Iceland 2016: Bump, Crawl, Squeeze, Climb, and Slide

24 07 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Yesterday we were left behind, but this time we are ready.  By 7:30 we are in front of the ranger station, ready for the van to transport us to the Lofthellir lava cave.  Nancy has made the wise decision to sit this one out, as her claustrophobia would not make this a pleasant experience.  The van arrives, and we head out for the drive to the cave.  At first, the ride is smooth, but soon we turn off onto a dirt road that is more holes than whole.  Luckily, this is a four-wheel drive vehicle, and our guide expertly drives in, around, up, and down, through mud holes, across a creek, and over the lava field.  Jouncing like popcorn, we bump our way toward the cave.

After an hour in which I feel that every muscle in my body has been pulverized, we come to a stop and get out.

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Lava flowed through this valley

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Rope lava

We walk another half an hour over a lava field to a trailer where we are given rubber boots and a helmet with a lamp.  Another ten minute walk puts us at a giant hole in the ground, which even in June is still 90% filled with snow and ice.

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With a nod toward civilization, there is a metal staircase to the bottom of the hole, although without a handrail. We all make it to the bottom of the hole without incident and find ourselves standing in about four inches of ice water which is on top of what we are to find out is about a ten-foot layer of ice, a layer of ice that is throughout the cave.

6-2-16 Lofthellir Cave tour (11)Our boots have tiny metal cleats on them, so our footing is secure.  A good thing, too, since our first obstacle is to step over a large, very deep hole immediately in front of the entrance way.  Inside the cave, we come to our next challenge: a hill of ice some six feet high, topped with an opening maybe 18 inches high and a yard wide.  Our guide unrolls a tarp with boards sewn in like steps, and we climb up and slither through the tiny opening on our bellies.  I am starting to wonder if maybe this time I have bitten off more of an adventure than I can chew.  But there’s no going back now, not without some serious loss of face, so I swallow the bile collecting in the back of my throat and go on. The temperature is right at freezing down here but we are warm with exertion and are wearing rain pants and waterproof coats so we stay dry as we slip and slide up and around more ice slopes.

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It’s worth it.  Instead of limestone stalagmites and stalactites, these are made of pure ice.  Our guide places several flashlights behind some stalactites, and the light is reflected through them for a gorgeous light display like no other.  At one point, he has us all turn off our lights and get quiet, and we stand in inky darkness with only the drip drip of water in our ears.  Then we hear Ping! Ping!: bell-like notes of different pitches.  A melody of ice, an icicle symphony!  Our guide is tapping the sides of various sizes of stalactites with a metal object.  An underground concert, played on ice formations, in a lava cave some 3,000 years old!

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Ice crystals sparkle like diamonds

After almost an hour, it is time to turn around.  Getting back is so much more fun: we slide on our backs down the ice hills, holding on to a rope for control.  I’m ten years old again!  (Some would say, still.)

6-2-16 Lofthellir Cave tour (1)Outside, we take off our gear and hike back to the van where we bumpity-bump our way back to civilization.  A mechanic can make a good living in Iceland; these vehicles take a beating.  And a savvy masseuse could make some good pocket change with an office near the drop-off point!

We meet Nancy back at the hotel.  After ten days of almost non-stop travel, Nancy has enjoyed her own style of adventure this morning: a long soak in the tub followed by some re-organizing and catching up with the outside world.  She’s earned it!

Not too far down the road, we stop at, you guessed it, a waterfall.  Not just any waterfall:  this one is Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in all of Europe and the largest waterfall in Iceland, as measured by water volume.  Move over, Niagara!6-2-16 Dettifoss (46)

Although there is lots of snow still on the ground, the air is warm and Annalise makes the most of it by changing into her shorts.6-2-16 Dettifoss (38)

6-2-16 Dettifoss (30)The hike to the falls takes about half an hour as we climb over rocks and across snowmelt.

Before going on to Dettifoss, we view Selfoss, the eleven-meter high, horse-shoe shaped falls just upriver.  The volume of water is amazing, as is the columnar basalt on the opposite bank.6-2-16 Dettifoss (34)

 

From there, we head downstream where strong winds blow waterfall spray over us.  At this point, I was glad to not be wearing shorts.  Although a rainbow did make its appearance, Dettifoss is not on my short list of beautiful waterfalls.  It draws its fame from the sheer power of the water.  Mesmerizing!

6-2-16 Dettifoss (39)The rest of our trip today is uneventful.  I am unable to see one of the sights I had marked as a Must See: the boyhood home of Halldór Laxness, my new favorite author.  Laxness wrote the epic Independent People, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.  I’ve read the book twice now, and am completely enthralled with his portrayal of life in a turf house during the early 1900s.  We find the road that leads to his house, but it is a gravel road marked as an “F” road, which means it is off-limits for our sweet little Peugeot.  Our last adventure getting stuck on the side of the road has us even more wary of the dangers of travel, so I reluctantly have to give up on my dream of seeing this author’s house.  Deep sigh.

We enter the fishing village of Faskrudsfjordur, on the east coast of Iceland on a beautiful fjord.

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Fjord Reflections

When we go in the hotel lobby, a sign says go across the street and around the building, so we do and find someone in the hotel restaurant who takes us underground through a tunnel and a museum back across the street to the lobby where we started.  It is idiosyncracies like this that make Iceland so fun!

Dave and Nancy enjoy a dinner in the restaurant, while we snack on the crackers, cheese, peanut butter, and other food we have bought at a grocery store.  And when we are done, Brian and I set off on a walk to get a flavor of the town.  This town of a little more than 600 used to be a main fishing hub for the French, and even now the street signs are in French as well as Icelandic.

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The old hospital, remade into a hotel/museum with a tunnel under the street to the doctor’s house/hotel.  Note the sign showing how many kilometers to France.

 

Our hotel, we discover, used to be the home of the town doctor and site of the French hospital, purported to be haunted.

6-2-16 Fosshotel Austfirdir (4)It is the beauty of this village, though, that enchants us. 6-2-16 Faskrudsfjordur (4) At the end of the town, we find a campground, above which we spot a series of waterfalls.  Adventure enough for tomorrow!

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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.

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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.

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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.”]

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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

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Treasures!

Treasures!

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.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

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.”