We had pre-booked our tickets for the Blue Lagoon, arriving just before 8am. We felt like cattle with the rest of the tourists being herded into the spa. We were given bracelets to wear that were both charge card and key for our lockers. Towels were not included and were 700 ISK for one, so I chose to go without.
Once in the change room, I discovered the string of my bikini top had come come out. I could not get it in by hand, so got a pair of tweezers from my toiletries kit to try and feed the string through. The tweezers then got stuck and I could not get them out for the life of me. I asked aloud to the change room if anyone had a manicure kit and allow me to use a pair of scissors, but no one paid any attention to me despite speaking English to one another.
Eventually I got a pair of scissors from a change room attendant. I was able to cut out my tweezers and successfully fed the string through by cutting a hole every few centimetres. Finally, I had a swimsuit!
Next was the shower. As forewarned, there were two to three attendants at any given time overseeing the shower station to make sure everyone showered – and did so naked! As advised, I left the conditioner in my hair to protect it from the minerals in the water. Apparently the Blue Lagoon can fry your hair.
The Blue Lagoon Experience
We entered the Blue Lagoon through a small door into the pool. Empty beer cups bobbed in the water from the night before, running up against the black lava rocks caked in white silica. Steam rose up, illuminated by spotlights. What looked like guards wearing neon yellow snow suits overlooked the pool, standing on bridges and inside what looked like a low-lying Watch Tower. What I called the watch tower turned out to be the mud mask station.
Matt and I made our way through the lagoon, exploring the various pools in the dark. The moon shone overhead with the jagged, hard line of lava fields around us silhouetted against the night sky. Stars shone out from wisps of clouds and steam rose up into the cool night air.
Matt kicked up the mud that was under his feet, making it release air bubbles into the water. I bobbed on over to experience it – it was just like fizzy soda water!
During a rain spell, we visited the saunas (they had both wet and dry) and the two steam rooms at the Blue Lagoon. The dry sauna looked out on the lagoon and we watched at the day light grew as we enjoyed the heat of the room.
Come sunrise, Matt ordered a beer from the swim-up bar. The party was really happening over there! We tried to get away from the crowds, but by then the place was hopping!
We left the pool and got ready for our flight. It was a mad house in the change rooms by that hour – people coming and going! I left without drying my hair. It was too hard to get counter space.
On our way out, we asked the staff where the observation deck was for one last look at the Lagoon. She left her post at the cash register and walked us upstairs, past the cafe and meeting rooms and out to a balcony overlooking the water. We really appreciated her doing that – it was a great place to get one last picture!
On our way out, Matt pointed to a small path just outside the Lagoon entrance. It led out to a protected area of the lagoon. No people could swim there, so you could enjoy the sight of the lagoon without distraction: just the pale blue waters, lava rocks, and mountains in the distance! The sight was beautiful! Also good to know that you can witness the beauty of the lagoon without paying to enter it.
We drove towards the airport through green moss covered lava fields. Last night had been snow, early morning sleet, mid morning rain – and now sunshine! It’s very true how the rain brings out the green in the moss – neither Matt nor I had even seen it so vibrant in Iceland.
Returning Our Geysir Car Rental
We returned our car to the friendly staff at Geysir. We were happy to hear there was no damages added to our car with all that driving! We’d driven just over 2000 km!
There was a screen showing the GPS location of the complimentary bus to the airport. We took full advantage of the free hot chocolate and coffee while waiting, watching the progress of the bus on the big screen. When it came time to go out to the bus stop, we saw a huge rainbow spanning the sky ahead of us. What a sight to say goodbye to Iceland
Security was a breeze at the airport. We bought liquorice at the duty free and I went on a mission to find adult sized wool socks to bring back as souvenirs. Sadly, even here they were $74 a pair for 100% wool socks. I wasn’t about to pay that! Postcards will have to do.
Our flight was delayed by a hour. We shared a margarita pizza in the food court and loaded up on water for our flight. Once on the plane, Matt settled into his headphones and I got out my book. Next stop home – Toronto!
We had some really great times on our trip – some scary ones too! Shared highlights were the Northern Lights and the visit up to the top of the lighthouse – we really had some beautiful moments in Akranes and can thank Himlar for that! The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach were very special experiences for me – it meant a great deal to see icebergs and glaciers in person, and so close!
The New Years Eve (NYE) community bonfire in Selfoss was an incredible experience, and the amount of fireworks Icelanders can put off in Reykjavik is mind boggling! They really love their fireworks – they were still going off last night. NYE in Iceland truly is a unique experience – rivals NYE in Paris under the Eiffel Tower! We feel very fortunate to have experienced NYE in Times Square, NYC, Paris, and now Iceland together.
The grey cap (Matt) and the black beret* (me) look forward to more adventures together in 2018 and beyond!
*although I did wear a white toque this whole trip – it was far too cold to expose my ears while wearing my trademark beret! Matt did wear his cap during the trip (and the new grey toque!)
It was difficult getting up at 8:30am after having gone to bed so late last night watching the Northern Lights, but we wanted to get ahead of the AirBnB guests. As the laundry, shower, and washroom were all in the same room, it felt like a dance to get in there. They had been doing laundry since they arrived last night, and were still doing laundry when we left.
Our host had provided fresh eggs for our breakfast. They looked very different than eggs back home! The shell was a creamy beige colour, the whites of the egg had a yellow tinge to them, and the yokes were bright orange! I did us up some scrambled eggs and was amazed at their bright colour even cooked! Matt said that was the sign of fresh eggs!
Visit to the Top of the Akranes Lighthouse
We stopped in the lighthouse on our way out of Akranes to take a couple pictures at sunrise. We saw Hilmar, the man we first met yesterday who runs the lighthouse and visitor centre. He was just opening up the centre, so we went over to say thank you for the Northern Lights tip yesterday. Seeing the lights at the Arkanes lighthouse was truly a highlight of our trip!
We chatted with Hilmar, walking with him as he went to unlock the lighthouse. Apparently the lighthouse is popular with musicians due to its natural reverb and one had been in here recording last night. It was also used as an art exhibition place!
Hilmar took us up each level of the lighthouse. The first had tourist pamphlets, a guestbook, and photographs on display. The next had colourful illustrations young children had painted of the lighthouse. Further were empty walls waiting for art to be hung, and a sitting area with two wooden chairs and a table. With each level we became more and more impressed – I’d never been so high up in a lighthouse!
Much to our delight, Hilmar opened up a trapdoor and signaled for us to follow up a ladder. We climbed up and found ourselves at the very top of the lighthouse with the beacon turning around. We were ecstatic!
Hilmar pointed out a volcano and glacier in the distance and took our picture for the lighthouse’s Facebook page. He told us there were over 100 lighthouses in Iceland and this was the only one open to the public! Before working at the lighthouse, he had worked at an aluminum factory 12 hours a day – now he got to share moments like this with people from all over the world!
Hilmar left us to enjoy the lighthouse on our own. Matt and I savoured the view until two other tourists came up. We left to allow them to enjoy the view together as we had.
Hilmar had encouraged us to sign the guest book, so we made a stop on the way out of the lighthouse. Matt wrote a glowing review and I drew a little sketch of the lighthouse. Drawing from memory, it looked more like a spaceship than the lighthouse in the end.
Outside the lighthouse, we watched as sandpipers gathered on the rocks below. Flocks of birds flew across the water like a shimmer, flying right past our heads. Hearing all those wings flapping so close was very special.
Matt’s great-great-grandfather and two generations before had been lighthouse keepers in Cape Enrage, New Brunswick. On our drive out of town, Matt told me how he used to sing to the lighthouse keeper each time they went to visit when he was 6 years old. Matt was one of the last people to go inside the lighthouse when it was closed and set to automation out of St. John, New Brunswick in the early 1980’s.
