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  • Dave Philbrick

Iceland



Dramatic scenery, geothermal sites, fantastic outdoor adventures, exotic locale, safe, English-speaking.


Iceland is one of our favorite places in the world, and is worth visiting in winter as well as summer. It is a foolproof vacation destination that’s guaranteed to give you incredible photos and awe you with its outdoor adventures, but that are still safe for your kids. Driving around the country is very easy, as it’s on the right like the USA, has clear signs, polite drivers, hardly any traffic, only one main road around the country, and lots of single file rotaries that make turning around easy. Even “city” driving in Reykjavik (size of Portland, Maine) is stress-free with parking readily available.




- 01 -

Take in a show at the Harpa, which is Iceland’s version of the Sydney Opera House. Tickets are reasonably priced, and if you have a chance to catch the hilarious live comedy show “Icelandic Saga: The Greatest Hits,” be sure not to miss it. In addition to laughing harder than you ever have in your life, you will get a great education on Icelandic history, literature, and culture. Both parents and kids are guaranteed to love it.

- 02 -

Mink Viking Portrait in the center of Reykjavik will transform you or your family into authentic looking Vikings! They were part of the production team on Game of Thrones, and have top quality costumes, makeup and lighting and will deliver a movie-still quality photo as if you starred in a Viking movie (don’t bother showering or brushing your hair!).

- 03 -

Blue Lagoon. Be sure to make a reservation for the Blue Lagoon, as it is usually booked out well in advance. Because IcelandAir is one of only a handful of airlines that allow its passengers to leave the airport on a layover and it’s only 10 minutes from the airport, there are loads of tourists that do the Blue Lagoon on their way to Europe. Don’t bother paying for the luxury package, you won’t want it.

- 04 -

Saga Museum. If you have time to visit only one museum, the Saga Museum was our favorite. Quick and fun, you walk by scenes of wax figures of the most important people in their history, and Icelandic history is just that – saga stories of individual people. They have a great collection of good costumes to dress up in for free which makes a funny family photo.

- 05 -

Iceland is a top world destination for New Year’s Eve. It has arguably the most spectacular fireworks in the world, as buying fireworks supports the National Search & Rescue. Huge chrysanthemums are set off by kids as well as adults all over the city, so it looks like a huge light show (or war zone!) for hours in all directions! Stand at or near the Perlan (Pearl) Restaurant on a hill for the best and safest view. There are also several big bonfires in the city with people singing and dancing around them, which has been the traditional celebration since 900 AD. The city still has its Christmas decorations, and the ice and snow make the country sparkle and the waterfalls, hot springs, and geysers more dramatic.

- 06 -

Northern Lights can happen any time of year though they are more common in winter. A great way to try to catch them is by staying in the Bubble Hotel which are clear geodesic tent-like structures in two different artificial light-free locations in the country. They are known as the “5 million star hotel” for good reason!




SUNDAY


Famous Blue Lagoon

Upon arrival pick up your SUV which suits this rugged wild country. We rented a LandRover with snorkel for the fun of it, as while we went offroad and over unpaved roads we never went through water over our muffler. You’ll be amazed by the extensive lava fields you’ll see on the short drive to the Blue Lagoon for your early morning reservation. Swimming in the hot lagoon is a fantastic way to unwind from the flight! However, you’ll want to prepare your kids for seeing lots of naked adults in the open changing rooms, though there are bathroom stalls to change in also. After that fun and unique experience, have breakfast in their cafeteria and then drive the short distance to Viking World (open on Sundays), a museum with a life-size replica of the Viking ship that Leif Erikson took to North America. Standing next to the surprisingly modest ship that had no cabin lets you really appreciate how incredible a feat it was to make it across the open Atlantic Ocean to an unknown destination and successfully sail home again. When you’re ready to check into your hotel, we can highly recommend the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll. It has a great location across from the Harpa, short walking distance to the central restaurant and shopping area, and has spectacular views of the harbor and mountains from its rooftop restaurant.

MONDAY Yes, you have to do the usual stops on the Golden Circle – Geysir, Strokkur, Thingvellir, and Gullfoss are justly famous. It doesn’t matter what order you do them in, and they are all well worth visiting. At Thingvellir you can stand with each foot in a different continent! You can actually see the Mid-Atlantic Rift between the American and European tectonic plates which widens every year.

