Hydraflot, the deprivation tank spa in Reykjavik

One of the things I missed most when covid first hit, was being able to go to the spa. Not even pools or physiotherapists could open for some time, so it was hard to find a way to truly relax. Once things started to return to normal, I was hungry for a new kind of experience – I wanted to pamper my mind and body and experience something sensational. What I found was kind of the opposite, it was truly sensation-less.

Deprivation tanks have been around for a while, and I knew some people who had tried them. I had heard good and bad things, but still couldn´t wrap my head around the idea. What is it like to be totally deprived of all the senses? To see, hear, smell and hear nothing, and feel nothing except your weightless self floating in a salty, dark bath?

the deprivation tanks remind me of a hippo´s mouth

I found Hydraflot, a spa in Reykjavik that has 3 float tanks. I reached out to the manager Kevin and wanted to learn more about it, and he suggested I try at least 2 floats before coming to any conclusions. Of course I took his advice, and the second time around was certainly better.

There are a wide range of benefits believed to come from each float, and each person will experience it differently. Some go to deal with anxiety or inability to sleep, others go for increased focus, clarity of mind and to reduce headaches. Floats can be so relaxing that 1 hr inside can be more productive rest than deep sleep, and you leave feel rejuvenated and reenergised. Some claim it helps general fatigue and even depression, and its been proven to improve allergy symptoms in some cases. It´s a great thing to do after a red-eye flight or general travel jet-lag, and I cant forget to mention the wonderful things soaking in 400kg of epsom salts does to your skin!

completely weightless in 400kg of epsom salts

I came out both times with baby skin, and even my hair was happy despite all the salt. I opted for floating once with lights and relaxing music, and once in complete silence and darkness. I will have to try going a third and fourth time to see what works best, and once I´m hooked, I´m sure each session will become more and more productive. Learning to really let go and trust without any sensory information is uncomfortable at first, but getting used to it and truly relaxing is much easier in such a calm, safe and controlled environment.

Check out Hydraflot on instagram @hydraflot or their website www.hydraflot.is, where they´re currently offering 15% discounts on visits and gift cards. They´re doing everything right when it comes to covid measures, so enjoy it guilt and risk-free. Say hi to Ryan if you see him!

The Westmann Islands in August

My father’s burial anniversary was a year ago last week. And this is the same week when pufflings start to appear all over the streets of Heimaey. When leaving their tunnel nests in the cliffs, they are meant to fly out to sea with the moonlight as a guide, but they get confused with the street lights in town. So they end up flapping up and down the streets looking for a way out to sea, but still unable to fly.

Setting pufflings free on Herjólfur

Its become a custom to catch these little pufflings and release them, by throwing them off a cliff, which is the best way to get them safely to fly to sea. They will then live on the ocean until they come back to the cliffs around Iceland next spring, and dig more tunnel nests to make more puffling babies.

Henri releases his first puffling

I went with 4 friends, 3 of which had never seen a puffin, and we all got to release a puffin. My cousin had caught 2, and a friendly family also puffin throwing from the same cliff gave us 2 more to release. I think they were excited to see tourists, a life of the outside world still in Iceland, and we were so warmly welcomed on the island. My aunty invited us in for coffee, despite covid fears, and the swimming pool was open (and empty) but they still turned on the slides for us to race down over and over like little kids.

Hiking up Heimaklettur

We had an amazing meal at Slippurinn, and hiked up Heimaklettur for some stunning sunset views. We were lucky with incredible weather, and managed to eat brunch the next morning outside in the garden of my father´s childhood home. My paid my father´s grave a visit, paid our respects and lit some candles. I think he would have been happy to see us. 

RIP

Covid returns, tourism departs – keep calm and carry on!

July was a fast and a furious month of summer living in Iceland, and with the borders open, covid was just as quick to return. Its been amazing to watch how adaptive, and respectful, society is, picking up where things left off last time, but this time with less hysteria. Covid living has normalized somehow, and hopefully others also feel the anxiety melting away as real life keeps keeps on keeping on.

