Driving my way around Iceland

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kaszeta
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2012/09/09 00:29:51 (permalink)

Driving my way around Iceland

Just got back from a 12 day trip to Iceland.  It's been on our travel list for a long time, and we finally got to do it.  (And, for those that have never thought of going to Iceland... it's only 5 hours from the US Northeast!) 
It was 12 days: 3 total in Reykjavik, and the rest spent circumnavigating the country (primarily on the Ring Road, although we took a lot of diversions).  2600 km worth of driving.
And I've noticed that Icelandic cuisine doesn't get a lot of love from the world (oh, the jokes I heard about hakarl and Brennivin before I went).  But there are two things that make Icelandic cuisine phenomenal: Icelandic lamb, and fresh fish.
So, as I continue to upload photos to my flickr set, I figured I'd start giving a log of some of my most memorable meals.
First up was Grái Kötturinn, a small breakfast place in downtown Reykjavik. 
 

We took the red eye to Keyflavik (it’s hard not to, actually), which had us arriving all bleary-eyed at a time which was either 3:30 or 7:30, depending on which clock you are looking at. Attempting to get on local time, we wandering into downtown Reykjavik to find some coffee and breakfast, looking for a nice, solid breakfast to get us going.
We ended up finding a couple of good options (Prikið, in particular, looks like a place I need to check out on another visit), but we ended up finding exactly what we needed at the Grái Kötturinn: a nice, solid "eggs and bacon" breakfast:

 
Not really icelandic, but this American-style eggs and bacon breakfast hit the spot. The eggs were nicely cooked sunny-side up. The bacon was flavorful and fully cooked without being burnt. The potatoes were nicely seared up as well, and this combo made for the good-but-greasy sustenance that really helps me recover from a long flight.
However, the high point in this breakfast was the giant inch-thick slab of toast with Icelandic butter on it. It’s not just marketing, Icelandic cultured butter really is a lot more flavorful than your typical generic US butter pat, and it was something I enjoyed throughout my visit in Iceland.
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    Foodbme
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 01:12:17 (permalink)
    Nice pictures! While very minimalist, the country looks very clean!
    #2
    kevincad
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 08:39:24 (permalink)
    What was the weather like? And when were you there? Nice pics!!
    #3
    kland01s
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 09:19:06 (permalink)
    Beautiful photos!
    #4
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 09:53:18 (permalink)
    The weather on the south coast was lows in the 50s, highs in the upper 60s.  Subtract 10 degrees from that for the North, and one night when we had wind from the north, it almost hit freezing (it did at the higher altitudes).  A lot of rain, but most of that was very sporadic; Iceland is definitely one of those places where the weather changes every five minutes.
     
    We were there from the 21st through Labor Day. 
     
    And yes, it's a beautiful country (and my photos don't really do it justice...).  I will put some of the highlights here, however.
     
    The rest of Day 1 was wandering about Reykjavik waiting for our hotel room to open up.
     
    Stop 1 was the main church at the center of Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja:


    You can pay 500 ISK (~$4) to go up in the tower, and see the colorful houses:


    When we got hungry, this little hut is Ieland's busiest restuarant (by number of customers per year):


    They sell one item: Icelandic hot dogs (lamb dogs served with ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, raw onions, and crispy fried onions):


    Reykjavik also has this really cool sculpture on the warerfront, Solfar ("Sun Voyager"):

    #5
    pnwchef
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 12:12:38 (permalink)
     
    kaszeta: It looks like you had a great time, nice pictures and a great start to your report. Thanks for taking the time................Bill
    #6
    mar52
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 12:30:19 (permalink)
    WOW!  I love your pictures and report.
     
    That church is very different and inspiring.
     
    The hot dog is questionable but I like that the Icelanders (??) also enjoy hot dogs.
     
    The menorah by the sea is beautiful only the left off 3 candles. 
     
     
    #7
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 12:55:11 (permalink)
    You'll see a lot more hot dogs.  I actually liked them, the lamb gives them a nice, different, flavor, and the fried onions work really well (they are like finely minced Durkee fried onions).
     
    Actually, I found that I really liked Icelandic food in general.  Especially once you get outside of Reykjavik, it gets very sparse, very quickly... but if there was a restaurant, they did a very good job of things.
     
    Indeed, one of the best coffee places I've been to in recent history was Kaffismiðja Íslands, a Reykjavik coffee shop that roasts their beans on-site:
     



     
     
    #8
    FriedClamFanatic
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 14:49:48 (permalink)
    Can't wait to see more
    #9
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 15:22:53 (permalink)
    For our first dinner in Iceland, we wanted to try out something funky, so we went to Tapas húsið (Tapas House), one of several Reykjavik joints combining the concept of tapas with local ingredients.

