I love traveling. While we were away living in MN we spent most of our time off back in Hawaii, visiting family and escaping the cold northern weather. We did take some time to go to other parts of the country, but never took an extended trip overseas. Since moving back to Hawaii, I’ve had the urge to travel internationally. This past fall we went to Japan. A fun trip by all means, but still somewhere “familiar” as we’ve traveled there before. So for 2018, Judy and I are going to places we’ve never been! First up, Iceland.
While planning this trip I often got the question: Why Iceland? This island nation is fast becoming a hot destination for tourism, especially during the summer months when everything is lush and green. A part of me wanted to visit before it became too overrun by tourists. I also wanted to experience the untouched landscapes and unique environment of Iceland (and the northern lights). From everything I had read and seen, it’s just a different place. It also had the advantage of being an easy destination to travel around in since everyone there speaks English!
Thankfully I was able to book our flights to Iceland with points. Using the very advantageous Korean Skypass award chart, we were able to fly in mostly business class all the way to Iceland for just 80,000 points each and about $200 in taxes/fees. Not bad for a destination halfway around the world from home. Iceland is not home to many chain hotels, so most of the other accommodations were paid for out of pocket. I did, however, manage to schedule a 3 day stopover in NYC on the way back home.
Due to the length of this trip I have recapped our activities by day. You can scroll through the whole trip or visit a particular day by clicking one of the links below:
- Day 1: Reykjavik
- Day 2: Snowmobiles and Ice Caves in Husafell
- Day 3: Whale Watching and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
- Day 4: The Golden Circle
- Day 5: Icelandic Horses, Skogafoss, and Reynisfjara
- Day 6: Severe Weather and Jokulsarlon
- Day 7: Seljalandsfoss and The Blue Lagoon
- Day 8: NYC, Museum of Natural History, and Per Se
- Day 9: Rockefeller, Central Park, Pizza, Broadway, and EMP
- Day 10: Katz Deli and the Statue of Liberty
Day 1: Arriving in Reykjavik, Iceland
It was awesome to book our flights with miles but to do so required us to take a 2-stop itinerary between Honolulu and Reykjavik. The layover in JFK before our flight to KEF (Keflavik, Iceland) was only 45 minutes which made me nervous the whole way over. Luckily we got in to JFK a little early and made it to the gate without issue. For most of our flights during this trip we were in Delta One business/first class with lie flat seats. We’re definitely starting to get spoiled with the premium cabins!
We arrived to KEF at about 7:00am. While going to Iceland in the winter means fewer tourists (peak season is summer) and a chance to see the northern lights, it also means less daylight. After making it through customs we dragged our luggage across some snow and sleet to the rental car shuttle bus. When visiting Iceland you can certainly get around on tours, but I think the best way to experience the adventure of the country is to rent a car. Since it was winter we opted for a 4-wheel drive SUV with studded snow tires; a decision which we would be grateful for later in the trip.
For our first night we checked in to the Canopy Hilton in the Reykjavik City Centre. This is a recently opened hotel under the Hilton brand, which meant I could book our stay for free on points. We also got early check-in and a small upgrade due to my Hilton status. The hotel is conveniently located in the city centre area, where most of Reykjavik’s points of interest are located. After a little unpacking, we donned our cold weather gear and headed out into the city. As soon as we stepped out of the hotel it started snowing.
Our first stop was Hallgrimskirkja Church, the tallest building in Reykjavik. The iconic spire structure is a draw for tourists. For this trip I bought a Mavic Pro drone to get some aerial photos and video. I took the drone up and grabbed some video and the above panorama. Although we were at Hallgrimskirkja around noon, the sun made it appear like late afternoon.
After visiting the church it was time for lunch. We stopped off at Cafe Loki for some traditional Icelandic fare. I got this combo plate which included mashed fish on rye, smoked trout on rye, smoked lamb flatbread, dried fish, & fermented shark. The fermented shark is one of those foods you see YouTubers try all the time. It was… interesting. It definitely tasted worse than it smelled. Everything else was OK, but for the most part a bit under-seasoned for my taste.
