2024.04.12 Northern Lights & Food Tour

The five hour flight from Newark to Iceland was not enjoyable.  Neither Steph nor I slept more than 30 minutes.  And to add insult to injury, Stephanie was suffering from a headache also.

We landed at Keflavik airport, about 30 minutes south of Reykjavik.  We breezed through Passport Control, AKA “Customs”, and our bags were on the carousel by the time we arrived. The airport had a market / gift shop that you are funneled through before getting to baggage claim.  Somebody on the airport planning committee has been to Disneyworld!  Stephanie picked up a fresh chocolate chip croissant while we waited for our rental car shuttle to arrive.  Waiting is a lot easier with a croissant.

“Exit to Iceland”

We hit the road soon in a very sporty Kia Ceed. We made a beeline directly for our hotel in downtown Reykjavik.  Since we booked direct with our hotel, they provided complimentary early check-in, so at 8:30am, we were fortunate to check into a room, take a shower, and each take a 30-45 minute nap.  Recharged!

Our day started with a food walking tour at 11:30am.  Our tour group met at the Opera House, which looms large over the waterfront with its modern & distinctive styling.  Our tour guide was a native Icelander named Noki (pronounced No Key).  As a first step, everybody introduced themselves.  There were 10 attendees made up of 2 couples and 6 solo travelers.  (The solo women outnumbered the men 4 – 2). 

Opera House

When the youngest of the group introduced himself, he said he was from India. Noki asks, “Were you imported?”  The young man corrects him and says he is from Indiana. The whole group had a good laugh at that, and just like that we are all best buddies.

The rest of the group hailed from places like Scottland, England, Denmark, Miami (via Venezuala), Queens (via Colombia) & Brooklyn.  Add in a couple of Okies and now we’re cooking.

Our first stop was the nicest of all the places we visited.  They served two kinds of fish, a mashed cod, and Arctic Char in a honey glaze.  The Arctic Char might be the best fish dish I have ever eaten, and the mashed cod was great too.  The cook made up the mashed cod recipe while serving as a cook at the prison, but Noki did not want us to call this prison food.

At 12:00, Stephanie and I had an appointment to FaceTime our niece, Ellery, who is turning 8 today.  Ellery has a packed day (and so do we!) so we called at 7:00am Central Time, and sang Happy Birthday. We stepped outside the restaurant onto the sidewalk and sang from there, so as not to damage the appetite of the others on the food tour.

As we exited the restaurant, Noki asked us how we liked it, everybody gave it a big thumbs up, and then he said, “Noki Dokie, let’s go to the next one”, and we all laughed.  This conversation repeated itself exactly like this after every restaurant, including us LOL’ing at his catchphrase.

Did you know Iceland is famous for their hot dogs?  Our daughter, Mallory, visited Iceland in 2018, so we were up to speed on the quality of their dogs.  Lucky for us, Baejarins Beztu (translation “The bezt in town”) was the next stop on the tour.

This hot dog stand has been in business since 1937, but rose to international prominence when President Bill Clinton visited the stand in 2004.  Noki tells us that the employee working the stand that day yelled out while the presidential entourage walked past “Hey Bill, we have the world’s best hot dogs”, and he stopped and immediately walked over and had one.  The lady who yelled this out, trained Noki when he started working at the stand.

We devoured our hot dog. The dog is made of lamb, and it is customary to order it with everything.  In our opinion, the defining topping that really set this apart was the crunchy & crispy onions.  I would eat it again (and probably will).

The third stop on our tour was to sample some Icelandic Meat Soup, which resembled a stew and included lamb and vegetables.  We also got to sample Viking beer, and fermented shark.  The shark is the real story here.  It is Greenland shark, and the meat from this shark is poisonous, and only edible if it has been fermented. We were told to chew it 8 – 12 times before swallowing.  Chewing it that many times releases some chemicals which tasted/smelled like ammonia.  Guess who is not eating any more fermented shark?!

