The plan: 15 days around the Ring Road. My husband and I, in our mid-40s. Rent a 4X4 so we can go on the F-Roads. 2-3 nights in each area.
July 17th, Friday:
I was able to get out of work a little earlier than I had planned on Friday, so I rushed home. And a good thing, too, as Jason hadn’t finished his packing. The only thing we ended up forgetting was a pullover jacket for Jason, but we were only a mile from home, so could head back and retrieve it.
The two hour drive to Baltimore was uneventful, not even heavy traffic. We found the long term parking and only had to wait five minutes for the bus to come around and pick us up. Of course, we were the first stop, so the bus went to every other stop in the large lots before taking us to the terminal. We were also the last stop in the terminal, but we had plenty of time. I like to overplan for disasters. Our flight was 7:30pm, we got into the terminal by 5pm.
Only five people at the check-in line for WOW Airlines. I had gotten great fares for the trip – $630 non-stop from Baltimore to Reykjavik in the middle of summer. I watched it go down about $20 more that day, but it’s been up ever since, so I knew I got a good deal. WOW is a low-cost airline, and just started to fly to the US in March, but we knew that going in and were prepared for the add-ons. A little extra for wider seats ($14 each), a little extra for heavier carryon baggage (11 pounds is free – 26 pounds is $28), and a charge for each piece of checked luggage. Food and drink was for purchase on the flight.
TSA only had seven people in line, the shortest I’ve ever seen, except at Gainesville airport. Of course, once we got through all the hurdles that might delay us, and we could relax and have something to eat, there was only one food option – and it was packed. I did stand in line to get some waters and Nutri-grain bars to stave off the hunger, as well as some honey-buns for Jason in case of sugar drops.
As the flight rose, and we ascended into the twilight, the clouds formed surreal shapes in the sunset.
Dinner was pizza or roast beef sandwich, both of which were reasonably tasty. We both had plenty of leg room, even Jason (he’s 6’4”) with the bigger seats (we were in row 2). I tried to sleep, but the curtain ahead of us, where the bathroom and a mini-galley was, kept opening as people used the bathroom. They never remembered to close it, and the light shone through bright into my eyes. Jason took the window seat and used my jacket for a pillow.
July 18th, Saturday
Harpa Concert Hall
Grotta Island lighthouse and hot pool
We emerged, bleary-eyed and excited. Luggage pickup was no hassle, though I lost Jason in the Duty Free shop for a while. He found his favorite whisky, Glenfarclas 105, for 1/3 of the price he pays in the states. He bought two bottles and a lot of Cadbury Dairy Milk (his other addiction).
We had rented our car, a Toyota Land Cruiser 4X4, through Carrenters.is. This is basically a brokerage service that connects renters with rentees, and I don’t know if I’ll use them again. They were much less expensive, and that was very nice as car rental is quite dear in Iceland. But if you have a problem, you are at the mercy of the person you are renting from, as we discovered later on.
The gentleman picking us up was the car’s owner, a very nice young economist named Halldor. He was waiting at arrivals with a sign with my name on it, though I had to squint to see the writing. We dropped him off at his house on the way into Reykjavik
We found our lodging for the night, The Capital-Inn, a hostel outside the city. It wasn’t ready yet for check-in – 2:30, the gruff man at the counter said. No worries, I figured as much. But we knew where it was, so we went into the city to explore for breakfast.
Not a lot is open at 7am on a Saturday morning in Reykjavik. However, I was pre-warned of this (thanks to www.iheartreykjavik.com!) so I didn’t get too frustrated. We did wander around a bit and came across a café that was open. Studio 29 offered us our first taste of Icelandic breakfast. Every breakfast we had was served buffet style. This one was the only that served any type of eggs but hard-boiled.
There were three types of eggs, three types of sausage, bacon, potato-fish pancakes of some sort, several cheeses, deli meats, breads, jams, cereal, muffins, Skyr (yogurt) and of course coffee, tea, juice.
We drove along the waterfront to get a basic idea of the layout of the city. We tried to find a place to buy water and snacks, as nothing was yet open. We found a gas station (Olís) that was open. I tried one of the local energy drinks, as I knew I would be drooping. I don’t like energy drinks, as a rule – they taste disgusting to me. This one was no exception, but I drank half of it before giving up.
We drove to Hallgrimmskirkja, the central Lutheran Church in the city, and tried to find parking. That proved to be a bit of a chore. We found one spot, but couldn’t figure out the park-and-pay machine. We found another place, and the machine worked fine – perhaps the first one was malfunctioning? Anyhow, we walked up to the church, but it was too crowded for Jason’s taste. The church itself wasn’t open to visitors, as they were rehearsing for a concert that evening. But I was able to take the tiny elevator up to the top to take in the vista of the city below.
The view was amazing. Reykjavik doesn’t have a lot of tall buildings, so Hallgrimmskirkja showed me the whole tapestry of industry and houses below, all the way to the mountains surrounding the area. The sun was shining through the clouds and it was glorious!
On the way down the elevator, I noticed one of the other tourists had the same camera as me. We laughed, and then a third man lifted his camera – the same one! Small world. As we were exiting, the first tourist said to his friend, “Tall church – check!” I replied, “Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament!” We all laughed.
Now we needed to get some cash, so we hunted for an ATM. ATMs are not on every corner like they are in the States, so we had to ask directions. We were sent to Café Paris, and got our money, bought an atlas at a gift shop, and walked down to where Harpa Concert Hall was on the wharf.
Let me take a wee minute to speak of the wind in Iceland. The wind can be VERY strong. Today (and for the next couple of days) it was about 15-20 miles an hour, without much relief. It could have been worse – it was at least partly sunny – but the wind did bite and gnaw.
We scuttled into Harpa for some warm coffee at the café. We ordered Macchiato, Swiss Mocha, and a cheese plate. There was a bleu cheese that was very strong, some milder yellow cheeses and some fruit bits and jams. It went together very well, and restored us for exploring the hall.
Harpa has amazing architecture, and the inner artist was busily snapping photographs at every angle and perspective. I had been skeptical at first – usually modern architecture doesn’t thrill me much. I prefer crumbling neo-gothic cathedrals, on the whole. But this was gorgeous, elegant, and offered much variety in design and pattern.
After we were ready to brave the wind again, we went in search of the Hop On, Hop Off bus, to get a good all-around tour of the city. Most of the ones I’ve been on in the past – London, Dublin, Edinburgh, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Belfast – have had live guides. I understand that, since this is not an English-speaking country, it is less practical. Still, I disliked the pre-recorded guides. It takes some of the human warmth from the experience.
After the overview, we took the bus back around to where our car was, and went in search of groceries for the trip. We had seen an area that had a Byko (Home Depot), a Bonus (grocery store) and a Netto (grocery store) in one small area. We headed to that. Found a small plastic cooler in Byko, but no ice or cold packs. Got plastic forks/knives/spoons, some meat slices, cheese, crackers, fig newtons, chips, plums, nectarines, water, and chocolate. Then it was finally time to check into Capital-Inn.
Our room was a decent size, with a television, desk, wardrobe, sink, and two single beds. The window was huge, and faced the highway. It had nice, thick blackout curtains, which made me very happy. We brought in our luggage, and rested for a bit before heading out once again into the fray. By this time it was about 4pm, and we were ready for some more substantial food than a cheese plate.
What do you do for your first dinner in a new country? Look for native cuisine, right? Not for us! We went to the Celtic Cross Pub for dinner. Slumming it Ireland style! I think it was because it was the first decent restaurant we saw after finding a parking place, but whatever the reason, we went in. I was pleased to discover they served cider (Sommersby) while Jason ordered a Guinness. I know, it feels wrong and surreal in Iceland. We ordered a parma-ham pizza – yes, we had an Italian artisan pizza in a Celtic pub in Reykjavik. We are world travelers! We listened to the odd-tempo Celtic music on the speaker. It might have been an Icelandic band covering Celtic songs – I recognized all the songs, but the pronunciation was strange.
We were already noticing some word commonality in street names. Later on, we found lots of them in the names of farms, sites, etc. I’ll list some of the ones we saw a lot here, such as:
· Baugur – ring
· Borgir – towns
· Brekka – escarpment
· Bryggja – pier
· Byggð – settlement
· Bær – farm
· Fell – mount
· Gata – gata
· Garður – garden
· Gerði – hedge
· Gja – canyon
· Heiði – heath
· Hlið – hillside
· Hraun – lava
· Hylur – pool
· Hver – hot spring
· Hús – house
· Skógar – woods
· Foss – waterfall
· Jökul – glacier
· Tunga – tongue of land
· Vík – bay
· Vellir – fields
· Vegur – way/road
· Vatn – water
It helped us coordinate the names of places with their nature.
The best take-away from the meal was talking to our server. He had great tattoos on his arm, and we asked him where he got his work done. He recommended Reykjavik Ink. Jason had been hoping to get his first tattoo while he was on vacation, so we filed the recommendation in the keeper file.
