the day before, my wife and I got the seat up front behind the driver. This time we had some kids behind us, probably about 8-10 years old who seemed to take joy in kicking the seats. Luckily I married someone who gives no shits so she told the kids to knock it the hell off. But we had help from a tour guide, who just happens to be the greatest Canadian ex-patriate of the Baha’i faith. Yes, the religion stresses the unity of humankind but it must start with kids shutting the hell up when he is trying to tell us about Iceland’s early parliamentary history. What an icon that guy was. He earned a good tip based on that alone.

The Drowning Pool. Not pictured, the band Drowning Pool
The Drowning Pool. Not pictured, the band Drowning Pool

This trip also went to Thingvellir, where we walked down through the crevice to see where the first Icelandic paliament was held over 1,000 years ago. Seemed like an odd place to hold it, but clearly people who moved to Iceland were free spirits. After all, apparently there are no indigenous people so people chose to move there.

Gullfoss was the next stop and it has two incredible things: the great waterfall which you can see behind me in the picture above, and the constant wind of about 40 MPH. Crazily enough they made a pretty good chicken panini there that included salsa which doesn’t strike me as a staple of Iceland. I kind of regret not having nachos while in country.

Next up was Geysir which is a bit similar to the Old Faithful area of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming but a bit more intimate because you can get much closer to the geysers. (Aside: That was a bit of a trend, they are a lot more laid back about things there. Outside of the airport, I think we saw about 3-4 policemen the entire time. And not a single panhandler.) Geysers are very fun to wait on and even more amusing when you consider that they really are nature’s flatulence. Apologies if that’s some comedian’s bit but it’s very true.

Not California Chrome
Not California Chrome

After a quick stop at a church for some reason (probably Lutheran since they overran the Catholics after the Reformation, which our tour guide didn’t want to address lest the stories of violence bother the young’uns), it was off to the Icelandic horse farm. In case you haven’t seen a Travel Channel show on this, Icelandic horses are very unique in that they are small horses that can move with five distinct gaits. So two horses put on a show, though I was amused by the dog chasing them the entire time. Afterward everyone got to meet the horses which led to the bizarre photo-op where I look to be discussing strategy with the animal.

This tour ended and we were back at the hotel to discover the wonder of their Beer Garden in the basement, with 22 different drafts. What a shame that I will never see Borg brewery in the United States, but I saw plenty of U.S. breweries in bottles in their fridge. Stuff like Sam Adams and Founders. No way could I order a Sam Adams since that would be the same as the Simpsons going to Americatown to eat while in Japan.

Sometimes you just want a good burger; and there is a place hidden in a back room of a place called B5. Solid deal for a cheeseburger, fries, and soda there leaving money for the bars. But stay the hell away from Boston. There is a bar named for the city but seemingly has nothing to do with it. Smelled like B.O. in there and the only thing that entertained was the bartender refusing to serve a women who was already intoxicated at 8:15 PM and had been kicked out of the same place days before. So it was on to Dillon’s nearby, which is above the Chuck Norris Bar and Grill. While I would have loved to have some Icelandic whisky or even a good old Knob Creek, I was in a beer mood so settled for a Viking Lager, a decent pale lager.

But that Beer Garden was calling out from the hotel, because they served great sausages as well. I was feeling full but my wife had one that was loaded with toppings and looked quite good. My jealousy was directed to the people from Colorado who came into the bar earlier and were declared World Champions of Drinking by acclimation because they ordered The Wheel aka samples of all 22 drafts….more than once. No way could I compete. Instead it was an effort to close the bar, open until midnight. We managed to sit next to two women, one of whom was from Massachusetts but they seemed rather, uh, pathetic. A guy started to hit on one and headed for the hills in short order. But the goal was reached: we closed a bar in Reykjavik and didn’t even have to stay up to the wee hours.

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Church, not Phallic symbol

Sunday

Easter is a bit of a big deal in Iceland, where they are known for the big chocolate Easter eggs you can buy in just about any store. Our flight wasn’t until 5 PM and the shuttle wouldn’t pick up until at least 1:30 PM so there was time to kill and no better way than to wander downtown around the churches on a Holy Day. We decided to walk back to the hotel via the water and the wind whipped up good so we retreated to the final bar of our trip: The Lebowski Bar. Yes, there is a bar in honor of The Big Lebowski, a movie that I saw in the theater and never saw again…until happened to be on Starz after getting home from the airport Sunday night. No alcohol, but they make a good banana milkshake.

And now, the ballad of my miserable airport experience. I take great pride in being an efficient traveler at security, shoes off, everything in place, etc. I wasn’t sure about shoes, belts. I was a mess. Liquids were not taken out of my bag, and I forgot where they were. I had to go through the metal detector twice and they did the swab of my hands. But okay, I made it. It was ugly as sin but I made it.

But wait, there’s more! You go through passport control and naturally I got selected for more secondary screening. Never mind that my nemesis, the guy in the Washington Nationals hat got to breeze on through. Instead my wife had to wait outside while I was stuck in this room where they swabbed me again, and did the full super deluxe patdown. Meanwhile the boarding time arrived and I was anxious. Finally I get out and the gate area is so chaotic it makes one long for Southwest’s boarding procedure.

My woes were not over. For years I complained that people were able to sneak carry on bags that were too big. I skirted it on the way to Iceland, and got my comeuppance now. The woman asked me to fit it in the little box and when I couldn’t I was shamed into a gate check.

On the plane finally, I feel the need to comment on the fellow across the aisle from me, possibly the most annoying human being ever. Sir, please stop shaking your leg like a horny teenager. Oh and feel free to keep it out of the aisle and not trip the flight crew and everyone who tries to walk by. Yeah, we all want leg room. But maybe you shouldn’t put a bookstore in the seat pocket in front of you. And by all means stand up and make out with the clearly low self-esteem girlfriend of yours, while you have your ass in my face. Your seat is not a freaking cabana. I hope one of the carts runs over your foot, jerk.

The trash cart ran over his foot a couple hours into the flight.

In the meantime, I listened to the wide array of free music (Straight Outta Compton AND Houses of the Holy!) and watched a movie doubleheader: Star Wars The Force Awakens and The Goonies.

Would I recommend an Iceland trip? Absolutely! This is a place you have to see at least once in your life. No, it’s not a tropical paradise but there is nothing like it anywhere else. You’ll get great seafood, excellent beer and no shortage of bars willing to serve you. I can guarantee you’ll have a good time and I’ll wage every bit of the 1300 Icelandic Krona I have left over on that.

One thought on “Dispatches From Iceland”

  1. Hey, you forgot the part where I took revenge on your seat nemesis by placing my ass in his face and hip checking him. I don’t just pick on rude children; rude adults are subject to it too. You’re welcome, btw.

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