The original Geyser

TUESDAY Spend the day exploring Reykjavik with its dozen museums. We found the Saga Museum, National Museum, and Whale Museum the most interesting. Enjoy the interesting shopping in the city, particularly the main shopping street of Laugavegur, and try an Icelandic hot dog which is cheap and popular. And Reykjavik night life is great – it’s safe, easy walk to all, and done well – start with a cocktail at Café Ananas with its kitschy tropical theme and head to Kaffibarinn and Pablo Discobar for great afterhours dancing.

Viking Museum


WEDNESDAY

Myvatn Blue Lagoon

Time to explore the rest of the country! Drive to Laugarvatn Fontana and join the locals at the charming multi-tiered community pools beside Lake Myvatn, some of which were designed to look as if they were naturally made out of lava. Their café serves smoked salmon on Icelandic rye bread steamed from a geothermal bakery which has a great soft and chewy texture. Stay at the charming Farmhotel Efstidalur and have dinner at their upscale barn with their well known ice cream for dessert.

THURSDAY

Hveragerdi natural hot springs

Drive to Hveragerdi for a very memorable experience hot springs experience. Park along Breidamork Road and follow the clear trail across fields and then up hills. Make sure to wear your bathing suit under your clothes and if you want a change of clothes and plastic bag for it after, a towel, a fair amount of water, and you’ll want to wear your hiking boots. The hike is fairly steep in places and takes about an hour. It’s a very charming and scenic hike, but nothing can prepare you for the idyllic destination. It seems like a fantasy that set in a valley of lush green grass runs a picture-perfect stream with cascading waterfalls lined by rocks sending up gentle clouds of steam. Hikers quickly take their boots and outer clothes off and sink blissfully into the pleasantly warm water. The hard part is leaving that heaven to put boots on for the long hike home! There are privacy screens for changing along with a portapotty. Check into the Frost & Fire Boutique Hotel, enjoy fine dining in their glass conservatory, and finish the evening in their hot tub beside a scenic rocky river.

FRIDAY


Head to Vik and stop along the way at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which is known for visitors being able to walk behind it. You will get only a little wet with mist, so no need for raingear. What is less known but very special and what your kids will love is that as you exit from the waterfall follow the trail to the right to climb up a fun short steep hike with super views – you have to use your hands to pull yourself up, help pull others up, and there’s even a board leaning against the rock to help you reach the next level. Definitely do it – it will make you feel like a kid again! At the top look down through the holes in the rocks at the hidden waterfall in the cave below. Then clamber down and follow the trail to the right again to walk on rocks that are at or barely above the stream’s water line and putting a hand on the cave’s wall for balance through a cave to the Gljufrabui waterfall inside that is coming out of a hole in the cave’s ceiling. The effect is enchanting. Have lunch at the Black Beach Restaurant on Black Sand Beach in Vik. Kids will enjoy climbing on the basalt rock columns and watching countless puffins flying around who have made their nests in them. Just off the coast are dramatic pinnacle rock formations that will have you believing in trolls. We stayed at the Puffin Hostel, which was a very good experience. It was clean and charming, and we enjoyed talking to the other adult guests.

Hiking the Hveragerdi Trail
Basalt columns - and a tiny Syd in Reynisfjara

Straddling the continental plates


SATURDAY

Skogafoss rainbow

Head to Hofn and stop along the way at Skogafoss and then at the famous glacier lagoon in Jokulsarlon. You might think you can see it all from shore and don’t need to see it from the water, but absolutely do the Zodiac boat ride for which you dress in ocean survival suits. Avoid the large boat ride, it is sluggish and packed with bus tourists. The Zodiac ride speeding close to the water around icebergs and going right up to the calving glacier is spectacular and thrilling! Another incredibly special adventure is to hike to Hoffellsjokull glacier outside of Hofn. It’s a short and easy hike and you’ll have this epic place to yourselves. Stand on the ridge overlooking the glacier and its mini lagoon for a fantastic photo. Then enjoy dinner in the lobster capital of Iceland and check into the Apotek Guesthouse.

