Sunday, September 11, 2011

There and Back Again

Almost 3 weeks to the day from when I left, I return safe if not completely sound (but more on that later). I've been to some places I never imagined I would actually travel (Iceland, Estonia...) and some that have been on my list for quite a while (Amsterdam, Russia). It seems strange to be back among the familiar when the different and unusual became the norm. But I have a ton of stories to share, not to mention the pictures. Over a 1000 in fact!

As a wise woman once said "let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start...."

I suppose a good first step is to introduce the travelers. There's me, of course. Everyone's favorite accident-prone, sassy ginger. Also coming on the trip were Chris and Kent, a couple that is no stranger to world travel. Several years ago we all went on a trip to the Mediterranean and discovered that we travel really well together. Chris and I have known each other since freshman year of college at William and Mary, and he and Kent have been together almost 9 years. Which means Kent has been my friend for just about that length of time.

The first stop on the epic Scandinavian and Baltic vacation seems at first glance a bit random. "Iceland?" you ask. "Why Iceland?" Turns out the cheapest way to fly to Amsterdam (where our cruise ship was docked) was to take IcelandAir. And to promote tourism, the airline provides for free multi-day layovers to give people a chance to visit Iceland. So there you go. When someone offers you the chance to spend a couple days in Iceland you don't say no.

Things, however, didn't get off to a great start. There were thunderstorms the evening we flew out of Dulles and our flight was delayed 30 minutes. There was a bit of a silver-lining though; we lucked out when checking in and were able to select first class seats without an extra charge--it was just the style of first class seats and not the first class service, but it definitely made for a more comfortable flight. I managed to get probably about 4 hours of sleep on the plane (which is pretty good for me) so I wasn't quite the walking dead when we arrived.

Unfortunately when I roused myself from sleep and stretched in my seat I noticed something was amiss. My gold and garnet pendant (which most people know I wear ALL THE TIME) was missing. The clasp had been slipping every so often, but I never imagined it would actually fall off the chain. After landing a frantic search ensued, with Chris, Kent, my seat-mate, and almost the entire flight crew pitching in with no luck. I reported it to the Reykjavik police and to Dulles, but it wasn't ever found. My vacation had claimed its first casualty. But I was determined to not let it ruin my good time--after all, it was my fault. If I loved it so much I never should have worn it. Live and learn, right?

After giving up the search on the plane, we walked through the small airport to the small baggage check and the small ground transportation area. Our plan was to grab the bus to the Blue Lagoon spa, but alas, we had just missed it and the next one wasn't coming for an hour. For the record, it was 7:30 in the morning in Iceland which meant our bodies thought it was 3:30 in the morning back at home. So we splurged on a cab and had our first view of the Iceland countryside.

In short: it was rugged, wild, and rocky. The entire island is volcanic and the ground is littered with black aerated rock. There aren't really any trees to speak of, but there are green scrubby plants covering the rocks. There are also beautiful blue lakes and mountains with huge geothermal steam vents. Oh, and active volcanoes. Including the one that erupted last year and made it impossible to travel to and from Europe for several weeks. The Blue Lagoon was only about 20 minutes from the airport, and the cab dropped us off at the main entrance. Well, I should say the walkway to the main entrance. We, along with our luggage, had to to wind our way through the path between huge piles of volcanic rock. It was pretty cool.

Steam vents on the way to the Blue Lagoon.

Blue Lagoon from afar

This path either leads to the Blue Lagoon....or Mordor.

But then we hit a snag. The spa itself didn't open until 9:00--but they offered a buffet breakfast starting at 6:30. We had made a reservation and made it there right on time--but the main entrance was locked tight with nobody around. Since it had taken us awhile to lug our luggage to the door we didn't relish the thought of heading back. Kent to the rescue! He wandered off around the building, found the kitchen entrance, and walked around until he found an employee to come let us in. Success!

I should point out that this was so typical Kent. While Chris and I became completely befuddled by a snag in our carefully thought out plan, Kent just surges ahead with a brilliant and totally unconventional idea that saves the day. After we were let in the door and made our way to the restaurant, we ate some yummy food (seriously--some of the best bacon I have ever had) and got a moment to decompress.

An hour later the spa opened and after stowing our luggage in a locker, we changed into our swimsuits and got into the lagoon. The water originates more than 6000 feet underground where it is infused with minerals and all other kinds of good stuff. The pump it up into the lagoon and it's like being in this milky warm hot tub (but without the bubbles). They have boxes of salt scrub that you can run on your face and then wash off, and then we also purchased an algae mask. So basically our faces felt awesome. After floating around the lagoon for a few hours (and getting a drink at the swim-up bar, natch) we headed to the relaxation room to lounge in some anti-gravity chairs. You recline on your back with your legs at a 90 degree angle above you. It takes all stress off your back and feels so good that we all fell asleep for about an hour. But hey, we needed it, right?

Blue Lagoon at dawn.

Right before opening....

Kent and I take advantage of the salt scrub.

I claim Iceland in the name of Maggiedom.

At that point we got our stuff, changed, and were able to get the bus back to downtown Reykjavik. But since it's us nothing is ever simple. Turns out today was Iceland's annual "Cultural Day" where the entire downtown area is closed to automobile traffic. This meant the bus couldn't take us to our hotel and we had to (again) lug our luggage from the bus depot. It took about 10 minutes, but thankfully the sidewalks were relatively even and there was only one hill. We arrived without incident and checked in to our hotel, which was actually an apartment so we have a lot of space. And after all, it isn't a real vacation until the three of us have to lug our bags through a European city.

The interior of our Reykjavik apartment.

By this point we were of course exhausted, but hey, how many times are you in Iceland? So we rallied and went wandering around the city. It was pretty easy since all the roads are closed to traffic and we went in and out of shops, around to the Parliament building and the new Harpa building, a theater and convention center with some interesting architecture. There was also a beautiful waterfront area with mountains right across the bay.

Wandering the street festival in Reykjavik...

Me and Kent and the gay polar bear.

People gather on a grassy lawn for the upcoming concerts.

We headed back to our apartment and while Chris and Kent went back out to see the fireworks at 11:00 (when it still wasn't fully dark) I tucked myself into bed and got some shut-eye. The next day would dawn early and would be jam-packed as we were taking the typical Icelandic tour called The Golden Circle. Geysers, waterfalls, and mountains...oh my!

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