After an 18 month hiatus, Travels with my Coffee, the series where I take my coffee to all the best places, is back, visiting its most northerly location yet. As you probably know, Amanda and I went to Iceland last month, spending a lot of time wandering around the capital, Reykjavik, where there are lots of speciality coffee shops (and some excellent museums and restaurants which we also visited). The weather was a bit grim for the early part of the trip, but when it lifted, we managed to get out of the city on a couple of day trips, plus we took the ferry to Viðey, a small island in the bay.
Naturally, our coffee came with us, Amanda and I each owning a Travel Press (Amanda’s is fancier than mine, so now I have Travel Press envy). We’d also each brought our travelling coffee kit, which we didn’t use that much on account of the aforementioned speciality coffee shops providing most of our coffee needs. However, we did have breakfast in our hotel room a couple of times, as well as afternoon coffee and pastries. The unquestionable highlight though, was having coffee overlooking a live volcanic eruption!
We spent the first five days of the trip in Reykjavik, where we stayed in Room With A View, which is on Laugavegur, right in the heart of the Reykjavik’s lively bar scene. It offers both hotel rooms and apartments, and we ended up in the latter, a studio apartment to be precise. This gave us flexibility, partly because it had a kitchenette (good for making coffee, particularly with our collapsible coffee filters) and partly there was a separate seating/dining area where I could work if I had to (as it turned out, I didn’t, but I didn’t know that when we booked the trip).
I didn’t do my research very well before the trip, otherwise I would have realised that my friend and fellow blogger, Bex (of Double Skinny Macchiato fame) also stayed there back in 2016. In fact, we were in the room next door to the one she had on the third floor! However, although her extensive write-ups of the trip were on my reading list (including her coffee guide), I only read it once I’d arrived!
I can echo everything Bex said about Room With A View, although I can’t comment on the hot tub, since that was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, it was very central, and very noisy, so definitely bring ear plugs! It was also right in the centre of things, which meant we had plenty of choice when it came to breakfast, hence not doing coffee in our room very often. As well as going to places like the original Reykjavik Roasters on a couple of occasions, and popping into Mikki Refur, we also tried both of Iceland’s speciality coffee chains.
One of the nice things about Iceland is the complete absence of the major international coffee chains. Instead, there’s Te & Kaffi, which has nine locations, and the slightly smaller Kaffitár (six coffee shops). We ended up visiting three different Te & Kaffis, including one on Laugavegur, plus the original Kaffitár on Bankastræti (which is what Laugavegur turns into when you keep going towards town).
Both were a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, although in opposite directions, so they joined the list of breakfast haunts. We had a series of good flat whites (better than anything I’ve had in a Starbucks, Costa or Caffè Nero) as well as some tasty breakfasts (mostly toast and bagel based), while the Te & Kaffi on Aðalstræti, opposite the excellent Settlement Exhibition, had some particularly good cakes (as an aside, this was the Micro Roast Coffee Lab that Bex visited in 2016, but the roaster has since moved out and it’s now just a coffee shop).
Perhaps the most surprising find was the Coffee Bike, a pedal-powered coffee cart in the Bakarabrekka Park on Laekjargata, just around the corner from the rather charming Icelandic Punk Museum. Sadly the weather was against us for most of the time we were in Reykjavik (including one day of freezing, horizonal rain) but we did call in for some lovely coffee to go.
Finally, we sampled some pastries from the excellent Brauð & Co., following a tip-off from another friend and fellow blogger, Giulia. They were excellent and, if you’re in need of coffee, Brauð & Co. serves batch brew filter from Reykjavik Roasters. We also tried some pastries from Sandholt, which is a bakery and dining room (with a hotel attached), just down the street from our hotel. The pastries were awesome and, if we hadn’t run out of mornings, I would have liked to go there for breakfast (the coffee is from Kaffibrugghúsið, who also supply Kaffi Ó-le).
Our travelling coffee kit didn’t get that much use for the first five days of our stay, before very much coming into its own for the last three days. The weather was rather against us at the start of our trip in that it was a typical Icelandic summer (10° – 15°C temperatures, freezing wind and occasional horizontal rain). It was definitely woolly hat weather, very conducive to wandering around Reykjavik visiting coffee shops and museums. Then, for the last three days, the weather relented, the sun came out and temperatures reached as high as 20°C!
I’d like to say I’d planned it like this, but in reality, it was no more than a lucky break. Amanda had been all for planning the trip, but after 15 months without travel, I couldn’t face it. All I wanted to do was to get to Reykjavik, see Amanda again and chill out without having to worry about where we were going or what we were doing.
