This time we were on a Road Trip, Flying Into Reykjavik : Iceland Road Trip Part 1, with Norwegian Airlines from Dubai, and were looking forward to a tough trip under extreme Icelandic weather conditions. It was the 21st of March 2017.Three families, including five children from ages 8 to 16, 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 in the middle of the night from Dubai 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 Airport. As my wife Anita squirmed to get hold of a few collectibles at Oslo, I squirmed too, looking at the hefty price tags and doing the currency conversions in my mind. In Norway, don’t be surprised to find a sandwich cost 30 US dollars . They always feed them to travelers…
Iceland is one of the coldest inhabited places on earth. Situated belown the Arctic circle, it is known for its dramatic landscapes: from erupting geysers, dormant volcanoes, lofty waterfalls and tranquil lakes to sprawling glaciers and raging oceans. It can be visited in both winter and summer. The two main cities of Iceland are Reykjavik, the capital in the west and Akureyri a smaller one to the north.
In winter, people visit Iceland for the ‘Northern lights’, for ‘Husky dog sledging’ ( northern Iceland) and for ‘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 on the second of 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 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 slowly took shape. We were carrying our heavy jackets, handy with us and had packed some woolens, gloves and caps in our carry-in bag in order to be prepared for the first blast of cold immediately after reaching Reykjavik.
Travelling to this extremely challenging country with five children, we had taken extra precaution and gathered as much information as we could. “No late Surprises” was the motto I worked on. As I sat sipping coffee during this final leg of our flight into Reykjavik, I chatted with a particularly friendly Icelandic passenger . He had a bit of quick advice for me: ” When in Iceland, cover your purse“. Well, what he meant was that everything touristy is costly. So I gather that like most of the times when I travel, I would change into my travellers hat instead of into the one of a tourist. On asking about local Icelandic drinks to taste, he informed me about Brennivin, 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 warm. Purchase your drinks from the duty free store at the Keflavik airport as it is costlier 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. Everything we could see below was veiled with an icy cloth, undulating hills and bluish lakes interspersing the horizon. Iceland looked out of this world from 10000 feet above. It was a long preparation with which I had 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 one of elation. Kids were overjoyed and so were we.
Point #2 NOVO : Data enabled Sim Card. We were a three-family team travelling to Iceland, I had 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 prefered 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 planned to use Google Maps extensively for our commute, and so mobile data is an absolute necessity. The other App we had loaded in our smart phones was HereMaps: an invaluable support when you are out of telecom coverage area, this App charts routes only using your GPS location, and is always a safe alternative to have. For that you need to preload the country /regional map. From my experiences of previous road trips undertaken across US and Europe, I know GPS Devices as such are mostly NO MORE a necessity for Road Trips!!
With our Novo Sim cards installed and all our luggage collected off the conveyor belt, we sauntered into the Arrivals Lounge to look for our car rental guide from Greenmotion. No one seemed to be waiting for us, and we called up the help-desk number. A quick smoke beckoned me outside the Airport 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 !
Soon an Icelandic gentleman approached us with the Company board showing our names. Got him !!! It was time to get down to business of getting hold of our rented 4X4s.
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 the 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 an SUV. Our plan was to stick 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 rest of the team at the Keflavik Airport we got into our facilitator’s transport 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 you 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. We had bought complete car insurance from the portal of rentalcars.com to which I stuck to but my friends switched it for a complete insurance from GreenMotion which cost around 400 euros . Once done, delivery was hassle free and special advise was given to be extra careful of not 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,in most cases, car rental agencies try to take you for a ride if you do not have full insurance.
We soon got down to plot our course from Keflavik to Uthlid Cottages and started within a few minutes. Driving on Icelandic roads towards Reykjavik seemed pretty cool, less traffic, asphalt smooth roads, clear road signage and great landscape around calmed my jittery nerves on the first day of the road trip. It also brought comfort to some very sore eyes. You keep soaking in the sights around, low lying mountains soon greeted us from afar, traces of snow around the edges of the road as well as on the slopes of the hills around. Google Maps is a dear friend, in the way it assists drivers across unknown geographies !! The coast lay on my left and the beautiful city of Reykjavik appeared soon at a 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. The plan was to self-cook for the first half of our stay till we returned to Reykjavik on the 7th day.
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 town 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 the first six days of our trip till we returned to Reykjavik on our final leg of the tour.
We were to 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 had booked cottages with kitchens as the plan was to prepare food at home. A little research had told us that Bonus Hypermarkets with the logo of a Pig’s head was 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 . By the time we hit the road again , 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 in at a particular bend with a couple of visually striking green- topped houses with an alluring lake and misty mountains as its backdrop .. 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 with 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 on either sides. Soon we approached a bend where again 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 pouring down from the skies. 🙂
We planned to reach Uthlid Cottages, before sundown, 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 with attached bathrooms and a large dining space with a complete kitchen. It also had a patio at the back which opened to an empty blank horizon covered with snow and faraway undulating rocky structures. The bonus was an in-house built -in Jacuzzi .The family was overwhelmed. The inside was cozy and warm, with heated tiles and a see-through roof.
All of us were tired from the long 14 hour flight 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 by the weather, it can totally change in a couple of hours and so we prayed for the next day to be a sunny day . 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 sighting the Aurora was minimal this day, and low hanging cloudy skies further decreasing the chances . Well the Northern Lights is always on the top of the agenda for most Iceland or Norway travelers. Would our calculations for this solar phenomenon work ? Would we be lucky on 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 ?