Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020
PrologueWe first visited Reykjavik last March, and we had a wonderful time. We traveled on our own, with the exception of a 2 day guided group tour of the Snaefellsness Peninsula with Icelandic Mountain Guides. We had an amazing time, and the trip left us wanting more. When we got home, Craig researched ideas for a follow-up trip.
Ever since we visited Alaska in 2001, we have wanted to do a dogsledding trip. We had considered one that would involve observing the Iditarod as well as mushing. But at the time, the climate change in Alaska had made conditions unpredictable. If there was no snow, there was no dogsledding.
Years clicked by, and Craig was diagnosed with MS. He has balance issues that would make him unable to stand on the back of a dogsled for extended periods of time. And realistically, we do not possess personalities which make animals obey us. This is evidenced by all of the horseback riding adventures we have had with spirited horses. So we thought that we had missed our opportunity.
As Craig was looking through Icelandic Mountain Guides' trips, he was drawn to their Greenland Adventures offerings. He saw that they offer a different kind of dogsledding trip. Greenlanders use a different style of dogsled than the basket-style sled used in the Iditarod. They use a toboggan-style sled, which is capable of carrying heavier loads. This means that they can provide an Inuit musher to handle the dogs while two passengers sit on the sled and enjoy the ride. It is a multi-day trip run by Arctic Dream where you sleep in various cabins as you traverse Ammissalik Island, East Greenland .
Only 3,500 of Greenland's 56,000 inhabitants reside in East Greenland. It is separated from the capital of Nuuk, in Western Greenland, by an ice cap. Though Greenlandic tourism is on the rise, East Greenland receives only a small fraction of those tourists.
Craig found a woman's blog describing her experiences on this Dogsled and Northern Lights trip. RoaminJuliet's vivid descriptions and photos from this trip made both of us immediately want to sign up! You get to experience pristine nature as well as the Inuit culture of the sparsely populated east coast.
Craig contacted Greenland Adventures at the end of March 2019, and inquired about the trip. He disclosed his MS, and they suggested that maybe he might prefer a less physically strenuous trip. Even though you sit on the sled, you sometimes have to get out and walk / help push the sled on steep slopes. They suggested that we might want to consider a single day dogsledding excursion.
This was not what we wanted. We wanted to travel by dogsled; not just go for a dogsled ride. We wanted to get to know our musher and bond with a dog team over multiple days. We wanted to stay in cabins and experience the solitude of nature.
Craig explained this to them, and said that our hearts were in it and that we were confident that Craig would be able to handle the physical demands; if maybe a bit slower. And because of the fact that we never know when Craig may suffer another MS attack, we have evacuation insurance. So if he got injured or was unable to continue, we could get him out. Greenland Adventures reached out to Lars at Arctic Dream to discuss it. Upon hearing the details and realizing that we knew what we were getting ourselves into, he said that there shouldn't be any problem, and we were welcome to join the tour.
We decided that we would book the trip for exactly one year out from our Iceland 2019 trip. Commercial flights to East Greenland originate from Iceland and Denmark. We planned the Greenland trip with a few buffer days in Iceland on either end. This was winter, and there was the possibility of flight delays anywhere along the way (Boston, Iceland, Greenland). We wanted to make sure that any weather-related delays would not cause us to miss the beginning of our adventure nor cause us to miss our flight home.
With Craig's MS, flying has become more uncomfortable for him. He has trouble getting up and down after sitting in one position so long. His legs get stiff and it is hard for him to walk to the rest room. The seats are small and uncomfortable, and if the person in front of you reclines, forget using your tray table.
With all of the travel that we do, we can't afford to fly first class or business class on every trip. We can't justify paying 5 times the price of a coach ticket, but there are times when you can get a first or business class ticket for only slightly more than coach when purchased well in advance. In those cases, we splurge.
Icelandair does not sell first class tickets. Instead, you buy a coach ticket and have the ability to bid on first class seats. If your bid is accepted, you will be upgraded and charged the difference. We decided to put in bids for each flight...if they went through, we'd thoroughly enjoy first class. If they didn't, it wasn't meant to be.
By mid-May, we were booked and paid in full. It was a guaranteed departure. There is a maximum of 10 guests, but it would go with just the two of us if nobody else signed up. Any recommended gear that we didn't already have, we bought in the intervening months: parkas, ski gloves, glove liners, ski goggles, etc.