Following lunch we headed down to Reykjavikurtjorn, a lake in the center of the city. During this time of year the lake freezes over and you can walk out on to the surface. There were a lot of ducks and swans huddled in the one corner of the lake that was still liquid. Seems like a lot of tourists and locals come to feed the birds, so they were following us around expecting some food.
While our sampling of traditional Icelandic cuisine was so-so, we had read that Icelandic hot dogs are quite good. A short walk from the frozen lake is the most famous hot dog stand in Reykjavik, with the lines to prove it. Icelandic hot dogs are a combo of beef, pork, and lamb. They also top of the hot dogs with two different types of mustard and onions (raw and caramelized). We waited in line for about 20 minutes to get our hot dog, which was quite tasty.
Once our hot dog was devoured we walked over to Harpa Concert Hall, which overlooks the water. This inlet separates Reykjavik from one of the more northern peninsulas which can be seen off in the distance. It’s so clean and pristine, a stark contrast to the bustling city behind us.
Of course no trip would be complete without some interesting dinners. Dill is a 1-star Michelin restaurant and the only restaurant in Iceland to have a Michelin star. The food at Dill focuses on local flavors and ingredients. The menu was decent, but suffered from a few cooking inconsistencies that were hard to overlook; most notably the final savory course. The beef was unfortunately quite tough and hard to eat.
It was a long day for us coming off of nearly a whole day of planes and airports. We headed back to the hotel after dinner, cleaned up, and immediately crashed.
Day 2: Snowmobiles and Ice Caves in Husafell
We hit the road early and left Reykjavik, heading north toward Husafell. The drive was a couple of hours and midway it began to snow. The studded snow tires really held up well and we were able to comfortably make it up to our destination with time to spare. Upon arriving at Husafell we visited the tour company’s offices to check in and suit up in additional cold-weather gear. The Into the Glacier tour would take us up to Langjokull Glacier, where we would snowmobile to an ice cave dug into the glacier.
Our tour group hopped on board a giant, all terrain transport to get from the Husafell base camp up to the snowmobile staging area. The transport drove through thick patches of snow, some up to two feet deep. One we arrived on the glacier we received helmets and a brief overview of how to operate the snowmobiles. Judy rode with me while I drove. It was difficult to get a hang of the steering at first but after a few minutes we were cruising along up to the ice caves.
Langjokull Glacier is massive. So massive in fact that we couldn’t really distinguish when we had crossed over on to the glacier itself. It just looks like a continuation of the mountain landscape. The caves we explored were all dug for the purpose of ecotourism and research. It was interesting to see the layers in the ice and learn more about how they were formed. Although you’re surrounded by ice the caves stay at a relatively warm temperature of 32 degrees F (compared to the much colder air outside).
To be up on this massive glacier, with its pristine white landscapes and the clear blue sky, was a surreal experience. It’s just completely different from anywhere else we’ve been. The water from this glacier feeds all of the water features in the Golden Circle including Gulfoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in Iceland. It’s an incredible feeling to be standing on a giant formation of ice, surrounded by nothing but the snow and the mountains.
On our drive back from Husafell to our hotel in Borgarnes, we stopped off to see the first waterfall of the trip. Hraunfossar is not a very tall or powerful waterfall, but it is unique in that the water flows straight out of the rocks. There is no stream or river to feed the top of the falls, just glacial water melting and flowing out through underground aqueducts.
It was a long day! We returned to our hotel and decided to just have dinner on the property. Part of the reason I had wanted to come to Iceland during the winter was to have a chance to see the Northern Lights. I had checked the aurora forecast and didn’t see a lot of activity. But, our hotel offered a “northern lights wake up” service, which we signed up for. Lo and behold, just before 11pm the phone in the room starts to ring and the operator on the line simply states “There are lights outside”. We scramble to put our cold weather clothes back on. I fumble with my camera gear and drag it all outside. I set up my tripod and initially fail to get the right settings to capture the lights.