Our fourth stop on the culinary tour was for Norway Lobster tacos.  Delicious!  The only problem is that we were all starting to get full by this time, and that’s my kind of problem.

Norway Lobster Tacos

The final stop of the day was for Rye Bread Ice Cream.  This sounds “interesting” at best, and “disgusting” at worst, but like everything else we were provided, it was fantastic.  It was paired with coffee or tea, and we had great views of the Hallgrimskirkja church from our table.

We said our goodbyes after dessert, in large part because Noki was already late for his next food tour of the day. It was an awesome tour that I would recommend in a heartbeat.  “Noki Dokie!”

We were now free to tourist at our own pace, and select our own locations.  The church is a must-see, so we walked across the street to check it out.  Hallgrimskirkja is right in the middle of action, and likely the most well-known building in the country, even though it was just completed in 1986.

Hallgrimskirkja Church

The basalt columns are quite symbolic of all the basalt found in the country, and the sweeping angles of the wings represent the flowing waterfalls found throughout Iceland.  All in all, very meaningful and a truly unique design.

You can pay $10 and ride an elevator to the top of the church to take in the views of the city.  Let’s go!

Church Bells
Church Interior

We have been in this town for about 9 hours and have yet to go souvenir shopping.  Time to rectify that oversight.  This part of Reykjavik is all about shopping, restaurants and bars.  We tried to hit every store, but we will be here for more than one day – let’s save some for the rest of the trip.

Icelandic Cat

Noki told us the story of this shop cat.  Every morning when the employees open the door to the store, the cat is standing there waiting to be let in. He climbs up on the pile of blankets and spends his day there, getting attention from all the customers.  At the end of the day, he goes home.  The shop employees don’t even know who he belongs to.  Do not compare your life to this cat’s!

Open Doors

Several stores had their doors propped wide open.  It was about 35 degrees today.  Let’s face it, these people are tougher than we are.

Icelanders have a sense of humor
Stephanie and the Rainbow Road

Once shopped out, we walked back to our hotel – about 20 minutes – and dropped off our purchases.  After a short rest, we went back out to explore a while before our most anticipated event of the week – the Northern Lights Tour, which started with a 9:30pm pickup.

We took a walk down to the waterfront, past the Opera House, to go see the Sun Voyager ship sculpture.  This is another iconic Reykjavik landmark, created in 1990.  It resembles a Viking long-ship, and is said to be an ode to the sun.  I like it. 

Sun Voyager

We have been here 12 hours and have already learned that it’s not the temperature that gets you, it’s the wind.  The wind is relentless and it cuts right through you. Given this revelation, we quickly admired the Sun Voyager and made our way back to the shopping district. Given the very long days and the well-lit sky in Iceland, time got away from us, and we had to hustle back to the hotel to dress up even warmer for tonight’s festivities.

Shopping District where the streets are Pedestrian-Only

We booked our Northern Lights tour through Viator, and it has possibly the longest and most descriptive name of any tour I’ve been on: “#1 Northern Lights Tour In Iceland from Reykjavik with PRO photos”.  At least you know what they’re selling.

We were to be picked up at 9:30 at the bus stop around the corner from our hotel.  We huddled in a bus stop shelter with a handful of others.  Several tour companies stop at this location, and you had to eyeball the bus to find the right one for you.  We hopped on our bus, and grabbed 2 seats in the front row.  In all, we filled all 19 seats on the bus with Northern Light Hunters.

The bus driver, AKA photographer, AKA northern lights expert, AKA “call me BG, just like the Bee Gees”, let us know that the first rule is to find clear skies.  And the clear skies were south, near the airport (which we know is about 45 minutes south of the city), so that is where we were headed.

 BG gave a little talk while driving, and then showed us a couple of informational videos on the TV at the front of the bus. I nodded off during the second video.  Today is catching up to me!  HOWEVER, on the drive, Stephanie noticed the active volcano/lava flow that is misbehaving in Iceland right now.  You can see it from the main road – how convenient is that!

