Iceland

Oh, we were so sad to say goodbye to Copenhagen. We knew we always had loved it, but going back re-ignited a deep love for this incredible city and the Danish culture. We even had a brief pipe-dream about what it would be like to live in this dreamy city.

Speaking of dreams, I’m not sure we ever in a million years knew that moving to France would open a door for us to visit Iceland. We all think about and dream about all the places we’d like to go, but, as I mentioned, we have quickly realized that 3 years is not much time to see it all.

So I/we absolutely LOVED Denmark. LOVED it. Even the boys asked if we could move there and live there forever. But, our time there flew by and it was time to leave and head to Iceland. I think we were all the most excited to see Iceland. It just seemed so mysterious to us, more than any other place we’d been, because even though each city feels quite different from the next, after awhile there are definitely many similarities when navigating through a European city. But Iceland, we knew, would be different.

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We boarded the plane in Copenhagen on a bright sunny, 87-degree day and flew 3 hours northwest to Iceland. When we landed, it was COLD. There was an unusual amount of wind at the time that we landed (60mph!) which made 50 degrees feel more like 40.

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We had read a few different suggestions that it’s worth renting a car from a small, private rental car agency rather than a big name chain, but that meant that we had to wait a bit for our rental car host to meet us at the airport after a power outage at his office. While we waited, Wells and I noticed a board near the entrance that you could read and take, if willing, the “Icelandic Pledge”. It was such a creatively written list of promises, that visitors, like us, were given an opportunity to commit to by pushing the big green button, and after doing so, we watched the digital number on the screen go up by 2.

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Taking the pledge meant committing to enjoy the beauty throughout Iceland in a safe way, respecting this unique environment while having a healthy respect for the possibility of weather extremes and being prepared at all times. I loved this idea, because it felt like such a powerful and effective way to reach thousands of visitors (and offer some accountability!) every year that come to visit this island in a way that billboards probably would not.

WHile we waited, I went to check out the donut situation. We were so excited to see our beloved Dunkin Donuts in pink,orange and brown lights when we landed (the French do pastries well, but this does NOT include donuts)… but ugh. No munchkins. We decided if there was one here, there would be more and maybe, just maybe, they’d have munchkins.

We had a great little rental car and once we loaded up our suitcases, including mine with the bright orange “HEAVY” tag on it (no, I have not gotten any better at packing light OR efficiently this year) we were off on the 40 minute drive back to Reykjavik.

The drive to Reykjavik was fascinating. As we drove, the terrain in Iceland was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It really looked like what we’d picture the surface of Mars to look like- hundreds of years of dried lava that has flowed from volcatnoes is now covered in green moss and surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, volcanoes, and cliffs on the right, the ocean on the left.

We quickly unloaded our bags and then headed out to the store to get groceries before the store closed at 7pm. It was so windy and chilly that we all grabbed our hats, but we couldn’t quite convince the boys to change out of shorts (it was too hot in Copenhagen to even think about putting on pants or long sleeves) so off we went with warm heads and cold legs. I’m sure we all looked a little ridiculous… 🙂

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As usual, it was so interesting- our first grocery store visit in Iceland. There were so many curious looking items, but even though Iceland is almost 100% bilingual (English as 2nd language) there is literally almost no English on any of the packing in the store. It was getting late, the boys were in the car, and we were starving, so we went with what we could recognize, which was pizza and salad. But NO wine! There is no way to buy beer, wine or any other alcohol except at a special type of store called Vinboudin of which there were a few in the city, all closed at 6:30.

Good to know. Definitely one of the things we had no clue about and definitely didn’t come across in our reading!

We were so tired, almost too tired to eat, but it had been a long day without food. Right after we ate, the 2 hour time change hit us and we realized that even though it was still light out (the sun doesn’t set until 11:00 in Iceland in August) it was almost 1:00am our time according to our body clocks. The sky was the most incredible shade of pink I have ever seen.

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On Monday morning, everyone but me was still on mainland European time I guess, because they all were up around 6:30 or 7:00.

I couldn’t wake up until 8:30! I walked into the kitchen to find 3 boys happily scarfing down Lucky Charms, a grocery-store treasure that we’d found the night before.

