(Jun 27 – Jul 6, 2008)
It’s day 4 of our Iceland trip and we are sitting in Húsavík, the “Whale Watching Capital of Europe”. It’s the 1st of July, and the weather is really bad: 7°C, low-hanging dark clouds, strong wind and rain! Time to start writing this trip journal, and to catch a break from the non-stop program of highlights and activities! For several months prior to the trip Jill had been planning this adventure to the Arctic North of Iceland. This was her most ambitious project yet, with all the destinations, tours, hotels, etc. researched and booked in advance by herself via the Internet. It seemed as if she had already been in all the places, put together a notebook full of places to see, with links to websites, adventure articles from the New York Times and so forth – now we just had to go there and see for ourselves!
Using Google’s Mapmaker functionality, here is a map of Iceland with the ring-road, a good approximation of our trip. (Number x indicates our overnight stay on Day x.)
The day starts as usual with a Friday morning in the office. Lots of work towards the end of the quarter and mid-year made this last week quite busy at work. Around noon Jill comes to the office and picks me up. We drive to Fort Lauderdale airport and get ready for the afternoon flight to New York City. From there we catch the Iceland Air flight to Reykjavík, which departs late at night and will bring us to the far North…
We arrive in Reykjavík at 6:00am local time, something like 2:00am at night Eastern time. You can imagine we haven’t slept much, but there is some sunshine and we proceed to get our luggage. Some model of a Viking ship greets the arriving traveler.
We get our rental car, a small Toyota. Even this little car is expensive, like everything else in Iceland it seems. At least the Icelandic Kroner devalued to the US Dollar lately, which gives us a better exchange rate than at any time in the last few years. Still, meals and overnight stays will be extremely expensive by US standards – better not to convert every meal price so as to not constantly think about how expensive meals are etc.
When we walk out to the parking area for the rental cars we are greeted by a cold wind, not expecting this brisk air after months of humid heat in Florida! (Reminds me of coming back to Fargo in late fall when I lived there.) We need to get out our Gore-Tex jackets and hats. Little do we know that we will wear these practically all the time when outside for the next couple of days…
We start our drive from Keflavík airport to the city of Reykjavík. 2/3 of all Icelanders live in the Reykjavík area, some 200.000+ people. The day starts on the sunny side, but the wind is really cold. We stroll to the visitor center and get our tickets for the Puffin Express later today.
Next we get a good cup of coffee at a local Kaffitar coffee-shop and then we stroll around town. We walk up to the Hallgrímskirkja, the most famous landmark and tallest structure in all of Iceland.
We can go inside this beautiful church as well as up the tower. Unfortunately they recently started renovating the tower, so we have the scaffolding and noisy machinery to deal with. Nevertheless the view from up there is pretty scenic. I manage to stitch together a nice 270° panorama.
(See this and many other panorama shots here).
We visit the National Museum, where we learn about the 1000+ year history of Iceland’s first settlers, Vikings, Christianization, arts and crafts etc.
Then we walk over to the Tjörnin, the pond by Reykjavík’s Ráðhús (City Hall).
Later we head back to the harbor, only to learn that the boat tour to see Puffins is cancelled due to the high winds – a little bit of a disappointment. Well, we continue with some additional points of interest, like stainless steel sculpture “Sólfar” (“Sun Voyager”) on Reykjavík’s waterfront.
The wind is blowing at a steady 50km/h or so, and it’s a biting cold blast. Before we head on out to our first evening destination, we stop in the Ráðhús which offers a gallery and a large map of the mountaineous island.
After warming up inside this warm and friendly building we take to the road and drive out to Þingvellir, Iceland’s first National Park and site of the first parliament.
When approaching this site, one can see its unique geography.
The 40m cliff I’m standing atop is the edge of the North-American tectonic plate on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge! It is the only place in the world where the Transatlantic rift valley is above sealevel and can be seen without a submarine. The European and North-American plates drift apart at a speed of about 7mm per year. This doesn’t sound like much, but it means that since 1000 years ago when this place was first used as a place of parliament, there is an additional 7m of land between the two plates. What you see in the picture below the cliff is a rift valley, filled by upwelling magma which cools and hardens as the plates make way. (The only other rift valley in the world is in Tanzania, see for example the pictures of our last big trip here.)
After we check into Hotel Valhöll, our overnight stay, we dress warmly and come out for another late evening stroll.
This photo was taken at almost 8:00pm local time, but the sun would shine for another 2-3 hours or so.
We walk along the big cliff and learn about how the local people in centuries past used this place as a way to gather annually and govern themselves, as well execute draconian sentences for people who broke the laws. For example the deathy sentence awaited anyone who was stealing, men were decaptiated, women were drowned in a pool we were walking past… Maybe this is one of the reasons that Iceland is one of the safest places with one of the lowest crime rates in the world today?
