Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Iceland - Trip Review!

After arriving in Reykjavik and renting Dusty our car for the week, we drove to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (which we butchered and called snuffaluffagus peninsula the entire trip)  and checked into Hotel Frammes in Grundarfjörður, a sleepy little seaside town.  The weather was rainy, windy and foggy but after a quick nap we drove to nearby Stykkishólmur where parts of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was filmed (one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Iceland). Unfortunately due to the rain, it didn't look the same at all!  We did see a cute church and stopped for lunch at the only place open and I had some amazing asparagus soup.  Little did I know how much soup I would have on this trip! The town was basically closed due to off season, so exhausted, wind blown and wet, we headed back to back to Grundarfjörður.  We drove through the Berserkjahraun lava field, moss covered lumps that make it easy to see where the legend of trolls come from. This is also where the term berserk comes from. Legend has it that a farmer hired two berserkers, insanely violent Viking fighters, to work his farm. But to the farmer's dismay, one fell in love with his daughter. He gave the berserker the impossible task of clearing a path through the lava field in return for his daughter's hand. Well the berserker did it, but the farmer ended up killing him anyway.  But hey, we were happy to have the passage way as we headed back.  It started snowing but we hiked up to a waterfall nearby but then went back for a nap. I got up later, went out in the snow and got dinner, but sleeping and eating were really the only things we did on that first day.

My favorite pic of the old church.
The next morning we were happy to see the clouds had lifted and we got on the road exploring the peninsula. We drove past little towns like Ólafsvík and Rif and braved the 40mph winds to take pictures at Ingjaldshóll, said to be the first concrete church in the world.
We had such a great time exploring the area. While The Editors played, we stopped at places that sounded interesting in the guidebook or randomly took roads marked with landmarks. Our motto became "let's try this road, worst case we can always turn around." We stopped at Skarðsvík, a beach cove where a Viking grave was found. We climbed Saxhóll crater, Shelia all the way to the top, but without a railing I could only get to the half way mark for fear of never making it back down! Stopping at Laugabrekka taught us about Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, a woman with a major case of wanderlust, and one of Iceland's celebrated explorers, who gave birth to a son in Canada, the first European born in North America. We ate lunch at Primus Kaffi in Hellnar (mushroom soup for me) and fell in love with Arnarstapi, with its troll looking monument to Bárðr, the region's guardian spirit and monument to Jules Verne, who used Snæfell as the starting point for his "Journey to the Centre of the Earth."  Despite the crazy strong wind, we hiked up a mountain to find the Sönghellir Song Cave, that echoed while we sang The Goonies Song. We never found Stapafell, the supposed home to little people, but still had an amazing time. After stopping at the black church at Búðir, we headed to The Country Anna hotel in Moldnúpi, our second hotel of the trip, stopping only in Borgarnes for gas at the N1 station.
 We spent the night at the Country Anna Hotel and had the most delicious "vegetarian steak" for dinner. The next morning we began our day at two of the most well known waterfalls in the country, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. Seljalandsfoss was first up and we were reminded immediately that this was a very touristy thing to do. The parking lot was packed with tour buses and people were everywhere. It was a stark difference from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where we would go miles without seeing another human. We parked, I pulled on my waterproof pants and we set off to hike behind the waterfall.  Despite being touristy, it was pretty cool. We were also excited to see a bit of blue sky for the first time.   We left there, stopped briefly at Eyjafjallajökull hoping to see the volcano that erupted in 2010, but the weather was back to cloudy and rainy so we could only see the farm below. We moved on to Skógafoss waterfall, which is 80 feet wide with a 200 foot drop. This was less crowded and we were able to walk right up to the edge. It is impressive being so close to such power. According to legend, the first Viking settler in the area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure in a cave behind this waterfall. Locals found the chest years later, but were only able to grasp the ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again.  Next time I might look a little harder to see if I can find it!   Waterfalls get a lot of attention in any "what to do in Iceland" list and I can see why.

