Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland

All of the weather apps, no matter how much I wished it otherwise, showed rain and clouds for my four day weekend in Reykjavik so I resigned myself that I probably wasn’t going to see the Northern Lights in Iceland on this trip. The Aurora forecast for Iceland was showing the activity in the 2-3 range (moderate) on a 9 point scale but with cloud cover that didn’t matter.  With that, I figured I would play it by ear and see what happens.

Friday: Tours Canceled

Saturday: Tours are going, but I’m exhausted from my day of adventure on the Golden Circle and have a dinner reservation pre-booked

Sunday: Tours Canceled

Monday: Go Time!

Having talked with folks about Saturday, those on the big bus didn’t see the lights, while those on the Superjeep did.  I decided that with a weekend of rain and clouds as well as an activity forecast of 2 on a 9 point scale, I needed all the help I could so chose to spend the extra to go Superjeep (about $160 per person).

Dressing for the Northern Lights

It was my last night in Reykjavik and I had to leave for the airport at 5:30 a.m. so I was packing up but I was also trying to figure out the best layering combination for my Northern Lights tour.  With the weather forecast, I had resigned myself that I wasn’t going to see the Northern Lights and yet, here I was dressing for an Eagles (football) game in December (layers, layers and more layers without the warmth of the tailgating alcohol).  As it was my last night, if we didn’t see the lights, I wouldn’t be able to try again tomorrow (most vendors will allow you two tries for one price so best to book on your first night if you can) so this was my gamble – my only shot.

Once sorted into what I thought appropriate for temperatures of 3-4c (37F-39F) not too bad, but outside of the city in the pitch black with the winds it would be pretty frigid. My wardrobe consisted of four layers of tops, two layers of pants, two pair of socks, warm/lined boots, wind resistant coat with hood, hat, scarf, gloves and a new pair of Icelandic mittens to go on top.  I was also bringing a bag with snacks, water and my cashmere scarf that could serve as a blanket or additional scarf.  I was ready or so I thought……

The Northern Lights Iceland Reykjavik

The faint glow of the Northern Lights – happy to get a hint of green given my tech ignorance this night

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The South Coast of Iceland – Glaciers, Waterfalls and Black Sand Beaches

The fog was all I could see from the mini bus as we left Reykjavik headed toward the South Coast.  It was so thick I was reminded of my Wild Wicklow tour in Dublin last year where I was in awe of the driver navigating the road that we could barely see. It was Sunday in Iceland and I was joining the GeoIceland tour of the South Coast.  In researching the South Coast options, the GeoIceland small group tour (under 20 people), good reviews and the cost (about $100) seemed perfect for me.

Our first stop, about an hour outside of Reykjavik along Highway 1, was a convenience store with restrooms that seemed to be “the stop” for all tour groups.  Tip:  Use the restroom first before the big buses get here and then buy your snacks (you will need snacks for the day).

South Coast Iceland Ring Road

No traffic on the South Coast tour of Iceland

The Black Sand Beach in the Fog and Rain

Given the weather, heavy fog and light rain, our guide, Baldvin, decided to drive to the Black Sand Beach, Reynisfjara, near Vik as our first stop passing the waterfalls (where the other groups were).  Along the way, we dropped off a couple at the Sólheimajökull Glacier entrance as they were doing a glacier walk (we would be back to visit later).

The ride to the beach along the two lane road was uneventful, where the fog had lifted you could see the hills/mountains, the vast landscapes and some animals. As it was winter, the puffins were not in residence (there is a stop in summer when they are). Arriving at the beach, it was windy,cold, rainy and still foggy and yet, just lovely. The black sand, the thick fog, the roaring ocean, all made for a mysterious, moody visit.

Black sand beach Iceland Reynisfjara near Vik

First view of the black sand beach Reynisfjara

 

Black Sand Beach Iceland

Everyone trying to get their shot on the black sand beach of Iceland

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Surviving the weekend in Iceland’s cashless society

Cashless Iceland

Do not toss coins in the steam but could be used for the cashless society in Iceland

The airport ATM accepted my card, password and request for cash but then spit out the paper saying it couldn’t give me cash!  I initially thought at 6:30 a.m. maybe the machine was empty so I tried the other machine, same result – no cash.  Not worrying too much, I planned to find an ATM and/or bank in Reykjavik once I got settled at the hotel.

Finding the nearest ATM with the Plus sign was easy (around the corner from hotel). I waited for the lady ahead of me to finish her transaction and when I saw the machine spit out cash, I was relieved that I would soon have Icelandic Króna to add to my collection but also to spend this weekend on incidentals like breakfast, snacks, water, etc.. Going through the ATM motions, I had my hand ready to take my cash dispensed, except, nothing came out except the paper saying it couldn’t process my transaction.  I now realized that I would be calling my bank to see what the heck was going on – the fact that they are on speed dial isn’t good as they’ve stranded me in many countries without cash access.

 

A Bit of Foreshadowing

Prior to my trip, on the way to the airport, I called my bank to give them the whole “I’m going to this, that and the other country” so they could allow my ATM card to work.  They have consistently shut off my ATM card when I travel despite the travel notes, despite the fact that I travel internationally for business, etc. Just this past June they denied me money in London and I spent more than an hour to get that fixed.

