We had such an incredible honeymoon in Iceland, and we are so excited to share our experience with everyone! With our friends and family all over the country and around the world, we figured an online "scrapbook" would be the best way to make sure we could share our pictures and memories with as many people as possible. If you want to hear more about our time in Iceland, we'd love to have you over to show more pictures and tell stories over a glass of Icelandic beer!
If you know us well, you know how important books are to us, so it probably come as no surprise that we planned our time in Iceland to coincide with the International Literary Festival in Reykjavík. The festival is only held every other year, which is why we delayed our honeymoon in order to be able to attend. So, almost a full eighteen months after our wedding, we finally embarked on our honeymoon to Iceland!
We flew overnight from New Jersey and landed bright and early at 6am in Iceland. The international airport is located in Keflavik, about 40 minutes away from the capital city, Reykjavík. Our first destination, however, was much further north: Akureyri, Iceland's second largest city. After getting acquainted with our rental car (a marvelous Kia Soul that we both grew quite attached to) we left the airport and began our trip along the east coast along Route 1. Also known as Ring Road, Route 1 forms a complete circle along the coast of Iceland, which allows travelers to drive the entire perimeter of the island!
Iceland has a size of about 40,000 square miles (roughly the size of Kentucky). The country is widely known for its natural beauty, and for good reason. Located on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the high level of geologic activity creates very unique terrain and landscapes. The scenery is surprisingly diverse for such a small island. On our trip to Akureyri, we were treated to vast, open plains of grass, rough mountains jutting upwards towards the sky, and nearly vertical seaside cliffs. We listened to podcasts along the way, and stopped periodically at what became one of our favorite destinations: the gas station chain, Olis, where we were able to get delicious pylsur (Iceland's famous hot dogs, topped with ketchup, mustard, remoulade, raw onions, and roasted onions!).
This trip was our first time staying in Airbnb rentals rather than hotels. We loved the personal aspect, and staying in a home makes you feel more like a local than staying in a hotel (and, at least in Iceland, it's a good deal more affordable). While in Akureyri, we rented a cozy room just outside the city center. The hosts Fred and Carolina made us feel very welcome and shared in our enthusiasm when we returned from our adventures each day, eagerly looking at pictures we took and sharing their local knowledge of the sites we visited. We were also spoiled by Carolina who provided a delicious, multi-course hot breakfast to start our day. Each morning, we would wake up to a feast of freshly baked rolls, homemade jam, Icelandic cheese and salami, yogurt, scrambled eggs, and hot pancakes. Carolina even capped our meals off with individual chocolate cakes!
We kicked off our first full day of adventuring with a visit to one of Iceland's many waterfalls. The waterfalls of Iceland are widely known for their picturesque scenery, drawing thousands of visitors each year to visit the island nation. Goðafoss ("waterfall of the gods") is regarded as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in all of Iceland, and is just over an hour's drive from Akureyri. The area was a bit crowded when we first arrived, but we visited Goðafoss again on our way home and experience the area in the quiet of the early evening (given the recent surge in tourism in Iceland, the best advice is to arrive at your destinations early - very early - to enjoy them with some privacy before other visitors arrive).
As we were preparing for our trip, two good friends of ours gave us some advice about traveling in Iceland: if you see something along the road that looks interesting, just pull over and take a look! This philosophy lead to some of the most memorable moments on our trip. As we were traveling from Goðafoss to our next destination, our curiosity was piqued by a massive gathering of cars and people...and sheep. Looking like a festival of some kind, we pulled over and investigated. Though we didn't figure it out until several days later, we had stumbled upon one of Iceland's greatest, and oldest, celebrations, Rettir. This is a celebration of the end of the summer grazing period for the Icelandic sheep, who roam freely throughout the countryside. Naturally, during this time, sheep wander far from their homes, so once per year, Icelanders from across the country scour the hills for as many sheep as they can find and bring them together in a central location. Here, in massive pens that look similar to wagon wheels, the sheep are sorted and returned to their owners so they can be brought home.
If there's one thing Iceland is known for besides waterfalls, it's geothermal activity. The majority of the country's power needs are fueled by this renewable energy source. As a result, there are many areas across the countryside where visitors can witness the geothermal activity up close. Again, we decided to stop en route to our next destination because of something noteworthy along our path. At the Hverir geothermal area, we found a pool of neon turquoise water and breaks in the rock where hot steam rushes to the surface and spews out of the ground in thick, white plumes. Walking around Hverir in between the bubbling mud pots, the red rock and earth gave the area a Martian atmosphere. Bordering the area is the Námafjall mountain, which we decided on a whim to clim. Though reaching the peak proved to be a more challenging hike than we expected, the views from the top made it worth the effort and set the tone for the rest of our stay in Iceland: to find as many hiking/climbing opportunities as possible.
