Notes on Iceland

Skaftafell National Park

I’ll level with you, friends: I’m not a huge fan of vacation posts. Mine or anyone else’s. I think that vacation stories are far more engaging when told in person, and get bored looking at endless trip snapshots. So I’m going to skip the chronological blow-by-blow and attempt to keep this fairly bullet-pointy with a story or two sprinkled in. I’ll also look to you for trip- and/or Iceland-related questions.

(I’m speaking at the MN Blogger Conference today, so I might not have answers for you until tomorrow or later, but I’ll get to them!)


Word we said most in Icelandic: “Takk.” (Thanks)

Word we said most in English: “WOW.” (It’s an incredibly scenic country.)

Geysir geothermal area. The word geyser is from the Icelandic, and the first discovered geyser is in this location, though no longer nearly as active. All “smoke” visible here is actually steam.

Food we ate most: Cheeseburgers. Oh, the shame.

Food we enjoyed most: Arctic char – deeeelicious! Also enjoyed the traditional Icelandic lamb soup. And the bread. Those folks really know how to make a hearty, delicious, fantastically filling brown bread.

Food that lived up to its rep: The hot dogs. This tiny hot dog stand is mobbed, day and night, and with good reason.

Hot dog stand in Reykjavik city center

Best bargain: A $4 asymmetric brown leather belt, snagged at the Reykjavik flea market

Best non-bargain: We’ll have to see. I bought two amazing sweaters, and think they’ll both get loads of wear.

Best street art: This sign

Looks like a real sign, doesn’t it? CAT CROSSING for the 10,000 cats resident in Reykjavik. But no, it’s graffiti. We saw two versions, one with a speed bump and one without. And the paint is matte while the rest of the sign is shiny. Brilliant, no?

Best experience: Riding Icelandic horses across a gorgeous beach on the Peninsula at a full gallop. I’d never galloped before and it was so exhilarating and exciting that I laughed uncontrollably the entire time. The farm that led this ride was absolutely incredible. The horses were friendly, curious, easy, and just about the most lovely equine beings I’d ever met. We were allowed into the pen with 40 of them. In the U.S., that would NEVER have happened. Or, if it had, we’d have been warned to stay well clear of the horse butts for danger of being kicked while the horses themselves ignored or moved away from us. These horses, on the other hand, absolutely flocked to us. Sniffed us, nuzzled us, practically cuddled us. They were like puppy-horse hybrids. It was positively magical.

Worst experience: Falling off a completely different set of horses two days later near Vik. Here’s the story.

I have loved horses my whole life. Didn’t take formal lessons until college, but did trail rides as a kid and was always told I’m a natural rider. I’ve never been afraid of horses, and have always felt confident as a rider. This experience told me I need to listen to my gut more.

We arrived at the farm early. The 16-year-old boy who would lead our ride was doing some ground work with a chestnut horse. The horses in the pen were skittish, totally filthy, and so itchy that they were rubbing their – ahem – Sensitive Buttparts on the corral ropes. The chestnut horse, clearly headstrong and problematic, was assigned to a German fellow who’d never been on a horse before. Ever. In his life. My horse was so uptight and skittish that it jumped a foot in the air when I gave it a pat on the neck, and over-corrected every time I gave it a command. We should’ve known it wouldn’t go well.

About 20 minutes into our ride, we passed a ditch where an adolescent sea bird was stuck and flapping its large white wings frantically. Three of five horses spooked, and suddenly I was clinging to the mane of an animal rocketing across a field at about 30 miles per hour. I tried to slow him to no avail, and eventually fell off to the left as he streaked across the field away from me.

Mike fell, too, as did one of the Germans. We all got up, bruised and shaken, as the 16-year-old boy asked us to stay put and keep the horse that DIDN’T bolt with us in the field. That horse, the chestnut, did everything in its power to get away from us – pulling and pushing, thrashing its head – but we managed to keep it. The boy returned with the other horses and asked us to mount up to ride back to the stable. The moment I was up, I knew my horse was still on the brink. And sure enough, it spooked again moments later, rocketing away from the group at a run. I held fast as long as I could, but fell again on some gravel. This time, the horse stopped the moment I was on the ground. Clearly, he had just wanted me OFF. I grabbed the reins and walked back to the group.