    Here's course #1: Deep-fried Langoustine with aioli:

    Course number 2: Goat Cheese and Beetroot with pistachios and cardamom.
    This was the best goat cheese I've ever had, and that's with me having been served this combination (Goat cheese and beetroot) so many times in the last 5 years that I'm almost sick of it.  This redeemed it:

    Course 3: Gravlax on herb and dill rye bread.  Simply perfection (I had a lot of excellent fish on this trip):

    Course 4 was a nice Icelandic beef carpaccio (Iceland also has good beef) served up with shards of manchego cheese and a roasted sugared lemon:

    Course 5 was a "chicken spear", Basically a mini chicken kabob, but nicely done with a sort of satay spicing:

    Course 6 concluded the meal with  cured arctic char with parsnip.  This was a perfectly done piece of char (I had a lot of char this trip as well...):

    #10
    mar52
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 15:28:18 (permalink)
    Impressive!
    #11
    mr chips
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 21:37:51 (permalink)
    Impressive photos. great looking food and scenery.
    #12
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 21:51:55 (permalink)
    The next day we started our driving tour in earnest. 
     
    Despite our plans to drive clockwise around the island, we wanted to hit the "Golden Circle" in the southwest, which includes several major tourist sites.

    But first, we took off driving on the Ring Road (Route 1) to get there.  You barely get out of Reykjavik and you are in one of the terrains that makes up about 20% of Iceland: Lava rocks ("Tuff") covered with moss, interrupted with the occasional steam vent:



    The first stop was the small town of Hveragerði, which is known for hot houses (most of which have these intense orange lights that glow at night) and geothermal springs.  At the center of town is a little park.  One of the odder attractions was a person selling eggs that you could boil in the spring


     
    After Hveragerði, we headed Northeast to Kerið, a large volcanic crater:

     
    #13
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 21:52:11 (permalink)
    Next stop was Geysir, a tourist site famous for a large geyser field (think "Yellowstone").  The largest one, Geysir, erupts up to 200' in height... when it erupts.  It's somewhat erratic, usually going off in ~8 hour +/- 90 minute intervals.  We saw it erupt when we were about 20 minutes outside of town, so we didn't wait around for it.  But right next to Geysir is Strokkur, another geyser that's pretty impressive (up to 120'), and reliable (usually every 6-8 minutes).

    Between eruptions, it sits there and bubbles ominously:


    Then it erupts:


    The area also has dozens of great, colorful hot spring pools:



    #14
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 21:53:16 (permalink)
    Next stop was Gullfoss, one of Southwest Iceland's more famous waterfalls (I'll warn you now, you'll see about a bazillions waterfall pics, the country has that many of them):




     
    The next stop after that was Þingvellir National Park.  Þingvellir is a rather picturesque location that served both as the traditional parliament of Iceland, the Alþingi, would meet.  It's also the site where the modern Republic of Iceland was founded in 1944 (since Denmark got taken over by the Germans).

    It's a nice location, although it was pouring rain when we were there (a common problem... :) ):



    Here's the The Lögberg (the "Law Rock") where the speaker of parliament would talk:


     
     
    #15
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 21:54:23 (permalink)
    After Þingvellir, we needed to get up to the Borgarnes area, which is actually north of Reykjavik.  This either meant a lot of backtracking, or taking a 4x4 trail through the Kaldidalur Valley into the "interior" of Iceland.  We opted for the latter.

    It was surprisingly empty.  This was one of the first times on this trip where I mentioned "you know, it's not surprisingly they trained astronauts for the moon landing here...", since it was a weird mostly-barren landscape, as far as the eye could see with no settlements or other travelers:


    (click on this to go to Flickr where you can see the full pano)

    Here we saw our first glaciers:


    After that, we ended up in the sleepy seaside town of Borgarnes, which mostly is a pitstop on the ringroad:



    There's basically two options for non-gas station food (like rural New Englanders, Icelandic folk seem to eat a lot of gas station food...): an Icelandic place, and a Filipino place.  We chose the former, but decided if we ever come back to check out the latter.

    Highlights included the lamb tartare (good Icelandic lamb is surprisingly dark in color, BTW) and pasta with smoked salmon:




    #16
    BuddyRoadhouse
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 22:45:51 (permalink)

    mar52The menorah by the sea is beautiful only the left off 3 candles. 

    They're Reform Jews in Iceland.
     
    Buddy
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    CCinNJ
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/09 22:52:43 (permalink)
    Awesome report. Who knew Iceland was so close?