After several pit stops, we reached our second major destination for the day. The waterfalls of Dettifoss & Selfoss were surrounded by dark lava rocks that masked the waterfalls, hiding them from view of where we parked. Dettifoss ("fall down waterfall") is known as the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with the highest volume of water plummeting over its edge. The sheer size of Dettifoss is difficult to describe, and being close to the falls was a humbling experience. Selfoss, another one of Iceland's most famous waterfalls, was a short walk from Dettifoss and provided further opportunity to hike among the large rocks surrounding the falls.
With all of the geothermal activity comes an abundance of hot springs. The most famous is the Blue Hole, located near Keflavik, but hidden away in the north are the Jardbodin vid Myvatn (Myvatn Nature Baths). Heated by geothermal activity, Myvatn was the perfect way to unwind after a long day of hiking. We were excited to soak in water the same opaque turquoise color as the natural pools we found while driving across the countryside. You can order drinks while you're in the water and they'll delivered to you poolside, which added an extra layer of luxury and relaxation. The hot water was great for our muscles, and the cold drinks made for the perfect relaxing experience.
Ásbyrgi Canyon is one of the most unique and majestic sights in all of Iceland, and easily among the top highlights of our trip. The canyon is divided through the middle by a distinctive rock formation called Eyjan ("the island"), which gives it a horseshoe-shaped appearance said to be where Odin's horse, Sleipnir, first touched the earth. Walking around inside the canyon, surrounded by vertical walls soaring hundreds of feet into the air, it's easy to see why Icelanders believed this area to be of divine origin. The result of extreme glacial flooding, Ásbyrgi's one-of-a-kind shape helped create a surreal atmosphere that makes you want to explore. We found a small trail through the trees along the canyon floor which brought us to the foot of the large outcropping in the middle of Ásbyrgi. One forty-five minute hike later along the plateau, and we found ourselves faced with the most breathtaking view: spread out before us was the canyon floor where we were just walking, and in the distance, the massive cliffs surrounding the canyon.
We left Ásbyrgi feeling revitalized in the way that only an incredible view and experience in nature can do. The hike to the top of the cliffs in Ásbyrgi Canyon was the perfect climax to our time in the north, and with the long drive back to Reykjavík, it was time to get moving. Even though we had only been here for three days, the mountains and plains of northern Iceland felt familiar to us as we made our way back to Route 1 and south to the capital.
Reykjavík, the northernmost capital city in the world, would be our home for the remainder of our stay in Iceland. We rented a cozy apartment from Thorhildur, a Reykjavík native who was full of suggestions and advice for us during our stay. On the top floor of a building from 1903, the apartment offered a great view of the residential area in which it was located along with the top of Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church. We were very lucky to find this apartment; it was a short walk from our front door to anywhere in the city we would want to go. Being in Reykjavík was a very different experience from spending our days hiking the cliffs and waterfalls of northern Iceland, but we were looking forward to the activities we had planned for our time in the city.
Skógafoss ("forest waterfall") is one of the five largest waterfalls in Iceland, located a few hours from Reykjavík. We had our rental car for one more day, so we left early in the morning and took the trip to Skógafoss, knocking out another handful of podcasts on the way. The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Skógafoss was the a large field of tents. The falls are a popular camping ground, and even though we got there early, there was already lots of activity. People were cooking breakfast over small fires and hand washing clothes in preparation for the upcoming day.
Nestled among brilliant green hills, this waterfall is one of the few where visitors approach from the bottom. Staring up at a waterfall of this size is a sight to behold, and one we won't soon forget. Because of how much spray is caused by the falls, the entire scene is almost constantly enveloped in a rainbow when the sun is shining. We were very fortunate to have blue skies and bright sunshine for our visit, and we even got to share the view with a few enterprising sheep who were grazing on the steep hillside near the falls. On the side of Skógafoss, we walked up the 370 steps that take you above the falls; to our right, we watched water pouring over the edge of Skógafoss, and to our left was an unbroken view out to the ocean.
The origin of the word, Geysir (literally, "geyser") is one of Iceland's most popular destinations. Also known as The Great Geysir, Geysir is located in an area of high geothermal activity which causes steam eruptions at regular intervals, much like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Though Geysir itself has become irregular over time, erupting roughly every eight to ten hours, another nearby hot spot Strokkur erupts on average every ten minutes.
