Iceland

Greetings! If you have been following me on Facebook and Twitter, then you know I’ve been all over the map. I’m finally home (for a bit), where I’m catching up on my bills and stories. I will start with my trip to Iceland last month. Most of my friends were surprised to learn how close Iceland is to the United States, and I bet you’ll be surprised too. Would you believe from the West Coast it’s just a 7-hour-and-15-minute flight, and from New York it’s less than five hours? This week we also have stories on Louisiana and Montana!

I recently wrote about my flight from Los Angeles to Seattle on Alaska Airlines. I made two of those flights in 10 days, and here are some of my notes from the first journey:

  • The aircraft was a 737-800.
  • Flight time was 2 hours and 2 minutes.
  • They had Wi-Fi for $9.
  • They sold food, including pasta for $6.
  • The flight attendants and gate agents were friendly.
  • During the drink service, flight attendants handed out little bags of mixed nuts with pretzels and soy nuts.
  • I had a three-hour layover and discovered that the Seattle airport is really nice.
  • For food recommendations I asked my friends on Facebook and Twitter. My buddy Scott McMurren from the AlaskaTravelGram had the best reply. But I went to Pallino Pastaria and had a fine chicken, mozzarella, and basil panini
  • ($9.89) and a bottle of water ($1.50).
  • I couldn’t tame my sweet tooth, so I went next door to Dish D’lish for a ridiculously fattening cookie ($2.19).
  • My Icelandair flight was departing from the S gates; to get there I hopped on the airport tram. I was happy (and surprised) I didn’t have to go through security again.

Icelandair
The last time I flew Icelandair was in 2006 (here’s that story). I’m happy to report they’ve upgraded their planes and service since then, and they now offer a solid product. Of course, Icelandair can’t compare to most Asian and Middle East airlines, but for the price it’s fantastic.

Icelandair FYI
Icelandair only flies 757s. They have fourteen 757s, each with all three classes of service:

  • Saga Class: 24 seats with 39.0″ of pitch and 20.0″ wide
  • Economy Comfort Class: 14 seats with 33.0″ of pitch and 20.0″ wide
  • Economy Class: 138 seats with 32.0″ of pitch and 17.2″ wide
  • SeatGuru’s Icelandair page

Check-In
When I checked in I saw the plane parked away from the gates, so I asked the agents if the flight was going to be on time. They said yes, and they were about to tow the plane over to our gate shortly. Since I didn’t have a boarding pass I checked in at the gate. The agent looked surprised that I was in Saga Class (first class).

Full Disclosure: Icelandair paid for my ticket, but as you know I always tell the way it is.

When I told the agent I only had a carry-on he said, You are only allowed 6 kilos (about 13 lbs), but since I was at the gate he let me slide and didn’t weigh mine. I asked if he was a flight attendant, since I had seen him walk up with a roller bag, and he said, I wish, but Icelandair flight attendants have to be fluent in five (5!) languages. How crazy is that?

Boarding
The flight was scheduled to depart at 4:30 p.m. We didn’t board until 4:20 p.m. due to a malfunctioning bathroom, but we only took off a few minutes late. Icleandair boards families and passengers with disabilities first, which is nice. They also allow Saga members to board anytime. The flight attendant stationed at the door of the plane handed all passengers (except first class) a bottle of Iceland’s own glacier water. There passengers can also grab free newspapers in both English and Icelandic.

First-Class Seat
Saga Class is configured 2 by 2. I was in 2D, which is a bulkhead and has to be the best seat on the plane–there’s plenty of legroom. On the seat was a blanket and pillow, amenity kit, and a bottle of glacier water. The only thing the seat lacked besides more recline is a leg stand.

Shoes In the Overhead Bin
Would you believe the American guy across the aisle from me took off his shoes when he got on the plane, put them up in the overhead bin, and didn’t get them until we landed? Not only is it rude, but it’s a safety hazard. He would’ve been bumming if there was an emergency landing.

Flight Attendants
The flight attendants were friendly and worked their butts off for most of the 7-hour-and-15-minute flight. They served sparkling wine (they said they can’t call it Champagne since it’s not from Champagne, France) before takeoff and replaced any empty water bottles. They also handed out headsets (note: they aren’t noise-cancelling ones).

Random flight attendant observation: In the gate area before boarding I saw one of the flight attendants go up to a screaming kid and get him to quiet down. I’ve never seen that before, so huge brownie points for that.