I have a fantastic array of bruises and pulled a few muscles but, miraculously, that is all. Mike, too. We could’ve broken bones, gotten trampled, died. We are extremely lucky. I was actually astonished by my own good instincts. During both falls, I gripped my horse’s mane for additional stability, then let myself down to the ground as gently as possible using the mane. I didn’t hit my head, and have absolutely no injuries above the waist. After my second fall, I stood up INSTANTLY and started walking. I must’ve known the best way to gauge my injuries was to try walking. It was horrible and terrifying and we were shaken for days afterward. But we’re OK. And we’ll be taking riding lessons this fall – in a controlled environment – so that we can shake off any residual fear.

Eeriest place: Jökulsárlón. This lake is fed by Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. Nice cold water and … floating icebergs.


On a misty morning, it feels like another planet. Well, except that there are seals swimming around in the frigid waters.

Lava fields, not sure where … probably between Reykjavik and Vík í Mýrdal

Most unexpected experience: We took a bike tour of Reykjavik on our second day there. We ran into every single person on the tour at least one more time throughout the trip, sometimes FAR outside the city. Our tour guide himself waltzed into the tiny, remote guesthouse we’d checked into, three days after we’d done the tour. We gave directions to two elderly Asian women while in Reykjavik, and saw them again at Jökulsárlón, hundreds of miles away, four days later. Don’t expect to be a stranger in Iceland.

Experience we could’ve skipped: The Reykjavik “zoo.” It’s really a petting zoo with a couple of mink and an arctic fox thrown in. $6 to get in, and not really worth it. But the foxes sure were cute.

The arctic fox is the ONLY land mammal native to Iceland

Regrets: That we visited the Blue Lagoon on a day when it was raining, incredibly windy, and about 40 degrees. Keeping yourself submerged in the thermal pool by necessity probably isn’t as fun as doing it because it feels awesome. Also never got to see any puffins. Sniffle.

Þingvellir National Park

Reasons this trip was unbelievably cool: The landscape is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Bleak, as you can see from my photos, but still mind-blowing in its variety. With the exception of the thermal pools, all photos above are mine, taken with my iPhone … so you can just imagine the stunning beauty of the images HM captured with his DSLR.

Reykjavik is an unbearably stylish city full of women who made me reconsider my view that black, white, and gray get boring after a while. Plus you can walk the whole place, end-to-end, in two hours. If it weren’t so flippin’ expensive, it’d be nearly ideal, as cities go.

Despite the accident, riding Icelandic horses was like a dream. They are absolutely amazing animals, and I desperately miss them. I know that doesn’t make sense, but there it is.

Our eight-year wedding anniversary took place while we were there. Woo hoo!

I’d never seen a glacier or a geyser or a geothermal pool or a black sand beach. Now I have.

It felt great to disconnect for a while. I will admit to checking my e-mail from the road, but I didn’t talk to my coworkers, or worry about my finances, or fret about anything at all besides how to navigate us from one place to the next. It’s been a long time since THAT has happened …

Skogafoss. In case you missed it the first time!

Oh, by the way …

This is what I looked like just about every day. Swap the cropped leggings for full-length and put me in my Tsubo Kison boots, and that was me. For nine days. The raincoat was purchased hours before departure, $5 at Value Village. It is embroidered with the words Cost Cutters, the name of a low-priced hair cutting chain, but the coat fit well and was waterproof, and I’m damned glad I brought it! And that scarf. I would’ve looked pale and wan without it. We packed carry-ons only, extremely light, and I’m so glad. Though wearing all black every day PAINED me, it was good to have a small group of versatile items on-hand.

In my suitcase:
Long black leggings
Cropped black leggings
Black jeans (for riding)
Black tank
Black tee
Black lightweight sweatshirt
Gray jersey dress
Black turtleneck dress
Dop kit
Black Tsubo Kison boots
Black Tsubo Elath flats
Black Tsubo Acrea pumps

Things I bought:
Flea market belt
Flea market necklace
Eesh, like 3 touristy t-shirts. I’m such a sucker …
Red, purple, and black traditional Icelandic pattern sweater dress
Black modern design wool sweater coat
Gray wool ruana
Maroon wool scarf

And I thought I wouldn’t shop much on this trip. HAH!

