Iceland 2016: Puffin Pictures Prevail

31 07 2016

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Today is our last chance to see puffins, or lundi as they are called in Iceland.  They were not showing themselves on the rainy day when we were at the cliffs at Látrabjarg in the West Fjords, so we are hoping to see a few on our bird-watching tour to Cape Ingólfshöfði.  But our tour is not until 1:30 this afternoon; we have time for other adventures along the way.

And so we stop at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.  Fed by the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier on the southeast coast, it has increased fourfold since the 1970s and is now considered to be the largest lake in all of Iceland. But people don’t come here because it is a lake; they come here to see the icebergs that have calved off the glacier bob down the way to the ocean.

In a word, it is spectacular.

6-4-16 Jokulsarlon glacial bay (22)

We opt not to take the boat ride through the lagoon, viewing the entire lagoon from the glacial moraine instead.

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Walking from the beach to the lagoon and back again, we watch enormous chunks of ice roll and bounce down the narrow channel.  Eider ducks float like so many bathtub toys and arctic terns use the larger icebergs to rest up from their constant feeding forays.  A snow bunting poses long enough for me to get a decent shot.

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A fulmar and some terns find a good resting spot

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Snow bunting

Washed up on the beach is a photographer’s playground of icebergs.  Ice chunks that may be 1,000 years old melt slowly into fantastic shapes and I wonder how many of these images will end up as profile pictures on Facebook.  I know mine will!



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A close-up of 1,000 year old ice, courtesy of Nancy

We cross the one-way suspension bridge and make our way further south toward Cape Ingólfshöfði.

6-4-16 Jokulsarlon glacial bay (32)

6-4-16 Skeiðarársandur (1)

We stop at a strange roadside attraction: the twisted remains of a bridge at Skeiðarársandur.  In 1996, a volcanic eruption under the glacier caused massive floodings, wrecking this bridge and completely interrupting road travel on this section of the Ring Road.  Here it is not simply the inconvenience of taking a detour: between the glacier and the sandflats, this is the only road in the area.  And so Icelanders don’t bother making sturdy bridges; they acknowledge the unstoppable power of nature and instead make narrow, easily replaceable bridges that only need last until the next eruption.

Our GPS takes us down a long bumpy gravel road that ends in a small parking lot.  We are here.  Soon a large farm tractor pulling a hay wagon full of tourists splashes across a broad creek.  Our transport has arrived.  Down the road flies a girl on a bicycle.  Our guide.

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Our tour

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Our ride


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Our guide

6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði  outhouse

Our outhouse

She introduces herself with her full unpronounceable name, laughs, and says we can call her Guni.  In my mind, I make the connection: our Goony Bird.  We climb into the wagon for a half-hour ride across the broad, black sand flats to the Cape.

6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði (4)

6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði (10)

Guni stops the tractor at the base of the cliffs, and we trek up the steep and shifting black sands, stopping numerous times to “admire the view.” Annalise, of course, sprints up and waits at the top in sheer boredom.

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David and Nancy labor up the hill

Guni also waits patiently and once the group is all together, gives a brief overview.  This area was first settled in A.D. 874 by the very first Viking in Iceland, Ingólfur Arnarson, who went on to found Reykjavík.  Guni herself can probably trace her lineage back as far; her family has had a farm here for countless generations.  She tells us stories of hitch-hiking up and down the east coast, able to find a family connection in every ride she got.  Guni speaks fluent English, loves being outdoors and active, rides horses all throughout the winter, and is just so darn wholesome I want to bottle her up and spread her throughout the States.

Her tone takes on a precautionary note, however, when she talks of the skua.  Skua.  A skua is a seabird. Remember, a skua is a seabird.  Memories flood back as I recall years of giving standardized IQ tests in which students were given short definitions of words including this one and asked to recall them later.  I’d always wondered what a skua was like.  Now I’m about to find out.

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If a bird can be considered evil, his name would be Skua.

What I learn about skua:

  1. Skua are not cute like puffins.
  2. Skua eat puffins, puffin babies, and even puffin eggs.
  3. When passing a skua, stay together as a group so it won’t attack.
  4. Skuas are not on my list of nice birds.

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Puffins, on the other hand, are cute.  They pose nicely.  They fly like little whirly-gigs.  Nobody’s ever had to be warned of an attack puffin.  Which is why I have thousands of pictures of puffins.  And only a few of skua.6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði (9)


6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði (1)

Puffin Perches

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He waits with his mouth full of sand eels for the coast to be clear before going to his burrow to feed his pufflets.

Iceland 2016: Pull Over, Brian

4 07 2016

Friday, May 27, 2016

“Today your journey takes you from fjord to fjord under awe-inspiring mountains.” So says our itinerary.  So much for the plan.

