Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Iceland! Hallie shares a great vacation

HALLIE EPHRON: A few weeks ago you may have noticed that I was conspicuously absent from Jungle Red. I was in Iceland for 8 fantastic days of bird watching and waterfalls and glaciers and basalt cliffs and volcanic sand beaches and delicious hearty soups and breads, fantastic icey water, and the cleanest air you'll ever breathe. 

It was also soccer madness -- the Icelandic team had just, against all odds, beaten the Brits in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016.

First, you need to know: Iceland has a population of at 320,000. That's half the population of Boston. A million foreign tourists went there in 2014, and that number doubled in 2015 and is expected to double this year again. People like it. They go. They tell their friends. It takes about 4 hours from almost anywhere in the northern part of the northern hemisphere (e.g. New England) to get there. I'd go back in a minute.

The only way to tell about this trip is through pictures... 

No, it does not get dark in July. Here's me sleeping in our hotel room in Reykjavik. It's 2 in the morning. That's sun, trying to come through the blinds. It simply did not set. And any time you got up and walked around, there were people out and about on the streets.

Waterfalls. Spectacular waterfalls around every bend in the road.

Basalt cliffs and volcanic sand beaches. The rock formations are spectacular, but the beach has fierce waves that hold back and lull you into a sense of false security and then roar in and sweep away everything and everyone in their path.

Birds! It took 7 hours to drive from Reykjavik (tunneling under one fiord and going across another by ferry) to the Latrabjarg bird cliffs, Iceland's westernmost point and home to millions of birds: northern gannets, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, and yes, PUFFINS by the thousands. A birdwatcher's paradise.

Thermal activity. Iceland is located on the rift where the North American and Eurasian plates grind against each other. It's riven with volcanos and geysers, the landscape more often lava flow than meadow. All of Iceland's power is comes from natural steam. Icelanders are philosophic. Yes, that nearby volcano could blow any minute.  (The original geyser that is named "Geysir" is in Iceland.) They're getting ready to EXPORT electricity.

(How cheap is it? It's cost effective for Australia to ship bauxite to Iceland (this is one long boat ride) and smelt it there using geothermal and hydro power, and ship the aluminum to customers around the world.)

You could happily live on bread and water. It's that good. And the soup. Crab soup here, but the lobster soup and cauliflower soup and the carrot/coconut soups were delicious, too. Um, great cookies, too. And the bread is fabulous. Everywhere.

Reykjavik's nose. This spectacular church is on the highest point in the city and visible from everywhere. Echoes of waterfalls and basalt columns in its design.

Vistas. Fiords to cross. 

Dollhouse towns. Tiny towns with homes and churches that look like dollhouses. I kept expecting to see little wooden trains chugging around.

Glaciers. They're blue. It's cold, but not cold enough to keep them from shrinking. Still beautiful but for how long? 

Horses with a sense of humor. Icelandic horses are smaller and friendlier and they have rock-star hair.

Soccer! This jumbotron was right outside our hotel window, and those red and white flag wavers are Poles rooting for their team (they lost.) And that's my husband outside our hotel which was going all out for its soccer star players. 

Vikings. They really define the place. Marauders, they picked up beautiful Celtic women on their way to taking over Iceland.

Unpronounceable street names. Yes, it was a challenge reading street signs and then matching them to our maps. And it was not cheap.
Has anyone else been there? Please, share your expeiences.


  1. Wow . . .
    I’ve never been to Iceland, but your beautiful pictures and descriptions certainly make me wish to visit this spectacular place. Thanks for sharing your vacation with us.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful travel guide! I was only in the airport there, way back when traveling Icelandic Air was the cheapest way to get to Europe - and since I was a grad student, that's what I took. Have always wanted to go back.

  3. Hi Hallie. I travelled to Reykjavik last March for work, so the weather was a bit different than your pictures, but still gorgeous. And it was warmer than Ottawa in March (28F instead of -20F!) so I was happy. I was only there for 2.5 days, and had one morning to wander around on my own. I saw the same church, it is striking. And I had a memorable dinner at a striking black glass building on the Reykjavik waterfront: the Harpa Concert Hall. The meals I ate were very good. I ate lamb, and soup because it was still chilly. Our hotel had a nice hearty buffet breakfast...loved the cheeses, smoked salmon and their Skyr yogurt. I walked the old waterfront and the square where the Euro cup players were greeted by the locals. i loved all the old buildings and long history (some dating back to 800 A.D.) And most people spoke very good English. i would love to go back to visit Iceland again on vacation and be able to visit the natural wonders (i.e. fjords< volcanoes) and soak in the famed Blue Lagoon next time. I highly recommended visiting Iceland!!