We wandered up and down the main shopping drag, Laugavatn, for a while. There were so many beautiful people in this city! Nordic faces with square jaws, high cheekbones and pale blond, straight hair abounded. Sure, there were tourists as well. We heard lots of languages as we passed through the crowds. American, French, German, Croation, Russian, Japanese – a true hodgepodge.
Only some of the stores were named in Icelandic. Most of them were in English, especially such odd offerings as the Chuck Norris Bar, Dillon’s Whisky Bar, or the Big Lebowski Bar. We saw several Italian restaurants, Chinese, Thai, French, and of course, Icelandic. Lots of very touristy gift stores, one with two giant troll statues outside, and one with stuffed polar bears. A giant puffin stared at me from one plate glass window. As in, a 5 foot tall plushie puffin. Nightmares could be made from this!
I wanted to get some photos of the sunship sculpture down by the water, so we braved the stronger winds and collected some. We tried to get to the Grotta lighthouse for photos as well. I’d heard about a hot pool there, and we saw some tourists at their car, evidently dressing after having been in the pool. They were about our age – and looked red from the hot water, yet freezing in the biting evening wind as they changed. We decided to pass on the experience.
The hotel bed may have been hard. I don’t remember. I do remember a deep, exhausted sleep took over me after our first exciting day in Iceland.
July 19th, Sunday
Þingvellir National Park
Almannagja continental rift
A note on pronunciation: The Þ is a hard TH sound, the ð is a soft TH sound
I’m on vacation, right? So of course I get to sleep in. If I can. Which I can’t. Up at 5:45am.
Of course, one reason I woke up was that we had pushed the two single beds together to get one ‘king’ bed, and that meant the ‘inside’ person was trapped by the walls, so had to climb out over the ‘outside’ person. Which is exactly what I caught my husband doing. I looked up and he froze in the act of sneaking over me, one foot raised in a comic pose. 😀
I tried to get back to sleep, but it wasn’t happening. We had gone to bed at 9pm, after all – I was well rested and ready to go. Breakfast didn’t start until 7am, but morning showers and other ablutions carried us through.
The breakfast room was downstairs, and had a decent selection. In addition to the ever-present staples of sliced deli meats, sliced cheeses, cereal, hard-boiled eggs, bread, jams, etc., there was also liver pate, pickled herring, fruit, and oatmeal. And of course, the typical coffee and juice. There was a rather watered down apple-ish juice that I couldn’t quite pin down. I didn’t care for it much. They offered Applesin which, despite it’s name, is a carbonated orange soda, less sweet than most American brands. I liked that better.
I don’t drink coffee at home. But Icelandic coffee is strong and tasty, so I got into the habit during this vacation. Just about any place you go, including tiny gas stations, have machines that you can get coffee, espresso, latte, Swiss mocha (half chocolate, half coffee). Swiss mocha was my favorite.
We tried to find a picnic basket of some sort at Byko, but with no luck – they weren’t open. We trolled about a bit and did find Reykjavik Ink, for later use. But today was the day of Þingvellir, Almannagja Canyon, Oxararfoss, Bruarfoss, Geysir and Gullfoss. Or so was the plan.
Þingvellir was easy to find, even without the GPS we brought. (We usually use our phones, but didn’t want to use up our limited international data allowance, so rented a GPS). It was signposted from Reykjavik, just follow the signs! Þingvellir is the site of the first (since ancient Greece) democratic assembly in Europe, from 930 AD. It, along with Almannagja Canyon net to it, is also the place where they filmed some scenes from Game of Thrones, including the entrance to the Eyrie and parts of the Hound and Arya’s journey, and Brienne’s battle with the Hound.
We wandered down the canyon first, enjoying the stark outlines of the rocks on either side, and started heading back up just as a bus disgorged its meal of tourists. We almost had to fight our way out at the top, as they insisted on milling about at the entrance. We were glad to have gotten out when we did. Oxararfoss is just down the road about a mile walking, but you can circle around to drive most of the way. We did the latter, and explored the waterfall. Again, the bus followed us, so we vacated. Onwards!
The next stop on my list was Peningagja, called the coin fissure. People threw coins in there for the old Gods, but I couldn’t find it either on GPS, the atlas, nor was it signposted. Or if it was, I missed it. The same held true for Bruarfoss, which is a shame – that is a major waterfall I would have loved to see. Next time!
The original Geysir, the one all geysers are named for, is no longer as active as it once was. However, it’s right next to Strokkur, a regular chap that spouts off about every 8 minutes, in a spectacular spout of hot, steaming water. Sometimes to the detriment of those standing too close in high winds. Sometimes hilariously so.
Today was indeed a day of high winds and high tourists. This was a major tourist spot. There was a huge gift shop, two cafés, and hundreds of visitors, even this early. We did get to see Strokkur explode several times and look at some of the other geysers, before we retreated from both the wind and the people. We considered sitting down for coffee, but the crowds had increased in just the 20 minutes we had been there. Time to get out now.
We did purchase some warmer wool hats and some gloves to help us battle the wind. They all got good use on our trip.
Gullfoss was another major stop, a double waterfall with several vantage points for viewing. Lots of people – Jason felt more comfortable staying in the car. I went up the high road first, looking down at the falls, and taking plenty of pictures. Then I took the low road. Just a note of caution – the high road is definitely the drier option! I had to keep wiping off my camera lens (yes, I always keep a UV filter over it for protection) from the mist and spray from the incredibly powerful falls. Dozens of people scampered among the rocks, and I explored a bit. The sun came out, and I hung about, hoping for a bit of rainbow, but was sadly disappointed in my goal.
Gullfoss was the largest waterfall I’d ever seen. The sheer power of it was energizing and incredibly beautiful. There was so much to see – the splashing of tiny side-waterfalls, the rising mists, forming shapes in the air, the moss and fern-covered rocks around it. Amazing.
Around Reykholt, we stopped and had a picnic lunch. We broke out the smoked lamb slices, some spiced cheeses, and the crusty baguettes and plums. It was delicious! The wind tried to hamper our progress, but we persevered and won out in the end.
The last stop for the day was Kerid Crater. This is a dormant volcano with a lake inside the crater that you can climb down to, or walk around the edge. We did both. Well, when I say we, I’m exaggerating. I have trouble sometimes going downhill, especially on loose scree, and that’s what this was. So, we both walked around the edge, but I only went part of the way into the volcano itself, resting on a promontory while Jason walked down to the water. It was a lovely, brilliant blue color, while the sides of the volcano was black/dark grey with tufts of greenery holding on for dear life.
We drove home through moonscape lava fields, and saw a mountain that we thought might have been used in Game of Thrones, which looks like Ben Bulben in Ireland. Of course, after that, I must have seen twenty mountains that looked similar. Jason witnessed some rocks falling down a slope at one point, but I was driving, so didn’t see them.
Once back at the hostel, we decided on dinner in Reykjavik. We went to the grocery store first, to laugh at some of the strange foods, a time-honored tradition on our journeys. We found green marshmallows covered in chocolate, with frogs on the package – frog poop! Yum!
Trir Frakkar (three coats) was the restaurant we chose for dinner. Jason and I had both seen recommendations for it, and we got in early, which was lucky as the place was booked later. I got to try my first puffin, and it was delicious. The puffin meat with sweet mustard appetizer was tasty – almost like beef, with a slight sweetness to the meat. For our meals, we had the seafood au gratin, well cooked and tasty, except for a bit of shrimp shell in Jason’s. They had no mead or cider, which, alas, I was to find in most places we ate, Celtic pubs notwithstanding.
We went back to the hostel, as we were a bit tired from today’s trekking into volcanoes and down waterfalls, so we watched some television. There weren’t many channels available, but BBC had Joanna Lumsley (from Absolutely Fabulous) doing a travel show in Siberia. That was a bit surreal. The other two channels were also British stations, subtitled in Icelandic.
When it was time to go to sleep, we shut the windows. That was the downside of this room – the windows shut made it hot, as there was no air circulation, but the noise from the traffic outside made it too loud to leave them open.
July 20th, Monday
Deildartunguhver hot springs (most powerful in Europe)
Snorrastofa (Snorri Sturluson’s home)
Glymur Waterall (tallest in Iceland)
I did a little better this morning than yesterday. Up at 6:45am. It’s already light out, so my body says, time to wake up, sleepy head!
We woke and had the same yummy breakfast. Today was Water Day. Other than one stop, every site we had on the list had waterfalls or hot springs.
The first stop was north to Fossatun. We wove between the stunning mountains north of Reykjavik, going in and out of inlets, looking at the side of the still volcanic-looking hills. Jason watched a rockslide along one as we drove by (not underneath, luckily!) and we went through a tunnel under the fjord.
Fossatun is a lovely stepped waterfall on a Troll Trail. Yes, you read that right. This area is evidently host to many stories about trolls, and there were signs posted on the trail that gave some of the details of these stories, as well as several large statues of trolls to help with the verisimilitude of the tales. I climbed up and got a breathtaking view of the area, and some nosy sheep. They were kind enough to pose for me a bit while I took pictures, but the winds kicked up again and I decided I didn’t wish to become the subject of the next troll tale by being blown off the mountain and into the waterfalls.
