What to do when you’ve done what to do – Re-visiting Reykjavik

My BF is heavily into EVE Online.  (I’m ok with that – he’s a hockey widower in winter, I’m an EVE-Online widow all year)  Every year there’s a fanfest in Reykjavik at the end of April for, well, fans of the game.  They organize a few activities – Golden Circle tour, Blue Lagoon, a pub crawl in Reykjavik; along with fanfest activites at Harpa concert hall  There’s also an activity for the non-Eve players who accompany their friends and/or significant other to the event.

Anyway.  I’ve done the Golden Circle tour, and the Blue Lagoon.  I wasn’t against doing either again – I didn’t get particularly good photos last time; or rather – at Strokkur, I was taking a video and some man stepped right in front as Strokkur erupted.  And then I forgot to bring my camera to the Blue Lagoon.  So doing those two again was fine by me.  But what to do with my days that were free, while the BF is off fanfesting it up?

I should note – we didn’t spend all of our time in Reykjavik.  We head up north, to Akureyri (I have never typed that right the first go around), for three days before the fanfest.  I didn’t make it there during my last trip, so everything there was new.

So from the beginning:

Akureyri

Akureyri from the air

 Akureyri is in northern Iceland – while we could have taken the bus we said “uh, no.” and flew with Air Iceland.  It’s a short hop of a flight, really, that leaves from the domestic airport in Reykjavik.  International flights land at Keflavik airport, so we hopped the FlyBus into the city, and decided to drop off one of our bags at the Downtown hostel, where we had booked to stay when we returned to Reykjavik.

We spent 3 days here early in our trip – April 20 – 23.  Everything was still snow covered, but it wasn’t too cold – about -3C, maybe a little warmer during the day.


Akureyri

We spent a total of one day (two afternoons) walking around Akureyri – the downtown portion of the city is fairly small.  We also walked out to a bridge across the fjord to get some great photos of the city one afternoon.  We popped into a few different pubs and restaurants as well – we were very pleased with the food at the Thai restaurant (Krua Siam) as well as the local favourite Bautinn.  A lot of the pubs didn’t open until 8:oo, so we missed visiting a few that we thought might be interesting, but we did go into the pub beside Café Paris – good beer, nice atmosphere, and interesting décor.  The Italian Restaurant wasn’t worth much – the meatballs tasted like they had been frozen, then re-heated when needed.  Tip for those planning to visit:  Most shops don’t open until 10:00 or 11:00, and most bars don’t open until 8 p.m.  Try to plan dinner for later in the evening.

Goðafoss
The other two days we took two side-trips.  One day we booked a Lake Myvatn day-tour with Saga Travel.  Highly recommended!  Since it was still a little before the tourist season, it was a small group – there were 5 of us in total, including the BF and myself.  Our tour guide, Anton, was great – he’s from the area, so he was incredibly knowledgeable about the places we were going.  We visited Goðafoss (a waterfall, where supposedly the lawspeaker threw his heathen idols upon converting the country to Christianity), followed by Skútustaðagígar (false craters in the Lake Myvatn area), dimmuborgir (where the Yule Lads live), grjotagja (a small lava cave with thermal hot springs inside),  hverir (stinky mud pots, and sulfer flats), ending with a soak at Myvatn nature baths.  We had a really great day – and we were lucky to have incredibly weather!
Lake Myvatn nature baths
This is a full day tour – we got back to the hotel about 5 or 6 in the evening.  We were originally told we would have only an hour and a half at the hot springs, but seeing as it was such a small group we extended it (with everyone being enthusiastic with the idea) to two hours.  Admission to the nature baths was included in the price we paid for the tour itself.  Not included was lunch.  We stopped at Vogafjos (The Cowshed Cafe) a family run restaurant that is built beside a cowshed – in fact, it shares a wall of windows, meaning you can see into the cow shed from your seats.  We were lucky enough to have a view of some calves that had been born not too long before.  As a quick review:  the food is excellent (the BF enjoyed the arctic char, I had a massive plate of lamb shank) and reasonably priced for northern Iceland.
Lake Myvatn
One tiny bit of useful information:  In the winter (before May 1), the tours run from 8 a.m.  After May 1, they begin at 10:00.  When we booked our tour through the HI Hostel in Akureyri, they told us 10, so we had a bit of a mad scramble at 8 when the tour guide showed up. We were really lucky in that our hotel (Hotel Akureyri) allowed us to pack up a bit of a breakfast to take with us – breakfast had been included in the price we paid for our room.

