Iceland 2016: A Whale of a Day

15 07 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Yesterday, horses ruled.  Today it’s all about whales.  But not until 16:00.  So in the morning we head back into Akureyri to play Tourist.


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Across the fjord to Akureyri

On the way around the fjord, we stop at an overlook to look at the city across the way and find a patch of beautiful lupines. Lupines are a non-native, invasive species.  They crowd out the native wildflowers and grasses and may be causing the demise of the heath bumblebee, Iceland’s only native bee.  I know that.  I also know they are absolutely gorgeous. They remind me of wisteria, but with longer-lasting flowers. 5-30-16 Akureyri Botanical Garden (43) I decide my sister Marie would love this beautiful spot, so I get her out of my suitcase and leave a bit of her here.  Marie, who died almost a year ago, loved to travel and took special joy in the beauty of nature.  In one of her journals, she wrote about how the wildflowers on the side of the road turned an awful day at work into an Awe Full Day.  She would approve of this spot.


5-31-16 Akureyri MarieFinally in Akureyri, we stroll the streets and do some gift shopping.

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We also discover that duct tape is a handy item for car repair, even, or especially, in Iceland.

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Fortunately, not our car

On the way to Húsavík where we are scheduled for a whale-watching boat tour, we stop at one of the most famous of Iceland’s many waterfalls: Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods.

5-31-16 Goðafoss (22)Again, there are no words.  We pose for the requisite photos in front of the falls, then explore downstream where there is a smaller waterfall and a bridge to the other side.5-31-16 Goðafoss (4)

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As we meander around, Dave tells me that there is a tamarind just off the trail that I need to go see.  A tamarind?  My mind searches its files…an orange or maybe a monkey?  No, Dave explains patiently, a bird.  Well, I’m impressed.  Obviously he knows his birds.  I go back and indeed find a beautiful bird.   A ptarmigan.

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This ptarmigan seems unperturbed to have people sharing its personal space.  It allows me to get within six feet, so I am in photography-heaven as I shoot photo after photo of this very photogenic bird.

Even after all these stops, we arrive in Húsavík a couple hours before our tour.

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We walk around the town, furtively looking for the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which houses “a collection of penises and penile part representing all the types of mammals found in the country.” Didn’t find it.  Kind of relieved.  We did find an Exploration Museum, though, with artifacts from the Apollo Astronaut training that took place near here in the mid-60s.  Whodathunk?

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We board the “traditional Icelandic oak boat” for our whaling expedition.  No, I am reprimanded by the cashier.  We are not going whaling.  We are going whale watching.  Big difference.  We don our stylish red overalls to keep us warm and toasty on the open water and head out into Skjálfandi bay for our three hour tour.  Snatches of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island play through my head.5-31-16 Husavik whale watching (16)

It’s not long before we start seeing whales breaching in the distance, and not long after that before I have an enormous collection of photos of the vast bay each with a little black dot in the middle.

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A Tail of a Whale

The guide identifies every black dot: there are white beaked dolphins, minke whales, harbor porpoises, and humpback whales.  Soon enough we are in the middle of a feeding area.  We discover that the best way to find the humpback whale is to look where the seabirds are feeding.

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Flocks of arctic terns, puffins, and fulmars gather where the fish are.  And where the fish are, there soon will be the whales.  And there are.  One even breaches so close to our boat that the captain is taken aback.  I’m sure they have rules about keeping the boats a certain distance away.  I’m also certain that nobody told the whales those rules.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the birds.  In between whale-sightings, I entertain myself by taking photos of the many birds around us.  Soon I have almost as many blurred pictures of birds as I do black dots in the bay.  A few turn out to be quite decent.

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Clear the runway! Fulmar take-off!


The crew feeds us hot cocoa and cinnamon rolls on the way back, much tastier in my opinion than the krill that the whales are feeding on.  Makes me glad to be a human.

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Back in the car, we head for Lake Mývatn and our home for two nights, Hótel Reynihlíð.  Upon arriving, I find a group of college-aged girls doing yoga in a common area.  My antennae are up.  I ask where they are from.  Berry College, Georgia.  Is Russell Maddrey with them?  Mouths drop.  How do I…?

