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.

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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.

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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.

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Harpa Concert Hall

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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.

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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 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.”