Drive to the Snæfellsnes Pennisula
Hilmar had recommended we drive to Snæfellsnes. So we set our GPS to a random place on the map in that area and set off. It was a beautiful drive with mountains, fields, and little farmsteads. The frost and snow glinted in the golden grass in the end-of-day sun.
We drove to what we thought was a village, but it turned out to be a guesthouse. We then went to Langaholt where a lighthouse was listed. The lighthouse was gated off and no town to be found – but there was another guest house!
Breiðablik Information Centre
The nearest gas station was back the way we came, so we turned around and headed to the N1 gas station and information centre in Breiðablik. The washroom cost 100 ISK – fortunately I had some Icelandic change on me!
They had some handicrafts on display made by the local women. I was drawn to a child-sized pair of merino wool fish socks. They were so unique – little eyes on the toes and scales on the feet. I walked back to the car, still thinking about them. As Matt lay out our car picnic, I kept thinking the socks. I hadn’t bought a souvenir yet, they were reasonably priced for Iceland, so I went back and bought them. I will keep them as a keepsake for the future.
The Long Way Home
We ate cold hot dogs with flat bread in the car with water and licorice chocolate. It was a simple lunch, but sustaining. We then took the long way back to Reykjavik, driving around the bay to avoid the toll bridge between Akranes and Reykjavik.
The drive was through farm country. Nothing but fields, horses, and mountains – with the occasional cow. I had not seen a single sheep our whole trip! Occasionally we would past geothermal springs sending puffs of white steam into the rugged landscape.
Sadly, it turned out I had been navigating us around the wrong bay. We had meant to go around the Hvalfjödur bay. Instead, I took us around the Borgarfjördur bay. I couldn’t believe I could make such a dumb mistake!
With our 4pm AirBnB check-in and 7:30pm show at the Harpa, we ended up having to pay the toll tunnel we had been so determined to avoid. I felt awful and swore off maps forever (or at least for this trip). My poor navigating skills had cost us $12.15 and a much needed nap time.
This was the start of a slew of ‘comedy of errors’ – although it wasn’t very funny at the time. I flipped the numbers in the address of our AirBnB and ended up at the wrong house. It was the beginning…
Last night in Iceland
AirBnB in Reykjavik
Our host was a thin elderly woman who wore bright red lipstick. She seemed caught by surprise when we arrived at her listed check-in time which I had confirmed in September then again that day. She also was expecting only one person, although the AirBnB booking clearly showed it was for two people, showing Matt as a confirmed guest.
To worsen matters further, the kitchen was an absolute disaster the entire time we were there, the tv was blaring the whole time even after we asked her to turn it down at 11pm and she had no room in her fridge for our food. She seemed shocked I would ask for such a thing! Then the sheets and the towels were coarse – like they’d been washed too many times in a washer full of stones. Oy…
This host had gotten so many good reviews on AirBnB, I was doubly surprised by our experience. At least the place had a nice view of the mountains…
A Traditional Icelandic Meal at Cafe Loki
We drove downtown and parked for free at the big church. We walked across the road to Cafe Loki, which offered traditional Icelandic food at fair prices. The staff were very friendly and the food was great!
We each ordered an Icelandic plate. Between us, we had to share fermented shark with a shot of Icelandic liquor, sheep’s head jelly, smoked trout, rugbrauð rye bread, flat bread, bean salad, mashed fish, mashed turnip, dried cod with butter, and to finish – rye bread ice cream with rhubarb syrup!
Matt surprised both the server and I – he really liked the fermented shark! So much so, he wanted to go back after the symphony to have some more with a plate of pickled herring, but sadly they were closed by then. He also enjoyed the sheep head jelly, even as someone who is not a fan of lamb! We both agreed that dried cod was much better with butter, but neither of us thought we’d ever crave dried cod again.
We both enjoyed the rye bread ice cream. The little bits of bread have the ice cream a cherished texture. We both love the rugbrauð and flat bread. I’m going to try and make some at home – apparently you can make rugbrauð by steaming it in a slow cooker! I want to try that.
Show at the Harpa
We walked down to the Harpa Concert Hall from Cafe Loki. We had pre-booked tickets to see the symphony play a selection of Viennese music. It felt like a variety show with ballet with a Eastern-European flare, a tenor, and a soprano. The singing we could understand being part of the show, but the ballet portion of the show felt tacked on. It felt like an after thought and took away from the experience rather than adding to it.
Icelanders have generally been friendly, helpful, and nice to us during our whole trip. However, the Harpa appeared to be the place Icelanders could let loose and be snobs to tourists – even though we were all sitting in the cheap seats together! People would butt in front of me in line, serve people behind me first, and cut me off constantly! Matt and I felt quite unwelcome at the Harpa.
To further matters, Icelandic ‘casual’ was different than Canadian ‘casual’ for the theatre. I had done research beforehand on dress code and everywhere said ‘casual’. However, all the men were wearing nice leather shoes and smart blazers, and all the women were in dresses or dress-pants with their furs and gold jewelry… and there we were in dark denim and wool sweaters and my puffy winter coat.
The interior of the theatre was a deep red with a black stage and black detailing. The lights never went fully off in the theatre. Christmas decorations appeared to have been left on stage – metallic green and soft pink flower arrangements which clashed with the bright red and costume design of the dancers. The costume design and set design really felt disjointed from each other and the highly stylized interior of the Harpa Concert Hall too, which was jarring to the designer in me.
During intermission, Matt and I ordered a glass of prosecco at the bar. We sipped it overlooking the harbour where shops draped in Christmas lights were moored in the darkness.
At the end of the show, they handed out metallic pink and green bouquets to each of the performers. They were short one flower for the young black dancer, so the tenor gave him his bouquet. That was an unfortunate oversight…
When it came time for the encore, the audience started clapping in unison. Matt and I had only heard this style of encore clapping at rock concerts – it was great to experience this in an orchestra context!
After the encore, all the orchestra members pulled fancy party hats from under their chairs, put them on their heads, and the conductor got the whole auditorium clapping together! They played a cheerful piece of music for the finale, ending with huge poofs of sparkly confetti and a video projection of fireworks! That was a fun ending to the evening.
We left Vik at 10am. The drive out was gorgeous – all this we had missed in the snow storm two days before. Nothing but rusty brown fields and snow blown mountains in the moonlight.
As we had missed the Skaftafell waterfall yesterday, I wanted to see the rocks at Hálsafshellir which are a similar tubular shape. They were down on a black sand beach in Vik. Huge dark waves were crashing on the shore and the most terrific wind was pounding down on us! It whipped up pebbles and sand and made it hard to move at times – it was so strong! When we returned to the car, tiny black stones were lodged into the yarn of my hat and the snow cuffs of my boots!
Our next destination was the nearby lighthouse. Being a maritimer, Matt loves lighthouses! However, when we found the road leading up to it, we noticed a sign that said no small cars, 4×4 drive only. We decided to play it safe and not visit the lighthouse.
We made a stop at Skógar waterfall for the second time this trip. We set up my tripod and Matt and I worked on getting a soft waterfall picture with my camera. However, the wind was so strong that even with a tripod and timer the pictures still turned out blurry!
We hiked up to the top of the falls. The wind died down half way up, which I was very grateful for! The view was lovely and the sun was casting a beautiful warm yellow light across the landscape. It was well worth the climb!
Back down at ground level, we saw a rainbow! It was faint, but a perfect arch across the waterfall! It was a beautiful farewell!
The drive between Vik and our next stop AirBnB in Akranes was gorgeous. It was a real treat to see things we’d missed on the snow storm the day before! One of the things we’d found interesting but had been unable to stop at was Drangurinn.