Dimmuborgir
Icelandic horses near Lake Myvatn
Husavik Whale-Watching
Husavik


The next day we headed off to go whale-watching in Husavik.  We took the bus (by the cultural centre) which was incredibly easy.  If memory serves, it cost about 2100 ISK per person for the hour and a half ride.  We caught the bus around 8, and arrived in Husavik in time for the 10:45 trip with North Sailing.

Seeing as it can get cold out on the open water, especially in winter, North Sailing provided massive (and warm!) coveralls – like snowsuit onesies you get for kids – to everyone on board, as well as storage for bags in the hold underneath.  We headed out onto the water and quickly spotted quite a few birds – gannets, skuas, and puffins mostly, with a few ducks and geese thrown in.  We went as most birds were migrating back to Iceland; had we gone much earlier I don’t know how many puffins we would have seen.

About a half hour or so after heading out, maybe a bit more, we came to the other side of the bay, and slowed down.  This is apparently a big spot for whales.  Another half hour of slow going the BF and I (and most likely the guide, but I’m pretty sure no other tourists) spotted a spout of water.  Sure enough – whale!  And not just any whale – the guide identified it as a blue whale.  We raced over to where we had seen it surface, and waited.

Here’s the thing with whale-watching -you wait a lot.  We did see it surface several times; it would surface a series of times before diving back down, at which point we would wait 20 to 30 minutes, before it would surface a series of times again.  We probably saw this repetition four or five times before we headed back to Husavik.

Reykjavik – hotels
The next day we headed back to Reykjavik.  Another short hop of a flight, and then a taxi ride to our hostel.  We stayed at the Downtown Reykjavik HI Hostel, which I highly recommend.  It’s decently priced – we stayed in a private double with en suite bathroom, and it was about $100CDN, which for Reykjavik is cheap.  The dorm rooms are, of course, cheaper, but then you’re sharing the room with 9 other people.  The hostel itself is relatively close to most things of interest – close enough that you can walk, far enough away that you’re not woken up at night by drunken revellers (unless you’re in the dorm rooms, of course.)  They serve a buffet breakfast for about $12 (bagels, deli meat, cheese, some fruit, coffee, juice, cereal).  They also have free wi-fi.

Halfway through our stay in Reykjavik, we switched to Hotel Centrum Reykjavik.  The BF (up to this point) wasn’t too sure about hostels, so as a compromise we agreed to switch to a hotel.  Fail.  Massive, massive fail.  The doors to the hotel are marked with the hotel logo, but not the name.  The name is on one of the buildings, but the logo is not there.  When you first walk in, you are greeted with a menu for the attached French restaurant.  The check-in desk is a few metres into the building.  It’s a strange set-up, and at first we had difficulty figuring out if we were in the right place.

The staff there were great – very friendly, very helpful.  The hotel itself is clean, although the carpets do look like they suffered some water damage in the past, which isn’t a comforting thought.  The bed in our room (Room 423) was horrible.  Two single beds, of different heights, pushed together.  Very uncomfortable to sleep on.  Other than that our room was fine – large, airy, en suite bathroom, small sitting area.  Also worth a note: wi-fi is not free.  I think it was about 150Kr per hour.

Reykjavik – activities

With Smairi the first horse I rode

The last time I was in Reykjavik, I had wanted to go horse-back riding but didn’t have the chance.  So this time, I pre-booked with Ishestar to do a full-day of riding.  I took horse-back riding lessons as a kid/teenager, but to be honest, it’s probably been about 20 years since I’d been on a horse.

I sent off an email, and quickly received a reply.  They have a full day “Viking Tour” that combines  a morning Lava tour, which doesn’t require any experience, and an afternoon Express Viking tour, which does require an intermediate level of knowledge. It was about $155 CDN for the full day, with lunch and hotel pick up/drop off included.

On Ljosi, my afternoon ride

I had fun with both – the morning was a good re-introduction, and helped me feel more comfortable.  The afternoon was more exciting – I got to try several different gaits, including the tolt, and we spent a lot of time galloping over the terrain.  The staff was wonderful, and the horses (mostly) fantastic.  In the afternoon, I started out on one horse that….well, she wasn’t for me.  She was a little stubborn, and I found her gait very bumpy; so not only was I spending most of the time fighting to get her to go (her default speed was stop) and I also spent a lot of time trying to stay on her back during the gallops and tolting.  My guide and I switched horses at our first break, and the second horse was much more my speed – eager to run, and he had a very smooth gait. 