We had hoped to wake up and get an early start to follow the Golden Circle, a 3 hour route through southern Iceland that includes waterfalls, geysers, tectonic plates and other fun things, but because we were off to a late start, we changed our plans to travel 2.5 hours South to Vik, the southernmost tip of Iceland and home to beaches full of black sand.

On our way out, we stopped by Reykjavik Roasters, a coffee shop nearby that we’d read about. The Icelandic people love their coffee! In fact, I’d read that they are the 4th biggest coffee consumers in the world.

The coffee shop had a sort of industrial feel to it and had delicious coffee and pastries. I had an Americano, Chuck had a latte with oat milk. Their menu had some interesting things on it, such as coffee skyr (scandinavian yogurt) with salty peanuts and maple syrup… yummy!

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As we drove, you could literally see the road straight ahead for miles and miles, lined on both sides with volcanoes, mountains, glaciers and fields and fields of lava rock, covered in the emerald green moss at times, it was beautiful!

Sometimes, we could see billows of steam rising from hot springs. Iceland is super energy efficient. 99% of their electricity is produced from renewable sources, hydropower and (mainly) geothermal springs. There are tons of these hot springs that sit atop the surface of Iceland.

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As we drove, we saw many cows and lots of beautiful horses, which are interesting to watch when they walk; they have a unique gait .

One of our favorite parts about our drive were all the white spots scattered across the fields, hills, mountains- sheep and lamb roaming completely free and have been since the 900s! They are a huge part of the Icelandic farming industry (and their cuisine!)

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As we drove,  we saw some up so high, we wondered how they’d ever get back down 🙂

There is no question that Scandinavia is an expensive place to visit, and from everything we’d read, we were prepared for Iceland to be the most expensive place to eat out so we expected to be eating cheaply and either at home or on the go, but would try to avoid eating in restaurants much. As such, we packed the car full of snacks for our day in the car. After awhile, we stopped for bathroom/drink break and the boys were anxious to try the famous gas station hot dogs we’d read about; apparently they were the best!

While we waited, we were checking out the ice cream toppings- so different and unique! Licorice bits and licorice sauce, even licorice flavored ice cream are on every ice cream shop menu in Scandinavia; Licorice is HUGE! We saw licorice flavored everything everywhere- popcorn, salt, you name it!

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Our first stop on our drive was Seljalandfoss, a big, beautiful waterfall that you can see directly from the road… we were able to spot it far in advance as we drove towards it.

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There are many beautiful waterfalls all over Iceland, but in the South, this is one of the only ones that has a path behind it so that visitors can actually walk underneath the waterfall. It was so incredible!

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This waterfall has a 60-meter drop!

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Unfortunately, we weren’t able to pack all kinds of rain gear, etc. in our suitcases, so we were not prepared to get entirely soaked as all those who were venturing back behind the waterfall. Owen was so bummed. But with it being our first stop on a long, cold day ahead and no towels or change of clothes with us, we opted out. Still,  we were able to climb up and get pretty close! And still got pretty wet!

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This was the view looking in the other direction, amazing that the water was so still just a short distance from such a big powerful waterfall!

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It was freezing out and as we walked back to our car, we passed by a food truck selling hot Icelandic lamb stew…. being the lamb lover that I am, I wanted in!

It was so yummy, even Charlie loved it! It made me excited thinking about all the lamb I was hoping to eat on our visit here to Iceland….

We got back in the car and drove awhile to the next waterfall, Skógafoss; one of the largest and felt to be one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls. Also with a 60 meter drop!

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walking down the long path to the waterfall….

It is situated on the Skóga river, which is created by the merging of water from 2 different large glaciers higher up, by the Kambfjöll mountain range up above.

There was a long stairway (527 steps!) that climbed up to the top of the waterfall with a viewing deck so you could see the waterfall from above.

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We decided to climb up and hike a bit above the waterfall before coming back down to see the waterfall up close from the bottom. There was a long path at the top which led up into a mountain pass well- known for a beautiful but treacherous hikes that sits between the 2 glaciers feeding the waterfall.

 

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The boys were horsing around as usual and, at one point, were getting a little close to the edge, so Chuck made them go stand on the opposite side for a minute which kinda let the wind out of their sails….

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Some views from above….

