Day 9: Snæfellsnes Peninsula

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We started our day early because we had plenty of things to see.  Our host sent me an email with recommendations for when she does her own tours, and I also had other notes from some online resources to follow.  I opened up a Google map and started a new file so I could drop pins on all of the points, then I picked a direction to start the loop and wrote step-by-step instructions on how to get there on a piece of paper.  We got in the car, turned west on the southern part of the 54, and headed to our first site.

1. Ytri Tunga Seal Colony
Our first stop was actually the next property over.  It’s a beach area you can pull into to catch sight of the seal colonies that live in the icy rocks.  We did manage to see some seals, and I even caught some videos of them swimming and playing (well, I think the one was trying to get himself a girlfriend…)

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2. Bjarnarfoss
Farther west yet again, on the north side of the road, we spotted Bjarnarfoss.  There is a newly paved lot and a nice trail where you can walk up to a bridge for a better view of the falls.  They come out of the cliff and are surrounded by tall, black basalt columns.

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3. Búðir & Búsaklettur’s Lava Field
Farther up the road, we turned left into Búðir, an old merchant town on the southern coast with a large building converted to a hotel and a black church.  To the west, a crater rises out of the ground in a lava field left over from Búskalettur.

4. Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge
Continuing down the road, there is a parking lot on the north side near a split in the cliffs.  In the snow, it was easy to see the footprints that have gone over the ridge to the entrance of that split.  I put on my Yak Traks, but my mom opted to hike around outside and not in the gorge.  She read the sign and told me there is a troll-shaped rock which she later photographed.  I walked up the trail and went into the opening in the rocks to find the crevice was filled largely with snow and ice that had fallen in from above.  Embedded in it were other peoples’ steps so that it was like one giant, snowy staircase climbing into the gorge.  I started to scale it, continuing through several switchbacks until the ice was getting sunlight and exposure and looked less safe.

Seagulls were nesting in the cliffs and swooping around angrily as I climbed up.  One seagull must have been injured because he fell and hit the ice, sliding down the slope right past my hand, then got up and tried to fly away again.  I got as high as I thought I could, looking out across icicles lining the walls and the view of the beach through an opening, then I started to descend again.  It’s much harder going back down… I tried to slide a bit, but then I slipped and slid too fast, directing myself towards the eastern wall because there was a huge space between the western wall and the enormous ice pile that I was worried was something you couldn’t get out of once you fell into it.  By the time I got back to the bottom, three men were trying to climb up – but they couldn’t do it in their shoes.  I guess those Yak Traks make a huge difference!  (Or maybe they just aren’t very athletic…).  On the way back to the car, I made sure to sample some of the Iceland snow and it was very fresh!

5. Arnarstapi, Gatklettur, & Hellnar Village
The next stop along the road was to the towns of Arnarstapi and Hellnar.  We grabbed some lunch at the Arnarstapi Center and Snjófell Restaurant, then we walked towards a monument about a troll in the mountains and followed the path to the viewing point of Gatklettur.  This was really just an arch in the water with lots of gulls nesting on it.  Then we got in the car and visited the next village over: Hellnar.  Here, we followed a path down to the beach to view what is considered a sea cave surrounded by icy rocks in the waves crashing around.

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6. Þúfubjarg, Lóndrangar, & Malarrif
We stopped briefly at a space where you can look over the Malarrif lava field area.  There are bird cliffs along the Þúfubjarg where you can usually catch glimpses of kittiwakes and guillemots.  When you stand on the platform, you’re actually standing on the crater in that area.  There is a large cliff of stratified palagonite from a submarine eruption, similar to the one that formed the island of Surtsey.  To the west, there is also Lóndrangar: two rock stacks of 75 and 61 meters that were possibly volcanic plugs left behind as well.  According to our host, they were first scaled in 1753.  An old fishing center can still be seen in that area and the lava above it used to be used to dry fish.

7. Djápalónssandur, Snæfellsjökull, & Vatnshellir Cave
As we circled around the peninsula, we passed the Djápalónssandur – white sand beaches where there are some stones on the side of the road.  These are 23, 56, 100, and 154 kg and were used to test the strength of men who wanted to go to sea.  Then, on the interior of the drive, you could see the white peak in the sunlight in the area of the glacier Snæfellsjökull.  We passed the Vatnshellir Cave but did not stop, assuming we needed a tour and also interested in seeing other things in the area for the day.

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8. Saxhóll Crater
We pulled off to the left and drove down the road to the Saxhóll Crater, estimated to have been formed about 3,000 years ago.  There are over 300 metal steps that ascend the side of the mountain so that you can walk around the top of the crater.  It was very windy and cold up top, and the sides were dangerous, but it was a great view.

9. Other Sites
The area contains several more beaches and villages.  There is also a soda fountain at Ólafsvík which is naturally occurring, but we weren’t able to locate a spigot.  Continuing on 54, you can also see Kirkjufell (mountain) and Kirkjufellsfoss (waterfall) which we didn’t drive past until the evening.  We instead went over a clear mountain pass and headed back to the AirBnb for some time.

10. The Northern Lights
The last thing we did this night was look for the Northern Lights.  We suspected we could see them if we stayed put, but we didn’t want to risk it.  I went on Instagram and began scanning tags of “Iceland” until I found some photos of the Northern Lights.  Several were taken only 2 minutes ago and in the area of Bogarnes.  Although I was currently on a call with EPA/NEJAC members for a working group I serve on, we took off in the direction of Bogarnes after 10pm.  Along the way, I saw a white cloud-like streak that I thought was suspicious, but it wasn’t until we were almost to Bogarnes that the sky opened up and it was obviously the Northern Lights I was seeing.

We stopped along the side of the road and I messed with my manual settings until I found the right F-stop and shutter speed for capturing the lights.  With a 30 second exposure, I found the lights suddenly transform to greens and even some yellow.  We photographed for some time, then we headed back west again.  I stopped along the side of the road and took some shorter exposures – even down to 2 seconds was still making nice shots.  The unfortunate part is I don’t have a tripod, so I had to stabilize the best I could on something solid.  At this stop, I used a road sign, but when I finally stood up I started an animal next to me – or so I think.  Whatever it was, I thought about the stories of trolls in the area and decided not to stick around!

We ended up driving about 5 hours watching the lights.  We took off north up 55 which proved to be gravel and a long way about seeing things.  We then went west on the northern stretch of 54, looking for the Kirkjufell church.  We stopped on the pass and again by a lake and had some beautiful photos, then we passed a whole bunch of cars parked near Kirkjufell and realized they were also photographing the lights.  We decided not to stop because it was crowded.  We got gas in town and headed back, exhausted.  I went to bed at about 4am that morning – and we were going to have yet another early start before heading back to the United States in the afternoon.

Day 8: Westfjords & West Iceland

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After breakfast, we left our hostel outside of Blönduós and headed west on the Ring Road.  We turned north onto 68 to test out the roads into the Westfjords.  The road winds along sea cliffs, many without guardrails.  It was mostly clear but areas still in the shade were icy.  Every once in a while we would crest a windy hill and lose sight of the sea, only to descend with some steep turns and be right back at the sea again.  There were points were I was scared I would have to pass a vehicle and a gust of wind would take us over the cliff and into the sea.  As my mom said, “There really is no margin for error.”

