By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
When only child Sofia was going to turn 18, me and my husband Neil were wondering how she would like to celebrate this milestone in her life. Sofia has a mind of her own and a non-conformist. A homebody, Sofia does not like parties and ball gowns. Most of the time, she is moody. So, we expect no debut or any gathering of friends to celebrate her 18th birthday. All she asked was to travel, but her choice destination stunned us. She wanted to go to Iceland!
Where is Iceland? All I know is it is in Europe and its volcano disrupted global air travel years before, but can we survive this trip, financially?
So, a year before the planned December travel to Reykjavik sent me into a frenzy research online about Iceland. First, Iceland is by its name a very cold country. I also found out that it is now a famous destination among wealthy Pinoys! I cannot play social climbing here, so we have to plan this once in a lifetime travel to be economical as much as possible, while fulfilling Sofia’s 18th birthday wish.
We had little savings from tuition as Sofia opted out of her International Baccalaureate (IB), but that would not be enough.
So, first I asked for reinforcements from relatives abroad for hand-me-down winter clothing. When some of the needed winter clothes from our relatives abroad could not arrive in time for our departure, we ran to our nearest Ukay-Ukay store and found, to our standards, decent enough coats and shoes to keep us warm in Iceland. Neil got a light-colored coat that made him a standout among tourists in all black or blue attire. He also preferred to wear his Boysen cap instead of a bonnet.
I got hold of a local travel agency to process our tickets and Schengen visa because we cannot afford to ruin her birthday should the online arrangements go awry. There are horror stories about online tickets and flight scams. But, I booked all the tours online via Nordicvisitor.com. It was a lot cheaper than the travel packages offered by local travel agencies.
Our tour agency, particularly our travel consultant Dagny Agustsdottir, was very efficient. I told her we are traveling on a shoestring budget, but we want this trip to be memorable because it is for our daughter’s 18th birthday.
Given the short period that we will be spending in Iceland, we had to customize our tours and go only to areas of interest to Sofia. I asked for a budget package but Dagny said they already phased that out. They could only offer Comfort and Premium. Of course, we got Comfort.
For our return flight, I mustered all the courage to get the cheapest return ticket through Skyscanner and booked via e-Dreams, which made me worry all the more when they responded after confirming the flight with, “Thank you for your confidence”.
We started paying the travel expenses in the second quarter of 2018 and we were almost debt-free when we left for Hong Kong-Helsinki-Keflavik in December.
As soon as we got hold of our luggage and exited Keflavik airport around 9:30 a.m., our driver Kuna was there waiting with my name on the placard. She handed our printed tour packs, vouchers, all reminders, and brought us, luggage and all, directly to Blue Lagoon.
To us, the Blue Lagoon is the best welcome treat to the weary travelers from a faraway land. The geothermal warm and seawater in blue was soothing, relaxing and refreshing. It was just amazing.
After having burger lunch at Blue Lagoon, a big bus dropped us off near our hotel. Nordicvisitor was so kind to billet us at Hotel Fron, which is just along Laugavegor, the main shopping district in Reykjavik. Our apartment was a very comfortable 2-bedroom with a sala and a pantry.
During winter, Iceland only gets 4 hours of daylight. Sunrise is at 11 and starts to get dark at 3 p.m., but during summer time, the sun does not set so they have 24 hours of daylight. It felt weird, but Reykjavik is beautiful. All the Christmas lights and decorations were open 24 hours a day even if the stores were closed on December 25-26. There were only tourists roaming around as Icelanders spend Christmas with family at home. Iceland’s 350,000 population is eclipsed by its 2 million tourists.
The first item after check-in was a church visit. It was pre-Christmas eve and we walked up to the Christ the King Cathedral to say thank you for bringing us safely to Sofia’s dream destination. Our first attempt at Northern Lights hunting was cancelled, it was a cloudy and rainy night.
The next day was a Christmas Walk tour, a cultural tour for non-Icelandic. It was fun. We had a taste of Hakari (rotten shark meat), dried fish, and Icelandic drinks. Among the group of tourists, we were the only Asians. Sofia got the mantle, an almond, in the food served to us, and she got the prize – an Icelandic beanie!
