Tuesday, May 17, 2016

20151022 Iceland with its famous Blue Lagoon

When I was little, I wanted to visit Iceland because I thought it was a land full of ice. Ironically, it is quite a lot greener than Greenland while Greenland is quite a lot icier than Iceland.

Iceland is the land of fire and ice. What does this mean? It means that there are many geothermal spots and many hot springs, the most famous of which is the Blue Lagoon. As with most things in Iceland, it is not cheap to visit the Blue Lagoon so you've got to plan your day well. Our friend told us we could get the tickets at the counter when we reach so we didn't bother booking online. We were lucky because we went during an off-peak season and we went in the morning. Another friend went during Easter week and was told that the earliest entry time was 7pm. It was 2pm when they reached. So yes, I would recommend booking your Blue Lagoon package online

We booked 2-way transport from town to the lagoon via Bustravel Iceland at around S$72 for two. The price did not include entrance to Blue Lagoon. Being the kiasu people we are, we took the 8.45am trip and the journey took about 45 minutes. 

The thing about Iceland is how it manages to surprise you. I thought the Blue Lagoon was just like another other hot springs. Boy, was I wrong. 

As the bus meandered down the road into Blue Lagoon, we saw fields and fields of lava. According to the driver, they are pretty young lava fields. I guess this means that they were formed more recently; "recent" being a relative term. 

When we alighted, the driver informed us of the timings available for the return trip and we could hop on to any.

Since we were still feeling warm from the cozy interior of the bus, we decided to explore the lands around the Blue Lagoon. And what a treat it was. 

There's blue and then there's blue.

You'll see these gorgeous beds of blue water and if you're lucky, the sun will be peeping out while you take all those selfies.

The contrast of the blue against the dark lava field is quite spectacular. 

The unexpected photo spot at the Blue Lagoon

Gotta take me one of those contemplative floatfie shots

Marveling at the lava fields

The weather in Iceland can get a bit kooky. When you see the sun out, do as much exploring as you can because it may start pouring after 5 minutes. And with the long hours needed to travel from Singapore to Iceland, it's not very likely you will plan a return trip soon. Oh, of course you'll be quite pok (read: broke) after a trip here. 

Depending on the ticket you buy, you may need to bring along towel and slippers. You can be a Singaporean and wear slippers there instead of covered shoes. Then I salute you. 

I expected the Blue Lagoon to be similar to our local public swimming pools. You know, water to wade in, a small cafeteria and a small shop to sell some essentials. Maybe coin slot lockers, a filmsy entry ticket and basic shower facilities. 


The Blue Lagoon is definitely a 5-star wading pool. Water to wade in? Yes, but it's mineral-rich water that makes your skin so soft and supple. Small cafeteria? Yes, but it's with awesome smoothies and there's an amazing restaurant, Lava, which served us the best meal I had in Iceland. 

Here's proof:
Amazing warm bread served with a blob of ??

Arctic char with fennel, pearl onion, cucumber, toasted bread aioli

Langoustine soup with garlic-marinated langoustine, white chocolade, seaweed

FRESH Cod, sunchokes, almonds, grapes, brown butter sauce

Rack of lamb with cabbage, smoked onion, lemon, green cabbage, apple 

“Ástarpungar” & caramel with caramel chocolate mousse, vanilla ice cream, salted caramel

There was a hiccup with serving our desserts. They got delayed and they served us the same item even though we ordered different sets. We didn't want to make a fuss so we tried to eat them. Not our cup of tea. 

It's important to travel with people with similar taste in food. If you are a foodie and will die without trying new things, then travelling with a picky eater will be quite a challenge. Of course you can eat everything yourself but you'll be too full to try more or you'll be wasting food in order to try more. 

A small shop to sell essentials? Yes, but they also sell high-end Blue Lagoon spa products. A hand cream sets you back a pretty S$55. The shop also sells swimsuit but fugly ones so bring your own. 

