February 2015 – To many, it seemed an odd, unusual place to mark a 40th birthday.
After all, we live in Canada, and when your birthday is at the end of January and you’re contemplating a trip, most minds slip to somewhere sunny, sandy, and free of snow.
We could’ve done that, but didn’t – and it took us on a great, out-of-the-ordinary adventure to Iceland. In February.
A friend of a friend who loves going to Iceland to bird watch – albeit at warmer times of the year – had sent a link last fall to a “Northern Lights” package being offered by Iceland Air.
What cooler way to mark this milestone birthday than by witnessing a natural phenomenon that none of us girls had ever seen?
We were in.
From Toronto, the flight to Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik is less than five hours long.
We stayed at a cute hotel in the Harbour called Marina, which was easily within walking distance of downtown with all its shops and restaurants.
Its fabulous breakfast buffet of breads, meats and cheeses, fruits and yogurts, potatoes, eggs, salads, smoked salmon, juices and coffees was enough to keep you going most of the day – or at least until dinner!
It was only a four day trip, so we had to prioritize how we spent our time. Here are our top four (not in order):
Reykjavik city tour
The hop on-hop off tour takes about an hour and gives you a general sense of where everything is, as well as a little overview about the history of the city.
After we did the whole tour once (the buses only come around every hour in the off-season so plan carefully!), we decided to stay on until we could get off at the Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland at 73 metres high.
Not only is it a landmark in its own right with its unique architecture, it also provides amazing views over the city from the top of its tower. Definitely worth the 700 Icelandic Kroners (about $7 Cdn) for the elevator to the top.
In front of the church is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson, which was a gift from the United States on the 1000th anniversary of the first Icelandic parliament in 930.
Also known as Leif Ericson, he is widely regarded as the first European to land in North America, about 500 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.
This was a must on the list, one of the 25 wonders of the world. A hot spring formed in the 1970s when a nearby power plant was built, the Blue Lagoon is well known for the health properties of its water and silica mud.
Not to mention that it’s just spectacularly beautiful: the steam rising off the turquoise blue water, the mountains in the background, and when we were there, snowflakes gently falling on our faces.
They offer a series of different packages – we had opted for a bus and entry combo package the day before at the tourist office in Reykjavik, which meant we didn’t have to stand in ticket line at the Blue Lagoon when we got there.
We did upgrade to a higher level Lagoon package though when we arrived, that gave use an algae mask, little Blue Lagoon sample products and a drink while we were in the water.
It pays to come early – the line ups were lengthy by the time we were done and ready to leave in early afternoon – and the ride from Reykjavik was about an hour by bus.
Golden Circle Tour
In an effort to get out of the city and see a bit of Iceland beyond just the capital, we booked a day trip with Reykjavik Excursions called Golden Circle Tour.
It included a stop at the Geysir geothermal area, where the Strokkur geyser shoots water into the air approximately every four to eight minutes.
We were there at lunch time and unfortunately we weren’t the only ones – the visitor centre, restaurant and gift shop area was crawling with visitors, which made it difficult to shop or have lunch properly. The geyser was spectacular though.
We also visited the famous Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park, which is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly moving apart from each other a few centimetres a year. Every stop included a small visitor centre, washrooms and the chance to buy Icelandic souvenirs.
Our original vision for this trip had been centred on seeing the Northern Lights – an excursion by boat was included in our flight and hotel package.
Sadly, however, due to bad weather (a snowstorm one night and heavy cloud cover the next), the closest we came to actually seeing them was when we did a short tour of the Aurora Borealis museum while we were waiting for the city tour bus to come around.
We can only imagine how spectacular they would have been in real life, but that will have to wait for the next trip to Iceland.
The company we had booked our boat trip with offered us a refund or to enjoy a nine course Icelandic tasting menu at Kopar, a restaurant in the harbour. We opted for the food…
Food and drink
There is no shortage of restaurants in Reyjavik to enjoy delicious food and drink. We didn’t have the budget to enjoy some of the top recommendations (Iceland isn’t the cheapest place around to visit!), but here are some of the places we did eat at:
Kopar – deliciously prepared local foods with a focus on Icelandic ingredients. The nine course tasting menu was absolutely divine. Granted, some of the items we likely wouldn’t have tried if they weren’t part of the menu (horse tartar and deep fried cod tongues spring to mind), but it was all part of the experience.
Reykjavik Fish Restaurant – funky fish lamps are part of what makes the ambience in this fish restaurant near our hotel. The seafood soup and freshly baked bread that I had were delicious.
Tapas Husid – another restaurant in the harbour area near our hotel, this one serving Spanish-style tapas with an Icelandic twist (perfect if you love seafood!).
Prikid – billed as the oldest café in Reykjavik, it pulled us in on our first afternoon in the city as we were valiantly fighting off our jetlag. In the shopping area, it was a great stop for coffee and cake, beer and a burger or whatever you think might help you stay awake on that critical first day.