SEA-KEF in Saga Class Play by Play
Here’s the play by play of my trip from Seattle to Keflavík in Saga Class on Icelandair:

Plane’s Tail Number: TF-FIR (history of the plane)

4:30pm Scheduled departure
4:48pm Pushed back from gate
4:55pm Airborne
5:01pm Seat-belt sign went off
5:13pm Flight attendants (FAs) passed out menus in hardcover folders (menu is in Icelandic and English)
5:15pm Drinks served with mixed nuts and chips. FYI: I ordered an orange soda, and when the FA served it to me she said, I hope you like it–it’s Icelandic! They call it Icelandic Orange Lemonade, and it was awesome. For those that are drinkers, my seatmate ordered a NZ white wine.
5:34pm FAs took food orders with a smile, but didn’t address passengers by name
5:35pm FAs picked up empty drinks and offered more
5:45pm FAs passed out hot towels
5:47pm FA’s started serving food

FYI: Food is served on a tray with everything on it–including dessert. There’s also aluminum foil on the entrée and a plastic cover on the starter and dessert. The bread basket comes around right after the tray is served. Another flight attendant offers wine or other drinks after.

In case you couldn’t read the menu scan, here it is typed out:

Starter
Smoked salmon sushi

Main
-Seared filet of beef
-Grilled halibut
-Goat cheese and grilled chicken salad

Dessert
Plain cheesecake with blueberry puree

FYI: In coach they charge $8 and $6 for food.

My Seatmate
I sat next to a Danish guy who just came back from brown bear hunting in Alaska’s bush. I guess I couldn’t hide my expressions of horror, as he quickly said he didn’t kill any because they weren’t old. He saw around 40 in total. I learned Danes can’t understand Icelandic, but Icelanders can understand Danish.

Entertainment System
It was then time to either sleep or play with the entertainment system. I did the latter since I wasn’t tired. The systems have a touch screen with a good amount of choices:

  • 19 movies, including The King’s Speech, Black Swan, There’s Something About Mary….
  • A variety of TV channels: The entertainment category had Bones, How I Met Your Mother, Glee… (one episode of each), plus there were other categories like Icelandic, Kids, Documentaries, Icelandair@ work, About Iceland (12 shows including how to drive in Iceland, whale-watching and sailing tours, food and fun…)
  • There was a Saga Shop for him, her, children, and your home
  • 35 albums of music with these categories: Funky, Rock and Pop (27 albums like U2, Rod Stewart, Björk…), New Age, Country, Electronic, Icelandic Artists, International Hits, and Classical
  • The games were not working.
  • My seat had an electrical plug, but the seats in economy don’t have them.

My Observations from the Flight

  • FAs walk up and down the aisles constantly serving drinks.
  • Since it was May, the sky never got dark as we flew above nightfall.
  • My seat was a tad broken–it kept reclining back on its own. Not necessarily a bad thing.
  • All announcements are made in Icelandic first then English.
  • Bathroom was kept clean the whole flight.
  • Icelandair has three 787s on order, but upper management doesn’t think they will use them for their mainline routes. They may operate them as a charter or lease them out.

 

Breakfast Is Served
An hour and 10 minutes before landing the flight attendants served breakfast. Don’t get too excited–it’s just a warm croissant and tea or coffee.

Late Arrival
After breakfast I felt the plane do a turn when we only had 40 minutes left according to the live map. But then I saw the flight time jump by 20 minutes, so we then had an hour left. I asked the FA, and she was surprised I’d noticed. It turns out the air-traffic controllers were on strike (only for about 30 minutes), so we needed to go into a holding pattern. We landed 30 minutes late, and they held all the planes for connecting passengers. Did you know: All Icelandair flights come in basically at same time? Five to ten minutes apart.

Connecting Passengers
I thought it was interesting to learn that 55 percent (annual average) of Icelandair’s passengers are connecting to mainland Europe. The big reason why is because Icelandair has such great deals. Check out some of their current promotions:

-$2,150 R/T Saga Class to all of Europe from Seattle (10-day advance purchase)
-That doesn’t include $72 Iceland tax
-There’s also $244 fuel surcharge for a flight just to Iceland. If you are going to mainland Europe. the total fuel surcharge is $418.
-What’s nice is that passengers are allowed a 7-day free stopover (it’s unlimited for folks in the premium cabin).
-Over a third of the connecting passengers make a stop in Iceland (on average).
-It took 10 minutes for the airport to get the jet bridge to the door of our plane.
-There was no line at passport control because immigration waved through all those with Icelandic passports. The officer stamped my passport on the first page he opened to–on top of another stamp. Usually agents flip through my passport looking for a blank page.
-We took a two-minute shuttle-bus ride to arrivals.
-While on the bus I saw Iceland Express’s Iron Maiden plane. Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden‘s lead singer, is a pilot for Iceland Express, and he flies the band’s official tour plane.