    Is there a prize for winning a staring contest with that cat?
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    FriedClamFanatic
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 05:17:30 (permalink)
    kaszeta

    For our first dinner in Iceland, we wanted to try out something funky, so we went to Tapas húsið (Tapas House), one of several Reykjavik joints combining the concept of tapas with local ingredients.

    Here's course #1: Deep-fried Langoustine with aioli:

    Course number 2: Goat Cheese and Beetroot with pistachios and cardamom.
    This was the best goat cheese I've ever had, and that's with me having been served this combination (Goat cheese and beetroot) so many times in the last 5 years that I'm almost sick of it.  This redeemed it:

    Course 3: Gravlax on herb and dill rye bread.  Simply perfection (I had a lot of excellent fish on this trip):

    Course 4 was a nice Icelandic beef carpaccio (Iceland also has good beef) served up with shards of manchego cheese and a roasted sugared lemon:

    Course 5 was a "chicken spear", Basically a mini chicken kabob, but nicely done with a sort of satay spicing:

    Course 6 concluded the meal with  cured arctic char with parsnip.  This was a perfectly done piece of char (I had a lot of char this trip as well...):



    That set of pictures alone has convinced me that on my next trip, to Europe, I'm making an "unscheduled stop" for a few days............Fantastic!
    #19
    agnesrob
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 08:23:52 (permalink)
    Great report! Your pictures are nice!
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    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 08:53:24 (permalink)
    To give people a better idea of the approximate itinerary, here are google maps for the first and second half of the trips:

    First half: http://goo.gl/ab0a6
    Second half: http://goo.gl/maps/53VAH
     
    The next stop after Borgarnes was Reykholt, historic home of Snorri Sturluson, one of Iceland's most famous poets and a historian who was one of the first people to records of the Old Norse language and mythology of medieval Iceland (he basically started the concept of recording the Icelandic Sagas, which were completely an oral tradition before then).  Reykholt used to be a major town, but now it's a fairly quiet town that's mostly a museum to Snorri. 

    One of the attractions there is that archeological efforts found parts of Snorri's home still buried there, including his 900+ year-old spring-fed hot tub.  Kind of a bizarre tourist attraction, but there you go:



    Then we went back to the Ring Road, and started driving again.  Route 1 in Western Iceland is mostly lined with horse farms.  The horses are quite friendly in general:



    Shortly after that, we did a hike at Grabrok, an old caldera that's right next to the ring road (here you are looking at the east side of the caldera, which collapsed as part of the eruption)



    Looking down towards the parking area from the top, you can see the old lava flowfield:

     
    Next stop after Grabrok was the Vatnsnes peninsula in the north.  On the way there, we stopped at a high plateau that gave us a nice view back to the Kaldidalur Valley and the Langjökull ice cap.  If you look carefully, you can see the same three glaciers I took in the photo a few posts ago:



    On the Vatnses Peninsula, there is an interesting rock formation in the water call Hvítserkur.  Supposedly Hvítserkur was a troll (they really like troll mythology, about half of the area's geological features were supposedly created by angry trolls...) that lived in Mount Bæjarfell, but accidentally stayed outside at sunrise and was petrified, with his face sticking partway out of the water:


    The peninsula also was a prime example of a constant occurrence: having to stop and wait for sheep to get out of the road:


    We then headed south to the Kolugljúfur gorge (also apparently the product of Troll Civil Engineering):

    #21
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 08:56:13 (permalink)
    Next stop was the town of Akureyri (BTW, Borgarnes -> Akureyri via the route I took is 400+ km.  It's shocking how much driving it can take to get from one settlement to another in such a "small" country).  Considered the "Reykjavik of the North", it's Iceland's fourth largest municipality, but #2 and #3 (Hafnarfjörður and Kópavogur) are really suburbs of Reyjavik, so it's really Iceland's second largest "metro" area.  For that matter, it's really the only place in the country outside of Reykjavik I'd even consider a "city" (the vast majority of Icelandic settlements wouldn't even rate "village" around here), and even at that, it's modest, with around 25,000 population.  But it's a major shipping port (due to warm water inflow and the relative warmth of the gulf stream, the pork of Akureyri never ices over), and also a fairly common cruise ship destination for the area.