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The Golden Circle Tour of Iceland – A Day of Adventure Fueled by Cookies

The Land Rover felt like it was auditioning for a commercial as we drove downhill to the “old road” along the Golden Circle.  We made it to the bottom over many a bumpy road filled with rocks and dirt only to wash it off through the small stream.  I hadn’t planned on having this type of adventure in Iceland on my first day but the Golden Circle tour was from start to finish a “once in a lifetime” type of day when everything worked perfectly despite the weather.

Choosing the small tour option of SuperJeep, I was picked up in the morning at 8:30 a.m. (it’s still dark out) and offered the front passenger seat (one of the perks of going solo) for a great view after I climbed way, way up and into the jeep.  Our vehicle would have a total of six passengers – two couples from the UK, a lady from Copenhagen and me (a good mix of friendly, happy people despite the rain and clouds). The cost was 35.900,00 (about $288 per adult) for the 8-9 hour tour (excluding snowmobiling which was extra).

Superjeep Iceland tours

Small tours of Iceland via Superjeep

 

Golden Circle Thingvellir – Viking History

Our first stop, about an hour or so outside of town, was Thingvellir National Park.  We met the other Superjeep groups and the guides explained how the day of 300km+ would progress showing us the map inside the visitor center before we went back outside to the viewing platform.

Thingvillir National Park Iceland

Thingvillir National Park site of the Iceland’s First Parliament

Thingvillir National Park Iceland Parliament

The pathway between the rocks to walk from top to bottom at Thingvillir National Park

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The Grill Market Reykjavik, Farm to Table with a Pinch of Volcano Salt

It’s no secret that my happy place is red meat, red wine and chocolate cake or that I love great design.  So imagine my surprise to find a new happy place in Reykjavik on my first night in the city.  Having done a bit of research prior to the trip and consulting with the hotel concierge, I thought The Grill Market (Grillmarkaõurinn) would be a good introduction to the Icelandic food scene once I arrived.  The Grill Market is popular spot with locals and visitors so with a week’s notice, I was able to get a reservation for 6 p.m. on a winter Friday night.  The time was perfect as I originally thought I might get out on a Northern Lights tour which generally leave at 8 p.m.  As the Northern Lights tours were canceled, I had all the time to enjoy my meal (and I would enjoy every single bite).

The Grill Market Reykjavik

My new happy place in Iceland

Inside the Grill Market

The restaurant is centrally located inside the courtyard off of the main pedestrian street (diagonal from the 10-11 convenience store), it is a distinctively red building that I noticed earlier on my photo walk of the area.  As I entered, I was directed to hang my coat on the racks inside the doors before I was asked if I wanted to sit at the kitchen counter or at a table.  As a solo diner, having a choice is always welcomed – I chose the table to give me a bit more room and observe the restaurant in motion.  Seated in the corner of the upstairs dining room, I faced the open kitchen and was in the middle of both sides of the room.  My table also had full view of the spiral staircase to the bar/lounge and dining room below.  The contemporary warm wood and lighting design was very cool – this was a modern (trendy) restaurant with pockets of cozy, intimate spaces, created with Icelandic materials and inspiration. The music soundtrack was a mix of modern with 50’s music and a splash of Christmas songs – the eclectic nature kept you guessing and also singing too.

The Grill Market Open Kitchen

My view of the open kitchen at The Grill Market in Reykjavik

The Grill Market Dining Room

The upstairs dining room on the left at The Grill Market -cozy tables

The Grill Market Lighting Fixture

The lights over the spiral staircase leading to the lower level lounge and dining room

The Grill Market lounge

Nice place to wait for your table at The Grill Market

The Grill Market Experience

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Icelandair Business Class – Saga Seat from Newark to Reykjavik (EWR-KEF)

For my first flight on Icelandair, I decided to book Economy Comfort class, via my travel agent, which was slightly more expensive that Coach.  The added benefits were that the middle coach seat was blocked so only two people in a row, a whole one inch (1″) of extra pitch (woohoo!), lounge access (this was the selling point for me) and a meal with wine onboard.  So was Economy Comfort worth the added costs?  I don’t know as I didn’t fly in Economy Comfort from Newark (EWR) to Reykjavik (KEF).

Flight Map EWR-KEF

Iceland is closer than you think

When checking in online the day before, I checked the seating chart to see if the other seat (the aisle) was occupied for the flight (it wasn’t).  While I thought it a bit weird that the seat map showed only two seats and not the blocked middle seat, I stayed in my assigned 4A window seat.  After using the Economy Comfort separate check in counter, I proceeded to the Lufthansa lounge that Icelandair uses.  When I first entered the small lounge, it was packed (every seat full) so the agent told me I might want to come back in 1/2 hour after the Germany flight departed.

