Return to Iceland, Pt. 1

Arrival and Hella

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Our flight was scheduled to leave on Sunday night, so we were able to spend the weekend packing and making sure we had everything in order. For me, that meant checking and re-checking everything about a million times. It felt strange to prepare for an evening flight – normally we favor early flights since we lose time by flying east from San Francisco.

We had read mixed reviews (and frankly, some horror stories) about our carrier, WOW Air. While most of them seemed to be from people who had too-high expectations for a budget airline, I couldn’t help but be a little stressed out – it’s in my nature! We carefully measured and weighed our bags, and checked in online as soon as we could.

Everything went smoothly at SFO. The bags were no problem at all, and it seemed like we flew through security. We had plenty of time, sitting there at the gate, to begin to realize just how long of a day this was going to be; the departure time was around the time we’d normally go to sleep!

clouds outside plane windowThe flight had no stops and took about 8 hours. This is where our upgrade to WOW Biz became worth it. The chairs were comfortable and reclined a fair amount (though I was too tall to make use of the footrest), and we were served an in-flight meal (I had a turkey sandwich on a pretzel bun – not bad!). Originally I had thought I’d be watching movies, listening to podcasts, trying to burn up as much time as I could. Instead, as our internal clocks climbed into the wee hours, it was all I could do to put my earbuds in and rest my eyes. Whenever trying to sleep didn’t work, I resumed reading Independent People by Halldor Laxness – Iceland’s Nobel laureate. Somehow the time seemed to pass faster than I’d expected. Sunlight brightened the cabin and the plane dropped through the cloud layer over a craggy coastline.

After a short shuttle ride from the jet to the terminal, we were stumbling travel-drunk and slap happy through the airport. I picked up a SIM card at the Duty Free and Katelyn took care of acquiring some local currency. We followed the signs for the Thrifty car rental shuttle. As an appropriate welcome, the clouds began to eke out a bit of drizzle as we braced ourselves against the wind. The bus showed up after 25 minutes or so. The rental car was the next hurdle, in my mind. I’d used a third-party booking agency that had arranged the car through Thrifty. While the price – which included the insurance coverage I wanted as well as one-way drop-off in Akureyri – was the best I could find, I had some concerns about whether this would all work out correctly, and whether Thrifty itself was going to be a good option.

The lady at the counter confirmed the car reservation, and aside from reminding me that my credit card could provide insurance coverage, there were no issues. I had already done my research and decided that going with coverage offered by the agency was the right choice for me, if only for peace of mind. I breathed a sigh of relief and we examined an enormous map of Iceland on the wall while our car was being prepared.

We were both visibly exhausted. Neither of us was up for much adventuring. I’d anticipated having to adjust our itinerary as we went along, and it looked like we’d have to start at the very beginning! No problem – instead of cruising along the Reykjanes peninsula and seeing the sights there, we’d head straight for the hotel and look for something to eat on the way. Reykjanes could wait until Wednesday morning. We could just do it in the opposite direction than I’d planned.

With the walk-around inspection out of the way – the car was in great shape – and a ceremonial trip commencement photo having been taken, we left the airport and joined the famous Ring Road. The first thing we noticed was the vibrant fall color. I had heard we might see a little bit of it, but with winter technically approaching, and a huge storm having just passed through, I had thought more of the trees and shrubs might have been stripped of leaves.

Being back in southern Iceland felt familiar, and we enjoyed seeing the landscape in a new light. We passed through some wet conditions but nothing too bad. As we approached Hveragerði, a town at the mouth of Reykjadalur, the clouds parted and golden sunlight flooded into the valley below. We were treated to panoramic views as the Ring Road wound down the side of the hill.

For lunch, the choice between Kjöt og Kúnst and Ölverk brewery was made easy when we found Kjöt og Kúnst closed (I had picked it because I was sure I’d want a beer if we went to Ölverk, which didn’t seem like the best choice after a dehydrating journey). We were greeted enthusiastically by the server at Ölverk and it wasn’t busy at all. The flatbread with beer cheese was delicious, and we shared a garlic pizza. As I predicted, I couldn’t resist trying one of their beers (it was a very good lager).

Feeling somewhat recharged, we decided to visit Ægissíðufoss, a waterfall just minutes from the hotel. We arrived right at golden hour and everything looked amazing; nearby clouds even spawned a rainbow for us! I excitedly grabbed my camera equipment and off we went over the step-stairs. It seemed a fitting way to kick off our visit to Iceland.

waterfall and rainbow

Finally, we checked in at Hotel Kanslarinn. The building seemed to be an established restaurant, with the guesthouse area being added fairly recently; but it was plenty cozy. It was my first time in a hotel that had a shared bathroom. The price was right, and everything went fine – not too many traffic jams with other travelers, though it was somewhat noisy into the evening as people came and went.

I checked out the photos from Ægissíðufoss and made sure to back them up; then I took a few minutes to get the SIM card in my phone. The packaging came with instructions and I was up and running quickly, complete with a welcome text in Icelandic.

Our journey had started more than 24 hours ago; once things quieted down in the hallway I was able to sleep fairly well.