I believe that each person has a landscape inside her heart. My mom, for instance, loves the desert and the arid plains above everything else. A friend of mine feels only truly happy at tropical beaches. I am inexplicably drawn to rugged, lush, wild beauty of cliffs, meadows, forests, waterfalls, and mountains. Maybe some sapphire blue glaciers thrown in. The inside of my heart looks a lot like Iceland, which is why I longed to visit it for so many years…before finally taking the plunge!
At 6:00 am, I come out of the red eye from JFK feeling nervous and excited. I’ve never traveled solo internationally before (at least not for pleasure), and right away I run into a problem: my iPhone keeps dying, even though it’s supposed to have at least 20% battery, and I don’t have a converter for European outlets. The previous day, I bought the 9:00 am ticket to the Blue Lagoon in order to experience it with friends–only to find out I got the last ticket, and they didn’t get one. So I have to figure out how to get to the Blue Lagoon by 9 on my own and also meet up with friends in Reykjavik, possibly without cell phone, but I just keep waiting for the bus in the cold and rain. Fortunately, after 45 minutes of standing the bus to the Blue Lagoon comes. The bus ride is already very exciting; as we near the lagoon, there are columns of steam spewing out of the black volcanic rocks are covered with moss.
I’d heard so much about the BL, and also that it’s very commercial–and yes, it’s super clean and modernized, which is actually not a bad thing if you’re a New Yorker used to certain amenities. I’ve bathed in super rustic, all natural mineral springs before in Oregon and Washington where you’re sitting in a tub made in like the 19th c–so I’m tots okay with the modernity. I shower, put on a bathing suit and go out to the lagoon, which is a stunning milky light blue. It’s perfectly hot and soothing, and I float around admiring the view–and people who are taking selfies in the water. I really want to take selfies too (I’ve seen friends’ photos from the BL on facebook!). I run out and get my phone and only succeed in capturing one foot (I keep worrying that I’ll drop my phone). In the water, there is a mud bar where you can slather on silica mud mask and algae mask. I’m a big fan of masks, so it’s the perfect way to start my vacation–le sigh.
Afterwards, I take the bus out to Reykjavik. The bus station is supposed to be close to my airbnb–but my phone is still dead. Fortunately, I’d brought my Lonely Planet (bought at McNally’s for $30+, not Amazon) knowing that a hard copy is still so useful–and boy am I right. I look at the map, decide to just follow where the houses are–and end up at my Airbnb without getting lost. 😛 It’s an adorable, rustic little attic room just off of the heart of downtown Reykjavik.
Before meeting up with friends, I walk around and discover a vegan restaurant in about 5 minutes flat. Garðurinn is a little place where everything tastes homemade and there are meditation flyers on the wall. I get a daily platter of peanut stew, “hummus” (more like beans), brown rice and salad–of which my one regret is not getting the large plate. It’s so good! It’s also vacation, so I treat myself to a raw vegan berry cheesecake. Yay everything is delicious! I don’t even mind that I just spent $20 on lunch. Vacay, baby!
Next, I meet with my friends at Glo, which is Reykjavik’s most famous (almost) vegan cafe. It’s just across the street. We chat and make plans–the girls over lunch, and me over a decaf soy latte that is around $7-8 (!). (10+ krona) Never did I know I would be so shocked at prices, after NYC.
It’s around 3 when we hop in the car and drive out of Reykjavik. Even immediately outside the city, the landscape is by turns beautiful, even breathtaking. There are hills, meadows, and waterfalls everywhere! When we see a group of Icelandic ponies, we stop by the side of the road. As soon as they see us, they line themselves up by the fence–they’re so curious and social.
Next, we arrive at Mount Esja, which is supposed to be one of the best hiking trails near Reykjavik–and it does not disappoint. The air is delicious, there are sparkling little streams and waterfalls, and the ground is like a colorful tapestry of unknown mosses, wildflowers, and mushrooms. I love hiking but am lucky if I get to do it once a year. This makes me feel so alive and at home! Spirit is soaring like Icelandic puffins–yay!
We’re back in the city by evening in the best spirits–the hiking and continuous chatter and laughter have put us in hobbit-like merriment. We disperse to get ready for dinner, then with hobbit-esque appetite, we meet at Pylsa/Pulsa, a restaurant located in Reykjavik Hostel. It specializes in sausages, but Nichole (the vegan blogger behind Green or Die) has already figured out that they have a homemade vegan sausage platter!! Life just keeps getting better and better in Iceland ;D
We also got a round of Icelandic licorice liqueur shots. Some at the table think it’s medicinal, but I think it tastes fantastic! At this point, Iceland can do no wrong by me.