However, after a few days of relaxing, I was feeling more like my normal self, and, with the weather forecast looking good, I relented. We had quite a lot to fit into our last three days, including making arrangements for our flights back on Saturday. This meant getting our pre-flight COVID-19 tests, which we decided to do on Thursday, leaving Wednesday and Friday free for day trips. We both wanted to see the new volcano, Geldingadalir, deciding to spend our other free day on the classic Golden Circle tour.
We did investigate visiting the volcano independently, but that would have required hiring a car (public transport outside Reykjavik is not Iceland’s strong point), so we went with a tour group. We were recommended a few tour operators, but in the end, limited availability meant that we booked with Greyline, one of the large operators (my fault, for leaving things so late).
Our first trip, on Wednesday, was to Geldingadalir. We were picked up from one of Reykjavik’s numerous bus stops (we chose Bus Stop 6, a five-minute walk from our hotel) by a minibus, driven by our guide, Roman. We sat at the front, right behind Roman, so had some excellent views as we drove out of Reykjavik, making a quick stop at a petrol station for those who needed to pick up food (we’d already brought our own, as well as our Travel Presses, with coffee made freshly that morning).
Then it was off along the Reykjanes Peninsula on Route 41 (the road to the airport) before cutting south along Route 42. We could have gone direct to the volcano, which is on the southern side of the peninsular, not far from Grindavík, but instead we made two stops along the way, first at Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on the peninsular, formed by a fissure in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and then at Krýsuvík, a geothermal area with hot springs just to the south of the lake.
We set off at nine o’clock, reaching the lake by ten. After two short stops, we were on our way again, reaching the car park for the volcano just after eleven. That’s right, the volcano has its own car park. Several car parks, in fact. And the authorities are building another one. It turns out Geldingadalir is very popular, having started erupting on March 19th, 2021.
Several routes lead up to the volcano from the car park, although they are constantly changing, the lava flow having already cut off two previous paths. While we were there, the best way to see the volcano was to hike up a parallel ridge to the southeast, where, from the top, you can see over into the crater itself. We left the car park at 11:15, taking a slight detour to see the tip of the lava flow before carrying on up the parallel ridge, arriving at the top at 12:45.
We were accompanied by Roman on the way up, although we didn’t really keep together as a group, everyone walking at their own pace, with Roman bringing up the rear to make sure we didn’t lose anyone. However, once we got to the top, we were on our own, with instructions to be back at the car park by 15:30. We decided to stay at the top, near the webcam which shows a live feed from the crater, but others continued a little further to a second peak, which is slightly higher and closer to the crater.
From our vantage point, about a kilometre from the crater, we could hear it boiling away across the valley. It was a mesmerising sight, throwing molten lava high into the air, with a fresh flow of lava breaking out of the northern edge of the rim and rolling off down the mountainside. Even better, this new activity had only started that morning after several quiet weeks during which a crust had formed across the crater.
We ate our lunch, drank our coffee (a lovely Ethiopian Nano Challa that Amanda had brought with her from Speckled Ax in Portland), then, at two o’clock, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away and headed back down. If we’d had longer, we might have continued to the second peak or descended into the valley to return along the edge of the lava flow, but we didn’t want to miss the bus. As it was, we made good time and were among the first back at 15:15.
We left the car park at 15:45 for the drive back to Reykjavik, getting back at 17:00, just in time for a post-hike coffee and cake at Mikki Refur.
We’d arranged our pre-flight COVID-19 tests for Thursday, so decided not to do a day trip that day. Instead, we took advantage of the test centre being in the eastern part of Reykjavik, which meant that we were that much closer to the Viðey Ferry Terminal, which is out by the new harbour. In reality, this was an illusion, since to walk to the ferry terminal from either the hotel or the testing centre was about 45 – 50 minutes, but psychologically it felt like we weren’t wasting the trip out to the testing centre.
The route from the hotel would have taken us pretty much along the whole northern shore of Reykjavik. In contrast, walking from the testing centre meant cutting through the parks and sports complexes of Laugardalur before crossing through the Laekir neighbourhood of Reykjavik, all of which was very different to the downtown areas where we’d spent most of our time, so it was worth it just for that.