Deildartunguhver are the most powerful hot springs in Europe. The steam cloud from it was most impressive, but I expected the sulfur smell to be stronger or more disgusting. I discovered I rather liked the earthy sulfur odor from hot springs. Other people were not so inclined, from the comments. Once again, we arrived about 20 minutes before a small bus of tourists. The timing was doing well this day.
Snorri Sturluson was a saga writer in the 12th century, one of Iceland’s foremost historians, poets and politicians. He wrote the Prose Edda (which I’d heard of long before I looked into visiting Iceland, but I’m a history nerd). He lived in this area, which housed a hot spring he used, and a modern church, as well as information about his life and the farmstead. It was interesting, but the main information center was filled with a small tour bus’ worth of people, and dark and claustrophobic, so we passed. We did wander around the grounds and look at the church, which was quite pretty. Nothing on the scale of gothic cathedrals, of course, but simple and elegant. Lutheran churches don’t do gothic so much.
Across the country we went, east towards the interior of the island. We trucked along a mountain road, stopped for gas and Swiss mocha, ate some picnic lunch, and went towards the twin bastions of Hraunafossar and Barnafoss. Hraunafossar was beautiful. I know I keep using that word, and it runs out of meaning after a while, but truly, this is a special place, even in a land of waterfalls. The water fell in hundreds of mare-tail falls, stretched out across a long space, into aqua blue waters below. Simply magical.
Barnafoss, also called the Children’s Falls, was more like a powerful canyon falls, but had a tragic, poignant tale of two children who were supposed to stay home while the parents went to church for Christmas Mass. You can figure out what happened, of course. The children’s tracks disappeared at the natural stone bridge over the falls, and the mother, in her grief, destroyed the arch.
There were lots of places to walk and climb around both falls, for different perspectives. I kept climbing around Barnafoss, looking for a ‘payoff’ view of the falls, but I must not have climbed far enough. There were also lots of people taking advantage of the places, so we explored a bit and then went home.
We stopped for another snack, a meal of bread, cheese, smoked lamb, remoulade sauce (in a squeeze bottle!), and nectarines. The place we stopped was under a coastal mountain, and had a fantastic view.
Botnsvogur – we stopped before we got to Glymur at this place, and walked down the hill to the beach to do some beachcombing. We found lots of jellyfish, just sitting in the sun. Three sheep played hide and seek with us for a while, and when the sun came out, the whole place sparkled in low tide glitter. With reluctance, we climbed back up to our car.
And then there was Glymur. Glymur is the tallest waterfall in Iceland. I was determined to see it. Even when I looked at the sign, and it said the trip was 5.5 kilometers, round trip, I was determined. I took the cane, put on my boots, and went. Jason stayed in the car and rested.
There were a couple small streams, which I forded without issue. Sometimes the path was steep and rocky, other times smooth and flat. I saw many other people on path, many older than me. None were as fat as me, though. That gave me pause for thought, but determination was stronger than sense. My camera battery chose this time to die, and I almost turned back then, but I had my phone with me, and plenty of memory on that, so I continued.
The path led into a cave. Not just into a cave, but down steps in a dark cave. I could tell that the cave had a hole on the bottom, but it was very dark inside. I thought about turning back, but quelled my indecision and marshalled on. With the help of the cane, I got down the rocks in the cave.
Only to come across the river.
This wasn’t a stream. It was a river at least fifteen to twenty feet across, and swift. There were rocks to ford it about a third of the way across, and then a log. Yes, a log. Mind you, the log was bolted down to the rocks on either end, and there was a tight metal corded wire across, to help you keep balance. But I have to tell you, it took me a while to get up my courage to cross the bloody thing. Especially as the way the wire was placed, you have to sort of switch sides halfway through to hold on properly. But I did it!
Now, up to the trail. Which led up a mountain. I mean, right up the side of a flat canyon. There were steps for about half of it. No problem, I can do steps. Then… then came the evil part. The stone wasn’t cut into steps at this part. It was flat and diagonal. There was a rope, but it wasn’t very tight. I couldn’t rely on it to pull myself up if I slipped. And the rocks were wet from waterfall spray. I was close. I could hear the falls. I could see the spray over the upper edge above me. Teenagers were scampering (yes, scampering!) up the bloody thing. But, while I might be able to muscle myself up this thing, I was damned certain I would not be able to get myself down. I’ve become quite good at judging how I get back from something. And this was beyond my powers.
Failure. I got 9/10s of the way to the tallest waterfall in Iceland, and had to turn back. Back across the log I went, up through the cave, and back the 2 kilometers to the parking lot. Sigh. The whole adventure took about an hour and a half.
We stopped to explore another river bank before heading back to Reykjavik. There were Arctic Geese hanging about, and I tried to get some good shots of them.
A bit of a rest before we went into Reykjavik for dinner. We went to Reykjavik Ink to make reservations for Jason’s tattoo – they couldn’t get us in until we were back in town on 8/1, so we made that and wandered down Laugavegur. We looked for the English pub we had seen before, but couldn’t find it. We considered Indian food, but Jason’s stomach wasn’t feeling up for that. We considered Vietnamese, a place that served goose, a noodle shop, and a sushi place.
In the end, we ended up at what was simply called the Scandinavian Restaurant. It was crowded, but the staff were very friendly. I ordered a drink called the Midnight Sun with apple sec, vodka, apple schnapps and grenadine. Jason had a Lava beer, which was something like 9.8% alcohol, a smoked stout beer with (according to him) the taste of bitter hops, chocolate, iodine, earth, and Moxie.
I ordered the smoked salmon open sandwich, Jason the lamb dinner. We got reindeer pate for an appetizer, and it was delicious. Fatty, savory, and smoky. I wanted to save room for the Skyr bomb with blueberries for dessert, but I feared that would be in vain. When Jason’s food came out, the server apologized profusely – the salmon order hadn’t been entered. They offered me a second drink on the house. No problem, we were having fun people watching outside. ‘Try to guess the nationality’ was our favorite game in Reykjavik. A gentleman came in that looked like Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman had a love child. We dubbed him Rainman Snape. When the salmon did come, it was the baked salmon. I felt terrible telling them I had ordered the smoked salmon sandwich, but they were fine with it (or said so). I’m glad I did – it was delicious! Huge portion of salmon with dill and capers. The waitress was so friendly and sweet. It was a great experience despite the service snafu.
We went home and zonked out. It had been a very full day.
July 21st, Thursday
We got up early to pack before the breakfast crowd – but we weren’t early enough! We got out as quickly as we were sated and got on the road. Today was to be a bit of a long travel day, ending up in Skogar for the night. The long way.
Our first stop was Hjalafoss waterfall, a powerful double waterfall in the middle of a lava moonscape. There were flowing lava formations all around the falls, like something designed by H.R. Giger (he designed Alien). The falls themselves were in a deep canyon that we could climb down from reasonably good steps.
I had written Stöng as a possible visiting place, but never wrote down why it was interesting. We passed by the sign and continued on through the moonscape to Gjain Canyon.
This was our first real F road. F roads in Iceland are, by definition, roads which a 4X4 is required to drive. Dirt roads are not F roads, usually – but rock roads are! And sometimes there are rivers to ford. No rivers yet on this – about twenty minutes of dust, dirt, rocks, and not much else. Some hills here and there, some scrubby plantlife, but not much. Then we got to Gjain.
It looks not very impressive when you park. The only way you know there is something there is because a small service shed has been placed near the parking area. That’s it – and then you see a sign with an arrow, leading to the steps down.
The steps (about 40 of them?) lead down into an oasis in the moon. There was one large waterfall in the back, lush green vegetation growing everywhere, smaller waterfalls along the river, caves, and a plethora of flowers and ferns. It was like the Garden of Eden on Mars. We descended into this paradise, and spent over an hour just exploring, enjoying the mists and the sounds of nature.
Soon, others found our paradise, and descended into our peace. We wanted to keep that special place as our own private memory, so we left. We found the signs posted to Laugamannalaugar.
This was a site that I had debated as to whether it was worth it. It was not just on an F road, it was on 2 hours’ worth of F road. Both ways. That’s a lot of low-speed, bumping, jumping, and juggling. Again, no rivers to ford, but oh, the sites we saw on the way!
We drove up one mountain, which afforded us a vista of bright blue lakes below. We drove by a huge volcano crater, and was able to drive right up to the edge to see inside. We passed more moonscapes and twisted lava formations. We saw mountains in several colors, painted with the mineral formations in the area – green, orange, red, yellow, bronze, and peach. The snow was still clinging to the mountains, making stripes of white and grey between the colors of the mountains.
When we finally arrived at Landamannalaugur proper, it was a giant resort/camping support site. There was a rather large river to go further, but it was VERY crowded. Campers and hikers were stuffed in like sardines, so we opted to turn back. The beauty was in the journey there, not in the destination. We did stop and climb up a small valley, still ice-clad, and found some bits of obsidian and other beautiful stones. The way back seemed like a much shorter journey, but our spines were well-jangled by the time we returned to ‘real’ roads.