Anyway, the views and colors in the evening sun are really spectacular, what a special place!
We celebrate our first evening in Iceland with a nice dinner at the local hotel and restaurant, which is also the only “game in town”. We are off to a great start. Due to sleep deficit, jet lag and lots of fresh air I am so tired that I am practically asleep by the time I hit the pillow – 10 hours of solid slumber…
This morning we have breakfast in the hotel and are soon back on the road. The next leg of our journey crosses a bit more into the interior of the island.
Shortly thereafter the road is no longer paved and we drive across gravel for ~80 km or so. The land is wild, vegetation is sparse and there are hardly any farms or houses in the interior.
One of our next destinations is the Hraunfossar/Barnafoss pair of waterfalls. These are our first significant waterfalls. Except for Jill tripping on a rock and taking a fall cutting open her left knee this is a good stop.
Shortly thereafter our road connects again with the ring-road around Iceland. On this main road we continue towards our next stop, Varmahlíð. We reach the first Fjords of the Arctic Ocean to the North. Some lonely farmsteads line the road, together with their fields and the plastic covered balls of hay.
After a short coffee break in Blönduós we cross over another pass to the East and reach the small town of Varmahlíð.
Despite the occasional breaks of sunshine it is still very cold and windy outside, so even when we stop for a scenic view we need to wear our Gore-Tex to go outside.
For this afternoon we have planned to go horseback riding. There is a nearby farm that organizes rides on Icelandic horses.
These horses are very sturdy and have been bred purely in Iceland for more than a thousand years. We go for a nice 2 hour ride and even cross the local river twice.
It’s a fun way to get to see the local surroundings and we have a good time. Jill especially enjoys horseback riding. My only complaint after two hours is that my feet are wet and cold from the water of the river crossing and my bottom is not used to sitting in this particular saddle for quite a long time…
We finish our riding at almost 7:00pm and return to the cabin. After being out and about in the cold wind for a while I can use a hot shower – or even better, a hot tub!
Thankfully our cabins are arranged in a circle around a nice hot tub in the center. So we both don our bathing suits, brave the elements for a brisk walk between cabin and pool and then submerge in the hot waters of the tub.
Tonight is the Eurocup soccer final between Spain and Germany; many locals are planning to watch the game in the nearby hotel. However we decide that we prefer to sightsee some more due to the fair weather and the 24 hr daylight situation this time of the year. We feel that we haven’t come to this remote place to then sit in front of a TV…
We drive a bit North to the little town of Sauðárkrókur for dinner. On the way we pass the Glaumbær Folk Museum, a small museum of historic turf houses as they were built in the Nineteenth Century.
For the little town of Sauðárkrókur the guide books show two main restaurants, but one of them must have recently burned down as all that remains is a burned out ruin and mess of wood and metal. So we go across the street and have dinner at Olafshús. It’s interesting to sit in this warm cozy restaurant, look outside and have cold weather and the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean less than 100m away. Sometimes icebergs drift into these bays and slowly melt away. Most recently, two polar bears came ashore near Sauðárkrókur, the first polar bear sightings in Iceland in more than 20 years. Apparently, they drifted to Iceland from Greenland. Tragically, both polar bears were shot.
We also notice a group of seven Turkish travelers, who eat on an adjacent table. We don’t know this yet, but we will encounter these same folks many days and hundreds of km later again and again, all the way back to the Blue Lagoon and the airport in Keflavík…
Spontaneously we decide after dinner to drive North to the little old fishing village of Siglufjörður. I remark to Jill that this is somewhat similar to California’s Route 66 and the Ocean road near Santa Barbara. And indeed, she replies that this route crosses the 66th Northern Meridian, which makes this one of the Northern-most places we’ve been to. (The Arctic Circle lies at 66.3 degrees North, so it’s less than 100km away from where we are now.)
It’s a bit dark for photography due to low hanging clouds and low sun, but we can still get a glimpse of this remote place and the cliff hugging road leading up to it. We can also see a few light-houses along the way.
The village of Siglufjörður itself is just a small outpost which used to do well many decades ago as a local center for Hering fishing. Due to over-fishing and sharp herring declines this is no longer commercially significant or a viable industry. Honestly I don’t know what these people up here are doing for a living…
On the way back we take pictures of our version of midnight sun, reflected in the low hanging clouds and the various hill sides around us as well as the two local islands Málmey and Drangey (famous for bird watching and the site of Grettir’s Saga, one of Iceland’s best known sagas) in the bay. The timestamp of the photos shows several minutes past midnight…
The morning starts with breakfast in the cabin next door.
