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Scratching Iceland

S t u n n e d . And I barely touched the surface.

I was traveling for work last week in this wonderland. Not the most typical business destination, I was stoked to have an opportunity to visit a country that has been on my to-do list for quite some time. The Rough Guide standing idle on the bookshelf (bought several years ago in anticipation of a trip that never happened) finally came handy.

Occupied with work, I spent majority of the time in or near Reykjavík, world’s northernmost capital, which struck me as a nice small and cozy hang around town with vivid nightlife, excellent cuisine and plenty of friendly locals. With very good restaurants (and a selection of fish, langoustine and lamb with good amount of locally produced, organic ingredients) and gigs, museums and exhibitions around the town, evenings flew by.

Surrounded by the sea, mountains and varied terrain with rivers and lakes, long list of activities is just around the corner, easily accessible for anyone either through one of the tour operators or simply self guided, with boats, busses, rental cars and bicycles. With limited time to spare, I participated one organized tour (Golden Circle), took a boat out to watch whales and dolphins, and spent a day driving along the south coast in a rental car, to get out of the the town few times. The North Atlantic Ocean was showing off throughout the week, and with summer being somewhat delayed I got a healthy dose of varied icelandic weather - mostly rain (or overcast) and wind, with temperatures around 5 - 10 degrees celsius. But also few brief moments in the sun and milder temps.

Iceland is a photographic heaven, so it’s good to stock up with memory cards and extra batteries. I shoot with Canon 6D now and was glad to have such a well-sealed body - paired with a sealed EF 17-40mm f/4L (and UV filter) it was less of a worry to use in marginal conditions. My other 2 lenses (EF 135mm f/2L and EF 50mm f/1.4 USM) are not sealed, but was using especially the 135 mm quite a lot also in light rain (with UV filter and the hood on most of the time) with no issues at all.

Few personal recommendations for a Reykjavík-based visit:

  • The Reykjavík Grapevine - grab one of these free magazines from a stand (or browse as PDF online) for your weekly whereabouts.

  • Iceland Excursions - inexpensive airport transfer (around 24 eur for a return ticket), all the way to your hotel. They also offer a wide array of tours from Reykjavík (I did the crowded Golden Circle with them), discounted booking online.

  • Café Rosenberg - live music through the week, venues are listed on the blackboard at the back of the stage (and promoted in Facebook).

  • 12 Tónar - your friendly 2-floor record store. Put on the headphones and sample local music, seated in a sofa sipping fresh coffee on the house. Leave the store with at least 2 albums, to get your 24% back at the airport.

  • Elding - Adventure at Sea - environmentally certified, family-owned tour operator that operates from Reykjavik’s old harbour.

  • Restaurants - Fish & Chips (on steroids), Saegreifinn (lobster (langoustine) soup and fish skewers), Sjavargrillid, Grillmarkadurinn, Baejarins beztu (line up for best hot dogs in town), Fiskmarkadurinn and Café Loki (for icelandic flatbread and sweet rye bread with toppings from local fish to sheep head jelly and hákarl (maybe with a shot of brennivín, although the taste is not as bad as the stingy smell of ammonia), just to name a few. Krua Thai in the old harbour also deserves to be flagged for inexpensive but extremely tasty thai dishes.

  • Kolaportið flea market - if you happen to be in town during weekend, local goodies and handicraft.

  • Víkin Maritime Museum - an interesting view to the fishermen’s life back in the days, and the coastal culture. Changing exhibitions include a walk through on old coast guard vessel Óðinn, which also played a role in the Cod Wars.

  • Laugardalslaug - perhaps a more local choice (compared to milky waters of Blue Lagoon) for a swim, there are few other similar pools in the town as well (and it costs next to nothing).

  • Hallgrímskirkja - splendid view over the town from the tower (ticket is couple of euros only).

  • Jökulsárlón - the magical lagoon is a spectacular sight. I drove 800 km in a day to include this in my tour, and it was definitely worth it (and there’s plenty of things to see on the way). Passing forward a good advice I got, take a Zodiac (rubber boat) ride in the lagoon, as opposed to one of the larger amphibious vessels (1 hour trip was around 40 eur). Or bring a packraft like I did not, it would get you even closer to the massive icebergs and the 300 meters of cold blue water underneath you. And watch for those seals that occasionally roam from the river to lagoon.

  • Car rentals - plenty of options, prices are reasonable (except for the Super Jeeps). Normal car is fine on the ring road) (and on some smaller sand roads departing from it), but further exploration requires a four wheel drive (and caution, you wouldn’t be the first ending up upside down, on the side of the road or in the river). Windscreen insurance is recommended (inexpensive, but there’s a lot of loose rock all around, ring road included), as well as the Super CDW to ensure relaxed driving all around.

This first visit definitely left me wanting for more, and I am already making initial plans for the next visit, whenever I get a change to stay a bit longer, and focus purely on the great outdoors. Climbing, cycling and packrafting would definitely be on the menu (the meandering glacial rivers on the south coast alone are worth a new trip with a packraft), perhaps in a form of some kind of a road trip around the whole island.

For views and scenes around Reykjavík and southwest/east of Iceland, browse the Flickr set below (switch to full screen mode). If you use Spotify, hit the play button for some background tunes from Rökkurró. And then go book a trip!