Icelandair EWR lounge

Icelandair premium passengers use the Lufthansa lounge at Newark

Waiting in the common area of the Newark gate is a bit depressing, there are two pubs, a coffee stand and a general store, these are the times that I miss my hometown Philadelphia International Airport with a plethora of options.  I did, however, utilize the free charging centers and jumped on wifi (sadly at a cost, not free). After the Germany flights departed, I went back to the lounge and it was pretty empty with about ten people on the business class side.  There are about 20 lounge chairs, three high top tables and four low top tables to choose from.  The hot and cold foods were fresh and interesting, however, all with dairy so I could only look no touch.  I opted for wine instead and then opened my Corner Bakery sandwich I had brought with me (luckily, I was not thrown out of the lounge for my outside food as I was by USAirways in PHL Terminal F in the past).

Lufthansa Icelandair Lounge Newark

The drinks side of the Lufthansa lounge at Newark

Icelandair boarded a few minutes late and the gate was surrounded by such an interesting mix of passengers.  I had to smile at the young mom who told the other mom she was going “there” as she pointed to the gate saying “I don’t know how to pronounce it”.  It was Reykjavik and I wondered how many others just said “I’m going to Iceland”.  Boarding for Economy Comfort class was allowed at the same time as Business (Saga) class passengers.  The fact that you get most (not all) of the benefits of a business class ticket for less was surprising to me.

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The Weekend in Iceland Itinerary – Four Days Solo in Reykjavik

“Are you crazy”?  that seemed to be the question of the day when I told friends and family that I was going to Iceland for a long weekend (4 days) in November.  I explained that the flight from Newark to Reykjavik (Iceland) was about the same to the West Coast of the U.S., they said “that’s not bad, I didn’t realize Iceland was so close” (most people don’t). My travel agent even tried to persuade me to go to South America instead “there’s no rain!”, I laughed and said “with me, there’s always rain, even when there shouldn’t be” (see Sydney trip).  My decision for a weekend in Iceland was a quick one, booking three weeks out, as I had vacation days to use or lose. With the stopover option, I was able to add London (3 hour flight) for a spot of Christmas markets, shopping and chocolate (it helped that I had two Hyatt free night certificates from opening up their credit card earlier this year).  I redeemed British Airways Avios to fly direct from London to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving in Club World (home in time for dinner) rather than Icelandair back to Newark via Reykjavik.

Colorful houses of Reykjavik Iceland

Colorful Houses of Reykjavik

Iceland has quickly emerged as the country to visit (a friend did the $850 Groupon for a quick weekend inclusive of air and single supplement) or maybe it’s all the “stopover” ads I’ve seen from Icelandair.  Icelandair let’s you stopover in Iceland for up to 7 days on your way to/from a European destination – so basically two vacations in one!  With some quick research, I quickly realized that there’s more to the country than the Blue Lagoon, for which I had zero interest, and the erupting 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano (referred to as E15 which is easier to pronounce).

With such a quick visit to Iceland, this was not the time to rent a car on my own and wing it (maybe in the summer months, but not winter) so I would book two tours – The Golden Circle and The South Coast (note that you can actually buy tours on the Icelandair flight from the IFE system).  The only uncertainty was a Northern Lights tour as the week’s weather was scheduled to be rainy and cloudy each day.  Before I left, I resigned myself to not seeing the Northern Lights, yes I was sad, but you can’t predict nature.  With so many factors needing to come together, the tour vendors usually decide by 6pm if they will offer the tour or not.  If you go out and don’t see the Northern Lights then the vendor will allow you to go the next night offered for free.  The tours leave generally at 8 p.m. and don’t get back until near 1 a.m.so it was a bit tricky to plan ahead.

Sunset Night View of Reykjavik City Center

The sunset view of Reykjavik outside of Hotel Borg

My Weekend in Iceland Itinerary

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My Thanksgiving in Paris, the Year Mom Boycotted Our Turkey Dinner

Growing up in my small family, Thanksgiving dinner meant that we pulled out the dining room table to add a leaf to seat six.  The china cabinet was opened and the dishes on display most of the year were carefully removed and set for dinner.  Pulling out the silver drawer as a child allowed me to feel the fuzzy, velvet lining as my sister and I counted out six forks, knives, spoons and serving utensils.  We repeated this at Christmas and Easter.  Once dinner was over and my birthday cake devoured (my birthday is in November and always celebrated later at Thanksgiving), my father and I returned to the basement rec room to watch football.  This was our tradition and while my dad was alive, I missed this tradition twice – once on my first visit to London in college and again on my visit to Perth and New Zealand.  While others wondered how I could miss my family on this important day of turkey and football, I reminded them that coming from a small family that saw each other regularly, it was ok to miss a dinner if I had the opportunity to travel (with my parents pre-approval of course).

Eiffel Tower Paris

Eiffel Tower Paris

Last year, the year my dad passed, my mom boycotted Thanksgiving – there would be no turkey, no football, no family gathering for dinner as our family was one man down and we all were trying to cope.  Mom was pretty steadfast to veto all turkey day options.  At the time I was planning my Australia RTW trip, Thanksgiving was a consideration until Mom boycotted it so I ended up in Paris for Thanksgiving staying with a friend. While you can try to run away from grief, it is never that far behind no matter how magical a place may be.

Place de la Concorde and Roue de Paris at night

Place de la Concorde and Roue de Paris at night

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