It seemed like a blurry dream, when things were just getting better and better and everyone had almost forgotten the 2 m rule, but instead of taking the next step to open up more (people were so excited for concerts, street festivals and late night bars), the 2m rule rule and a gathering ban returned.

a mini brekkusöng – a bit of music festival feeling on Heimaey with my relatives (and Víðir!) during goslokahátið on the 4th of July

Þjóðhátið on Heimaey in the Westmann Islands was cancelled, which was probably simpler than trying to hold it for only 5,000 people when the regular attendance is closer to 20,000. Weddings and baptisms have been delayed for a second time, realistically not earlier than September or October. Airwaves in November has little or no chance of being organized, and worst of all, Gay Pride and Menningarnótt will cease to be in 2020.

this was the hardest hotspring to find in the westfjords

Hiking and natural hotspring hunting continue, and my one and only horse trip as a tour guide just barely slipped thru the cracks – two weeks later and it wouldn´t have happened. A mandatory 5 day and double covid test requirement will kick in August 19, deterring the majority of tourists to come visit Iceland at all.

kayaking is solitary and socially well distanced

I had gotten used to kayaking, biking and horse back riding alone, or in small groups, and the covid friendliness of those activities made them feel extra familiar to return to. I didn´t miss the lines to the swimming pools, but at least the swimming pools stayed open this time.

Nauthólsvík, before the gathering ban rule returned

Nauthólsvík beach is a charmed destination, in any weather, and fishing on the sea or on a river bank also does something for your sanity. Water is a type of landscape therapy to me, and it makes me feel less stranded on this island.

Hornstrandir: Westfjords Part II

Next visit to the westfjords for Guðný and me was the opposite end of the westfjords: Norðurfjörður. We took Paula with us, driving from Staðaskáli up the eastern road to Hólmavík. We stopped for our last hot meal and some groceries, and set up our campervan from Camper Iceland near the Norðurfjörður harbour to wait for our boat the next morning. We took a dip at Krossneslaug before falling asleep, and then shuttled out to Látravík at Hornbjarg bright and early with Gjá Strandferðir.

Gjá strandferðir ferry boat anchored in Norðurfjörður

Our plan was to spend one day around the Hornbjarg cliffs, hiking to the famous Kálfatindar and finding some puffins to oogle. It was raining when we arrived and foggy when we finally set up camp, but in between we got a break in the clouds and sunshine right on time for our bird watching and cliff climbing.

Guðny and Paula at Hornbjarg cliffs

We camped beside the Ferðafélag íslands hut near the lighthouse, and got invited into the hut by a group of Icelandic friends. They were having a small party, and invited us for a warm chicken and rice dinner, chocolate cake and wine – all we did in exchange was wash some dishes!

Látravík

The next 3 days, we were meant to make our way south to Reykjafjörður, but a storm was brewing and the wardens warned us to get to shelter no later than the next night. So after an easy 16km day with no packs, we now had to make it nearly 40km with packs in 36 hours. It wasn´t an option to sit and wait for the storm, and then wait it out, at the lighthouse, so we headed off optimistically. We made it 18km that day, camping at Barðsvík and crossing its beautiful beach around midnight.

the calm before the storm

We waited for low tide the next morning to make it out and around the fjord to Bolungarvík, and all the way into the bottom of Furufjörður where we met a nice local family. They directed us to the best place to cross the river, as the glacier melt from Drangsjökull would now start to affect our hike. We had to make it up and over to Þaralátursfjörður where the most threatening glacier river awaited, and we waded over it nearly waist high merely hours before it flooded and became impassable.

low tide around Bolungarvík

Our home stretch was to get up and over to Reykjafjörður, where we dropped down into a field of Kria birds, angrily protecting their nests as the wind and rain picked up. We got into a hut around 8:30 or 9, soaked to the bone, and jumped into the pool to watch the full force of the storm swing in by 10:30.

the bridged river crossings weren´t necessarily easier, but at least we saw plenty of Arctic foxes

For the next 3 days, the entire Hornstrandir Nature reserve was on lock down, all hiking shut down and hikers ordered to seek shelter. We spent our 4 nights in the coziest of shelters, and I felt a pang of guilt for the others I knew were only in some lightless, unheated emergency shelters.

our home and Reykjafjarðalaug pool in the background

We didn´t quite have enough food for 3 extra days, but we had neighbours in the valley to befriend. We exchanged work for food with a man named Hallgrímur, who was painting the inside of his house, and we received no less than boiled arctic char and reindeer meat for our time. We bathed twice daily, played cards and read books, in no rush to leave.

what a magical place

When the boat could finally pick us up, the seas calmed, but remained brown, and many of the poor Kria nests had flooded and drowned the younglings. We said goodbye to our new friends and promised to come back and see the house we helped paint, and even if the weather was good, try to get stuck and stay a while.