In February of 2020, we traveled to Turkey. When we re-entered the United States, they asked if we had been to China in the past two weeks. Coronavirus (COVID-19) was being viewed as a threat only for people who had been in Wuhan.
We knew that if the situation changed dramatically within the next month, our trip could well be impacted. So we decided to just keep an eye on the situation and assess when the time came.
By early March, the guidance for international travel had not changed. If you were feeling sick, you should wear a mask and isolate yourself. If you weren't feeling sick and hadn't knowingly been in contact with an infected person, you were instructed to go about your business, so long as you washed your hands frequently and refrained from touching your face. So we decided to continue as scheduled. It was the decision we made based on the information that was available at the time. We packed hand sanitizer and wipes (years of Christmas stocking gifts from my mom had prepared us well).
Further evidence that everything was moving ahead as scheduled: we were informed that our upgrade bid was accepted on the Boston to Reykjavik flight. This would be nice as it was an overnight flight, and would give us a chance to sleep. It also meant that we would be able to use a first class lounge at Logan Airport. We would start off our journey in comfort.
On Friday March 6, the day before we were scheduled to fly to Reykjavik, the company I work for near Boston put restrictions in place: no international business travel, very restricted domestic business travel, no outside visitors allowed in offices, and anyone returning from international travel must work from home for 14 days following their return. Looks like I'll be out of the office for a month.
Saturday 3/7/2020 - DepartureCraig's Mom drove us to Logan Express and we took the 3:15 p.m. bus to the airport. The Icelandair counter opened at 4:30. We checked in, went through security, and made our way to the British Airways lounge. We enjoyed sandwiches, chips, bangers and mash with onion gravy, and desserts. I had hibiscus and orange water and Craig had a glass of Harpoon IPA. We sat in comfy chairs as the sun set over Zakim Bridge.
We looked at the departure board, and all flights were on time. Only flights to Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai were canceled, which made sense in the wake of Coronavirus.
We boarded our flight and got comfortable in our seats. Our flight took off on time at 8:00 p.m. We each had two shots of Bailey's and some savory snacks, but we opted out of dinner. Our bellies were full from the lounge, and we wanted to try to sleep.
The flight went by very quickly in this comfort, and before we knew it we were ready to land in Iceland.
Sunday 3/8/2020 - Arrival in ReykjavikWe arrived at Keflavik airport at 5:30 a.m. As we exited to immigration and baggage claim, we were confronted with a mannequin suited up in full-body Coronavirus protective gear holding an informational sign in 5 languages. This was a bit jarring, as the protective equipment seemed a bit extreme given what we had been told about the virus. I snapped a photo to record the zeitgeist.
We had pre-booked round-trip Fly Bus tickets between the airport and Reykjavik. We had done this last year, so we didn't even need to think about the process. Exit the airport, board one of the waiting Fly Buses (storing your luggage underneath), and wait for the bus to fill. Then it's a non-stop drive to the city.
The sky began to get light during the course of the 45 minute drive to Reykjavik's BSI bus terminal. From there we dispersed to smaller vehicles depending on our final destination within the city (large buses are prohibited from downtown). We were on the pink route, which took us to Bus Stop #8, Hallgrimskirkja. Hotel Leifur Eiriksson is literally right across the street from this iconic church, whose architecture reflects the basalt columns so prevalent in Icelandic geology.
We checked in to the hotel, but our room wasn't quite ready yet. Reykjavik was familiar and comfortable; we knew our way around pretty well after having spent a week here a year ago. It was shortly before 8:00 a.m., so we headed out in search of breakfast.
We had heard amazing things about the breakfast at Grái Kötturinn (Grey Cat Cafe), and we knew generally where it was located. So we walked down sidewalks populated only with newly-arrived tourists, while Reykjavik residents awoke slowly on this winter Sunday morning. Tthe full moon hung low and pink over the sleepy city.
The Grey Cat Cafe is a small cozy place lined with bookshelves. There was only one other customer inside when we arrived. We got a booth in the front window (with a view of the Culture House museum across the street).
The Grey Cat's house specialty is "The Truck" - a huge breakfast. We weren't hungry enough to attempt that, so we basically split it into its constituent parts. Craig had scrambled eggs with bacon, home fries, and a large slab of toast. I had "American pancakes" with bacon. The portions were enormous! We also got much-needed coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. Everything was delicious and the atmosphere was quite comfortable. We enjoyed lingering over our breakfast. As more people arrived (including an American family whose son was on spring break from college in Worcester) and tables became in demand, we headed out.