Yes, you need to wear swimsuit. If you are conscious about your body, don't be! Firstly, the steam at the lagoon makes it hard for anyone to really see your cellulite. Besides, if Kate Moss has them, us mere mortals should be ok with ours. And you can wear a t-shirt and shorts over your swimsuit. Secondly, the water is opaque so once you're in the lagoon, people don't see the parts of your body that are submerged. You are encouraged to tie your hair up and not go underwater water because the high silica content will tangle your hair like mad and sting your eyes like crazy. And finally, once you disrobe in the 4 deg.C air, you will be rushing into the water so whatever body hangups you have will last 10 seconds at most. 

So long as you don't slip and fall. x_x

If you intend to take photos, bring your weatherproof camera or casing. My brother's trusty Olympus weatherproof one worked well. I saw someone trying to use their iPhones for a selfie while they kept it inside a water-proof bag. Too much work.

Coin slot lockers, flimsy entry ticket and basic shower facilities? Wrong! 

These are our entry tickets:
We tapped the electronic wristbands to buy stuff, lock lockers, exit and make payment.

The shower facilities came with high pressure water, big cubicles and toiletries. You can also find cotton wool, cotton buds and hairdryers. Be warned though that some cubicles do not have doors and some body-confident people do use them. Don't worry, ladies and gents have separate areas. We had a shock though because a nude old lady used one of these cubicles facing out instead of the wall and was happily grinning at everyone who walked by. 

I had visited hot springs before and I can't say I'm a big fan. I prefer the cold and being hot makes me pekcek. 

Blue Lagoon changed my mind. The water was a balmy 30+deg. C and the contrast with the cold air was just nice. If you're too hot, you can stand straighter to cool down and vice versa. 

This is an underwater shot. See, it's really opaque. No need to hold your stomach in.

Yes, steammmmy...

You can buah as much of this on your face as you want. It's free! 

The landscape was not as ideal as we would like it to be. There were a number of cranes as they were building the Silica Hotel.

There's a bar there so you can order drinks (yes, alcohol) as you wade in the pool. You can also go for spa there. I'm not sure how long you can stay inside the water. I think we stayed until our fingers became pruney. And that was just about right. Because it started pouring after we showered.

Great time management. Just enough time to claim our complimentary drink as we looked at the  pouring rain. Yes, I bring rain on all my travels. 

We had rescheduled our aurora tour after the Blue Lagoon trip.

Guess what? It was postponed again. :(

Thursday, January 14, 2016

20151021 Iceland with its Golden Circle Tour and Kjotsupa

Good morning Reykjavik! (Guess how long it took me to learn how to spell pronounce this? I'm not even sure if I'm doing it correctly!)
The sun rise from the balcony was really something.

When you research on things to do in Iceland, you will inevitably find mentions about waterfalls after sieving through the photoshopped aurora images. :P

One of the most famous waterfalls is Gullfoss which we visited on Day 5.

Day tours are not cheap in Iceland. For the Golden Circle Tour, it cost us S$100 each. We chose Grayline because it's one of the most famous ones and we wanted reliability. I had been on Grayline tours before but I wouldn't say they are the best. The group is usually rather big and that can lead to issues with punctuality, space and noise. As with most big companies, there can also be an impersonal touch to the whole experience. By the way, if you're booking Grayline, the promo code "SEE5' seems to work. No harm trying ya!

Here's our not bad breakfast in Iceland.
Salad, buns, ham with honey mustard & coffee, Nomstable!

Clothes you need for Iceland? Let's see. We were there in October. the weather forecast was 0°C to 7°C.  My gear:

  • Thermal crew neck top, S$24.90 (Heattech Extra Warm from Uniqlo)
  • Thermal leggings, S$19.90 (Heattech Extra Warm from Uniqlo)
  • Heattech socks, $14.90 (from Uniqlo)
  • Heattech gloves, $24.90 (from Uniqlo)
  • Woolen sweater (from Target
  • Jeggings (from Mango)
  • Padded parka (from Bellfield via Zalora)
  • Woolen hat (from Zara
  • Non-slip shoes (from Ecco

Just think about putting these on. Tiring right?

Yes, it was but it was super necessary too. My torso was very well-protected throughout the trip. Can't say the same for bottom though. Shins got a bit cold, not to mention the extremities. Peiying wore thick, furry tights and she said she felt ok. You can get them from Qoo10.

