Iceland 2016: Ahh, Iceland!

2 07 2016

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

After a sound night’s sleep, we get up far too early, eat breakfast in the hotel (skyr, yum) and meet our van to get us to the Thrifty Car Rental agency.  We make the wise decision to get car insurance (more on that later) and head east down the road out of Reykjavik:  Brian, Annalise and I in a Peugeot and Dave and Nancy following in a Ford Focus.  We will be doing the Ring Road, the road that circles Iceland, in a clockwise direction.  Most people seem to do this counterclockwise; don’t know why or which way is better, we just follow the itinerary set up by IcelandGuest!

After going under the fjord through the Hvalfjörður tunnel, we stop at the first of the thousands of waterfalls we see from the road.  Not terribly impressive as far as Iceland waterfalls go, but still a beautiful sight as we make our way through the countryside.

5-25-16 first waterfall (1)

Next stop:  Borgarnes, where David and Nancy tour the Settlement Museum while the rest of us take a stroll through town.  It’s windy, but not too cold and the sun keeps popping out of the clouds.  We have high hopes that the weather will stay nice. Ehh…

5-25-16 Borgarnes (2)

A bit windy…

5-25-16 Borgarnes

Typical church in Iceland

At our next stop, we pull out the food bag and eat lunch in front of a magnificent waterfall.  Ahh, feel the stress of planning and air travel melt away.  The air is fresh and crisp, the waterfall roars its dominance over the landscape, the skyr slides down your throat (with cookies as spoons), and big boulders provide climbing challenges as car-cramped muscles loosen up.  I’ve waited three years for this.

5-25-16 lunch falls5-25-16 lunch falls (1)5-25-16 lunch falls (2)

We don’t make it far down the road before we pull over for another stop.  No waterfall is in sight, but several cars are parked in a small parking lot and people are seen walking up a path to the cliff’s edge.  Must be something good.

It is. Rauðfeldar Canyon, a narrow canyon with a legend of sibling murder and the hope of seeing the half-troll Bárður Snæfellsás who killed his remaining two sons in disgust.

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The entrance to Rauðfeldar Canyon

5-25-16 Rauðfeldar Canyon (3)

 

After wending our way through the canyon and out again, jumping from rock to rock over the creek, I spy a narrow but steep trail up the edge of the cliff over the grassy tussocks. 5-25-16 Rauðfeldar Canyon (16)

I begin to climb but am soon overtaken by Annalise, who scampers like a squirrel up the trail.  When I reach as high as I dare, I turn around and look down.

5-25-16 Rauðfeldar Canyon (12)

 Yipes. How to get down.  Should have thought of this ahead of time.  Finally I decide that I will have to crab walk down on the seat of my pants, in spite of the fact that I only brought three pairs to last the entire trip.  Slowly I inch my way down, only to be overtaken by Annalise who bounds down in front of me.  I get the last laugh, however.  When she gets down, she discovers that her cell phone is missing.  It fell out of her pocket at the very top of her climb.  Up she goes again, not quite so fast this time.

5-25-16 Rauðfeldar Canyon-a (5)

The troll of Rauðfeldar Canyon

Always travel with someone will lots of energy and a good sense of humor.  Love this girl!

Our last stop of the day is at Hellnar Nature Reserve.  This Nature Reserve on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (which no matter how many times I hear it pronounced by an Icelander, always comes out in my head as Snuffle-up-agus) is a seaside area with interesting rock formations, crashing waves, and cliffs stained with white smears of bird poop.  What’s not to like.

5-25-16 Hellnar Nature Reserve (11)

5-25-16 Hellnar Nature Reserve (8)

5-25-16 Hellnar Nature Reserve (6)

Brian and Annalise get out of the wind and spitting rain

5-25-16 Hellnar Nature Reserve (5)

Mind-boggling geology

5-25-16 Hellnar Nature Reserve (3)

More climbing challenges

5-25-16 Hellnar Nature Reserve (15)

No more stops as we travel around the peninsula to our hotel in Stykkishólmur, the Fransiskus Hotel which was once a Catholic monastery and still houses a chapel used by the sisters in the hospital next door.  Our itinerary gives no address for the hotel other than the city, but when we do find it, it turns out that the street doesn’t have a name anyway.  Nothing unusual for a village in Iceland, even though this one is bigger than most with a population of more than 1,000 residents.