Icelandic horses are regarded for their hardiness and stamina, as well as their fabulous hair. Stockier than many other breeds of horses, these powerful animals were only about as tall as we were. Proving once again that our friends provided excellent advice, on our way from Geysir to our next destination we saw a small group of people petting some horses. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to meet some horses, we pulled over and were delighted when we saw we could buy "candy" to feed to the horses as we pet them. The horses were very soft and friendly and seemed to enjoy being pet and scratched, though probably not as much as they enjoyed the treats. After we made sure that each horse got an equal amount of attention and candy, we continued on our way.
Thanks to its size and relative proximity to Reykjavík, Gullfoss ("golden falls") is considered Iceland's most famous waterfall. It's easy to understand the crowd when you see the unique, two-stage drop of Gullfoss and height of the cliffs surrounding the river. After descending along the pathway towards the edge of the waterfall, we found a large rock outcropping that let us get quite close to the rushing water, and seeing the it up close was definitely a rush! After exploring the final waterfall on our trip, it was time to return to Reykjavík and say goodbye to our rental car.
We chose to visit Iceland at this time because of the International Literary Festival, held every other year in Reykjavík. Iceland is one of the most literary countries in the world (10% of Icelanders will become published authors!) and this festival brings together the biggest names in literature from Iceland, Europe, and across the globe. For the second portion of our trip, we spent our time exploring the city and attending the events of the Literary Festival. We had been speaking with the managing director of the Festival, Stella, since we began planning our trip nearly two years ago, and she was very generous with her advice and suggestions. We finally had a chance to meet and thank Stella in person at the Festival's opening reception where we were treated to cheese platters, wine, musical performances, and an opening address by Reykjavík's mayor, who welcomed us to Iceland when we later spoke with him. The events of the festival covered a wide range of topics and brought us into beautiful buildings in Reykjavík we might not have otherwise visited including City Hall, a small theater, and several locations at the University of Iceland. We heard discussions and readings by many authors in many languages, and even managed to walk away with a few signed books.
We relocate one final time before leaving Iceland, spending our last few days in Reykjavík in the western part of the city. We rented a small private attic room around the corner from one of the city's many public pools. We loaded our mini-fridge up with Skyr, the traditional Icelandic yogurt, and the necessary supplies to make open-faced sandwiches from a market a few blocks from us. We even found some Danish candy that was Maj's favorite growing up in Denmark!
Established in roughly the year 870, Reykjavík has its roots in one of the first inhabited areas of Iceland. One-thirds of Iceland's population live in Reykjavík and the surrounding suburbs (about 122,000 out of 330,000 people). With so much history, it's no surprise that there was no shortage of activities and opportunities to explore while we were in Reykjavík! A short walk from our apartment brought us to the beautiful Tjornin ("pond") and surrounding park. We spent many days walking along its waters (which were always full of ducks, geese, and even swans) towards downtown Reykjavík. Many of these trips into downtown were for hot dogs from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand considered to be the best in Reykjavík (though in our opinion, Olis makes them better!).
Because literature plays such a large role in Icelandic culture, there were many bookstores throughout the city (and yes, we had to visit each one of them). Artwork was all around us, from statues in public places to large murals on the sides of buildings. One of our trips around the city brought us to the Volcano House, a small display of geologic exhibits (which you are allowed to touch) which also screens two special documentaries about the volcanoes in Iceland. Volcanic activity is as much a part of daily life for Icelanders as tropical storms are for those of us on the East Coast of the United States, with a major eruption occurring on average every five years. Though these eruptions can have devastating results, like the infamous 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull ("island mountain glacier," pronounced ay-yah-fyat-lah-yoh-kutl) that delayed thousands of flights across Europe, living in the face of such dangers has instilled Icelanders with great resilience and preparedness.
We ate most of our meals (besides hot dogs) at home, taking advantage of our Airbnb's full kitchen, but we did eat at several locations around Reykjavík to experience Icelandic cuisine and one restaurant stood above the rest. Maj's parents treated us to a special meal out to celebrate our honeymoon at Lækjarbrekka, a highly-rated restaurant in the center of Reykjavík that serves authentic Icelandic food and was featured on the Danish television crime drama, The Eagle. Lækjarbrekka serves the traditional Icelandic delicacy hákarl (fermented shark meat), which is widely regarded as one of the worst-tasting foods in the world. It's been a dream of Anthony's to try the food that Anthony Bourdain called "the most foul substance" he's ever put in his mouth. Anthony's evaluation is that it tastes like equal parts challenging cheese and socks… but he would be interested in having it again. The rest of our meal was incredible, easily the best meal we've had in years, possibly of all time. We mentioned it was our honeymoon when we made our reservation, and were delighted when our server brought our dessert, a sampling of their different dessert items complete with Til hamingju ("congratulations") written on the plate in chocolate. Everything was prepared to perfection, and we look forward to returning to Reykjavík so we can eat here again.