Our program for today starts with river rafting of the East river. With class IV rapids, this is one of the Northern-most rivers for rafting anywhere. We meet in the nearby office of the adventure rafting company to get outfitted for this trip. They provide excellent gear, everything from head (helmet) to toe (booty) and in-between (dry-suit, gloves, paddle, etc.) Here Jill is trying to get into the dry-suit.
Once fully equipped we get into the jeep and drive for about 45 minutes into the gorge of the “Austari Jökulsá”, which loosely translates into “East Glacier River” (coming from the Hofsjökull glacier to the South). The drive provides time to get acquainted with the other passengers (Jonny and Emelie from Sweden) as well as the three river guides (two from Nepal, one from Canada). Eventually we arrive at the put-in and dismount the raft.
Our main guide Robin explains the basic techniques and commands. The other two guides will accompany the raft on their little white-water kayaks as a safety measure. It turns out the last time I had been river-rafting was some 21 years ago (1987 on the Shotover river in Queenstown, New Zealand), but the feeling of floating down on the river is still familiar.
The weather is cool, but not uncomfortable due to the excellent gear and equipment. Of course the water is very cold, but even that wouldn’t be a problem due to the dry-suits.
We negotiate a couple of rapids and quickly get a feel for the handling of the raft. Our guide seems very experienced and navigates all rocks and rapids with ease.
About one hour into the trip we push the raft to the side and walk downstream to look at a key section of the river, where three consecutive rapids demand the rafters full attention. The two guides enter the rapids first.
They say that when there is high water, then they don’t ride through this section as it would be too dangerous. However today the water flow is fine and we soon pass this interesting section without any problems.
We continue further downstream and keep warm through sections of paddling. At some point Robin asks whether we are afraid of heights. I’m not sure what he means by that, but it soon turns out there is a cliff of about 7m which can be climbed and jumped from. So we park our raft and can show that we’re not afraid of heights…
I’m amazed at the difference between the safety concerns between this Icelandic tour operator and American tour operators. In the US it would be inconceivable for them to allow guests to do something like this, not to mention the fact that here there are no liability waivers to sign or anything. They simply assume that you use common sense and are responsible for the consequences of your own actions. I noticed this as well at the various attractions like waterfalls, where there are generally far less gates, fences or railings. People can walk right up to the cliff and there is no safety – one extra step and they could easily tumble to their death – still, this seems to work just fine.
After about 2 hours on the river we finally reach the take-out point. We walk up a steep hill, while a winch operated by an old tractor engine pulls up the raft and kayaks – again a scenic, but not particularly safe procedure …
We drive back in the same jeep, which is now heated to the max to warm our stiff bones. After a total opf about 4 hours we’re back at the adventure shop. We return the gear, enjoy some warm coffee and exchange some email addresses. I also copy my pictures – courtesy to the waterproof Olympus camera – for the Canadian river guide. (Another thing that changed compared to 21 years ago…)
We soon depart and head East towards Akureyri, one of the few cities other than Reykjavík. First we drive through the scenic valley of Őxnadalur.
The weather alternates between brief sunny spots and dark clouds with the occasional shower. In between showers the visibility is very clear and we enjoy the frequent changes in light and mood.
We don’t stop in Akureyri – 2nd largest city in Iceland - other than for a few pictures at a scenic overlook.
I like the long small fjord called Eyjafjörður and compare the scenery to Lausanne above Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Soon after leaving the town we’re back to the familiar landscape of lonely farmsteads and their meadows.
Our destination for tonight is the Lake Mývatn near the little town of Reykjahlið. But our next stop is the famous Goðafoss, waterfall of the Gods. Legend has it that the leader of the Icelandic people, about 1000 years ago, who after much deliberation in Þingvellir had decided to convert with his people to Christianity, that he returned to his home area nearby and came to the falls to throw all his other religious artifacts into the falls as a symbolic gesture of converting to Christianity. Since then these are called the waterfall of the Gods.
We spend about an hour in this area, take lots of pictures and then warm up at the local gas station and shop. Here Jill also buys a hand-knit sweater from a collective of Icelandic women – not that we will need this much in Florida, but it definitely is a useful souvenir from Iceland.
We continue our drive in the evening towards Lake Mývatn. This is an area of dramatic volcanic forms, with many large eruption craters and calderas as well as many small socalled pseudo-craters dotting the lake. We arrive and check in at Vógar for our room. We have dinner in the Vogafjós Cowshed Café, the local attraction operated by the same folks who rent our room. Why people would find it interesting to watch cows in a cow-shed through glass windows while eating their dinner / breakfast I will never know, perhaps because of the fresh milk you can drink right after the cows are milked in the morning.