One of my "must see" places was the plane wreck on the beach at Sólheimasandur. After turning off Route 1 at an unmarked grate, we passed a few parked cars and a camper van and drove for over 2 miles on the black sand, seemingly to nowhere. The fog had settled in again, and we couldn't see the plane until we were right at it.  It was so eerie seeing the white wreck juxtaposed on the black sand, floating in a dense cloud.  It was like we were looking at a black and white picture and I kept looking at my clothing to make sure there wasn't something wrong with my eyes.  The plane is an US Navy Douglas Super DC-3 that was forced to crash land on the beach in 1973 when it ran out of fuel, except it didn't run out of fuel - they just didn't know there was a second fuel tank they could switch to.  OOPS. Everyone survived the crash but that doesn't make it any less haunting. People were taking pictures inside the cabin and that just felt wrong, very wrong.  It started to rain pretty heavily so we jumped back in Dusty and started the trek back to main road. Two people were walking so we checked another item off the Iceland To Do list - pick up hitchhikers!  Of course they were from Philadelphia, but were very nice and thankful for a dry ride back to the camper van we passed on the way in. We saw them every day the rest of the trip and always waved.

From there we drove to Dyrhólaey, stopping to take pictures of a very calm pond off route 218, right
past Loftsalahellir Cave. There are two parts to Dyrhólaey, an upper and lower. The higher part is at the top of a very narrow and winding dirt road (that I drove up AND down, yay me!)  but has gorgeous views of southern Iceland. The lower part at Kirkjufjara beach is simply magical, and I am pretty sure we could have stayed there all day, playing in pebbles,  jumping off rocks and watching waves crash. It was gorgeous beyond words; serene and peaceful in many ways and yet the power and violence in the waves made me feel small.  We eventually left, checked into the very cool Volcano Hotel, then went into Vik for dinner at the only place open- Halldorskaffi. I got "settler's pizza"  with Blue cheese, Camembert, castle cheese, mozzarella and red currant jam on the side. Yes jam. It was good!

Friday was a long driving day, heading from Vik to Vatnajökull National Park and the Glacier Lagoon. We continued our motto of "let's see where this goes, worst case we can turn around!", driving around Hjorleifshofoi, a giant rock sitting in the middle of a black sand beach. We really thought we could make it all around it but nope!  Further along the road we stopped at a monument for Pykkvabæjarklauster an Augustine abbey. It was made famous in the 14th century when Brother Eysteinn Ásgrímsson wrote the legendary poem Lilja (The Lily). Things did not end well for Brother Eysteinn though and he was later punished for writing about the scandalous relations between monks and nuns. We also stopped at Kirkjubæjarklaustur to see Systrafoss (Sister Falls) and Dverghamrar (Dwarf Rocks) where legend has it that a young girl heard dwarves singing.

We then hit Skeiðarár Sandur, a wide plain of black volcanic sand. The scenery on this part of the drive was like no other. It was desolate in a way I had never seen before; expansive and  open.  We stopped at the Skeiðará Bridge monument.  In 1996, the volcano Vatnajökull, erupted, melting portions of glacier and creating massive floods. While the bridge was built to withstand a hefty amount of flood waters, there was no preparing for the house-sized icebergs that the floods washed down the plain. A number of these glacial shards crashed into the bridge, wiping it out and creating a gap in the main ring road around Iceland.

The temperature dropped as we neared the Svínafellsjökull Glacier and as soon as I saw it I giddily turned down a road to see how close I could get. My first glimpse of a glacier was amazing, the black ridges of lava ash were way prettier than I thought they'd be. There was a plaque for two missing hikers there and the saying engraved has really stuck with me:  "you are no longer there, where you were, but you are everywhere where we are."

Another Must Do was the glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón and it was one of the most amazing parts of the trip.  Actually amazing isn't big enough of a word, this place is incredible and pictures do not do it justice. As the the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull melts it breaks apart creating icebergs that float through this lagoon out to sea.  We were able to take a duck boat out into the lagoon getting close to the icebergs. We even were able to hold and taste a piece of one (it was very hard and very cold). The sun came out as we were on the water which made the blues all that more intense.

