This time we were Flying Into Reykjavik : Iceland Road Trip Part 1, with Norwegian Airlines from Dubai, and looking forward to a tough road trip under Icelandic weather conditions. It was the 21st of March 2017.Three families, including five children from the ages 8 to 16, we were raring to go on this challenging trip, having planned it for quite some months. One thing about Norwegian Airlines and its cabin crew; they are a fabulously cheap low-cost airlines, and their cabin crew don’t really disturb you. So as we boarded the flight at the middle of the night at Dubai, that’s at 2 am, and slept for about 3 to 4 hours, the cabin crew slept with us too. And as morning approached and the sun shone with European brightness all around, the crew brushed their teeth, changed their socks and then came out with their cart to sell their collection of Nordic items. Lastly they brought in some chargeable tea/ coffee and snacks for the passengers. Our flight was delayed by about 30 mins all along, and we had to rush through immigration at Arlanda Airport as we moved into Schengen Territory. From Stockholm we flew an hour and a half into Oslo where again we had to change our flights to board the final one into Reykavik. Smokers – here’s a dampener : there are no smoking rooms either at Stockholm or Oslo airports. As my wife Anita squirmed to get hold of a few collectibles at Oslo, I squirmed too looking at the price tags and doing the currency conversions. In Norway, don’t be surprised with a 30 dollar sandwich. They always feed them to travelers.
Iceland is one of the coldest inhabited places on earth. Situated on the Arctic circle, Iceland is known for its dramatic landscapes including erupting geysers, dormant volcanoes, lofty waterfalls, tranquil lakes, sprawling glaciers and raging oceans. It is visited in both the seasons, winter and summer. The two main cities of Iceland are Reykjavik, the capital on the west and Akureyri to the north. In winter, people visit Iceland for the Northern Lights, Husky dog sledging ( northern Iceland) and Glacier Walks, while in summer travelers travel for the “Midnight sun”, whale watching and Horse Riding and off-road Highlands driving. Summer begins on the first Thursday after May 18th and lasts till September 31st. Prices are exorbitant then as most travelers prefer the comparatively bearable weather conditions during these months. We were travelling end March, between the dates of a new moon and the Equinox which enhances your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis or Northern lights.
Planning had started some seven months back, and we had gradually booked our flights, hotels and our car rentals over the course of time. Scouting for apt locations,working out the route and logistics plan, dates and daily activities were slowly finalized. Thinking ahead, we were carrying our heavy leather jackets with us and had packed some woolens gloves and caps in our carry-in bag so we were prepared for Reykjavik. As I sat sipping a coffee during this final leg of our flight into Reykjavik, I met a particularly friendly Icelandic passenger during my flight. He had a bit of quick advice for me ” When in Iceland, cover your purse”, he said. He also informed me about Black Death.
Point #1 Icelandic Drinks. Brennivin and Reyka. Buy drinks from Duty free. In Iceland with subzero temperatures, drinks are a necessity for most people to keep you warm. Purchase your drinks from the duty free store at the Keflavik airport as it is costly outside. The most well known Icelandic drink is a Schnapp ( clear distilled liqueur, similar to a brandy) named Brennivin, or affectionately called Black Death. We also bought a bottle of Icelandic Vodka, Reyka. More details for the connoisseur can be found here. One point to remember, the duty free store stays open based on the flight timings. Thus if you make unnecessary delay, there is a high chance that you may walk to a closed duty free shop at KEF airport !! 🙂
As the flight banked and swayed over Keflavik Airport we were greeted with breathtaking sights below. Shrouded in an icy cloth, undulating hills and bluish lakes interspersed the horizon as far as we could see. Iceland looked out of this world. It was a long preparation with which I have come here, and I couldn’t believe I was really touching down into one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The Norwegian flight from Oslo landed at Reykjavik around 12.20 in the afternoon. The mood in the group was of elation. Kids were overjoyed and so were we.