Iceland is Open

Icelandair starting resuming some kind of scheduled flights finally on June 15, and since then its been a gradual increase in normality. It comes at such perfect timing, as summer blossoms to its brightest days and everything has finally turned green. The highlands have opened and all the hard to reach places, including Hornstrandir and secret fly fishing salmon rivers.

big salmon fishermen at Blanda

Seeing as I had no work this summer, a problem most tour guides shared, I got to travel domestically with plenty of free time to explore local rivers. I visited a few for the first time, including Norðurá and Blandá, where friends help run these lodges. I got to work a few days at Blanda, with the lovely Erik Koberling, and even fished my first salmon of the season there in the lower beat.

fishing at Blanda

I visited Þverá and Kjarrá a handful of times, also working a few days at each lodge. I only lost 1 sea trout at Þverá, but got to take 4 home after spending a day driving the guides Gími and Egill around fishing. I fished at Haukadalsá and caught nothing, but had endless happy hours on the riverbank with the other more serious fishermen.

Kerlingarfjoll

The highland roads have opened, making some of my favourite summer destinations finally accessible. I´ll find myself in the Hveravellir pool atleast 3 or 4 times this summer, definitely twice at Laugafell pool, and visit Kerlingarfjoll a couple of times. The hot pool there is a bit of a hike, so I may not make it into the pool there everytime, but its important to find refuge in a mountain cabin with a good supply of natural hot water springs.

golf at Húsafell

Now that covid restrictions are relaxing, its time for more yoga and golf, and taking advantage of all kinds of sales and package deals around the country. I can finally stay at Icelandic hotels as a guest, not a guide, and even go horse back riding as a tourist. I can play golf and check out the new spa at Húsafell, the Canyon Baths. Going out for bike rides and hosting jam sessions with musicians is finally okay, and we´ve been making great progess with our band Tunesdays and our first (soon-to-be-hit) single ´Fluffy Cougar Bear.´

Bike gang and Tunesdays members Sandra and Steve looking at a midnight sun

The days are still long, nearly 24 hours long frankly, and even politics seem normal again. On the presidential election held June 27th, Guðni Th. was voted in again, and will be again and again for years to come. Hopefully our PM and government can keep the country out of any major crises, and life and economics can slowly creep back to normal, pre-covid. Although, it´s been kinda nice to slow down and simplify, so hopefully it doesn´t happen too fast.

Westfjords and yoga

Guðný and I lived together all winter, but rarely saw each other due to work, travel and other normal things pre-covid life. When summer came around, she moved back to her countryside farm and we had to make a 3 part summer adventure plan to make sure we wouldn´t miss eachother too much.

a bonfire for the summer solstice in Önundafjörður

Part 1 took us to a yoga retreat in Önundafjörður, hosted by the lovely Iris and Andrea behind jógabíllin, the yoga campervan that drove around Iceland in May giving everyone free, outdoor yoga classes. We stayed at Hotel Holt Inn and practiced yoga on the nearby pier, and extended our stay in Önundarfjörður with an extra night at Flateyri. There we stayed in the most beautiful home, a recycled work in progress by the talented designer Halfdán Pedersen.

´fishing´at Flateyri harbour

To drive all the way to Flateyri for only a weekend was ambitious, so we added a few nights of adventures before and after the yoga retreat. We started on the southern and western ends of the Westfjords, bathing 3 times on some days in natural hot springs. Our first dip was at Guðrunarlaug at Laugar in Sælingsdalur.

Rauðisandur at 11pm

We camped at Rauðisandur beach and spent some time with the birds at Látrabjarg. We weaved our way thru all the small towns, Patreksfjörður, Tálknafjörður and Bíldudalur, and stopped for amazing coffee at Simbahöllin in Þingeyri.

the cliffs at Látrabjarg

We visited Dynjandi, more than once, and camped another night at Selárdalur after visiting Hrafnseyri, the museum dedicated to Icelandic hero Jón Sigurðsson.

sunset at Selárdalur

On our way home from the westfjords, we shortened the drive by taking the ferry from Bjarnslækur to Flatey, where the ferry Baldur would continue on with our car to Stykkisholmur, but we could jump out for the night and stay at Hotel Flatey. The weather was misty and cold when we checked in, but it didn´t discourage us from going for a seaswim. T

our view from Hotel Flatey

he next day was as sunny as summer weather gets, so we held a pop-up yoga class and invited the whole island. That only too a short walk, and with a turnout of nearly 20, it was almost 100% attendance from the island´s inhabitants.