As we passed back by the Hjalafoss area, we decided to look at Stöng after all, and we are very glad we did. Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng is a recreation of the turf cottages found in this area, dating to about a thousand years ago. A small chapel and an extensive turf-covered cottage, built with stone and wood, with dioramas to show how life was lived in those times, made for an interesting display. We stopped to schmooze with the friendly horses next door before moving on.
We turned to the south at Selfoss, and enjoyed watching the mist gather on the mountains along the coast. Everything was clad in green now, and countless mare-tail waterfalls draped across the mountains. It looked very much like New Zealand in the Lord of the Rings movies. We passed Eyjafjallajokul, the volcano that disrupted European air travel in 2009 with eruptions of ash, but it was shrouded in mists, and we couldn’t see more than a glimpse of its snow-clad peaks. We only know we passed it because the visitor centre was on the side of the road.
We tried to stop at Seljalandsfoss on the way to Skogar, but it was way too crowded. People were parking along the road, as no one could get into or out of the parking lot from all the busses. We weren’t staying too far away, so we could come back when it wasn’t so swamped.
Skogar Guesthouse was easy to find – signs helped us out, and it was within walking distance of Skogarfoss, a powerful waterfall that sends off tons of mist, so it frequently has rainbows. Skogar is run by Sigga and her step-son, Ari. They are both delightful! Ari is almost too pretty for words – and he showed us around, gave us our room (3 beds, big space!) showed the lounge and the hot tub. We relaxed for a while before we decided we needed some dinner. It had started to rain a little bit, but nothing heavy. Ari recommended the Hotel Skogarfoss. We went down the road and found Hotel Skogar – not quite the same thing, but I didn’t realize it at the time. The place felt like a funeral – very quiet. We were the only people there. The food was good – seafood soup in a tomato bisque, lamb and salmon for our dinner. It had a nice view outside, and while we were eating, a bird crashed into the glass window (he walked away, indignant).
Jason crashed, tired from the long day. He did much of the driving on the F roads, and was feeling it. I posted on my blog and decided it was too early to sleep, so went out exploring. First I went down to the Skogarfoss. I started to walk (and the local dog followed me) but then decided to take the car, so I could go elsewhere later.
That’s when I found Hotel Skogarfoss, which had a more reasonable selection (burgers and fries, as opposed to haute cuisine), and dozens of campers. The field before the waterfall was littered with tents, as they had campsite facilities (showers, bathrooms, food) on site. I walked up to the falls, and it was a beautiful, powerful, straight fall. There were steps to the top, but I was not feeling up to walking 527 steps to the top! Not after the jangling my bones had endured. Maybe not ever!
I drove back to Seljalandsfoss, hoping that the crowds had diminished somewhat since it was now near 8pm. On the way I noticed several huts built right up to and inside giant rocks. I had been right – the falls were much less crowded. Only about a dozen people were there. This is a place where you can walk behind the falls. Be warned, you WILL get wet. The spray is very strong. But I did walk behind, and got a couple of photos from behind. The sun wasn’t behaving in a nice, beautiful sunset for me, but hey, you take what you can get, right?
When I returned, I had a nice chat with Ari about Iceland, its people, culture, politics, travel around the world, etc. Then I went upstairs and zonked out myself, for a good sleep in a comfortable bed. Luxury!
July 22, Wednesday
Reynisfjara Black sand beach
A little bit of rain greeted us as we awoke. We came to breakfast a bit early, and Sigga was bustling around the kitchen prepping for the meal. She had homemade bread, jams, meat, cheese, pancakes (delicious!), home grown eggs, and the normal stuff. Today was another F road day – we were headed to Þórsmörk, a mountain ridge named after Thor. Again, this was a journey view rather than a destination.
As we were going past Seljalandsfoss, we saw a scenic viewpoint sign, and took the detour. It went up and up and up. We stopped off at the breathtaking lookout point near a gravel quarry. On the way back down we found a magical waterfall valley, definitely someplace the local elves must live. Moss covered stones and hundreds of tiny falls. The name of the point started with an H, but I don’t recall it offhand. I’ll have to look through my photos for a clue, but it was less than a mile up from the waterfall.
Þórsmörk. This was all F-road again, but not as varied in the terrain as Landamannalaugur. There were, however, rivers to ford. The road was well-traveled – we saw dozens of vehicles either coming the other way, or going with us. None of the rivers looked too bad to Jason, who has done river-fording before. I had never done this, so had to trust he knew what he was doing. It was a lot of fun! After about six rivers, we found a glacier cave, so decided to rest our spines for a bit.
About a dozen people were wandering around, taking photos and exploring the cave itself. However, to get to the cave, you had to climb down the hill (no problem) and then walk across a river. Problem! This is a glacial river – therefore, a bit on the chilly side. There wasn’t any place with stones you could step on. Two choices – walk in your bare feet, or get your shoes wet. If I had been smart, I would have gone back up to the car and put my boots on – they are more water resistant than my sneakers. But, I wasn’t smart – I thought I could take off my shoes (like a man was doing as I watched, a child on his back). I have very tender feet, and there were lots of stones in the river bed. In fact, it was all stones – no soft sand anywhere. The bottoms of my feet got rather bruised and scratched. But I crossed!
We walked to the cave itself, and inside a little bit. We didn’t go too far, as we had no real spelunking gear, but we walked on the glacier itself a little, and got to see inside the cave. Then we went back.
This time I said ‘F this bare foot thing!’ and left my sneakers on. I walked across the river (it was about 10 feet wide) and changed into my boots with dry socks up in the car.
We stopped to have a picnic lunch while still near the cave, complete with parma ham, cheese, and nectarines. It was good. I just wish I had some coffee or hot chocolate to warm me up!
We continued on through about five more rivers to Þórsmörk itself, which was really just a cool place to camp. The river bed between two glaciers was interesting, and made you fell tiny and insignificant beside the giant mountains. We drove along the road a little longer, and came across a big trash can, where we emptied the trash from our car. I couldn’t help but think, this is the longest trash run I’ve ever taken!
Turning back, I drove and learned how to ford rivers. It was a lot of fun! I gained a bit of confidence with the four wheel drive, and went a little faster than a slow crawl. It still took us over an hour to get out of there.
We stopped at Gljúfrafoss on the way back, a waterfall that is inside a canyon that you can walk into. Very cool, but very wet! It’s just near Seljalandsfoss, not hard to miss. We noticed we really needed gas, like badly. We had needed it back in Þórsmörk, but there had been no options. GPS told us there was one just a couple of kilometers from Seljalandsfoss.
GPS lied. There was a restaurant, but no gas station, nor evidence that there ever had been one. We drove a bit farther to the Eyjafjallajokul visitor centre, and the clerk there (who didn’t seem to have much English) said that Vik was our best option, so on we went. We coasted in on fumes, filled up, and filled up our snack quotient at the grocery store.
On our way back to Skogar, we had time to stop at Reynisfjara black sand beach. It was windy, but it wasn’t too bad. There is a great cave with basalt hexagon columns, flowing in a kinetic pattern within the cave. Next to that is another cave area, with all sorts of seabirds perched above, including PUFFINS! Yay, adorable puffins everywhere!
There are some dramatic sea stacks farther down, and back on Dyrholaey on the other side, so I got lots of atmospheric photographs before we retreated to the café for Swiss Mocha. Jason had a double espresso, which meant he got a bit on the manic side with chatter and photos after that. It was like riding with Speedy Gonzalez. I’m glad I was driving!
We thought about searching for the hidden Seljavallalaug hot pool, but Jason wasn’t feeling up for it, and the short hike (20 minutes) I was told it had, so we skipped.
This time we tried Hotel Skogarfoss for dinner. I had a local beef burger, while Jason tried the meat soup – and a love affair began. It was warm, savory and delicious, and he tried it every time he saw it on the menu after that. Meat soup is a lamb stew, with varying ingredients, usually root vegetables and stock. Maybe onions, carrots, turnips, rutabaga, potatoes, whatever the local recipe calls for.
Back at the Skogar Guesthouse, Jason crashed from his espresso high while I chatted with some other travelers in the lounge. Miriam and her goddaughter were traveling from Jacksonville, Florida, while Miriam was born in Cuba. We talked a lot about travel, science fiction, politics and languages. She bought a pair of my earrings (cardinals). I asked Ari if there was somewhere I could do laundry, and he graciously offered to do it for me. I felt guilty, as I had two loads, but he assured me it would be fine. He refused any payment towards soap or anything. He was doing another guests’ laundry as well, and I know he must have stayed up late finishing it in the dryer.
I didn’t get to bed until around midnight myself, but it was a good sleep.