We go out for a late evening stroll around a section of the lake with many small pseudo craters. This is a bird paradise, however it starts to rain and so it is pretty miserable and we’re happy to be back after a 1 hr walk in the cold evening rain…
After breakfast in the Cowshed Café we pack our bags and get ready for a half-day of exploring the local surroundings. One of our first destinations is the nearby volcanic crater of Hverfjall. There is a trail around the 200m high and 800m wide crater which takes about 45mins to walk. Here is a 270° panoramic view from the crater rim.
When we get to the top we notice very strong and gusty winds of maybe 50-80km/h, in gusts perhaps up to 100 km/h. Walking becomes difficult at those wind speeds. Dust and small pebbles start flying horizontally and hit your face and eyes. The wind is such that you can noticably lean against it, almost like a free-falling skydiver stops accelerating further because the force of the wind balances the force of gravity. This makes for some difficult and erratic walking, but also some fun leaning into the wind.
The temperature is below 10°C, so again a day which definitely calls for full clothing, including Gore-Tex jacket and pants, hat, and gloves. Needless to say that after 1 hr of such wind-chill we are happy to be back at the car. Our next destination should be a bit less exposed. For that we chose the Dimmuborgir lava field, an interesting collection of lava formations creating some sort of labyrinth with various walking trails. At one spot there is also a gyrfalcon nesting, which makes for some interesting bird watching and tele-zoom lens photography.
After this 1 hr walk we continue to explore. There is the nearby Krafla power-plant which creates electricity by tapping into geo-thermal hot water resources. Various hot water sources are connected via pipelines to a central power-station which converts the thermal energy into electricity – some 80% of Iceland’s energy supply comes form geo-thermal sources!
We even see a few bike riders, which seems to be an extremely arduous and trying way to get to see Iceland. In conditions where you learn to park your car into the wind (so that the wind doesn’t rip the car door out of your hand), it is hard to imagine riding into the wind by bicycle. We watch one bicyclist literally crawling over the next hill and into the wind…
Iceland by bicycle – only for extremely tough riders.
Behind the next hill we stop at the Námafjall fissure, an area of volcanic activity with hot sulphuric bubbling ponds and steaming vents.
Next stop is the Stóra-Víti caldera, located in the Krafla volcanic system, another interesting piece of evidence for volcanic activity. “Víti”, which means “hell” in Icelandic, was formed by an large eruption in 1724.
We walk around the Víti caldera and through the lava field of Leirhnjúkur, which one guide aptly described as a “post-apocalyptic” landscape. There are many different colors and types of rock, from purple to green and black. This would seem to be especially interesting for geologists who want to study the formations and their geologic origin.
While this is all quite interesting to look at, after another hour of windy and cold outdoors we feel cold and tired. We decide to move on and drive towards our next destination, Húsavík. The main attraction here is whale watching. Jill had done the research and had booked us on a whale watching trip for 8:00pm. It turns out that we are ahead of our daily schedule, and so while we’re driving Jill is calling ahead and booking us on an earlier trip at 5:00pm. As it turns out, however, both the 5:00pm and the 8:00pm trip are cancelled due to the poor weather conditions. It is raining, and low hanging clouds limit the visibility to a few hundred meters. Hard to imagine the beauty of the fjord which we see only from blue-sky postcard photos.
All whale watching boats remain docked in the harbour, and we go back to our hotel room. The first time in this vacation that we have some extra hours, which I am using to start writing this trip report… We are booked for the whale watching trip the next morning.
After breakfast in the Gistiheimli Árból we go back to the harbor to board the trip on the two-masted schooner. We are wearing pretty much every piece of clothing we brought on our vacation to stay warm while on the Ocean.
It turns out again that the waterproof digital Olympus camera is very valuable, just like at the various previous opportunities (river-rafting) due to the rain. We leave the harbor and proceed to the North towards the small island of Lundey, well known for its large population of Puffin birds.
Indeed after we get close to the island we see thousands of the white puffins nesting in the cliffs. Estimates are of 150 to 200 thousand birds on this little island!
Jill takes a few good photo shots with her 18x zoom Olympus camera.
After this first hour or so we proceed across the entire bay of Skjalfandi, perhaps some 15km across. Unfortunately we hardly see more than a few km, only see land once we get close enough and certainly do not see the surrounding mountains. The moderate wind causes up to 2m waves which roll the schooner around quite a bit. Several passengers get sea-sick and a few actually bend over the reling and depart with their breakfast.