After a handful of attempts I finally got the settings right. The photos I took were much brighter and showed much more of the lights than can be seen with the naked eye. It was still an amazing experience to see the northern lights first hand, but the pictures are undoubtedly much more impressive.
Day 3: Whale Watching and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Another early morning on the road, this time to the port town of Grundarfjordur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This western peninsula of Iceland is home to many of sights and some black sand beaches. Our first stop in Grundarfjordur was to head out for a whale watching tour. The sunrise on the drive up was beautiful, casting hues of pink and orange against the sky.
After what felt like an hour of searching we came across a feeding pod of orcas. It was an amazing sight straight out of Blue Planet. There were many birds in the air, diving down into the waters to catch the fish that the orcas were chasing up from the depths. It was a spectacular display. The waves and wind caused our boat to rock fairly heavily, making it very difficult to photograph the orcas in motion. While I did not get to snag any awesome photos, the experience of seeing these animals in the wild was well worth the mild motion sickness.
We grabbed a quick bite from a local cafe in Grundarfjordur before setting out to drive the rest of the peninsula. The first stop, just a few minutes away, was Kirkjufell. This mountain is one of the iconic landscape features of the peninsula. It was made more famous recently as the “arrowhead” mountain in the past season of Game of Thrones.
The rest of our drive around the peninsula featured some black sand beaches and a few sea cliffs. The central crossing from north to south on the peninsula was a steep climb up an icy mountain road. It was a little sketchy and involved some white knuckle driving, but we made it through the mountain pass without incident. On the southern side of the peninsula we pulled over on the side of the road to pet these Icelandic horses.
Day 4: The Golden Circle
Our time in western Iceland was over and we headed out from Borgarnes to the famed Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a ring of major attractions a little way out from Reykjavik. This circuit of landmarks and natural wonders gets crowded with tourists, even during the off season. For this reason we wanted to get to the first stop on the Golden Circle, Thingvellir National park, before the big tour buses arrived.
Thingvellir National Park is home to many landmarks, including the historic meeting place of Iceland’s first parliament. The park overlooks Iceland’s largest lake and is also home to a waterfall or two. The main attraction is the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. These two massive plates split Iceland and are the cause of the country’s high geothermal activity. Just below the visitor’s center at Thingvellir you can see how the walls of the two plates stand opposite one another.
For lunch we stopped off in a little town inside the Golden Circle and visited the Freidheimer Tomato Farm. This farm, along with several others, use the heat and energy from nearby geothermal sources to fuel greenhouses year round. Even in the middle of winter the farms can produce fresh produce in warm conditions, with little consumption of energy from non-renewable sources. The tomato farm we visited features an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch of tomato soup and bread. You can then dress your soup with sour cream, cucumber and fresh basil clipped right at your table.
After warming up with soup in the temperate greenhouses we headed back out to the Golden Circle road. On the way up to Gulfoss we stopped in the geothermal fields dotted with several geysers. The famous Geysir (from which the word geyser is derived) is no longer active, but nearby is Strokkur. This smaller geyser is very consistent and “erupts” about every 6 minutes.
The last stop on the Golden Circle was Gulfoss, one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland. It’s amazing how much water flows over these cliffs. It’s even more amazing to think that the glacier we snowmobiled on the other day is the water source for the entire Golden Circle. Unfortunately due to high winds I was unable to fly my drone, which proved to be a wise decision as another visitor did lose his.
Day 5: Icelandic Horses, Skogafoss, and Reynisfjara
The hotel we stayed at in Fludir was probably the most basic of the entire trip. The one-story structure had a comfortable bed and a decent room size, but the shower really left something to be desired. There was no defined shower stall, just a kind of semi-partitioned area of the bathroom with a shower head. Strange.