1. Hólmavík
We came across Hólmavík which, relatively speaking at least, is a significant town.  We not only saw a hostel but also several restaurants which were open.  We ended up at Restaurant Galdur where a fat cat named Hippo is “the boss” (but he sleeps at least until noon, so we completely missed meeting him!).  There was stuff like pizza and soup on the menu, so we went with the soup: a seafood soup, complete with fish and even mussels.  I wasn’t sure if I’d ever had mussels before but I completed my whole meal.  I can’t say I’ve been converted either… mussels are just not really my thing…

I was intrigued by the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, so I paid the $8 admission and checked it out while my mom waited at the restaurant.  Some of it was weird and probably gimmicky, but it was still interesting to learn about witch burnings/trials across Iceland and the connectivity between some practices, beliefs, and views on magic.  But I’m not so sure how much of it I think is rooted in actual practice, like… the necropants?  I haven’t seen any reference to that outside of the museum…

2. Driving the Westfjords
I was hoping to go to Dynjandi and some other sites in that area, but the drive was many more hours than I had in mind and the weather wasn’t too great either.  When we left town, it was probably for the better that I mindlessly turned onto the 61 in the wrong direction.  This meant we crossed a snowy mountain pass which didn’t seem too bad until the wind picked up.  I had to use the markers to keep on the road – the snow was blowing across too heavily.  It blocked my view from seeing a few piles of snowdrift that dragged my back tires into a fishtailing motion right as we crested an icy knoll.  I let off the gas and downshifted, and the wind calmed down, but we had to watch out after that.  At the end of the road, we turned onto 60 in the direction of Króksfjarðarnes.  We passed a statue of a sheriff and took some photos of the view, turned back up towards Borðeyri, south on 68, and back along the Ring Road.

3. Hraunfossar & Barnjafoss
We turned east off of the Ring Road and headed up the Hvitá RIver to Hraunfossar and Barnjafoss.  Barnjafoss, or the Waterfall of the Children, is actually sad: it’s story is about two siblings who fell in and drowned, so their mother destroyed the bridge that crossed it.  Hraunfossar in particular though is a unique falls to see: it runs out of several cascades which pass underneath a lava flow.  You can cross the river next to the falls and ascend the hill above them to explore the lava field.  On the way out from the falls, we stopped by a geothermally active area that also uses the heat for greenhouses.

4. Bogarnes & the 54
After getting back on the Ring Road, we got off at Bogarnes to take the 54 north and west to our next AirBnb.  In Bogarnes, we stopped for groceries and grabbed some quiche at Kaffi Kyrrð (peace/tranquility).  Many places in the town were sadly not open for the winter season.  We filled up with some fuel and then headed for our AirBnb west on the 54 in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  We got to the farm and were shown our room: an actual bedroom where we shared a kitchen, bathroom, and other living spaces with a small family.  In the fridge, there was a pint filled with fresh milk from the barn that is replenished every morning.  We basically did some relaxing and unpacking and then went to bed, ready for a long day for our last full day in Iceland.

Day 7: South of the Greenland Sea

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1. Akureyri
We began our day with breakfast at the Café Berlín below our AirBnb.  I got what was essentially an English/Irish Full Breakfast, Icelandic style.  Our hostel was actually the Acco Guesthouse.  It’s like a very large hostel with rooms and a shared bathroom on each floor, a kitchen on the top floor.  I believe there were four separate parts of the building set up like this.  It was very accessible, though – near to Bláa Kannan where I spent my evenings using their new Wifi.  (They sell coffee/tea, beer, desserts, etc. and I was very productive in that space!)  From that area I could walk to the church and the indoor water park easily.

Before we left town, we drove up to the Church of Akureyri to see if it was open.  It didn’t open until noon, so we walked around the outside.  Akureyrarkirkja, as it’s called, is like the majority of churches (and people) in Iceland: Lutheran.  It was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson and completed in 1940 so that it towers above the city on a hill.  Inside, there is a pipe organ with 3,200 pipes.  A ship hangs from the ceiling following an ancient Nordic tradition for protecting fishermen at sea.  In the chancel, there is an opaque window that survived WW2 bombings to come from the Coventry Cathedral in England.  I had also read one of the windows depicts Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði choosing Christianity for Iceland and throwing his Pagan idols into Goðafoss (which I mentioned here), but I did not see that – from the outside at least.

2. Hofsós & Blönduós
On the way out of Akureyri on the Ring Road, we noticed the stoplights are indeed red hearts.  I thought I was seeing things.  We noticed some hearts on other signs too on the way out of town.  Later, I looked it up: Supposedly these hearts were put up all over the city “as a consequence of the finance crash in Iceland in year 2008, when there was a need for some positive thinking and to put emphasis on what really matters”.

After some driving, we jumped on the 76 north and headed to Hofsós, one of the oldest trading ports in this part of Iceland.  Founded in the 16th century, this village was incredibly busy for a couple of centuries yet never developed into a town.  It was essential to the Danish Trade Monopoly, close to fishing grounds, and everything else that made it an ideal place to be at one time.  A nearby farm is near Massacre hill (Mannskaðaholl), named for the English marauders killed there in 1431.

The town was effectively dead in the winter.  Bummed we couldn’t get lunch there, we drove around the town a bit, took some photos of the hexagonal basalt columns on the shore, and headed north just enough to photograph the islands in the distance – one of which is apparently the Thorðarhöfði headland, connected to main shore only by low sandpits and a wildlife-rich lake.  The waves were crashing at surprising heights.  Then we headed back south to where we’d left off on the Ring Road and continued east on it to the town of Blönduós.  On the way we passed the monument to the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson.

Blönduós is relatively new in terms of villages in Iceland.  Its harbour isn’t particularly good, but its main purpose was as the dairy center for the surrounding farms.  We stopped at the B&S Restaurant right off the Ring Road for some quick soup and pizza, then headed into town to see if there was anything exciting.  We stopped at the Textile Museum, but it was closed for the winter.

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From that lot we walked down to the bay and along a trail.  There was a stone wall with rocks and crashing waves which created piles of ice at one point on the beach.  We stood there and photographed the area for awhile, imagining catching glimpses of polar bears floating in on icebergs from Greenland.  (However, I warned my mom we don’t want to see one float in – because Iceland has a strict policy for killing polar bears that come on shore.)  From there, we got things at the grocery store and made our way farther east on the Ring Road.P1070870

3. Hvítserkur & Borgarvirki Fortress
We turned right to go north on the 711 and drove the dirt road clear until we reached Húnafjörður’s shores.  This meant we kept west of the lake Hóp.  Here, we parked and descended a trail clear to a lookout deck – all to catch glimpse of a troll frozen in the water by the sunlight: Hvitserkur.  It gets the hvít (white) in its name from the guano that lines its sides.  The sun was starting to sink, and so we hiked back up quickly from photographing the sea arches and returned south down 711.  This time, however, we diverted onto the 717 to see the other side of the lake Vesturhopsvatn.  This route took us through a horse pasture and up over a steep mountain.

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Here we had found the Borgarvirki Fortress.  This is a natural phenomenon – a basalt strata that is actually a gosstapi, or volcanic plug.  Centuries and centuries ago, the plug was altered with rocks lining it – indicative of its function as an early Viking fortress, high on a mountain that dominates the valley around it.  The Icelandic sagas affirm this fortress served as a military base in ancient times.  The fortress was renovated in 1949 as an actual site to visit and it now features a dial atop one of the walls which displays the distances and directions to a number of sites in the vicinity.

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We left this fortress to continue to the 711 (then I accidentally headed west to the 704 when we meant to backtrack east to the 722 to our AirBnb).

 

4. Snæringsstaðir Guesthouse
Once I found the 722, we drove 15km south into the valley to find the Snæringsstaðir Guesthouse.  There weren’t too many options in the area for a place to stay, but this one was very nice.  It’s basically a hostel with shared space but several rooms.  For the first time (excluding shared space at Acco) on this trip we actually had to share with two other people who were in a different room.  We cooked some food we got from the grocery store and were able to watch the daylight fade across the valley, a small church nestled on the horizon.  It was too cloudy yet again to see Northern Lights.