Twice we see a group of dolphins, but unfortunately we don’t see any whale despite most passengers scanning the horizons for any sign of a whale. Even the dolphins only briefly come out of the water so that I don’t get any picture despite trying several times. What a disappointment after this cold trip! Jill comments that this was her third unsuccessful attempt to see whales and asks herself the cynical question why she paid the trip fare to get seasick and miserably cold without seeing any whale…
We even set sails towards the end of the trip, but more because it’s part of the program, not because anyone really appreciates it. Once the sails are up and rainwater is dripping down on everyone we get cups of hot chocolate and (cold) watery cinnamon rolls to “warm” our spirits.
Ultimately, the main reason for smiling at the end of this cold 4 hr sailing trip is the prospect of a warm and dry environment, which we find after changing our rain-soaked cloths in our rental car. With the heat on full blast we leave a foggy Húsavík. The road ahead looks like this:
We need to remind ourselves that we’re near the Arctic Circle and that cold, rainy weather is the norm up here, even in the summer. Still, it doesn’t help that the locals complain about the “exceptionally bad” weather and how nice it was just last week…
Our next destination is Ásbyrgi in the Norđurland Eystra, the North-East part of the Island. Here in the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, Iceland’s largest glacier, the Vatnajökull, sends its melting waters to the North in the form of one large river, the Jökulsá á Fjöllum. This creates many interesting waterfalls, a few of which we will visit today. One of the few dry spots today is the small visitor center in Ásbyrgi. One wall shows a large photo of the Dettifoss waterfall at a time of very high water flow. Here is the photo of the photo.
Dettifoss is the largest waterfall in Europe as measured by the product of amount of water volume (300-600 m3/sec) and vertical drop (~40m). About 2 hours and many km of dirt road later we are standing on the edge in the bottom left corner of this precipice!
This is very impressive. Jill and I spend about 2 hours among all three waterfalls (Hafragilsfoss, Dettifoss, and Selfoss), walking up the river to see and feel the tumbling waters. Here we stand in front of Selfoss.
The third of the three waterfalls (Hafragilsfoss) is visible from the rim perhaps 100m above the falls.
After this impressive array of waterfalls we continue our drive South to connect back with the (paved) ring-road. We have to drive a total of nearly 100km of dirt road. The landscape is barren, as in most areas in the interior of the island.
Strong wind and rolling hills create some interesting cloud formations which in turn produce stunning contrasts between bright sunshine and dark shadows, as can be seen in the following composite picture.
Our next stop is the town of Egilsstaðir, a regional hub. Here we follow the guidebook recommendations to a good restaurant and enjoy a good piece of beef with a glas of red-wine. Despite being nearly prohibitivley expensive, after several days of just lamb and fish, a good piece of meat is high on the preference list…
Notice also Jill’s new Icelandic wool sweater J As it turns out, our neighbours on the next table are two travelers from Switzerland which we recognize again after having seen them on the whale watching boat earlier today. This happened several times to us that we saw the same folks again and again – many people follow the ring-road and have similar destinations and pace around Iceland. We will se them again tomorrow in Seyðisfjörður, our final destination for today.
We need to cross one more pass of about 700m to reach the small village of Seyðisfjörður in the fjord of the same name on the Western side of the Iceland.
We cross the pass and notice some skiing lifts and still some remnants of snow.
The clouds are hanging low, but at least we can see the fjord. (Tomorrow we will go kayaking in the fjord, but we won’t see any mountains…)
From our bedroom in the Hotel Snæfell the view looks like this.
The timber for these small wooden houses was brought in by ship from Norway some 200 years ago, as there was hardly any forest left on Iceland when these homes were built. We go to bed and hope for the best for the weather the next day as we have our kayaking trip booked for the next morning…
The clouds have descended, there is poor visibility, it is cold and rainy. Not exactly the best kayaking weather. Over a hearty breakfast we meet our kayaking guide Hlynur, who checks with us whether we want to go out. We say yes! After all, we have come all this way and look forward to the workout and the outdoor experience, nevermind the poor conditions…
We are each fitted into one of the single kayaks and take off in the area where a small river empties into the bay. Fresh water to the left, salt water to the right.
It feels good to be in a kayak again. Also, with the cold and damp weather, we relish the physical activity to keep us warm. And with the spray skirt we stay dry within the kayak.
Our guide Hlynur leads us out to the fjord on one side. While we don’t see much of the mountains due to the low hanging clouds and fog, it’s still fun to paddle along the many little streams coming down from the surrounding mountains.
Our guide brought a small bottle of water along, which is only partially filled with water. I’m thinking well, in this cold weather, we won’t need much to drink anyway. At one point, Linnur paddles up to one of the little streams and just refills his bottle with fresh water, drinking water quality J Not too many places where you can paddle in the Ocean and do this!