The BF and I also got a 24-hour Reykjavik city card.  This gave us access to the city’s swimming pools, some museums, as well as the bus system.  We visited Settlement 871, and the Laugardalur swimming pool (take bus 14 from the city centre).  The swimming pool was really interesting – besides a pool to do laps, there are several “hot tubs” as well as a kiddie area.  Nothing quite like swimming in a bikini when it’s only 2C outside!  Well worth a visit.

One day while the BF was at Eve Fanfest, I wandered around the city.  I visited the Penis Museum, which had wanted to go to last time, but didn’t because I was with my mother.  My mom and I are close, but not sharing the experience of going to the Penis Museum close. 
It’s nearly $10 CDN to get in, and they don’t accept cards (make sure you have cash, although there is an ATM in the bus station across the road).  I had a good laugh while wandering around – it’s not a large museum, one large open room, with three or four smaller rooms on the sides, but it is interesting.  Besides preserved penises, there are also a few penis memorabilia (a phone, for instance)

I also wandered around the city a bit, seeing sites that I had seen before, and looking to see what I remember, and what I didn’t. I went by Red Rock Cinema, where a local volcano chaser (is that a thing?) shows his volcano movies daily.  I had already seen it with my mother back in 2008, so I chose not to do a repeat.  I did, however, buy the DVD.  My mother had wanted a copy and we never got a chance last time.

 One night the BF and I did hit up The Volcano House, which is close to the Downtown Hostel (and offers a discount to HI members).  It was OK, but I have to say I preferred Red Rock Cinema.

The Eve Online fanfest people had arranged for the Reykjavik symphony to play music from Eve on the opening night of the Fanfest.  The Fanfest is held at Harpa, the concert hall by the harbour, and so was the symphony.  I enjoyed the music – I thought the musicians did a fantastic job, although I don’t actually know the music from Eve.  (The BF says they were very good, so I figure he would know)

Eating and Drinking
Most evenings in Reykjavik, we headed to the Dubliner Pub.  It was a quiet pub most nights, although they did frequently have someone on stage playing music.  We’re not huge party people, so this became our “local” for our stay.  We did hit a few other places – The English Pub was also a nice place to hit up, as was Uppsalir Bar (which has two for one draft for happy hour!).  And Cafe Stofan was a great place to chill out on a rainy Saturday – comfortable armchairs and couches to sit in, and good coffee.

We tried a variety of restaurants in Reykjavik.  I like Tobasco’s – a Mexican restaurant (that serves traditional Icelandic food as well).  We also ate at an Indian restaurant – Gandhi Restaurant – that had good food, if not very spicy.  Geysir, close to the hostel we stayed in, had good food, and a bit more of an upscale atmosphere to it.  Krua Thai, on Tryggvagata, is a good place for Thai, very tasty, but they don’t do table service.

Waterfalls, Geysers and Hot Springs (Oh My)
We did a tour with the Eve Online Fanfest people to Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park.  A Golden Circle tour is worth it, although I think summer is better, as you can spend longer at Thingvellir….or at least, that was true 5 years ago.  We had a 20 minute “leg stretch” really, and then it was back on the bus and on to Gullfoss.

Later on, after the Fanfest, the BF and I booked two tours with Reykjavik Excursions.  I had used them in 2008, and had a wonderful experience.  I saw no reason to switch to a different company (there are several that ply the same routes to the major tourist attractions.)  That was a bad decision on my part.  They wrote down the name of our hostel wrong, so our pick up for the Blue Lagoon never showed up.  When we called, they just said “We’ll pick you up in an hour” and that was it.  No sorry, no discount.

Chilling in the sun and warm waters

We did at least get to go to Blue Lagoon, eventually.  I preferred the Myvatn Nature Baths in the north, but Blue Lagoon is relaxing as well.  We were lucky – there really weren’t a lot of people, although it can fill up.  If you’re not going up north, it’s worth the trip.  If you have, or are planning to, visit Myvatn, don’t feel you’re missing something by not going to the Blue Lagoon.  One handy feature many companies have is  a combined Blue Lagoon/airport trip – they will pick you and your luggage up, drop you off at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours, then pick you up and take you to the airport (The Blue Lagoon is between Reykjavik and the Keflavik airport).  We didn’t choose this option, we wanted to take our time, but some people on our bus had.  Reykjavik Excursions, and I assume the other companies, have huge luggage storage areas for your luggage if you choose to do this option.