The temperature was around freezing, but the sun warmed us. The sky was a beautiful blue, and there was no wind to speak of. We still needed to kill some time before our hotel room would be ready, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and walk down to the waterfront. The air was cold on my ears, especially when we were walking in the shade of city buildings. So I took my hood for a test drive and was pleased with how cozy it kept me!
A light coating of snow clung to certain surfaces, including the black rocky shoreline where stone cairns are balanced. The blue water was as still as a mirror in the harbour. We stood next to Harpa, and enjoyed a nice view of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We walked over to the cheerful yellow South Mole Light House. We could see the Þufa art installation across the channel, near North Mole Light House. This is a man-made grassy knoll atop which stands a fish drying shack, and we intended to see it up close tomorrow when we visit the Old Harbour at Grandi.
We walked back to the hotel. The sun was so bright in our faces as we turned up Skólavörðustígu that I didn't even notice the rainbow stripes on the pavement, celebrating Pride! We passed familiar souvenir stores, book shops, art studios, and record shops.
When we arrived back at the hotel at 10:30, room #204 was ready. The room was small but cozy and comfortable. What it lacked in space, it made up for with a stunning view of Hallgrimskirkja.
A year ago, we took advantage of the nice weather on the day we arrived in Reykjavik and packed the day with activities until we were exhausted and went to bed at a normal bedtime. It had been our first day in the city and we were eager to get the lay of the land.
We took a more low-key approach this time, promptly taking a nap. The church bells chime every quarter hour from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and we could hear them from our room. However, they didn't prevent us from taking nice long naps.
We woke up around 3 p.m., and were in no rush to go out. It was nice to have some down time. The real thrust of this trip is our week of dogsledding in Greenland. We would have several days in Reykjavik to do any sightseeing activities that we missed last year, as well as to make some repeat visits to favorite bars / restaurants.
At around 6 p.m., we headed out. We still weren't that hungry after our enormous breakfast this morning, so we decided to go for drinks. The setting sun was gorgeous on Hallgrimskirkja. We walked down to Laugavegur, the main street for shopping and dining downtown.
We decided to revisit the Lebowski Bar. With its Big Lebowski theme, it is a lot of fun, if a bit pricey (but that is par for the course in Reykjavik). Whereas last year we had to sit in a back room, today we found a booth in the main bar area. The bar itself, keeping with the theme of its namesake movie, was covered with Oriental rugs. They really tie the room together! There was also a little sign indicating not to urinate on the carpet! LOL!
The Lebowski theme inspired other decor as well, including a bowling lane (complete with shoes, pins, and floorboards) set up on the wall. In addition to the obligatory T-shirts, they also sell Lebowski-themed bowling bags! Though these cost less than the $80 that Craig joked is the price of absolutely anything in Iceland, $60 was still too rich for my blood, especially since I'm not a bowler.
The bar has a wheel of fortune which can be spun to win drinks. While we were there, one table won 6 beers and another won 10 beers! That is nothing to sneeze at given the prices around here!
I, of course, ordered one of their signature White Russians ("The Siberian", which is an alcoholic ice cream shake). Craig ordered an Ulfur Icelandic IPA. The server brought my drink as well as a shot glass filled with a dark liquid. This was happy hour; maybe it was a sample of something? We each took a sip and it tasted like horrible cough syrup. Craig's beer never arrived, and we realized that the waiter made a mistake. We called him over and it turned out that he had misheard Craig. He apologized and brought the beer straightaway. As we sipped our drinks, we became a bit peckish. We shared an order of onion rings served with a mustard/mayo dipping sauce. Craig then had a Boli Premium Lager.
A soccer match was being shown on TV. When it finished, they showed "Dumb and Dumber." Somehow we have never seen this movie, and it was amusing to watch while drinking.
We left the bar at around 9 o'clock and walked back to the hotel. We went to bed early to get a good night's sleep so that we could explore the Old Harbour tomorrow.
Coronavirus awareness at Keflavik Airport
Hotel Leifur Eiriksson
A big breakfast at Grái K&oouml;tturinn (Grey Cat Cafe)
Waterfront selfie, Reykjavik
South Mole Lighthouse
Enjoying a White Russian at the Lebowski Bar