The morning after our night in Akranes was foggy, a night after too much wine foggy.
Despite the late night, we decided to get an early-ish start to our trip to the Snaefellsnes Penisula, in western Iceland.
We grabbed some coffee and pastries from a café in the main square of town. Side note, from our experience coffee is served in teacup like quantities in Iceland. Makes you wonder what our American deal is with needing venti and trenta size coffees. So in preparation for the effects of a caffeine addiction we stopped at the regional grocery store, Bonus (which has a pink piggy bank for the “O”), for some caffeine of the “gives you wings” variety.Continue reading “Hunting Hot Springs and Northern Lights in Iceland”
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.
When there is real work to do it seems we pray for snow days even as adults.
In this case, the morning sun was a happy signal that it was time to play. We were free. We threw on our full gear knowing we could shed layers and then packed up for the day. Matthew having traveled in many cold climates had made my packing list and we were nearly identical as we headed out. Thermal underbar, ski pants, flannel jacket, down vest, raincoat, boot liners, ski socks, hiking boots, neck warmer, hat and gloves. We also had purchased some walking level crampons, which came to be an absolute essential on the icy pathways and frozen cliff sides.
Traveler True: Yaktrax Walkers for winter travel. We had been advised by REI staff to use a more heavy duty version but due to the price we decided to go with a basic pair and were in no way disappointed. We knew that if we were gonna take on any extreme hiking we would be able to rent mountaineering crampons.
We grabbed a quick breakfast from the hotel including skyr and granola and salami and bread, and snagged some extra sandwiches for the road. We hopped in our rental and headed out into a wind blown snowfield for which we thanked our foresight for the 4-wheel drive. We passed several mini sedans that seemed to have been picked up and thrown off the road. The dichotomy between yesterday’s storm and today’s blue skies was striking and actually exciting as this was part of the definition of the land we were in. So extreme!
We had decided the night before that we would try and make it out to Jökulsárlón and back to make up for lost time. This would be a 2.5 hour drive one way in good weather, without stopping. Our first stop was Dyrhólaey, where we caught the most beautiful sunrise. We stopped midway up to the Dyrhólaey lighthouse and took a steep footpath down, running with childlike enthusiasm, to get a better view. The ocean was wild as it crashed and crashed against a remarkable stretch of the dark and jagged cliff side.
As a new traveler this land was a true mystery. It was overwhelming, feeling the freezing mist from the ancient Atlantic who was looking so much more dangerous than she does state side and hearing her just outright roar and beat the black volcanic earth. Her immense temper was soothing and the mist settled in with some of my own from absolute contentment.
We continued onto the lighthouse and well…
Just beyond Dyrhólaey we made our next stop to have an up-close encounter with some waves. This was a popular tourist spot with many large buses parked, which we would be seeing a lot more of in the coming days. The area was a playground of sorts with lots of different vantage points and levels to watch and feel the waves crash. Matt took a break from his broken record like warnings of “don’t get too close to the edge” and asked me to go out on the cliff for some shots with the tower like outcroppings near the town of Vik.
After he got the shot, he joined me on the ledge to get some more pictures. I was out FAR too close and had taken a seat (fortunately) with Matt a little ways inland. Of course, out of nowhere, a rogue wave crashed and made its way up 50 feet or more to land directly on top of us. Honestly, we hadn’t seen a single drop of seawater on this cliff and it seemed too high up. Anyways, the force of the wave knocked me over, took my hat with it, and for a moment put me in a sort of water cocoon. I had the wherewithal to turn into the cliffs, cover my camera and just wait hoping it wouldn’t push or pull me any further.
Once the water fully crashed, my reaction, so typical, was to laugh out loud, despite the real fear I felt. Matt still behind me and standing, thank the lord, was in an equal state of fearful giddiness, whatever it is, and dripping head to toe. This included the camera in his hand and the one he had set down next to him, which was resting now in a puddle, aka it’s watery grave. A small crowd had witnessed and looked slightly shocked and amused with that look like, “haha what idiots!” This along with the incredibly freezing sea shower we just took caused us to book it straight back to the car.
As soon as we made it back we stripped to base layers, and rang out our clothes and hair. Even with the heat turned on full blast, Matthew did his best to keep his cool as he tried to dry his cameras out. Under stress the man shines indeed. We laughed off the absurdity of the situation in our hot box car with clothes draped everywhere, placing the most crucial items (cameras and socks) on the dash for some direct heat.