    Here's a nice overview of town (actually taken the day I left, since we got a good view from the other side of the fjord):



    It's a reasonable decent town, however, having staffed gas stations, actual grocery stores, good hotels, and the like.  The fjord is also is popular with pleasure boaters, so there's a reasonable harbor there for smaller boats (as opposed to the gigantic fishing boats and cruise ships):


    Akureyri is also the "City of Hearts", and this manifested itself in an odd way... when stopping at my first red light in Akureyri (which was the only place outself of Reykjavik where I saw traffic lights), I thought to myself, "that's an odd illusion, that red light looks like a heart."  By the second one, I realized it was deliberate:



    As far as food goes in Akureyri... An interesting thing I discovered in Iceland is that the largest ethnic minority is Thai.  Iceland doesn't have a large immigrant population, but most of the immigrants they have are from Thailand, Poland, Vietnam, and the Philippines, with the first of these being most prominent.  A byproduct of this is a rather large number of Thai restaurants.  In Akureyri, it seemed like a good idea to check one out, so we went to Krua Siam across from our hotel:



    This was your standard Thai restaurant like you'd get most anywhere else, with the noted exception that there were a *lot* more lamb dishes on the menu (Lamb being the most prevalent, and often the cheapest, meat in Iceland).  We ended up getting Tom Kha Kai (chicken and coconut soup), Pad Kva with Lamb (a spicy stir fry), and beef Yam Nua (cold beef salad):







    Overall, I was quite pleased, this was very flavorful, very spicy (in contrast to most Icelandic food, which is usually very flavorful, but if it's hot at all, is a black pepper spicy), and the use of high-quality lamb made for a particularly good Pad Kva.  And the place was noticeably better than most Thai places I regularly get to here in the US.
     
     
    #22
    ScreamingChicken
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 09:29:01 (permalink)
    mar52

    The hot dog is questionable but I like that the Icelanders (??) also enjoy hot dogs.
    I'm not sure about Sweden and Denmark but hot dogs and sausages are also very popular in Norway.
     
    Great report so far, Kas...looking forward to more!
    #23
    tcrouzer
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 10:05:58 (permalink)
    Great trip report! Excellent photos! That lovely church looks like a big pipe organ - love it. Looking forward to more of this trip.
    #24
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 10:11:16 (permalink)
    tcrouzer
    Great trip report! Excellent photos! That lovely church looks like a big pipe organ - love it. Looking forward to more of this trip.

    Funny you mention that, because that church has the most impressive pipe organ inside (5275 pipes!):

     
    #25
    kevincad
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 10:13:14 (permalink)
    kaszeta

    The weather on the south coast was lows in the 50s, highs in the upper 60s.  Subtract 10 degrees from that for the North, and one night when we had wind from the north, it almost hit freezing (it did at the higher altitudes).  A lot of rain, but most of that was very sporadic; Iceland is definitely one of those places where the weather changes every five minutes.

    We were there from the 21st through Labor Day. 
     
    Wow, so that is summer weather! Yeouch!

    And yes, it's a beautiful country (and my photos don't really do it justice...).  I will put some of the highlights here, however.

    The rest of Day 1 was wandering about Reykjavik waiting for our hotel room to open up.

    Stop 1 was the main church at the center of Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja:


    You can pay 500 ISK (~$4) to go up in the tower, and see the colorful houses:


    When we got hungry, this little hut is Ieland's busiest restuarant (by number of customers per year):


    They sell one item: Icelandic hot dogs (lamb dogs served with ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, raw onions, and crispy fried onions):


    Reykjavik also has this really cool sculpture on the warerfront, Solfar ("Sun Voyager"):



    #26
    ann peeples
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 12:46:56 (permalink)
    Foodbeme said simple? Beautiful country......I have a friend there, and it is one of the most gorgeous countries of the world.
    #27
    mr chips
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/10 21:20:48 (permalink)
    My home has a lot of volcanic scenery and waterfalls nearby and I am duly impressed with the Icelandic scenery's similar landscape. love the photos of the scenery and the food and I am very anxious for more.
    #28
    kaszeta
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/11 16:26:46 (permalink)
    More pics from Akureyri:

    The main church (which some have told me looks somewhat Minecraft-inspired):



    They were having a music festival while we were there, so they had a sound stage right around from our hotel room:



    We also walked down to Brynja, which many people (mostly Icelandic) told me had some of the best ice cream ever:



    When I got there, I found out they basically have one flavor of soft serve... but when I got it, it was some of the best soft serve[1] I've ever had.  Much stronger vanilla flavor and more butterfat than most soft serve, and I rather enjoyed it:


    [1] All sorts of places here in VT/NH serve soft-serve, and people all argue which place is best, but honestly, 95% of them serve the exact same product...
    #29
    Extreme Glow
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    Re:Driving my way around Iceland 2012/09/11 18:59:03 (permalink)
    I did the Ring Road in 2003 and had a great time.  I still fondly remember the lamb filet with herb crust and the monkfish with bacon sauce!  Thanks for the great report.
     
    Here's the pylsur stand in 2003.  Always a line.


     
    #30
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