Remember me mentioning that we chose the apartment based on its description? No? Haha. Never mind, now you know.

So yeah, the house was near Hotel Klettur, which is one of the pick-up points for the tour. Grayline does pick up at most hotels and inns around town and it seems like they can pick you up from other locations so long as you leave the details in the comments when booking.
A beautiful day!

They will pick you up in a mini bus and you will be transferred to a bigger coach at the terminal. You usually need to exchange your voucher for tickets at the terminal and it's good to walk a bit faster to get a better seat on the coach. Not asking you to push and shove but it was common to see other tourists running to get their seats. Not cool, dude, not cool. If,  like me, you're travelling with someone who needs to clear bladder frequently, get your partner to head to toilet while you take the queue to validate the voucher.

For the Golden Circle Tour, the estimated duration was 8.5hours. How come 8.5hours at work doesn't seem to end while 8.5hours of tour seems short? :P

We weren't quite prepared for the exposure to the big, open space of Iceland. Not because of the space itself but because of the wind.

They're not kidding with this sign. Slippery when wet.

You see the rings I was wearing in the photo? Don't bother to wear any for hiao sake. After this initial stupidity, I learnt that rings and gloves do not mix and it was more important to prevent frostbite than try to look chio.

First stop: Þingvellir National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Said to be one of the earliest parliaments in the world,the Alþingi is part of the national park. It was founded in 930 and our tour guide gave us a very vivid description of how it used to be. People from all over Iceland would congregate here after travelling for days and weeks on horseback and on foot. It was a time for laws and public policies to be set and social ties to be renewed. Merchants and common folks also gathered there to trade their wares and young people would mingle for an opportunity to find partners. Sounds positively festive, doesn't it?

The coach dropped us at the park and picked us up at the end of the walk. It was only a 20-minute walk.

It felt waaaaaaaay longer. And I blame it on the wind.

It is imperative to eat before you start the tour. Or you should have food with you. Even though we had a "bunwich" for breakfast, the hunger pangs started mid-way through the walk. Don't worry, if you don't feel up to it, you don't have start the trek.

You'll just miss sights like these:
See the humans for scale.

There's a church.

I love the emptiness.

An autumny view

No one around. Simply awesome.

This looks pretty but it has a sinister past.

From the name Þingvellir Drowning Pool, you can guess that this was a drowning site. These women were apparently executed by drowning. Þingvellir was not just the site where laws were passed; it was also the site where punishment were meted out. 

Stunning, isn't it? 

As the river flows,

To the sea, to the sea. No wait, this is still a river.

It was barely 10am but we were already hungry. So we ate this funny pie. 
Not sure what we ate.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing one of the most gorgeous views.
With a toilet in the foreground. 

This is what you can expect in Iceland. It is a place of rugged beauty everywhere you turn. Or it might be me imagining the beauty where there is none.

You might have seen the legendary images of Gullfoss waterfall online. You know, the big one that falls into a crack in the ground and occasionally spits out a rainbow? Like the image from Wikipedia here:
Just waiting for the unicorn to appear.

This was our view:
Contrary to my strong beliefs, it was overcast.

Can you imagine the sheer power of this waterfall? How tonnes and tonnes of water seems to be plunging into a crevice that appeared in the ground out of nowhere? Think about the sounds, the sights, the spray?

Ok, no need to think. Here's a video:

Too bad I cannot convey the freshness of the air. Or the cold.

This was the sight that greeted us at the top of the stairs. Yes, there's walking involved at every stop and most of them are on wet terrain. At this particular stop, the spray from mighty Gullfoss made sure of that.

The view before we walked down the stairs.

Don't you just love how tiny you feel against the force of nature? It's important to feel insignificant sometimes because our worries and problems also appear much more trivial.

Spot the humans in my artsy macro shot.

The steps before it all starts going straight down.

It just... disappeared.

The plunge.

Down, down, down...

I cannot reiterate this enough. Good, sturdy, non-slip shoes please. This is the kind of ground you will be walking on.
Wet and wet and wet. Track shoes may not cut it.