5-25-16 Fransiskus Hotel

Fransiskus Hotel with the red roof

After a fish dinner by the harbor, Brian and I decide we haven’t had enough for the day, so we climb to the top of the island next door.  Unfortunately, we don’t bring a camera.  Fortunately, the images in my mind of the endless ocean, the fierce wind at the top, and the squatty lighthouse will burn just as brightly.  From Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur, with such sights in between.  What a day.  What a day.





Iceland 2016: Here We Go. Again.

2 07 2016

Monday, May 23 to Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My husband Brian, daughter Annalise, and myself are headed for Iceland, the second time for Brian and me.  The trip is a graduation gift for Annalise.  With her college graduation behind her and job teaching high school looming ahead of her, it may be the last major trip we get to take with her.  For us, it is the culmination of three years of yearning to get back to Ísland, the island country we visited and fell in love with in 2013.

I’ve been asked several times, “Why go to the same country again?  There are many other beautiful places in the world to explore.”  I respond with another question: “How many times have you been to the beach, the mountains, or a certain park?”  I have no words to describe the immense beauty, the raw wildness of the high country, the majesty of the jagged peaks, the strength and splendor of the ocean beating against towering bird cliffs.  There just are no words.  But I will try.

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Matching wool socks: The HORROR!

Our least favorite part of our trip is getting there and back.  But for once, all goes according to plan. We leave early afternoon taking Delta from Augusta, Georgia for Atlanta and then to JFK Airport in New York.  After a five hour flight across the Atlantic, we arrive in Keflavík International Airport about 6:30 AM Iceland time on Tuesday, May 24, which was 1:30 AM our time.  Yawn.

5-23-16 plane ride

Airplane Selfie

At the airport we meet up with my brother David and his wife Nancy, who had flown from Santa Clara, California to Seattle, Washington and then took IcelandAir across North America to Iceland in far less time than it took us from the east coast.  Life just ain’t fair.

We had booked our travel arrangements through IcelandGuest!, the same travel agency we had used before, so we exchange the  travel voucher they had provided us for a bus ride to our hotel in Reykjavik, about an hour away.

Arriving at Hotel Frón in the historic district of Reykjavik, we dump our luggage in the one room that is ready and take off to explore the city on foot.  And when I say “we” I mean everyone except Brian, who stays behind to catch a few winks in the quiet comfort of the room. He’s always been smart like that.

5-24-16 Reykjavik (5)

Reykjavik manages to mix tradition with a more modern vibe

After lunch at a nearby café (veggie wrap for about $12 and $5 coffee, ouch), we explore the harbor, the main tourist shopping street, and the cathedral.

5-24-16 Reykjavik (4)

Harpa Concert Hall

5-24-16 Reykjavik (6)

5-24-16 Reykjavik no diet mt dew (5)

Hallgrímskirkja church with statue of Leifur Eiriksson

Later in the day, Brian and I do some shopping at Bónus, the budget grocery store, and load up on skyr, fruit, bread, and other lunch items. Bringing food along with us in the rental car will not just be a way to cut costs; it will be a necessity as villages are few and far between and rarely do they have any fast food options.   Brian is dismayed that in spite of the many soda options available, his Diet Mountain Dew is nowhere to be found: the first of many sacrifices we must make as we explore again this gorgeous but relatively undeveloped country.

5-24-16 Reykjavik no diet mt dew (1)

Sodas, sodas everywhere, but not a diet Dew to drink!

 





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.”

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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.





Icelandic Saga 2013: Food and Other Expensive Icelandic Hobbies

16 07 2013

“What did you eat while you were in Iceland?”