Drangurinn is a rock where elves are believed to live in local folklore. At its base are old farm buildings, some built out of stone with turf roofs, another from wood built directly into the rock. It is quite the striking visual!
I was not quite sure whether it was open to the public or not, so snapped a few pictures and quickly got in the car. Two other tourists were leisurely walking all around the rock though. It was tricky not to get them in my frame.
The Lava Museum
We stopped in the Lava Museum, which I had been following on Facebook since they started construction. There was an entrance fee and with the nice weather outside, we decided to carry on. At least I got to see it!
Drive to Akranes
We enjoyed landscape as we drove along. As the sun began to set, a pink light bathed the mountains in a soft glow. Below were muted green lava fields spotted with snow, and above a blue sky. Colour was all around, even in drab winter!
We drove through an epically long tunnel to get from Akranes to Reykjavik. Neither of us could remember ever being in such a long tunnel our whole lives! At the end we were faced with a 1000 ISK toll. Ouch! We asked if there was a ferry back to Reykjavik, but apparently this is the only way to get back to the city without driving around the large bay.
The Akranes Lighthouse
Akranes was a charming fishing town with lovely maritime style houses mixed in with the new. We drove up to the lighthouse which shone out over the water. It was less stylized than the one in Þorlákshöfn but still quite contemporary I would imagine for its construction in 1944. I am amazed with the architecture here – new and old!
We popped into the small visitor centre to ask for directions to somewhere cheap and good to have seafood. Our AirBnB host had avoided the question when we asked via text earlier, but this friendly man was happy to help! He suggested two places: Gamla Kaupfélagid and Galito. He said they weren’t cheap, but inexpensive by Reykjavik standards.
He also said the lighthouse was one of the best spots to see the Northern Lights locally and advised we come back between 8-10pm. He also recommended that we drove around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to see all of the landscape of Iceland in one place! He was very nice.
We set our GPS to the first restaurant. Gamla Kaupfélagid was in a charming looking building with wreaths hung in each window. It was very comfortable inside, but the menu was more than we were willing to spend, so we went to the next option.
Galito wasn’t much better price wise, but as we had seen no other options driving around town, we sat down. The menu was a bit more appealing to me here anyway!
Galito was in a plaza. It turned out to be Icelandic cuisine with a Japanese twist. We ordered two local beers and three appetizers to share as a meal between us: soup made with garlic roasted lobster tail with white chocolate, an order of grilled mink whale, and deer carpacinno with truffle mayo, lemon, and foie gras. For dessert, we shared a slice of chocolate skyr cake. Matt’s favourite was the soup which he described as hot chocolate and lobster bisque combined. Mine was the mink whale – it was like steak!
Across the road from the restaurant was Kronan, a big grocery store. We went in there to look for sandwiches for the road tomorrow. They didn’t have any of my favourites (English Breakfast, Icelandic salmon, and the lamb and egg salad are my current three!) so we decided to just get some pickled herring and rugbrauð rye bread.
The grocery store had the best meat selection we had seen in Iceland yet. It was incredible! They also had a huge wool yarn selection at a much lower price than all Icelandic wool sweater shops outside of town. If you want meat or yarn in Arkanes, Kronan is the place to be. Who knew you could buy wool with your leg of lamb!
We checked into our AirBnB a little past 6pm. It was a very large apartment shared with two other guests. The host lived somewhere else in the building complex. It had laundry, fresh eggs, coffee, Wi-Fi and many other amenities. We were impressed at the value here! Unfortunately our fellow guests weren’t the tidiest of people, but we made do.
We did a load of laundry, sorted our bags for tomorrow, and Matt had a nap while I worked on my blog post. We then went down to the lighthouse to look for Northern Lights. There were none, but we saw another shooting together! While Matt did some star gazing, I practiced using long exposures on the lighthouse until my fingers got too cold to twist the nobs on my Canon camera.
We went back to the AirBnB to warm up and put the laundry in the dryer. While I did that, Matt went back out to search for Northern Lights. I was contently folding laundry when he came in all excited – he had seen them! I dropped what I was doing and followed him down to the lighthouse.
They had been quite small like a wisp of cloud when he first saw them. By the time we got to the lighthouse, there was a long arc across the sky. It was soon followed by another until it broke away. They were so subtle that you could totally have missed them if you weren’t looking! Fortunately my camera allowed me to see them more clearly with the long exposure setting. It was very hard to frame a picture and focus in the dark though – great fun nonetheless!
Once the lights began to fade for what seemed like the last time, we headed back to the car. We waited for a bit, then headed back to our AirBnB where I reviewed our photos then headed to bed at 1am.
Despite our comfortable lodgings, we didn’t sleep too well after such a hair-raising experience on the roads the day before. We had an excellent breakfast to look forward to when we awoke though! Our AirBnB host had set out a classic European breakfast for us with bread, cheese, cold cuts, muesli, cereal, cookies, tea, and coffee. It was a lovely surprise! The Muu milk carton even had Christmas elves on it!
We left our cozy AirBnB at 8am. The moon shone bright behind the clouds and we saw two shooting stars over the mountain. It was a beautiful drive out to Jökulsárlón.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Ice Cave Tour and Glacier Hike with Ice and Mountain Trips
Our glacier and ice cave hike was booked with a husband and wife team, Ice and Mountain Trips. We had booked a 10am tour and arrived early at 9:15am. Our booking confirmation didn’t say where to meet, but we found a vehicle in the tour parking section with the company name on its side. I approached a cluster of guides chatting outside the cafe. They pointed out our guide, Birnir.
We were his only booking for the day, so we got a private tour! We climbed into his Toyota ‘super Jeep’ (not an actual Jeep) and headed towards the mountains bathed in moonlight.
We were part of a train of vehicles going off the road towards the glacier. The Arctic Adventures van in front of us got a flat tire part way there. We told him about the Arctic Adventure crash we saw yesterday. He said he’d heard about that and everyone was okay.
I was still quite on edge after yesterday’s drive. Matt was having a grand time in the back seat but my stomach clenched with every sharp drop we took in the off-road vehicle. I felt like I was on a roller coaster at times! However, our driver was very experienced and relaxed, bringing us safely across a frozen lake and up to the ice cave.
The Ice Cave
The Crystal Ice Cave is the easiest Ice Cave to reach in the Vatnajökull glacier. The others involve a long and difficult hike. Before dawn, it was already crawling with tour groups! Our guide gave us helmets to wear and crampons to slip over our boots, picked up his ice pick, and off we went!
The part of the ice cave available to tourists was very small. Staff were shoveling away snow above the cave to let light in. Apparently the ice glows bright blue during the daylight! It just started to get a little blue before we left. There was a ice covered lake inside that was roped off, which we could just see a little bit of in the darkness.
We walked to a small tunnel that let out to manmade steps cut out of the ice. Birnir then took us on a short hike on the glacier to a shallow crevasse in the glacier. It was made by water flow and smooth to the touch. In the Ice were streaks of black ash. Birnir told us it was from a volcano that erupted in 1362 and killed over 400 people! Matt touched some of the ash, describing it as compressed course black sand. The ice around it was dark blue.
Drive from the glacier
The place was getting so busy, we didn’t want to hang around, so our guide drove us back to the car park. We got chatting on the way. Birnir said he has been doing this for two years. He’s a fisherman in the summertime and has a small boat. He fishes mostly cod from the ocean and some herring. They don’t do fish farming in Hönf yet, but are starting salmon farming.
On our way out we saw another Arctic Adventures vehicle have trouble getting up the hill. Our guide was surprised the driver wasn’t using four wheel drive. The van had to come back down the hill and as we passed we noticed it was a young driver – maybe it was his first time doing this!