July 23rd Thursday
Þakgil, Roof Canyon
Fjaðrárgljúfur mossy canyon
Núpsstaður turf-roof church
Foss in Síðu/Dverghamrar Cliffs
Hofskirkja in Öræfi Church
And of course, my body decided I had such a great sleep, I needed to be awake at 4:45 am! Yay. At least they have a super power shower, which was delightful! But we were much too early for breakfast, which began at 7:30, so we went out to explore Cape Dyrholaey before breakfast.
A tiny F road leads up the lava cliff to a seabird sanctuary. Lava of all sorts are around, and Jason had a field day identifying and explaining the different types and what created them. Arctic terns abound, but no puffins here.
Another, tinier F road leads up to the lighthouse, and we did find a puffin nest in the rocks, but no puffins. They must have been wary of our presence. The wind and the mist drove us back down and to the guesthouse for our breakfast.
We got our clothes from a bleary-eyed Ari, ate our breakfast, hugged Sigga goodbye, and got on the road to our next destination.
Our plan was to drive along the southeast coast, up to our evening’s lodging in Hali, near Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. There were several spots I wanted to stop on the way. But fate determined that we didn’t get to all of them.
The first detour was to Þakgil, a roofed canyon. This was another F road venture, and delightful fun, while at the same time, a bit scary. These F roads were up mountains, around bends and down through canyons. A good ten kilometers or so of F roads, and my knuckles were a bit white. Some of the roads were pretty narrow, precarious-looking, and around blind bends. On the other hand, the views they offered of the glacier delta was well worth a few sore hands from gripping the dashboard handle for dear life.
Black lava sculptures rose from the ground, some forming arches, some cradling waterfalls in their gentle hands. Green moss climbed the sides of otherwise barren canyons, and ash rivers flowed across the loose scree on the ground. This was another ‘journey worth more than the destination’, and well worth it, too! This was about the time I decided that it was very much worth the extra cost to rent a 4X4. I am very glad I decided to do so – I waffled about it for weeks before I made the decision. I made the right one.
Once on the main road again, we saw a ‘scenic’ sign and discovered another black sand beach. You could still see the sea stacks at Reynisfjara in the distance. It was a very large black sand beach, and we were utterly alone (except one jogger). Some of the caves nearby had been used for bonfires and probably a lot more in the recent past. It was likely a pretty cool Saturday night party spot!
A mountain – perhaps it was Katla? – sparkled in the distance, huge and white in the sunlight.
We crossed a huge delta then, a road with more bridge than surface road, and most of the bridges were one way. Still, it was a delightful sight, seeing the rivers snake across the sand and rocks into the distance, sometimes lost in the mist. You could see rain angled in the distance, warring with the sun for dominance over the landscape.
At one point, we came across a sea of endless purple lupins. We saw more lupins than any other flower in Iceland, especially in the south. They were everywhere!
The next area had lava formations of light brown, covered in a light, fuzzy moss, almost yellow. It looked like bodies writing in a mudbath.
Another F road takes us to Fjaðrárgljúfur, just about 2 kilometers down, and a lovely view. Unfortunately, as soon as I got out of the car, I noticed the rear passenger tire was going flat. Lovely. Luckily, it was warm and sunny out. Jason had a great deal of trouble with changing it, because the jack was a poor choice for the vehicle (to turn it, there wasn’t enough clearance, and he had to dig into the dirt to make it work) and the lug wrench was too big for the lug nuts. Another tourist had a wrench the proper size, and lent it to Jason so he could complete the change.
While he was under the car wrestling with the jack, Jason noticed something leaking. Uh-oh.
I called the rental owner, while Jason finished replacing with the spare – a spare that was smaller than the other tires. More uh-oh. The owner said to please bring the car into a garage and let him know what’s wrong. So, off we went to Kirkjubaejarklaustur, the closest town. We found a Michelin tire place, and the mechanic was able to tell us that the front differential axis was leaking, and he didn’t have the parts to fix it. We had no idea for how long it had been leaking – it could have just started, it could have been going for weeks. I didn’t want to risk it, though it would only mean our 4X4 would go out. The owner said he’d try to arrange a replacement vehicle. We went to lunch to await the verdict.
It also meant we wouldn’t be stopping at any other places on our way today. Getting to our lodging was priority.
It had just started raining, but we found a restaurant fairly quickly. We had to flag a waitress down after waiting to be seated for about 10 minutes. The sign said to wait to be seated, but she sort of barked to sit down anywhere. I eventually got a lamb burger, while Jason ordered the fish stew, which turned out to be more like a fish curry – tasty, but it looked like dog food. The service was rather terrible, but the food was good. And we had to remind her about the Swiss Mocha we had ordered. The name of the place was Systrakaffi – in this case, the bad attitude of the wait staff outweighed the good food, I can’t recommend it.
We drove on to our evening’s guesthouse, Skyrhusid in Hali. It’s just past several glaciers and the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lake. For some reason, now the 4X4 wouldn’t turn off, and the smaller tire made the car fishtail occasionally, as the 4X4 tried to give more power to the small tire. We finally managed to fiddle with it and get it out of that mode, and it was much better. With it raining steadily now, I was glad.
We passed one glacier lake, Fjallsarlon, and thought it was cool. But then we came across Jokulsarlon, and wow! What a place! It was filled with people, despite the rain, and we didn’t want to stop just then, but even so, it was an incredible site. You drive over the bridge that goes over the small river mouth where the glaciers exit the lake into the ocean. That means that the icebergs sort of gather until they can jostle their way to freedom. So many different shapes, shades and patterns! But we must come back later…
Skyrhusid is more like a hostel than a guesthouse, but it is reasonably clean and had nice large rooms. The biggest drawbacks were that the curtains were very light and flimsy, letting lots of light in, and the only food was at the restaurant across the street, including breakfast. They gave us some free Skyr as we checked in, and we moved the beds together to relax from the day’s adventure.
The rental owner got back to me that he found a replacement, and was driving out from Reykjavik with it. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to arrive until 2am, so I set my alarm for that ungodly hour, cleaned out the car, and went to sleep.
2am is an odd time in Iceland in the summer. It’s isn’t quite dark, but a blue velvet twilight. The mists were high and the few lights in Hali glowed like dandelions gone to seed in the fog. The poor owner probably had to drive back to Reykjavik (about 3.5 hours’ drive away) and go straight to work the next day, but he was sweet about the whole deal. He brought us a Nissan XTrail, also 4X4, but not as much clearance as the Land Cruiser had. Also, the trunk didn’t open, which was an inconvenience. The biggest difference, which I didn’t notice until the next day, was no cruise control. That’s a great inconvenience on a trip where you drive 8 hour days at times.
July 24th, Friday
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Fjallsárlón Glacier Lake
Núpsstaður turf-roof church
Despite my late night interruption, I was up at 7am. We dressed and went across the street to the restaurant for breakfast. It was worth the price – about $12 – for the selection of cereal, lunch meats, cakes (including a chocolate and cinnamon one), home baked breads. We saw our tallest Icelander (must have topped 6’5”) walking out of the kitchens.
The new rental car had a small plastic parrot hanging from the rearview mirror, so we dubbed it Jimmy, in honor of Jimmy Buffet and Parrotheads around the world.
We had seen, in the course of our journey, that Icelanders liked to bag their hay bales in white, black, and pale green plastic, though occasional beige ones appeared. One field looked like an army of white arrayed against an army of black. In our sillier moments, we decided that the greens were sometimes allies of the white, but more often betraying the white by siding with the black. Sometimes we saw prisoner camps, stacks of white or black with an occasional green stuck in randomly. It was fodder for many silly comments throughout the trip.
Now, back to Jokulsarlon, to enjoy the iceberg lake in all its misty glory. We arrived JUST as the mist turned into rain, of course. And a rather chilly rain, at that. However, rain aside, I got some interesting photos and we explored along the beach. The rain didn’t stop anyone else from doing the same, though I had a hard time keeping my camera dry. We decided it was too cold and rainy to do a boat tour just now, perhaps later. As the crowds increased with more busloads of people, we moved on to the smaller lake we had seen the day before.
This was a much quieter experience. The lake was perfectly still, the rain had returned to mist, and there was only about a dozen people wandering around. The glacier was visible in the mist, and loomed large and menacing above. Angry streaks of ash and dirt colored the white ice, making it look like a toddler had scribbled with ash crayon. I saw someone had set up their Gopro on a couple of rocks, the stick holding it up anchored by more rocks. No one was around. I shook my head at the level of trust in this country.
Another stop farther down the road was Kviamyrarkambur, where we could see a glacier up close. The icebergs and chunks calved from the glacier were filled with blue, black and crystalline white, reflecting the ethereal mists of a thousand years.
Oh, look! Another glacier – Svinafellsjokull – this one, Jason walked out with me to the edge. Another site that we had practically to ourselves, which was quite nice.
Skaftafell was our destination for the day, but when we got there, the parking lot was so full, we couldn’t park. We wandered up the road and found a secondary parking lot, and I got out to look at the posted map. I could get to Svartifoss (the black waterfall) from there, so I left Jason in the car to rest while I made the hike. It was only about a mile up, and not too difficult at all. Several historic places were nestled in the grasses along the way, including old sheep enclosures and farming crofts made of stone. Svartifoss was something of a disappointment. Perhaps I was getting jaded with waterfalls, but it seemed like a lot of climb for not much payoff. I was able to get above the waterfall and look down, but that was enough. I headed back down.