The lesson learned? Even when it’s not raining, it doesn’t hurt to always wear the waterproof jacket, especially in winter. Even when it’s not snowing, Iceland is very much a land of H20.
CHURCH IN VIK
We made it the short distance to Vik, which is the southernmost village in Iceland, and planned to stake out a spot for closer photos of the rock outcroppings among the waves. To our dismay Matt’s cameras started having behavioral issues. He did what he could, pressed all the buttons as I saw it, and confronted the idea that the cameras may not be recoverable. We decided to eat what we snagged for lunch and take on the stretch to Skaftafell National Park.
As we approached the park we could see the Skaftafellsjökull glacier from the ring road, a pale cerulean mass pouring from the volcanic mountains. This glacier is one of several outlet glaciers for the Vatnajökull glacier (also an ice cap), which covers 8 percent of Iceland and is one of the largest glaciers in Europe (the visitor center is very informational as you can see… editor’s note, so is Wikipedia).
We arrived and piled on our now dry and super toasty gear as well as our walking crampons (see aforementioned Traveler’s Trues) and directed ourselves to the trail out to the glacier. Good news, one of Matt’s Cameras had decided to ship shape up and start cooperating. The trail was open, I doubt it truly ever closes, but it didn’t appear to be maintained. It was snow packed from use but icy like a hockey rink.
We passed group after group, clinging to the trail with our economic boot accessories, feeling bad for their very obvious struggle. In addition to the ice, the wind was searing in a way neither of us had ever experienced. We leaned into it and marched on until about a mile later where we came upon the glacier lagoon. A crowd had gathered and huddled at a pretty obvious precipice that warned to go no further unless you were equipped of course. I had seen so many people fall and trip in these elements but we felt sturdy and pressed on to play by ourselves at the foot of the glacier.
Meaningful time spent we zoomed back to the car, passing person after falling person. Yaktrax Walkers you win!!
Music Credit: Pat Benatar – Fire and Ice
We continued on to our last stop of the day, Jökulsárlón Glacier and lagoon. At this point the sun was down and the long lasting sunset began. We arrived and geared up for our last round in the wind. This lagoon was very different than the Skaftafellsjökull lagoon, which was frozen and disconnected from the sea.
The Jökulsárlón lagoon was vast, unfrozen and flowed directly into the ocean. Ice and bits of glacier that had broken away stood out in the moving water, jagged and blue. Chunks of ice could even be seen just below the water’s surface moving slowly towards the sea. A few seals, or maybe just one that was swimming in circles, made an exciting appearance. It was the only animal life we’d seen besides the tame Icelandic horses.
We followed the lagoon to its outlet into the ocean and came upon a black sand beach covered with beached ice of all shapes and sizes. Some were crystal clear and others held onto the cerulean glow of the glacier. We took our time despite the sudden drop in temperature. It felt a bit like looking for seashells, walking with your head down, the rest of the world distant as you searched for “the one”. I came upon one that looked like a whale, not quite the size but intriguing in the sense that its journey was so mysterious and it was so large. It felt like quite the juxtaposition to have the biggest ice cube I’ve ever seen just chilling on a black sand beach.
We headed home that night heads full of images and with that sensation that we really got after it. Ya know that satisfying tired feeling that a good meal will top off. We had a long stretch to make it back and had decided to stop in Vik at a restaurant our hotel manager had recommended. We had a two hour drive and a beautiful sunset to match the intensity of the sunrise we saw that morning. The wind was picking up the black volcanic sand on the roadside and throwing it up against a neon pink and orange sky.
We made it to Vik and did our best to clean up for dinner, in the car. Halldorskaffi was the restaurant of choice and obviously a fan favorite judging by the lack of empty tables. We had another round of lamb stew and split a pizza topped with jam and brie cheese. Matt got fries as they’re his favorite food and we were both so so satisfied, and wholly ready for bed.
The sleepy drive to our first and only planned destination, Skogafoss, was filled with blue skies, which would become rare, and wind which would not.