Day 6: The Arctic Circle

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1. Taking the Ferry
We woke up early in Akureyri and headed north on the Ring Road.  As the road turns west, we took 82 north and headed towards Dalvík.  Last month, I had bought us some roundtrip ferry tickets to Grímsey Island, the northernmost part of Iceland which actually crosses the Arctic Circle.  It seemed like a gimmicky thing to do, but it was also right there within reach.  My mom packed Dramamine and extra long johns, joking that this is the part of the trip where I “do her in”.

We had trouble at first locating where to go.  I drove down along the dock until we found the company’s little ticketing office.  Inside, a man asked us if we wanted to take our car.  See, I would have done one night on the island instead of two at Akureyri except the ferry wasn’t running the next day.  Instead, I booked a 9am over and a 2pm back on the same day – enough time, I figured, to see the Arctic Circle, some of the area, then head back.  Besides, the island is known for puffins and those little guys didn’t stick around for the winter and won’t come back for a little while yet.

We chose not to take our car after realizing how long we might wait to unload it, thereby losing time for seeing the island (although it’s fairly small).  The man printed our tickets for our journey out as well as for the journey back (and I joked to my mom, Oh you won’t be needing that one…, insinuating Grímsey would be her new home).  We drove back over to where the whale watching signs were, parked the car, and made our way towards the Samskip being loaded at the dock.  There were plenty of seats because we were apparently the only ones crazy enough to take the ferry to Grímsey in winter that day.

Fortunately I had no problem on the 3 hour ride each way.  I know that can change suddenly though, given my grandma never had problems on boats until one time we brought a salmon haul back on Lake Ontario and she became suddenly ill.  Walking around the boat and hearing the huge waves crash in the rough waters made me think of my PapPap’s war stories – and also of the short stint I spent living on a sail boat in the Chesapeake Bay, but I digress…

2. Grímsey Island
At Grímsey, we were left to our own devices…and it was soooo windyyyy.  I thought my face would break right off.  I wrapped my scarf up around my face and got to moving and suddenly I felt much better.  We pressed on up over the hill in town (only about 90 people live on the island) and walked toward the airport where there’s a monument for the Arctic Circle.  We made it there to take photos, discussing how the line moves all the time so how do we know if it’s accurate?  Well, it’s accurate enough for us.  Then I looked up and saw a trail to the north end of the island.

The problem is the winds were so strong in the opposing direction sailing north that our ride actually took 4 hours instead of 3, so we only had 1 hour on the island.  We decided it was time to head back.  Just then, a car came flying over the hill, a window went down, and a lady stuck her head out, “You don’t get nearly enough time!  Let me give you a tour.”  We asked no questions, we just jumped inside!

She took off down the trail I had been looking towards.  “I can’t take you the whole way, but you can see it.  That’s the new monument.  I don’t know why they put it way down there.”  All I could think is they’re trying to thin out the tourist population when the summers get busy…or something!

Next she drove back into town.  She told us the story of two brothers who drowned, one in the well and one in the harbour.  “Then we decided to invest in a swimming pool, so right now the children are in swimming lessons.”  She pointed out the school and also the church which she said is “quite beautiful inside”.  She rounded the south end of the island next and stopped in front of an orange lighthouse.  We took photos there, looking out at the waves crashing on vertical rocky cliffs.  Then we got back in the car and she pointed out her wooden home in the tiny cluster of houses that make up the island’s population.  (Did you know we don’t allow cats or dogs on the island?  She asked, explaining the problems with cats eating their puffins or dogs disturbing their solitude, Grímsey being proud of its natural world.)

“So have you always lived here?”, my mom asked.
“No, I’m from Reykjavík.  I met a boy when I was 20 who was from here.  And so I moved to be with him, and I’m still here 28 years later!” she laughed.

Back at the dock, I noticed she had on pants similar to the crew.  She was helping next move some of the cargo as we waved bye and boarded.  The time was so short, but there’s something special about visiting a place like that and chatting with such a friendly local.  Plus, the ride back was a pleasant one and we got a good 3 hours to nap to the lulling sensation of the waves.  (We also bought the certificates for having been to the Arctic Circle, and a guy on the crew signed them.  Yeah we’re that uncool.)

3. Dalvík, Ólafsfjörður, & Siglufjörður
The ferry had advertised a place that sells fish soup but the one we found was by a different name: Gisli Eirikur Helgi Kaffihûs Bakkabrædra.  It was so delicious, I wish I had the recipe.  The homemade bread was also amazing, made with Kaldi beer.  The deal came with bread, butter, soup, salad, and coffee – all self-serve and unlimited.  I had two bowls and couldn’t take any more.  We also split some dessert.  The place was a quaint house with very Icelandic decor – e.g. wool sweaters for sale, oars leaning against the wall, ice-fishing gear along the windowsills.

From Dalvík, we decided to head northwest.  It was going to be dark in a couple of hours, so rather than heading back to Akureyri we explored the area.  We continued up the peninsula to Ólafsfjörður, passing through Múlagöng, a 2.11-mile one-lane tunnel built in 1990.  A car came in the other direction while I was driving in the tube-like lane, so we and the person behind us had to shoot into the next available designated area to wait for oncoming cars to pass through.  They’re marked along the tunnel with a blue sign reading “M” and can be found on narrow roads as well.

On the other side of Ólafsfjörður, we went through Iceland’s longest tunnel which was finished in 2010 and continues 6.83 miles to Síglufjörður.  It briefly opens after 4.4 miles in Héðinsfjörður.  Once we got to Síglufjörður, we looked out to see the view of the fjord, the church on the hill, and the people out and about with their days.  As the sun was really starting to set, we made our way back to Akureyri the way we had come up.  Back in town, I stopped at Akureyri Fish & Chips and was disappointed to find out they were out of Iceland’s national dish of the fermented shark.  I did with trying some dried fish and butter instead, then finished some work before going to sleep.

Day 5: Lake Mývatn

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On this day, we traveled from Eiðar to Akureyri via Lake Mývatn on the Ring Road.

1. Eiðar with Gimmi’s AirBnb
We stayed in Eiðar at an AirBnb about 13km north of Egilsstaðir (which is on the Ring Road).  It kept snowing all night but our place was cozy.  Gimmi came out to greet us and clarify where our guesthouse was.  He showed us the Lock Box, everything we needed to know inside, and then let us have the freedom of checking out as we needed by simply leaving the key in the Lock Box.  It was very convenient.  If you’re traveling through the Egilsstaðir area, I would recommend looking at the places Gimmi has.  Ours was complete with two beds with new comforters, a kitchen with everything we needed in it already, and a bathroom with a new shower.

2. Lake Mývatn
From Gimmi’s AirBnb, we headed back south into town and filled up our tank before heading to Lake Mývatn.  (I would definitely suggest filling up – our vehicle took about half a tank to get to the next major petrol station which is at the Lake.  I think there were some smaller stops along the way but they may not always be open, or some might be off a road that could be treacherous if not closed in the winter.)  Speaking of closed, the road to Dettifoss has been unserviced for many days now and we opted not to turn up it.  Although, as we approached it, a car in front of us did turned that way and a van was coming from it, I had read it was closed and snow-covered.  The waterfall is pretty dangerous and so it’s even closed when the thawing snow brings up the water levels in otherwise beautiful weather.

*Something to Note* about the person who did turn up to Dettifoss: I was going about 120km/h when he slammed on his brakes and decided to turn.  He had so much ice and snow on the back of his vehicle that I could not see any of the lights.  So…be sure to check your lights every chance you stop if you’re driving in the winter and make sure they’re clear.  Also kick the ice out of your wheel well to keep everything in balance.

We used the Insight Guides Iceland book to plan out our trip at Lake Mývatn.  First, we ate lunch at the Cowshed Restaurant (Vogafjós).  If you think it smells a little like a cow barn, it’s because it is.  On the north side you can see the cows being tended in the barn through windows in the gift shop.  This is what made me raise my eyebrow when my mom ordered a burger with a glass of milk, as if taunting the cattle!  From the café, where I had a shot of Brennivín (a specialty liquor flavored with caraway) with my coffee, we let to head north back to the Ring Road and stuck with the order of sites according to the map in our books.