We decided to go back a bit further and visit the turf-roofed church and cottages we had seen on the way in the day before, but when we got there, the gate was closed and locked. Sigh. But yay for zoom lenses on cameras!
We went back to the guesthouse to rest, and Jason stretched out while I went to the restaurant for a light lunch. A smoked arctic char sandwich was tasty but messy. It had hard-boiled, sliced eggs and a remoulade sauce, and the bread was about an inch thick. Homemade, but dense and chewy.
I continued on to Jokulsarlon again, determined to get my much-anticipated boat tour. I had a couple of choices. The moon-vehicle tour (an amphibious bus) which hung mostly around the mouth of the lagoon, or the zodiac boat tour that went to the head of the glacier. I chose the latter. They give you a full body suit in dayglo colors. I felt like I was the Michelin man, or perhaps the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man, ready to wreak destruction upon Manhattan.
While my camera kept misting up, I was able to get quite a lot of happy shots. We sped to the glacier (about 15 minutes at high speed?) and then came back in slow stages, to look at individual icebergs.
When I returned to fetch Jason, he was well rested and ready for dinner. Rather than go once again to the restaurant across the street, we decided to head up to Hofn, a town of some size north of us. We saw several people pulled to the side of the road at one point, and realized why. Reindeer! A herd of about 20 reindeer were pretty close to the road, munching on grass, and we all got out to take photos of the graceful, tasty beasts.
We wandered through Hofn, and finally decided to eat at a place called Vikin, a restaurant/sports bar. The place was about dead when we arrived, with two other couples quietly eating. The waiter took our orders for a lobster sandwich and steak, when about fifty people came in. Once again, we arrived before the rush, yay! I ordered apple cider, and got apple juice – oops! Ah, well. The food was tasty enough, but not our favorite.
Saw the reindeer again on our way home, and we were the only ones there this time.
One thing I’ve noted about Icelandic vehicles – they LOVE big tires. We’re talking serious monster-truck tires, here. A normal conversion van, or even a station wagon, with ginormous tires – hilarious, but probably quite practical in the winter on icy F-roads.
Also, so many hitchhikers. I’ve seen about 30 hitchhikers so far. That’s 10 times more than I’ve seen in my life before. A much more trusting society. Evidently not a lot of axe-murderers in the land of the midnight sun.
We passed one guy several times today and yesterday, who was jogging along Route 1 pushing a plastic-covered baby carriage. We decided he must just be a practical backpacker who would rather push his pack than carry it. Smart man! If we see him again, we’ll be impressed, as we’re heading north tomorrow.
July 25th, Saturday
Myvatn Nature Baths
Dimmuborgir Lava Fields
Skútustaðagígar Pseudo Craters
Once again, 6:30am is our wakeup time. We decided not to wait an hour for breakfast at the restaurant, so got on the road, as it was going to be a very long travel day.
We drove up to Hofn once again, and looked for the reindeer again – but alas, they were sleeping it off somewhere else. We gassed up in Hofn, and got some sandwiches and cinnamon buns at the N1, and headed out. These were small cinnamon buns in a bag, and they weren’t as sweet as an American offering would be. We liked them a lot. They were addicting, like crack. This was not the last bag we bought on the trip. I think we had four in total!
Today was misty, soft weather, and we got a little rain later in the morning, but it turned brilliant by the afternoon. The mists were still strong while we were driving along the eastfjords, though. Not a lot of traffic was on the road this morning.
We have been following our route with a combination of GPS, my pre-printed googlemaps and the purchased atlas thus far. Today, they had an argument.
GPS wanted to continue on Route 1, up along a fjord before doubling back to go towards Egilsstadir, adding an hour to our already long route that day. My googlemaps showed a much shorter route on 939 over the mountains, on an F-road.
I should have listened to GPS.
We chose the mountain route, and went up along a rock and dirt road to the misty mountain tops. And up. And up some more. Very quickly, we could see nothing but mist and about 10 feet of dirt and rock road, along with a glimpse of the precipitous drop on one side of the road. It was very scary going, and I’m very glad Jason was at the wheel. We both had white knuckles for the half hour or so it took to drive across this pass.
When we finally got out of the mists, the landscape was gorgeous – green and snow vying for dominance in the now gentling landscape. Hundreds of tiny waterfalls graced the edges of vision, playing in the mists.
Once we met up with Route 1 once again, I took over driving, and Jason passed out. I don’t blame him. I took a lot of his low store of energy to navigate that pass without freaking out.
We drove through a rather varied terrain of stark mountains, lava fields, and occasional great vistas, but the frequent rains kept me from getting out and enjoying them. Eventually the rain went away and we approached the town of Egilsstadir. We found some Tiger Balm (called Tiger Balsam) for Jason’s back and legs, and I drove around the fjord while Jason rested some more. This was for a waterfall called Hengifoss, and I shouldn’t have bothered. It was another long hike up, and I just wasn’t up for such a thing at this point. There were dozens of tourists already there, though it looked lovely from what I could tell. I was getting to the point where it needed to have some great payoff for a great hike.
Another two hours’ drive and we came to Namaskard Pass. I could tell we were approaching, as the hot springs on the flanks of the pass were spouting great clouds of steam. We were too tired to check them out at this point. We passed by Myvatn Nature Baths and a teal lake. We went to Reykjahlid to gas up and use the facilities. When I got back into my car, it wouldn’t start.
About this time, I was cursing the rental company. Two cars in one week? Seriously? I wiggled the steering wheel, checked the 4WD buttons, did whatever I could think of. Not even a click. Then Jason put the car into neutral and back into park, and it worked. No idea why, or what triggered the lock, but it happened about a dozen times throughout the trip after that. At least we knew how to fix it.
We went to our next scheduled destination, Grjogagta, an cave with a hot spring that had been used in the filming of Game of Thrones, the cavern where Jon Snow and Ygritte first got together. We walked down into one of the entrances, but it was very difficult to climb, especially with kids scampering around through it. I went down a bit, got some photos, and had to come out. Jason stayed in a bit longer. It was cool, but a bit underwhelming.
We looked up at the giant crater next to us, Hverfjall, rising like a black wall against the sky – and said nope! Not climbing that. We could see people walking along the edge, and the long trip up. Nope, nope. It’s 1km across and 420 meters high (1400 ft). Nope, nope.
Instead, we went on to Dimmuborgir, another filming location for Game of Thrones, the site of Mance Rayder’s camp north of the wall. This was a surrealistic landscape of fantastic lava formations and natural sculptures. I wanted to go walk and explore, but we needed food first. We went into the café, and had some excellent Icelandic meat soup and espresso. It was even better than the last one!
Jason rested on the patio, in the now sunny skies, while I explored the area. It was very interesting to see the different formations, like violent waves frozen in time. You could see demonic faces and tortured screams in some of the rocks. Or I just have a morbid imagination! This part wasn’t too crowded. A couple of families wandering around, but not at all glutted.
Upon exiting, I saw a sign for a local folk singer, performing that evening at the café. Anna Jonsdottir. I took a photo in case Jason wanted to come later – our guesthouse for the night was about an hour away, so I am thinking he won’t, but just in case.
We stopped for a scenic view sign at Höfði, and took in a very green mossy lake and a great view across Lake Myvatn, after a short hike up the hill. Then on to Skutustadir, with a set of pseudo-craters. They look like volcanic craters, but they formed when hot lava crossed over a swamp or pond, causing an explosion of steam through the lava. The explosive gases form a crater-like feature. They were interesting, but again crawling with people. I took a couple photos, but opted to get back on the road. We were still an hour from our night’s lodging, and Jason was still pretty much out of it.
Lake Myvatn is ‘Midge Lake’, when translated. There were midges, but not the sort I remember from Scotland. They were larger, for one, and didn’t bite, which was the pleasant surprise. They did swarm, though, and get into your eyes and mouth. It wasn’t a huge bother. No worse than I’ve seen in other places. And the not-biting part was lovely! Especially since it was a warm, sunny, still day.
When we finally found our night’s lodging at Langavatn & Klambrasel, we discovered it was actually two different properties, about a kilometer apart. We went to Klambrasel first, as that was the one the GPS found. I knocked on the door, but the woman who answered (who didn’t seem to speak much English) said I should go to Langavatn, as I wasn’t on her list (she showed me a hand-written list of very Icelandic names). No worries, we trucked on down the road to Langavatn.
Langavatn is on the side of a green hill, which opened out into a lush valley and next to a long lake (which is what Langavatn translates into). There is a small bridge over a stream, and two horses on the property. The Hostess, Clarissa, was very sweet, and showed us around the place. A huge dining hall, all recently renovated in wood and glass, two downstairs bathrooms, and our room upstairs.
The place was fantastic – until the room.