Icelandair Seattle to Reykjavik Deal!
Economy: $519.00
Economy Comfort: $1943.00
Saga: $2637.00
TERMS & CONDITIONS: AIRFARES: Departing SEA. Valid for outbound travel Oct. 23, 2011 – Dec. 15, 2011. Valid for new purchases only, are determined by departure date, and are based on round-trip purchase per person. No advance purchase; must be ticketed within 48 hours; some destinations require an overnight stay in REK in one or both directions at passenger’s expense. Saturday night min. stay; 30 days max. stay. Last Ticket Date: Jun. 30, 2011. Tickets are non-refundable; change fee of $275 pp within validity of fare. Other restrictions apply. Seats are limited. *Prices quoted are exclusive of applicable taxes and official charges by destination of approx. $100-190 per person, including the September 11th Security Fee.
-Link to Icelandair’s package deals

Arrival
I visited Iceland in 2006, and I quickly remembered what an incredible country it is. Iceland has one of the best passport controls in the world. There’s never a line because the two immigration officers wave through all those with Icelandic passports, and visitors don’t have to fill out any forms. The agent just quickly looked at my passport then stamped the first page he opened to (on top of another country’s stamp). Usually agents flip through my passport for ages looking for my two blank pages, but not here.

Press Group
I was there on a press trip hosted by Icelandair (Michael Rauchesien) and Visit Iceland (Sif Gustavsson). The other participants were Norie Quintos, Megan Rowe, Natalie Bahadur, Peter Mandel, Gregg Leiberman, Matt Robinson, and Jerry Allison. It was a pretty good group of people, and we all got along.

Keflavík Airport
We all met outside of baggage claim; all Icelandair’s flights basically come in at the same time (5 to 10 minutes apart). The funniest part was seeing some dude dressed up in a gorilla outfit waiting for his friends. Not sure what that was about, but I snapped a picture. The airport is really nice, especially the departures area. Note: When you leave the airport, be sure to view the Jet Nest sculpture by Magnus Tomasson.

Keflavík Airport to Reykjavik
Keflavík Airport is about 50 km west of Reykjavík. The drive takes about 40 minutes, and there’s some good coastal scenery that makes you wonder if you just landed on the moon or not.

Iceland Facts
-Iceland is in the Western European Time Zone, which puts it seven hours ahead of California and four hours ahead of New York.
-Iceland is in the North Atlantic Ocean, between Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Scotland, and Norway.
-The entire country is just south of the Arctic Circle (except for the small island of Grimsey).
-Iceland is filled with arctic desert plateaus, sandy deltas, volcanoes, lava fields, glaciers, and waterfalls. That’s why they call it the land of fire and ice.
-Only 1.3 percent of the country is grassland, just 1.5 percent is used for agriculture, and a mere 1.5 percent is forest.
-In Iceland, 3 percent of the land is lakes, 11 percent is lava fields, 12 percent is glaciers, and only 21 percent–the lowlands near the coast–is considered habitable.
-The population of Iceland is roughly 318,000. That’s not a lot considering it’s 39,756 square miles, about the same size as Kentucky or England.
-Everyone speaks perfect English.
-You can pay by a credit card for everything, so I didn’t even take out Krónas (abbreviations are ISK, IKR, or KR); the current exchange rate is 1.00 USD = 116 ISK.
-Iceland has no railways or highways. The main road here circles the entire island; appropriately, it’s called the Ringroad. Parts of it are closed in the winter, so be sure to get up-to-date road info at Vegag.is.
-Iceland had one of the first female presidents in the world (1980), so they are a very progressive country.
-In Iceland they only give one kiss on the cheek, not two like in much of Europe.
-Icelanders have the second-longest life span in the world (Japan is first). I’m guessing it’s because they eat so much fish.
-There are fast-food chains like Subway, Taco Bell, and KFC. Bummer, I know.