First, we passed the town of Reykjahlið.  You can see the church where the last lava flow supposedly stopped at the doors, avoiding its destruction.  (It has since been renovated, though, and is no longer the original one.)  Next we passed an area labeled as Eldhraun.  This confuses me slightly because I wrote of an Eldhraun before – a much larger expanse in South Iceland.  I’m not sure if there is more than one or if one of my posts is inaccurate, but the point is there are more lava things here.  In particular, my mom was looking for the “lava bubble” the book describes as looking like a cracked egg.  We appear to have found that just to the south of the Ring Road not too many kilometers out of town.  There was even space to pull over near it and we crossed the road for pictures.

The next stop is along the Neslandatangi Peninsula where a bird museum is.  By the time we had gone down this peninsula (we missed it the first time and went down it on the way out instead) the museum wasn’t even open, so we merely drove to the private road at the end, turned around, and returned on our way.  It’s hard to see much lake (or nature) life at this time of the year anyway, although the landscape is still beautiful.

The third point is to observe the surrounding mountains, namely Vindbelgjarfjall.  For point four, we continued to the south end of the island and stopped to see the Skútustaðagigar pseudocraters.  Continuing the way around the lake, we passed Höfði, now covered with snow and frozen over unlike its conditions in the busy summer.  We turned off the road to the right after a bit to see the Dimmuborgir – supposed “black castles” that make up a 2,000-year-old field of volcanic pillars in many strange shapes and sizes.  We merely looked from the viewing point and the trailhead, reading a sign about the Yule Lads supposedly living here.  The wind was whipping cold, otherwise we considered getting lost in the snowy stacks to find the Kirkjan (“Church”) rock formation.

The seventh point was Hverfell, the enormous 3,280ft-wide crater formed over 2,5000 years ago.  We took photos from the stop along the side of the road (where some trucks were making repairs and blocking the formal parking spaces).  We passed the path leading to Grjótagjá, an underground hot spring that is a hike of 0.5 miles from the main road.  We decided to keep driving instead, returning back to some sites we had passed on the way in.  This means we next passed Bjarnarflag where various colors line the landscape (now under snow) and the Mývatn Nature Baths which we again didn’t feel like seeing.  This led us to the eleventh point: Hverir, a famous geothermal field where many of the activities we see now were formed in the 1720s.  We walked through areas carefully marked (so as not to trip into boiling mud holes) and even walked through sulfur plumes rising out of hot stacks of what appeared to be simply mud and rocks.  Even the hillside was steaming along its back.  My mom kept saying, “It’s incredible – and incredibly scary – to think about what we’re standing over right now.”

We then attempted to head up north from that approximate area to Krafla, a man-made disaster that supposedly contains viewpoints for looking out over craters and whatnot.  I almost got stuck in a drift of snow trying to pass the geothermal power plant on the way to the trails and, when I made it to the hillside and we saw the trails were actually covered in even deeper snows there, we opted it wasn’t worth it in this weather.  Many cars were passing us on the way out, however, so hopefully they all made it okay or turned around alright like we did.  Now we were off towards Akureyri.

3. Goðafoss
In the year 999-1000, an Icelandic lawspeaker known as Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði decided Christianity would be the country’s official language.  He spent supposedly 24 hours under his cloak before deciding to throw out the Pagan religion – and he literally tossed his Pagan idols into Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) in the process of deciding this.  Apparently this story is displayed in the Akureyrarkirkja, the Cathedral of Akureyri, in a window.  However, it should be noted this story as told by the version Íslendingabók makes no mention of the tossing of Pagan idols into this power falls.

4. Akureyri
At first, when we left the falls and after a bit of driving, I became very frustrated because I thought we missed our turn.  The maps were a little confusing, but looking over it now I think we did take the Ring Road as we were supposed to.  The problem is we were led up a narrow, snow-covered, icy, steep mountainside that was being aggressively hammered with more snow.  Plow trucks were trying to keep it clear, but too much was accumulating.  There were moments when I felt my car pull towards the edge of a cliff while passing a vehicle inches to my left – all I could do was press in the clutch and ease my foot off the gas until they passed.  Thank God for 4WD and spiked tyres.

Before long we made our way into the city and checked into our hostel (which I’ll write about tomorrow).  We grabbed dinner at Restaurant Strikið where they had plenty of seafood options, including salmon ceviche and langoustine (a small European lobster) sushi.  All I could wonder is, Where does Iceland get its limes from?  And I still don’t have an answer!  Maybe I can scour Bónus packages for the answer…Anyway, I spent the night in a café finishing up some homework and research in preparation for our trip to the Arctic Circle the next day!

Day 4: East Iceland

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1.  Breiðdalsvík AirBnb with Helga & Stefán
First of all, if you are looking for an AirBnb in this area, I want to recommend Gljúfraborg with Helga (link to the room we booked, but there is more than one).  We ended up having the whole guest house to ourselves which was unexpected.  Either way, it had quite a lot of clean, new, decorated space to be comfortable and homey.  The view is beautiful – you can see the mountains straight from the kitchen sink.  Helga is only a text away and her boyfriend is equally friendly – in fact, he’s very passionate about Icelandic horses, it makes for great conversation!  Their location is perfect for someone trying to do the Ring Road and looking for a place to stay in the remote Eastern region.  Helga has great reviews already on AirBnb, and if you go you should add yours and share it as well!

We were fortunate to spend an easy Saturday at the guesthouse.  We took our time getting ready and were greeted by Stefán who was shoveling the sidewalk outside.  He offered to take us over to their farm to feed the horses some “candy”.  We did just that and learned quite a bit about Icelandic horses as well as some folklore about the valley we were standing in, just off of 95 now that the Ring Road has been changed to avoid the mountain pass behind their place.  Then Helga came out to greet us and offered to give us some hot drinks and snacks inside where we chatted for quite a long time and pet some adorable cats.  I really hope to visit Iceland again and make certain to stay with Helga.  It’s great to meet such friendly people and also to support them with their new investment (the new guesthouse where we stayed).

2. Breiðdalsvík
Before heading out, we went into town and checked out the gift shop Helga had suggested.  It’s also a small café.  Beside it is a brewery, although it is open much later in the day than when we were in town.  From the parking at the shop, we walked down to the harbour.  There was a large boat pulled on land which we photographed.  We then took some nice photos of the water with the mountains lining the background.  Helga had also recommended the log cabin on the way out of town north on the 1, but when we stopped we found they only had some desserts in a buffet for food that day and opted to go to the next town instead.

3. Stöðvarfjörður & Brekkan
After hugging some more sea cliffs along the Ring Road, we entered the next fjord and stopped in the town of Stöðvarfjörður.  Here, in the heart of town, is a little joint called Brekkan.  Upstairs, it has a literal gift shop – complete with wrapping paper and party things.  Downstairs, they offer food, drinks, and a small grocery store.  We sat inside near some rambunctious locals coming in for a quick bite.  Between the two of us we ate soup, a hot dog, and a fish and chips.  My mom stood up to get her hot cocoa and suddenly her seat was filled by a little boy.  He sat down across from me with an apple juice in one hand and a few Crowns in the other.  “Hi,” he said, and I said, “Hi” back to him.  He kept looking around nervously, listening to the Icelandic behind him.

My mom sat down beside him and he continued to sit quietly.  I finished my food and looked up to see the owner bring out his hotdog.  He eagerly bit into it, burning his tongue.  I laughed for a second, then I asked, “Talar þú ensku?” (Do you speak English?)  He shook his head suddenly, his eyes lighting up, and said, “Yes!”  I waited for a moment, suspecting he really wanted to talk.  And he did.  After half a minute passed and his hot dog was finished, he blurted out, “I’ma aneematoor!”  We didn’t quite understand until he repeated because I didn’t think he was saying what he was saying.  But he was indeed saying, “I’m an animator!”