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We took the stairs back down and had definitely saved the best for last. The sunlight hitting the water spray created the most beautiful rainbows at the bottom, it was unreal!

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There is even a legend about a man who had hidden his chest of gold behind the waterfall so that it could not be found…years later 3 men found it and tried to pull it out, but broke the ring off the side of the chest… The actual ring can be found in the Skógar museum!

We had parked near a giant field where people were picnicking and even had tents set up for camping, so we headed back to the car and the boys ran around and even had a wrestling match in the grass.

We all found it quite funny to find this interestingly-shaped rock near our car….IMG_3777

Our last stop on our drive was to Vík, the southernmost point of Iceland which is home to  Reynisfjara Beach, also known as “Black Beach”, which is famous for its black sand, volcanic rock caves and rock formations which sit in deep clear blue water.

When we arrived, the boys were immediately enthralled with the beautiful smooth black sand that was perfect for laying in and building because it didn’t stick to you at all!

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Owen immediately dove down and started making sand angels…

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The boys worked away while Chuck and I sat and admired the view. The sand was warm and felt so good to sit on, especially since the air was quite cool!

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Owen was in absolute heaven. He immediately took his shoes off and announced that he was staying forever and never wanted to leave.

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C looking out…

We wandered down and stuck one toe in before both agreeing this was the coldest water we had ever felt. Meanwhile, we watched a few brave families dare each other one by one to jump in; it was so much fun to watch….. we were definitely impressed!

Further down the beach, there were the most beautiful rock formations sitting in the water close to shore.

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The steep cliffs lining the beach were absolutely beautiful and had a very unique columnar block-like surface. These long blocks are formed when magma slowly cools and cracks into hexagonal columns, always standing perpendicular to the cooling surface (in this case, arctic cold water!)

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Everyone was climbing up and taking pictures; it was simply amazing that anything in nature could be so perfect and lego-like!

There was also a beautiful cave (known as Hàlsanefshellir) sitting deep in the middle from this same cliff that you could walk into… apparently this cave can be difficult to access during high tide, so we were lucky to come late in the afternoon when the tide was way out…

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Chuck and I couldn’t get over how perfect the pebbles were all along the sand. We found all kinds of perfect shapes- square, oval, triangular, egg-shaped, heart shaped…. but my favorites were the round ones.

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After we left the beach, we stopped by the restaurant near the visitors center for ice cream- made with milk from a nearby farm.

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Chuck and I had our first Icelandic beer ever!

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Charlie was starving, so he had fish and chips…made with local cod; it was delish!

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It took everything inside of me to pass up the lamb chops, but it wasn’t quite dinner time 😦 Afterwards, we got back into the car to start our 3 hour drive home. It was so great to be able to see everything again, this time with the sun setting…

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Dinner was a mid-way stop to Subway.. so funny to see all these American chain restaurants here in Iceland!

The next morning, we had reservations at 10:00 at the Blue Lagoon, a giant geothermal pool 35 minutes outside of Reykjavik and close to the airport. Iceland is highly geothermally active, with hot springs all over the country; Blue Lagoon is by far the most famous because of its size and beautiful blue color and is actually one of the 25 Wonders of the World.  The many geothermal pools of Icelands are popular because they are like natural hot tubs that sit outdoors amidst beautiful landscapes and offer a nice contrast to the often cold air!

As we drove up, we couldn’t get over the blue water you could see even from the road!

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Here are some fun facts about the Blue Lagoon…

IMG_3876.JPGWe checked in, got our lockers and headed out into the chilly morning air and down this ramp into the most amazing hot water ever….

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We spent the morning soaking in this giant beautiful natural hot tub.

Next to the pool there is a “mask bar” where you can swim up and try different face masks- silica mud, algae, volcanic, all of which are supposed to exfoliate, soften, offer a “youthful glow” etc. O was the only one brave enough to try it out with me and spend the next 15 minutes swimming around with it on….

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We looked so crazy. Luckily, there were people everywhere with masks on, so we fit right in!

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We really, really enjoyed this morning. We had perfect crisp cool weather but the sun was shining and it felt so good. The boys wore themselves out swimming for hours and after a snack, another swim and hot showers, we finally finished up early afternoon and headed back to Reykjavik.

