Iceland Saga 2013: From Here to There, All Around, and Back

16 07 2013

I have already alluded in previous posts to the troubles we had in getting to Iceland.  A brief recap:  our Delta flight from Charlotte to JFK was cancelled due to weather and the next available flight out was two days later, causing us to have to shorten our time in Iceland.  Ironically, as we were milling around Charlotte for the extra day, I made the comment, “Could be worse.  We could be stuck in JFK.”

Image

Traveling to a country known for its waterfalls, this was our first, in the Embassy Suites where we had an unexpected delay of our trip.

Dang.  God does have a sense of humor.  On the way back we got stuck in JFK.

The flight Delta finally put us on to get to Iceland had us going through Minneapolis, a seemingly strange route.  However, if I ever have the good fortune to go back to Iceland, I will go this route.  The Minneapolis terminal was state-of-the-art, with lots of room and row after row of tables with iPads available for travelers to easily access the Internet.  Not only that, we flew IcelandAir from there, and a nicer airline I have yet to find!

iPads in MN airport

iPads in MN airport

Fast forward to the trip home.  The Delta flight from Keflavik airport in Iceland arrived in JFK on time.  That was the start of a long downhill slope.  You would think a layover of almost two hours would be enough to catch a connecting flight.  Of course not.  Fifteen minutes to board and ride a bus on the tarmac to our terminal.  We had to get our checked luggage to go through Customs but the baggage conveyor belt wasn’t working correctly: lost 25 minutes.  Long lines through Customs and then Security: another 25 minutes.  Okay, it was my fault that we lost another five minutes as the Customs inspector inspected my sand, rocks, and bones.  Then a long, fast hike through the airport to our gate: 20 minutes.  When we arrived at the gate, we lost another five minutes trying to figure out where to go as three other gates were crammed into one little corner and masses of people milled around like so many confused sheep.  Even so, we got up to the gate a full ten minutes ahead of departure time.  So sorry.  The gate was already closed.  (in Airline Speak, this translates to: We sold your seats to somebody else.) 

Compare this Delta gate at JFK to the one in MN...

Compare this Delta gate at JFK to the one in MN…

Delta rescheduled us for another flight departing that evening, about four hours later.  We settled in, counting the pigeons that flew around the terminal who helped Delta with Crumb Control.  Almost constant loudspeaker announcements kept us on our toes, as we had been told that our gate could change at any moment.  Half an hour before departure, with no indication that our flight was yet boarding, I happened to look up on the departure board to notice that our flight was cancelled, apparently caused by mechanical difficulties this time.  We called the Delta Help Line and after being put on hold for about half an hour we were given a flight the next morning to Atlanta and then to Charlotte, getting us there almost a day later than originally scheduled.  Not being happy campers, we got back on the phone and persuaded them to get us on a USAir flight leaving at 6:15 am.  Of course, they wouldn’t give us back our luggage, holding it for ransom, forcing the hapless suitcases to make the trip to Atlanta, Charlotte, and then Augusta before being hand-delivered to us at our house. 

JFK Crumb Patrol

JFK Crumb Patrol

Since at this point it was getting late and we would have to leave whatever hotel they put us up in at an obscene hour, we opted just to camp out in the airport.  We hurriedly spent the food vouchers they gave us as all the restaurants were closing up shop and left the gate to find the USAir terminal.  Bad move.  USAir had closed up their check-in area for the evening, so we couldn’t get to a secure area.  (Wouldn’t have been able to bring our drinks there anyway.)  The only area available for us to hunker down in was the international terminal, so that is where we went.  Apparently, JFK has something against people sitting down, so we walked around seemingly for hours before snagging some seats.  And there we sat for the next six mind-numbing hours, alternately dozing and playing games on my iPod, which was rapidly losing battery power because JFK had so few outlets available for recharging.  Oh, and did I mention that JFK does not have free wifi?  Future archeologists will shake their heads in wonder at the primitive conditions we endured there.

Back at the USAir check-in area by 3:30am, and finally on the plane at 6:15 and out like a light.  When my eyes opened, we were on the ground in Charlotte.  I felt like kissing the tarmac.