We start the day by back-tracking around the fjord to the western-most part of Iceland, Latrabjarg.  Back in 2013, Brian and I spent a wonderful few hours here, climbing to the edge of the impossible cliffs, spotting puffins, razorbills, and many other seabirds.  I am eager to show this fantastic place to Dave, Nancy, and Annalise so that they too can experience the wonder.

We all pile in Dave’s Ford Focus and head off.  It’s still rainy and windy, but this is Iceland after all, and I hold fast to the saying that the weather here changes faster than my mind.  But not today.

By the time we get there, it’s raining even harder and the wind is blowing hard enough that there is a real fear that we will be blown off the edge.  But we have learned from yesterday and are at least all wearing rain pants and jackets on top of our warmest clothes.  (Nancy had even packed an extra pair of rain pants, which Annalise gladly wears.)

5-27-16 Látrabjarg (2)

Annalise and David brace against the wind

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Note Annalise on the opposite cliff

5-27-16 Látrabjarg  fulmar (2)


Shielding our cameras, we search in vain for the puffins.  Not a one to be found.  They are probably all comfy inside their cliff-top burrows, watching their tellys and settling arguments with their squabbling kiddos.  We do see some razorbills, but that’s hardly compensation for driving an hour out of the way and getting drenched and wind-tossed after hiking along the sides of the cliffs.  Still and all, this is Iceland, and the weather will get better and we will see puffins.  We can only hope.

5-27-16 Látrabjarg  razorbill auk egg

Auk eggs: weighted so they won’t roll of cliffs

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A long way down for this razorbill auk

.Back in the car, we crank up the heat and head back to Patreksfjörður where we pick up the Peugeot and head to the fjords by those “awe-inspiring mountains.”

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A reminder to drive safely

And they are pretty awe-inspiring.  And as the road turns to gravel, the rain continues and we head to the highlands and the biggest adventure of our trip.

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A recent rockslide

Picture grey skies, spitting rain, a gravel road raised on a bed a couple feet from the ground, the sides of which are filled with run-off from the “awe-inspiring mountains.”  Grades as steep as 16%, twists and turns.  And the slopes pock-marked with ice unmelted yet in late May.  Luckily, few cars on the road.  Unluckily, few cars.  Keep your eyes on the road, for one mistake can lead to…

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Beside the road, a river rushes and gushes out of an enormous snowbank.  In spite of the weather, another great photo op.  “Pull over, Brian.”  Famous last words.  Infamous last words.  Words that will live in family folklore for years.

Brian pulls over so that the passenger tires are just off the road. Mistake.  Bad mistake.  Immediately the tires sink.  Immediately bad words start issuing forth.  I step out and I too sink. Oops.

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David and Nancy, traveling ahead of us, see us stop and so they back up, but fortunately stay on the road.  The men assess the situation.  With Dave and I pushing from behind, Brian guns the engine.  The tires spin deeper into the gravely muck.  We move to the front and push backward this time, again to no avail.  We are stuck.

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A lark for Annalise; not so much for Brian

With no cell reception, there is no highway assistance.  Dave and Nancy decide the only option is to travel on, hoping to find someone in a nearby village who can pull us out.

And so we sit.  At least Brian and Annalise sit, keeping dry and warm inside the car.  Myself, I do penance.   I stand outside on the road, keeping up the appearance that this is all just a grand lark.  I lure Annalise from the car and we walk over to the river, where we cut the fool, posing for silly pictures.5-27-16 stuck in mud (8)

Every 20 minutes or so, a car comes up the hill, pauses.  Window rolls down. “Can we help?”  Only if you have a rope to pull us out.  No such luck.  Window rolls up and they continue on.

Soon I am soaking wet, through my rain jacket, through my wool sweater, through my turtleneck sweater, all the way through my base layer to my skin.  I change my soggy shoes to my only other pair, my leather high-top boots.  For a while, my feet are dry, but gradually my toes are again in spongy wetness.  Enough penance.  I get back in the car.

Then a car comes, slows down, and pulls over.  Two young couples from Iowa bop out.  “Can we help?” Only if you have a rope to pull us out.  As luck would have it, they do.  And the two guys are engineers.  Good ones.  They discover the eye bolt holes in the back and front of our respective cars.  They unload their trunk and find their eye bolt and we find ours.  The future brightens.

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Their rope is a nylon one, some 60 feet long but thin.  Not strong enough to pull out a car mired in the muck.  Engineering skills kick in.  Running the rope through the eye bolts six times from the back of their car to front of ours, it is finally deemed strong enough for the job.

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And with one strong pull, we are out.

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We head on down the road, me with my mouth shut as we pass areas of great photo opportunity.5-27-16 stuck in mud (16)


We try and try and try again to contact Dave and Nancy on our cell phones.  Finally we get a message to them that we are safe and on the road again.

