Just Back From… Iceland

There’s a lot of buzz right now about Iceland.  Why?  For many good reasons.  One, there’s its long standing status as the world’s safest country, which is attractive to Americans eager to travel, but still cautious due to world events. But more likely it’s because Iceland offers something for everyone in its exotic, ice-capped and unspoiled paradise.  Eager to see for myself, I put together a high end “girls trip” to explore this unknown land, and based on the response, it was clear this was a destination many were also eager to experience.

I worked with our partner Abercrombie & Kent (who used their local contact Luxury Adventures Iceland) on a 4-night itinerary that would take us to the country’s highlights and also some out-of-the-ordinary “girls trip” adventure.  I planned the trip with eight spots available including myself, and all were filled in a matter of weeks.

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I must admit, the non-stop airlift out of my hometown airport Chicago O’Hare helped make this trip an easier sell.  Icelandair also operates nonstop flights out of many major U.S. cities such as Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco, and New York City.  The flight over was a breeze – our group was split between economy and Saga (business) class based on individual budgets and everyone travelled comfortably in both cabins – the flight even landed ahead of schedule.

Upon arrival at Keflavik Airport the first morning, we were met by our guide/driver after clearing customs.  He picked us up in one of the coolest automobiles we had had ever seen.  It was a Mercedes Benz Sprinter van that had been retrofitted for Iceland conditions with 4×4 balloon tires so it could drive on glaciers and through any rough terrain.

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The first stop on our agenda was the country’s famous Blue Lagoon.  This was the most amazing way to start the journey because we arrived as it opened when everything was still dark and we were still sleepy from the quick 6-hour flight.  To watch the sun rise while swimming through the warm lagoons in the cold winter air was an unforgettable moment.  We had also pre-arranged to have water massages, which was a unique experience.  I had booked us the VIP lounge so we had our own individual bathrooms with private showers, robes, slippers and bath products that locked so we could leave our belongings.  The private lounge also included a fireplace, fresh fruit and drinks so we could take breaks from swimming to relax in a quiet peaceful place.

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After our refreshing swim, we left the Blue Lagoon at lunchtime to check into our hotel in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city of Iceland.  Believed to be the location of the first settlement in Iceland in AD 870, Reykjavik is today a charming European city with great shops, restaurants and cafes.  We were staying at the art deco inspired Hotel Borg that was originally built in 1930 and continues to be one of the finest hotels in the city. I would characterize the hotel as a nice European 4-star property.

We spent the first afternoon walking around the downtown and exploring a few shops and museums.  That evening we dined at the highly acclaimed Grill Market, which featured local specialties.  After dinner we grabbed drinks at nearby Loftid.

The next morning, we travelled out to Thingvellir, the site of the oldest democratic parliament in the world.  What you see are rocks and faults in the countryside, but it’s a marvel and geologically significant since it lies on the exact boundary between the Eurasian and North American Plates.

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We enjoyed the most special lunch at Frioheimar, where the locals have devised an ingenious system to thermally grow tomatoes and other vegetables in greenhouses.  We met with local farmers to learn about their processes and then enjoyed the most incredible organic lunch of tomato soup and pasta featuring some of their produce.

After lunch, we experienced the thrill of snowmobiling on an ancient glacier.  All the necessary outerwear was provided for our group.  This was an exciting and extreme adrenaline adventure for us yet at the same time it was a peaceful up-close-with-nature experience to be surrounded by such pristine natural winter beauty.

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After our thrilling snowmobile ride we jump back in our monster truck to head toward our hotel.  Along the way we make one pit stop to see Geysir, pronounced “geyser”, which is the reason all other erupting hot springs worldwide bear the same name.  Its most active geyser, Strokkur, still erupts up to 90 feet in the air every 5 minutes or so.  Be ready for the strong smell of sulfur.

We arrive at our countryside Hotel Ranga, where we will stay for the next two nights.  Hotel Ranga has all the facilities and services of a modern resort yet its log cabin exterior match the rustic elements of the terrain and the rooms are decorated with a quirky charm.  I selected this hotel based on its easy drive (about 1.5 hours) from Reykjavik since we were on a packed 4-day itinerary.

Everyone staying at this hotel was there for one purpose only: to see the northern lights.  There is never a guarantee of seeing the northern lights when in Iceland – it’s all a matter of weather conditions and climate, which means they could appear at anytime in the night without warning.  As a result, the hotel has a wake up call system where they will ring your room when you’re sleeping if the lights appear.  Our group had discussed frequently leading up to the trip whether we’d be lucky enough to see that glowing green sky.

The hotel boasts a fantastic restaurant and we dined well that night.  Just as we sat back to digest our incredible meal and enjoy a post dinner coffee, the front desk clerk walked over to our table smiling and said the most magical words, “Ladies, we have lights.” I have never seen eight women jump up from a table faster than a first day visit to the Neiman Marcus Last Call sale.

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The hotel staff was lovely to quickly hand out blankets to guests streaming out without coats to catch a glimpse of the night sky.  And there the lights were – brilliant, ominous and extraterrestrial. Our group stood together in awe that we were experiencing nature, outer space, life and an exotic land all in one – it was a bonding moment for everyone from all over the world staying in the hotel together that night.  After dozens of photos our group went back inside and enjoyed a lively game of cards – the pressure was off – we had checked a big “x” next to that  bucketlist item.

The next morning our adventure continued with more thrilling activities.  This was our day to explore the gorgeous and moon-like topography of Iceland.  There are very few trees in this country, but what it lacks in trees it makes up for in black sandy beaches, mountains, strange lava formations and waterfalls.  We spent our morning touring many amazing parts of the southwest corner of the country (which is the size of the state of Kentucky).

That afternoon we had the opportunity to walk on a glacier.  We were provided with helmets, crampons and pick axes as well as guided instruction on the do’s and don’t’s of glacier walking.  Our guide took us up to explore the hidden world of frozen water and the crevasse riddled outlet glacier with its incredible ice formations, sink holes and jagged ridges.  Our group was in good fitness shape so we spent a couple hours walking up the glacier before turning back.

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Exhausted and hungry from our active day we dined at simple yet yummy local restaurant called Arhus in nearby Hella that evening and enjoyed after dinner cocktails back at Hotel Ranga.

On our third morning we checked out of the hotel and took off early to visit a horse-breeding farm.  The owner welcomed us into his home and hosted us for a delicious Icelandic breakfast and coffee.  After chatting and learning about the many attributes of the Icelandic horse, we were off to the stables to suit up for a private horseback ride – each of us on our own horse.  The horses were spectacular, the views were breathtaking as it gracefully snowed around us, and the experience was all around unforgettable.  After our hour-long ride, we ended back in their home for a spectacular home cooked lunch of traditional Icelandic food.

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After our thrilling morning of horseback riding, we returned to the capital city and Hotel Borg.  We spent the afternoon touring some of the cultural and historical highlights of Reykjavik such as the Hallgrimskirkja Church with a tower that provides exceptional views of the city below. We spent the remainder of the afternoon shopping for gifts and souvenirs.  That evening we dined at famed local establishment Dill Restaurant and the tasting menu was incredible.  After dinner we stopped at a few local bars and met many friendly and fascinating locals.

Our final morning in Iceland was spent at the National Museum where we toured its permanent exhibition, “Making of a Nation – Heritage and History in Iceland.”  After a lunch at the lovely museum café we headed to the airport to check into our nonstop flight home to Chicago.  Everyone agreed this was a trip of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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