Because I love to travel, I get daily emails from a variety of travel websites attempting to lure me hither and yon. They have glitzy pictures and alluring adjectives. And food pictures. Always food pictures.
Last year I noticed a sweet little gem in my inbox about a special from Icelandair. I did a little bit of research and learned that Iceland is a quick 7 hours away by plane from Seattle and it is the perfect place to view the Aurora Borealis in the winter time. And, they have hot springs. Lots and lots of hot springs. So, while Iceland is really heaven for the outdoors person (you know, the kind who hike, kayak, do physically difficult things with their bodies in the wilds), it certainly could be my kind of place, too. Aurora Borealis + hot springs=winning.
When the special from Icelandair hit my inbox this year I was prepared. I really could go to Iceland for $700! That $700 includes roundtrip airfare from SeaTac, 3 nights hotel, breakfast buffet at the hotel every morning, and one excursion that included dinner, a few hours in a natural hot spring under the stars, and “a search for the Northern Lights.” (We added three tours when we arrived at a cost of about $100/each).
I casually mentioned the possibility of a girls getaway to Iceland with my friend Lacy and was delightedly surprised she was on board. We broke the news to our husbands, who both really wanted to go, too. But, someone had to stay home with the children.
Lacy and I have been in the trenches of motherhood for many, many years. Pregnancy, hormones, labor and delivery, sleep deprivation, hormones, nursing, hormones, hormones, hormones, sleep deprivation, the constant need for mommy, only mommy; these years have been like a long sleepy dream, beautiful and sweet, like swimming in a warm, gooey pool where most sounds, sights, and smells are dimmed. We gladly gave ourselves to the mothering of our little children, leaning in to the constraints that this season of mommyhood meant. We have basked in these years of mommy-hood and shrugged our shoulders about that wild, travel itch in our hearts, maybe all the while realizing that soon this constant need for us would slow and they would turn from us just long enough so we could come up for air. Our children have all begun that turn.
OF course, it helps we married men who are incredibly competent fathers and willing to solo-parent so that we can be fulfilled in different ways than mothering provides.
And, off we went. We came up for air from mothering for a brief moment and found ourselves in Iceland.
Now, it may seem silly to go all that way for such a short visit but here is the gold in this story. My friend Lacy lives far from me and although we can always find time to text message each other, phone calls are rare. Rare because we each have little people who do not like their mothers to be on the phone. So, Lacy and I had this marvelously long flight to Iceland together during which we napped, read, and talked. Talked and talked and talked. It was delicious to have that time together.
Uninterrupted girl time. Bliss.
Quite honestly, Iceland was just the bonus, the backdrop, to four days of catching up, dreaming, plotting, giggling, oohing and awing, discussing pee problems, tantrums (ours, husbands’, and children’s), aging, sex, poetry, and all that it means to be mothers and girlfriends and wives and daughters.
We arrived to a pitch-black Iceland morning and held our steaming breath as we boarded the bus to our hotel (the sun rises between 10:30-11:00am this time of year and sets around 6:00pm). Luckily, the hotel let us in to our room that morning and I promptly took a nap while Lacy read. We grabbed a cab to town around 11am and had some coffee and walked around a little, exploring quaint Reykjavik. This city has the feel of Europe’s best old cobbled streets mixed with that ultra modern Ikea-feel that most Americans have come to know well. Everyone was kind. Everyone spoke English.
We challenged ourselves to a conquer-jet-lag-walk back to the hotel and arrived just in time to catch a tour bus out to the famed Blue Lagoon. We had both been lusting after this experience because it seemed so magical, mystical, and downright perfect for girl time.
The Blue Lagoon is this vast natural geothermal hot springs that is one of the 25 wonders of the world and it has earned that title. It is a wonder. It is ethereal soaking in this light blue, hot water as steam rises and clouds the sky. The backdrop was snowy rock cliffs and a sky that turned a lovely pink as the sun set.
The Blue Lagoon
Do you see that steam rising way off in the distance in front of that volcano? That is the Blue Lagoon. Impressive.