After dinner, we four red-blooded American chicks go out on the town. Reykjavik may be a national capital, but has the feel of a college town/ ski village where everything is concentrated on one main strip. Because it’s too cold for my going-out dress, I’m wearing a v-neck sweater, jeans, and flats, plus a trench coat–which I wouldn’t even dream of wearing to go out in NYC (!). Plus, my hair feels like Brillo from retaining all that good-for-you lagoon minerals. Despite that, I have the best going-out night since college–yep, that’s 7 years! Must have been a fun night 😉 (But honestly, I only have another 0.5 drink later–a lot of dancing for just 2.5 drinks! Efficient!)
I wake up rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed the next morning (all that dancing is good exercise!), take a shower crouching in my attic bathtub, and get some work done in my room. (Peaceful Dumpling newsletter doesn’t take a vacay). Next, I wander out for food–and end up finding a vegan cafe called Vinyl. This place wasn’t even on the guidebook! It’s so cozy and cool, and the food is out of this world.
After lunch, we drive out to Snaesfellsne Peninsula, which I’ve heard is the microcosm of the rest of Iceland, with all its varying landscapes. Lo and behold, it does not disappoint. The whole 2.5 hour drive, we are oohing and aahing like children. I keep thinking that these ponies don’t even know how good they have it–they live in the best place on earth.
Finally, we get to our destination, Kirkjufell, one of the most photographed sites on Iceland. This photo doesn’t do justice to how pretty this whole area is, not just the hill itself but the whole surrounding area–especially the waterfall.
This is the waterfall next to it. Just as we are running toward it (taking photos like maniacs along the way), the sun breaks through the clouds, casting a golden veil over the whole panorama.
After squee-ing around the falls, we decide to clamber up the Kirkjufell itself. We (I) think it’s going to be a piece of cake–notice how I’m (gray sweater) not even wearing a backpack for balance!
When we’re really, really close to the top, we run into a bunch of seasoned hikers who seem genuinely concerned about our safety, gently saying that it is pretty much a vertical climb that requires ropes and tools. Heeding their feedback, we clamber back down. Later, I read in Lonely Planet that this is a really dangerous climb that is recommended only with a local guide and hiking tools. Oops. (Sorry Mom!)
Back in Reykjavik, Nichole and I go back to Vinyl for meal #2. This time I have a hearty wrap filled with sweet potatoes and a melange of veggies–with a side of vegan mayo and more reduced balsamic that I practically lick off the plate. You rock, Vinyl!
After 2 whole days of serious adventuring, we are all feeling pretty mellow. In the morning I take my laptop to a local favorite cafe, Babalu, and work while eating toast and a decaf almond latte. A few hours later, I eat a lunch of raw veggie wrap at Glo and then go over to Garðurinn for a raw vegan Snickers. So basically I worked a few hours in the morning and ate at 3 different places! Vacay vacay.
With all that energy, I walk up all the way to Reykjavik’s most famous landmark, Hallgrimskirkja, a hilltop Lutheran church from mid-20th century that is visible from 20 km away.
Next, I visit Reykjavik 871: The Settlement Exhibition, which is in Old Reykjavik neighborhood across the Tjornin pond (I was in Central Reykjavik until that point). The walk over to the other side is pretty and refreshing–and so short!
The exhibit itself is also quite intimate: built over an 11th-century ruin of the first permanent settlement in Iceland, it tells the story of these Vikings from Norway. I’m fascinated by their culture. Next, it’s time for some fine art at Reykjavik Art Museum, Hafnarhaus.
I take my time wandering around and walking back toward Central, peeking at shops and looking for souvenirs.
Then I run smack into this:
After dinner, I am walking along this road (below) when I run into Nichole and Libby having dinner at the noodle shop. (Since I was so obsessed about the crepes, we’d decided to meet for drinks after dinner). We have a final pow wow discussing our 3 magical days and future itinerary. Ah, so much laughter. And just like that, it’s time to say good bye to Iceland, and head over to Paris!
I had so many feels regarding this trip. One, I didn’t know that I could plan and do a trip all on my own, and was filled with doubt for months. But it turns out, I can do it and have an incredible time too, and stay calm in face of inevitabilities like dead batteries, not knowing directions, etc. Two, I’d always believed that I’m fundamentally a homebody and don’t like traveling all that much…and it turned out that I just hadn’t really gone to places that *I* wanted to go, doing things that *I* wanted to do. Whenever I’d thought, “well, this isn’t where I would want to go, but since my friends are getting married there…” and gone, it wasn’t really to my liking. Your life being your own, you have to make sure you go to places you’d pick.
When you go to a place you’ve always wanted to go, you’re not longing for your routine at home–you feel like *this* is your home, in a way. Just like someone you love can make you feel immediately happy and understood, a place can make you feel that way too, upon first sight.
Iceland is such a place for me. A place of mysterious, wild beauty, kind (and handsome ;D) people, quirky culture, and more vegan food than you can imagine. This truly was a life-changing trip–and I can’t wait until the next time.
What travel destination is near and dear to your heart?
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Photo: Juhea Kim