The Incredibly Intrepid Icelandic Expedition: Day 4

Standing room only on Grótta Island (Photo: Ryan Pienta)

Standing room only on Grótta Island (Photo: Ryan Pienta)

Sunday, 11:21 a.m. — I open my eyes to peer upon the rays of daylight that flood into our tiny Airbnb quarters. Before I pry myself out of bed, it hits me that this is our last full day in Iceland.

12:32 p.m. — Before heading out, we finally visit the Bónus discount grocery store across the street we’ve been meaning to check out since the first day. Their prices literally blow our faces off. Thankfully, we can afford to piece them back together because the store is so cheap.

Day 4 was set to be the relaxing day, the day we weren’t running around like chickens with our heads cut off, intent on seeing every last nook and cranny we could find. And it was that, which is why no one was too concerned when we got off to another slow start in the morning. Feeling somewhat sleep-deprived (at least I was), we set out in the early afternoon to check out Kringlan, the second largest shopping mall in all of Iceland.

On the rainy Sunday that was, the first order of business at the mall was finding something to eat. The food court had Subway, Sbarro, a Chinese place and some other options, but for some reason, none of it sounded very appealing to me. After walking around for a few minutes, I settled on Joe & the Juice, a cafe chain which primarily serves coffee, shakes, juice, wraps and sandwiches, which is located one floor down from the main food court. I felt a little better spending $18 on a turkey sandwich and a juice called The Energizer (some kind of mango-centric concoction) after the dude behind the counter complimented my name twice — but not that much better.

Neither Ryan, Israel nor Kelsey was very interested in shopping, but we were at a mall for cripe’s sake and I was intent on purchasing some Icelandic souvenirs for the good folks back home. Stops at three or four stores — there are more than 180 shops and restaurants at Kringlan in all, including Toys R Us and H&M — produced just one gift, however: a book of poetry by Vala Hafstað called “Imminent Eruption” which was printed in both English and Icelandic.

2:50 p.m. — We pull up to the parking lot near the walking path to the Grótta Island Lighthouse, which is only accessible during low tide. Walking along the path, I cannot help but think that the one-eyed sea creature from Scooby-Doo is going to pop up out of one of the clumps of seaweed and scare the bejesus out of me.

“And we’re the three best friends that anyone could have…” (Photo: Kelsey Pliml)

“And we’re the three best friends that anyone could have…” (Photo: Kelsey Pliml)

Without any other plans for the early part of the day, we decided to drive over to Seltjarnarnes, a township located on a peninsula just west of Reykjavík. Why they didn’t simply include this small track of land spanning less than one square mile within the city limits of the capital I cannot say, but what I can tell you is that Seltjarnarnes can lay claim to two schools, a women’s handball team that captured consecutive Icelandic championships in 2015 and 2016 and a golf course, as well as Grótta Island and its lighthouse. The small township is also the childhood home of Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner, the founder of the Opera and Vivaldi web browsers.

3:26 p.m. — Back at the Airbnb, we encounter Rosa, our host, for the first time. She is busy doing some Sunday afternoon cleaning. Her small dog keeps her company as we rustle about, exchanging pleasantries and trying to stay out of her way.

4:14 p.m. — Following a solo mission to check out some of the shops on our street, Laugavegur, I rejoin my comrades, who are busy napping. It isn’t long before I join them.

5:11 p.m. — We set out on foot for a bus stop very near the Icelandic Phallological Museum (a museum literally containing over 200 penises and penile parts belonging to almost every land and sea mammal found in Iceland). Once there, it is only a few minutes more before a shuttle snatches us and takes us over to the Gray Line Bus Terminal, where we will wait for our tour bus.

Of the many potential tours available to folks visiting Iceland, we chose a fairly light (and affordable) option: the “Secret Lagoon and Northern Lights Hunt” offered by Gray Line. Discovered via Expedia, this $150-ish tour includes a visit to the geothermal waters of the Secret Lagoon in the small town of Flúðir, a buffet dinner with some traditional Icelandic food at Kaffihus Grund, and a tour guide who will do their best to find you a view of the Northern Lights, if possible.

While I cannot for the life of me remember the name of our tour guide, his simultaneously upbeat, informative, and somewhat comically tragic commentary whilst driving us from Reykjavík to Flúðir and back was nothing but a delight. There we were, hardly out of the city limits, and, in a flat sort of voice, he says, “I worked for this bus company for 14 years. Then they fired me.” The way the line was delivered, with sheer bluntness, had Kelsey and me giggling while passengers sitting in front of us (who would turn out to be from the likes of Belgium, Ireland, and New York) were probably wondering what in the hell was wrong with us.

Walking barefoot on the path winding around the Secret Lagoon in winter is not recommended (Photo: Ryan Pienta)

Walking barefoot on the path winding around the Secret Lagoon in winter is not recommended (Photo: Ryan Pienta)

Potential judgement was no match for our fits of laughter, though — especially not when we passed a frozen pond near the side of the road and the tour guide said, in his deadpan kind of way, “Kids used to ice skate on that pond when I was younger. They don’t anymore.”

Exactly an hour and a half after leaving the confines of Reykjavík, we arrived at the Secret Lagoon. With only 12 people in our tour group and a limited number of other guests who had arrived by their own means, we pretty much had free reign of Iceland’s oldest swimming pool. Built in 1891 with the aid of the geothermal properties of the Flúðir region, the Secret Lagoon sees far less visitors on an annual basis than the increasingly popular Blue Lagoon, which is located in between Reykjavík and Keflavík International Airport.

If you’ve heard that Iceland has suffered from some over-tourism lately, well, the Blue Lagoon — the result of a human drilling operation (rather than natural geothermal activity) — is the prime example of that issue. According to information compiled by The Green Pick, the Blue Lagoon gets around half a million visitors per year. The Secret Lagoon? Around 10,000 visitors per year. And do you want to guess which one is more expensive to visit? That’s right, prices at the Blue Lagoon start at $55, while you can get into the Secret Lagoon for $22 and some change.

9:00 p.m. — After our dip in the Secret Lagoon, we sit down to dinner at Kaffihus Grund. The hostess lays out the spread: salmon, lamb, herring, cod, and a whole smorgasbord of fixings. We acquaint ourselves with our fellow tour-goers. I reveal that I work as a reporter. A woman from New York says, “Oh, so you’re part of the Fake News?” We chuckle while secretly despairing over the future of democracy.

10:34 p.m. — Hunting for the Northern Lights on a somewhat cloudy and rainy night, our tour guide makes the first of two stops at a roadside park-type area in the middle of nowhere. We get off the bus and crane our necks toward the sky. There is an opening amongst the clouds, but it closes quickly. Our second stop will prove fruitless, as well.

We wouldn’t get back from the Secret Lagoon tour until around 12:30 a.m. With all of Reykjavík’s bars closing at 1 a.m. on Sunday nights, all that was left to do was go to sleep. And that was completely fine with me. Our four days in Iceland, while fun, frivolous, and full of adventure, had left me exhausted.