This is the question I am asked the most, right after, “How was your trip?”  And my honest answer has to be, “lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Typical lunch

Typical lunch

Food, along with everything else in Iceland, is expensive.  (Okay, I can think of three things in Iceland that are cheap: air, water, and energy.)  Knowing this, I came prepared with a suitcase filled with nothing more than snacks: peanut butter, assorted crackers, breakfast bars, gum, hard candies, and trail mix.  The idea was that this, along with a few items picked up in grocery stores, would allow us to eat fairly cheaply for lunch and sometimes dinner while on the road.  And by the end of the trip, I’d have an empty suitcase I could fill up with all my treasures, both purchased and found.  And it worked.

We discovered Bónus, Iceland’s favorite discount grocery store, and when passing through towns we stocked up on drinks, cheese, salami, and bread.  We also bought and developed an addiction for Skyr, a thick and creamy version of yogurt that is high in protein and low in fat.  With the cool summer temps, we felt comfortable leaving these refrigerated products in the car overnight. 

Bonus discount grocery store!

Bonus discount grocery store!

Our eating habits quickly fell into a pattern: a huge breakfast provided by the hotel: various meats, cheeses, yogurt or skyr, oatmeal, bread, pastries, fruit, and coffee or juice.  Sometime by mid-afternoon we would start to feel a twinge of hunger, so we would pull off at a convenient gorgeous spot and have a picnic lunch.  Late in the evening we would eat another sandwich and more skyr. 

Skyr and flatbread for lunch.  Yum!

Skyr and flatbread for lunch. Yum!

You can't beat the view in our open-air dining room!

You can’t beat the view in our open-air dining room!

About every other day we would give in and buy a meal at a restaurant.  We learned quickly to be careful though.  Our first lunch at a coffee shop was an eye-opener: we had one order of soup and bread, one order of potato gnocchi, and two tap waters.  Our bill was 4500 ISK (Icelandic Krona), the equivalent of about $37.

Note:  while we were there, the exchange rate was 120 ISK = $1 U.S.  To convert, my math-challenged brain took off two zeros, then deducted 20ish% to get the dollar amount.  I’m not sure this is completely accurate accounting, but it gave me a rough approximation of what I was spending.   And while I’m on the topic of money, we found that exchanging dollars for króna at Landsbankinn, a common bank chain, was the best choice since they don’t charge for the service. 

A dinner of fish chowder (made with no discernible fish pieces), bread, and water for two was a bit more reasonable, at 2000 ISK, or $17. Icelanders love their pylsas, which are hotdogs made with lamb meat, so at a roadside stand in town we had two pylsas and one Coke for only 980 ISK (a little over $8).  Another dinner of mushroom soup (with few mushrooms), rolls, water and a Coke was 1600 ISK, or $13.  Not too stinking bad, although it was probably soup from a can.  We did have one nice Icelandic dinner: salmon and lamb.  Total bill: 6400 ISK, or $53, which is not too far out of line for a dinner in a decent American restaurant.  However, it was not something we were comfortable doing every night!

Our one real meal!

Our one real meal!

Possibly because of the expense of importing so much of their food, Icelanders have taken to eating some rather, ahem, unusual things.  Although we never saw it for sale, they are known for eating hakarl, or putrified shark.  Apparently the process of putrifrication destroys the poisons, although leaving a strong ammonia smell in the raw meat.  I’m not sorry I missed this dish.  I asked our trail guide why there were so many Icelandic ponies since there seemed to be far too many for simply riding.  She said, yep, you guessed it, they eat them.  Foals are a particular delicacy.  Having never felt hunger, I’m not going to judge.

Other expenses added up quickly.  Gas was close to $8 a gallon.  However, this cost was somewhat offset by the great gas mileage of our manual transmission Ford Escort.   Wool sweaters ran between $100 to $200, and sheepskins were not cheap skins, costing about the same as a sweater.  This made no sense to me, as the huge population of sheep should kept prices down.  Again, I’m not going to judge.  This was probably one of their biggest money-makers in a country lacking in very many exportable products.