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We hadn’t been into downtown Reykjavik yet, so we spent the afternoon walking around this adorable city! For a capital city, it actually felt quite small, easily explorable in just a day or two! And not crowded at ALL, nothing like what we’ve experienced in some other cities we have visited. And incredibly, 2/3 of the entire Icelandic population lives in or near Reykjavik. I guess when you consider that it is the least densely populated capital city of all European country capitals, it makes sense.

It had a really unique feel to it. A nordic coastal town with a mix of Asheville thrown in, it was full of cozy coffee shops, restaurants serving things like lamb, whale, and other nordic foods like Smørebrod… There were lots of really nice touristy stores selling all things warm and wooly! Seriously, there was wool sweaters, socks, hats, scarves, etc along with all kinds of unique things made from volcanic lava minerals, etc- salts, skin products, etc. Lots of viking and polar themed items, even trolls! Many Icelanders believe that trolls exist here in Iceland…

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There were even a few rather strange things, like this, The Icelandic Phallological Museum.. there, sitting right in the middle of downtown, a museum which is home to the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts. The boys begged us to go.

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No, we did NOT stop in to see the over 200 penises and penile parts belonging to almost every land and sea mammal that can be found in Iceland. They even claim to have those male parts belonging to trolls and elves, a big part of Icelandic folklore. And Yes, there is a human specimen as well (with several still living individuals who have pledged to make a donation upon their demise)… wierd.

There were a few stores selling super expensive designer labels, but even the tourist shops were outrageous! Everything in Iceland truly is very very expensive, due in part to the VAT tax added on.

The houses were so cute and colorful, lining the side streets and with an charming, yet industrial look.

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Many of them had metal siding, I’d imagine in order to be able to withstand the harsh weather conditions Icelandics live through most of the year!

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IMG_3905And the coolest graffitti!

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This bakery was my obsession…

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Braud. They literally had the most incredible warm, squishy cinnamon rolls (vanilla and strawberry flavors too!) sitting in the window yelling our names…

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The line was out the door and they were out of most things. So,Chuck went out early our last day when they were opening and there are no words for what he brought home to us…

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It was cool to look down every side street to see the ocean surrounded by huge cliffs..

(my phone camera slowly dying and having trouble focusing these days…)

The next day, it was time to hit the Golden Circle. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, which is central to Iceland’s history, as it was where the oldest existing parliament in the world, Alpingi, first assembled (930 AD). Iceland is one OLD country.

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The other super cool thing about Thingvellir is that it is home to the Mid-Atlantic ridge, one of the only sites in the world where you can see the ridge between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates above ground; most sit under the ocean and are not visible. As Iceland sits along this ridge, it is interesting to read that the plates pull the country apart by a few centimeters each year… (source: Reykjavik Excursions). It was cool to be able to hike between 2 different continental plates!

 

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Further down the ridge, there was an area called Silfra, a lake in Thingvellir park that was created when an earthquake in 1789 created a fissure which cut into an underground spring filled with glacial water when the 2 continental plates started moving apart. Silfra is now a popular site because it is the only place in the world where you can dive directly into a crack between 2 tectonic plates, 2 continents! I read that the water filling Silfra spring has been filtered through the pores of underground lava for 30-100 years before reaching the surface; making it very pure and offering very deep underwater visibility, up to 100 meters! And cold- it stays between 2 and 4 degrees celsius.

They don’t allow anyone other than diving groups to access the area, so it was hard to get a picture up close..

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It was also interesting to read that  because Thingvellir was home to the first parliament, it was also the site of harsh punishments to criminals… 72 criminals were executed between 1600 and 1750- Men were met with terrible forms of execution, and women were drowned in Drekkingarhylur (the Drowning Pool)..

 

The whole thing just felt really chilling to think about… !!

Our next stop on the Golden Circle was the Geysir geothermal area, near Laugarvatn Lake, which is where the biggest geyser (Geysir) is situated and from where the original word came from. The most active and largest geyser is Strokkur, which shoots a stream of water straight up as high as 98 feet into the air every few minutes, but at irregular (and therefore, unpredictable!) intervals. It wasn’t hard to find where the actual geyser was because there was a ring full of people surrounding it, cameras/phones ready to record at any second.