We learn a bit about the history of Seyðisfjörður, which served as a center for the local fishing industry, primarily the catch and processing of herring. They used to have fish factories here where workers were salting the fresh catch and preparing it for being shipped to remote places. With the depletion of herring stock this industry became obsolete and they closed the factory.
After 1 hr of paddling out the fjord on the Northern shore we cross the bay towards the Southern side of the bay. For this Hlynur brought a compass so as to not get disorientated on the Ocean. It is a bit eery out on the flat water without any visual reference point.
Today Seyðisfjörður is the port for a ferry ship from Norway or Denmark, which brings tourists to Iceland. At one point we actually start eharing the low frequency rumble of a big engine, and Hlynur points out that the ferry will come in shortly. Minutes later we see the big ship emerge from the fog.
As we are paddling back to our departure point we pass by the huge ship. It dwarfs our little boats and creates a bit of a cross-water as it uses its engine and propellers to maneuver sideways into the dock.
Shortly thereafter we’re back and say good-bye to our guide Hlynur.
Today we have a long drive ahead of us; however we are quite cold and a bit wet, so we’re happy to just sit in the car, turn on the heater and get warm and dry again.
First we backtrack the road over the local pass back to Egilsstaðir. From here we drive towards the South to Reyðarfjörður. Here Alcoa built a massive aluminum smelter has recently gone into operation. The project has been very controversial in Iceland. In order to power the plant, the Icelandic government constructed the Kárahnjúkar Dam, which resulted in the submersion of 57 sq km of wilderness. However, the construction of the smelter has created about 1000 jobs – a boon for a region that has been economically depressed. The Icelandic government provided large subsidies for the company and there is also cheap energy from geo-thermal sources, which is key for the energy-hungry production of aluminum. We’re on the other side of the bay, but can still imagine the huge size of this complex (the building is 2 km long) from a distance.
One can clearly see the impact of this mega-project to the local region; for example there is a large complex of small apartments for the workers to live in – the local town only had a few hundred inhabitants. Likewise, the town in the next fjord, Fáskrúðsfjörður, which used to be 1 hr drive away along a narrow road hugging the cliffs along the Ocean, has been brought much closer to Reyðarfjörður, maybe a 15 min drive due to a modern road tunnel. So there is a trade-off between jobs and infrastructure development on one side and environmental protection on the other side…
The drive is scenic, in as much as the weather allows for the scenery to be seen. Often Jill comments after reading about points of interest from our tour guide books that the best part about those would be that we could actually see them! (Has not always been the case on this trip.) We continue along the coast, meandering in and out from one fjord to the next. Our next stop is in Stöðvarfjörður, where an old lady (Petra) – now in her eighties – had accumulated over the decades what now amounts to the largest private collection of minerals in the world. We’re not particularly interested in rocks and minerals, so we just look at her house and garden from the outside.
Across the street there is a parking spot with large dried whale bones scattered around. Probably the largest vertebrae of any living animal you can pick up on this planet…
The cliffs are quite scenic, with the by now usual pattern of low-cloud and rain on the windward side and some sun and few clouds on the downwind side.
Our next stop is near the Breiðdalsvík (which translates into broad valley bay) at a fabulous German restaurant called Café Margret. They served the best apple pie in all of Iceland.
After this treat of afternoon coffee and cake we continue on the ring road down to Höfn in the South-East. Some stretches of the road are not paved yet, and those are a real challenge for the bicycle riders which we see again in small numbers today.
The scenery is rugged and untamed; we stop at a lookout point to observe the birds nesting there.
After a long and exhausting drive we finally reach Höfn, a local tourist center for visits to the largest glacier (Vatnajökull) and the Skaftafell National Park. In Höfn we walk around a local bay to stretch our legs and also to enjoy the local birds.
There is even the occasional ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds.
After dinner in the local Kaffi Hornið, we drive a little further to our destination for the day, the farm of Brunnhóll, where we will stay in a nice little room with the most spectacular view from our bedroom window out towards the large glaciers.
And with nealry 24 hrs of daylight we can enjoy this view all night, so we don’t even close the blinds until we fall asleep…
Our first stop today is the famous ice lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Here a glacier calves into a small lake where you can see icebergs floating out to the sea.
This otherwordly landscape is easily accessible, right off the ring road. Consequently there are plenty of tour buses and tourists. They offer rides in amphibious trucks that float out in between the icebergs. My only complaint here is that the otherwise eery calm is over-shadowed by the rumble of the diesel engines which resonate in the entire bay…
One book says it best: Due to the easy access this spot has been turned into a tourist conveyor belt: “Get off the tour bus, get in line for a ticket, get on the floats, return to the visitor center and exit throught the gift shop.”