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Russ grew up in Aiken and went to Aiken Elementary where I taught.  I know his mom and knew he would be traveling the Ring Road at the same time we were as part of a college geology class.  Although it seems like an unusual coincidence, it wasn’t really.  I had been watching out for him, knowing that he was going counter-clockwise while we were going clockwise around the island.  The Ring Road being basically the only way around the island, and knowing that there were certain stops that everyone makes, I am not that surprised to run into him.  Of course, when I call his name when I see him in the parking lot, all his classmates are impressed that he is such a famous person, known world-wide.  Which he will be, or should be, since he is one of the nicest guys on this planet.

A nice ending to an altogether nice day.

Iceland 2016: Horse Play

10 07 2016

Monday, May 30, 2016

5-29-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse (15)As is not unusual, I awake before everyone else.  I decide a stroll is in order, so I dress and slip out the door.  I head up the long lane in front of the Guesthouse and cross the road to the horse pasture.  Before long, one, then two, then a small herd of horses are gathered by the fence to greet me.  We have a long chat, the horses and I.  5-29-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse

They don’t ask for anything nor have I anything to give.  We just talk.  I snap a few pictures, wish them happy trails, and head back for breakfast.5-30-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse (25)

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Ah, breakfast.

In usual Icelandic guesthouse style, a buffet is laid out.  There is a steaming pot of oatmeal and muesli to put on your skyr.  Fresh bread, several homemade jellies (rhubarb is big in Iceland), boiled eggs, small slices of melon, bananas, apples.  And a tray of sliced meats.  Different types.

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Horse, seabird, and lamb

One of the hotel employees is restocking a food tray.  I ask her about the meats.  Lamb. Horse. Seabird.  “Seabird,” said another guest, “It must be puffin.  They eat them here, you know.”  I did know.  I waver, torn between sensitivity and interest.  But I know I never again will get the chance to try these foods, so I take one slice of each.  The lamb tastes like lamb.  The horse tastes of roast beef.  As does the seabird, although smoked and slightly dry.  And I’m curious, so on the way out I ask the receptionist what kind of seabird.  She struggles for the word in English, finally pulling out a guidebook to Icelandic birds.  I love that she has one handy.  It is not puffin.  It is guillemot.  Somehow I am relieved.  Guillemots are not nearly as cute as puffins.  But that doesn’t excuse eating a lamb.  More on the horse later.

Although I communed with the horses before breakfast, and I ate horse meat for breakfast, the best is still ahead:  we have a 10:00 appointment for a two hour horse-riding tour.  We arrive at Hestasport  outside  the little village of Varmahlíð early, but there are dogs to play with.  Soccer dogs.  When I accidentally kick the soccer ball directly into the chest of one of the dogs, they take offense and run off.  I never was much good at soccer.

We head over to the stables, select our helmets, and get on our mounts, Annalise, Nancy, and me.  Dave has decided that this trail-riding stuff is too tame for his liking, and Brian, well, let’s just say that this was the same place that became a real “pain in the butt” for him last time.  (The back story for this is quite funny but not germane to this tale.)

So we set off and as before, our guide lets us experience the half-walk, half-trot gait that Icelandic horses are famed for.  Nancy is in front of me, and I see her horse break into a canter, upsetting Nancy’s balance.  She bounces left, then right, and suddenly I can see the future.  Before I have a chance to do or say anything—and really, what could I do anyway?—I see Nancy bounce high off to the left, landing with a resounding thump on her back on the ground.  Luckily, the ground was relatively soft, grassy and slightly marshy.  And fortunately she landed flat, without any twists that might have spelled disaster.  So, although shaken and stiff, she wasn’t  seriously hurt. But her physical discomfort paled in comparison to her wounded pride: horses and riders alike all looking down at her with wide eyes.

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This lady has spunk.  She pops up (okay, maybe “pops up” is not the best phrase to describe how she got up, but you have to give her credit) and with a little help, manages to get back on her horse, who stands calmly as if wondering why his rider decided to take flight.

We continue our ride, occasionally at a tölt, although Nancy wisely holds to a walk.  Nancy has won the admiration of all: she is one plucky lady and a good sport as well.

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I am gifted with an interesting perspective on this ride: when I mention to the guide my breakfast meat of that morning, he is not at all taken aback.  This man, this horse lover, reminds me that these horses live lives of great freedom, living outdoors in a herd and eating grass and doing what horses love to do, for a long time.  How much more humane is this life than that of cows, cooped up in dirty pens and fed from a trough until they are sufficiently fattened?  So maybe eating horse meat is not the horrid thing we tend to think it is.  Maybe the real cruelty lies in how we treat the cows that we eat.