Apparently, Arctic Adventures is one of the largest tour companies in Iceland. This was the third time Matt and I had witnessed something going wrong with Arctic Adventures with our own two eyes in the last two days. We felt very fortunate we hadn’t booked with them!
We were very happy with our tour with Ice and Mountain Trips. After thanking Birnir, Matt and I headed down to the Glacier Lagoon to take pictures of the chunks of ice that had broken off the glacier towards the ocean. It is 250-300m deep! There were seals basking in the distance and birds fishing. It was all quite magical, even with all the tourists!
We drove across the road to Diamond Beach. It didn’t look like much from the highway, but once parked we saw the black sand beach littered in tiny icebergs!
Matt said I looked like a kid in a candy store. I literally ran around trying to photograph as much as possible. Unfortunately the cold was taking a real toll on my camera and iPhone batteries and both died despite having been fully charged that morning. The beach was such a sight to see – photos can’t do it full justice.
We sat in the car to at our sandwiches for lunch. We wanted to get to Vik before sundown, so we left the stunning lagoon a little after 1:00.
Skaftafell National Park
Skaftafell was just off the main highway. There were historic turf houses and a beautiful waterfall with tubular rock formations all around it. Unfortunately, Sel, where the turf houses were, was a 25 minutes hike into the park. The waterfall was 45 minute hike in on mostly ice. It would have taken the rest of our daylight.
Drive to Vik
The drive to Vik was sunny and clear – a sharp contrast from yesterday! We arrived just at he sun was setting at 3:30. Huge waves were crashing on the black sand beach below an epic landscape of mountains. In the distance were craggy rocks which I rushed to take a photo of before we lost the sun. There was a whole row of people lined up with their cameras and tripods – we were all thinking the same thing!
Vik HI Hostel
The hostel in Vik was much smaller than I expected. It sat on a hill behind the iconic Vik church. Our private room was cold and a bit drafty, but had a beautiful view of the town and mountain.
While Matt checked the Toronto Stock Exchange index for the day, I set about making dinner. We had picked up a baguette fresh out of the oven at the grocery store in Vik, some wine, and smoked hot dogs for protein. I made pasta with tomato sauce, setting the table in the alcove by the kitchen. It was a beautiful, thrown together dinner!
We had a short nap after dinner before going out for an evening walk. We walked up to the church then around to find some dark areas to watch the sky for norther lights. We watched as clouds rolled in with the high winds, stars twinkling above. We saw another shooting star over the mountain!
We headed back to the hostel to plan out our next day. I spread out our maps and reviewed our accommodation options. We found a cheap AirBnB in Arkanes just outside Reykjavik and booked it for tomorrow night.
Back in our room, we lay in bed listening to the water drip of the radiator and the occasional clang of pots and pans in the kitchen below. I have one last look out the window for Northern Lights, then went to sleep.
We had a slow morning. We woke up at 7am to enjoy a hot shower, make coffee, and muesli for breakfast before heading out at 9am. As we pulled out of the hostel, the winding road before us sparkled in the moonlight. There were no northern lights, but Matt saw a shorting star! This turned out to be a good omen for what was to come…
We stopped at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall just before 10am. It was still dark, so we couldn’t see much. The sky began to lighten as we continued towards Vik. The mountains, clusters of rocks and white farmhouses were gorgeous. The fields were free of snow and in the distance was the dark ocean.
We happened upon the volcano that erupted in 2010 along the same route. Matt was very excited to see Eyjafjallajökull. As we drove towards the volcano, what looked like a snow tornado blew across the road in front of us!
We parked the car by a small swimming pool and went for a short walk. I stuck my arms out and let the wind blow me down the trail. Matt laughed – the wind was so strong he could see it indenting my puffy winter coat. But this was nothing in comparison for what was to come…
We stopped at the Skogafoss waterfall. This had been one of the top items on my To Do List. It was a cloudy day and already crawling with tourists at 11am. We snapped some pictures, then went into the diner to grab some fish and chips. We split one plate between us – it was the perfect amount! It was a good thing we fuelled up, because the rest of our day was a nightmare.
Snow Squalls and Slippery Roads
We had snow squalls on the icy road, and drove through blizzard conditions often with zero visibility. Matt tried to keep a car behind us and in front of us so he could keep his bearings on where the road was, and as a safety net in case of an accident. This must be the yellow alert for South Iceland we saw on the weather report of more than 126 km/hour gale winds.
We arrived in the picturesque village of Vik in a near whiteout. We found a gas station and filled up as we were down to a quarter tank. The wind pounded the car as snow gathered on Matt’s black wool coat as he filled the tank. I was quite happy to sit in the car as Matt leaned into the wind to stay upright.
The whiteouts let up for a bit around the Eldhraun lava field. Even covered in snow, it was very pretty! It’s said to be the greatest lava flow in the history of the world, 16km cubed and 580km squared.
After the lava field were all these pointy hills, like an elfin golf course. We began to see turf houses more often too. Unfortunately, we saw a big cloud on the horizon. What Matt had hoped was fog rolling in was a wall of snow.
After that, things got really scary. I was so scared at times I felt like I was going to throw up and cry simultaneously, but one has to keep themselves together at times like this. Matt was keeping his cool although he was ‘white knuckling it’ the whole time too. Both of us kept calm and focused on the road as we winded up and down through the mountainous Vatnajökull region.
We saw a couple accidents on the way – mostly abandoned hatchback trailers. At one point, the snow let up for a moment, revealing an Arctic Adventure tour van off the road with all its windows broken and its front roof flattened. Matt said it looked like it had rolled from the intense winds. The vehicle was vacant – we hoped everyone was okay.
We eventually made it to our AirBnB in Höfn by 5pm. We were greeted by a friendly lady our moms’ age and a little white dog named Fönn – an Icelandic word for Snow. He was named after Snowy in the comic books Tin Tin!
We dropped our bags then headed back out to get some beers. We really needed something to help decompress after such a harrowing journey. Much to our joy, the snow had finally stopped. We picked up a couple beers at the local grocery store, then went back to our AirBnB to eat the sandwiches we’d bought earlier in the day. We were too tired to even cook the pasta we’d bought!
After many snuggles and tummy rubs with Fönn, we went to book our ice cave tour for tomorrow. Seeing a glacier and an ice cave up close was something we both wanted to do. To our surprise, everything we’d bookmarked yesterday was now sold out! We found one tour with a couple spots open, so snapped that up. The weather tomorrow should be better.
Now we lay in bed, happy to be alive and well. Tomorrow is another day – and hopefully a much, much easier one. Matt has had lots of winter driving experience in gales living in the East Coast, but today was something we never wish to experience again.
We had a slow start on New Years Day. We checked out of Atlantic Apartments at 10:30am. White, snowy mountains loomed up from low lying clouds, looking like they were just floating there. It was simple yet magical sight to behold above the little houses of Reykjavik – like something out of a storybook!
As we reached the outskirts of the city, a pink sliver of light ran across the horizon ahead of of us, edging along more silhouetted mountains. Rays of sunlight shone far up into the sky, reminding Matt of the Eye of Soron from Lord of the Ring, glowing fiercely from behind the mountains.
I had one of those ‘happy to be alive’ moments… at a gas station. I wasn’t feeling 100% today and we thought we’d pick up some water on our way out of town. The water at our apartment smelled very strongly of sulphur. Nothing appeared to be open. Gas station after gas station was closed – but we saw one open on the highway just as we passed.
After passing another closed gas station and no buildings in the foreseeable future, we turned around. To our surprise, they had no big bottles of water. A small bottle of still water was 399 ISK while a large bottle of sparkling water was 499 ISK. We asked the cashier to confirm and she walked us over to where the water was. So, we bought a little bottle of water and a large bottle of what we thought was sparkling water, but turned out to be pop when we opened it later.