Point #2 NOVO : Data enabled Sim Card. We were a three-family team travelling Iceland, I have planned this as a 10 day Road Trip across (South) Iceland. The first concern for us was to keep communication channels between ourselves open. Roaming connections costs much more, and as a thumb rule I prefer to pick up local sims. The duty-free shop at Keflavik Airport sells SIM cards too and we picked up sim cards from the local Icelandic Telecom Operator NOVO. The Novo card came with 1 GB data package for Around 20 Euros and intra-Novo calls were free. Good for us 🙂 We also plan to use Google Maps extensively for our excursions and so mobile data is a necessity. The other app we have loaded in our smart phones is HereMaps. This app charts routes without the use of data and only by GPS location, and is always a safe alternative to have. From my experiences of other road trips across US and Europe I know GPS devices are NOT a necessity.
With our Novo Sim cards installed , and all our luggage collected from the conveyor belt, we sauntered into the Arrivals Lounge of the airport to look for our car rental guide from Greenmotion. No one seemed to be awaiting for us, and as we called up the help-desk number, an Icelandic gentleman approached us with the Company board. A quick smoke forced me outside the Terminal at this point and a gust of icy cold wind greeted me squarely on my face. Happy Iceland, the temperature was minus 1 degrees in Celcius!
Point #3 Pick your rental car from Keflavik airport and not from Reykjavik. There are two airports in Reykjavik. Keflavik (KEF) is the larger one which flies international routes. Remember, you always fly into Keflavik Airport and NOT to Reykjavik airport which is the domestic and smaller one Reykjavik (RKV) is mostly used by chartered and other private flights and flights into Greenland, further north west . So in case you are pre-booking rental cars,as you should be, your pickup location needs to be Keflavik airport. This airport is located about 45 kms west of capital and is a nice 35 minute drive. We had already booked cars from Rental cars four months ahead which is almost thirty percent discounted from present day rates !!. Since driving in Iceland can be tricky, my advise, pick a four-wheel drive or SUVs. We are initially sticking to the Golden circle route in Iceland and then to Iceland Route #1 till Hofn on the south-east coast of the country.
Leaving the larger family at the airport we got into our rental-guide’s van and went off to the car rental agency’s office which happened to be about 2 kms from the airport. (The airport terminal has Hertz, Europecar and Avis counters and in case have booked with them you can pick up your car from the Airport parking itself.) The rental staff at GreenMotion Office tried and moderately succeeded in selling us their local insurance. I had bought complete car insurance from the portal of rentalcars.com but my friends cancelled their earlier insurance, and bought local complete insurance from GreenMotion which costed around at Euro 400. Once done, delivery was hassle free, and special advise was given to be extra careful of leaving car doors open because of very strong winds ( read gale) which can blow off doors or bump them onto something).
Point #4 Car Rental with complete insurance. Sand and gravel insurance is almost a necessity here in Iceland and it is ALWAYS advised to go for a comprehensive and complete car insurance policy since nature is so dominant here in all its forbidding forms: from narrow mountainous roads, blizzards and sleet, to sand, snow, boulders and steam along the way. Additionally, car rental agencies try to take you for a ride in most cases if you do not have full insurance.
As we plotted our courses from Keflavik to Uthlid Cottages , driving on Icelandic roads seemed pretty cool till then. Less traffic, asphalt smooth roads, clear road signage and great landscape around calmed your jittery nerves on the first day of a road trip. It also brought comfort to some very sore eyes. Google Maps is a wonder in the way it assists drivers across unknown geographies !! The coast lies to your left and the beautiful city of Reykjavik appeared soon at the distance. A flat cloudy sky and some very light rain greeted us on our first half hour as we drove on our way to Uthlid Cottages. Traffic was very less this mid-afternoon and soon we took to the highway. Our next stop was Bonus Supermarket to stock up necessities.
Point #5 Buy groceries from Bonus Hypermarkets. Food is not only costly in Iceland but unavailable for large stretches, as there is an absence of eateries / restaurants along highways and out in the open. You may be driving thirty kilometers till you see the next village which might not even have a store or a restaurant. Thus, the advise is to always stock food, and quick bites with you.Our plan was to stick to home-made food for all the first six days of our trip till we return to Reykjavik in our final leg of the tour.