“Really, that’s so cool!” I said. “Animator?  Cartoons?”
“No,” he said.  “With film.  You know, I move brick by brick by brick.  I take photo after photo.  I take 271 photos for a very short animation.  Take photo, move it, take photo.  That’s what I did today before I came here.”
“Oh, wow, on your day off?  No school today?”
“Nope!  I spent all day animating.  Then I ran downstairs and I said Mommy mommy pleeeease may I have a HOT. DOG.  She said Yes and gave me some Crowns and so I came running, running down here.”

Even his speech was animated, his green eyes lighting up and him clenching his fists under his chin to emphasize Pleeeeease.

Somehow we got on the topic of cats.  I showed him pictures of my cat Phantom and he was amused that she rides on my arms and shoulders sometimes.  He told me his one cat tries to hurt him.  He said he’ll purr and let him pet him until he gets too comfortable, then he’ll go to bite him suddenly.  But he said the bite is never strong, so he demonstrated how he looks at his cat: ((stops petting motion, looks at invisible cat with raised eyebrows)) “Really?  Like, really?”

(My mom later commented on not just his command of English for a boy of probably 9 or 10 but also on his familiarity with how the kids talk these days.)

But then the real story came out.  His tone changed as he told us, “Things have been hard,… since my parents broke up.  You see, my mom is from Iceland.  But my dad is from the Czech Republic.  And my grandfather is German.  So I’m half Icelandic, half Czech, and… one of four… German.”

I asked him, “So your dad lives over in Czech?”
“Yes,” he said sadly.  “But I’ll be visiting him in a couple of weeks.”
“I’m sorry your parents broke up,” I told him.  “Well, I’m from America, but you should know I’m part German.  I’m also part Slovakian, and you know Slovakia used to be with Czech as Czechloslovakia.  So who knows – maybe we’re cousins?”
He smiled at the idea.  Then, after a few more exchanges, he suddenly sprung up, cleaning up the trash on the table, and announced, “Well, I better get home!”
“Well, let me shake your hand then!”  I said, and I did.  “Nice to meet you, thanks for talking.”
“Bye!” and he was gone just as quickly as he had come.

He got me thinking about something I read: that many, many Icelandic people have published books or creative in one form or another.  Is that what happens when you’re a child in a small fishing village, snowed in during the winter?  I make it sound probably more bleak than the reality, but I bet the land shapes the minds here in some way.

Hmm, I’ll have to look out for the news in the next 10 or 20 years for the boy from Stöðvarfjörður who, raised on Brekkan hotdogs and Appelsin, became one of Iceland’s greatest animators (and possibly polyglots?).

4. Through Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng to Egilsstaðir
Our drive continued to be snowy as we pushed farther into the north in East Iceland.  We now turned away from the fjords.  Soon we encountered Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng, a tube tunnel that seemed to go forever but which, in actuality, is only about 3.7 miles long and 2 lanes wide.  It had frequent pull-outs and my mom said, “Gee, imagine if this mountain erupted now how this tunnel would serve as a chute for all that hot lava.”  She had me thinking ridiculously then, in the heart of the mountain, of how I might use a pull-out to save us from the lava.  As if any of that would matter with asphyxiating gases and crumbled infrastructure coming down around us.  But the mountain didn’t collapse.  The worst thing that happened was a sign angrily flashed at me that I was speeding by a tad, but I couldn’t help it thinking about that lava!  Before long we were in Egilsstaðir.

5. A Treacherous Mountain Pass & Seydisfjordur
Although the sun was beginning to set, I took a sudden right turn onto 93 with the hopes of seeing a harbour I had circled on the map: Seydisfjordur.  The drive up was glistening with pink snow because of the lighting.  I couldn’t take photos though because the roads were becoming a bit slick.  As we started to reach the peak of the mountain, we noticed another car that almost looked like it had driven off the cliff.  We’re thinking whatever they were doing was intentional because we’re pretty sure it’s the car that ended up tagging along with us over the mountain, but it made us curious.

As we started to reach more even ground, a white out consumed us.  There were no places to turn around without risk of veering off a steep, soft shoulder and down into an icy ditch or 15-foot snowdrift.  Instead, I kept driving.  Thankfully the top of the mountain was so gusty that it kept snow from piling with the exception of a couple places that hadn’t gotten deep yet.  When we finally reached the other side, I downshifted to third to force the engine to brake and we went down a few switchbacks with zero slippage.  As we passed Gufufoss (and, in both passings, didn’t take photos!), we could see the town of Seydisfjordur shining below us in a soft light.

We felt like we deserved a badge of honor (or maybe stupidity) for flawlessly crossing a mountain pass in an Icelandic whiteout.  It was around 6pm and so of course the grocery store had just closed, but we parked in the lot anyway and took a quick walk around.  We saw the houses in the harbour that were apparently imported, ready-to-build kits from Iceland.  We discussed the lack of building materials in Iceland (thanks to the Vikings taking nearly every tree), the inaccessibility of the town (93 is the only road in and out, but the harbour accepts ships directly from Copenhagen/Europe), and why we think so many Icelanders have pink crystal lights in their windows.  They’re those Himalayan salt lamps that plug in.  My mom suggested they keep out the trolls and other spirits many Icelanders believe in, but no research I’ve done answers that question…but I’ve definitely seen them in windows more times than I count as usual!

We went back to the car and apparently my mom misunderstood that us coming down the mountain pass meant we had to return to the mountain pass.  We spent a minute or two parked on the side of the road arguing because the snow had kept falling and was going to keep falling.  It seemed evident that, if we were going to do it, it was going to be now and not later.  So we agreed we could always back the whole way down and took off barreling for the slopes yet again.  To our surprise, we passed many cars, were followed by cars, and were even passed by one car on the flat stretch for going “too slow” (yeah, right, I don’t think 60km in several inches of snow is too slow when you’re surrounded by enormous vertical drops into icy, 15-foot snowdrifts).  In fact, the drive back seemed almost shorter – likely because we already knew what to expect.  And there was no guy dangling on the side of the cliff, nor any car in a ditch at the bottom – so we’re thinking our daredevil buddy did just fine coming out of his predicament.

6. Egilsstaðir, Glóð, & Eiðar
We came back into town and turned north for 13km until we reached our AirBnb in Eiðar.  We were mildly confused by which building to check in to (it’s different apparently in the winter – down at #8 rather than #6), but we were greeted by Gimmi and quickly found our way to our private room.  I looked up which places were still open for dinner (we had a kitchen, but Bónus seems to always close by 6pm).  I found a few places and picked the one that was A) cheaper and B) had good reviews, and that ended up being Glóð (Ember?) Steikhús.  Although the name suggests Steak, and there certainly was steak on the menu, it was actually a tapas bar.  We enjoyed several small dishes and watched the snow continue to come down, then we headed back north to our place, turned up the heat, and enjoyed the comfort of our fluffy comforters (and, of course, some Melrose tea).

 

Day 3: South Iceland

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We left Snotra Hostel while the sun was coming up, stopping on a side road to photograph horses with the sunrise in the background.  We passed a couple of wind turbines on the way up to Hella, then stopped at a local bakery before heading east on the Ring Road again.  By the time the sun was up, we had made it to our first stop: Seljalandsfoss.  I was worried about finding it, but it was actually very obviously to the left of the Ring Road.  Another indicator was a large puffin statue on the right before the turn as well as one on the turn itself, both advertising tours.

