Alþing, Alping, arctic char, Ölfusá, Þingvellir, Þingvellir National Park, Þykkvibær, Blue Lagoon, Europe, falls, food, foss, fylla, Game of Thrones, geyser, Geysir, Golden Circle, Grindavík, Gullfoss, Gylltur, Hella, hostel, Hringvegur, Hveragerði, Hvita, Iceland, KEF, Laugarvatn, lobster, Northern Lights, Pingvellir, Pingvellir National Park, reindeer, Reyjkavík, Reykholt, Ring Road, river, roadtrip, seafood bisque, Selfoss, shrimp, Snotra Hostel, Sog, Strokkur, travel, Tryggvaskáli, vegetarian, Viking, wanderlust, waterfall
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.