Nevertheless we were up the next morning and headed down to the southern cost of Iceland. The drive was fairly mild but as we approached Selfoss there were several minutes of passing snow and sleet. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the weather would cooperate for our next activity: horseback riding!
No travel video of Iceland is complete without an obligatory shot of someone petting an Iceland horse. As cliche as this activity might be, they are rather unique animals and their size makes them much more manageable for first-time riders. Judy has never been horseback riding before so that worked out perfectly. I apparently did not book a popular time for this tour (the later morning tour times were booked up), but that meant that we had our own private riding experience! After getting suited up to brave the cold winds we took our horses out for a walk/tolt/trot around the valley. It was a fun experience and gave us the opportunity to enjoy the sunrise as it crept over the valley.
Our plans took us back through Selfoss heading farther east toward the southern coast town of Vik. In Selfoss we stopped off at a popular local restaurant. The food in Iceland is generally just average, but this restaurant had some decent flavors and a bit more seasoning that we had so far experienced. We enjoyed the langoustine soup, pork belly, and sweet potato fries.
After lunch we continued on our way to Vik and had to stop at one of the most famous natural attractions in Iceland – Skogafoss. This tall, powerful waterfall is a favorite among visitors. Nestled in the back of a small valley, you can hear the roar of the water as you step out of your car in the parking lot. The waterfall throws off a lot of mist. When the sun hits this waterfall just right it creates a rainbow. Although the area is crowded with dozens of visitors I managed to snag a pic with Judy and only a handful of other onlookers.
We made the short hike up a big path full of stairs to see the waterfall from above. Although it was sunny when we were down below, by the time we descended from the view above the weather had turned to clouds and snow. Thankfully it wasn’t sleet, but rather big fluffy snow. I was thirsty from our climb up so tried to get some hydration, albeit inefficiently!
Our last stop before getting to the the hotel in Vik was the famous black sand beach of Reynisfjara. Due to the high volcanic activity in Iceland, the country has no shortage of black sand beaches. Reynisfjara is not only one of the largest beaches, but also has some rock formations off the coast. These formations are known as the “Trolls”. Legend says that these were formed when two giant trolls were caught out in the sun and turned to stone. Due to the freakish weather the skies alternated between clear and cloudy, with periods of sleet and ice. The sleet formed an interesting contrast with the black sand.
Day 6: Severe Weather and Jokulsarlon
Icelandic weather can be very volatile, especially during the winter months. Luckily for visitors there are many resources to keep tabs on weather conditions, including www.vedur.is and www.safetravel.is. Unfortunately for us on this day there was a severe weather warning. Not a lot of precipitation but extreme wind conditions, with gusts over 60 mph. Sadly our tour of the ice caves in Skaftafell cancelled due to the weather conditions. We were stranded at our hotel in Vik!
Although it wasn’t ideal to be stuck indoors for half the day, it did give us a chance to recharge our batteries and rest. We’d been going from place-to-place fairly nonstop since arriving. Once the winds died down a little we rolled the dice and headed out on the long drive to Jokulsarlon, which is the famed glacier lagoon in southeastern Iceland.
After braving the high winds and a 2.5 hour drive we finally arrived at Jokulsarlon. It was cool to see the small icebergs floating around in the lagoon, but sadly the weather obscured the view of the much larger glacier off in the distance. You can’t tell in this photo but the winds were still quite strong which made the occasional sleet feel like ice pellets stinging your face.
Just down the way from Jokulsarlon is the famed “Diamond Beach”. The small icebergs that float down from the glacier lagoon get pushed back ashore on the black sand beach nearby. As the waves crash against the small icebergs on the shore they get whittled down into smaller chunks and look like big diamonds contrasted against the black sand. I picked up one of the more modest chunks for this photo. Shortly after a rogue wave would come full force up the beach and drench us in knee deep freezing water.