In the light of day and just beginning our trip it was hard to pick where “not” to stop. Outside of Reykjavik the landscape seemed unearthly. High winds picked up snow on the way side, floating it across the road like a frothy fast moving river we were ever crossing. Spouts of steam from the thermal activity that blesses Iceland appeared unexpectedly at first and then expectantly as they are everywhere in this area.
Our first pull off was an overlook just outside of Hveragerdi, and as you can see there is a huge advantage to having a photographer for a boyfriend. In the midst of taking pictures a crew of Icelandic boys, most likely younger than 20, empty out of a small caravan and descend into the windy landscape to film a low production, actual foot stomping, fists on chest, music video. Through the wind we could hear a song, sans instruments, with extra fervency and boldness given our presence that was both amusing and impressive. As quickly as they descended they loaded back up and departed. Whoever you are, we’re crossing our fingers for y’all to be another Icelandic musical success. FYI, Sigur Ros is an all-time favorite, give them a listen! Moving on.
The difference between Matthews and my energy levels at this point seemed immeasurable. He had infinite in the way one does when you are feeding that hearty inner being by doing the thing you love the most. I on the other hand, having never ventured through so many time zones, felt like my 15 year old self after getting my wisdom teeth out, in and out of elation from the anesthesia and pure exhaustion. I succumbed to the battle when Matt ventured from the ring road, using some internal map the well-traveled seem to draw, and came upon a herd of horses out in a pasture. With my pretty fair knowledge of American horses, which I often claim as my spirit animal, I chose to stay in the car given their distance and likely indifference. I watched as Matthew walked a fair distance to the fence line, and as if he had a horse whistle, the fury group trotted immediately toward him. Jealousy and excitement overcoming any thought of sleep, I ran from the car to share in some horse chat. So rewarding! Icelandic horses are badass lovers who jockey for the best position to get their head in your hand. And their hair!!! 80’s hair band is the style they sport. The horses are short in stature and when you’re used to the stance of the American horse a bit childlike in a way. Hence the baby ones drew out an involuntary high peach squeal baby talk from me, which I learned should never be used in front of those you hope to attract.
With the biting wind filling up our misery quota (explanation in another post, keep reading) we sprinted, me in the lead, back to the car. For me, I had swung too high, our welcoming committee had exceeded my expectations, and the only thing left to do was pass the memory into one sweet dream. What transpired from here till our hotel in Skogar only Matthew knows cause my lights were out.
“After seeing the horses, Anna fell asleep in the car and I drove to the hotel in Skogar” – Matthew
Hotel Skogafoss, which would become our blizzard bunker, was a modest, need supplying refuge planted ideally within the Skogafoss waterfall‘s plume. We threw our bags in our room, which was basic but very clean, layered up and headed out into the elements.
A few points to mention, which is one of the goals of this and all future writings is to share the lessons we learn while traveling, what we refer to as Traveler Trues.
Prior to leaving we agreed that we would save money through our accommodations. From research and from our resultant experience, Iceland is expensive in terms of goods. Gas, food and alcohol are more expensive, and I’m tempted to use the term “much more”, than the U.S., but that doesn’t mean it can’t be economical. By choosing to get around on our own instead of joining tours (rental car rates are comparable to U.S.) and by staying in basic hotels and guest houses, our trip cost less than we budgeted. Based on every place we stayed, 4 total over 10 days, it seems that Iceland has a high standard for cleanliness and also truth in advertising. You get what you see.
Additionally, after our first night we realized the importance of staying in a place that either has an internal restaurant or a means to keep and make food. This is especially true in winter because you don’t know if the weather will permit you to head out to a restaurant. Besides Hotel Skogafoss, we stayed in guest houses that had kitchens and were able to buy groceries and make breakfast, lunch and dinner when we wanted. Groceries are expensive (bacon was $20), but we kept it simple and saved money. Moving on.
The Skogafoss waterfall, the “foss” meaning waterfall in Icelandic, so I was just redundant, was fascinating and provided a playground of sorts to make us feel like kids again. The water falls over a great breadth with a drop of 60 meters into a turning pool outlined by ice that is covered in millions of frozen nodules from the spray back. The season enabled us to walk within the waterfall cavern on thick ice and feel the freezing mist from the highland run-off.