We avoid the crowds and just walk along the shores of the ice lagoon. The impressions are equally rewarding. Unfortunately we can’t see the actual glacier or even the mountains due to the fog. Nevertheless we get a good feel for this icy landscape.
The water of the ice lagoon emtpies via a river into the ocean. Garage-size chunks of ice drift down this river and finally get stranded somewhere on the beach, depending on the tidal flows and winds. What remains are some car-sized chunks of ice on black lava sand beach, dripping of melt water and slowly fading away.
We continue further towards the Skaftafell National Park. Along the way we stop for another glacial lagoon, Breiðárlón . This one is a bit more remote, but offers much better views of the glacier and surrounding mountains. Here is a 180° composite panorama photo.
After this more scenic interlude we continue driving South on the ring-road. Again there are some bicyclists who brave the elements.
Shortly after noon we arrive at the Skaftafell National Park. This park offers access to the glaciers and mountains. It has recently been merged with the Vatnajökull National Park to become the largest protected wilderness park in Europe. This is probably the best place for hiking, if only the weather would cooperate a bit more…
We stop at the visitor center and enjoy some of their exhibits. For example, there is a video of the 1998 eruption of a volcano under the glacier, triggered by an earthquake, which caused subsequent melting of glacial ice, followed by mud and water being blocked behind a dam of ice, until after a few weeks the mass of the water became too much for the ice to hold back. This resulted in a huge glacier run, which was filmed by helicopter crews. There were house-size boulders of rock and ice tumbling down the mountain and this flow of ice and mud took out three bridges on the ring-road. A once-in-a-lifetime geological event.
Then we start with an easy 1hr walk from the visitor center to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. We start in the green meadows around the visitor center, and we can for once hike without the Gore-Tex, if only for a ½ hour or so.
Later we approach the glacier and cold wind forces us to wear the Gore-Tex again.
Upon return to the visitor center we warm up again over a hot chocolate and a snack to eat. Despite the weather being unfriendly – cold drizzle continues – we want to do another 1.5 hr hike to the Svartifoss waterfall. This waterfall shows some special rock formations of slowly hardening basaltic lava.
We continue and combine this trail with another trail to a 300m high viewpoint high above the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. From there we can look down to where we had been walking earlier.
We also get a better sense of the vast expanse of this glacier – mind you we only see a very small fraction at the mouth of this huge glacier field. The Vatnajökull icefield is roughly like a circle with a diameter of 100km!
With this extra detour it takes us about 2.5 hrs to get back to the visitor center and our car. It’s almost 6:00pm and we have another 150km of driving ahead of us. Our destination for tonight is Vík, the southernmost village of Iceland. Along the way we pass some blue fields of lupins.
We reach Vík around 8:00pm. After checking in with our hotel we walk across the street to have dinner in what is probably the only restaurant in town. We wonder about the incentives for the waiters to provide good service and food, given that they will not earn any tips (there is no tipping in all of Iceland), they are the only game in town and most of these tourists will not be repeat customers. Nevertheless we get some good pizza and service, which we’re quite happy about.
After dinner at 9:30pm we go for a little walk on the beach and take pictures of some cliffs and towering rock formations.
Then we decide to go for a little drive to the cliffs of Dyrhólaey, where large black rock cliffs erode in the incessant surf of the Ocean. There are some very scenic and unique rock formations we can watch – and even climb.
There are also numerous sea birds nesting up here, which gives ample photo opportunities.
It’s already 11:00pm but we still have enough daylight to take some pictures. We drive around one cliff to obtain a better view of the famous tall rock arch. Like with the ice lagoon they offer tours with amphibious trucks / boats going through the rock arches from a small farm stead near the beach. I drive to the end of the gravel road, and there are just a few hundred meters to the beach. Despite Jill’s warnings not to proceed I don’t listen and drive right into the soft black sand, effectively stranding our little Toyota Auris rental car. It’s 11:30pm, we’re some 10km from the hotel and 5km from the nearest village, what to do? Suffice it to say that Jill isn’t happy.
I’m walking back to the gravel road, planning to intercept the Turkish party which drove up to the cliff behind us in a Jeep. Hence they should be able to help us on their return trip. While I’m waiting I notice a farmer cutting grass in his tractor. After a couple of minutes he is finished with this particular field and I flag him down. I explain my situation to him – his name is Gunnar – and he assures me that he would be back right away with a truck and a rope…
Within minutes he is back with a big American truck with broad tires and a rope. A few minutes later I’m back out of the sand – I got off lightly on this one. We only lost a ½ hr, but I also learned a lesson on this Icelandic version of July 4th Independence Day…
Today is our last full day in Iceland. And luckily, our first real summer day. The weather slowly turns in our favor, and we get a taste of what Iceland can look like in the summer.