In the summer, the ferries run hourly at quarter past the hour. Since we weren’t going to make the 13:15, we aimed for the 14:15, which meant we had plenty of time. A direct walking route would have taken us through port area, but instead we took a detour to the Kirkjusandur beach and walked along the coast from there (don’t believe Google Maps, by the way; you can walk all the way along the coast). As an added bonus, this route took us past the Brauð & Co on Hrísateigur, so we bought a couple of pastries for later.
The Viðey Ferry goes out to Viðey Island, a journey of four minutes! The island has been many things in its time, including being home to a monastery and a large dairy farm. These days it is a tourist attraction/park, as well as being an important wildlife habitat. The main structure is Viðey House, Iceland’s first stone building, built in 1755 as the official residence of Skúli Magnússon, the first Icelander to become Treasurer. Overlooking the ferry terminal, these days it’s a restaurant, where Amanda and I had a late lunch, including a surprisingly good espresso.
Afterwards, we set out to walk around the island, which has a total area of 1.6 km2. We had about two hours and, given its small size, I thought we could walk the entire shoreline, but it turns out I was being over-optimistic. Instead, we managed the northern half of island, which, I think, has by far the best views, although the southern part has a ruined village, which was abandoned in the 1940s.
We made it back to the Viðey House in time for the 17:30 departure, one of the few that, in addition to making the short crossing to the ferry terminal, also then goes on to call at the Old Harbour, which was just a 15-minute walk to our hotel. This was our main motivation, although the ferry ride (where we had the ferry pretty much to ourselves) was also fun.
We ate our pastries and drank the last of our coffee on a bench overlooking the Old Harbour, then made our way back to the hotel.
Our final trip was the classic Golden Circle Tour. Pretty much every tour company offers one of these, with the likes of Greyline offering two departures a day. Not being morning people, we declined the morning tour, when we would have been picked up at 08:30 and instead went for the more civilised 12:30 pick-up of the afternoon tour. Unlike the volcano hike, we had a full-sized coach for this one, which was already rather full when we were picked up from our favourite Bus Stop number 6.
The classic Golden Circle Tour takes in three highlight stops, all on the continental divide, which runs southwest to northeast through Iceland, with the North American plate on one side and the Eurasian plate on the other. At all three, we stopped long enough to get a taster, but nowhere near long enough to satisfy my curiosity. It worked well as an introduction to the area, but were I to do it again, I’d hire a car or camper van and spend a few days in the area and several hours at each place.
The first stop, which is about an hour’s drive east of Reykjavik, is Þingvellir, home of Iceland’s first parliament. This sits at the bottom of the broad rift valley caused by the continental divide, although the coach only stops at the visitor centre overlooking the valley. We had 30 minutes, long enough to get out, take in the views (which were amazing) and go for a short stroll, which left me with a desire to get down into the valley and start exploring!
From there, we drove down into and across the valley, crossing over onto the Eurasian plate for the first time. We were on Route 36, which skirts around the northern end of Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s second largest lake, which is just south of Þingvellir. We had particularly good views of the lake from the western (Eurasian) side, before cutting west, where we reached the furthest extent of the tour, the waterfalls at Gullfoss, another hour’s drive from Þingvellir (which, as an aside, is the furthest north I’ve ever been).
We had an hour here, although Amanda and I spent half of that having lunch in the canteen. With hindsight, we might have been better bringing our own food and picnicking at the waterfall.
Gullfoss is formed by the Hvítá river, which begins in the Langjökull glacier which you can see from the car park. The waterfall itself is hidden from view, the landscape initially appearing flat until you get closer, when you can see the canyon cut by the river. The Hvítá appears from the north, then disappears over two broad steps, dropping first 11 metres, then 21 metres into the canyon.
I won’t try to describe it; instead, I recommend you look at the pictures in the gallery. As before, we would have liked to stay for longer, since we only had time to wander along the top of the valley rather than getting down to the lower viewing platform between the two steps.
From Gullfoss, we retraced our route, driving for 10 minutes back to Geysir, the home of the original geyser. We had 45 minutes here, again not really long enough, although I probably would have only wanted another 30 minutes if left to my own devices. The original Geysir, after which all geysers are named, is dormant these days, but the nearby Strokkur goes off every few minutes, shooting hot water around 20 metres in the air. Most of our visit was spent waiting for it to go off, then failing to catch the eruption on our phones!
From Geysir, it was time to head back to Reykjavik. Rather than retrace our route, we went south, past the Kerid Crater on Route 35 to Selfoss. Here we picked up Route 1, Iceland’s ring road, which took us back to Reykjavik, where are arrived at about 19:15. Then it was time for dinner and back to hotel to pack, ready for our flights home the following day.
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