Iceland History & Tidbits
Iceland was settled by Norwegians and Vikings during the late 9th and 10th centuries A.D. Tradition says the first permanent settler, a Norwegian Viking, made his home where Reykjavík is located. Later Iceland became part of Denmark, and remained so until 1918. After independence it kept its ties to the Danish crown until 1944, at which point it became a republic.

I knew many Scandinavian countries follow Norse tradition, using patronymics rather than surnames. But I didn’t know most Icelanders’ given names are followed by his or her father’s name, then the suffix -son or –dóttir. For example, if I lived in Iceland, my name would not be Johnny Jet, but rather Johnny Francisson (my dad’s name is Francis). That can be confusing, but thanks to countless medieval documents, many Icelanders trace their ancestors back to the Viking Settlement. Because of this, and Iceland’s location in such an isolated area with limited immigration over hundreds of years, it is regarded as the most genetically pure country in the world.

Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel
We checked into the 4-star Hilton Reykjavík Nordica Hotel, the largest in Iceland. The nine-story building has 284 guest rooms and suites, and when I was here in 2006 it was just called the Nordica Hotel. On Trip Advisor it’s ranked #4 out of 37 Reykjavík hotels. I think that’s pretty accurate. It’s a nice, clean hotel with natural wood floors that’s popular with tour groups and package suppliers. Hilton Reykjavík Nordica Hotel, Suourlandsbraut 2, 108 Reykjavík; tel: 354-444-5000.

Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel Observations
-The Hilton is modern and hip, and has a Scandinavian chic feel to it.
-There are four quick elevators and one beautiful spiral staircase.
-Rooms have soft twin beds, wide showers, and wonderful views.
-The tap water is perfectly fine to drink and tastes good, so don’t waste your money on the 350 ISK (US$3) bottled water in the hotel lobby.
-The rooms still have old TVs.
-Lots of tourists and business travelers, including Americans and Europeans, were staying in the hotel.
-Internet is not free except when using the two computers in the lobby. Wireless is not cheap–it costs 853 ISK (US$7.29) for an hour, 1,919 ISK (US$16.42) for 24 hours, or 4,264 ISK (US$36.40) for 4 days. FYI: They have Boingo wireless available, so sign up with Boingo for cheaper Internet access.
-Rack room rates begin at 19,650 ISK (US$164), but you can find package deals for cheaper.

Vox Restaurant
One of the best parts about staying at the Hilton Reykjavík Nordica Hotel is that most rates (if not all) include breakfast, and they offer a fantastic one. They have everything from pancakes to Skyr (an Icelandic cultured dairy product that is similar to strained yogurt). They also offer cod liver oil, which is the first time I’ve ever seen that being offered at a breakfast buffet. Other highlights include the best ginger lemon hot tea and some addicting cookies. Vox Restaurant.

Reykjavik Taxi
The worst part about the Hilton is that it’s not in the center of the city. So if you don’t want to spend money on an expensive taxi, it’s a good 25-minute brisk walk. A taxi from the hotel to the city center takes about six minutes but costs 1,820 ISK (US$15.86). That same ride in Bangkok would cost about 50 US cents. Then again, in Bangkok you’re not in a comfortable Mercedes.

Price of Gas in Iceland
One reason taxis might be so expensive is that the price of gas is ridiculously expensive, like it is in the rest of Europe. A liter in Iceland costs 239 ISK (US$2.06)! Times that by 3.78, and you realize that’s US$7.78 a gallon!

1919 Radisson BLU Hotel
The other Reykjavík hotel we spent a night in was the 1919 Radisson BLU Hotel ( Website). It’s a contemporary hotel, housed in the former offices of the first major shipping line in Iceland, the Eimskipafélag Íslands. TripAdvisor ranks it #8 out of 37 Reykjavík hotels, but I totally disagree with that. Not only because of my experience but because every local I asked said the best hotel in the city is 1919. I think it’s way better than the Hilton, mainly because it’s in the center of the city and they offer free Internet (though the Hilton has a better breakfast, a better view, and quieter rooms). The 1919 features 88 rooms and suites, all with modern furnishings and modern amenities including a Nespresso machine in the room and a flat-screen TV. I was fortunate to be in one of their 17 luxurious Junior Suites that boast high detailed ceilings and a super comfortable bed. Room rates begin at 127 euros.

