Inspired by a friend who has been a traveler longer than I’ve been alive, I now strive to embrace the art of the layover. Quite simply, if you must have a connecting flight, why not use that opportunity to see a new city for a few hours? Or days even?
That’s exactly what my friend Becky and I decided to do. For years we had talked about taking a trip to Iceland. This summer, we set out to make it happen.
With Becky headed back to Doha, Qatar, and myself heading back to Moscow, Iceland seemed a natural stopping point, especially considering how easy Iceland Air makes the opportunity. Allowing you to extend your layover for up to 7 nights, the company attracts a deluge of travelers from the States. From the moment I stepped onto the plane for the brief 4.5 hour ride from Boston, I knew I wasn’t among my usual international jet set. With a few more demands than normal and seemingly less awareness of travel norms, I was curious to see what this tourist country had in store. But can I really blame anyone for taking advantage? Iceland Air offers direct flights from most major US cities – Boston, New York, Houston, LA, San Fran, Miami, Chicago, etc. Without risking sounding like an ad for Air Iceland, I thought I’d share our experience in country with all of you.
We landed in Iceland and our first challenge was to locate our rental car. Definitely the recommended way to get around, allowing you the ability to set your own touring schedule, renting a car or – even better – a motor home is the cheapest way to transit the island.
We rented from a group called SAD cars (the name should have tipped us off), which were affordable, if run on a bit of a shoestring. Can’t speak ill of them really as they proved great customer service and even dropped me off at my Airbnb on my last night, no charge.
After acquiring the necessities at baggage claim (duty-free alcohol – definitely worth it with prices like these!!, local currency, and a SIM card – in that order), we were ready for action… if only we could fight the jet lag for an entire day. The Dunkies in the airport lobby provided some assistance.
Onward we trekked towards Reykjavik, in our little meep meep car (manual transmission, of course). We paid more for a room in a hostel downtown than I did in NYC but the accommodations were comfortable and we couldn’t argue with the location. Just off the main shopping street, we had our pick of entertainment and that ole backpacker’s standby – the grocery store.
As food is just as pricey as accommodations, we made a habit throughout of eating just one meal out a day. We picnicked the rest with the help of the trusty gas stations across the land. Before you get grossed out, these are not your average Texaco stations. Fresh fruit and sandwiches are available and they’re quite delicious, too. Probably knowing that most visitors are sustaining on such, the country seems to have invested in this area. We certainly made the most of it, enjoying the local SKYR yogurt – hearty enough to stand for a meal all by itself!
Thankfully we made it through our day of jet lag, only to meet up with two of Becky’s coworkers from Qatar for dinner. They’d been traveling around the Nordic countries for the summer and Iceland was their last stop. Sharing what they’d learned (including the need to not speed due to super heavy fines!), we had a great meal and crashed early.
For Day 2 in country, I would highly recommend booking (wayyyyy in advance) the one and only Blue Lagoon! The perfect cure for jet lag and a helluva life experience, the lagoon boasts natural hot springs which keep the water at an even 99F. Replete with a swim up bar AND a swim up face mask station, it’s pretty much heaven on Earth. We lucked out that our only day of rain fell on our Blue Lagoon Day – with the cooler temperatures above, the lagoon gave off an incredible mist that only added to the spirit of the day. An opportunity not to be missed.
In total, we traversed only about 1/6 of Iceland’s Ring Road during our 5 day stay. From Reykjavik past Vik, we saw the sea and the mountains all in one go.
I think the highlight for us both was our last night in which we stayed in a hotel with a view of the Vatnajokull glacier (the one from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, if you’re familiar). Watching the sun setting at 10:30pm with a huge moon already risen on the opposite horizon was simply breathtaking.
Iceland will do that – take your breath away.
After Becky took off for Doha, I had one more little trick up my sleeve. Owing to a lack of direct flights to Moscow from Reykjavik, I extended yet another layover – this time for a 10 hour day out and about in Copenhagen, Denmark.
After an early morning flight in Iceland, I dropped my bag in an airport locker and the extremely convenient train to downtown, arriving at the central station in only 12 minutes.
Having a good friend living in Denmark, I had an in on a number of cool places around the quaint city center. I resolved to walk all of it as I’d been doing a lot of driving throughout Iceland (mixed in with the hiking, of course). The city proved extremely walkable and it’s multitude of cafes and free Wi-fi hotspots made navigating without internet a breeze.
I bypassed the Tivoli Gardens (a stop for another visit) and headed straight for the canal. We Pendletons are always drawn to water and this city on the sound was no exception. I was thrilled by what I found – gorgeous boats tied up in front of touristy restaurants (as well as Hans Christian Anderson’s house, as well).
I stumbled upon an Ai Wei Wei installation about migrants flocking to the shores of Europe that I’d vaguely remembered was in Copenhagen. I even found an installation by Yoko Ono at the Copenhagen Contemporary on one of the city’s islands!
Super friendly people and a great vibe is how I’ll remember the city. I really look forward to going back someday.
With that, I set a course for the island that is now home – Moscow. It was wonderful to return to my own apartment, seeing friends and students once again. This school year is still in its infancy but it’s amazing how much better Year 2 as an ex-pat can be! Night and day in comparison. Happy to be back and excited to share more journeys with all of you. For now, however, good night and thanks for reading 🙂