1. Seljalandsfoss
A lot of birds were circling the cliffs at these falls.  The stop includes a little café, restrooms, and – oh, yeah – a parking meter.  You can walk up to the falls which have a cave behind them and you can also walk along the trail to some smaller falls along the cliffs.  The cliffs face a vast expanse of fields that eventually empty out into the sea.  Just remember, getting close to the falls means getting wet and then freezing in the weather…

2. Skógafoss and Skógar
After Seljalandsfoss, we stopped at Skógafoss near Skógar.  The legend to Skógafoss is there’s a buried treasure in the pool behind the falls, so many people go in there to look for the gold.  Supposedly someone managed to tug on the chest once, but the golden ring on the side pulled off and the chest plunged back into the waters.  That ring became the door handle to the local church for some time before being retired to the cultural museum in Skógar where it is still on display.

When you get to the falls, not only can you walk up to them from underneath but you can also hike up a long, shaky stretch of metal stairs to the top.  There are options for photos from the top view and also the option to walk out the gate behind you.  If you go through the gate (and close it behind you!), you can hike far into the glacier-lined settings.  We followed this trail along the river for quite some time.  I stopped at a peak where people had made piles of rocks.  The one danger with this trail is, if it has snowed over little streams dropping into the canyon, you may find what was once stable becoming soft and penetrable in the morning sun.  The mud too thaws and poses a danger if you lose your footing or follow the trail with small children.  Otherwise, it is relatively safe and easy to hike quite a way into the gorge.

From the falls, we stopped at the cultural museum in Skógar.  For about 2,000 Crowns per person we were able to see three museums: the cultural museum, the turf house museum, and the technical museum.  The first featured lots of artifacts from clothes to side saddles and kitchen tools; the second was a display of housing replicas.  The third museum showed everything from the first communications (like telegraph machines) to early vehicles in Iceland.  It even featured a section on the Icelandic Coast Guard and rescue teams, showing a map of solar-powered communication towers that are used to coordinate not only the rescue of individuals but of entire villages under the threat of a volcanic eruption (which has definitely been a problem in the past!).

3. Vík: Dyrhólaey, Reynisfjara, & Reynisdrangar
We continued along the Ring Road east into Vík, stopping at the restaurant Suður-Vík for lunch.  Here they had a delicious Borg Brugghús beer called Snorri which features Arctic barley and thyme.  They also had mushroom soup which wasn’t too rich and which was served with homemade bread and smjor (Icelandic butter).  One of the servers moved here from Thailand, likely having influenced the menu which features panang curry and rice.  From a window along the wall opposite to the bar you could look out and see the fingers of Reynisdrangar reaching out of the sea.

From Suður-Vík, we backtracked up the mountain to the very obvious turn-off to the Black Sand Beach (Reynisfjara).  This road leads you to a parking lot on the edge of the beach, immediately next to a wall of basalt columns.  Although in Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland, these columns are eerily similar to the Giant’s Causeway near Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland (which I visited in this post).  My first instinct was to wonder if Iceland and Ireland were once flush to each other.  And while a map of Pangaea indicates this was likely true, this site about basalt columns around the world make me realize such landscapes can form wherever there is volcanic activity…which also happens to be in a lot of places that have divided over geological time.

The black sand across the beach of course gave Reynisfjara its name of the Black Sand Beach.  Beware of the “sneaker waves” as you walk along.  Looking to the west, you can see the rock formations of Dyrhólaey.  To the east are the three fingers of Reynisdrangar which were seen from the restaurant.  Legend has it three giants were towing a ship when they were frozen in place in the water…which is funny to have another giant’s story so near to basalt columns.  This beach is yet another Icelandic site featured in the Game of Thrones.  (And I do think people must care about that, because I encountered a man in the Þingvellir National Park who was dressed fully like a Crow, minus the sword).  After walking around a bit, we headed back to Vík for some photos from the church on the hill, then we continued east yet again along the Ring Road.

4. Vatnajökull National Park Pt. 1: Svartifoss & Skaftafell
Vatnajökull is the world’s largest glacier and it can be found in the Vatnajökull National Park.  This park occupies 14% of Iceland and is the second largest in the world by area, following a park in Russia.  It is unique in its diverse landscapes, ranging from glaciers to volcanoes and geothermal activity.  As we left Vík for this park, we rounded the southernmost part of Iceland and began a slight northward direction, stopping once at Kirkjubæjarklaustur.

On both the east and west sides of Kirkjubæjarklaustur we encountered the Eldhraun lava field.  It’s remnants from the biggest lava flow in the world after Laki errupted in the 1700s.  The flow covers 218 square miles and was used to train Apollo 11 for their moonwalk.  What it looks like is a field of black rocks or strange stacks for as far as the eye can see and, in many stretches, those rocks are covered with a thick Woolly Fringe Moss similar to the appearance of the fields around the Blue Lagoon.  It’s crazy to think that the majority of animals and crops in Iceland – and about 20% of the humans – died in that 1783-4 natural disaster that resulted in the altered landscape.

Not much past Kirkjubæjarklaustur we entered Skeiðarársandur, the largest sandur (outwash plain) in the world at about 500 square miles.  The outflow continues to swallow more and more farmland since settlement began in Iceland.  In 1362, a volcano bellow Öræfajökull (or Knappafellsjökull) erupted, destroying the entire area with a jökulhlaup (flooding) which cause the name to be changed to Öræfa, or Wasteland.  This was one of the last sections of the Ring Road to be finished (in about 1974), so before that people in the southwest had to drive the east, north, and west sections to get to the capital city.

Gravel dykes were built to keep floodwaters away from this particular stretch of the Ring Road, but they did nothing for the three bridges washed away by a jökulhlaup from the Grímsvötn (Gjálp) eruption in 1996.  As we made our way into Skeiðarársandur, we noticed the high snowy mountains peaking around our view and the intense wind gusts whipping us both towards the mountains and then to the sea.  The vegetation was completely gone and a vast, empty plain is all that could be seen.  The road carried on straight forever across the plain and dusty sand could be seen blasting through the air.

When we crossed a relatively new bridge and looked to the south, we saw a large, twisted metal object embedded in the sand.  “I hate to say it, but I think that might even be a tractor trailer that got blown off this bridge,” said my mom as I fought to keep the car on the road.  When I looked up this region later, I realized it was not a trailer piece but instead a twisted girder – what little remains of one of the original Ring Road bridges ripped from the ground in 1996.  Maybe it’s good I didn’t know, while in the middle of that enormous plain, the history of Skeiðarársandur jökulhlaup disasters.

When the winds were finally calming down slightly and some greenery returning, we noticed enormous glaciers to the north of the road.  We were now able to see Vatnajökul peaking over the mountains.  We stopped at a pull-out to take photos, then realized we could also drive straight up to Skaftafell where Svartifoss is also accessible.  We drove in closer, saw the parking fees and the time, and decided we didn’t really want to touch another glacier.  I’ve hiked glaciers in Alaska and mom has had her share in British Columbia, so we continued on our way.

5. Vatnajökull National Park Pt. 2: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach
I was worried we would run out of daylight, but we reached the Glacier Lagoon at the Golden Hour.  The wind coming off the glacier was brutal, but we parked and hiked down to the lagoon to take shots of the lake with icebergs floating in the foreground and the glacier with mountains looming in the background.  (I was later befuddled to see this article of some dumb tourists risking their lives and the lives of their potential rescuers to walk across thin ice only days before we arrived.)

Next we popped over to the other side of the road, getting out just before the bridge that crosses the inlet to the lagoon.  We drove to where there were still significant rocks in the sand, parked, and walked the rest of the way to the shoreline.  We passed some deep ruts where some idiot tried to be lazy and drive straight to Diamond Beach.  Just as the sun was ducking behind the mountains and making all the sky and snow pink, we saw it: chunks of crystal ice lining the shoreline on black sand.  I kneeled down to take some photos without being consumed by icy waves, my goal to catch the sun in the ice.  These ice chunks are why the beach is called Diamond Beach (but I’m not sure all locals know it by that name because some I’ve encountered asked what it is).