Harpa is the largest theater and concert hall in Iceland, designed by Danish architectural firm Henning Larsen. We walked by the building, which has a facade that lights up at night, many times as we explored the city and decided to make a point of seeing at least one performance in its halls before we left. We found two comedy performances (in English) during our stay, and couldn't decide which to choose so we picked both. The first show was titled How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes, and was a comedy presenting itself as lessons for foreign visitors to become Icelandic. The one-man show had several laugh out loud moments, and we left feeling like we had a better understanding of Icelandic culture. Next, we saw Icelandic Sagas: Greatest Hits, a two-person reenactment of the most memorable moments from the classic Icelandic sagas. Full of witty banter and audience participation, the show was worth every penny (though sadly neither of us were picked to participate, lesson learned for not sitting in the front row!).
We had originally planned to spend our last few days relaxing in Reykjavik, but we missed the adventuring of Akureyri and decided to rent another car and venture out again beyond the city limits. We loaded up our backpacks and hopped in our Suzuki and drove to our next adventure. Mount Esja is one of the largest mountains in the Reykjavík area, with its peak visible throughout the city. The mountain has many trails of varying skill level, perfect for a couple of amateurs who were looking for a challenge that didn't require years of training or specialized gear. The hike took us high up to meet the clouds as fog rolled over the mountaintop and into the valley below. Facing away from the mountain, we could see out towards Reykjavík, and there were several photo opportunities on the way up. Our goal was to make it to the Steinn ("the stone"), which is a large rock about 700m (2300 ft) up the side of the mountain and a typical milestone for hikers. Beyond the Steinn, the trails significantly increase in difficulty and require climbing gear like spikes for your boots. Unfortunately, were only able to make it about 500m (1600 ft) up before having to turn around and go back down to make our snorkeling reservation. On the way down, we vowed to spend more time hiking so we'd be experienced enough to reach the summit on our next trip!
After our hike up Mount Esja, we decided to take a refreshing dip in 36-degree (Farenheit!) water. We drove out to Silfra Fissure in Þingvellir National Park, the former site of the world's oldest parliament. There, we met up with a tour group lead by Iceland Adventure Tours to go snorkeling in the icy waters within the fissure. Silfra Fissure is the dividing point between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plate, so we were literally swimming between two continents. We suited up in dry suits, like traditional diving wetsuits except fully sealed to keep your body dry and insulated to protect you from the near-freezing, subarctic waters. Though we've been snorkeling in tropical climates, the sights beneath the waters in Silfra Fissure were almost alien, like nothing we've ever seen. Despite the frigid temperatures, the dry suits performed admirably and kept us dry and warm (we wore sweaters under the suit, what a bizarre feeling!). As an added bonus, the water was fresh, pure glacial water and completely safe to drink and was in fact better quality than most bottled water.
For our last day in Iceland, we started with an early morning "off-road" buggy tour outside of Reykjavík with Safari Tours. The trails were not truly off road (off-roading is illegal to preserve the untouched terrain of Iceland's natural environments), but the rocky pathways were not really "roads," we certainly wouldn't drive a car on them! We followed our guide along several trails outside of the city to the top of a small cliff overlooking the the Reykjavík area. Driving the buggy along the dirt roads, over rocks, and through streams was exhilarating and gave us a completely different perspective of the natural features of Iceland.
After our buggy trip, our guide recommended some sights for us that we would be passing on the way to the airport. We drove down the Southern Peninsula, an expanse of flat, black lava rock and sand with a distinct lunar appearance, to reach Gunnuhver (named after a malicious female spirit said to be trapped there). Here, we witnessed huge plumes of steam rising dozens of feet in the air and thick as smoke, blocking out the sun.
A short hike from Gunnuhver was our final destination in Iceland, the Reykjanes Lighthouse. This is the longest-operating lighthouse in Iceland and is near the site of the first lighthouse ever constructed in the country. The lighthouse was situated on top of a hill, and we walked beyond the structure directly to the cliffs. From the cliffside, you could see uninhibited for miles out into the Atlantic ocean as the waves crashed below. Though the original lighthouse was demolished in the early 1900's, we were able to walk along remnants of the stone structure as we made our way back to our car to begin the drive to the airport and our trip back home.
We loved our time in Iceland and feel very fortunate to witness the unique sights the island offers for ourselves. Even though our days were jam packed with activities and excursions, we know we just barely scratched the surface of all Iceland has to offer. We hope to return soon and see the western coast, and doing more hiking and exploring this unique destination!
Anthony & Maj