When we went to pay at the counter, we saw a overhead menu of sandwiches and wraps. I had no idea what it was, but one called to me. Matt ordered the one that said spicy and the cashier started making them on the grill. We’d never seen a grill behind a gas station counter before!
The wraps took awhile to make. We browsed the store some more, drawn to a shelf of dried fish. You could buy dehydrated cod and fish jerky like you would potato chips at home! We each bought a pack to try out of curiosity. We also bought two pre-packaged sandwiches for the road – English Breakfast and Chicken Pesto!
Once our wraps were ready, we sat down in the little dining area next to the cash register. The wraps were full of fresh ingredients. Mine was like a chicken club sandwich and Matt’s was surprisingly spicy! Matt has a very high tolerant to heat too! The wraps were hot, filling, and delicious – just what we needed at that very moment. I felt an intense feeling of bliss sitting in the gas station eating my wrap. I felt truly alive, happy and content.
Drive to Þorlákshöfn
We didn’t have an itinerary for the day, so decided to drive to the coast to a place called Þorlákshöfn. We had no idea what was down there, but it had paved road! We dropped a pin on Google Maps, put on a Sigur Rós playlist, and off we went.
The drive from Reykjavik was beautiful. Matt kept remarking how everything looked otherworldly, like we were driving on another planet. There were snow covered mossy lava fields, snow covered mountains, and clusters of thin, arrow-shaped trees with the straightest trunks and branches I’ve ever seen in nature.
There didn’t seem to be too much in Þorlákshöfn. We knew there was a lighthouse, so went to check that out. It 4-;. There was a Viking ship statue and a plaque on an Icelandic saga that apparently took place here. Locals were sledding behind an AV and setting off fireworks in the field behind us, having a grand time. However, what was most impressive was the surfer!
Here we are, bundled up in -8C weather with 16km winds and there was a big burly man changing out of his Icelandic sweater and toque into a black wet suit. We watched as he made his way down to the beach, over the icy black rocks and into the icy cold waters – his face exposed! He then went SURFING in the big, dark, rolling blue waves. We were amazed! Just standing on the shore for 15 minutes we watched was too cold for us!
Our next stop was Eyrarbakki, a small village of 570 people that used to be a major fishing village. There was a hostel there and preserved historical buildings, but it didn’t really call to us. We looked up hostels in the area and the only other one not booked up was the South Central HI.
South Central Hostel
There was one other guest in the hostel when we arrived. The hostel felt like someone’s grandmother’s house with all the paintings and nicknacks around, but with a Scandinavian feel. There were railings and what looked like gym equipment on the wall, and a giant hair dryer like they had in old hair salons. It was odd but cozy.
After a nap, we went out stargazing. The Northern Lights forecast has been fluctuating all day – from ‘active’ earlier in the day to ‘quiet’ by the evening. We didn’t see the Northern Lights, but did some stars on this clear night with the full moon lighting the snowy landscape for us.
Back at the hostel, we sat down at and tried to plan out the rest of our trip. We had become fixating on the Westman Islands where there was a giant puffin colony and a hostel, but to our great disappointment the 38minute ferry didn’t operate in the winter. It was only accessible this time of year from Þorlákshöfn and took 3 hours, leaving twice a day. We scraped that plan and went to bed.
I woke up suddenly at 2am. I had been having vivid dreams again, but this time they were more nightmarish. I got up and had a glass of water, walking around the hostel. I looked out each window in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Shapes in the trees and rocks outside played tricks on my eyes – I could see how people could believe in elves living here!
Matt and I both woke from vivid dreams in the morning. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but Matt was eager to hit the road as the skies were clear for stargazing and northern lights! Due to my sloth-like morning tendencies, we didn’t get out until 9:45am, just as the sky was beginning to turn twilight blue.
White mountains loomed in the distance and soon there was white snow as far as the eye could see. Sun rose around 11am when we were in the Þingvellir National Park. Even in the dead of winter, the place was full of tourists!
Driving the Golden Circle
I was glad Matt was driving with all the blowing snow across the road. It was quite beautiful and mysterious to watch.
Our first stop was Pingvellir National Park. It is home to the natural amphitheatre where Iceland had its first parliament in 930 AD until 1798. I was very eager to see EVERYTHING today, so we just stopped at the lookout, snapped a few pictures and went on our merry way. I’m sure there is more to this park than I glimpsed, but I was in a sense of urgency with the limited daylight.
We stopped at many lookouts along the way. I was eager to get to the Geysir. To our surprise, we drove through the town I stayed during my first visit to Iceland! Matt was thrilled to see the place I’d had spoken so much about.
We parked at Fontana, the local spa. Matt really wanted to try their famous bread. It’s baked in the sand outside from the natural geothermal heat coming up from the ground. Matt said it was the best bread he’d ever had! We bought a quarter loaf (which is huge) and shared a small bowl of soup between us before wandering around the small town.
Behind the spa where the little mounds where the bread was buried. We walked around the edge of the lake, admiring the mountains and steam rising from the sand. We saw someone put their hand into a steaming stream and not flinch, so we followed suit. The little streams around the lake were as warm as bath water!
I was very excited to see the Geysir. It was great fun to watch it erupt every 2 minutes or so. Everywhere was ice and steam! As we left, there were six eruptions right in a row behind us!
A short drive from Geysir was Gullfoss. The waterfall was well worth the near-frost bite on our fingers. It was bitter cold and windy, but the mammoth raging waterfall was beautiful! Everything was covered in ice. The white ice, bluish-green water, and black rock was quite striking.
Back in the car, we got out the sand baked bread we’d bought at Fontana (or ‘magic bread’ as Matt called it) to snack on. It was so dense that I struggled to rip off a piece!
We spotted a woman at the side of the road with a camera. This was an alert there were Icelandic horses! Matt drove up beside her and I hopped out to take a picture of the horses with the full moon. As I did this, six cars pulled up beside us!
The last stop on our Golden Circle tour was Crater Lake. It looked quite striking in photos – red stone with sapphire blue water surrounded by green moss. However, it was a bit dull in winter. The water was iced over and the moss was covered in snow! I marched up to the summit with my camera and tripod, full with Now or never!” motivation. However, after the Geysir and the Gullfoss, the crater lacked the grandeur the other sites held.
We drove into Selfoss on our way back to Reykjavík to get a bite to eat and to look into accommodations for tomorrow. To our surprise, everything was closed! We were shocked – what did Icelanders do on NYE?! No gas station or eatery could be found.
We spotted a traditional New Years Eve bonfire off in the distance. We drove towards the yellow glow, in hopes there might be a hotdog stand or someplace to get food. We parked and walked towards the crowd. Behind us was a snowy mountain against the night blue sky, a full moon above us, and the biggest bonfire I’d ever seen in my life ahead of us!
As we approached the front of the bonfire, fireworks burst overhead. You could feel the explosions in your chest – we had never been so close to that many fireworks going off! It just kept going – all huge, all spectacular! We couldn’t have had better timing! It was so magical!
The crowd was full of young children and their family. Many of them were wearing ear protective eye gear – all were bundled up in full snow gear! Children waved around sparklers and what looked like road side flares, which they threw into the fire. Everything was closed because the whole town was here!
We drove back to our home-away-from-home in Reykjavik with mountains silhouetted against the sky on every side. We passed a church where all the tomb stones were lit up with what looked like Christmas lights. There were crosses in the Icelandic colours of white, blue, and green. We’d never seen that before!
Every gas station was closed – even in Reykjavik! We watched as fireworks went off over the city lights ahead of us. We even saw an emergency flare go off in someone’s yard!