We continue on to Akureyri, the “capital of North Iceland” and one of its biggest urban areas.  In spite of this status (which is all relative), we enjoy its charm and clean feel.

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A common sight in this uncommon country: babies left outside while mom shops

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Our favorite used bookstore

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We stroll up the street to see the Botanical Garden.  We are too early.  Most of the flowers that we feasted our eyes on last time are still weeks away from blooming.  Still and all, we admire the variety  and interesting form of the foliage, that is until it starts raining in earnest and we have to head back down the hill to our cars.

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We arrive at our lodgings, the Hotel Sveinbjarnargerði, on the other side of the fjord from Akureyri.  It’s a good thing we didn’t have to stop and ask directions: we never would have been able to spit out the strange concretion of consonants and syllables that are so common in the Icelandic language.

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The view from our hotel room

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Green acres, red tractor

5-30-16 Akureyri (25)A special treat awaits us:  hot cocoa and cinnamon buns in the lobby.  Even better, we get to see an gorgeous sunset across the waters, although we have to wait up until midnight for it and we never do get to see the sun sink below the horizon.  5-30-16 Akureyri midnight sunset (2)That isn’t a problem for our eyes, though, which sink before our horizon just as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

An Unlikely Comparison

19 07 2013

I was sitting outside this morning, eating my breakfast on the back porch beside by garden, and couldn’t help comparing my poor efforts at gardening with those at the Akureyri Botanical Garden in Iceland.  Okay, so I’m a sucker for punishment.

Regardless, here’s a little photo quiz to keep you on your horticultural toes, so to speak: Akureyri or Aiken?






Did you guess correctly?  The first one is in my garden in Aiken: a bee balm, attracting lots of bees as well as butterflies and hummingbirds.  I’m not sure what the second flower is, but it must have been the inspiration for flowers in Dr. Suess’s  Horton Hears a Who.

Try this one:






Again, the top one is from my garden in Aiken: a common zinnia.  These reseed every year, making it the perfect flower for a lazy gardener such as myself.  And again, I’m not sure what the one from the Akureyri Botanical Garden is. Names escape me.  Beauty doesn’t.

On to number three:






The top one is from Akureyri.  The bottom is of an Easter lily in my garden who decided to wait until well into June to bloom.







Did I get you?  These are both from Akureyri.

No more tricks (just treats):






The bottom picture is in Aiken, where a voracious anise swallowtail caterpillar was chowing down on my fennel.

How about this?






The top picture is from Akureyri, but could have been from Aiken.  It is a type of mint, which apparently will grow just about anywhere.  The bottom picture is a canna I just transplanted in my garden this past spring.  You wouldn’t find this one growing outside in Iceland; he is happiest in a more tropical locale.

Here’s my last unlikely comparison:






Sorry.  I did it again.  Both these pictures are from my garden in Aiken.  The top is a hibiscus that has grown about 15 feet tall.  The bottom is a double day lily.   Both plants grow back every spring and provide bright and easy color for my lazy garden.

It may be a while before I can get back to Iceland.  In the meantime I’ll just have to enjoy the scenery from my back porch.

Icelandic Saga 2013 Overview

16 07 2013

I am not a world traveler by any means, but I have been to my share of places:  all over the United States as well as parts of Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Great Britain, and a smattering of European countries.  Never have I been to a place that compares to Iceland.


There simply are not enough synonyms to describe the sights in Iceland.  To say Iceland has scenic beauty does this country a grave injustice.  Jaw-dropping sights are around every bend in the road. And there are many bends in the road.  Drives that our GPS told us should take three hours ended up taking all day because we were constantly stopping to take pictures, gawk at a waterfall, climb over a lava field, or watch chunks of a glacier gracefully roll down a frigid river.


For ten days, from July 1-11, we traveled the Ring Road, the modest two-lane, sometimes gravel road that circumnavigates Iceland.   Temperatures ranged from 8-18 °C (46-65°F), although frigid winds often brought the temperature well below freezing.  During that time, there were a couple days of sunshine, but it was more often the case that the day would be overcast, then scattered showers, then partly cloudy with the sun peeking through at times.  A tee-shirt in one of the few gift shops said it best:  If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes.

