"Buy the ticket, take the ride."
This little line by Hunter S. Thompson has been thrown back and forth an awful lot in the last six months between my friend Cassie and I. Run away to Spain for two weeks? Buy the ticket. Invited to something totally out of your element and weird? Take the ride. Need to shake off cobwebs and heartbreak and have a fresh start to 2016? Buy the ticket, take the ride. Especially when the ticket is $99 from Baltimore to Reykjavík on New Years Day. WOW air flies nonstop between the two cities, but for Spirit-like prices, I was anticipating a mighty uncomfortable red eye....
Nope. Not the case, not even a little bit. We all received upgrades to our seats, and had fantastic customer service both on the ground and in the air. The planes were clean and relatively comfy, and it's a speedy six hour trip up and across the Atlantic. We left Baltimore around 6 p.m., and ended up touching down on this sparsely lit and rather snowy land at 5 a.m. with only a few moments of snoozing in between.
First impressions? It's cold. It's dark. It's really cold. It's really dark. And it kind of feels like we're on a space-station in this bright and warm and isolated little airport. Seriously, what the hell did we get ourselves in to? I could already feel my bones turning soft from a lack of vitamin D.
Fortunately some twinkly lights in KEF and the presence of the very tasty fresh pressed sandwiches, juices, and java from the Joe & the Juice joint revived spirits, as well as the acquisition of, well, spirits. Liquor + beer can be quite expensive, so hitting up the Duty Free as well as an ATM for Króna was a must.
Then we were off, headed back in to the inky darkness to catch a bus to catch a cab to be picked up so we could pick up our rental car. Think that sounds convoluted on paper? It was worse in our sleep deprived heads. We also seemed to be lacking in hearing abilities.
Bus driver: "We'll be going through the lava fields shortly."
"Ohhh, llama fields!!!!"
Unfortunately, even if the fields were packed with furry camelids, we wouldn't have known - reiteration on the very dark, very cold bit. But we made our way in to Reykjavík, now two espressos deep, and hauled all of our luggage up four flights of steps to our super charming Airbnb joint. Turns out we were right smack in the middle of town, on Laugavegur, which is one of the main drags.
There are little shops and boutiques in both directions off of Laugavegur - clothing and Icelandic wool and cafes and sweet shops, all with twinkling lights in and outside their windows.. The above photo was taken at about 9 a.m. on a Saturday - can you say super sleepy? Nothing was open, but that was fine, we had bigger fish to fry - like picking up our rental car and signing over all the paperwork and getting the insurance coverage pitch and yadda yadda yadda.
Fortunately everyone else in the group was wearing their adult pants and getting the car situation squared away. I, meanwhile, was giggling up a storm while stomping around in the fresh snow and taking photographs of the slowly lightening sky. Maybe it's just my latent viking blood kicking in, but hey!, it's not so cold and not so dark any more.
In fact, I quickly found out that my favorite time of day to photograph, which is just before the sun fully rises or after it fully sets, hangs about for an extended period of time here. I'm starting to think Iceland and I will get along just fine.
When you hear about winter in Iceland, you're told that there is only a few hours of daylight every day. Perhaps I was just jumping to conclusions, but I was never expecting the 'day time' to be a perpetually dreamy twilight of muted colors and soft light.
I also wasn't expecting the landscape to look so otherworldly (and also awfully similar to cookies-and-cream ice cream), but the initial feeling like I was in a space station at KEF only intensified as we zipped along the coast in our warm little car through the llama--er, lava fields on our way to visit one of Iceland's most popular destinations, the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is a man-made structure that utilizes the heat from a nearby geothermal plant to warm the silica and sulfur rich waters. The minerals give it the milky sky-blue color, make your skin super soft, and will utterly destroy a so-called waterproof phone. Let's take a moment of silence for the two cellular devices our party lost. But not a long one, mind you, because it's hard to feel too terrible when you're swimming around in ~100F waters with a cold beer in your hand, a mountainous lava landscape surrounding you, and snow swirling about you. Yeah. You know, not so cold, not so dark. Iceland, so far, definitely doesn't suck.
Pre phone death - RIP, cell. With it's dying breath, mine managed to push these two snapped images to my Google Drive account. Valiance and bravery!
Perhaps I just have limited experience seeing as the Blue Lagoon was my first spa trip, but that was pretty incredible. It was made all the better for a complimentary glass of champagne in LAVA, the lagoon's restaurant. Despite every part of our visit so far, I was still skeptical about dining there, expecting to be disappointed by a lunch with a roughly $45 price tag on it. We all agreed to just snack on a ~$18 appetizer and head back to Reykjavík with our extremely sleepy selves. (See: a rare moment of Christine awake at the lunch table.)
