Monday, March 09, 2015

Iceland in the winter?

As you can see, the trusty Ice Cream Diaries seems to get little attention for anything besides my travel adventures or a new coffee table book.  As I've explained before, it's not because I don't still love the gig or that I'm not still entertained by the cool stuff that happens in my little slice of ice cream paradise.  Case in point, the very cool marketing poster handmade by my buddy's 10 year old daughter Mallory..

In any event, one of the many 'off-season' thoughts that runs through my head and often falls onto my 'projects list' for the new year is to resurrect the old ICD blog for more the just the aforementioned travel and book release entries.  Suffice to say, I wish I could promise a weekly new entry or even a monthly one, but in the more likely event that this snow actually does melt and ice cream chaos returns to consume my life as it does every year starting around April 23rd, I've learned better than to make such a promise.  But who knows.  Perhaps something or someone will inspire me between now and next January..

In the meantime, let's talk about my latest winter break, or 'January of Jim' as I like to call it.  As you probably know, in addition to my usual trip west for some Utah skiing and Colorado quality time with great friends, I like to boldly go to a place I've never gone before.  Ideally, it's a destination on my travel bucket list.  Last year's Galapagos Islands trip was a tough act to follow to be sure.  An African safari was high on the list this year, but the whole Ebola thing spooked me from that a little bit.

Perhaps next year.   If anyone has any tips.. Or would care to join?

But let's talk about this year, shall we?  As you probably already know (and if the title of this blog didn't give it away), this year's port o' call was Iceland.  It didn't click off the 'warm and tropical' box on my January destination criteria, but it's been a place I've wanted to go for some time.  Sure, a July visit to Iceland has its advantages, but the reality for me right now is I'm not able to leave my teenager alone for more than a day or two during the high season.  And by teenager I mean Mt. Tom's of course.   I knew Iceland wouldn't be warm in early February (I booked it as late as I could in my break so as to have more than the four hours of daylight I would have gotten in early January).  It was a lot of great things but I can't say warm was one of them.  Then again 30's and 40's felt balmy after the single digit highs I left here in snowy Massachusetts.

And besides, who wouldn't want to go to a place where there were 130 volcanos and 80% of the population believe that elves are real.

Who knew when I booked the trip back in November that I'd be flying right in the middle of the Superbowl.  And much more importantly, who knew our beloved Patriots would be in said Superbowl.  I did get to watch the first half in the international wing of Logan airport.  As luck would have it, I got to travel on one of the few IcelandAir planes equipped with Wi-Fi.  Eight euros well spent..

Just five short hours and one missed night of sleep later, I stepped foot on the same giant chunk of lava our first lunar astronauts trained on, the magical treeless isle of Iceland.

I couldn't resist the map with the volcanoes on it. 

I could tell from the spotless Ikea-like airport, this was no ordinary country.

Even the airport bathroom was something..

It was just a quick and sleepy forty-five minute shuttle from Keflavlik to downtown Reykjavik.  I was a little leery about staying in a hostel, being over 21 years old and not traveling with a backpack, but my fears were unfounded.  It didn't hurt that I had chosen one of the best hostels on the entire planet.

Loft Hostel

Super cool, nice rooms, downtown location, clean and peaceful, happy hour every day, and live music most nights.  Hostels everywhere could learn a lot from this place.

And what's not to like about a place that cuts your morning cold cuts into heart shapes?

After check-in and a quick jetlag-induced power nap, it was off to get the lay of the land and book a few excursion for my week in the land of ice.

Looking across the bay..

The Hallgrimskrikja church...

The view from the belfry of the church...

Ok, I didn't go here.   It claims to be the only one in the world.  Proving that there truly is a museum for everything.

Moving right along.   Did you know what is the most popular restaurant in Iceland?

Yes. it's true.   Don't ask me what the brownish condiment was because while it was yummy, I have no idea.

It was much tastier than this would have been, despite what the label might lead you to believe..

Dried fish and fermented shark are the 'local foods' tourists are told to try while they are here.  Luckily, one of my travel guides gave us some helpful tips on that.   He told us about the process of fermenting the sharks, which involved months of hanging in a barn, among other not so pleasant things.  He also mentioned the locals call it rotten shark, and it's about the last thing they would choose to eat.  Ok, maybe just before pickled ram testicles and blood pudding, other tourist temptations he told us to avoid, although he probably didn't need to.  He also said they would probably 'turn your stomach upside down'.   I agreed, and wisely stuck to hot dogs and Paninis. 

Although I must admit I was tempted by the reindeer..

Speaking of ice cream (it is the Ice Cream Diaries after all), when I see a sign in a window that says 'Authentic Icelandic Ice Cream', I must investigate...

Truth be told, while the consistency (aka overrun) was decent, the caramel pecan lacked flavor.  On the bright side, it left me feeling better about my ability to go head-to-head with Iceland in an ice cream taste-off.

Did you know that professional boxing is illegal in Iceland?