Let me know what questions you have about the trip, our experiences, Iceland in general …

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49 Responses to “Notes on Iceland”

  1. K.Line

    It's like Scotland on steroids! I LOVE these photos and I'm so interested to hear about your trip.

    I didn't know that Iceland is famous for it's burgers and hot dogs. That is so odd 🙂 (Of course, who doesn't love those things…)

    And the horse stories are fascinating. I am SO glad that you are both ok. Seems like your guide was not adequate. But you've seen both extremes of the animal riding experience in one trip…

  2. Denise

    I cannot get over those photos! From your phone! Amazing. And that packing list was nice to see, too. Thanks, too, for your graphic and honest description of your experiences with the horses. I'm not an equine lover myself, but I completely understand, in my gut, why you miss those "puppy-horses." Beautiful.

  3. Nicky

    I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us about your trip. Fascinating! The bullet points were a great idea. I laughed when I saw the outfit photo (not at your outfit!)in such an unfamiliar place. How did you decide to visit Iceland?

  4. Rebekah

    Whoa, what a beautiful post!

    You could name your next band "Sensitive Buttparts." Just a thought.

    Have you tried slapping a pin over the "Cost Cutters" embroidery? Is it too big?

  5. Genuine Lustre

    Thank you-Iceland is on my bucket list of places to visit.
    How long was the flight? What did the women look like? Expensive place to visit? Did you see any icelandic wool sweaters?

  6. Melissa

    I'm with you on reading vacation posts, I'd much rather hear about them in person and watch videos or a slideshow of pictures.

    This post, however, was so much fun to read with your bullet points. That horse story is scary and I'm so glad you're okay. It will be so much fun to take formal lessons! I've only ridden a horse a couple of times and LOVED it. I wish I could do that more often.

    You look super cute in that outfit – what a fantastic idea with the scarf. Warmth and color. I need more scarves!

    Happy, happy anniversary! What a great way to celebrate together. I'm so glad you had such a wonderful time. The pictures are beautiful. Thanks for sharing this!


    Bjork! What a gorgeous country. Thank you for sharing your photos–the cat crossing is precious.

    Welcome back and I know you'll do a bang-up job at the blogger conference.

  8. Sox

    We went to Iceland in June in time for the solstice. An amazing place. We plan to go again (and maybe again). Definitely nothing like it on earth.
    I'm still trying to get my pictures all labelled, but that will happen in due time.
    I'm glad you enjoyed yourself!.

  9. Miss T

    It looks so amazing. Iceland is not a country that was on my list of places to visit, but I think I'm going to have to add it now!

  10. yatima

    Horses scratch their Sensitive Buttparts against fences when they are full of intenstinal parasites. Responsible owners use regular preventive medicine. Your instincts were excellent; those horses have been neglected for a while 🙁

  11. Alicia

    Why did you wear all black the whole time? You made it sound like you had to. I must have missed something…either way, great post & gorgeous pictures!

  12. Corrine/Frock And Roll

    Iceland looks absolutely amazing! These photos are so beautiful, Sal, I'm glad that you chose to share them! 🙂

  13. Anonymous

    Great pics – sounds like an amazing trip. But seriously, you think three pairs of shoes (boots even!) constitutes packing light? I don't even want to know how heavy your carry-on was! I'm sure you know that shoes are the heaviest and bulkiest of all wardrobe items to pack. I never travel with more than two pairs myself, preferably just one, even for business trips. Just think how many more clothing items you could have brought (or bought) with one less pair of shoes!

  14. Freya

    Thank you for posting your vacation photos! I am actually going to Iceland in about three weeks for a friend's wedding and I have no idea what to wear! How cold is it at the moment? Were you wearing lots of woolly jumpers?

    The photos look amazing and it looks like you had an amazing time!

  15. fröken lila

    i thought we'd be going to iceland this summer, but we never got around. now we're going this december (we're living in Norway, so we're used to the climate and darkness..) and have just started booking things. what's the name of the guesthouse you stayed at in reykjavik? and were you content with it?

  16. HollyElise

    Beautiful photos, and I love your vacation narrative!
    Thanks for sharing, Sally!

  17. Marie Pilgrim

    Arguably the best vacation post ever. I'm totally stealing your topics for my next vacation post; I think that was genius! Scary horse experience; traumatic brain injury in Iceland would've definitely put a damper on the trip.