That feeling of being set up for disappointment? Totally a waste of energy. Hungry and tired as we all were, the food was really phenomenal and totally hit the spot.
Above: Arctic char Fennel (which looks totally like Salmon!), pearl onion, cucumber.
Below, left: Langoustine soup with whole garlic-marinated langoustine, white chocolate foam (!), seaweed. This was mine, and it tasted, as odd as it sounds, like a savory seafood hot chocolate. Amazing balance of sweet, savory, and salty, and warmed up perfectly.
Below, right: Beer cooked blue mussels from Reykjanes, herb aioli, crispy potatoes. Pro-tip that we all quickly learned: always order the mussels in Iceland. Always.
I had to eat my words about LAVA, and I will totally eat them (and anything on their menu) again.
So! Back to Reykjavík; back through the subtle skies and rocky terrain, blasting Icelandic radio to keep ourselves awake. We're definitely past the 24-hours/no sleep mark. And just what is the soundtrack to this incredible landscape, do you ask? Pop hits peppered in with a little bit of Icelandic rap (yes, really). Not really my boat, but alas, wouldn't you know, all of the Taylor Swift and Adele and Sam Swift went right in one ear and out the other, but we all seemed to catch a little bit of the Bieber fever with this song playing every 20 or so minutes. It took until about Day 3 of our trip for it to hit critical mass with cranking it any time it came on, but the seed was planted. The lyrics are obviously awful, but I am so totally in love with the happy trilling airhorn noise that peppers the song. I may or may not be jamming out to it right now. Judge away. WHATEVER, ANYWAYS.
Goofy jams aside, my jaw was on the floor of the car for the entirety of this ride. Actually, I spent every car ride twisting about, repeatedly saying "whoooooooooa", and annoying the absolute piss out of everyone else in the car with my penchant hanging out of an open window every few minutes to grab landscape shots (sorry again for those cold air blasts, but it was totally worth it!).
Obligatory WE MUST GET A PICTURE WITH THIS SIGN tourist move. But really, Town of Vikings? Obviously had our names written all over it.
Meanwhile, back out our cozy little headquarters, we get a true look at how awesome our digs really are with the last of that days sunlight. Our internal clocks are utterly shot at this point - the body says 10 p.m. with 30+ hours of no sleep, the mind says 6 p.m. with the darkening skies, but the actual clock is only around 4.30 p.m. And so we...grocery shop?
I'll be totally honest, grocery shopping in a new country is one of my favorite things to do. Especially when the mascot is a doofy looking pig that looks like he's had a bit too much to drink. There are no chilled shelving units inside of a Bónus, all of the meats and dairy products are inside of giant walk-in rooms. So much for a reprieve from the cold, but we did score salmon and skyr (super thick yogurt) camembert cream cheese (!!!) and all other sorts of things we needed for making our breakfasts and to-go lunches.
After scoping the aurora forecast (a tool that we used constantly during this trip to keep tabs on the activity of the Northern Lights), we found out we had a decent chance of seeing them later that night. Just like good little kids, a snack in our bellies and we were all, with the exception of my 4-coffees deep self, in nap mode.
And so, back in the car! We headed ourselves towards Eyrarbakki, a little fishing village about 60km southeast of Reykjavík. Back in to our little warm space capsule to buzz around the bizarre night landscape of rural Iceland.
Despite our best intentions to out-run the cloud-cover and find those dancing, sparkly electrons, we failed. But we did snag some cool night shots, drank a road-side beer, and got to explore a little bit of the coastline road. Fun fact - the above three photos are the same background with different white balances. Shooting in snowscapes really let my brain do some fun things with post-processing, and finding an appropriate white-balance is a serious struggle.
Back in Reykjavík, we were hungry. Again. We'd eaten at the airport, the Blue Lagoon, the coffee shop below our apartment, snacks when we'd come back from the grocery store, and now clocking in at after 2a.m. local time (which means we were hitting past 40 hours without real sleep), it was time to feast. Despite having several very intoxicated locals come up to us and ask for food, we gorged on super greasy burgers, wings and fries (mmm, healthy) at pretty much the only late night sit-down spot open.
Reykjavík is pretty notorious for it's Saturday nightlife, and true to that, people were lined up outside many clubs, dressed supremely sharp while we trudged our burger-filled bellies, fleece-lined leggings home.