We cracked open a beer, cut some bread, and finished the gravlax from yesterday with some cream cheese while listening to classical music on the radio with the fireworks going off outside. Matt said it sounded like a war zone out there!
New Years Eve in Reykjavik
We headed out a little after 8pm. The fireworks had been constant – an endless popping sound! There is no officially organized fireworks show in Reykjavik – it’s all the locals! It’s said to be the biggest fireworks show in Europe. I totally believe it now! Icelanders really do like their fireworks!
We walked to the church at the top of the hill, which was said to have a good view. We felt we could do better, so headed down the hill. We thought we could check out the Dillon Bar, which shared the name of my old local in Toronto. Unfortunately it was closed, so we went next door. The tables were full but for the patio, so we sat out there to listen to the fireworks and sip beer.
We walked down to the harbour to see if we could get a better view. What we did get a view of was the hotdog stand. The lineup was much shorter than before, so we hopped in line. We each got a hotdog with the works – two unknown sauces and dehydrated onions. It was yummy.
Walked back to the big church, Hallgrimskirkja, on the hill, then higher still to the water tower at Perlan. At Perlan we had a 360 view of the city. There were fireworks everywhere! At midnight, we popped open our bottle of brut and kissed. I lay in the snowy grass, looking up at the sky as fireworks cracked all around us.
We eventually made our way home. There were fireworks still going off at 3am when Matt went to bed. I konked out as soon as we got in. We awoke at 8am the next morning. My head was swimming, but Matt, ever the champion, got up and made “…the first cup of coffee of 2018!”. He put some Latvian choral music to help me ease into the day… then tickled my feet to get me up. Happy 2018!
We didn’t sleep well on the flight. I could not get comfortable for the life of me – WOW Air seats are so limited in space! I was very glad to be off that plane when we arrived in Iceland, but we were both very tired. We followed the signs to the shuttle bus and took the complimentary car rental shuttle to Geyser, the company we’d rented our car from.
The young lad at the Geyser desk was very nice. They had free coffee at the rental desk – and he told us there was free coffee at the two gas stations Geyser offers discounts from too. Apparently free coffee is a thing here!
We followed the road signs into Reykjavik, keeping our eyes peeled for a diner or someplace we could get food. We switched between classical and RUV2 on the radio, Iceland’s version of CBC Radio 2. Matt kept remarking at all the Christmas lights around – Icelanders really do like to light up their long, dark nights!
The first diner-esque looking place we saw was just off the road in Reykjavik. It was a bakery lit up in red neon lights with a line-up of people even at this early hour. Bakarameistarinn had an impressive display of sanwhiches, pastries, and bread. I worked hard to resist the delicious pastries and cake after all I’d eaten that Christmas…
We shared a sandwich between us and each got a coffee and skyr. The place was very comfortable and had free wifi! We ordered a second sandwich for our lunch and headed back out on the road.
We were in desperate need of sleep, but our check-in wasn’t until 4pm. So, we found a place to park in a residential area just off the highway and put back our seats to catch some shuteye. We napped for about two hours, awaking with the rising sun at 11:20am. We felt much better after our nap!
I had not seen the Sun Voyager sculpture during my last trip to Iceland, so we set our first Google Maps destination to there. To our surprise, it was only 8 minutes away!
The sculpture was in the old harbour district of Reykjavík. We spent much of our daylight hours walking around there. It had a beautiful view of mountains in the constant light of magic hour (the sun never truly rose). Matt savoured the smell of the sea water which reminded him of home. Large ravens swooped and called overhead, and in the water bobbed gulls and unusual looking seabirds.
Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Centre
There were lots of boutiques, restaurants, and museums down by the harbour. An intriguing looking building caught our eye: the Northern Lights Centre! We wandered in and I zoned in on the spectacular Northern Lights postcards. Matt and I both bought two postcards and got chatting with two really nice guys at the counter. They informed us they had free coffee for guests and we could park in their parking lot while we ventured around outside. Free coffee AND parking?! Amazing!
The Sun Voyager
We followed the harbour down to the Sun Voyager. I am not a fan of sculpture as a rule, but this was always featured in promotional images for Iceland, so thought we better check it out. Turned out is was just past the HARPA concert hall, which I’d walked to before. People were all over it when we arrived, but slowly dispersed allowing people at road level to take people-less shots.
We made our way up the hill to Hallgrímskirkja, an iconic church in Iceland. It was a buzz with tourists taking pictures. We poked our head inside to admire the organ and vaulted ceilings, then headed back down the hill. We stopped in various places to review menus, weighing our options. We made our way down to the popular Icelandic hot dog stand, but the lineup was surreal! Another day…
Light snow came with sundown at 3:30pm. We made our way to the nearest Bonus discount grocery to pick up dinner and breakfast. I love Nordic food and had been raving about Icelandic rye bred to Matt. It was right at the door when we walked in!
We maneuvered the tight aisles and crowds to pick up coffee, muesli, skyr yogurt, liquorice, gravlax salmon, and cream cheese. We chose the Bonus no name brand for most items, hoping it would be just as good as Presidents Choice back home!
Come 4:00pm, we drove to our accommodation. It was further out of the downtown core than we had expected. However, we were pleased with how well equipped the kitchenette was. We had a microwave, hot plate, fridge, cutlery, cookware, dishes, towels and dish soap! After we unpacked, we sliced up the bread and gravlax. The bread was excellent and the cream cheese was like dessert!
Our accommodation did not have any staff in the building. We used a door code to get in where I found an envelope with my name on it with a key. We climbed the stairs to the first floor, all the while admiring the post-modern details of the old building. Next door to us was a ballet school, so we got to enjoy live piano music through the open window for much of the evening.
Matt had gotten a notification on Facebook that there were three restaurants nearby that he might like. The most well rated one caught our attention: Le Kock – and it was just around the corner!
Matt ordered the fries with feta, grapes, ranch dressing, and spring onions while I had plain fries with spicy mayo. We ended up switching plates after a few bites though – what I thought sounded like an unpleasant pairing was actually quite good. As for the fries themselves, Matt aptly put it as, “These Icelandic fries are tiny potatoes cut in half.” and who doesn’t like tiny potatoes?!
We split a beer between us – Gull’s Julle beer. It was very light despite its dark colour. This was the third Icelandic beer we had sampled that day – all have been very light in flavour and body.
Le Kock has free wifi which we enjoyed with the mix of 80’s and 2010’s tunes they were playing. I danced along to some while Matt looked up the release dates of others.
An Evening Stroll
After our meal, we went for a walk. We were amazed how many people were setting off fireworks all around town – and it wasn’t even NYE yet! We got quite a fright when one went off meters ahead of us. An old man had an overturned shopping cart he was using as a cracker stand for his humongous fire crackers. I haven’t seen so many large fire crackers before!
Back at our accommodation, crackers are still going off all around town. Occasionally we can see the colourful burst of light reflected in the glass of the building across from us. One can only imagine what tomorrow night will bring – New Years Eve!
We did New Years Eve in Paris last year, New York City the year before, and this year we’re doing NYE in Reykjavik! This was my second time visiting Iceland. My first time had been in July a couple years back when I was traveling solo. My partner Matt had been to Iceland twice before, but only as a flight stopover. His experience of Iceland had been the Blue Lagoon and the airport duty free!
Reykjavik is a popular New Years Eve (NYE) destination due to its fireworks and Northern Lights (aurora). Airfare was cheap when we booked in September, but we were surprised by how outrageous accommodations were. Even co-ed dormitories were incredibly expensive – outside of the city too!
We booked the accommodations for the beginning and end of our trip in using AirBnB and Booking.com. Research advised us not to pre-book winter accommodations as the weather can be unpredictable. We felt uneasy about that as we both like to plan ahead.