First we detour to the Sólheimajökull, a glacier which reaches almost all the way down to sea-level. A 5 km dirt road leads from the ring road to the end of the glacier.
Here the Icelandic mountain guide organization organizes guided glacier walks. Again we opt out due to the large number of inexperienced tourists. We just touch the beginning of the glacier and take a few pictures.
Our next stop is the Skógafoss waterfall. This picturesque waterfall tumbles some 60m over a grassy cliff. Again there is the tour-bus crowd, as it is literally just a few hundred meters off the ring-road.
We continue our journey back towards Reykjavík, but we have several important stops still ahead of us. Among them Geysir, the geysir which has since lent its name to all other geysirs, and the famous Gulfoss waterfall.
On the way we notice hundreds of small summer cabins in the countryside. We can imagine the Icelanders living in Reykjavík longing for a summer day like this, spending the near 24 hr of daylight and sunshine in the green oasis of their little cabin, away from the city and from the 21 hr darkness and cold of a Reykjavík winter!
We also pass by a beautiful church at Skálholt, the site famous for being the residence of the bishop for 700+ years from the 11th to the 18th Century.
After another ½ hr drive we reach Geysir, with its namesake geysir. Ironically, Geysir only erupts once or twice daily, due to tourists who had thrown rocks into it in the 1950s. Instead most tourists enjoy the neighboring Stokkur geysir, which reliablyerupts every 5 minutes or so.
We walk up to a viewpoint and take in the scenery. After having passed a large horse show with thousands of visitors and hundreds of vacation homes, we believe that these are mostly day travelers from Reykjavík. No doubt, this is a very nice area, even for a day-trip. A great spot for another panorama shot:
(See this and many other panorama shots here).
The road continues a few more km towards the northeast until we reach Gullfoss, perhaps Iceland’s most famous and most beautiful waterfall.
Without a doubt the most impressive waterfall I have ever seen. We sit down and enjoy the panorama from a quiet grassy place high up on the rim.
We spend about 1 hr at this scenic place, this time in shorts and T-Shirt.
I don’t remember why they call this the golden waterfall, perhaps because of the golden rainbow that can be seen when the sun is shining.
The visitor center educates us about the history of this place, in particular the decade-long and ultimately successful resistance of a farmer family (the original land-owners) against plans of British developers to build a hydrological power plant. While there is no doubt that a large plant could be built with such amounts of water – my own estimate is of up to 75 MW – and obscene amounts of money have been offered to the land-owners, the beauty of this place is priceless. They are reputed to have said: “We are not selling our friend!”
We continue our drive back to Reykjavík. We stop at the small crater Kerið next to the road. This crater features a small lake of maybe 200m diameter; here Icelandic music star Björk once gave a concert from a raft in the middle of the lake!
It’s 5:00pm and we still have about 1.5 hrs of driving back to Keflavík ahead of us. We want to visit one more point of interest, according to the guide books the most visited attraction in all of Iceland: The Blue Lagoon. This geothermal spa and pool is located in the middle of a surreal volcanic lava and no-mans land. It’s unique feature is that it draws hot water from a nearby geo-thermal spring and power-plant. The initial view isn’t too enticing.
However, in the midst of the black lava rocks and despite 10° cold wind there is a large area of pools which attracts hundreds, if not thousands of guests every day.
There are vents of hot steam and water coming out of the ground, and the water is comfortably warm in most places, and really hot in a few. Another unique feature is the white silicate laden mud available in buckets to put on your skin in the face or upper body. This mud-mask revitalizes your skin after just a few minutes.
After about 1 hr of soaking up the heat of the water and even a sauna we decide to get out again and get dressed again for some “retail therapy” in their gift shop.
As if to welcome us to come back one day the sun comes out and creates a warm evening light at 8:30pm. We complete our journey back to Keflavík and check in for our last night at the Keflavík Flughótel airport hotel.
For dinner we go to the local fish restaurant right at the old Keflavík harbor. Some fresh seafood and lobster soup seems like a fitting culinary way to end our 1 week Iceland vacation.
Our very last sightseeing excursion is out to the western tip of the island and an old lighthouse at Garður. These light-houses have a lot of history, as the older one traces back to the end of the 19th Century.
There are many birds to watch and we take pictures of the setting sun, which creates an orange / silver lining at the horizon under local cloud cover. When walking around the light-house and listening to nature’s voices we suddenly recognize the sound of an exhaling whale! Hard to believe, but we now witness two humpback whales swimming and breaching out of the water perhaps 300m off shore. It is fascinating. So despite our lack of success during the whale watching trip, we still get back home with mental images and sounds of humpback whales, as if they were waving us Good-bye. We just might come back here one day, maybe on a sailboat again looking for those whales…