  4. Grace, second you on ALL counts! There's a restaurant at the Harpa? We got to the Blue Lagoon but didn't realize you needed reservations to go in. (at 3 PM we arrive, "We can take you at 8")

    I don't think it's still the cheapest way to get to Europe, but Iceland Air does let you break up a trip with a stopover. We ran into lots of tourists there for 2 days with that stopover. Walking wounded, they'd taken overnight flights and were like zombies trying to make it through the next day. These days I avoid overnight flights if I possibly can - we flew during the day, arrived late at night, checked into our hotel, and slept.

  5. Hi Hallie. Yes, there are several restaurants in the Harpa upstairs. The Icelandic Meteorological Office hosted our very fancy 5-course dinner. Superb! And yes, both Icelandair and a new charter called WoW! has cheap flights from North America to Iceland. And you can stopover up to 7 days at no charge on Icelandair, and then continue on to Europe.

    The redeye flights are tough but I think that's all they offered from Toronto. I arrived at 6:45 am and had to go straight to work at 8:00 am! Not the best, but I got through it!!

  6. I've not been to Iceland yet although Hallie did promise to take me. (Whatever happened with that?) It is on my bucket list for sure. We plan to fly thru Reykjavik on our next trip to Europe, taking a few days on each end to explore this incredible place.

    Hallie, did you visit any of the public pools? I hear these are an important center of Icelandic life and culture. Clothes optional?

    One of my very favorite writers is Arnaldur Ingridason. His word pictures of Iceland made me fall in love with this country. The mysteries are pretty good too. If you haven't met Inspector Erlendur, you are missing a treat.

    But only read these books after you've got through the stack from the Reds

  7. Ann, I agree with you about Arnaldur Ingridason. I started reading his books after my Reykjavik trip because I was not able to explore more of the country while there. His vivid descriptions of the country in his mysteries are great. And Inspector Erlendur is an interesting protagonist with a tortured past.

  8. Ann - sorry I forgot! And I'm a huge fan of Arnaldur Ingridason - also Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

    We did not go to the public pools though there's a huge complex of them in Reykjavik. At the Blue Lagoon most of the folks bathing (that we saw) were in bathing suits.

    Hank, the bad news is that they eat puffins. We did not. (It was like going to Peru and discovering that they eat guinea pigs.)

  9. Thanks for sharing your photos and your observation. One day I hope to make it there.


  10. Oh Hallie, this looks fabulous. Iceland is most definitely on my list of places to visit.

    If you haven't read Ragnar Jonasson's Dark Iceland series, you really must. It is being translated into English by the team at Orenda Books and Quentin Bates. So far, we have SNOWBLIND, NIGHTBLIND, and BLACKOUT.

    Here is my review of the first: http://bolobooks.com/2015/06/snowblind-the-bolo-books-review-uk-edition/

    They are this amazing mix of traditional (think Agatha Christie here) and Noir. In my review, I dubbed it cozy noir - which of course seems like an oxymoron, but really is a perfect description of what Ragnar has created.

    Also a huge fan of Yrsa and Arnaldur here.

  11. Hallie, so lovely! Love those horses with the rock star hair! Did you bring a sleep mask for the perpetual daylight? Not sure I could handle...

  12. Susan, I can't wear those things... the pressure on my face keeps me up.

    Dark Iceland - writing it down. Thanks for the suggestion, Kristopher.

    Dru: I hope you do, too!

  13. What a great bucket list trip. Glorious pictures too. Thank you for sharing, Hallie!

  14. Well, you know I'm envious of the birdwatching! If we went we'd need every bit of the seven days of the layover, just for Steve to photograph. Sounds like you guys had a fabulous trip!

    Ever since I heard about the clever Icelanders getting 100% of their energy from their geothermal heat I've wanted to visit. Several people I know have been there in the last couple years, and the photos, like yours, Hallie, are so seductively beautiful. I bet it's a good place to see the Aurora Borealis in the winter, too.