The fall and recovery of Covid-19 times in Iceland, summarised so far

The rise of a pandemic in Iceland was awfully creepy, watching the city of Reykjavik first, then the whole country, spiral into one big ghost town. We never made it to complete lockdown, but as the number of cases ticked higher and higher, our voice of authority Víðir pushed us off the streets and into our homes. The first public hit was March 15, when a gathering ban was put on meetings of 100 people or more. This affected some events and some businesses, but people took it quite light heartedly. Then, only a week later, March 22 saw the gathering ban crash down to 20 (except for basic needs like grocery shopping), which affected everyone. The day to day lives of people, especially with a 2m social distancing rule, was taught, and learned, but every day we realised more ways in which this could affect us. We couldn’t´t get our hair cut. We couldn’t´t go to the bank without an appointment. There were no bars or pubs left open. The pools had shut. Hotels were deserted. Flights were cancelled, and even the airport became empty.

the abnormally empty streets of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur in downtown Reykjavik

The new cases of Covid-19 spread faster than people were recovering, and at our highest rate of infection just before easter, around 1600 people had been affected. But, the pandemic then began to fall, with Icelander´s having the quietest, loneliest easter weekend imaginable, and a full 6 weeks later, the total number of people infected with Covid stands only at 1806. Today the numbers show only 10 deaths, with a mere 2 active cases left. The statistics and numbers on covid.is website are worth checking out for more facts and stats and to keep up with the rest of Iceland´s recovery news.

quiet and calm times like this means everyone is home looking for a new hobby. Seakayaking was mine, what about yours?

After the first week of April, we were still holding our breath. The numbers were going down but there were still new cases every day. It wasn’t´t until May 4th that we saw the first real light at the end of the tunnel shine, and at midnight that day the gathering ban was increased to 50 people and salons and some spas could reopen. Many people went for a manicure or to meet their chiropractor, and lots of sanitiser and latex was still floating around. At midnight on May 18th, the public pools reopened, and lines of people (with 2m distance between each other) waited outside thru the night to get in for an overdue soak. The pools are restricted to 50% capacity until tomorrow, and then 75% capacity from June 1 until June 15 when they can open at 100% capacity. June 15th will also be the day tourists may begin trickling in, with a promised test-on-arrival system put into place to replace the mandatory 2 week quarantine currently in place for all new arrivals to Iceland.

On May 25, the gathering ban was increased to 200 people and public gyms and bars could finally reopen. The 2m social distancing rule has become a guideline instead, and people are asked to follow it if they want, but restaurants and bars are not expected to accommodate the rule for everyone. With 200 person events now allowed, there seems to be a funeral in every church, and some postponed baptisms, birthday parties and weddings are beginning to fill up the empty venues.

the height of covid lockdown was a perfect time to get out to the quiet countryside. Here is Hofsós in perfect peace and tranquility.

Though Covid is not over, Reykjavik feels a bit like Covid never happened. It´s hard to hear all the struggles others around the world are still in, and watching the number of cases still grow some places. Even in Iceland we had 1 Covid-case confirmed only two days ago, and though it wasn´t announced on the radio every hour like it used to be, we are all still aware. Icelander´s are tough, and being resilient means we are still careful, but its nice to start being able to touch and hug people again. Not everyone is there yet, but things have almost returned to normal in my day to day life. And what impeccable timing – I believe I speak for all locals when I say we are so ready for summer, especially a whole summer in Iceland without tour guiding and no tourist traffic in all our favourite places!

How many countries are there in the world?

From lowest count to highest, here is the range of differing opinions on what makes a country a country, and more importantly, what counts as a ´real´country.

Although the UN is often the default count for people to believe, its not that clear what their official number is. I´ve seen both 193 and 195, since Taiwan and the Vatican have some strange non-member observer status. Then there´s Kosovo, which over a hundred of those member states recognize, but not the UN body. UNESCO, a branch of the UN, has a member list of 195, including Palestine but excluding the Holy See and Taiwan from the UN list, plus 11 associate members.

This pushes the count up to 206, which the National Olympic Committee also has, but they no longer recognise Curacao, Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands, Macau or New Caledonia. Though they used to be part of the International Olympic Committee, they now have to compete through their parent nations (Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, China, France) though the Faroes and Macao are allowed to athletes as their own in the Paralympics.

FIFA says there are 211 registered football teams in the world from different countries (the UK is split into its 4 countries), excluding some UN countries, since not every country in the world has a national men´s football team (ie. Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Vatican).