We poured ourselves a beer and planned out a route out [on the beautiful International Photographer Map I’d bought at a hostel during my last trip to Iceland]. However, when we logged onto the computer, it was impossible to find an affordable place through Youth Hostels International, Visit Vik, or AirBnB! Some places weren’t taking bookings this premature and/or didn’t have their prices updated for the new year yet. So, much to our discomfort, we had little choice but to leave our January nights up to chance.
As the weather at home began to cool, I started obsessing about winter wear for our trip. Despite being Canadian, I am not one for winter sports, nor being cold. My winter apparel consists of a wool coat, a fur headband, leather gloves, and rubber boots worn with thick wool socks. I figured this would not be sufficient for tromping around the wilds of Iceland.
I dug out my old marshmallow coat from my mother’s closet. This is a coat I wouldn’t have been caught dead in for the past ten years. Not only was it puffy, but white too – making me look like a giant marshmallow! Pros included goose down, a hood, and the fact the coat went down to my knees.
Everyone I spoke to said “You must do the Blue Lagoon!” so I bit the bullet and decided to do the most touristy thing imaginable in Iceland. I was surprised to learn the Blue Lagoon does not accept walk-ins, and further surprised that the Blue Lagoon was totally booked up until the day we were to leave Iceland! So we booked the remaining slot at 8am on January 6th for a brutal $90.
After I had accepted the fact I’d just spent $90 to sit in a warm body of water, I got very excited. I was finally going to DO THE ICELAND THING. Yeah!!!
With the Blue Lagoon booked, I returned to review accommodations in Vik. I ended up going back to the hostel I’d originally contacted in the Fall (which frightened me away by the prices). They were also booked up for the bulk of our stay, but we snagged one night there near the end of our stay. I’m very excited to see Vik! I hear it is gorgeous.
Leaving for Iceland
Packing for Iceland this time around was tricky. My partner Matt and I had just moved in together and weren’t fully unpacked as the weeks leading up to the holidays had been so incredibly busy. I made the best of it, packing the night before with Ria Mae’s new EP blaring and cracking opening a can of beer, dancing around in my pajamas. I found everything in the end – including my travel pepper grinder!
Matt arrived home from Moncton at 10am on our departure day. Big fluffy flakes of snow were falling outside our window – it was beautiful! He unpacked from Christmas at his parents’ house, then packed up for Iceland. His winter toque had been eaten by mice, so I went down to Winners to pick him up a new one, stopping by the post office to send off New Years cards in the snow.
We took the UP Express from Union Station to Pearson Airport. To my horror, WOW Air required a baggage fee for carry-on luggage. I have never had to pay $60 for my backpack before… apparently it’s only $26 if you book in advance. With much embarrassment, I tried to prove my large backpack did in fact fit the carry-on baggage requirements in front of a long line of people in order to get the ‘discounted’ carry-on rate of $60. But now I know…
Once through security, we made our way to the airport lounge. For less than an airport meal with Matt’s West Jet card, we had a comfortable place to sit, a hot and cold buffet, and open bar to enjoy. The lounge at Terminal 3 wasn’t as nice as the Air Canada lounge we’d experienced on our way to Paris last NYE, but still well worth it. I had three helpings of chocolate mousse, and went up to the buffet counter twice to take full advantage of the hot meals and made-to-order soup!
Our flight was delayed two hours. Once on the plane, I nibbled on a cheese sandwich and sugar cookies that Matt’s mom had made us for our trip. Matt settled into the movie One Chance and I opened up the Giller prize winning novel Bellevue Square.
The morning was full of birdsong when we awoke. Matt went to go see the sunrise while I got ready for the day. We had a big day ahead of us. Today we were going to Havana!
Drive to Havana
Our driver met us at the hotel lobby. There we found out that our original driver, Domingo with the classic 1950’s car hadn’t work out. So we had been assigned Gilbert instead, who had a 1998 Peugeot car from France. We were disappointed that we wouldn’t get to ride in a classic car, but saw some benefits in it: AC and a more comfortable ride! (No seat belts though)
Gilbert walked us outside of the resort to where he was parked. We confirmed the price of 120 CUC for the day and he said to pay at the end, joking if we don’t like the tour we don’t have to pay him anything! He wore a Blue Jays baseball cap. We wondered to ourselves if he wore that because he knew we were Canadian.
We drove down the ‘White Road” built before the revolution by the mafia. Behind the trees that lined the road where oil rigs for local electricity. There were large patches of charred land too – apparently brush fires have been a real problem this year do to the drought.
There were lots of hitchhikers. Everywhere there were people trying to hitch rides into town – women, children, and men. Horses and cattle grazing along the roadside and turkey vultures flying overhead. There were banana sellers beside banana fields and oxen pulling wooden carts with tired old men.
Gilbert pointed out the different license plates along the way. A green stripe meant it was a government car, a P was a private car like his, and a T was a tourist rental car. The streets were a lot less busy on the weekends as most cars in Cuba were government cars and had to be parked after the work day was over. To buy a car in Cuba was very expensive, more than a house, but the public transit was so bad that it was worth at.
As we drove into Matanzas, I asked Gilbert when most of the houses were built. He said it was 1950’s Miami style, built by rich people when Cuba was the Las Vegas of America. The city of Matanzas was known as the Athens of Cuba as so many famous writers and artists had come from there. It was also known as the City of Bridges due to all the bridges. These nicknames were far more appealing than the English translation of Matanzas – Masacre – as this was were the Spanish killed many natives a long time ago.
I enjoyed driving through the town. It was very busy with locals going about their daily business, kids running around with sticks, and of course, hitchhiking. There indeed lots of bridges – one of which we saw boys jumping off from, very high up on the top of the iron suspension into the water. That took guts!
We made a stop half way to Havana at a place called Bancuyagoa, a lookout over a big valley. It was the highest bridge in all of Cuba – I think Gilbert said it was 112m high. The land was lush with green palm trees and brush with flat topped mountains in the distance.
Gilbert said they made the best piña colada here. You’d get a hollowed out pineapple with 7 year old rum. Even at 10am it looked very tempting, but we wanted to save our money for Havana. We were running low on funds.
Back in the car, I asked Gilbert how to spell where we just were. As it’s a bit of a difficult one even in Spanish, he got out his phone and started typing away while driving. Apparently Cubans aren’t as strict as Canadians of phone use while driving! I decided not to ask him how to spell things while he was driving again… this was in addition to phone calls he took too!
Outskirts of Havana
Our first stop in Havana was a giant statue of Christ overlooking the city. It sat next to some old fortifications and a museum of Che. Gilbert said not to bother with that music – it wasn’t very good. We took some pictures then headed to our next destination: the exhibition of the missile crisis!
Matt was very intrigued by all the nuclear warheads (replicas) on display. They even had parts of the US spy plane that was shot down on display, with the part of the wing with USA written on it turned up for all to see. In the bushes was an army personnel sitting in the shade, watching us look around. I wandered over to the fortifications and took some pictures, trying to catch a bird perched on the top of a missile.
The tunnel into Havana was closed, so we had to take an alternative route into the city. We passed run down buildings, an oil refinery and banana trees almost side by side! I began to see Art Deco buildings, some run down and in ruins, others painted in baby blue, burnt orange, soft turquoise, and yellow.
We stopped in Revolution Square which Matt was eager to see. There was a large steel mural of Che and a monument of a philosopher with government communication buildings behind. Apparently up to a million people would gather in this square to hear speeches.
The place was an absolute zoo with tour buses and colourful 1950’s cars. Tourists were snapping pictures and cars were honking at one another. Popular place.
