Iceland in winter, part 1: Day one

Oddly, it was my idea to visit this northern country in the dead of winter. A special popped up somewhere: airfare, hotel, etc. for a reasonable rate. I sent it to Bunny and Crow, who are as crazy as we are. “Who’s up for Iceland in January?” They were. So were their friends, Chris and Mer, and since we’d all traveled before, if only as far as Las Vegas, it seemed a perfect plan: three couples, all of whom had been to Iceland before. Never in the winter.

But hey, we are tough. And Northern Lights are pretty, or so we had been told. And a cheap trip is a cheap trip. I wasn’t entirely sure that my work could do without me for a week, but I booked it anyhow. In the four weeks leading up to the trip I managed to do almost five weeks’ worth of work, and away we went.

But whoever said getting there is half the fun never traveled economy class. And long flights are made infinitely longer by having the wrong seats. Memo to Icelandair: two aisle seats (which the Husbot and I had) do not count as “sitting together.” Nevermind being anywhere near Bunny and Crow.

However, about two-thirds of the way into the flight, Northern Lights were spotted off the right side of the plane (my side), and my seatmates generously tore themselves away from the window for a while to let me look. I got a few minutes of the shifting green lights and I am very grateful. Nice people, as it turns out, even if they did wake me in the one minute I was drifting to sleep to go to the bathroom.

We arrived in Keflavík early in the morning. We met up with Chris and Mer, who’d had an even longer travel day from Mississippi, and we still had a couple of hours left until our tour bus to the Blue Lagoon. Those were long hours. Airport hours.

Nils Anders Wik at the Blue Lagoon.

The pre-dawn snow was coming down sideways in blizzard-like conditions when we boarded the bus. At the Blue Lagoon there was more confusion about the storage of our belongings, but eventually we made it into that weird weird water. The water wasn’t quite warm enough in most places—the currents of hot and cold that were fine when we’d been there in the summer led to a lot of cold times, and a lot of hot ones too.

When we first swam outside (or scuttled, keeping as much under the relatively warm water as possible), it was still snowing like crazy and the sun was just finally empinkening the clouds between hills. The snow made our faces and ears and necks cold, and we had to wipe snow off our eyelashes. A very intense experience. By the end it was sunny—or at least it would have been if the sun had risen above the low surrounding hills. If the Lagoon is more pleasant in summer (and it is), it is more intense in winter; the contrast really adds to the experience. We spent a long relaxing time in that lagoon.

After bussing and checking in to our hotel rooms, we had about an hour before the Taste the Saga tour that Bunny and Crow had gone on when they visited Iceland before. For us it was just enough time for the Husbot to shower while I called the front desk to get our room’s electricity working and watch the epic sunset over the hotel’s industrial backyard. But the Husbot’s light-free shower was by far not the greatest of our worries.

The view from our hotel room in Reykjavík at sunset.

Getting off the bus from the hotel Crow had a sickening realization—that he didn’t know where his passport was. An hour later, having torn through all his bags and clothing, he knew for sure that he didn’t have it. Yikes! Maybe he lives here now.

So Crow wasn’t feeling up to the tour of Egill Brewery, which was a real shame because it was fabulous. Our hostess was Olof, and she was adorable. She taught us about “lateral explosions,” the angry duck sound two l’s make at the end of a word that none of us can mimic to save our lives. But she also taught us about the quirky alcohol history of Iceland. In a nutshell: a 1909 temperance movement started prohibition. Voters (landed males only, at the time) approved it, but nothing happened for years. Then the country decided to act on prohibition in 1913, agreeing to drink up all the alcohol by 1915. All alcohol was banned except for what doctors prescribed (liberally) and what was available for communion. At some point hard alcohol was reintroduced, but not beer. Then during WWII, foreign soldiers (British) demanded beer, so there was a shady economy of “exported” beer that was made by Egill and distributed on bases in Iceland. And then beer was finally legalized in 1989. Iceland beer and the Berlin wall. Same year.

Or something like that—my memory of the history is fuzzy because we were given a very generous amount of beer. Whole beers in most cases, not tiny tastes like you get on so many US brewery tours. We hadn’t really eaten (not since the plane in our case and not even then for Bunny and Crow. The Husbot got sick as soon as we got back to the hotel, vomiting in the hallway (sorry, hotel people!). He was too sick to eat that night, sadly.

I have to go on record as saying that I was against the ambitious first day plan from the start. As wonderful as the Blue Lagoon was, if we’d saved it for a different day we could have gone straight to the hotel from the airport, not waited for 90 minutes with nothing to do. We could have eaten and rested, which I think would have eased some of our other problems. Crow might not have lost his passport (in hindsight, yes he would have—it turned out to be at the airport). Husbot would surely not have puked.

Still, I had a great day.

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