  18. Sal

    Thanks, everyone! So glad you enjoyed this little vacay recap.

    K.Line: The hot dogs are famous, but the burgers … we just ate them a lot because they were readily available and affordable.

    Nicky: Actually, we wanted to visit Scotland and the cheapest flights were on Iceland Air from Mpls to Reykjavik to Glasgow. We were going to just do a day in Iceland for the layover, but as we researched the place we became more and more excited about it and decided to just go there! (I've been to Britain a few times and going back felt like cheating – it was time to go somewhere wholly new.)

    Rebekah: I totally need to find a way to cover the Cost Cutters logo. The coat is so cute! The logo is long and horizontal so I'm having trouble thinking of an elegant way to cover it …

    Genuine Lustre: From Minneapolis it's a 6-hour direct flight. The women had a variety of styles, but all layered creatively, wore fabulous shoes, and had accessories that were minimal but high-impact. Food and petrol were unbearably expensive, but lodging and tours weren't too bad. And as I mentioned, I bought several sweaters!

    yatima: Ugh, I was worried it was something like that. I knew it was a sign that the horses were uncomfortable and unhealthy in some way. Gah, that place sucked all over.

    Alicia: It's much easier to stick to one color for a capsule wardrobe, and I wanted to take a small group of pieces that would work interchangeably. My shoes were all black, so going black with everything else was just the easiest way.

    Anonymous: I had plenty of room in my suitcase for what I needed even with three pairs of shoes. I wore the boots on the plane so only two pairs were packed and one was a squishable pair of flats. And my carry-on was about 10 pounds lighter than my husband's.

    Freya: Most days it was about 50 degrees, and we got a lot of rain and wind. When the sun came out it could get up to 60, but not much more. Jumpers weren't necessary anywhere but at the glacial lake, but I'd count on boots and tights for the wedding!

    fröken lila: The guesthouse was actually an apartment called Solvalla Apartment. We LOOOOVED it. It's a 10-minute walk to city center in a lovely, quiet neighborhood right on the water. Plus, Cat Crossing signs! You should totally stay there. Stay for more than 4 nights and they stock the fridge for you!

  19. PrincessMia

    Ooh so very pretty!!
    I love how you did the right-up: better, imo than a chronological step-by-step story. Love love love the ponies, I want to go riding now!

  20. Dionne

    Beautiful. Just beautiful. There's something I find incredibly compelling about these northern climes, and I'd love to visit Iceland, as well as the far north here in Canada. Most of my family think I'm strange that I'd rather check out Baffin Island in the summer than go to Mexico.

    I'm definitely adding Iceland to my mental list of "places-I'd-love-to-see-someday."

  21. trishatfox

    Great description of a really special place. You captured it beautifully. I can't believe how well the phone photos turned out.
    I loved it there, too.

  22. Anonymous

    First time visitor to you blog and I am so happy to see your post about Iceland! We lived there for 2 years on an Air Force assignment, leaving in 2005. It's an incredible place to be sure. The zoo has a "special" place in my memory – I went there on a field trip with my daughter's 2nd grade class in winter, when the wind chill was -6. My 2 year old was crying because it was so cold outside. You just have to laugh at the absurdity of it!

  23. SBB

    Great post – I had a fantastic time in Iceland in February! You should check out – their PR machine is adorable and hilarious. Twitter feed is precious and the FB stuff is also endearing. Enjoy!

  24. Kristin

    what a trip of a lifetime! I normally don't like vacation posts, either, but this was a treat. Thanks for sharing, and can't wait to see more details on the goodies you scored! 🙂

  25. Amanda Ann

    Hi, Sal! I think this might be my very first time commenting, after reading for a bit. I'm going to Iceland in October! Your advanced guard reporting is quite helpful – particularly the packing list.

    Lord, I'm sorry to hear about the spooked horses. Sounds like you handled it like a champ, though. So glad you only ended up with bruises.

    Would you mind disclosing the name of the place that gave you the good experience? I was waffling a bit on going horseback riding, but now I think you've convinced me. Puppyhorses…nothing could be better than a puppy/horse hybrid.

