Iceland Day 1 – Sunday, September 7, 2014
Arrival, Reykjanes Peninsula, Reykjavík



We arrived at the Leif Erikson Air Terminal at Keflavik International Airport, 45 minutes outside Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik, very early on a Sunday morning, 6:45 a.m. The weather was 50 degrees F with a light drizzle.

There was no line to delay us at immigration, yet the baggage from our flight was already spinning around by the time we reached the carousel. Those efficient northern Europeans! Duty free is immediately adjacent to baggage claim, and you're allowed to shop on arrival, so I ran in and got two bottles of wine and some chocolates to supplement the two bottles of bourbon we'd purchased duty free in D.C. Thus we'd met the duty free limit, but after finding customs unattended, we wished we'd bought more. Alcohol is horribly expensive in Iceland due to their unbelievably high alcohol tax.

Tom got some cash at an airport ATM, but we barely even needed any on our trip. Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in Iceland, for even the smallest purchases. Even the restroom entry at Thingvellir took plastic. We did have two nights' accommodations that required cash, but that was pretty much it. Other than that, we used cash for a few small purchases out of habit and spent the remainder at the airport on our way out.

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Explorer Leifur Eiríksson

Blue Car Rental is a five-minute walk across the parking lot from the airport. They'll pick you up for a fee, but that seemed silly. I'm glad it wasn't raining, though, as we lugged two weeks' worth of gear to our car. It cost 105,831 Icelandic kronur ($875) for a 13-day rental of a tiny Toyota Yaris automatic with CDW/SCDW (super collision damage waiver, deductible $1,250), TP (theft protection), and GP (gravel protection) insurance, with an extra driver. We usually decline all the car rental insurance we can, but in the case of Iceland, I made an exception, and Blue Car in particular requires it.

The car rental agent tried twice to get me to add their new optional Sand and Ash Protection insurance (SAAP), but for an extra $13 a day, I declined. Twice during the trip, I almost regretted it, because we almost needed it in the high winds and sandy/ashy conditions. The SAAP covers damage to the paint, etcetera, in the event the car gets sandblasted during a windstorm. It lowers your deductible for this type of damage to only $1,250.

Blue Car also reminded us that no insurance covers the damage if we let the wind rip off a car door! There's also no coverage for driving into water or rivers and no coverage for negligence, damage to tires, headlights, the windshield, or the underside of the car. In addition, there are certain roads in Iceland, called “F” roads, mostly in the highlands, where a 2WD is prohibited by law (and therefore also not covered by insurance).

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Our little Yaris

By 8:00 a.m. we'd crammed ourselves and our luggage into our little car and were on our own in Iceland, excited, but strung out from the flight and in need of a nap. However, since we couldn't check into our hotel, located only 40 minutes away, for several hours, it was time to explore Reykjanes, the peninsula on which the airport is located.

At the village of Gardskagi there are two lighthouses situated on a dramatic headland, where we found several groups of tent campers freezing their butts off. Tom and I could commiserate, because we were dressed completely inappropriately for the windy, wet, 50-degree weather, having boarded the plane in D.C., where it was almost 100 degrees. To our thin nylon pants and t-shirts, here we added knit hats, fleece jackets, and long undies.

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The old lighthouse at Gardskagi

The Bridge Between Two Continents is a short footbridge over a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Still cold, at this stop we added waterproof jackets, and Tom added gloves. I couldn't work the camera with gloves on, so I just shoved my hands in my pockets between photos. The thermometer in the car continued to insist it was 10 degrees (50 Fahrenheit), but it was the coldest darn 50 we'd ever experienced. Brrr...

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Jana Between Two Continents

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Rift between North America and Eurasia

The Gunnuhver geothermal area is pretty interesting - lots of mudpots and steaming vents and a nice boardwalk trail on which to wander among them. As the story goes, the Gunnuhver hot spring is named after a female ghost named Guđrún who caused all kinds of mischief around here until she was trapped by a priest and dragged into the boiling water to her death. Sweet story.

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Gunnuhver geothermal area

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Valahnúkur lighthouse from Gunnuhver

A dirt/volcanic side road took us to Valahnukur Point, the furthest southwest point in Iceland, a bleak area of cliffs and sea stacks, made more dramatic by the rain and fog, though our photos suffered. We stopped here for a few minutes to rest our weary eyes before moving on.