We spent the night at the Gerdi Guesthouse, an old renovated farm that still smelled like farm. We ate lunch at the Hali Hotel/Þórbergssetur Museum (tomato basil soup) which had a bookshelf painted on the side of the building. Because there was nothing else around or open we had dinner at the hotel, lobster for Shelia, fried celery for me.  Saturday morning we woke up to SUN!  The sunrise was amazing and after taking pictures at the guesthouse, we stopped at the lagoon again, this time walking down to the beach to see where they entered the ocean. The sun behind the icebergs on the black sand beach was incredible.

We spent most of Saturday driving from Höfn to Reykjavik but taking advantage of the sun, we re-visited a few places on the way back.  We stopped at the lava mount Laufskálavarða, which gets its name from a large farm known as Laufskálar which was destroyed in the year 894 in the first recorded eruption of the volcano Katla. According to legend, anyone crossing Mrdalssandur for the first time should pile stones up to make a cairn, which is supposed to bring them good fortune on the journey, so of course we did this. We had lunch at Reynisfara, the beach near Dyrhólaey and since tide was out, I was able to wander further down past the basalt columns called Gardar and see more of the Reynisdrangar stacks, the two big rocks in the water. According to folklore, two trolls attempted to drag a ship to land but were turned to stone as daylight broke, turning them into the stacks.  After lunch (turnip! soup for me) we got in Dusty, turned on The Stereophonics and drove to Reykjavik.

After being in the middle of nowhere with very few people, Reykjavik seemed very crowded and busy. We found parking at our hotel in City Centre very easily, checked in and took showers, noticing the sulfur smell very strongly for the first time. The hot water in Iceland is heated by geothermal power plants, which makes it very hot and very plentiful, but wow does it smell.  I knew this going in, but was surprised at how bad it was.  We walked around Reykjavik shopping for the traditional Icelandic wool sweater, the Lopapeysa. They were very pretty, but very itchy!  Searching for 'traditional Icelandic food" we went to Cafe Loki where Shelia tried the fermented shark while I had a Brennivins shot, also called Black Death. Graffiti decorates many buildings and walking around the city was cold but pretty.  We spent most of the night at The English Pub, had dinner at Cafe Paris (cauliflower soup for me)  and finished the night at the Micro Bar in our hotel with every hipster stereotype possible.  Sunday we did some more shopping, packed and drove in the snow/sleet rain to the airport. It was pouring rain when we left Iceland, a pretty fitting ending for the trip.

When I told people I wanted to go to Iceland, most people asked "Why? Are you crazy?"  But this island of just over 300,000 people is magical in many ways.  Over 55% of Icelanders believe in elves, trolls and magical spirits and this belief actually changes the direction of roads and construction projects that might anger the elves. It's hard not to get caught up in the idea and I definitely found myself praying to them  when I felt nervous hiking behind the waterfall, you know, just in case.

Sure it was cold and wet, but like they say, there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. And the weather changed so often; in one hour we went from sun to grey to rain to sleet to snow to sun.  In one hour.  The people were lovely, spoke flawless English and driving was easy even with all the signs in Icelandic.  The landscape was like nothing I have seen before; Jackson, Wyoming on Mars if that is possible.  It is at the same time remote and majestic and awesome.  The pictures are good, but not anywhere close to capturing what it actually looked like.  We didn't get to see the Northern Lights which was disappointing, but I have to believe when I do see them, they will be even more special.   I would absolutely go to Iceland again, but might try the summer time as I think it would look like a completely different place!  I underestimated how "off" off season is there, but glad to have tried so many different kinds of soup!  Who knew asparagus soup would be so good?

We didn't plan a lot on this trip and that worked out just fine, with most of the really memorable experiences coming from spur of the moment "turn here"; another reminder that sometimes the best parts of life just happen when you don't know where you are going.  You just need to turn down the road and see what's there for you.

To see all my pictures, click here.