The sun was down at this point and cast a similar blue hue which we had seen in the morning. Given the time of day and that it was winter, a tourist off season, we were nearly alone and took advantage by skating across the frozen water, climbing rocks to get to closer positions, and laying on the ice to just look up and take in the validation of our trip.
After the sun went down we headed in for some dinner. As I said before our hotel had an internal restaurant, which was run by the same hotel staff that greeted us when we got there. For dinner we shared Atlantic Char, a hearty lamb stew and a couple of Viking beers. From what we read prior to our trip, Icelandic food was not going to be the most memorable take away. So we were pleasantly surprised that everything was precisely delicious and so so much what we were craving after a long day in the cold Icelandic wind.
Bellies full and little buzzed we headed back for a huge sleep before a serious day of trekking. Right before we left the dining room the hotel manager (owner maybe) called after us that we would not be leaving the hotel the next day. Dun dun dun and then he pulled a hatchet and…. Kidding. He let us know that an isolated storm was on its way and that it would not be safe to leave the hotel even to go to our car. Whelp what could we do. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as he thought….
So that’s Iceland in the winter. Unpredictable. It had been sunny the day before and on this day we had 40 km per hour winds and a very loud white out. So we did what eager travelers do. We slept in, sampled most of the hotel menu, put a significant dent in our duty free liquor and played a card version of monopoly with some fellow travelers who offered delicious wasabi chocolate. We kicked Day 2’s booty!!!!
Dress him up and call him Santa.
I’d wanted to go to Iceland ever since it erupted…as an easy to get to adventure land. I must have been a good girl this year cause Matthew bought us 2 tickets for Christmas to get it done.
At the end of February, we took a 7 and half hour direct flight (fairly inexpensive) from Denver to Reykjavik on Iceland Air. Note that approaching the trip we got the frequent questions why Iceland and why winter? I’ll say I had some good answers but after going I’ve got even better ones. Keep reading…
Since we landed in Iceland at 6am, we thought we could hop up to Reykjavik (the capital) for breakfast before heading to our first and only planned destination. We had planned our trip to be self-guided, getting around with a rented 4 wheel drive and we banked on the locals and weather to guide the direction we headed each day. In hindsight, our method of planning our days and getting around was 100 percent spot on.
Based on some pre-travel guidance, we stocked up on our individual allotments of booze at duty free in the airport; great advice if you imbibe. Then we hooked up with our rental car (see Travelers Trues) and traveled 45 minutes to the city. Side note, compared to other airports, getting out of Keflavik Airport is a cup of chamomile tea.
Once outside it was obviously cold, but nothing these born and raised Colorado kids couldn’t weather. It was the gradient part of the morning, and the land seemed barren and treeless. Matt was initially disappointed saying, “Trees are my favorite plant!” Iceland was in a season of reduced light, and yet the dawn seemed to eternally rise and rise, presenting the snowy patched land in beautiful gleams of blue, shadow and light.
Arriving in the city, and beginning what would be a fruitless search for breakfast, the place seemed like a very well kept ghost town. Only a handful of tourists wandered the streets with their cameras and extreme winter wear. We parked and walked up to several apparent restaurants only to find everything closed. In the end, and an hour later (9am), only a to-go bakery was open.
This was the point in the trip (sure didn’t take long) when Matthew wondered if he’d made a mistake in taking an unseasoned traveler and coffee addict to a foreign country. I’m skirting the fact that I may have pouted in the bakery and refused to get anything. I won’t defend myself other than to say I was 30 hours without sleep and suffering from visions of grandeur. I had had a very lovely dream of us sitting in a café eating a warm Icelandic breakfast. Not knowing what an “Icelandic” breakfast entailed, I figured it would be our first adventure as we agreed to get cultural.
I took my time to let this go and Matthew, being patient, well-traveled and easily accepting of things don’t always go his way, found a local grocery store. Like a champ, he B-lined to the diary section (I mean who wouldn’t) and found the one food item he remembered was a must try. Skyr. A local yogurt-like food that is straight from heaven and which made it possible for me to put a 30-hours-without-sleep-smile on my face to start the trip off right.
Directly after consuming some Skyr, letting its Icelandic magic impart some energy, we headed to Route 1, The Ring Road. It was a yellow brick road of sorts that led to more than just beautiful sites, pictures and stories; it led to hidden strings we took home to reel in when we need to remember our intangible finds in Iceland.