N1gas station with unique recycle bin

N1 gas station with unique recycle bin

My favorite souvenirs were found ones, free for the taking: lava rocks, black volcanic sand, feathers, an auk’s egg shell, the wing of an arctic tern (He must have been quite forgetful.  I found his other wing on down the path), the skull of what I think is an eider duck, and various other sheep bones and teeth.  Add to this some dried seaweed, oyster shells, a sea sponge, and several sea urchin shells left over from a gull’s meal and I was quite the happy tourist.  I was a little concerned about getting these through Customs; although I declared them on the card they hand you on the airplane, the customs officer hardly batted an eye.

I only took the skull!

I only took the skull!

There were no admission fees for the National Parks or other sights of interest.  However, one could end up paying an arm and a leg for all the excursions that were available.  We decided on four: horseback riding (you can’t go to Iceland and not ride an Icelandic pony), kayaking on a fjord, a glacier walk, and snorkeling at Silfra in the rift zone.  This latter excursion turned out to be my least favorite as it wasn’t very scenic and was quite cold, but at least I have bragging rights that I snorkeled in 2°C/36°F water where the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates are moving apart at a rate of one cm a year.  I just couldn’t see it.  I thoroughly enjoyed the other experiences, though, and found the guides’ commentary very enlightening.  And it was a draw which was more pleasing to the eye: Sven or the fjord he took us kayaking through.

Our horses plunged into the freezing river up to their bellies without hesitancy.

On our HestaSport riding tour, our horses plunged into the freezing river up to their bellies without hesitancy.

I don't know if this was typical, but when we went the water in the fjord was like glass!

I don’t know if this was typical, but when we went the water in the fjord was like glass!

Putting on our crampons (no giggling allowed)

Putting on our crampons (no giggling allowed) for our Blue Ice Experience

Other opportunities to leave your money in Iceland abound.  There are Super Jeep tours, snow mobile tours, four-wheeler tours, and a variety of boat tours, to name just a few.  I was quite happy with the ones we did, although I’m a bit hesitant to look at the itemized costs from IcelandGuest, the travel agency that booked all these excursions.

Boat tours at Jökulsárlón

Boat tours at Jökulsárlón

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we paid IcelandGuest to make all our arrangements for accommodations and travel.  Although we could have done all this ourselves online for much cheaper, it certainly took a lot of the stress away from the trip by letting them handle the details.  In addition, we would be traveling blind whereas they had the benefit of years of experience traveling and living in Iceland.  We were more than pleased with all their arrangements.  Every single one of the accommodations rated four stars in my book: some run by farming families, some run as large commercial hotels, no hotel chains, all very clean, professionally run and comfortable.  From the quaint Fisherman Guesthouse where we had our own efficiency apartment/fisherman’s cabin to the Fosshótel  in downtown Reykjavik with its slanted ceiling, skylights, and antique furniture, we were very happy campers.

Fisherman guesthouse at Isafjörður

Fisherman guesthouse at Isafjörður

Speaking of happy campers, there were cheaper accommodations and modes of travel all over Iceland than what we used.  Small RVs and pop-up trailers were a common sight on the roads, and hitchhikers swarmed like midges as they looked for rides from one scenic attraction to another (particularly noticeable in the Golden Circle area).  We passed many a bicyclist lugging camping gear up and down the mountain roads all over Iceland.  Apparently, people with high tolerance for pain and/or death wishes are not isolated only to the U.S.  We were quite happy to toot around in our Ford Escort, the stick shift giving us all the thrill we needed as we navigated the narrow, sometimes gravel, mountain roads.

In a nutshell, then, Iceland is not a cheap trip.  We saw few families with small children and many busloads of seniors, a testament to the excess of funds needed.  Yet it was worth every króna.  I just won’t be able to look another peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the face for a while.  





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.

iceland_lg

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.

iceland ipod pics 121

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.”