Now, I knew going into Iceland that rooms are not luxurious, and no B&B rooms in Europe would be considered large by American standards. But this place was tiny. The room was about 8X10, with a 3X3 chunk taken out by the stairs in one corner. That left little room for the two twin beds and small nightstand. No room for anything else, like luggage or clothes. Or even shoes. Or a purse! We got a little room back by pushing the beds together, but even that didn’t work well – one was longer than the other, and wouldn’t fit into the gap made from that 3X3 chunk, so it was sort of diagonal, but not much. Also, the beds were much harder than we like.
Still, the rest of the place was fantastic, and it was truly out in the middle of nowhere, which was nice after the crowds of the day. The place served dinner, but they needed advanced notice, so we got settled in and drove up to Husavik, which is only about 20 minutes north of our place.
My eggs were achy from driving on cruise control most of the day, but looking forward to a nice, hot dinner kept me going. Husavik is a largish fishing town, and we were confused with the ticky-tacky day-glo items everywhere. One section of town had lime-green things posted everywhere – flags, Shrek, Kermit the Frog, other random frogs, whatever they could put. Then there was an orange section, and then a bright pink one. We decided it must be a local festival or something. I’m certain that, after months of white winter, a little day-glo color must be welcomed!
It was very crowded on the docks, because it was indeed a local festival. There were amusement park rides, vendor trucks, kiosks, temporary tattoos, candy floss (cotton candy), etc. From what we were told, it was a Home Festival. Each area had a color, and you showed your pride for your area. So people were dressed in eye-blinding colors all over the place.
We went to a seafood restaurant near the docks, but they had no meat soup, and Jason was craving it again. We went up the road to Gamli Baukur, and they had meat soup! When we finally got the hosts attention (about 10 minutes of wait staff walking by and ignoring anyone waiting at the door), we had to wait a while for a table, but got some drinks while we waited. They had Kopparberg cider (naked apple, pear and wildberry), which I’ve tried before (pear in Scotland), so I ordered a naked apple. Jason had another stout beer, not as good as Lava.
The place was decorated in wood, like the interior of a ship. Lovely carvings everywhere. We went outside on the patio to wait. A drone flew by. Seriously!
When we finally did get in, and ordered the meat soup and salted cod, we were delighted .The salted cod was amazing! Pan fried with a barley risotto, sun-dried tomatoes and an olive tepanade. So many lovely flavors. I got a second Kopparberg, this time wildberry. Yum! Jason’s meat soup wasn’t as good as at the little café in Dimmuborgir, but still tasty.
We wandered around outside after dinner. The docks were crowded, and we were having fun people-watching. We saw one food cart advertising ‘Krap!’ – which is evidently a slushie. Another cart was selling waffles with dozens of different toppings.
When we went back to our guesthouse, we had to stop to admire and take photographs, as the sun was setting into the clouds over the mountains across the bay. It was stunning, even magical.
July 26th, Sunday
Ugh. Sleeping on hard beds is hard. Halfway through the night, I separated my duvet into cover vs. stuffing, and lay the stuffing under me – that helped a bit. But still, ugh.
The breakfast was tasty – the usual suspects plus dried fruit and herring. Today we were doing what is called the Diamond Circle – around the peninsula to several sites in a big circle. After yesterday’s long drive, we needed a slightly lower key day.
It was a misty day, but not rainy. By the time we got to the coast, the sun was peeking through the morning fog. Voladalstorfa is along the coast, where lots of seabirds nest. We looked for puffins and saw some down on the water, but nothing close up. No tourists around until we were leaving, and then just one carload. I think we finally found the less well-known part of Iceland!
Asbyrgi Canyon is in the shape of a giant horseshoe. The legend is that Sleipnir, a giant six-legged horse from Norse Mythology, stepped to make the canyon. Of course, Sleipnir’s mother was Loki. Yes, that’s right – mother. Norse Mythology can get strange.
The steep sides are about 100 meters tall, and you can drive all the way in. Lots of trees, mostly birch and willow, but some pines as well. Legend also says it is the capital city of the huldafolk, the Icelandic elves, who live in the cracks within the cliffs.
We got into the center part and looked around a bit, but a tour bus arrived. So much for finding the less well-known places! Dozens of German tourists disgorged and started chattering, breaking the peaceful forest canyon. We left.
The road to Dettifoss was a rough road. It didn’t SAY it was an F-road, but I’m skeptical. The first waterfall we found was down about twenty miles on this rough road, called Hafragilsfoss. Fairly accessible, you could park on the cliff and see the waterfalls down below. It was pretty big, powerful, and lovely. Not many tourists there. Dettifoss was another matter.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and has been used in several films, including the opening scene of Prometheus. It is incredible. In order to see it, you had a rather long trek down decent rocky steps. There were LOTS of tourists, several busloads full. We walked down and appreciated the might and magic of this force of nature before returning to our car, snacking on some nectarines, and escaping the crowds once again.
There are two ways to get to Selfoss from Dettifoss. One is a long hike, the other is a long drive. We decided on the latter.
More not-quite-F-road and we found the main road once again, and then up towards Selfoss. We stopped to explore a lava bubble for a while, with a grand view of the surrounding countryside. When we got to the parking lot for Selfoss, we realized it was a 1km hike, and after the bumpy roads, we just didn’t have it in us to take the trip. In addition, there was rain threatening on the horizon, and that sealed the deal.
On the way back out, we found the hot springs again. Remember the ones we didn’t stop for near Namaskard Pass? Yup, those. This time I did get out and explore, and took lots of pictures. That is, when tourists weren’t jumping into my path while I was taking them. Lots of tourists, but a big space so I could escape them most of the time.
Again, people were concerned with the smell, but I rather liked it. Some girls were throwing up. *shrug*
We were hungry, so headed back to Husavik. We set up a reservation for a whale/puffin sightseeing tour with Gentle Giants, and went to eat dinner at Salka. We had a seafood pizza and cheese/bacon breadsticks. It was yummy! Mussels, tuna, shrimp and langostines on pizza works for me!
I tried a fruit beer called Solbert Aldin Bjor. It definitely was a beer, and I don’t like beer (too bitter) but wasn’t too bad. I might try it again someday. Jason tried the Myrkvi Stout
We waited for the whale tour by doing some people watching, and then got into our day-glo snowsuits for the tour. There were about 10 of us in total, on a boat meant for 16, I think, not crowded at all. A Norwegian family sat in front of us, on their 9th trip to Iceland.
First stop was Puffin Island, where we saw hundreds of puffins and other birds. Some were just sitting in the water, others were flying around, others were racing through the air, pumping their tiny little wings madly. They are so graceless when they take off, but they can be very fast!
When we went to look for whales, Jason spotted the whale before the pilot – three times out of five! The humpback whale surfaced five times before we lost him. The fog came in with a vengeance, and we had no visibility at all for a bit. Then the boat took off, fast! We were going about 40 knots for a good 10 minutes before we stopped. Jason was in his element, imagining himself at the prow of a Viking ship, skipping from fjord to fjord. The poor kid in the Norwegian family wasn’t feeling too good about the trip, and was let down into the cabin for a while.
Evidently a local fisherman’s boat’s engine had died, and we were the closest vessel, so we went to do a sea rescue! We towed the boat in for a while until the professional rescue crew arrived. Our own pilot was brother to one of the rescue crew.
On the way back out to find whales, we found a huge area of birds, evidently dining on some fish. Thousands of birds, just hanging out in the mists.
The fog lifted a bit, but we saw no more whales. Then the fog returned, and we decided to end the tour head back. The trip home was in very thick, dim twilight fog, but we were exhausted enough that we slept well, despite the hard beds.
July 27th, Monday
Despite the hard beds and the tiny monks’ cell of a room, we got decent rest. At least the curtains were dark enough to keep out most of the eternal light. Jason wasn’t feeling well, so after breakfast, I did a morning drive to Godafoss, which was a waterfall only about twenty minutes away.
On the way, I discovered a small set of turf-covered cottages that, when the hour was more reasonable, would be a small museum and gift shop. For now, it was closed in the misty morning dew.
Godafoss was very accessible, right off the road, and had several places where you could climb and explore. I parked a little farther down from the main area, and climbed a bit near a secondary waterfall, a much quieter spot. As early as it was, there was already a small busload of tourists at the main place.
Jason was feeling better when I returned, so we decided to try to see the next peninsula over, and cut some time out of our next day’s travel to the Westfjords. The first stop was Akureyri, the second city of Iceland.
Akureyri was a fishing/tourism city, the second largest city in Iceland. It was, by the time we got there around 11am, buzzing with a huge cruise ships’ load of tourists. There was a nice little shopping street, very touristy, and full of people. We escaped off this main drag to a fish-n-chips place for some lunch. I ordered mussels, while Jason got the fried fish, and we shared a bucket of chips. Well, a small bucket, at any rate. As we were eating, three much older patrons came in, two little old ladies and a little old man. They evidently spoke nothing but French, and were trying to inquire if the fish were fresh. Jason said he wished he remembered enough French to have helped them. They must have gotten the answer they were looking for and got their food just as we were leaving.