  26. AsianCajuns (Lar)

    Oh my gawd, Sal! Brilliant post! And I know exactly what you mean about vacation posts (tricky little buggers, aren't they?). As K.Line said "Scotland on steroids" – it's so true! Not that I'm saying you can get away with not going at some point 😉 Scotland I believe is a bit warmer and, well, I don't think Icelanders wear kilts.

  27. AK

    I love that you were able to pack lightly and still look stylish. I'm big on packing light but still looking like I put some though into what I'm wearing — and neutrals are a great way to accomplish that.

    And it goes without saying, what a wonderful trip!

  28. Kelly

    It looks like you had an awesome time! (Save for those scary thrown-off-the-horse moments!)

    I want a puppy/horse hybrid!

  29. Esti

    That looks like the most incredible trip! I'm also really impressive with your skill at minimalist packing. Have you done a post on that before? If not, please do : )

    I love the Icelandic landscape, which to me seems anything but bleak. I am looking into going next year (inspired by the gorgeous Iceland Air ads all over the city here), and I was wondering (like Amanda Ann) if you'd tell us where you had the wonderful horseback experience? I miss riding more than anything that's ever gone out of my life, and I definitely want it to be a part of my trip.

  30. fleur_delicious

    SUCH incredible photos, Sal. We might have to talk later about whether you'd let me use them as a basis for a painting. I am SO in love with that deep olive, those dark slate greys – and the mist! And the ponies!! wow. We passed through reykjavik on our way to Stockholm and I wish we'd added a layover. Ah, another year. Iceland's landscapes are SO amazing.

    and yeah, I brought all kinds of cute, lightweight clothes to Europe (remember that heatwave in France? That was going on when we headed over), and then ended up soggy, cold and (dare I say it?) a little miserable because we were rained on in every city (remember the flooding in Germany?) and I spent every evening with a hairdryer trying to dry out my shoes. Oh well, c'est la vie – maybe the weather will be better NEXT TIME, eh? =)

  31. Jackie

    So weird, my boyfriend's parents were in Iceland at the same time that you were there. I wonder if you saw them. Their names are Eva and Mila Sailer. They are originally from the Czech Republic but are now from Winnipeg Manitoba.

    Looks like you had an awesome time, one day I will make my way over there as well. Those are beautiful pictures. You should put some up of your husbands as well 🙂

  32. Eurotrip Tips

    Thanks for sharing this! I do feel more inclined to response to this post as I run a travel blog!

    Lovely photos. However I'm most concerned with the horse incident-s, luckily you aren't hurt at all. I can't imagine getting badly hurt overseas, that must be an awful stress.

    I love the description you wrote because it's not overdone and yet interesting to read. Bravo!

  33. orchidsinbuttonholes

    Thank you so much for sharing your trip with us! It sounds like you had such a wonderful adventure, even though the fall from the horse must have been frightening. Gorgeous photos, too.

  34. Sal

    Amanda Ann and Esti: So sorry it took me till now to respond! I had to locate out Frommer's guide so I could find the name … the stable is on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and is called Lýsuhóll. Here's their website:

    We totally, TOTALLY loved our experience there. Let me know if you end up riding with them!

  35. Jess

    Hi Sal! I’m kind of way late to this and I don’t even know if you’ll read it, but I thought it was worth a try. I’m planning a trip to Iceland in October (so excited!) and I was wondering if you could tell me how you got around ,specifically from Reykjavik to Lysuholl. One of my must do’s while I’m there is to go for a ride, and Lysuholl looks like a great place! Did you rent a car?

      • Jess

        Thanks, Sal! I’ve bookmarked this page for future reference and I give fair warning, I may be back with more questions as my trip nears 😉

  36. Susan S

    Just saw this post. I too went to Iceland, but in September 2001. The flight out was on the 26th, and I was just praying that the terrorist attacks wouldn’t keep the skies empty and that I could have my vacation.

    I too fell off a horse. Went to a trail riding outfit, and my horse Pookie filled his lungs with air when the saddle was cinched. The then started to trot down a small decline that passes for a hill in Iceland, the saddle came loose and I was dumped on the only patch of ground that didn’t have lava rock on it. The outfit was very nice, gave me an extra shot of schnapps at the end.

    If you though Iceland was expensive in 2010, 2001 was obscene. I’d totally retire there if I could afford it.


  37. Wai

    Hi Sally,

    Thanks for posting this! It was super helpful 🙂