Ernie goes to Iceland pt. 1 (Feb 2016)

Stockholm+Iceland 2016-46

Iceland, land of sweeping vistas, alien landscapes, majestic waterfalls, and endless winter – or so it seemed when we landed at Keflavík International Airport. After a 24-hour layover in Stockholm and a relatively uneventful 3-hour flight, we were finally on the remote Nordic island just shy of the Arctic Circle. We’d played around with different itineraries for a while in the months leading up to the trip, but we finally decided to base ourselves in Reykjavík for the duration of our stay, taking day trips out to the surrounding places of interest. There are a number of small hotels and guesthouses scattered around town, catering to a rapidly growing tourist economy, and we settled on a place just a 10-minute walk from the city centre called 27 Soley Apartments and Guesthouse. The room was exceedingly comfortable and homey, and it was the perfect refuge to come back to at the end of a long day of driving and walking about. In order to stay connected while on the road, we bought a Síminn SIM card from the 10-11 convenience store at the airport. There are three plans available, and we went with the Síminn Prepaid Deluxe Start Package with 100 min talk, 100 texts, and 1 GB of data, for 2.990 kr (a little less than 200 HKD).

To get around, we rented a Jeep Cherokee from Icerental 4×4, a car rental service specializing in SUVs. A regular car would have been just fine for our purposes, but we wanted something a little more rugged, and the price was quite reasonable for a little extra peace of mind. A representative from Icerental 4×4 met us at the airport, and, after taking us to our rental, he ran us through some of the safety precautions for driving in Iceland, including holding on to your car door when you exit and enter the vehicle so the wind doesn’t rip it off. Just in case, we also downloaded the 112 Iceland App, a mobile application allowing users to check in and submit their locations on a regular basis, as well as shoot out an emergency text with their location data when necessary. While the 112 Iceland App may be optional (we didn’t end up using it all that much), there are two websites that are absolutely essential when driving in Iceland, especially in the winter. The first is the Icelandic Meteorological Office website, to stay on top of the constantly changing weather and avoid getting caught out in dangerous situations. The second is the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA) website, showing detailed, up-to-date, colour-coded information on the major roads around the island. We had a great time driving around Iceland (and we’d highly recommend self-driving over joining a bus tour), but we were well aware of the potential hazards involved, and we made sure to always be informed on the latest shifts in weather and road conditions.

Lastly, we found the I Heart Reykjavík website extremely helpful while we were planning our trip. There are a lot of great resources throughout the website, including custom Google Maps showing exact routes and points of interest for different areas of Iceland, as well as some off-the-beaten-track destinations personally recommended by the site’s creator.

The drive into town from the airport took about 40 to 45 minutes, and the landscape in between was a foretaste of the beautiful desolation in the days to come. Vast, snow-covered lava fields stretched out to distant mountains on our right, the ridges and summits only hinted at by the drifting clouds and faded sunlight. On our left, the North Atlantic Seas swelled and rushed into jagged inlets, following us as we sped down the lonely road towards the warm comforts of civilization, and the illusion of permanence.

After checking in and settling into our guesthouse, we made our way towards the commercial heart of Reykjavík, walking past restaurants, shops, and neighbourhoods that felt more ski village than capital of a sovereign nation. With a population of around 120,000, Reykjavík accounts for over a third of the total population of Iceland, but you wouldn’t know it judging by the quiet streets. Our first stop was Bæjarins beztu pylsur, a famous hot dog stand by the harbour with a reputation as the best in Europe. Open since 1937, it’s become a bit of a national institution, and Ashley and I ordered one “eina með öllu“, or with all the works. It’s a decent dog, and their special remolaði sauce is interesting, but I’m a simple guy, and it’s hard to beat the juicy, street corner dogs in Toronto. Our actual dinner was at Icelandic Fish and Chips, which was surprisingly good, if not a tad bit expensive. It’s something we’d have to get used to, though, as our dining budget ballooned over the next few days.

We called it a night after dinner, slowly making our way back home through the city. Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík, was emptying out as we crossed over to Skólavörðustígur, a quieter street lined with restaurants and cafés in the shadow of the imposing Hallgrímskirkja. We took a moment to take in the towering Lutheran church, standing watch over the darkening city, before turning into Njarðargata, a neighbourhood street that flows downhill to join with Sóleyjargata, where our guesthouse, and the promise of a warm bed, awaited. It didn’t take us long to wash up and fall asleep that night – we had a long day of driving ahead of us, and every hour of rest counted.

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