I’m glad Delta cancelled our flights.  I wouldn’t want to fly in bad weather or in a jet that wasn’t working right.  And I shouldn’t complain.  Lindberg would have been ecstatic to get across the ocean and back as easily as we did.  However, it did seem like Delta and JFK could have arranged their systems and terminals to be a bit more people-friendly.  Only the pigeons seemed truly happy.

But our trials getting to and from Iceland only served to highlight the wonderful time we had driving around Iceland.  Although plenty of alternative methods of travel were available (hitchhiking, bicycling, RVing, and bus tours of every kind imaginable), we found that our rental car and arrangement through IcelandGuest gave us the freedom and flexibility we enjoy along with the structure of a planned tour.  And no, we aren’t paid to say that.

Driving in Iceland, to my mind, is not nearly as intimidating as driving in England.  Icelanders drive on the right side of the road.  (Britains, of course, are on the wrong side.)  There is very little traffic.  So little, as a matter of fact, that the only places we found with actual stop signs and traffic lights were in the three largest cities (Reykjavik, Keflavik, and Akureyre).  Everywhere else there were traffic circles or yield signs.

traffic circle sign in Iceland

Traffic circle sign in Iceland, pronounce at your own risk!

There are some things you have to understand about driving in Iceland.  First, when your GPS says it will only take three hours to get to your next destination, don’t believe it.  You will want to stop numerous times to pick your jaw up off the ground. 

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The core of an ancient volcano on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Also, outside of the three aforementioned cities, there are no highways.  The best you can hope for is a paved two-lane road.  Iceland requires vehicles to drive with headlights on at all times.  There are few guard rails to block the view, even down steep 12% grades.  Reflectors set on poles 50 feet apart on the sides of the road help keep you on the straight and narrow during the winter.  Areas with greater snowfall get taller poles. 

Gravel road, steep grade, no guard rail: how much more excitement could you want?

Gravel road, steep grade, no guard rail: how much more excitement could you want?

Bridges are built cheaply and are almost exclusively one-way, making them easier to replace when periodic flooding crushes them beyond recognition.  First come, first served. 

All that is left of a bridge after the 1996 flood caused by meltwater from an eruption

All that is left of a bridge after the 1996 flood caused by meltwater from an eruption

Sign for a one-way bridge

Sign for a one-way bridge

We went through a tunnel 3 km long that was one lane.  Periodic pull-out sections were for the lane that had to yield.  This tunnel had an actual intersection in the middle, making it even more hair-raising. 

Here it is: the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel!

Here it is: the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel!

Sheep are another driving hazard.  Farmers put up fences, but the sheep view these as mere suggestions, preferring the grass on the other side of the road.  Sheep always have the right of way. 

They just kept walking toward us!

They just kept running toward us!

“Blindhæð” means watch out for oncoming traffic, there’s a hill where you can’t see what’s coming. 

Blind Hill

Blind Hill

Speed limits range from 90 km/55 mph out in the middle of nowhere and sometimes even plummeting down mountainsides to 50 km or less per hour in towns.  Roads often change to gravel with little notice, which can cause your vehicle to fishtail if you’re not careful (yes, chalk that one up to my driving).  And by all means, stay off the F-Roads unless you have a four-wheel drive and know what you’re doing.

Entering town limits

Entering town limits

Although driving can be challenging at times, the drop-dead beauty and exotic surroundings make it all worthwhile.  At times you’ll think you are traveling through Mars (and indeed NASA did do lunar module training here). 

Not Mars

Not Mars

At other times, the contrast of green and black and white and blue will bring tears to your eyes.  How is it possible to have so much beauty concentrated in one area?  roadside beauty

Even as we took the shuttle from Reykjavik to the airport, the most vivid rainbow I have ever seen showed itself, gone before I could get out my camera.  Slow down and enjoy being in the moment.  After all, the journey is the destination.

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4 responses

16 07 2013
Brandee Green

I’ve loved all the pictures so far. 🙂 Can’t wait to hear even more about your trip.

17 07 2013
eberteach

Be careful what you ask for, Brandee!

17 07 2013
Kathryn Fenner

JFK sucks, for sure. One tip, if you can, buy a day pass for the fancy people club (Crown?)–worth it for long layovers.

17 07 2013
eberteach

Thanks for the tip. Most of our problems came from just not understanding how the system works…or doesn’t.

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