Thursday, February 7, 2013

Iceland: The Layover...Goldring Travel Style - Part I

Having just spend a day and a half in Iceland I have come to the conclusion that those traveling to Europe for a Northern European cruise owe it to yourselves to stop in Iceland on the way.  It not only is closely related and on the way, it is fascinating, warm-hearted and fun.  So let it begin!

My return to Iceland started out with the fasted ride to Kennedy Airport I ever.  No traffic.  I mean "No" traffic.  Then I arrived at Icelandair's Economy Comfort check-in counter and was checked in in less than two minutes.  But then there was a long line at security...until I saw I special line for United Premier passengers...and I just happened to have my card with me.  I was through security in less than five minutes.  Up to the British Airlines lounge (which Icelandair Economy Comfort and Saga Class passengers have access to) and I was sipping a nice glass of Bordeaux not five minutes later.  Something has to be wrong. I mean it never goes this smoothly.

I board my Icelandair flight with my exit row, front of Economy Comfort, seat and nobody sitting next to me.  The flight attendant comes over to say hello.  She is friendly, funny and pretty.  She even offered me Icelandic candy and plies me with wine.  We take off on time (out of JFK...really!) and will arrive 40 minutes ahead of schedule.  Can it get any better?

Then a painful realization.  The seats are the hardest I have ever encountered and my kids shamed me into not bringing my air cushion and I figured it is only a 5 hour flight.  But by the end of the first hour I was sitting on two of those little airline pillows in agony.  I tried to sleep, but honestly it was so uncomfortable it wasn't going to happen.  (Note to self:  Don't go with style.  Go with comfort...no matter how much your kids ridicule you.)

We arrive 40 minutes early at 6:05 a.m., as promised, and are whisked through passport control and our luggage arrives almost instantly.  OK, we are back on the "Can it be this good?" track...but not for long.  We are instructed to wait for our bus to the hotel (It is about an hour ride/$100 taxi fare, so I am waiting.)  After 15 minutes we are directed to a bus, board and...nothing happens.  We sit for another 30 minutes...and nothing happens.  It seems the plan of getting everyone to the hotel at the same time was foiled by a flight delay on Icelandair's Boston flight.  Finally, they decide to leave without them.

I arrive at the Radisson Blu Saga hotel about 8:15 a.m.  It is not as centrally located as the Radisson Blu 1919 (which is in downtown Reykjavik), but it is more convenient for this conference and is still only a 10-15 minute walk in the very compact town.  I am in my room (which is fairly basic, but fine) in two minutes, check my emails, and then lie down for a rest.  We are back...but not for long.

It seems they are reconstructing the top floor restaurant...right above my room.  The banging is loud and constant, so with my bottom happy, but my head is feeling the pain my other end felt on the flight, I guess it is now evenly distributed.

The International Account Manager for Avis/Budget had sent me an email offering a great deal for a car rental and a "My Way" GPS Audio tour.  I figured the last time I was here I passed on  the Golden Circle tour (the alleged "must do") because I could not see myself on a tour bus for 5+ hours.  But as I am here as a guest of a trade show I figure I need to do it, but do it "my way". So at about 1:00 p.m. I was up and out.  The hotels' front desk called Budget and a van picked me up and brought me to the office.  And I was off with my GPS and not a clue where I was going or really what it was all about.

The first thing I realized is Iceland is, for the most part, very easy to drive in.  People are courtesy drivers, everything is well marked and the roads are well maintained.  So with Richard (my British guide hiding in my GPS) I drive a short distance out of town and begin the Golden Circle.  What I immediately discovered is that visiting the three highlights is not the highlight at all.  The highlight is the scenery.  It is spectacular and huge.  It is impossible to truly appreciate it looking out of one side window of a tour bus.


 Now I will tell you the first part of my journey was on fairly snow and ice covered roads, but with I believe a total of less than ten car sharing the road with me on my entire 5+ hour drive, you can go as fast or slow as you feel comfortable doing.  But the roads as part of the scenery were also beautiful.


After huge snow-covered lava outcrops and mountains a picturesque building seemingly in the middle of nowhere you come upon Lake Thingvellier.  The My Way GPS directs you down a little road that I know the buses cannot take and all of a sudden you see this:




Now I know it looks frigid, but the temperature was about 30 degrees so I literally had my coat open when I took these photos.  As I returned to the main road I kept seeing "postcards" on my left and on my right:



Which brings me to the only flaw in the My Plan system:  You get so enthralled in the scenery Richard, who give you just enough information and is quiet the vast majority of the time, doesn't remind you when to turn, so twice I had to turnaround!

Eventually I catch up to a tour bus carrying travel agents on the standard Golden Circle tour at the Thingvellier Visitors Center.  Bathroom lines, someone can't walk in the snow, people too loud, others looking for souvenirs...I took some photos quickly (it is worth a stop!) and get back to my solitude and amazement.



Back on the road another "postcard":


About 2.5 hours into my drive I pass Geysir & Strokkur (yes, that's where the name comes from) as this Visitors Center had another tour bus and a few minivans parked outside.  I will return to after I reach the Waterfalls where there are only 6 other people and, hopefully, they will be gone.

I admit it, I was cold with the wind whipping, but oh was it worth it.  It was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen:

My hands thawing out from the numbness I pull into a parking area near Geysir and walk in.  There are about 10 people standing around Strokkur waiting for it to spew hot water into the air. And, of course, just as I am walking over it blows...so I have to wait about 5 minutes to capture the moment on my camera.


And then, hands frozen a second time, I need to get a closeup shot; something with color and texture...so I wait and:

Time for a coffee and a little bit of a warm up before I take some more photos.  So I head into the Visitors Center and the tour bus and minivans are still there with people eating and shopping.  (Notice there is virtually nobody observing the geysirs or in awe of the scenery!)  After a coffee I am back out for more photos:



And as I get into my car the tour bus is finally pulling out...and now I need to make time to put some distance between me and the busload of people.  OK, actually I really didn't because they didn't go to some of the smaller, out of the way places I then went to!

As I drove I said to myself, "What the heck?  How did they move Australia's Ayer's Rock to Iceland?"


And then with Richard having me go down a road definitely less traveled I decided to stop and visit with some Icelandic horses.  They were each bumping me to get my attention and to take their photos.  It was pretty funny and a nice break:


After a very quick drive by a reconstructed church (does there have to be one on every tour?) It was time to head back.  On the way there was one last stop, Kerio, which is called a pseudo-crater. Apparently they have concerts here because the acoustics are so good, but I have no idea how.  Pretty cool though:


 I then drove through Hverageroi I saw these geothermal greenhouses lit up:


Heading back home the rain started, then the snow, then the blizzard then the clear skies and then the dark. As I arrived back at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel to get ready to meet Gunnar Sigurdsson and Rut Magunsdottir, of Friends in Iceland (a company that specializing in crafting experiences for each individual which I will write about in my next article), I just kept saying to myself, "Wow! Wow! Wow! I need to come back to Iceland and do this all over again in the Spring!  It will look so different and, I am sure, will be just as awe inspiring."

OK, that takes care of my first twelve hours in Iceland.  Yes, only 12 hours.  Trust me the next 24 ain't so bad either!