PH

6. Höfn & Driving the Fjords
From Diamond Beach, we returned to the Ring Road, crossed the long one-lane bridge, and continued less than an hour to the city of Höfn.  Here we ordered some dinner at the toasty Pakkhús Restaurant right along the dock.  It was very busy but featured locally sourced fish and potatoes, vegetarian options, and good drink selections.  From there, we had to get to Breidðakvík in the heart of East Iceland’s fjords.

By this point, the drive was in the dark.  The wind was still relentless, including on this stretch, except now it was starting to include some snow blowing in from the mountains.  After Höfn, the Ring Road clings in many places to cliffs – sheer drops to the sea that may or may not include guardrails.  The lanes here – as with all of the Ring Road – have no berm and very little wiggle-room within the narrow lanes themselves.  Add that to gusts of wind and I was struggling to keep the car on the road while passing anyone, let alone buses and campers and let alone across patches of ice.

I became quickly familiar with einbreð brú (one-lane bridge).  We would along the fjords, at one point going from pavement to gravel.  Google Maps made two mistakes in getting us to Breidðakvík: 1) It told us a 2.5 hour drive would be under 2 hours and 2) It still thinks the Ring Road goes up the mountain pass to the west when in fact the old section of 1 has been renamed to 95.  Our guesthouse was off of 95, just past the turn to Breidðakvík on 97.  Since November 2017, 1 (Ring Road) now continues along the coast to the next fjord.  I’m pretty sure I saw tourists still making this error and ignoring the closed/lokað signage.  It was changed because the pass just gets too much snow and costs too much to maintain it.

When we found our AirBnb, we were greeted by Helga and Stefán who waited up to show us around, offer hot tea and Viking beer, and chat for a bit.  After such a long day of driving, we were grateful to have a slow start to our next day.

Day 2: Blue Lagoon & Þingvellir National Park

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1. Reyjkavík, Grindavík, & the Blue Lagoon
I left Reyjkavík at about 4am to pick my mom up at KEF.  From there, we headed east and then south to the Blue Lagoon.  Of course nothing was open yet and it was too dark to see, so we found a café south of us on the coast that would be opening shortly.  This was Café Bryggjan along the dock in Grindavík.  It opened promptly at 7am.  We got sandwiches with smoked salmon and egg, coffee/tea, and carrot cake before the crowd of people from the last KEF flooded the tiny shop.

After that, we headed back to the Blue Lagoon.  We had chosen not to reserve tickets because we didn’t care about swimming (especially in this weather), but we walked to the resort anyway.  There was a path where we could venture through parts of the pool amid endless piles of moss-covered volcanic rock.  In the background was an unattractive facility that apparently supplies the Blue Lagoon with its “therapeutic”, hot water.  Yes, the Blue Lagoon is fed by wastewater from the Svartsengi Power Station (Geothermal Power Plant).  Hmm…

Although we didn’t pay to swim, we were able to access the pool from the side where I stuck my hands in.  They came back feeling sticky with minerals – probably why they recommend you tie your hair up and keep it out of the water.  We watched people shivering as they stayed above the water, many of them balancing their iPhones so they could take picture without dropping their phones in the water on Day 1 in Iceland.

Also, fun fact: (-)vík is simply Icelandic for bay.

2. Beginning the Hringvegur (Ring Road, Rte. 1)
The Ring Road encircles all of Iceland and was completed in the 1970s.  Not everyone who comes to Iceland does the Ring Road – especially not all of it.  Many choose tour packages or stick to only the least challenging areas to travel.  We, however, are attempting the entire Ring Road in less than 10 days – in winter.

If planning a trip in Iceland where you drive, I highly recommend this Road Conditions Map.  It updates frequently to let you know which roads are clear, slippery, icy, impassable, etc. – and conditions here change in seconds.  We experienced this on our drive from the Blue Lagoon past Reykjavík and onto the Ring Road.  As we ascended into the mountains, we were passed by several plow trucks, witnessed a handful of cars stuck in ditches along the road, even one car that was far off the road and completely upside-down.

The conditions turned slick and I thought, “Well, here it begins…”, except that wasn’t the case.  Fortunately for us, the conditions were rough for only until we arrived in Hveragerði.  On the very steep mountainside descending into the village, we stopped at a lookout and photographed the valley with Hveragerði below, freshly covered in snow and ice.  With how many cars that pulled in behind us, I began to wonder if the majority of people driving at any given moment are actually residents or tourists!

Another key tip we learned on our way out of the city is that credit cards need PINs at the pump in Iceland.  If your card doesn’t have a pin, and you have no other cards, be sure to have plenty of cash (because petrol isn’t cheap).  You can load your money into the Automat between pumps.  For my debit card, I can use the machine (which is sometimes on the pump itself, the cash-only Automat being the only isolated equipment).  Simply insert and then withdraw your card, select how much to load (fylla will fill you up, although other bloggers have warned this charges extra Crowns on your card that you’re reimbursed after a couple of days).  You cannot ask the attendant inside to take any payments because their inside equipment is not connected to the pumps.

3. The Golden Circle: Þingvellir National Park, Strokkur Geysír, & Gullfoss
A popular stop in southwest Iceland is the Golden Circle, an area that features three main attractions: a national park, a geyser, and a waterfall.  We continued on the Ring Road until just before Selfoss where we turned north onto 35.  (Foss is Icelandic for Falls as in waterfalls.)  We then intended to take a left onto 36 but ended up on 350 instead.  This was fine because it reconnects, but 350 is nearly a single lane without any way to turn around for the first stretch because of its steep sides.  Fortunately for us, this gravelly road was very much clear and our day was sunny and pleasant.  We were able to wind through the various farms and reconnect to 36 without any problems.

This road brought us into Þingvellir National Park.  Þingvellir comes from the Old Norse Þingvǫllr where Þing means “thing” or “assembly” and vǫllr means “field”.  Why the Assembly Fields?  Because this area of the country used to host the Alþing, Iceland’s national parliament that was founded at Þingvellir in 930 and which continued sessions at that site until 1798.  A Þing such as this was common amongst Germanic societies and continues in some from or another over northern Europe.  Today the town is in the heart of the park and where several trails cross to take tourists to things like the first settler’s supposed grave and the Drowning Pool where women were executed for moral crimes during Reformation (by being tied in sacks and tossed into the water).  On an equally gruesome note, perhaps, Þingvellir was actually featured in the first episode of Game of Thrones.

As we rounded the large lakes and arrived at the town, we were discouraged by the amount of tourists and the closure of a backroad we had hoped to take.  Instead of hiking into the areas around the lakes to see the various historic sites related to the traditional government’s founding, we walked around smaller areas to take photos.  But be aware of hidden or semi-hidden parking payment signs.  Several people had yellow parking slips on their dashboards within moments of parking their cars.

After the National Park, we headed toward Strokkur, an enormous geyser that spouts water now that Geysír (the geyser beside it which started the name) has stopped its activity in relatively recent years.  We had to drive north and east by cutting across the 365 to 37 to reach the geyser area and we did so after stopping briefly in Laugarvatn for lunch at Lindin, a bistro and café dual building along another lake.  They had a delicious seafood bisque (lobster, Arctic char, and shrimp included) as well as a vegetarian option and reindeer burgers.  Many languages were being spoken in the same room and some folks slowly sipped on Icelandic beer, including Víking Gylltur.

Continuing northeast, 37 turns to 35 before arriving at the geyser park.  Strokkur was of course packed with people, even for winter.  We found parking for free across from the trail, passing some people who were dumb enough to stand next to the geyser and were therefore covered with freezing mists.  Strokkur “went off” something like every 3-4 minutes while we were there.  One time in particular, the geyser took a lot of extra time to “go off” but then compensated with an especially strong blast and, at another time, two strong blasts a few seconds apart.  Geysír, of course, remained inactive, but several vent areas brought hot steam out of the ground in the surrounding area.  Many of the pools smelled strongly of sulphur.