Turns out that they had stopped at a power station about two hours down the road, the only sign of life to be found.  The sole person working there could not leave his post, but opined that it would cost about $400 to get a truck to us, as far away from the middle of nowhere that we were.  He offered the use of a rope, but with no knowledge of the eye bolt possibility, David didn’t see the use.  And with at last cell phone confirmation that we were on the way, they continued on as well, to meet up at the hotel back in civilization.

The rest of the day was anti-climactic.  After driving an hour or so, we stop at a waterfall, but only because it has a well-traveled parking lot, giving Brian a chance to inspect the underneath of the car for damage.  (None.  Although for days the tires would squeal with rocky muck wedged somewhere inside.)

Dynjandi.  One of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls, which is saying a lot.  Actually, a series of waterfalls that fall from over 300 feet.  Towering.  Stunning.  A sight not to miss.  Dave and Nancy missed it, speeding on to find help.

5-27-16 Dynjandi Waterfall

And Brian and Annalise have had enough for the day.  So I trek up to the base alone, where I chance upon our heroes, the four Iowans who pulled us from muck and despair.  Not so much of a coincidence, really.  We are traveling in the same direction, with only one road to travel.  I take the best photo of the day: our four saviors, who braved the cold and wet to rescue their fellow Americans.

5-27-16 stuck in mud heroes (2)

So did our day end, meeting up finally with Dave and Nancy at the Hotel Horn in Ísafjörður, eating bad pizza at the only restaurant we could find, and stocking up with groceries at a nearby store.

All the while we were stuck in those desolate but “awe-inspiring mountains,” I kept thinking, we will laugh about this one day.   At the time, those niggling thoughts:  but how and what if.  But it didn’t and we did and we came through it and so now, finally we laugh.

Iceland Sage 2013: Taking a Tern for the Worse

17 07 2013

Iceland is for the birds, and therefore the birdwatcher as well.  There are so many interesting species of birds in Iceland that it is hard not to become a bird enthusiast.

Possibly the most popular is the geisha girl of the bird world, the puffin.  And since early July is prime puffin nesting season, there were plenty of puffins to peruse.  Photographing the puffin is not for the faint of heart.  At the Látrabjarg cliffs in the West Fjords I lay down as close as I dared to the crumbling edge, some 440 meters from the pounding sea below. 

Látrabjarg cliffs

Látrabjarg cliffs

Life on the edge

Life on the edge

In the village of Vík í Mýrdal in southern Iceland, I climbed the cliffs west of the black sand beach for a chance at a puffin picture.

bird cliffs near Vík í Mýrdal

bird cliffs near Vík í Mýrdal

(Lest you think me foolhardy, I will say that I observed many other tourists while assessing my chances of traumatic injury or death.  Seeing no life-threatening events, I proceeded with extreme caution.  Although I do have a bit of an adventurous streak, I ain’t stoopid.)

Iceland has your safety in mind.  Note the sign indicating birds on one side, people on the other.  Note also the faint white line.

Iceland has your safety in mind. Note the sign indicating birds on one side, people on the other. Note also the faint white line.

No sign of tourists within

No sign of tourists within

Here are my picks of the puffin pics:


puffin and razorbilled auk

puffin and razorbilled auk

posing puffin

posing puffin

puffin perch

puffin perch

yet another puffin

yet another puffin

In sheer numbers, the arctic tern rules the roost during the Icelandic summer.  The arctic tern has a circumpolar migratory pattern, breeding in Iceland and other northern locales during the summer before heading south for another summer in Antarctica, a round trip of 44,000 miles each year.  The average tern lives about 20 years, traveling over 1.5 million miles.

arctic tern

arctic tern doing what he does best

arctic tern carrying fish to nest

arctic tern carrying fish to nest

arctic tern nesting grounds

arctic tern nesting grounds

food for the family

food for the family

We learned by experience not to mess with this bird.  He is fiercely defensive of his nest, becoming quite aggressive if you happen too close.  A rapid clucking sound as he swoops over your head warns that you are about to be pecked on the head if you don’t run for cover.  We heard that you could fend off an attack by simply holding a stick in the air, but only ended up looking foolish and irritating these arctic athletes even more.

This guy was banding the babies.  Sure hope he had a helmet on!

This guy was banding the babies. Sure hope he had a helmet on!

Ducks and swans were also common, although I wasn’t as excited about these as other, more exotic species.

duck crossing

M R Duks

harlequin ducks

harlequin ducks

The redshank was one of my favorite meadow birds, making a distinctive call as he flew in wide circles around me. He too was probably defending his nest, but was much nicer about it than the tern.  There were plenty of plovers as well, although for the life of me I couldn’t recognize them on sight, always having to look them up on the Internet when I got back to the guesthouse.



Oystercatchers, on the other hand, were just as prolific and were easy to identify with their long pointed red bills.



While I struggled to identify some of the many birds of Iceland, I had no trouble identifying the birders.  They were the ones lugging cameras with two-foot-long lens up and around the steep cliffs, only one of which died last year.

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.”