Side note: Icelandic people are just ridiculously gorgeous. Like pluck supermodels off the street level good lookin'. We noted just how stunning our flight attendants were. We started picking up on it after our sparse time spent in the city earlier that day. We got hit in the face with it in the early morning hours hauling ourselves up Laugavegur. Bonus points for us all being in snowboots and the local ladies wearing open toed platform sandals on the icy, snowy sidewalks. No. Seriously. Not only are they tall and beautiful, they can walk like ice gazelles.
DEAD. Exactly how I feel, and a perfect final photo to take before crashing, hard. zzzzZZZZZ.
I am pretty much always up at the crack of dawn when I travel - I suppose it's an excitement for what lays ahead. Fortunately, dawn doesn't crack until about 10 a.m. in Iceland, so I at least got a decent sleep in after our first crazy-packed day. The sun was just starting to light the sky up, and I spent a good bit of time scoping out the view from our apartment. I love the view of Hallgrímskirkja - or as we so fondly referred to it, Rocket Church.
Breakfast! I almost always tote a jar of peanut butter and at least a few packets of oatmeal with me when I travel as a way to save a few bucks, but I really love having a full kitchen to make breakfasts. A fast food meal costs about $12 here in Iceland, but our trip to the grocery store and our supplemented goodies brought from home made our breakfasts less than half that. And they were really, really good breakfasts! Eggs, skyr, super delicious smoked salmon, freshly percolated espresso, and the adventure mode required Breakfast Beer. We also packed up some peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches like the savvy little tourists we are.
It's probably not terribly hard to believe, but iced coffee isn't really a thing in Iceland. There are smoothies and other chilled drinks, but a black coffee on ice is hard to find. And so we improvise! The apartment has a sweet little porch with fresh snowfall on it, so I got to enjoy espresso slushies with my breakfast. YUM.
Anyways, off to the Golden Circle - a ~300km loop Northwest of Reykjavík that rides through Þingvellir* national park with it's glacial lake and meeting of tectonic plates, Haukadalur with it's geyser, Geysir (which is the original geyser that all others are named after), and one of Iceland's many huge waterfalls, Gulfoss.
*Þ = th, Thingvellir.
Icelandic horses are totally a thing. A fluffy, adorable, not-full-sized thing. And being that they're a thing, I got excited, rolled down the window, and yelled a "hello!!!" as we drove past. Cons: startled horses. Pros: they look majestic as all get out running away.
Back to the ethereal landscapes spotted from the car. Space and scale seem to be so twisted once you leave the city, nothing seems linear or realistic. Snow-dusted rocks and farm fences look like little pencil sketches against the vast open skies, and the soft color saturation renders everything in such a dreamy light.
Obligatory We Were Here, Yes It Was That Beautiful pitstop at the outside of Þingvellir. Þingvallavatn is the big beautiful lake along the southeast portion of the park. It looks...chilly.
Lots of winding, icy roads on our way to Gulfoss, passing Geysir and it's big swathes of steam, and finally we're there. Not so dark, but DEFINITELY cold. I think this was the chilliest part of the trip for me, which is saying something. The wind was absolutely brutal coming off the falls, but it was worth the numb face/fingers for the shots I scooped.
We hung about the Gulfoss visitor's center for a bit to thaw out and then snack on our sandwiches, and by the time we made it back to Geysir it was quite dark.
Geysir only erupts about three times a day, so we ended up finding the smaller but much more active Strokkur. During the day, apparently it's relatively easy to see the precursory bubbling that indicates that a geyser is going to let loose - not so much at night. We had a very sitcom moment wherein we were debating where along the marked path it could possibly be when it violently erupted, making us all yowl and then giggle. It's also quite hard to photograph an eruption when we only have headlamps and small LED flashlights, so it was more fun to lightdraw in between the bursts.
Iceland: where even the light pollution is some sort of wild and weird and beautiful. We made it back in to the city again and met up with my friend's Kate and Kyle (do y'all remember their awesome court housey, cherry blossoming, craft beered wedding?!) who were visiting for an extended New Years celebration. We had dinner at the Laundromat Cafe, which had great food (another salmon dish for me, please!), craft beer, and...laundry in the basement!
Cassie and Kristen went home to veg, while Kate, Kyle, Christine and I tromped around until we ended up at the Lebowski Bar, where the Dude abides, but apparently copyright laws do not? Either way, an awesome little spot to hang out in great company and tie one on at the end of a long and chilly day.