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Most days we dressed in layers, starting with long underwear, wool socks, jeans, a shirt, and a windbreaker with a removable liner.  Quite often, though, we shucked off our outer layers as we warmed up on our hikes.  Although we brought gloves, we rarely used them.  Pockets sufficed to keep hands warms between photo ops.

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Icelanders speak Icelandic, which to their pride is one of the most difficult in the world.  However, they also are multi-lingual, speaking English easily as well as one or two other languages (Danish and German being the most common).  Unlike some European countries, Icelanders don’t cop an attitude if you don’t speak their language.  They just easily switch over if they suspect you speak English.  Iceland is sparsely populated:  Reykjavik has 200,000 people, and the rest of the country has only 100,000 more, most of whom live near the coast.  500,000 tourists visited Iceland In 2010, more than doubling the population. Icelanders are very proud of their Viking heritage as well as their literate society.  High taxes forced the Vikings out of Norway to Iceland around 840 AD when the country’s climate was warm enough to grow corn.  Iceland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and more poets and writers per capita than any other place.  What else would you do during those long dark cold winters?  And yes, they do have a very high abortion rate.   As a whole, Icelanders are a very friendly people, making Iceland a great place to travel.

On her journeys abroad, my mother would always keep copious notes about where she went, what she did, what she ate, and how much every little item cost.  I’ve decided not to do that.  Not only am I too lazy to keep track of all those details, I think by so doing I would put the emphasis on the wrong thing, the trees instead of the forest, so to speak. [By the way, there are no forests in Iceland.  Apparently, what the Vikings didn’t chop down, the volcanoes killed. Icelanders have tried to replant, but growth is slow.  Icelanders have a saying: “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, just stand up.”]


So, in a nutshell, here are the bare details of our trip.  Future blogs will address more interesting aspects of our experiences.

We booked a self-guided driving tour of Iceland’s Ring Road, taking us all around the perimeter of the island, through IcelandGuest, a division of Nordic Visitor.  IcelandGuest made all the arrangements for a car rental and accommodations, providing us with a detailed itinerary of suggested highlights, optional side trips, helpful tips, and a GPS. 

ring road map

Day 1, June 28:  Drove to Charlotte airport for evening flight to JFK.  Our flight was delayed and then cancelled.  Delta was unable to get us on another flight until June 30.

Day 2, June 29: After spending the night at Delta’s expense, we bummed around Charlotte for the day, calling our travel agency in Iceland so they could rearrange our trip.

Day 3, June 30: Delta rerouted our trip through Minneapolis, MN, instead of through JFK.  From there we flew IcelandAir to Keflavik Airport outside of Reykjavik. 

Day 4, July 1: Arrived in Iceland at 6:15 AM and hit the ground running.  Drove west along the Snæfellsnes* Peninsula, spending the night at the Virkið** Guesthouse.

The remains of a crater some 3-4000 years old

The remains of a crater some 3-4000 years old

Day 5, July 2: Explored the peninsula and took the three-hour Baldur ferry from Stykkishólmus across the bay of Breiðafjörður to Brjánslækur in the West Fjords.***  Spent the night at the Bjarmaland Guesthouse in TalknafJörður.

The remains of the trawler Epine at Dritvik that wrecked in 1948, left as a memorial to the 14 crew members that perished.

The remains of the trawler Epine at Dritvik that wrecked in 1948, left as a memorial to the 14 crew members that perished.

Day 6, July 3: Drove out of our way to see the birds at the Látrabjarg cliffs, but it was well worth it!  Drove in and around fjords to the Dynjandi waterfall, stopping at Isafjörður to spend the night at Fisherman guesthouse.  Our room was actually a small house with a kitchen and an upstairs bedroom. Nice!  This was actually our northernmost location at just above the 66° latitude line.

The view from the kitchen window

The view from the kitchen window

Day 7, July 4:  Long, beautiful, winding drive through the fjords to heading east to Dæli, a farmhouse just east of the village of Hvammstangi, where we went through a seal museum, did some grocery shopping at a Bonus, shopped at a wool factory where I was charmed by two young entrepreneurs, and exchanged some money at a Landsbankin.  No Fourth of July fireworks here, but the scenery is just as spectacular.