We drove up around the peninsula counter-clockwise, threading through small fishing villages, farms, and beautiful sun-dappled snow-laced mountainsides. The sky was brilliant blue with fluffy clouds scudding across. That was, until we got to the north edge of the peninsula, near Olafsfjörður. Then the fog rolled in. Incredible fog, thick and white. This was also, coincidentally enough, about when the paved roads ended. Joy.
We had to go very slowly along the fjord-edge roads, and stopped a couple of times just to look out into the ocean, hoping to catch sight of a whale or two. We never did see one, but the views were gorgeous. There was a long tunnel through a mountain on the edge of one fjord, and we were through to the Trollaskagi Mountains.
We decided to see if we could stop in Hofsos for some tea or coffee, but a quick drive through the town turned up no coffee shops that we could find. We did see the pool, and I had noted that they’ve an infinity-style hot pool, but Jason wasn’t up for it, so we continued on. We went down to the beach for a while and explored there, to the consternation of the resident horses.
While the peninsula (I am sure it has a name, but I don’t know it) was lovely, I think we would have been more impressed if we’d seen it earlier in our journey. It was beautiful, but nothing so different from what we’ve seen already.
The road back to Akureyri seemed quite long, and by the time we limped home, we had been on the road for eight hours. The map had said five – it lied! We were beat. My back ached from the drive, and we staggered in and collapsed on the bed. We stretched out for a while until dinner was ready at the guesthouse.
The hostess had said tonight’s supper would be Icelandic Meat Soup, and we were looking forward to it. It was a huge bowl of soup, with tomatoes, potatoes, lamb, lentils and other veggies. A different take than our previous offerings, but still delicious.
We slept early today, as tomorrow would be a long trek, even with the optional peninsula removed from the plan. In fact, I was tired enough that I decided we should remove the second peninsula from the plan as well, and go as straight as we could, with few detours. This would mean I would miss visiting Flugumyri, the Ketubjorg Cliffs and waterfall, and the Kalfshamarsvik basalt columns, as well as the Hvitserkur rock formations, but I decided I’d seen enough of these things for the moment, and just wanted to get to our next stop.
July 28th, Tuesday
Borgarvirki Basalt Fortress
Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft
We got an early start, breakfasted, and headed onto the road by 7:30am. There was a little bit of rain and mist in the early morning sun, but it cleared away to a bright blue sky by mid-morning. In fact, the wind was low and it was downright balmy, probably near 60 degrees, for most of the day. Yesterday had been warmer as well, at least while the fog wasn’t blanketing us.
We made it to Akureyri (the cruise ship was gone), but we didn’t stop for more than gas and snacks before we continued on Route 1 towards the west. Go west, young man! We did take a small detour towards Borgarvirki, a 1200 year old stone fortress made from basalt on a tall hill, with a rocky dirt road (not an F-Road!) to it. The location was eminently impressive, commanding a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside, and the rock building within the formation was reminiscent to me of the construction at Dun Aengosa on the Aran Islands of Ireland. I clambered around the place for a while in the sun and the midges before I returned.
We stopped a little later at a local Viking handwork shop, bought some books, jewelry, and other local handcrafts. I eyed the small freezer with local lamb and rabbit meat, and regretted not having kitchen facilities. With a sigh, we moved on, but not before taking a photo of a yellow Minion on a yellow toilet on a roof. Why? Who knows.
We finally started to skirt the edges of the Westfjords. I had not originally planned for us to visit the Westfjords. I had time for either that or the Snaefellsness peninsula, and waffled between the two choices. I am glad I stuck with the Westfjords. They are stunning!
While dirt roads are common out there, they were still in decent shape and we made it to Holmavik, a lovely fishing village. We were starved, so stopped at the first restaurant we saw. It turned out to be the only real restaurant (there is a soup/sandwich café at the Sorcery Museum) in town. Café Riis turned out to be a good choice.
The décor was cool – lots of wood carving and Icelandic hex symbols. Jason decided to try the marinated whale meat, while I tried the smoked lamb with blueberry compote and gravlax (smoked salmon). The place was mostly empty when we arrived but, true to form, people started pouring in just after we ordered. Jason had a stout beer while I had a Scottish carbonated alcoholic ginger beer with raspberries called Crabbie’s.
The whale was incredibly tasty. It was served in a savory pepper gravy, and we couldn’t get enough. The smoked lamb was almost black, and worked perfectly with the sweet compote. And I’ve never had bad smoked salmon in my life! We were stuffed and sated.
Our hotel for the night was Steinhusid, but we had to check in at the sister hotel, Finna Hotel. We were still a bit early for check in, so we went to explore the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, which was across the street from Steinhusid.
This was a sweet little place with a storyteller outside, and all sorts of exhibits and information inside. Most witches in Iceland were men, unlike most of Europe, who seemed to have it in for friendless old ladies with black cats. Also, most witches in Iceland were from one or two families. There was a fascinating exhibit of a thing called Necropants. Yes, Necropants. Evidently, if a sorcerer gets the permission of a man before he dies, and then skins him from the waist down and gets it all in one piece, he can wear these pants. He must steal a coin from a widow, and hide the coin in the scrotum of the Necropants overnight while he wears them. The coin will double. It will do that each night, but they get harder and harder to take off. If you die without removing them, your soul is doomed. You must find someone to step into one leg before you remove your other leg to transfer them. There is evidently not a lot to do in Iceland in the winter but create unusual rituals! We bought some stuff in the bookstore, and toddled back up to Finna Hotel.
Despite the fact that road construction made the place look like Sarajevo, check in at Finna was simple. I believe the young lady’s name was Hrafnhulda, and I only saw her the once, but she explained everything. The rooms in Steinhusid were upstairs, about 5 of them. Downstairs was a full kitchen, dining room and lounge, as well as a large bathroom (half bath upstairs). There was a small deck on the second floor you could see the bay from. Our one window had a nice, thick covering, which let in very little light. Yay! It wasn’t a huge room, but certainly bigger than the last.
We met Mike and Michelle, two travelers from North Yorkshire, and I had a nice long chat with them while Jason rested. He is an EMT, while she teaches English, and sings folks songs. We talked of education, history, travel, Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bernard Cornwell books, Vancouver, Ren Fairs, and all sorts of things. Sweet folk! They’d been several times to Reyjkavik and the Westfjords, but nowhere else in Iceland.
Once Jason had rested and we repacked, we came down for dinner. Our choices were Café Riis or Café Riis, so, guess what? We chose Café Riis! (The Museum café was closed by now, it was 8pm).
I tried a burger with bacon and egg on top this time, while Jason had the cod chins. I’d never had them before, but they were tender and delicious. Sort of like a tender scallop more than fish. I tried a different flavor of Crabbie’s, while Jason had the Einstok porter. He preferred Lava Beer. After dinner we relaxed in the lounge for a bit before crashing into nice, soft, welcoming beds.
July 29th, Wednesday.
Breakfast at Finna Hotel was delicious. They bake their own sweet mini-pastries, and had what looked like homemade Skyr. I tried it unadulterated for the first time here – with no sweets or additives. I quickly added several mounded tablespoons of brown sugar, and then it was lovely. Ha! There is a delightful view from the breakfast room of the bay, and the sunlight already glinted on the water.
The clerk disappeared when we were ready to go, so I determined to pay her next time (breakfast was extra in this lodging). We set off for Isafjordur.
The trip to that town was along the coast of the Westfjords. Well, one of the coasts. Let me explain – well, let me sum up. There are three big peninsulas in the Westfjords, made up of about a hundred tiny ones. Holmavik is based on the north coast of the base of all three, but the main road (61) goes around the middle peninsula. That was our goal for the day. To go through Isafjordur, down through Þingeyri, to Dynjandi, and around the south coast of the middle peninsula back to Holmavik. In total, this should be at least a 7 hour drive, so we prepped ourselves for a long day.
The initial drive was across some mountains, and we were about 350-400 meters up. For those of you like me who are metrically-challenged, this is about 1200-1300 feet. Not a huge distance up as mountains go, but the roads were narrow and dirt, and the views were sublime. Clear blue mountain lakes (tarns) dotted the area, frequent chunks of ice still clung stubbornly to the slopes, and countless tiny mares’ tail waterfalls feathered the hills. Checking the temperature, it was about 4 degrees Celsius up here, despite the bright sun shining down. That translates to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It had been 14 (57) the day before near sea level.
We made it to the ‘central’ peninsula, and started going in and out around the north coast of this section. The mountains were often ‘table-top’ mountains, flat along the top with ridges along the edge, waterfalls and greenery dripping down the side. Tiny farms and lone cottages were sprinkled along the edges, with an occasional hamlet of five or six buildings clinging to the center of the fjord. We saw an abandoned house with crenellations like a castle, the reflections of the fjord in clear, still waters. There were ducks and arctic geese taking advantage of the low tide. Jason spied a line of red in the rock layers, and went to investigate – red clay had evidently been under a lava flow, hardened but brittle.