Multicultural Parade
During the month of May Reykjavík has an annual arts festival. The day we were in town they were putting on a multicultural parade. Immigrants now living in Iceland were showing off their countries’ traditional music and dances. I didn’t stick around to watch the whole parade, but I saw folks from Thailand, Kenya, and Poland.

Good To Know: Iceland Calendar of Events

Sjavargrillio Restaurant
Our first meal in Iceland was lunch at Sjavargrillio, which is located on Reykjavík’s most popular street, Skolavoroustig. Sjavargrillio is called the Seafood Grill, but they have other dishes besides from the sea. The restaurant just opened in April 2011 and is owned by Gústav Axel Gunnlaugsson, the chef of the year in Iceland in 2010, and renowned Icelandic chef Lárus Gunnar Jónasson. The food, atmosphere, and service were all fantastic. And the bread served with Skyr butter was incredible and addicting as can be. One of the unique treats the chef brought us was an herb aioli on rye crumbs (to look like dirt) with fennel on top served in a little clay flower pot. Prices for lunch are from $14 and $28 for dinner. For more info see Sjavargrillid.is.

Walking Tour of Reykjavik
After lunch we went on a colorful walking tour of the city led by Sigrun Nikulasdottir (moments@moments.is). Her company, New Moments, offers custom-made tours. On ours we popped into different stores and tried a variety of Icelandic foods and drinks and checked out some of the local designers. We learned a lot, and I can’t mention everything here, but as promised we got a glimpse of Icelandic art and culture, old and new.

Beautiful Icelandic Women
It’s true: Iceland does have beautiful women.

Clinton Dog
One of the places Sigrun took us to was “Bæjarins beztu,” which is a very popular hot dog stand. It’s been open since 1937, and there’s almost always a line to get one of these dogs that are made with lamb. It’s famous because Bill Clinton ate here and a few days later he had his heart attack–many joked it was because of the Iceland dog, and they now have one named after him. But the dog to get is Pylsa með öllu–a hot dog with all the trimmings (US$3).

Fiskfelagio Restaurant
Later that evening we had dinner at Fiskfelagio (website), or the Fish Company. It’s in the center of the city and was a happening spot. Most of our group had seafood, but the chef made me foal (yes, horse meat) and puffin. That’s right–I ended up eating a horse and a beautiful bird all in the same seating. How awful is that? The worst part is that they both tasted pretty good. Prices for lunch are from $17 and $29 for dinner.

FYI: Puffins are black-and-white seabirds that grow to about 10 inches tall and have colorful orange beaks. There are four different species in the world; Iceland is home to the Atlantic one, but they have so many they need to cull them.

Nonnabiti
One afternoon I went to Iceland’s Subway, called Nonnabiti, for lunch. I picked a sandwich from the menu and a few minutes later it was ready. Sadly, it wasn’t that good, and it cost a whopping US$11.24. I thought Iceland was supposed to be cheap after the economic crash?

Noodle Station
That night I went on my own to the Noodle Station. It was an eight-minute walk from 1919 and just a couple blocks from the city’s famous church, Hallgrímskirkja. It was run by Asians, and I ordered their chicken noodle soup for 930 ISK (US$8.10). I asked for it to go, but when I noticed they didn’t pack chopsticks in my bag they told me they cost 50 cents extra. If you eat there the chopsticks are free, so I sat and ate there. The place was popular with young people, and the soup was good and hot and spicy–everyone in there was blowing their noses when they finished, including me.

FYI: They offered vegetarian soup for 630 ISK. They close at 10 p.m.

Florida Candy Bar
Afterward I walked into a convenience store to see what unique things they were offering. I found a Florida chocolate bar that was made of wafer, rice crispy, and coconut for about a $1.

Hallgrimskirkja Church
Just up the street from the Noodle Station is the country’s most famous and largest (seating capacity: 1,200) church. Hallgrímskirkja is Lutheran (the religion of 95 percent of the Icelandic population) and was built from 1945 to 1986. The long construction period is one reason it became controversial; the other is its unique design. We were told the steeple is reminiscent of the rugged mountains and icecaps. The church is open to the public, and visitors should take the elevator up the 232-foot steeple (500 ISK = US$4.27). Make sure to go all the way to the top by taking a few flights of stairs for a real bird’s-eye view underneath the 29 chime bells. The views of Reykjavík from there are incredible. I didn’t do it this trip, but I did in 2006, and I remember that you need a winter hat. It’s so windy that the four huge clocks on each side of the steeple rarely tell the correct time. All four usually show different times because the winds always change direction. I happened to be up there at the top of the hour, which I didn’t realize is when the bells go off. I literally had my bell rung! It was so loud, it almost scared the religion out of me. FYI: In front of Hallgrímskirkja Church is a statue of Leif Erikson. You can’t say Icelanders don’t have a good sense of humor. Hallgrímskirkja, Skólavörðuholti, Pósthólf 651, 121 Reykjavík; Tel.: 354-510-1000.

Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Center

The main reason we were in town was to attend the grand opening of the Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Center (website). The stunning building that took five years to build and almost didn’t happen thanks to the country’s economic collapse four years ago was only saved because it was going to cost more money to tear down what they started than to finish. Thank God they kept going, because Harpa is an incredible building with a shimmering glass facade. Harpa was designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and is the new home of the Icelandic Opera and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, but they will also show films and hosts bands. There are several halls, but the main concert hall (Eldborg) can seat up to 1,800 people. The interior is painted red to make guests feel like they are in a volcano. In addition to the halls there’s also a boutique shop, a bistro, bar, and a restaurant, all with harbor views. For more info on Harpa, see these posts written by the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, and Everett Potter.

Reykjavik’s Mayor-Comedian Jon Gnarr
While in Iceland I was fortunate to meet with Reykjavík’s mayor, Jon Gnarr. He’s an interesting character, and I loved his attitude. He came into his city hall conference room wearing a stylish Icelandic suit with four different-colored buttons on his sleeve and half of his hair shaved off. It didn’t shock me that much because I had been briefed that he was a satirical comedian, actor, and punk rocker and that he basically ran for mayor as a joke.

Other fascinating tidbits about my meeting with Mayor Gnarr:

  • He chose not to sit at the head of the table.
  • He’s a vegetarian. There are four vegetarian restaurants in Reykjavík (I ate food from Glo, and it was darn good).
  • He’s most proud of giving children access to three swimming pools last summer.
  • He’s working hard on saving polar bears from being shot; he wants to build a zoo for the ones that swim to Iceland. They have been recently showing up to Iceland thanks to global warming.
  • He says HARPA will be an absolute breakthrough for the cultural of Reykjavík.
  • He says Reykjavík has an American cowboy element and a strange energy.

Side Note: The mayor didn’t say it, but I was told by the tourism official that NOT ONE person in Iceland doubts global warming. They’ve all witnessed their glaciers melting and other effects.

Super Jeeps
Our hosts arranged for us to go on a Super Jeeps all-day excursion. Our group was picked up in two 4x4s. One was your standard Nissan Patrol, but the other was a massive truck that they found in Oklahoma that can seat 10. I rode in both trucks and they were equally impressive, especially during the off-road adventures. I love driving through rivers.

Hellisheioarvirkjun Geothermal Plant
Our first stop was at the Hellisheiðarvirkjun Geothermal Plant. Iceland is a young island (geologically speaking). It started to form only 20 million years ago, from a series of volcanic eruptions on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The ridge runs through the middle of the country. As the North Atlantic and Eurasian plates pull apart, magma rises to fill in the spaces. The country is growing 1 centimeter per year. The big joke there–because it continues to grow–is that soon Iceland will take over the world.

With its Mid-Atlantic Ridge location, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic and geothermal activity. What’s awesome about the geothermal activity is the natural hot water supplies that are both cheap and pollution-free. However, in some places it takes a minute or two for the water to heat up, and it has a sulphur smell and taste. Another reason the air here is so clean is that many rivers provide inexpensive hydroelectric power. Visitors can get a first-hand look by visiting Hellisheiðarvirkjun Geothermal Plant. Entrance fee 700 ISK (US$6).

Icelandic Horses
No doubt if you drive around Iceland you will see the Icelandic horse, which is a breed of horse developed in Iceland. The horses are small but hardy. They have few diseases because Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country, and exported animals are not allowed to return. These guys were super friendly and came right up to the fence as soon as we arrived. For more see Wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_horse.