Couchsurfing has over 230 countries, and claims to have a registered host in every country in the world. With 2 million users, this is definitely possible, but the truth is its hard to find hosts in countries where the site is illegal, like Iran, where there is only one host, like in Wallis & Futuna, or where the site is nonexistent, like in North Korea.

The highest count is over 300. The Centenary Club, an elite members only group of travelers, counts 327 countries and territories.

If you ask me, the definition of a country isn´t rocket science. If you pass a border or showed a passport, had to apply for a visa, or use a totally different currency and maybe a new language, then you´re probably in a different country. I definitely stand by the fact that every time I went to Greenland, I was not in Denmark, and French Guyana is nothing like France except for the euro currency. I actually think its strangest that everyone can agree to call the Holy See a separate country, but others have more problems with territories and their status. I’m somewhere in the middle, with about 245 countries on my horizon, of which 25 I have left to visit.

What lockdown & social distancing has taught me

It´s been fascinating to watch time really slow down, the world pass by in slow motion, and winter turn into summer virtually overnight. In Iceland, the first day of summer was officially last week, and the Arctic Turns are back to prove it. They migrate all the way from Antarctica every year, the longest migratory pattern of any bird, and are here to breed. The grass turned green so quickly I think the naked eye could actually see the new blades growing the first time the sun shone with heat.

I´ve been home more nights these last 6 weeks than I have ever been (in total) in my own apartment. It has taught me how to nest, and that I like nesting, and I´m not such a bad homebody. I´ve been cleaning, decorating and burrowing deeper into my own home than I´ve ever done, anywhere. Last time I remember doing anything like this was for my first year of collage in a 9sq.m dorm room to try and look cool to the others in my dormatory. I sometimes get bored at home alone, so I end up doing things I can´t imagine I actually thought of doing. One day I turned my shower on hot enough to turn the whole bathroom into a steam room (the public pools have all been closed in Iceland for way too long). Another day I scratched mold of my window sills. I set up fairy lights by my desk and added dirt to my cactus flower pots. Its

I finished a book I´ve been carrying in my backpack for more than 2 years, only to learn that the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck is not an uplifting author to read in times of depression. I paint my toes a different colour each week, and consider painting my fingernails to match but never did. I´ve been practicing the piano, and finally learned how to freestyle on a blues scale. I tuned two friends pianos, and realised its actually not that hard or laboursome to tune your own piano. I watched a movie, from a dvd, turning my tv and dvd player on for the first time ever. I watched 4 more dvd´s since, and one of those movie nights turned into a sleep-over pyjama party with 4 other friends from the neighbourhood.

One of the stupider things I learned was not to buy a scratch world map after traveling to more than 200 countries. I actually sustained an injury on my thumb trying to scratch most of the map away and had to spread it out over 5 days, and never finished Russia or Antarctica. I guess its a good thing… to have somethings left to do in unemployment. Let me know if anyone needs a virtual tour guide or travel writer this summer, I´m available! I´m also accepting donations to fund a 300 hr yoga teacher training online course if people just want to pay me to not work 😉

Stay healthy and happy out there, lots of peace and love to you all.

How to become a Travel Writer

Being a travel writer isn’t like becoming a lawyer or doctor – there are no official tests or certificates to get so that one day, you’re finally it. Being a travel writer is an evolving process, since you’re constantly writing about new material and your thoughts and words will adapt and change in their environments. It’s also not difficult to become a travel writer, since there are only 2 rules:

Rule #1: Travel

Travel hard and travel far, and don’t let the unknown intimidate you. If you stick to places close to home or only go for weekend trips, you’ll never be diving into the deep end for that kind of inspiration that just forces you to feel… and then try to put it into words. Be crazy, courageous, and adventurous. Make mistakes, get lost, go back home, and then go back to your favourite places.

Rule #2: Write

Every good writer shall never be without a pen and paper.

Once you’ve buckled down and started writing, it’s just as important that you keep reading. Read other peoples work, travel stories, blogs, magazines, poetry, whatever you can get your hands on. And most importantly, READ YOUR OWN WORK. I like to read sometimes but I don’t like to read my own writing. Either Im bored of it or been working on it for too long to have any clarity, or I just judge myself too critically as pretentious and wordy, but you’ll always find mistakes and think of better ways to say some things. You’re your own biggest critic, but you’re also your own editor, and a good travel writer needs an editor. It also helps to get a real editor or second opinion if you have the resources!

Im not sure at what point I became enough of a travel writer to give travel writing advice, but I’ve traveled and I’ve written so I guess thats why I can at least self-identify as a travel writer. Now just keep traveling and writing…