Have you ever woken up in a sub-arctic country and said to yourself, "You know what today needs? A nice little dip in 34°F water." No? Good. You're probably sane, then. If you're as nutty as we are, then you should definitely book a tour with the fine folks at dive.is! But first, we drive back up the first portion of the Golden Circle, which looked quite different after the snowmelt from the balmy slightly-above-freezing temperatures the day before.
A quick pitstop at the Þingvellir visitor center led to a gamble that paid off big time. Never having been a fan of pre-packaged food, this little sandwich of hangikjöt (thinly sliced smoked lamb) and bean salad (basically really mayonaisey potato salad with beans in it) is now one of my favorite combinations - I ate three of these guys during my trip! Hangikjöt is SUPER smokey, and this is coming from a girl who loves stinky, peaty scotches. The bonfire flavor gets balanced out by the creamy salad. Whenever you take your trip to Iceland, definitely give these sammies a try!
Mmm, Silfra certainly looks warm and inviting and okay, no I'm a tiny bit freaked out by snorkeling in the middle of this snowy lake. We spend a bit inspecting the water with our fearless leader, Ásgeir, who I think we'd probably all have happily followed in to a pit of lava, never mind a cold lake - talk about the epitome of long-haired handsome viking charm. He and his companions, Sego and Alix, kept everyone in good humor through the very long (and very cold) dressing process and assuaged the panic of several people who realized we were about to stick our faces in near-freezing water between tectonic plates in bulky dry suits. By this point, I was so excited to get in to the water, Alix encouraged me not to to walk down in to the water but to jump right in. I did my most graceful breaching whale flop and almost instantly ignored the needles of cold shooting through my face and hands for the truly beautiful views below the surface.
Silfra is just along the edge of Þingvallavatn, and is basically a big rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The water is melt from the galcier Langjökull that lies about 50km north, and spends anywhere from 30 to 100 years filtering through lava rocks before it ends up here. So to recap, we were snorkeling in the buttcrack of the earth between two continents in near-freezing glacier water so pristine you could drink it, which I definitely did. A little dark, a little cold, a LOT of awesome. By far, one of the coolest experiences of my life!
Using my mermaid intuition and exploring the rocks strewn about near the surface (it's almost impossible to swim under water with the air trapped in the dry suit), I turned over a few rocks and found...a little fish! Ásgeir laughed at me and told me I was seeing things, but Cassie swam up and confirmed that there was life in the shallow spots of the lake. Or maybe hypothermia induces visual hallucinations? Either way, it was really cool. I managed to unglue my eyes from the super blue underwater scene to pop above the water and see just how surreal it was to be in the water with a setting sun surrounded snow-covered volcanic rock.
Once we were out of the water and had happily made snow-angels, we were given cookies and hot chocolate. My flask of whiskey made quick friends with just about everyone around us, and definitely helped to warm us back up.
Back in town with serious appetites, we decided to hit up the Scandinavian Restaurant & Smørrebrød. Although famous for it's Danish open-faced sandwiches (smørrebrød), we all continued warming up from the insides out with their rich soups and I went for yet another salmon dish - I think that was number four?
I also decided that the phenomenally day couldn't just end peacefully, and so I got the hákarl (fermented poisonous shark) and a shot of Brennevín (carraway infused vodka) special. I'd been hearing about this stinky dish long before I'd ever dreamed of making it to Iceland. My travel + food idol Anthony Bourdain describes hákarl as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" and so I obviously had to try it. I was optimistic up until about three seconds in - a chewy and not unpleasant fishy flavor goes in to a total upside-the-head-sucker-punch of ammonia.
I came, I saw, I chewed and swallowed smelly shark. Are my horizons broad now?
The next morning, we rose well before the sun, packed another round of peanut butter and nutella sammies, and joined up with the fine folks at Arctic Adventures to hike up the Sólheimajökull glacier. It was about a two hour drive from Reykjavík, and I was sitting on my hands d.y.i.n.g. the entire ride because I wanted to hop out and photograph the amazing sites of the southern coast. We passed Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that caused so much trouble in 2010 for Europe and that no one can pronounce properly outside of Iceland. Eya-yef-yalt-ya-yokult, with the t's being the softest you can possibly make them, is my closest attempt. -jökull means icecap in Icelandic, and a prefix in front of it denotes a volcano and wait a second, we're hiking on a glacier on top of an active volcano beside another one that erupted recently? Yeah. Just another day in Iceland, no worries.
Iceland has prettier parking lots than most parks I've been to. It made for quite the contrasting scene to us all suiting up in waterproof pants, climbing harnesses, helmets, and hiking boots looking out at the scene below. I know I split a huge "Ohhh, sharp objects!" type grin when I was handed my pair of crampons and an ice pick, and then we were off to greet Mýrdalsjökull.