Fjorubordid Restaurant
Our next stop was Fjorubordid Restauraunt, which is about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík. It’s a beautiful seashore restaurant that is popular with seafood lovers and celebrities (Martha Stewart recently dined there with the president of Iceland). Their specialty is steamed lobster tails (crawfish) by the bucket, with potatoes (US$30). But we had lobster bisque (US$17) and some tasty salad. Fjorubordid; Tel.: 354-483-1550

Snowmobiling On Top of a Glacier
The highlight of the trip was snowmobiling on top of Mýrdalsjökull glacier. To get there was an adventure in itself because the snow was so deep at one point that the smaller truck got stuck. Natalie and I began walking to the basecamp, which was only a mile or two away, but the big jeep rescued us. Arcanum Snow Scooters were the tour outfitter; they provide one-hour snow scooter tours for about $146 per person. What’s nice is they supply warm suits, hats, gloves, and helmets. Like a fool I didn’t take their gloves, because I thought mine were sufficient–they weren’t, and my hands were freezing! Luckily Natalie gave me one of hers–since I was driving she could stick her hand in her pocket.

The Mýrdalsjökull glacier is right next to the famous Eyjafjallajökull glacier, or E-15 for short, so we got to see it up close (though it was cloudy) and stopped to see some of its ash. I should’ve bottled some of the ashes–the Eyjafjallajökull information center now sells it for about $10 a vial. Being on top of the glacier was surreal. It was as if we were on top of the world. It was so quiet and peaceful, and then at times we had views of the ocean. There was nothing scary about it– no steep drops or anything like that. Just pure heaven. Highly recommended. FYI: Arcanum touring company is one of Iceland’s best known and respected snowmobile outfitters, providing safe and responsible tours for 20 years in this location. That last line is according to the Icelandic tourist board.

Eyjafjallajokull
Not far from the bottom of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier is the newly opened visitors center at Þorvaldseyri (thorvaldseyri.is). This was one of the farms most affected by the volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajökull (or E15) glacier in 2010. The center opened its doors on April 14, 2011, on the one-year anniversary of the eruption. It’s run by a husband and wife team, and no doubt you saw Olafur Palsson when his photo of his ash-covered farm was all over the news in 2010. Since Eyjafjallajökull became so popular it’s worth a visit and to watch their 20-minute video. BTW: Did you know: Travel to Iceland from North America is up 40 percent from last year? That’s because Eyjafjallajökull put Iceland on everyone’s radar.

Random Notes from my Super Jeep Tour
-Iceland’s Volcano Hekla is the origin of the phrase, “What the heck.”
-Iceland has one jail for men, and there are 86 inmates. Over two-thirds of them are from Baltic countries. FYI: There’s another jail for females.
-My tour guide said, Icelanders drink tap water. Bottled water is for tourists. He showed us where we can drink directly from a stream.
-There aren’t many trees in Iceland except pine trees that were planted and Alaska lupine trees. The joke in Iceland is if you get lost in an Icelandic forest…stand up.
-There are thousands of waterfalls in Iceland.
-Over 50 percent of Icelanders either believe in or do not deny the existence of trolls and hidden people (huldufolk). Looking at the country’s strange rock formations (supposedly petrified trolls rising above lava plains), and hearing the stories, gave me goose bumps. I don’t doubt.

Hotel Ranga
My favorite hotel of the three I stayed in was the four-star Hotel Rangá (website); in southern Iceland. It’s about a 60-mile drive from Reykjavík. Rangá is named after the river that flows in its backyard that fills with salmon during the season and makes for a beautiful backdrop. The hotel has 51 cozy and luxurious rooms and it’s only two stories high. It’s basically a luxury log cabin slash ranch hotel. It’s well run and has personality thanks to the charming owner who mingles with his guests. I was in one of the clean, comfortable standard rooms that had a leather couch, flat-screen TV, free wireless Internet, and a large open terra-cotta tiled bathroom. The only thing I didn’t like was the shower, which doubles as a Jacuzzi; if you aren’t careful, water sprays everywhere.

Other Rangá Hotel Highlights and Observations

– The hotel has seven suites in The World Pavilion. They are all themed after the continents and they have real personality.
-A few stars have stayed here while filming movies, most recently Jake Gyllenhaal, Bear Grylls, and Ridley Scott. Jake stayed in the North America suite–I wonder if it’s because it reminded him of Brokeback Mountain.
-The reception has a 10-foot-tall stuffed polar bear. Over the billiards table is a chandelier made from deer antlers.
-The bar has funny barstools with girls’ legs and women’s undies
-Outside there are two hot tubs.
-The night maid leaves four chocolates.
-The hotel is full of beautiful natural wood, including the hallways.
-A standard double costs from US$290 per night.
-The owner is a big shot in Iceland–he owned a lucrative fishing company. What’s crazy is that one of his offices was in the town next to where I grew up in Rowayton, Connecticut.
-The hotel is eco-friendly, so the lights in the hallway automatically go on and off.
-The king of Sweden rents out the hotel each year. -The hotel restaurant serves excellent food and a great breakfast including make your own waffles.