The water is rich in minerals (silica and sulfur) and as we slid around the pool our toes sank into the silty bottom. The temperatures were moderately hot against the ice cold day but as we moved around the pool we would feel bursts of stronger heat and linger in those places to soak it up. Not only is there a poolside bar with beer and smoothies, we also cozied up to the “mud bar” where a sweet Icelandic gal gave us each a scoop of white mud to apply to our faces.
After a few hours of floating around the lagoon we went inside for dinner at their Lava Restaurant. For $75 we devoured the chef’s choice four course dinner. While we were prepared for a touristy, overcharged experience we had quite the opposite. The food was delicious and interesting and beautifully prepared and plated–certainly rivaling anything we’ve experienced fine dining in the US.
Fresh from soaking in the Lagoon, dinner at Lava Restaurant. No, they wouldn’t let us eat in our robes. Yes, we wore our spa flip flops.
We slept well that night. Jet-lag is like a drug. Following breakfast the next day we headed out on a small tour with Icelandic Expeditions. Our guide Kommi eagerly greeted us in our hotel lobby and we climbed into the back of his Nissan 4-runner, joining an American couple from New Hampshire and a lone traveler from South Korea. The six of us visited the geothermal hills outside of the capital and visited not only a stunning lake to watch the sun rise and fill the sky with pink, but also a geothermal area that was bubbling hot, letting off steam across the constant white expanse which is Iceland in the winter. We ended the tour in a lava tube where we enjoyed hot cocoa with some traditional Icelandic liquor (just to warm us up, wink). Throughout, Kommi entertained us with tales of Icelandic folklore, trolls, superstitions, and how even in this modern era in Iceland someone can have a vision that can impact the way city council does its business. (It reminded me so much of my travels in Ireland and the widespread belief of fairies.)
The sun rising at around 10:45am.
One of what must be hundreds of geothermal areas in Iceland.
After our morning tour, we headed to the city for a traditional Icelandic lunch. Now, I don’t want to scare you because Iceland usually offers its tourists some pretty sane, normal food, you know, for the ones that want to play it safe. But, if you hadn’t yet guessed, Lacy and I are all about adventure.
So, when in Iceland…
The Icelandic Bar had some really “normal” things on its menu that would appeal to any international traveler. AND, they had the food we were searching for. You know, your basic pickled ram’s testicle, dried haddock, and putrified shark. No, I’m not kidding.
We dined. We chewed and chewed and chewed. We chased the food with bread and water. Lacy had a beer. We made videos as proof of our epicurean adventure (and sadly I am not able to attached these hilarious moments caught on iPhone “film”).
Dried haddock served with butter; fermented shark (it had an aftertaste of stinky Camembert cheese)
“Just a tiny bit of testicle.”
Pickled ram’s testicle. Yes, it was as unappealing as it sounds.
That evening we boarded a big tour bus as part of our original package and headed to a small town about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. Dinner was an eclectic buffet, catering to the variety of nationalities (and tastes) of people who visit Iceland. The brown bread in the buffet had actually been cooked in a metal container that was buried in the sand on the shores of the lake. Geothermal activity is no joke in Iceland and they use it well. Not only is it a great tourist activity what with hot springs, lava tubs, and erupting volcanoes, Iceland harvests the naturally hot water and pipes it into towns to use as the hot water that comes from the tap. They save loads of money by not heating water with electricity.
The Fontana hot springs have multiple pools with varying temperatures as well as sauna rooms heated naturally from the geothermal activity. The town is small enough so there is not much light pollution so the stars were brilliant as viewed through the hot rising steam. We relished the evening, lying across rocks in the hot springs, eyes closed, talking a bit, or dozing. It was, as my aunt Paddy would say, a dipole moment. While the actual definition of “dipole moment” is scientific and complicated, she explained it to me a lifetime ago as the moment when the world is so magical, when the environment is so perfect, that hydrogen and oxygen combine to form a water molecule. You know, you’ve had these moments. Moments when life feels so perfect you can believe in miracles. When even at a cellular level you are humming. Imagine, when atoms are combining to form something incredible and new.