We continued on 35 in the same direction until the road paralleled the Ölfusá River.  This river begins where Hvítá (white river) and Sog converge.  Ölfusá is notorious for salmon fishing and also for being Iceland’s largest river by volume with a discharge on average of 423 cubic-meters/second.  It is no wonder then that Gullfoss (golden falls) is so large and powerful, consisting of a 21m and 11m drop (32m total) that flows an average of 140 cubic-meters/second.  To put this in perspective, Niagara Falls has a 51m total drop across three drops and an average flow of 2,400 cubic-meters/second.  We hiked from the top to each viewing point, later realizing the turn off before the falls actually leads to a lower parking area so you can view it from the lower point without clambering up and down metal stairs that may become icy from the mist.

4. Selfoss to Snotra Hostel
We took the other route – 35 south through Reykholt and straight to Selfoss – for a different view.  Before the lefthand turn to stay on 35, we passed a parking lot at a horse farm on the right where people were petting Icelandic horses.  A little booth was set up for purchasing “horse candy”.  The fuzzy horses seemed unenthusiastic about their job until one man showed up who, we suspect, had a treat in his hand.

At Selfoss, we parked off of the main roundabout and had dinner at Tryggvaskáli.  Like most places with bread and butter to start dinner, the butter seemed to be covered with licorice salt.  (Apparently Iceland loves licorice.)  I had a celery root dish that was very good and filling, then we headed back out on the Ring Road east to Hella before turning south on the 25 to Þykkvibær, a small town near the ocean where Snotra Hostel is located.  Of course we arrived on March 1st and the hostel was celebrating 1 March 1989, the day the prohibition against beer ended after it was set in place in 1915 in Iceland.  Because of it being Beer Day, the hostel was selling its local beers at a discount.

While I was sitting in the lobby with my computer, writing my last post, the girl who lives in the hostel to manage it ran back in to tell me and another guest that the Northern Lights were visible outside.  We joined the handful of pyjama-ed guests who were clutching beers and half-closed jackets to catch a glimpse of the green in the sky.  It was faint and faded quickly, competing with a very full, bright moon, but it was there nonetheless.  I suspect we will have a lot more luck with the lights as we round the eastern and northern parts of the Ring Road.

 

Day 1: Reykjavík

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WOW Air & Ace Rental
I landed at Keflavík International Airport an hour earlier than scheduled.  It was very easy (well, at 3:30am at least) to get through customs.  I booked a rental with Ace because I could get a 4×4 standard for a pretty good deal and they’re also 24 hours; however, you will need to call the number they email you if you book Ace.  When I called them, they were able to give me a ride to their location (which is not with the other rentals but a short ride away from the airport) earlier than scheduled.

Oddsson Hostel
The weather was pleasant: clear and 40s.  Only a few raindrops in the whole day.  I had difficulty with my data and ended up driving in circles trying to talk to Verizon before I could finally pull up my maps and locate my hostel (Oddsson).  When I got to the hostel, it was both too early for me to check in and too early for anything in Reyjavík to be open.  I caught up on some emails in the lobby instead and made a map of places to go.

 

 

1. Breakfast at The Laundromat Café Egill Jacobson Kitchen + Bar
Find this place proved to be a challenge because I found no evidence online that the name had changed.  Nonetheless this was one of the first places open in the city on a weekday (about 8am).  I was excited for the coffee, water carafe, and poached egg/avocado sandwich.  For those wanting a taste of Iceland, you can add smoked Arctic char for 400 crowns.

2. Ingólfur Square to Old Harbour
I walked around some in Ingólfur Square, home to Micro Bar and Skúli Craft Bar for those interested in trying Icelandic beers (they carry many).  On the way I passed the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand which has yet to get veggie dogs.  This led me through Ingólfur Arnarson and down to Harpa, the famous concert hall whose glass is made to look like the scales of a fish.  (Historically the economy of Iceland has been tied directly with the availability of cod and has been threatened by such past events as the Cod Wars.)  Harpa sits beside the Old Harbour, a geothermally heated pool running to the south and a backdrop of Mount Esja rising to the north.

3. Key Restaurants in the City
Did you know there are even Mexican restaurants in Reykjavík?  I had such an ambitious list of restaurants to try but only managed to eat two meals!  After breakfast, I ate at Kopar for a late lunch.  This place features a wide view of the harbor.  Like everywhere in Iceland but especially in Reykjavík, meals are relatively expensive and a beer typically costs about $10 each.  (Fun fact: Beer was prohibited until 1989.)  Other restaurants on my list included Culiacan (Mexican), KOL (European), Þrír Frakkar (seafood), Burro (Latin American), Kaffihús Vesturbæjar (café), and Matur og Drykkur (European).  For more brews, check out Mikkeller & Friends or Bryggjan Brugghús.

4. Museums & Buildings
There are numerous parks throughout the city, some featuring monuments.  Several shopping plazas also draw many people around town.  The Parliament Building and City Hall are two substantial government buildings that appeal to a lot of tourists.  The Church of Hallgrímur is a famous visit up the hill from the Tjörnin lake, filled with various kinds of birds hungry for bread.  (If you go to the church, beware the tower closes at 4:30pm.  I didn’t know this and showed up at 4:33pm.  I hope to go back on my last day to do that because you can still go inside, but you can see a nice view of the city from the top.)  For museums, there is the National Museum of Iceland, The Settlement Exhibition, and the Saga Museum which I did at a student discount.  Some people prefer to seek out the geothermal pools around town.

Besides these listed things, I also walked along the bay, trying to tell if I was seeing a whale in the distance or not.  To help offset food costs, I went to Bonús, an Icelandic grocery store.  I was amazed to find their refrigerator section is not a refrigerator but a refrigerated room that you walk in to.  Although the majority of Iceland is powered by geothermal energy, I couldn’t help but wonder how much energy they were losing – even when I look at windows that are steaming up and realize people prop at least one open every day, even with the kind of cold that’s outside.

Day 2 will feature the Blue Lagoon and some national park exploration as I start eastward along the Ring Road.

Ísland

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Halló, subscribers, stumble-uponers, and other visitors!

I realize I never updated my blog with the rest of my trip to Morocco.  I was taking exams overseas for my Masters of Engineering program at the time and found myself doing schoolwork at 4am just to keep up.  The positive part of that is I got to hear prayers sung from the megaphones on the mosques in the medina.  The downside is I was so busy both inside and outside of the riad that I completely forgot about this blog.  Completely.

Now as I sit at a window in the San Francisco airport, I am fretting over three things: 1) finishing my online homework; 2) preparing for a retreat in Oakland when I pass back through these parts; and 3) doing last minute reading on Iceland, where I will be for the next 10 days!

I would love to post every day like I did while backpacking from India to Ireland; however, I cannot guarantee this trip will go smoothly.  I have booked my rental and lodging, but Iceland in February-March is littered with unpredictable weather.  Anyone planning a trip to this country who also plans to drive the Ring Road, I highly recommend bookmarking this interactive map – and making sure to frequently refresh it.  I also recommend browsing through some hashtags on Instagram periodically.  It sounds a little bizarre, but I find it very helpful to gauge what kind of conditions are occurring in different areas.  In past trips I’ve actually commented on/direct messaged Instagram users who eagerly replied with advice and their experience that day.

In the past, I would make posts at every chance I could get.  My new rule of thumb with social media/the Internet is to post retroactively.  Although I’ve never had anyone show up in a place I am at that moment, I have posted retroactively and had people send messages because they hightailed it to where they think I am and are looking for me.  So this is a little advice as well to be aware of cyberstalkers – and something to also keep in mind if you use my above tip as others may also practice retroactive posting (either intentionally or because of a lack of data).

Well, that’s all for now!  About to board.  See you on the other side, inshallah!