On to the next topic of the day: Kjotsupa.

Unless there are some dietary restrictions or preferences, I don't understand why some people want to eat food from back home when travelling. The older I get, the less things are new to me. I enjoy trying new tastes but then I am a pig. I do draw the line at eating bloody stuff though. OMG! I do have dietary preferences. Can't be a hipster who tries everything once now. *sad*

Anyway, we were recommended to try Icelandic soup, which Google says is known as "Kjotsupa". Essentially, it is a lamb soup made with Icelandic herbs. Lamb is a common meat in Iceland, as is fish.
I have no idea what else is in it besides carrots and potatoes.

It was comforting to drink this in the cold weather. I think all hot soups will be comforting in the Icelandic cold.

This was our first real meal, outside, in Iceland at Gullfoss Cafe:
A soup each and a chicken sandwich to share

Hello, soup is not an entree here. We thought we would still be hungry if we only drank the soup. Boy, were we wrong! No wonder the aunty from the next table kept turning back and staring at our portion. The bread rolls were unlimited. They had more usual food if lamb is not your thing. The meal set us back about S$50.

We needed the filling meal because we were going to take a huge risk at the next stop.
The nearest hospital is 62km away.

Most of these natural sights do not have people guarding them. Don't be an arse and pray pray ah! These natural wonders are way to powerful for humans to handle. Check out one right now:
Seems empty doesn't it? It wasn't.

This geyser erupts every few minutes. Did you know that geysers are named after The Great Geysir in Iceland? This is not the granddaddy though, The Great Geysir doesn't erupt as often after some earthquakes.

Here's Strokkur in action.
Choose a good spot to catch the action.

The area around the Geysir Parks is beautiful too. The wide, open spaces in Iceland are
Iceland, the land of fire and ice.

No one, empty, deserted, nada.

If you love doing jumping and floating shots, cold countries are the best places to do it. You don't get sweaty.
Take a shot from bottom up to make it look like you can jump higher.

Try to leave nature unspoiled ok? You're not supposed to throw anything into the pool. Just admire it and leave only footprint behind. A donation for the upkeep of the park would be welcomed too.

This would be so much prettier without the fugly coins in it. It's not a wishing well or a crap fountain.

The 2nd last stop of the day trip was the Skalholt area. This is where the first official school was founded and it's where you'll find this:

Skaholt cathedral 

You can go into the building and the simplicity of its interior made me go back in time. Quite beautiful really.

The dog came to admire the view too. 

When you round to the back of the church, the expansive Icelandic landscape will greet you again. This time, we go to share it with a friendly dog.

There is a larger cathedral next to the old one.
The white building at the back is the new build

The interior of Skaholt cathedral 

The final stop of the day was Fákasel, the Icelandic Horse Park. If you're keen you can watch a short 5-minute show of skilled jockeys demonstrating the different gaits of the Icelandic Horse.

Watch, the Flying Pace:

If you're not keen on watching the show, you can wander round the small shop which sells a good variety of Icelandic products.

We headed back to town, all excited about the next event on our itinerary - chasing the Northern Lights! The mysterious Aurora is surely the top reason for visiting Iceland for many.

Then, disaster struck.

The tour was cancelled because the likelihood of seeing them was low that night.

WHY, OH WHY?! :~~~~~~(

Two very disappointed people then booked the tour for the next day and went back to do laundry and nua in the apartment. At least we had a digital media library to entertain us for a bit.

And this cute rubbish chute:
The extremely small chute is a good way to remind you to recycle your plastic, paper and glass bottles.

For our first full day in Iceland, we learnt these lessons:

  1. The cold in Iceland wilderness is no joke. Forget your rings and fanciful accessories. 
  2. Remember to wear gloves.
  3. Non-slip shoes. Shoes that don't slip. Slip proof soles. Cannot stress enough.
  4. Many of the natural sights are very powerful. Not the kind of place you want to monkey around.
  5. Aurora do not turn up when you want them to. Don't build yourselves up for disappointment.
It wasn't all that bad though. The next day, we had a pretty good one at the Blue Lagoon. :)