Dave overlooking Hoffellsjokull Glacier Lagoon
Syd admiring Jokulsarlon glaciers
Iceland's _Pisa_ photo at Jokulsarlon

SUNDAY Make the long drive to see Dettifoss which has to be seen to be believed. It is the second most powerful waterfall in Europe, and this huge waterfall exists in its natural setting as if just discovered. Though there are toilets and on the west side a viewing platform, otherwise there’s no infrastructure around it or anywhere near it – not so much as a safety rail on the 170-foot high cliffs! Continue driving to Myvatn Nature Baths which is known as the mini blue lagoon. It has the same eerie milky blue color due to minerals and is also heated naturally by hot springs. It is never crowded and has an infinity/negative edge overlooking a large lake that lends an air of serenity. Drive to Akureyri and check into the Saeluhus Apartments & Houses which will be your base for the next three days. You’ll have your own small modern house on the edge of and overlooking a large fiord, with a hot tub and grill on your deck. Everyone will enjoy spreading out and having a chance to do laundry!

Dettifoss

MONDAY

Godafoss - no railings!

Today drive to Godafoss, which is yet another impressive waterfall that true to Icelandic mores allows you to experience it naturally and at your own risk. This is about the time in the trip when our kids started to complain to us – “No more waterfalls!” Sorry, kids, but we are in the waterfall capital of the world and your mom can’t get enough! To placate them, we stopped at the new Lava Centre which was great fun. It was high tech and interactive, such as allowing you to experience an earthquake with shaking floors.






TUESDAY One of the highlights of the trip was whitewater rafting on the East Glacier River with Viking Rafting. It’s the most exciting rafting in Iceland, and amazing to think that the water we are rafting is melting directly from glaciers, so the last time it was in liquid form was 10,000 years ago! In an only-in-Iceland moment, we pulled up to a small beach along the river where they had plastic mugs and hot chocolate mix and we held our cups under the nearby hot waterfall and made ourselves natural hot chocolate! It was not mineral water but extremely clean fresh water heated by the ground. Also, at one point we got out and jumped off a 25-foot high rock into the churning river.

WEDNESDAY

Another highlight was whale watching on a RIB boat, which has a 100% whale sighting record. Nothing compares with a RIB boat for speed and agility – it’s like a Zodiac on steroids, and our kids still talk about how crazy fast it goes. You will wear goggles and a Norwegian ocean survival suit, and it’s so fast you can’t sit down – just straddle padded benches between arm rails. Watching whales (mink and humpback) here is unique because of the shallow fiord and the RIB boats. Whales surface every 5 minutes, and RIB boats not only can get to any whale they see on the horizon within a few minutes, but their boats are allowed to be within 10 feet of the whale. It makes for an incredible experience, being close to the water surface and only a few feet from the whale. Then the fun of every 5 minutes the adrenaline as you rocket like a cigarette boat but turn on a dime to the next whale. Just for fun, the captain took us next to a steaming waterfall coming down a cliff wall so we could feel the hot mist. For lunch and dinner Akureyri has lots of great seafood restaurants

Ready for whale watching in Akureyri
Whale watching in Akureyri

THURSDAY Sadly leave pretty Akureyri and head to Blonduos. You can’t leave Iceland without experiencing the Icelandic horse with its unique 5th “tolt” gait. The tolt gait feels smoother, as if the horse is doing dressage. Galsi Horse Rental offers a 1.5 hour ride not near any roads, which is unusual for short trail rides. Their horses are beautifully trained, and to ride in an expanse of fields out of sight from any houses or fences is to feel you have gone back to the founding of Norse Iceland.

Family that ATVs together!

If you don’t have time to drive the Ring Road (Route 1) around the country, our friends really liked their day on the Westman Islands. Several great things there to do including being able to put your hand on the black soil and feel the volcanic heat, cooking food over the volcanic vents, and even in season puffins that will stand on your head!.

We put our hiking boots on at the departure airport and for over a week didn’t take them off except at night! Even at restaurants and walking around the city, you’ll see most people in hiking boots. Unlike west of the Rockies in the U.S., there are no apex predators just sheep, so it’s super safe to hike anywhere with your kids.


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