Day 7: Seljalandsfoss and The Blue Lagoon
Our last full day in Iceland! We woke up early and headed out to a scenic point overlooking Reynisfjara. These cliffs were apparently a popular photography spot, and we ran into a photographer’s tour with about a dozen folks with tripods and some serious DSLR gear. Luckily I was able to also break out the tripod and take some long exposure photos of the waves.
In addition we were able to take a photo of the two of us with the full expanse of Reynisfjara in the background. Down below us in this photo you can see a collection of melting ice shards, which likely were icebergs that got swept ashore in the waves. Off in the distance you can also see the Trolls once again. The cliffs, black sand, gray skies, and ice create a pretty surreal landscape. A very stark contrast to our views back home in Hawaii.
The drive back to Reykjavik took us back through the town of Selfoss. Along the way we stopped off at the last waterfall of our visit, the famed Seljalandsfoss. While not as impressive as some of the other waterfalls we’d seen in terms of size, during the warmer months you can actually walk behind the falls as well. There are actually series of smaller waterfalls right next to Seljalandsfoss. The windy conditions almost claimed my drone, which got wept up into a gust of wind and nearly collided with the cliffs!
The drive back into Reykjavik took us through a mountain pass. As we headed up into the mountains a dense snowstorm appeared, making for the most nerve-racking drive of my life. At the worst point visibility was reduced to just a few feet both forward and back (the video above is during a much lighter portion of the snowstorm). Given that this was actually the main highway, I thought it’d be more dangerous to pull off or stop since there were definitely cars behind me. I reduced our speed to a gentle 10 mph, threw on the hazards, and used the median rail as a guide to keep me on the road. There were times when I couldn’t tell if the area to the right of the car was more land or a cliff. Luckily we made it through without incident.
Once safely back in Reykjavik we made our way to the city center and checked back in to the Canopy Hilton. This time around my status got us upgraded to a junior suite, which was still small by American room size standards, but definitely roomier for Iceland. After taking a quick breather we hit the road again, headed for the Blue Lagoon.
I know, I know… this place is a giant tourist trap. In fact it is by far one of the most “touristy” places you can go in all of Iceland. There are many naturally formed geothermal pools in Iceland where you can take a dip and enjoy the warm water. The Blue Lagoon is an artificially made geothermal pool. We still loved our visit despite it’s touristy nature.
I’m not big on communal anything. Communal tables at restaurants are not my style at all. So when it came to visiting the Blue Lagoon and deciding between a general ticket where you must shower in a communal room, or the luxury experience with your own private room… it was a no brainer for me. Part of this pricey package is your own changing room with private showers and storage (another plus). All visitors to the Blue Lagoon get wrist bands that can be used to access certain areas and pay for drinks or services in the lagoon area. Our wrist bands gave us access to our private changing room and the private lounge area.
Another benefit of the luxury experience is your own private entrance to the lagoon. This entrance is enclosed so you don’t have to brave the cold air when going out to or coming back in from the lagoon. Another added bonus was that the private entrance has it’s own separate pool, which was actually much warmer than the lagoon area outside! But of course we had to venture outside to get the full experience. Our first stop was the swim up bar for our complimentary drinks. I don’t really drink at all, but decided to try some Iceland beer.
The blue color of the lagoon water comes from the silica, which predominantly reflects the blue color spectrum of sunlight. Silica also tends to harden in your hair, which makes for easy styling.
Our package also included two free mask treatments (one algae and one silica). There is a swim up area where you can get these treatments which are basically just smeared on your face. After leaving it on for about 10 minutes you can wash the treatment off using the water of the lagoon. I’m not really sure that either mask treatment did much to improve my skin, but it was a different experience nonetheless. Overall we enjoyed our time at the Blue Lagoon and found it to be a fun, relaxing, and soothing end to our time in Iceland.
Day 8: NYC, Museum of Natural History, and Per Se
Goodbye Iceland, hello NYC! We took an early morning flight out of Iceland and arrived at JFK without much issue. Customs and immigration was a slow experience, as there was only one customs agent working at the time which I thought was a bit ridiculous. After finally making it out of the airport we waited for our Dial 7 car service to pick us up and take us to our hotel.