These two enterprising young girls sold me a horseshoe for 5000 ISK (a little less than $5)

These two enterprising young girls sold me a horseshoe for 5000 ISK (a little less than $5) at the Wool Factory Shop in Hvammstangi

Day 8, July 5:  Drove toward the Skagafjörður fjord, stopping at Varmahlíð for a three-hour ride on Icelandic ponies through Hestasport.  After our ride, we hiked through the fields to a hot springs next to a waterfall for a long soak.  Drove on through Akureyri (third largest city after Reykjavik and Keflavik) to the Hótel Natur in þórisstaðir for a two-night stay.

A hot pot soak felt so good after our ride (getting out into the cold drizzle, not so much)

A hot pot soak felt so good after our ride (getting out into the cold drizzle, not so much)

Day 9, July 6: Explored the region, visiting the priest’s turf farm house at Laufás.  Then drove into Akureyri (the only town I could ever pronounce…Ah-kur-rare-ree) for some shopping and walk through their botanical gardens.  Walked the shoreline down from the hotel, finding lots of treasures!

Museum turf house outside of Akureyri

Museum turf house outside of Akureyri




Day 10, July 7: Continued east to the Mývatn lake region where we walked across a lava field and climbed a steep volcanic crater before continuing to Dimmuborgir where the lava fields are so eerie they are said to be the home of the Yule Lads, the 13 Santa-like elves that make Christmas in Iceland a unique experience.  We passed through the geothermal area of Hverarönd where I collected some sulfur, drove to the Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls (missed the road to the Krafla volcano, to my regret), cutting across the northeastern tip of Iceland and ending up at Egilsstaðir where we spent the night at the Eyvindará Guesthouse.

geothermal area at Namafjall Hverir

Day 11, July 8: Drove to Seydisfjörður on the East Fjords for a two-hour kayak tour with a guide who never introduced himself but we named “Sven Gunnarson.”  Ate lunch on a windy ice field at the top of a mountain.  Stopped in a small village named Fáskrúðsfjörður where we discovered a WWII museum that we of course went through.  Drove on to Höfn where we watched arctic terns feeding their young at their summer nesting site.

Kayaking with Sven

Kayaking with Sven

Day 12, July 9: Stopped at Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon at the southern edge of the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe (fourth largest in the world), where we watched ice bergs float to the sea on the glacial river.  Drove past Vatnajökull, stopping at the Skaftafell where we hiked to see several waterfalls (if you haven’t already guessed, jökull means glacier). Crossed vast flood plains of glacial rivers, black sand, and lava fields to spend the night at the Hótel Skógar in front of the Skógafoss waterfall, one of the most photographed in all of Iceland.

Glacial Lagoon

Glacial Lagoon

Day 13, July 10: Drove back to Skaftafell (a two-hour drive back, the only hitch in IcelandGuest’s itinerary) for a morning “Blue Ice Experience” walk on the glacier.  On the way back to the Hótel Skógar where we would spend a second night, we stopped in Vík, a small town where several big name movies have been filmed on their black sand beaches.  Found a bird cliff on the beach, so of course I climbed part way up to take puffin pics.  Did some shopping at a wool factory there.

Blue Ice Experience is gray with accumulated ash

Blue Ice Experience is gray with accumulated ash

Day 14, July 11: Our last full day in Iceland.  Out early to get to þingvellir National Park for a snorkeling tour in the rift zone.  Due to time constraints (we wanted to be back in Reykjavik by 5:00 to turn in the rental car), we made a crazy, speedy tour of the famous “Golden Circle.”  Saw Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal area of Haukadalur, home to Geysir, the source of the word “geyser.”  We rushed back to Reykjavik and turned in the car and checked into the Fosshótel Barón.  We spent the evening walking through Reykjavik and doing some last-minute gift shopping.



To my deep regret, we missed going to the Bridge Between Continents, which is on the other side of Keflavik, that spans the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  I also missed going to the Blue Lagoon, a must-see that I didn’t see, again due to time constraints.  Ah, well, I guess I need to save something for my next visit!

Day 15-16, July 12-13:  A blur.  Flight from Keflavik to JFK, where due to a missed flight and a cancelled flight we ended up spending the night in the airport to take a 6:15 AM flight on US Air (changed from Delta) to Charlotte, then a three hour drive home, finally back by noon. 

In spite of the troubles getting there and back, I would go again in a heartbeat.


*Æ or æ is pronounced like the “i” in “smile”

**Ð or ð is pronounced like the “th” in “breathe”

***Icelanders pronounce them “feareds,”  as in “I was a-feared to drive down the 12% grade gravel road into the fishing village by the fjord.”