Well-fed and warmed up from those delicious hot springs we started the second part of our tour: the hunt for the Northern Lights. What that really meant is driving from the Fontana Hot Springs back to the city, hoping we’d spy the lights along the way. The tour guide explained to us that younger eyes can see the lights better, and more colors. Likewise, sophisticated cameras can often pick up the lights before we can see them. When the tour guide thought she spied some light activity out the window we pulled over so she could snap a photo of the dark Northern sky and then look at the photo. No lights. Not yet. Soon though we could see some green activity in the sky so we pulled over alongside 4 or 5 other tour buses and jumped out to see what we could see. The lights came and went, mostly green but some red, dim and then bright. It was beautiful even though it was pretty dim.
After about 45 minutes the lights just seemed to deliquesce into the night sky and we boarded the bus to call it a night. We were exhausted and frozen but still delighted that nature had cooperated. We were driving down the road when all of a sudden people started shouting and exclaiming and when I looked out the window I could not believe my eyes. The Aurora Borealis was so bright and vivid outside the bus window. After several minutes of our imploring, the driver finally found a safe place to pull over and we all piled out again. I stood there with my breath misting my face watching the night sky come alive in a way I did not know was possible. It was more than breathtaking. It was exhilarating. The colors–both hue and vibrancy–were other-worldly. The lights stretched from horizon to horizon in the Northern sky and moved and leapt and did things that made me rub my eyes thinking “is this real?” Everyone was giddy and snapping photos like crazy. Here is a photo I took with my iPhone of the lights:
So, lesson learned, bring a REAL and possibly SOPHISTICATED camera to Iceland. Luckily I peered over the shoulder of some of our bus mates and saw that they had captured some brilliant images and they emailed me all of theirs. Photo credits of all Aurora Borealis go to Mitchell from Another Land.
I mean, seriously. These images take my breath away and they don’t even do the evening JUSTICE! Seeing the lights dance and move and glow and fade across the night sky made our trip to Iceland perfect. Dipole moment for sure.
For Sunday we’d thought long and hard about renting a car and doing the Golden Circle on our own but the roads were just a tad too icy and our jet lag was just a tad too overwhelming, still. We really couldn’t be trusted to venture out and about by ourselves. So, we settled on a horse back riding tour followed by a big tour bus tour of the Golden Circle. Iceland raves about its horses and we soon realized why. Though short, don’t call them ponies as the handlers will be quick to correct you. They are sweet little horses, with mellow demeanors and an incredible gate. I’ve ridden horses frequently on vacation and grew up riding my grandmother’s Tennessee Walker horses, also known for their gates. But this was something altogether different. Their gate was so smooth you could easily sit a trot all day long. The teenage guides took us along a snowy trail for two hours, crossing and recrossing a frozen creek. The first crossing the horses were unable to break the ice so we all just rode gingerly across its frozen expanse. All other crossings we watched as the lead horse went up to the edge and pawed at the ice until it broke and then lead the rest of us through foot-deep icy water. While they outfitted us with full body ski/outdoor gear over our normal clothes, I don’t think I have ever been so cold in my entire life. The last thirty minutes of the ride I just clung to my horse, Fire, hoping he was well named and some of his heat would seep in to me.
After an unexpected lunch of homemade soup and bread at the barn following our ride, we headed by big tour bus to the Golden Circle. We were so tired though that the best part of the (many hours, never ending) tour was actually our own antics: giggling, walking around pretending to be French tourists with our rusty French, and, in general acting like sleep-deprived giddy teenagers.
We saw countless volcanoes (“that snowy peak out the left side of the bus is Zycislcke–or some such named snowy peak), a large beautiful lake, a cool geyser, and an enormous partly-frozen multi-level waterfall. I think if we had not been so freakin tired we may have been more impressed.
Exhausted, giddy, but delighted with ourselves for managing a three day whirlwind trip to Iceland, we spent most of Monday before our flight at our hotel’s spa basking in a warm swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, and steam room and lots and lots of girl talk.
The trip was a success at all levels.
- Much needed time away from our littles–check.
- Girl time–check.
- International adventure–check.
- Seeing the Northern Lights light up the sky and dance before our eyes–check.
- Soaking in naturally super hot, mystical waters–check.
I double dog dare you to go to Iceland with your craziest girlfriend. You’ll find that it soothes your soul and fulfills you in unexpected yet necessary ways.
To read Lacy’s far more poetic account of our trip, please visit her blog. She is a tremendously fine writer.