Using points I was able to get us booked at the Park Hyatt NYC, just a block away from Central Park. We were able to check in early and get situated before heading out for some lunch.
After having been out of the country for a while we were missing some comfort food. We walked a few city blocks from the hotel to eat at Ippudo. There was a bit of a wait but it was well worth it. The ramen was perfect for the cold weather we had been experiencing.
For the afternoon we visited the American Museum of Natural History. I had been here almost 20 years ago on a family trip. Surprisingly much of the museum was the same and I did recognize many of the exhibits, particularly the dinosaurs and meteorite hall. It was interesting to see the museum from a different perspective (as an adult versus a kid). We explored most of the museum all the way up through closing time.
NYC was definitely the eating part of our trip! For dinner on the first night we headed over to Columbus Circle to check out Per Se. The food was fantastic and the service impeccable. We got to chat with our server about a couple of Per Se alums we know (chefs from Senia in Hawaii). After years of seeing photos I finally got to eat the famous Oyster & Pearls dish which was one of my favorites from the tasting menu.
Day 9: Rockefeller, Central Park, Pizza, Broadway, and EMP
To start the day we visited Rockefeller Plaza and went to the observation deck to get a view of the city. Even though we were there relatively early, our Fastpass tickets really helped us to skip a rather long line. Unfortunately the cloudy weather from Iceland seemed to follow us, but we were able to take in some amazing views anyway.
From Rockefeller Plaza we walked a bit up to Central Park. There we grabbed some food from a cart vendor then headed into the park to take a leisurely walk. We strolled around to Bethesda Terrace, Strawberry Fields, and the mall. People watching in Central Park can be very interesting, especially at Bethesda Terrace. We saw a variety of folks including some cosplayers, a guy with a large snake, and couples taking engagement/wedding photos.
If you want to get into a fight in NYC one of the easy ways is to start a heated debate over who makes the best pizza. Although there are many options, we decided to try Joe’s near Broadway before going to see a show. While the pizza doesn’t look fancy, it is really quite good. I enjoy the crust and the quality of the ingredients. Joe’s is considered by many to be the quintessential NY pizza slice… and I can see why.
Since it was her first time on Broadway I let Judy pick the show. She decided on Anastasia. The production was quite good and we enjoyed the show. While many of the performances were good, I thought that the main antagonist had some weak songs. I think the performer was good, but the role’s songs were just not very engaging.
For our final dinner of the trip we went big. I had painstakingly secured a table at Eleven Madison Park, a 3-star Michelin restaurant which was recently recognized as the “Best Restaurant in the World”. Much like Per Se the food was delicious and the service outstanding. I think overall we might have enjoyed our dinner at Per Se a bit more, perhaps as it felt more intimate. There were certainly some standout dishes at EMP, but I can see where the controversy comes from in being named the “best in the world”.
Day 10: Katz Deli and the Statue of Liberty
The final day of our trip was a short one. We headed over to Katz Deli for breakfast to beat the crowds. I think the pastrami was quite good but was less enthusiastic about the brisket. The soups were good since it was cold and rainy out, but nothing particularly special. I think this is one of those places you should definitely try at least once given its reputation, but I’m not 100% sure that the long lines at lunch are justified.
Our final stop was to the Statue of Liberty. We didn’t have enough time to go all the way up into the crown but did spend time exploring the grounds and the pedestal views. On the way back to the hotel we made a quick stop at Trader Joe’s for some snacks and omiyage, then it was off to the airport!
Overall this extended trip abroad to Iceland, with our stop in NYC, was a combination of experiences of emotions. We were awe struck at times by the natural beauty of Iceland, but also irked at the unpredictable weather. I have it in mind to return to Iceland one day during the warmer, greener seasons. I think it would be a totally different experience even if we were to visit the same places. If you’re someone who like adventure and nature, then Iceland is a definite must-visit!