We will be based at Uthlid Cottages for the first three nights of our trip. Uthlid Cottages is a drive along the Iceland Golden Circle Route up to Thingvellir National Park, and then about 35 kms ahead towards Geysir. We have booked cottages with kitchens as the plan is to prepare food at home. A little research had told us that Bonus Hypermarkets with the logo of a Pig’s head is the cheapest and soon we saw one on the left side of our drive. The icy rain was pattering on the windscreen by then, temperatures were dipping south, and everyone ran from the parking lot to the warmth of the store inside. We picked up our food and supplies for the next three days, and also bought some knickknacks for the children from here. By the time we started back on our road it was past 5 in the afternoon.
The road stretched into endless valleys and undulating long winding curves. There was snow on the sides of the road and all around us. Soon we left inhabited locality and were out in the open wilderness. Miles and miles of overwhelming nature lay around us, completely devoid of human civilization. The sky above was a dull grey, pale and translucent shroud. Open fields of lichens and flat brown grassy shades ran parallel to the road. Every few minutes the backdrop changed to a completely new look. The sky, cloudy and gloomy at times kissed the top of the mountains, with its fog and mist. It was hard to control ourselves from stopping every few minutes, and ultimately we gave on at a particular bend with a couple of visually striking green topped houses with an alluring lake and misty mountains as the backdrop behind it. We just had to celebrate Nature.
The more we drove, towards the higher altitude of Thingvellir National Park, the ice and snow blanketed us from every side. It spread like a continuous omnipresent sheet,covering everything white. The vegetation slowly disappeared and in turn snow covered both sides of the highway with hilltops of strange shapes and sizes guarding the road from either sides.Soon we approached a bend where again the team I felt completely immersed with the snowy terrain around us. We were on the Golden Circle route till now , approaching the national park when we took a breather. By then we started seeing flakes of snow coming down from the skies. 🙂
We planned to reach Uthlid Cottages, before sundown, that’s around 7 pm. The first day at an unknown territory does not warrant unnecessary risks . All of us were dressed in layered clothing ( more of this later) and woolen head gears protected the face and neck from chilling winds that started to blow as the afternoon progressed. A long drive of more than a 100 kms lay ahead and it forced us to take to the highway soon. The landscape unfolded with every turn of the road and we feasted our eyes with the un-spoilt beauty of nature all around us.
Uthlid cottages lies in an unspoiled location out in the wilderness, but geographically close to the big attractions of Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park. Again, Google Maps route was accurate enough and brought us to the door of the Guest House Reception aroud six thirty in the evening . Another good thing about this boarding – the reception also operates as a small cafe and grocery where you can pick up your daily necessities. The hotel owners booked us in, and showed us into our cottages. We had booked two adjacent cottages, the larger one accommodating two families while the smaller one was good enough for one. The larger cottage completely wooden, had four rooms and attached bathrooms, a large dining space with a complete kitchen. It had a patio towards the back which opened to a empty blank horizon covered with snow and faraway undulating rocky structures. and an in-house jacuzzi built in.The family was overwhelmed. The inside was cozy and warm, with heated tiles and a see-through roof.
All of us were tired with the long flight of 14 hours and over 7000 kms and the 140 plus kilometers of drive, while the wet chilly weather was a worry. They say, when in Iceland never get demotivated with the weather, it can totally change in a couple of hours and so we prayed for a sunny day tomorrow. We unpacked, unloaded our bags and had a general feel of the place. It was time to say Cheers to Iceland and cook food for the evening.
The hotel staff had informed us that the chances of Aurora sighting was minimal this day, with cloudy skies decreasing the chance further. Well the Northern Lights is always on the top of the agenda for most Iceland or Norway travelers. Will our calculations for this solar activity work and will we be lucky in this trip ?? You can always Hope 🙂
For dinner, it was delicious home-made Indian food : we had steaming hot rice, dal, vegetables and spicy chicken gravy !! What more do you want ?