The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon only opened in 1999, but it’s Iceland’s number-one tourist attraction with more than 400,000 visitors annually. It’s about 15 minutes (13 miles/22 km) away from the KEF airport and 29 miles (47 km) from Reykjavík, so it’s agreat place to go before getting on a plane–which is exactly what we did. The lagoon is powered 100 percent by Iceland’s clean geothermal energy and holds six million liters of geothermal brine, all of which are renewed every 40 hours. They use seawater to cool the temperatures, which range from 37 to 39°C (98 to 102°F).

The Blue Lagoon uses state-of-the-art technology for the entrance and lockers. Visitors are given a wristband that with a small white chip that’s made in Slovenia allows you to enter and exit, and open and lock your locker. It’s easy to use. Since we were invited guests they let us experience their new Exclusive Changing Lounge, where everyone is assigned a private bathroom that has towels, slippers, Blue Lagoon toiletries, a toilet, and a plush shower (to use before and after).

After a quick shower, I joined the others. This was another incredible experience, and I don’t know which part I liked best. They are so different. I did love the Blue Lagoon‘s waterfall, which provides an energizing massage. Visitors are also offered real massages, and body and face treatments while floating in a private area of the pool. A very hot steam bath in a dark lava cave is a must-visit; you should also try the sauna with a cold-water sprinkle. I hung out with some Asian girls who just finished college in Sweden and were visiting their Icelandic classmate.

Blue Lagoon has wood buckets in designated areas filled with soft white silica mud. Bathers apply it to their face to cleanse, exfoliate, and revitalize the skin, leaving it silky smooth. After showering, visitors are encouraged to put lotion all over their dry body. I did that, then had lunch in the Blue Lagoon’s LAVA restaurant. The food was great, but the dip in the lagoon was outstanding. Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa is open daily year-round. Other Blue Lagoon Notables

-Lifeguards dressed in winter jackets.
-The Blue Lagoon is located between two continents, where the Euro-Asian and American tectonic plates meet.
-The company has created products based on Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater’s active ingredients–minerals, silica, and algae.
-People with the skin disease psoriasis were among the first to experience the medicinal benefits of bathing in Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater, discovering its healing power. Blue Lagoon psoriasis treatment is based on bathing in Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater while its active ingredients, minerals, silica, and algae, exert their positive effects on the skin.
Prices: adults 30 euros (US$43), disabled 10 euros (US$14), teenagers 14 & 15 years old 10 euros (US$14), children 13 and younger are free. You can rent bathing suits for 5 euros (US$7), towels for 5 euros (US$7), and robes for 9 euros (US$13). Blue Lagoon, 240 Grindavík, Iceland; Tel.: 354-420-8800.

Icelandair KEF to IAD Inaugural May 2011
The reason I got invited to Iceland in the first place was to take part in Icelandair’s inaugural flight to Washington, D.C. They have four nonstop flights a week to Dulles. For Americans Icelandair has convenient connections to cities throughout Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe, including Amsterdam, London, Glasgow, Manchester, Billund, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg, Helsinki, Brussels, and more. You can stop over in Iceland at no additional cost en route to or from Europe, and they offer low sale fares and packages. For more information, visit Icelandair.us.

This trip I sat in Economy Comfort (more info), an economy class fare with full flexibility tailored for business travelers, with a focus on productivity and comfort. It’s basically the coach seats but they block the middle seat (seating configuration is 3×3) and give you an extra inch of legroom. Along with the extra space comes a meal with nonalcoholic drinks, wine, and beer. Other perks include:

  • Free amenity kit.
  • Free access to the in-flight entertainment system.
  • Economy Comfort passengers earn 6,000-7,200 frequent flyer points on European flights and 8,400-9,600 points on flights to and from North America.
  • Business Class check-in and lounge access.
  • Extra baggage allowance.
  • Seat selection when booking a fare.

Speak your mind