I love this part of trips, and by part I mean all of it except the return home. The prior day in Iceland had been plain BEAUTIFUL, yet we still had tracks to leave in the snow.
We started the day with a final trip out to Skogafoss (next to our hotel in case you forgot) before we headed out of Southern Iceland and onto what is known as the Golden Circle, consisting of the countries core tourist attractions.
A large part of Matthew and my relationship has been betting and competition. In case you didn’t know Matthew is super competitive, but I am better at it than he is. We’ve made bets about animal genus classifications, fitness, and races to get ready in the morning (Matthew and his hair!). This particular morning’s bet was how long Matthew needed to scale to the top of the Skogafoss foot path.
I lost for the first time ever.
We headed out, away from Skogafoss, Skogar, and Southern Iceland. It had been icy, windy, clear skies and cloudy, full on blizzard then no jacket weather. The greatest takeaway was that in all her shifting weather patterns, the land is clearly a fearsome force, beautiful and untethered.
In order to head north we had to back track a bit, but were able to take some time at the landmarks we had missed in our, well in my sleepiness a few days prior. This included a few waterfalls and other “special” places.
Both waterfalls were impressive but Gljufurarfoss was a genuine experience. To see its full measure, we had to scale an earth and rock mound that guarded the falls from full view but had been equipped with a few hand guides. Again, if not for our walking crampons it would have been impossible to see this site in winter. I have no doubts it is beautiful in a milder season, but it was truly something this time of year. The cliffs were frozen and the air was visible and misty. A wooden ladder led up from a rock landing to an overhang, allowing you to look down into an icy pool. I’m not afraid of heights, but there was something about standing on a wooden ladder, leaning over a mass of snowy earth of unknown competence, and looking down a great height into a constricted, violent pool. It stifled my full range of breathing and was exhilarating.
Additionally, unlike Selandjafoss, which was accessible from a parking lot, Gljufurarfoss was left solely to us to explore. Lesson learned, if you wanna see “cool stuff”, be prepared to go beyond the well signed parking lots and push your comfort limits.
We made it to new territory and headed north to what appeared to be farmland. We decided that given the landmarks along the Golden Circle, we would head straight to the furthest one out and head back toward Reykjavik.
First stop, the waterfall Gullfoss. By the time we parked the snow had picked up from a light flurry and the first rush of freezing air from the open car door had us pulling on all of our layers. It wouldn’t be quite enough.
Using Sherlock caliber senses, we deduced that this landmark was a fan favorite. Of course any Google search would tell you the same thing, but the congregation of huge black super buses was also a “little” clue. Google would also tell you that Gulfoss translates directly to golden falls, but I would argue that likely half of the year these falls are not golden. They are frozen and cold, and while being breathtaking and beautiful, they are utterly white.
The experience at Gulfoss was an awkward one. It’s strange to be standing in front of something so grand and unlike anything you’ve seen and only be thinking about how cold you are. It felt like a lost battle having the experience stolen by the temperature. We walked around with a considerable crowd, took some pictures and ran back to the car. Gulfoss is likely the largest waterfall I have seen and I vow to return and be more present, whatever it takes.
Next stop was the valley of Haukadalur, home to several geysers. Again the stop was crowded, but not as cold due to the flurry of geothermal activity. We didn’t stay long, and though the hypocrisy is known, it was dejecting to be standing next to so many people. This leads to good questions about the value of seeing the wonders of the world given the costs of overuse and what we can do to minimize our impact. I expect to revisit this topic often, as it is relevant when traveling to popular destinations. We all have a lot to learn about responsible tourism and I see how we could have improved even on this trip.
We continued around and drove through Pingvellir National Park. The area is notable not only for it’s surficial beauty, with striking rock outcroppings and a large lake, but it’s also where the North American and Eurasian Plates meet, creating visible fissures due to continental drift. Nerd Alert!
That being our last landmark along the Golden Circle we J-lined up to our sleeping destination in Akranes. The route took us through an underwater tunnel beneath the Hvalfjordur, which translates in English to “San Diego”, or “whale fjord”. Fact check needed.
Brief note: most people in Iceland speak English as they take it in primary school, however they appreciate the effort to use their common phrases (ie. þakka þér fyrir, or thank you, pronounced thah-ka thyer fi-rir.)
On that note: as an English speaker, the pronunciation of Icelandic words is a true practice in humility as well as appreciation for the willingness of native speakers to aid in the break down of each word’s syllables. Though both have Germanic roots, Icelandic happens to be one of the hardest languages for English speakers. We struggle most with the nasal sounds and the length of words. So in the end and in private we gave up and created our own versions.
Akranes was a change from southern Iceland. It’s a well-developed port town with window shopping, intersections and fine dining. We had booked a room in a guesthouse that was shared by two seasonal fishing workers (according to our host) who were either working or sleeping and we never had the chance to meet them. Again our room was exactly what we expected, clean and simple.
Before dinner, we finished our last bottle of duty free wine, and then headed out into the dark to what would be a super private dinner. We walked through the stone streets, lined with lovely, thinly spaced houses. The town was empty and still which was likely typical of most winter weeknights in Iceland, and our laughter seemed to carry disruptively through the lightly falling snow.
Dinner would become an interesting discussion that we are still having today. I have thought a lot about it and decided to be objective yet forthright about a sensitive subject. As previously stated, Matthew and I wanted to be open to the culinary culture of Iceland, so we wondered when reviewing our dinner menus about several items that included whale. We were obviously in a fishing town, so I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, but given the few news stories we had heard about whaling, wondered to what degree it was sociably acceptable in Iceland.
Matthew being inquisitive and not shy in any situation asked the waitress if she ate whale. Honestly at this point neither of us had encountered the option, nor researched in a legitimate way to develop a firm stance on the issue. Her response, paired with a scrunched nose, was a definite no, along with saying that not many local people partake.
Later we took the discussion home and researched the issue. What I want to impart, is the cliché saying, “Know before you go.” This particular subject is contested on a worldwide level and amongst Icelandic people. A large percentage of whaling meat in Iceland is sold to tourists.
This topic extends to a related issue about traveling in a way that allows you to experience a culture while maintaining your values. I think it is important to approach new things with curiosity and not judgment and by making choices that are in line with your values doesn’t mean you can’t respect the practices of others. There’s no need for explicit statements here so if you want to know our personal thoughts, we can talk it over a shot of Brennivin.
Here are two non-editorial links on the issue. The first is directly from the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture and the second is from the intergovernmental body, the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
We ended our night at a gem of a bar; ok it was also a gem store, which was empty except for the owner/bartender and his wife. The owner, Hedinn, was shy at first, then warm and open after a bit of persistence. He talked about Icelandic music, his opinion on whaling and his wife’s love for geology. He had a true moment of excitement when learning we were from Colorado as they had watched the show Prospectors and wanted to mine for gold. As we finished our drinks and said our goodbyes he offered me an Icelandic lava rock, advising me to conceal it at the airport, but wanting me to have a genuine treasure from Iceland. I have it still and will keep it always.