And that geothermal power heats over 90% of the homes.  For cheap.

Above is one of the turbines to prove it.  Below is what I call 'sunrise over a power plant'..

It was interesting to walk through town in the dark.  At 10:30 in the morning..

When there's a bar next door called the Lebowski Bar, you know it's really just a matter of time before you find yourself there. 

Sure enough, I did.  While I expected it to be Hard Rock Café-like, full of American tourists and tacky collectibles all over the walls, I was happily surprised by the healthy mix of locals and tourists.   The bartenders were friendly, and the movie trivia game was a lot of fun.  Of course it always to helps to win, thanks to my movie Mensa friends from NYC who I met at the bar.  The place did have a life-sized bowling alley, Big Lebowski trivia on the walls, and a full white Russian menu, so they did quite enough to live up to tourists' expectations..

Beers weren't cheap (around 10 bucks a piece on average pretty much everywhere you went), but I did manage to find a sweet old pub at the end of the street that offered a big beer and a shot (some kind of vodka I think) for 570 Kronur, about six bucks.   Olsmidjan Bar
By the way, did you know beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989?
Happy place, Iceland style..

Speaking of beer, I thought this was funny.  And worthy of an ice cream version for my own window..

Unlike the dudes from New Jersey I met at the Lebowski Bar who were just there to party, I was actually there to see what I'd heard were some amazing landscapes in form of glaciers, mountains (volcanos), waterfalls, and geysers, so I booked the obligatory Golden Circle tour.  None disappointed..

Pingvellir National Park..

Gullfoss Waterfall

Strokkur geyser.  The tour guide suggested we 'stand as close to the geyser as you can to get the full effect'.  Not something you'd hear at Yellowstone..

Icelandic horses, they are a hearty breed.  They are purposely kept out of the barn so they don't get soft.   And if you're thinking about bringing any other type of horse into the country, not gonna happen.  This line is staying pure.  And I was told they don't like to be called ponies..
After a long and amazing day being at one with the cool and chilly Icelandic landscape, one owes it to themselves to spend a day in the infamous tropical oasis near the Arctic Circle, the Blue LagoonNational Geographic calls it one of the 25 wonders of the world.  She's got my vote.

My picture doesn't do it just so I'll have to steal one from their site...

The reason I didn't get a good picture that day is because I just didn't want to get out until they kicked me out.  100 degree mineral-infused water, swim up bar, saunas, mud masks, refreshing waterfalls, and in-water massages.  This place truly was a slice of paradise tucked inside a volcano crater.   Words just can't fully describe the awesomeness of this place.

And of course, last but not least, what would a trip to Iceland in the winter be without a search for the Northern Lights.  Aurora Borealis.   Downtown Rejkavik, although it is the capital of Iceland and where two-thirds of the country's three hundred thousand inhabitants live, looks more like a sprawling suburb than a city.  It does throw off some light, but I wouldn't be surprised if you could still see a strong night of the Northern Lights from the rooftop deck of my hostel.  But that's not the way you typically do it here when you really want to get a good look.  You book an excursion to a dark part of the island at least a half hour out in any direction.  Yes, you can go by boat too.   Our bus left at 8 pm, and by 8:45 we were standing in a snow-covered field in quite literally the middle of nowhere. 


 It was darker than this photo makes it seem.   Unfortunately, you can't force the northern lights appear.  They come and go as they please.   All you can do set up your tripod, wait, and hope.  When you get cold, you go inside the little snack bar and grab a hot cocoa.

Standing in that dark and snowy field with a hundred strangers from many corners of the world, each of us trying to satisfy a curiosity, was very cool, bordering on strangely spiritual.  I've always preached it's much more about the journey than the destination, but that field on that cold night really felt like a destination for me and this collective group of strangers.  Who doesn't have 'seeing the Northern Lights' on their bucket list?  Through some strange versions of the alignment of our planets, we had found our way here, like Richard Dreyfuss and his band of summoned strangers standing in the desert in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  None of us knew exactly what we were going to see, but we knew it had the potential to be big.  I tried not to make this trip all about seeing the lights, but I still couldn't help but be caught up in the anticipation, camera at the ready.

We stared at a still beautiful starry sky for a long time, with only an occasional shooting star as a reward.  After what seemed like hours, my frozen toes surrendered, and I sought refuge in the warm shuttle bus.   I flipped through many of the photos I've just shared with you and reminisced about all the amazing sights and experiences I'd had during my week in Iceland.  Sigur Ros, Takk played in my ears.  I had met some great people and been exposed to a whole different way of life while reaffirming we all still crave the same things.  I'd built upon my 'get out of your comfort zone' traveling solo confidence and enjoyed some much needed time of reflection with my journal and a strong latte with the locals in their favorite cafés.   I was in a good place.  I didn't need to see the lights to make this trip a success.  I was fulfilled.  Bus driver, I'm ready to go home now.

And just as it is with so much of life, when you release your need for something, it finally appears...

Thanks for listening.