    Weirdly, I have a sister-in-law who is half Icelandic; her mother was 100%. And the first time I ever heard of Reykjavik was as a senior in high school, 1968, when a fellow waitress at the local diner told me that's where she was from. This was Hamilton, Ohio, folks, in the middle of nowhere at the time. How she--and my sister-in-law's mother--get there from Iceland is a story, I'm sure.

  15. Did you know that Iceland is the most literate country in the world? I read that in the NYT so it must be true. I think it also has the highest percentage of published authors by population. Hey, with those endless wintry no guts, you got to have something to do

  16. I've never been to Iceland, but the pictures are gorgeous. Love the waterfalls (I'm a waterfall fan).

    Thanks for sharing, Hallie.

  17. Love this post Hallie! And Jerry's outfit. And mad for Arnaldur Indridasons books as we discussed. I would have imagined tours based on his detective. Going to try the other writers now!

  18. Ann, it also has the highest number of public pools by population. And everyone learns English in public school.

  19. Thanks for sharing the details of your trip, Hallie. I'm a bird watcher, and it was great to see all the bird photos!

    And thanks to you and others for book recommendations! It's doubtful that I'll ever be able to travel outside of the US, so I appreciate books that will "take" me to other countries.

    Deb Romano

  20. We visited Iceland about 10 or 12 years ago when my son was stationed there with the Navy. Your pictures and narrative capture everything perfectly. I thought it was gorgeous and would visit again in a minute. I was fascinated by the fact that going down the highway you had volcanic rock and water on one side, very desolate. And on the other was the greenest hill you've ever seen with a little fairy house tucked inside. The geysers amazed me, just like they do here at Lassen Park or Yellowstone. Did you go to the Blue Lagoon, the mineral spring?

  21. Ann, yes I heard about Iceland's high literary rate, too. Here's another fun related fact:

    Icelanders also have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading. This custom is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is the reason for the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” when the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.

  22. Wonderful tour guide to Iceland! Now I want to visit Iceland!

    Did you see the Ice Hotel? Or was that in Finland or Greenland?


  23. Hallie, how gorgeous!! I've had several friends who have gone this year. I think it should be on our bucket list, too. Birds, amazing scenery, and I love the rock star ponies!

    Not sure how well I'd do with the "white nights." I never learned to sleep well in the summer in Scotland. Are the days completely dark at midwinter?

    Haven't read Arnaldur Indridason so now am going to look him up. Thanks for sharing!

  24. Grace, what a wonderful custom!

    Hallie, I'm super jealous of your trip. I've wanted to go to Iceland ever since I was a girl. My uncle, a naval officer, was stationed there and sent us beautiful photographs and the most amazingly warm sweaters ever.did a bookstore event with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir a few years back, and we had a lot of time to chat about Iceland on the drive to the store. One of the fascinating things I remember is that the country has the largest percentage of Norse neopagan believers in the world. Only .08 percent of the population practices Ásatrú, but according to Yrsa, the cultural touchstones of paganism went very deep in Iceland's culture. Iceland was the last European county to become Christian, and they weren't converted so much as they struck a deal with the king of Norway.

    Iceland's definitely on my short list of places to move to in case of a Trump presidency...


  25. Debs, they'll be mighty offended if you refer to their horses as ponies. They are NOT. They're horses, bred for their stature and sweetness (and rock star hair).

    Christmas books! I love that.

    The sweaters are gorgeous, made from local wool of course.

    On moving there, they have very strict immigration policies. They have to or we'd all move there.

  26. Iceland seems to be on everyone's go-to list these days. I'll add my name to the list! I love your photos, Hallie. Reminding me of an opposite: On my last trip to Ireland, I saw a horse, but the owner called it a Connemara pony. That was one tall pony!

  27. Oh, Hallie, thank you for sharing your wonderful trip through these amazing photos! I didn't have a clue that Iceland had lots of waterfalls. I think I'd need a sleeping mask for sure there. The countryside with its small towns, the bird watching, the glaciers, the laughing horse. Just great photos! You've created an enticing travel brochure. I hear more and more about Iceland as a vacation destination, and now my interest is tapped.

    And, the Icelandic authors seem to be most popular. I have a friend who can't get enough of them, Arnaldur Ingridason in particular. My friend Judy Bobalik sent me two of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's books that I hope to get to soon. And, Kristopher, your recommendation of Ragnar Jonasson's Dark Iceland series is one I remember and have put on my TBR list. I'm still trying to get to all the Scottish writers that I want to read. It's a constant game of catch-up, but I love it.