The Christmas Walk tour includes the old harbor, the oldest street of Reykjavik with very quaint houses, the settlement, the Vikings, the volcanoes, the fishing industry, and Iceland’s bloody transformation to Lutheran religion. We learned that they beheaded the last Catholic priest before they turned Lutheran. The tour guide said that when you are born in Iceland, you are born Lutheran, but you can sign a document if you don’t want to stay Lutheran.
We had a tour of the oldest cemetery and a reading of each of the tourists’ current state in life. Icelandic are not so religious people, but they have plenty of myths to tell from trolls, to elves, the Black Christmas Cat, and their dead. They are able to retain their culture and tradition largely because they are an island, far from mainland Europe.
At 6 p.m. on the 24th, the church bells ring to signal the Christmas celebration with family members gathered together. We had a four-course dinner with other tourists at a restaurant with reindeer as the main meal. We attended the Christmas eve mass in Polish, the midnight mass was in Icelandic and Latin. Our Noche Buena was left over food from our Indian meal where a Filipina waitress kindly gave us extra rice. We had Icelandic noodles, too.
The following days were spent for Golden Circle – water falls, the pingvellir National Park, parliament, geysers, and the breathtaking Gulfoss. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is beautiful. The church mountain, the most photographed mountain in the world, is majestic with different views at different angles. It’s magical.
Despite the crazy rain, we enjoyed the long drive, dotted with waterfalls and vast lava lands with no human being in sight, only occasional Viking horses. The black sand and the sea were different and the lava from volcanic eruption have grown thick moss all over. There was no tree, except for a few pine trees. The explanation was the Vikings, who peopled the island, cut all the trees.
As Sofia did not warm up to the idea of exploring the man-made ice caves after considering the cost, we instead went to four museums. We were looking for a public market, but that is available only on weekends.
It was a red Christmas for Iceland, there was no snow, but the temperature was in the negative. It snowed on our way to the airport.
Indeed, Iceland is expensive. The tour guide attested to it saying tourists used to stay longer, but now they are cutting down their trips. A small souvenir ref magnet costs P500 and short taxi ride that costs P60 in Manila, costs P500 in Reykjavik or more during Christmas.
We could not afford to shop, except for the ref magnet souvenirs and Sofia’s Iceland football jersey, a BioEffect, and a unique Christmas décor which I think will look good on Bitoon Resthouse. I tried on the authentic Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa), but it was really expensive for my pocket.
I just had my photos taken wearing it at the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland. In fact, we had our photos taken at every opportunity to Sofia’s embarrassment. Sofia only chose a few shots for herself.
We missed the Northern Lights for three nights hunting, but the clouds cleared out on the night of our departure and we saw a bit of it during our flight to Stockholm before proceeding to Dubai-Manila when the stewardess announced to dim the lights so we can see the amazing lightshow in the sky.
Yes, we survived Iceland financially! Love this island of natural wonders. Indeed, it is a dream destination.
To maximize our trip, I booked the longest 17-hour layover in Stockholm. We arrived at the Arlanda airport from Keflavik just before midnight and slept on one of the benches. As soon as the counters opened around 3 a.m., we started shuffling and checked in for our flight to Dubai. Arlanda airport is very efficient that by 6:30 a.m. we were already on our train ride to Gamla Stan, the city center.
If was snowing and we went straight to St. Eric’s Cathedral and had breakfast at a nearby Mcdo.
We spent the entire day roaming around the beautiful Gamla Stan, explored the narrow alleys, the Stortorget, the palace, the cathedral, shops, and the Nobel museum.
We head back to the airport just in time for boarding.
Our ticket at the Norwegian Shuttle did not provide meals for the 10-hour flight. We had burgers though in our carry-on bags, but we instead slept the whole time.
We arrived Dubai just around midnight and welcomed by cousin Eric into their spacious apartment.
We heard New Year mass at St. Mary’s church before roaming around Dubai, Burj Al Arab, Dubai World, Kalifa, Miracle Garden, the New Creek, the fish market and even the Gold Souk before landing in Manila.
Stockholm is beautiful with all the trappings of a European city while Dubai is a bustling metropolis with all its modernity and pomp, but nothing beats Iceland. It’s one trip of a lifetime!