When we had arranged our Blue Lagoon tour, we had also arranged to do the South Shore Adventure, the day after, again with Reykjavik Excursions.  Our pick up showed up, and took us to the BSI terminal to transfer to a bigger bus (this is a common practise.)  We got on, and immediately smelt smoke.  We asked some people already on the bus – and they told us that the bus had filled with smoke a few minutes before.  The driver and guide had opened the windows to air it out.  (No, we didn’t get a different bus.  We took that one.)

Other things about the tour bothered us:  The tour guide had a horrible stutter, so it was really hard to listen to him.  He was very friendly and very knowledgeable about the area, but it was painful trying to follow him.  The bus had some trouble at the glacier we visited, but we were told it was fine.  Later on, it actually over-heated, and the driver had to use water to cool the engine down.  The driver was also very unfamiliar with the bus – he couldn’t figure out the heating, so we had to keep pulling over and stopping so the driver could fiddle with it.

Now that that’s out the way, the sites.
We started at Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that erupted three years disrupting air traffic to and from Europe.  (Considering that I tend to visit places right before natural disasters, that might not have been the best of places for me to go).  It was a quick stop, as there really isn’t much to see, but it was still interesting.  Especially when you find out that there’s a farm at the base of the volcano!

Dirty ice

From there we hit the Salheimajokull glacier, where companies over glacier walking.  (You actually just walk on the tongue of the glacier, as the body of glaciers are very dangerous.)  We didn’t get to walk on the glacier, although we did get to go up close and touch the ice – if we dared.  This particular glacier sits over an active volcano, so intermixed with the ice is ash.  It makes for a very dirty glacier.  If you’re planning on driving yourself, be aware that it is a very rough, dirt road to the glacier.

Not black sand.

After that, we continued along the Ring Road down to Vik.  There’s a “black sand beach” just outside Vik that is a big attraction.  It certainly is interesting, however….it’s black rocks, not black sand.  I think we would have enjoyed it more in the summer, as it was the wind was blowing, and it was cold on the open beach.  We did get a good look around at the basalt columns and natural rock formations just off the beach.

Basalt columns on the beach

 
If we had had more time, I would have loved to have taken a walk along the beach, or up the hill over the basalt columns.  But we had only a short stop, and it was chilly, so we quickly got back on the bus for the short jaunt into Vik, and for lunch.

We stopped at a small cafe, that served the regular food – hamburgers, fries, and Icelandic lamp soup.  The food was good, although it wasn’t anything fancy.  There was also a shop nearby that we took a quick look in.  (We ended up buying a reindeer hide)

A 92-year-old Icelandic man explaining fishing gear

 After lunch, it was back on the road, this time to the Skogar Folk Museum.  Here we got a look at items used in everyday life in Iceland, up to quite recently.  It was interesting to see how they lived before the advent of international air travel, when goods had to be imported by boat.  We were given a brief tour, then allowed to wander around on our own.  We also were allowed to wander into a few sod roof houses that are part of the museum.  One of the houses was used up until 1970!

Sod roof houses in Skogar

 Beside the town is a beautiful waterfall – Skogafoss.  We drove over, and walked beside the small stream up to the waterfall.  As you approach, the view opens up, and you get a glimpse of an incredible rainbow, from the spray as the waterfall descends.  It’s a beautiful sight, and we had amazing weather for it.  Blue skies, sun shining.  We spent a bit more time here, as everyone was enjoying themselves.

 But we weren’t done yet.  We had one more waterfall to go, before we headed back to Reykjavik.  Seljalandsfoss is a short drive away, back towards the city.  This waterfall is interesting, because you can actually walk behind the waterfall, as the water has worn the surrounding rocks away.  Or at least, normally you can.  Given how cold it had been when we went to visit, it was hardly surprising that the spray had turned to ice, coating everything close to the waterfall.  Even the staircases were coated with a fine layer, as was the grass.  I’m sure in better weather it’s magnificent, but I was a little underwhelmed at this point.  (Then again, it was the fourth waterfall I’d seen in under a week.)

TL;DR version:

Pros
– Hotel Akureyri
– Bautinn Restaurant in Akureyri
– Saga Tours
– North Sailing
– HI Downtown Hostel Reykjvaik
– Ishestar Riding Tours
– The Dubliner Pub in Reykjavik

Cons
– Hotel Centrum Reykjavik – uncomfortable beds, no free wifi
– late open for shops (10:00)
– Pubs not open in Akureyri until 8 p.m.
– Expensive – understandable, but still 😦
– Reykjavik Excursions tours

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