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The cliffs of Valahnúkur

Next we stopped at Graenavatn, a beautiful lake inside a volcanic crater. Then we visited geothermal field Seltun, part of the larger Krysuvik geothermal area, a place of hot springs, fumaroles, mudpots, and boardwalks. (Where do they get the wood for all the boardwalks?) We took a short walk but would have loved to have explored more, if not for the rain. Tom was freezing, but I added yet another layer, waterproof pants, which helped some. Still the thermometer insisted it was 10 degrees (50F), but we are learning the actual temperature reading here matters little!

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Grćnavatn crater lake

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Seltún, part of Krýsuvík

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Seltún from above

We headed north toward civilization on the largely unpaved Route 42, past Kleifarvatn Lake. It was a beautiful drive through very craggy terrain and past black-sand beaches, but the weather was non-conducive to photography.

By 1:15 we were close to our accommodation, but it was too early to check in, and we were famished anyway. Providentially, Tom spotted a combination Taco Bell/KFC nearby. Of course, we chose Taco Bell, and I'm glad we ate there when we did, because I don't think it will last long. In the time we enjoyed our tacos, only one Icelander ordered from the Taco Bell menu. I suppose the other patrons just didn't know what to make of it. But the KFC business was gangbusters! We paid $23 for what would cost $10 at home. Worth it!

Tonight we were staying at North Star Apartments in Kopavogur, a city of 31,000 immediately south of Reykjavik. We'd booked the room on Booking.com, and North Star had emailed a key code for the building and a second key code for the room, so we checked ourselves in with no human contact whatsoever. Sweet! The efficiency apartment had a private bath, comfy twin beds pushed together, a TV, and a kitchenette. For $77, located only a 10-minute drive from Reykvavik, it was a great value, and the cheapest room of the trip.

Every place we stayed in Iceland included free wifi. And, of course, wherever you stay, there's all the heat and hot water you want because of the abundant geothermal energy! Some of the hot water does smell like sulfur, but it's not so bad as long as you don't drink it. The cold water comes from a separate source and is the best drinking water you'll find anywhere. Regardless of the plentiful energy, unfortunately, most of the rooms we stayed in were dimly lit, with the same ridiculous poisonous light bulbs that have replaced the wonderful incandescent bulbs in the U.S. Sigh...

We napped for a couple of hours, showered, and felt quite human again. It was still drizzling when we walked to the grocery store across the street. Grocery shopping is always interesting in a foreign land. We were surprised at the wide selection of produce, though some of it looked a little worse for the wear, and it was all expensive. For the most part, prices for everything in the store (that we recognized) started at twice as much as at home and went up from there. They even had a Mexican food section (extremely expensive). I was impressed.

We bought sandwich fixins, spaghetti and sauce, ramen noodles, and stocked up on snacks. Tom likes to get digestive biscuits when traveling to Europe, and I bought a traditional Icelandic food called skyr (pronounced skeer). Skyr is a cultured milk product, usually served sweetened. It's often compared to Greek yogurt, but to me, it was more like a whipped cream cheese. I tried a few different flavors, but the blueberry was the best. We also bought some jam to go with the big ole jar of peanut butter I brought from home.

It was evening by the time we drove into the city of Reykjavik. Iceland has a population of only 320,000, two-thirds of whom live in Reykjavik and its metro area, leaving the rest of the country fairly deserted. We parked at the funky Harpa Concert Hall, walked to the Old Harbor, and then to Reykjavik's main shopping street and Tjornin Lake. There were a couple of other places we would have checked out in Reykjavik had we gotten here earlier, but the nap was of utmost importance, so the Icelandic Phallological Museum will just have to wait!

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Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center

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Tjörnin Lake

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Next time!

By the time we finished our stroll, it was dark, but I still wanted a closer look at Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik's massive church. There's a 75-meter tower you can ascend during the day, but it was too late for that, and too overcast for much of a view today no matter what time we'd arrived. Tom had gone up the tower when he visited Reykjavik in 1995, but I was going to have to miss it. We drove over to the church, the drizzle having turned to rain again, and I managed, with some effort, to get a halfway decent photo of the church.

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Hallgrímskirkja and Leifur Eiríksson

Returning to the apartment about 9:30, I made spaghetti, and we had a bottle of wine. Then we checked out the TV offerings. It was 90 percent BBC, 10 percent American movies, and 0 percent in Icelandic. No wonder the girl at the Taco Bell spoke English as well as any fast-food worker at home.

Tomorrow we begin our Iceland road trip in earnest, circumnavigating the island on Highway 1 (The Ring Road) in an anticlockwise direction. Woo-hoo!


Continue to September 8, 2014

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