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Before…
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After!

my reflexes just weren’t quick enough to get it on video!

There were lots of hiking trails around the area where you could see lots of geothermal activity, there were little springs here and there piping hot steam out of the ground and even a mini geyser, known as “Little Geysir”.

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What was so impressive to me was that, even though this area felt the most touristy by far with a big welcome center across the road (home to several restaurants and a giant tourist shop), the trails and area where the geyser itself is, are so well preserved. Other than a few signs warning visitors not to touch the water, as it is quite hot!

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There is minimal signage or disruption to the natural habitat itself.

Lastly, we went to Gullfoss, the largest and most famous waterfall in Iceland.With 3 different levels “steps”, it is fed by a the glacial river Hvítá.

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As we headed home, I wish that my camera could have captured the skyline off in the distance… There were mountains sitting in front of a giant glacier, but it was so far off, it was hard to capture.

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As I’d mentioned, there were a few things we had no clue about before we came to Iceland. Like, the water!!!!! As you drive through the country, especially in the areas where the hot springs are more numerous, there is a noticeable sulphur smell, but it gets REALLY noticeable you turn on the water from the faucet, but you can also taste it… for me, it was kinda gross, but I was able to get used to it. Wells with his strong sniffer, could not. Not even to take a shower.  Henceforth, he wasn’t the cleanest little boy when we left after 5 days……

We drove straight back into Reykjavik and found a restaurant called Meze on the Main street, Laugavegur. We were lucky to get a table, as downtown was filling up with visitors in town for the Pride parade the next day.

Saturday was our last day and after a lazy morning, we wanted to go back downtown so that we could pick up some souvenirs as well as to visit Hallgrimskirkja, the large very unique and modern cathedral that sits up at the top of the hill.

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When we went inside, we were surprised at how modern and minimalist it felt. It was such a contrast to all the really old ornate churches and cathedrals we’ve visited before this one with gold, stained glass, tiles, painting, stone from floor to ceiling. Other than a few statues in the back, it was very plain. There was even a man vacuuming the carpet in the aisles when we walked into the church.

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so strange to visit such a modern church…

After walking around and re-visiting a few stores, we grabbed lunch at a really neat place called Babalú. It had a really basic menu- grilled cheese and a few different paninis,  a few soups with homemade bread, and some really yummy baked goods and coffees. You order at the counter, take your number and sit inside this cozy restaurant with different rooms downstairs and upstairs with super kitschy decor… it really really felt like you were in a grandma’s house.

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The city was filling up for the parade and the boys wanted to go back, so we dropped them off and came back.

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It was so nice to see the whole city coming together to support equal rights; every store, every restaurant and almost everyone walking in the streets, families, adults, kids, everyone was wearing their colors to show their support. Whatever side you sit on, it is a nice change to visit a place where you feel that the community strongly supports and stands behind equal rights for ALL of their citizens.

It was time to head back to the house to pack for our early departure the next morning, but not before one last coffee at our favorite, Reykjavik Roasters…

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How can you not love a place that has a record player and a stack of records sitting and waiting to be listened to? It made us realize how much we’d love to have one of our own :0)

One of the craft beer bars we’d visited in Copenhagen, Mikeller, had a restaurant in Reykjavik tucked away at the bottom of a street closer to the water and so we ducked in there for one last Scandinavian beer…..

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The next morning, we were up and out the door at 6:15am. It was a cold and rainy Sunday and as we drove to the airport, we took in the last of all the incredible views of this amazing country.

While we were sad to leave, we were thankful that we had had good weather – very windy, 50 degrees and overcast, but no rain! Puffy coats and wool hats/gloves, this is as warm as it gets in this Nordic country!

During our visit, we focused on visiting all as many sites as we could in southern Iceland, but we barely scratched the surface. There is so much left to see in this breathtakingly beautiful Nordic island country (whales! puffins! northern lights!) and maybe someday, we’ll be back. But, if not, we felt completely lucky to have been able to see Iceland and as we suspected, it was unlike any place we’d ever been- the boys in their short life; Chuck and I in our more numerous years:)

Since we’ve definitely used up most of our good weather Karma this year, we were pretty sure we wouldn’t get as lucky with the weather in Scotland…..

 

 

 

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