Lava Flow

(This is the blurriest picture I have ever used in a blog post, but it is also the only time we have tried to snap a picture of a lava flow from a moving bus.  Get over it.)

Once we traveled south enough for BG’s liking, he told us he had a secret spot that the 55 passenger tour busses don’t know about.  He avoids them at all costs.  Sure enough, we pulled into this deserted parking lot about a mile off the highway, and we had clear skies.  All we needed to do now was wait for Northern Lights.

Picture of our shuttle bus when we parked around 11pm.  Still lots of sunlight!

BG knew exactly what part of the sky the lights would appear, if they appeared at all.  “There is always a chance to see the lights”, he said several times.  He set up his professional camera and “magic stick”, which was a light-on-a-stick used to illuminate our faces while taking pictures of us with the Northern Lights.

Pretty early on, BG passed out wool blankets for us to keep warm with.  Interestingly, he only brought 11 blankets and there were 19 passengers.  Oh well, as my friend Shaun famously says, “Get yours before the greedy people do”.  (We got a blanket.)

It was cold enough that it was a constant shuffling of people on and off the bus.  We would look for the lights for a while, but then step back on the bus to warm up.  Except for BG.  BG was outside the entire time scanning the sky and constantly fiddling with his camera.  He was a true professional.

It gets cold in the middle of the night in Iceland. (Feels like 12 degrees!)

Around Midnight, BG thrilled us all by setting up a table outside the bus with hot chocolate and cinnamon buns.  Was the hot chocolate any good?  I had 3 glasses.  Were the pastries any good?  Stephanie had a second helping.  It was fantastic and provided the sugar rush we needed to keep going.

Throughout our time there, BG was able to capture the Northern Lights on his camera, but we could not see them with the naked eye.  That was neat, but all of us desperately wanted to see it for ourselves.  BG repeatedly said that all we can do is wait.

Around 1:15am, BG starts yelling from outside the bus “The lights are out!  You can see them without the camera!”  All 19 of us immediately hop up out of our seats and file outside.  The crowd cheered!  We were floored.  People were clapping and jumping up and down and showing the kind of emotion that adults rarely share publicly. 

For the next 30 minutes, everybody stood and watched.  We took pictures with our phones, and BG took hundreds of pictures of us with the lights. 

“Next!”

“Stand right there.  Knees bent.  Stand Still for 2 – 4 seconds.” If you were lucky, you heard “Bingo!” or “Bee-you-ti-ful”.  If not, you heard “You moved.  Stand still.  We will do it again.”

Finally, sometime between 1:45 and 2:00am, we were all loaded on the bus, and we began our drive back to town.  BG dropped us off back at Bus Stop #15 and we got to the hotel at 2:45am. 

And thus ends one of the most spectacular days of our lives, and Day #1 in Iceland. 

Addendum:

Noki had so many great stories that I didn’t share above, so below is a selection of his greatest hits from the food tour.  Noki Dokie!

  • His Grandfather led a resistance against the building of the Opera House, which included administering a Facebook page that opposed the construction. The Grandfather was ultimate banned from entering the Opera House! Several times he did go in, and was removed by security once noticed.  Icelanders!!
  • Noki takes great pride in noting that the ancestry of all Icelanders is very well documented in a database that began over 1,000 years ago.  The government has an app that you can use to go through and look at your 16 great-grandparents.  You can then select any of them, and you can see their 16 great-grandparents.  You can keep doing this going back a thousand years.  In fact, while Noki illustrated this by clicking on his ancestors randomly, he ended up on the founder of Reykjavik!  He mentioned this is the second time this has happened while demonstrating the app in the year and a half he’s been giving tours.
  • Because everybody is related, there is also an app where two people can tap their phones together and see how closely they are related.  If you’re lucky, you will get the green light to continue dating!
  • The Baejarins Beztu hot dog stand is the busiest restaurant in Iceland, and they serve 2,000 hot dogs a day.

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