Iceland – My First International Travel Since the Pandemic

Honestly, Iceland had never been on my bucket list for international travel. Yes…There are the waterfalls, mountains, lagoons, and geothermal fields. But they were never enough to put Iceland on the travel map for me….until COVID. I freely admit to my travel addiction, and so after 14 months of stateside lockdown, I was desperate. Iceland opened up to vaccinated Americans this spring, and without a second thought, I booked a tour with a small travel company for June. Another plus for Iceland was their handling of the COVID situation and their high rate of vaccination (87%). So it really seemed to be the least risky international destination, and that moved it right up to the top of my travel list. And then it cancelled. Apparently not many people were as enthusiastic about international travel in May as I was and so the little tour company didn’t have enough travelers to fill the trip.

Two weeks later, however, I managed to book a 12 day trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), a company I have travelled with and trusted. OAT requires that all travelers, guides, drivers, hosts, and local providers be vaccinated, adding another level of safety.  I managed to score the last spot in this group of 15 intrepid travelers and I booked direct flights between Newark International and Reykjavik. So while this blog will cover the things we saw and did in Iceland, I’ll also focus on what it was like to leave the country during a time of COVID.

On July 9, I boarded an Amtrak train in Philadelphia for the one hour ride into Newark International Airport (EWR). I’ve done this many times in the past and find it very convenient, but this was my first time wearing a mask. The train was 30 minutes late, but I had plenty of extra time built into my commute, and we arrived at EWR just under 3 hours before my scheduled flight. At check-in I presented my vaccination card and passport and headed to the security line. Even without a TSA Precheck line, this process went smoothly. I had purchased a business class ticket with IcelandAir which allowed me to use the Lufthansa Lounge at the airport. Business class on IcelandAir is not fancy, and the cost reflects this. The lounge, however, was a big disappointment. Where previously there had been a bar and hot food, the lounge now served bottled water and bags of goldfish. Oh well.

My short overnight flight to Reykjavik left on time and my trip leader, Linda from OAT, was waiting for me in the arrivals hall. It was 6:15am Iceland time. By my calculations, I had been wearing my mask for just over 11 hours, removing it only while eating. I slept 2 hours while wearing it on the plane. Conclusion: wearing a mask for that length of time wasn’t terrible.
Because of the high vaccination rate in Iceland, their early handling of the pandemic, the requirement that anyone entering Iceland must be vaccinated, my 12 days in this country would be mask free, indoors and out.

Our first few days of exploration would take us along the coast and inland in the south of Iceland.

Our base hotel was in Selfoss, a small town (population 6800) near the banks of the Olfusá River. From here we traveled to Seljalandsfoss, a small but iconic waterfall. The “foss” ending on Icelandic names and words usually refers to a waterfall.

Later we drove along the Eyjafjlla Mountains to the Dyrholaey Cliffs where we spotted puffins! These unique and adorable seabirds build burrows into the cliffs and then dive for food in the ocean.

On the menu for lunch…arctic charr like I’ve never tasted before. Framurskarandi! (Outstanding!) Fishing is Iceland’s biggest industry and we would enjoy numerous and delicious meals of fish over our 12 days here.

Later we met Ingo Matthiasson, who drove us to the Myrdalsjokull glacier and Katla volcano in his super truck. But first a word about Icelandic names. Ingo’s last name is derived from his father’s given name- Matthias. Icelandic surnames are different from most other naming systems in the modern western world. Generally, a person’s last name indicates the first name of their father, or in some cases mother, followed by “-son” or “-dottir.” So John Petersson’s children might be Sam Johnsson and Linda Johnsdottir. Can you imagine what an Icelandic phone book looks like?

Ingo’s super truck is designed for traveling over ice and volcanic stone and easily fit our entire group. The Myrdalsjokull glacier has been blackened by volcanic ash from nearby volcanos, but more disturbing is it’s shrinking size. Global warming is taking its toll on Iceland despite efforts to combat it. The arched ice formation you can see in my photos was once an entire ice cave, and before that, solid ice. Climate change has caused melting to the point that by the time a friend of mine visited Iceland a month after me….the arch was gone, melted!

 

 

 

It’s a tradition to raise a toast at the glacier with a shot of Katla vodka, chilled over glacier ice…and that we did!

As we road back to Selfoss, our Trip Leader, Linda, presented us with her home baked Happy Marriage Cake! It was delicious and perfect for soaking up that vodka! You can find the recipe below.

 

 

 

 

On Day 4, we began our journey toward Borgarnes and Iceland’s Golden Circle. After breakfast, we visited a yarn studio where the artist showed us the natural way she dyes yarns and what goes into the making of the famous Icelandic sweaters. The sweaters are handmade, tagged with the knitters signature, expensive but worth every penny considering the time and quality. Next up….the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland…Gullfoss! On the day we visited there was 5000 cubic feet of water per second flowing into the crevice. The viewing area closest to the falls is uneven stone, slippery with spray from the falls, and requires some climbing. As usual, the ascent was easier than the descent!

 

 

 

Just minutes away from Gullfoss is Geysir, where, as you might guess, you can observes geysers, among other geothermal activity. While we walked the area the geyser known as Strokkur was erupting every 3-4 minutes. At both the waterfall and the geyser area, we encountered lots of tourists and locals, but not nearly the numbers normally seen during the very busy month of July in Iceland. During the 12 days we were in Iceland we experienced no big temperature swings. Most days temps were in the 50s and we had 3 or 4 days in the 60s….heat wave! While it rains frequently in Iceland, the precipitation was never enough to limit our outdoor activities.

 

 

 

 

Our afternoon was spent in Thingvellir National Park which was the location of the Alþing (Althing), the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. I found this so interesting….two continents that appear so far apart on a map are really not so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ended our afternoon at Drekkingarhylur, better known as the Drowning Pool. There were 70 – 80 executions in Thingvellir National Park during the 17th and 18th centuries. Of those there are recorded 15 hangings, 30 beheadings and 18 women were drowned in the “Drowning Pool”. It is the only place of execution which is marked by a memorial plaque but there are also places at Thingvellir with self-explanatory names such as Gallows Rock (Gálgaklettur), Scaffold beach (Gálgaeyri) and Burning gap (Brennugjá). The treatment of the innocent and often abused women executed at the drowning pool is considered a stain on Icelandic history.

Next time….On a more pleasant note, will be the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

 


HAPPY MARRIAGE CAKE

Ingredients:

150g (1 3/4 cups) oatmeal – uncooked
280g (2 ¼ cups) all-purpose (plain) flour
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar
1 tsp baking (bicarb) soda
240g (1 cup +1 tblsp)  butter or margarine, room temperature softened
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Filling:
Rhubarb jam

Directions:

Preheat oven to  375°F and butter a  (12″)  square pan. Blend together the oatmeal, flour, sugar, baking soda in a large bowl. Add the butter bit by bit and use your fingers to mix or kneed it into the flour until well combined.
Mix in the egg and vanilla extract. It’s easiest to just keep using your fingers.
Press 2/3 of the dough firmly into the pie dish.
Spread the jam over the dough in the pan.
Take the remaining 1/3 of the dough and crumble all over the jam.
Bake in centre of oven for about 30 – 40  minutes, until golden.

Serve on its own or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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