Do you ever just absolutely forget key details to something? I'd forgotten hammer head sharks existed for a few years, and was so super excited and shocked about their dumb heads when I saw a photo of them. Similarly, I'd forgotten glaciers are made of compacted snow and boast a stunning shade of blue, so when I turned this particular corner, I started dragging my jaw along on the ground with me. What a scene, what a re-introduction!
...come on, you'd have licked the glacier, too.
And so, we climb. Crampons make for great grip in the ice, and it's such an interesting experience to stomp along this glassy blue surface so easily.
The only time we saw the sun unobstructed and above the horizon was, go figure, on top of a glacier. It was an incredible scene with the flecks of blowing ice and snow catching the light. Below are our super sweet guides, Bryndís and Magnus. Not only were they very knowledgable in all things glacier and geological, they were very friendly, Bryndís even gave us pointers on where to hunt for the Aurora later that night.
As if stomping along the face of a glacier isn't awesome and adventurous enough, we also got to try our hands (and feet) at ice climbing. That was really intense - even though we only scaled up about 25 feet, it was physically exhausting. The whole big group of us hikers, though mostly strangers, were cheering each other on during the challenge, and Bryndís and Magnus offered constant tips and exclamations to push everyone to the top to kiss the carabiner.
We got to make a quick pitstop at Skógafoss waterfall - a much smaller but no less wonderful spot than Gulfoss. Fun fact - at one point, this was the coastline, but because of the active volcanoes in the area, the ocean now lies up to 3 miles farther south. It's so crazy to think about how volatile and new so much of Iceland is!
Our last dinner in Iceland also happened to be our best. We worked up a serious appetite with the glacier conquering, and decided to scope out a little spot called Snaps Bistro that Cassie and Christine had seen that morning. French food in Iceland? Sure, let’s give it a whirl. We ended up basically having a chef’s table with a view right in to the busy little kitchen. French onion soup, local mussels that were the BEST this little eastern shore girl had ever tried, a salad of duck, pomegranate, pears and figs, and espresso with our crème brûlée and lemon tarts. It was, hands down, one of the best meals of my life.
And so with full bellies, we headed north of Reykjavík in our little car for the last attempt at finding the Northern Lights. I was a ball of anxiety, constantly craning my neck and looking in every direction for a glimpse of green. At one point, Christine very calmly told us to look out of the left side of the car and holy. Freakin. Crap. There they were! Very faint, but definitely dancing in the sky. We drove a little farther north to stop as soon as possible to grab a shot of them. There it is, on the left - my first photograph of an image I’ve been looking for my entire life. It’s…honestly pretty anti-climactic. Awesome to see in person, but I knew we needed to keep searching for a better spot to shoot at.
We took the very icy road around Hvalfjörður and made a few pit stops. Each time, the photos got a little better, but they still weren’t hitting what I wanted. I just knew there was something greater waiting for us, preferably in a spot that didn't have insanely whipping winds making my tripod wobble.
And then, there it was. Right smack in the middle of the road on our way back to Reykjavík.
This was it. This was what I was looking for. This is what put me on a plane, got me to finally break down and buy cold weather clothing. This is what had me on the couch later that night crying in joy in to my beer. This is what has made me giggly and giddy and been in my dreams every single night since I’ve come home. This was it, what taking the ride is all about.
And this is what a few degrees of color temperature change will do to an image with so many different hues. How crazy is that?!
We all woke up elated for the previous nights experience, so very happy that we'd managed to see the Aurora. Cramming in a little bit of last minute shopping and finally eating an Icelandic hotdog, I said my goodbyes to the charming little city and we left for home.
A quick beer and one last smoked lamb sandwich, and we were off. It was still a little dark, and a little cold, but we'd done it. We'd bought the ticket and taken the hell out of that ride. Thank you to my fantastic adventure buddies, and to everyone who helped make this trip so grand.
Being home and editing these photographs has brought me unending goosebumps and smiles, and such a vast sense of inspiration for me that I've already booked another flight back. I'll continue photographing Iceland for a more complete body of work - there's already a gallery show in the works, and maybe I'll finally do a book! I'm selling prints to help offset the cost of returning, and be beyond grateful if you'd hang a little bit of my adventure in your home. Scope out the online gallery here if you'd like to buy prints, and throw any questions or suggestions my way.
Thanks for reading, y'all, keep an eye out for more adventures! xo, MJ