Gilbert took us to the Romeo and Juliet Cigar Factory. As it was Sunday, the factory was closed, but the factory store was open. Here you could buy cigars in bulk, but I didn’t have enough money for that. They had run though. Gilbert pointed out his favourites that we couldn’t get in Canada. We bought a bottle each to take home.
Parking in Cuba
Outside he paid an old man sitting on the curb. Car theft is a problem in Cuba, so you need to pay people to watch your car – even for a small period of time! This included parking lots too. Everywhere we went he was paying people and chatting with friends.
El Tablao de Pancho
Gilbert dropped us off at El Tablao de Pancho for lunch. He described it as very clean with real Cuban food made with spices. There was live music too! It didn’t look like anything from the outside, but once inside we found ourselves in a tiki bar atmosphere with red curtains and high ceilings where wagon wheel lights hung. The waitresses were white mini dresses and mini straw cowboy hats. As far as I could tell, everyone eating there were tourists.
Matt had a guajiro cocktail while I had a mojito – it was much better than on the resort! We ordered black bean soup, black beans and rice, Tamil with short ribs and plantains, and two mystery deep fried dishes we ordered off the menu just because they sounded interesting. The food all came at once with a little side salad.
Although most entrees were 16-18 CUC, our self made tapa style meal came to 25.85 CUC with tip. We were in and out in under a hour and got to enjoy a live concert of energetic Cuban music – far better than we had at the resort! It was an experience!
Gilbert dropped us off in Old Havana to wander around for two hours. I had imagined Havana to be very colourful, but the colourful paint was so grimy that everything looked drab. It smelt like a sewer and was very dirty. We could see why people of our hometown Toronto call our home so clean!
We went to the bar where Ernest Hemingway used to frequent most in Havana. There was a life size bronze statue of him sitting at the bar. The place was jam packed of people – definitely not a place you’d want to stop and have a relaxing drink nowadays. Matt took a couple pics before we elbowed our way out. I didn’t even bother to get my camera out. It was far too crowded and dim.
We went to the hotel where Ernest Hemingway spent much of his time in Cuba. Unfortunately the museum, his rooms, were closed as it was Sunday, but we got to walk around and admire this beautiful old hotel. It was gorgeous with cream and green tile floors and walls, black ironwork, and a vintage elevator. Each floor was lit by a large skylight at the hotel’s centre where green vines hung down fed by the light. It was like going back in time!
Visiting the Plaza
We went to various Plaza in Old Havana: Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja, and Plaza Cathedral and probably some others too. There were lots of squares with waiters trying relentlessly to get you into their patio restaurants.
The Modern City of Havana
We drove down 23rd Street which was lined with old grand mansions, now apartments, then up Avenida de Los Predidentes. Our guide took us to Capitoli, a replica of DC’s Capitol building. From there we walked through Parque Central and down streets with run down buildings next to beautifully restored hotels. There are lots of stark contrasts in Cuba.
The Dogs of Cuba
We saw lots of happy dogs. They were all quite small, like mini labs or wiener dogs. Apparently the dogs we saw out and about belong to people – they just walk themselves! The dogs have no collars and wonder the streets freely, returning to their homes whenever they fancy. It was amazing! And to think these free roaming dogs are better behaved than many at home. All they want is too sleep in the sun, eat, and get belly rubs. I enjoyed seeing their wagging tails and how they’d just flop down in the middle of the street to rest wherever they fancied.
We ended our visit to Havana was a walk down the Malecon, a seafront boulevard. There was an old stone lighthouse, a little park with a statue, fishing boats moored for the day, and families out fishing. It was lovely to hear the lap of the water on the wall beneath us – sound of tranquility after the noise of the city.
The Drive Home
We sat in silence for much of the drive back to the resort. Matt nodded off in the seat next to me as I flipped through my guidebook making notes of the names of the places we’d seen.
Mirador de Bacunauagnua
We stopped at the lookout over Vancuyagoa again on our way home for pina coladas where there was a cafe, bar, and gift shop under a big red sign that read Mirador de Bacunauagnua in white script writing. We were happy to stretch our legs – but most importantly, try the impressive looking pineapple drinks!
The bar tender used a milkshake maker to mix up real coconut milk, pineapple juice, 7 year Havana rum, and ice then poured it into a carved out pineapple topped finished with a colourful straw he handled with silver tongs. There was coconut to snack on and bottle of rum to top up your drink with. Each elaborate drink cost 5 CUC and were the best pina coladas we’d ever had – just like Gilbert said they would be!
We sat and enjoyed our pine apples on the patio. It was much less crowded at this time of day, but very windy! We watched the palm trees blow in the breeze as vultures drifted overhead just as they had in the morning, only the sun was different at this time of day making everything look extra green. It was a beautiful end to an epic day!
Back at the resort
We paid our driver 120 CUC for the day and thanked him. He didn’t check the money, just took it and wished us well. After we dropped our bags in our room, we headed out to the bar to sample the different rums available to take home to Canada.
We did a tasting of different Cuban rums: Havana Reserva, Havana Selection Special, Havana 7 year rum, and Legendare Elixir de Rum with our new favourite creme de rum to finish! We walked down to the beach to watch one more sunset before dinner, then headed off to the restaurant.
For our last night in Cuba, we had dinner at El Romantico. There were no serenading minstrels like on other evenings we’d walked by (which was a mixed blessing), but the waiter was excellent! I had shrimp cocktail to begin, followed by lobster bisque, then lobster flambé with roasted eggplant and tomato with ginger, with pear in a ‘wine’ sauce for dessert. Matt had the tuna with mushroom crepes and the pear for dessert. We left stuffed!
Preparing for the end
We had an evening drink at the bar before heading back to the room to pack. It’s never as fun packing up from a trip than packing for one!
We checked out at 7:00. The bus was scheduled for 7:30 but didn’t arrive until closer to 8 so we got to leisurely enjoy two cups of coffee.
Matt tried to check us into our Sunwing flight online in the morning, but sadly you cannot pre-check in on the flight home! Once we got the airport, we waited 40 hours in a relatively short line to do so. Matt was not impressed. Fortunately getting through Cuban immigration and security was much faster – ten minutes!
Shopping at the Duty Free
The Varadero airport had lots of shops selling alcohol, tobacco products, and souvenirs. The rum was about the same price as at the resort. At the duty free, we found the 15 year old rum that Matt had been searching for the whole trip – turned out it was 140 CUC! There was also a 1700 CUC bottle of rum for purchase – wowee! Needless to say, we didn’t buy any. Despite the vast selection of alcohol, we didn’t see the yellow creme de rum (Aeldao?) we’d come to love at the resort.
I bought a little pack of cigarillos that came in a nice tin. It would be my souvenir from the trip. I bought it for the tin primarily – ever since I was a child, I have a soft spot for little boxes. The tobacconist couldn’t take my VISA, but took Canadian cash, giving us CUC coins in change. We had 0.60 CUC left to spend, so walked around trying to find a postcard or something to buy with it. Matt found a man selling cookies and chocolate for 0.25 CUC, so we got some random Cuban sweets for the plane!
The flight home
The flight left a few minutes early. We were given a Sunwing customer survey card and our Canadian customs card to fill out. Near the end of the flight we got complimentary tea and coffee which we ate with our airport sweets. There was no complimentary snacks on board, so I had a granola bar from my purse for brunch. Matt settled into an episode of Black Mirror while I edited down my iPhone vacation pics and wrote postcards.
We arrived home to Toronto to sunshine, blue skies, and balmy springtime weather. Green shoots of flowers were poking up from the garden and buds were showing on some of the trees! Matt and I were very happy to be home – counting our blessings for the City of Toronto’s clean tap water! It’s such a joy to drink water from the tap once again!
Goodbye Cuba! Hello home. We’re happy to be back and look forward to getting back to work tomorrow.