Date of Trip: May 2006
Mother had always described Iceland as “Someplace you and Lynn (my husband) would love.” Once we retired, Iceland was high on our wish list. When we discovered IcelandAir would allow a week stopover in Iceland enroute to Europe, that “cinched the deal”. As we have always traveled independently, this trip involved extensive planning, lots of guidebooks and much time on the internet but on May 23, we were off! We were flying out of the Baltimore/Washington (BWI) airport which was the closest one serviced by Icelandair. Lynn had discovered that renting a car each way was much cheaper than paying for a month parking at the terminal. The rental car agency at BWI provided a free shuttle to the airport.
Our flight left at 8:30 p.m. and was packed, even though May is considered off-season. Fortunately, the meals were good and we were able to snatch a few cat-naps before landing in Keflavik, Iceland the next morning at 6:30 a.m. local time. A decision to stop and purchase wine in the airport’s duty-free shop was to prove very cost effective since everything in Iceland is so expensive.
We had decided the best strategy was to ignore sleep deprivation and just keep going. However, upon leaving the terminal to pick up our rental car, we experienced a terrible shock: the weather was freezing. (The temperature reached a high of only one-degree centigrade and it was one of the coldest days in May for years). Worse, the wind was so strong it was difficult to control our luggage-laden metal cart in the parking lot. Thank goodness we had packed lots of warm clothes and could donn them before getting out of the car again. The challenge: Where was the correct road? An attendant at a gas station provided directions and coffee. (Fortunately, most Icelanders speak English and we were to learn that the road system is extremely easy to navigate once out of the capital, Reykjavik).
Enroute to our first stop, Gullfoss, we were delighted to observe wild swans foraging in the fields as well as flocks of sheep with adorable lambs. Gullfoss is a huge, deafening double waterfall where the Hvita river tumbles 105 ft. into a1 1/2mile ravine. We took the trail leading from the parking area right up to the north face of the falls. The ground was covered with ice from the spray and, although an awesome sight, it was too cold to linger. (Only 2 other couples were intrepid enough to brave the weather, so we had the place almost to ourselves). Scurrying back to the Visitor Center/Restaurant, we learned their special of the day was “hot lamb stew”. I am normally not too fond of lamb, but the word “hot” sure caught my attention. We each had a bowl, accompanied by home-made bread. It was delicious!
Next stop was Geysir, a small thermal area which was to be the only disappointment of our entire trip. The geyser erupted on schedule, but was no more than 40 feet high (a rather puny display after seeing Yellowstone). There was no competition for photo opts since only three other hardy souls were there. We had seen enough and were freezing. Just as we walked back to the car a bus pulled up and disgorged a load of tourists who huddled together in the cold. Our final attraction for the day was Pingvellir, and to avoid backtracking, we took an unpaved shortcut. The rutted and twisting gravel road through the barren hilly landscape emphasized the dramatic and desolate beauty of the country. Pingvellir is a sacred spot for Icelanders and was the site of the first European parliament in the year 930. It is now a national park, set along the north shore of Iceland’s largest lake and cut by the Oxara river. To us, the most fascinating aspect was the presence of a huge continental rift where the tectonic plates of America and Europe are tearing apart at a rate of one mm. per year. A broad track wound between the black volcanic fissures towering overhead. Nobody else was on the path and the walls of rock cut off the wind! Several walkways led to overlooks where the entire valley lay before us in expansive vistas rimmed in every direction by low, snow-topped mountains. It was now late afternoon but, considering the proximity to the Arctic Circle, there was no need to worry about approaching darkness. Thus it was a relaxing drive to Reykjavik where we had reservations at the Guesthouse Sunna, located near the Hallgrimshirkja Church with a steeple visible for miles. We left the car in the church’s parking lot while we tried to find the Guesthouse. After asking an older woman for directions, she almost had to be physically restrained from running up and down the street to check addresses. This was our first introduction to the extraordinarily helpful nature of Icelanders. Our observations were reaffirmed when, during check-in, the receptionist asked about our next destination. Upon learning we planned to head north, she gasped, “You can’t! They just got a meter of snow. You must go south instead”. She proceeded to make a series of phone calls, which resulted in new accommodations at the southern village of Vik, and cancellation (without penalty) of those in the north.
Our room at the Guesthouse Sunna was spacious and well equipped. The receptionist made reservations for us that evening at the Prir Frakkar Restaurant, a brisk ten minute walk towards the town center. (Parking places are scarce and expensive in Reykjavik and we were reluctant to give up our free one at the Guesthouse Sunna). Prir Frakkar’s fish was exceptional!
The following morning, thankfully, was warmer as we were scheduled for a full-day excursion to Porsmork through Mountaineers Island Adventure. Our guidebook extolled the area as “One of Iceland’s most spectacular but inaccessible wilderness areas”, and advised tourists to access it only in specially designed high-wheel vehicles. After a scrumptious buffet breakfast at the Guesthouse, we were picked up by our guide, Sverrir, in an expanded SUV with over-sized wheels. Two other couples, both from Great Britain, soon joined us. Sverrir proved to be an excellent source of information about Iceland’s geographical features en route to Porsmork. Just before entering the area, we stopped at a combination gas station/diner to purchase provisions for lunch. Suddenly, at least 50 high-wheel Mitsubishis poured into the station. What was going on? We found our guide chatting with one of the drivers and learned it was a national holiday (Ascension Day) and this was a club of Mitsubishi owners heading for Porsmork! Yikes! Our group held a hurried conference and left immediately to beat the crowds.
Fortunately, Sverrir had once worked as a warden in Porsmork and with his knowledge of the area could avoid places where other visitors congregated. Once into Porsmork, it was immediately apparent why guided tours were a necessity. The “road” was a barely discernible rock-filled track within an ancient glacier bed and we were forced to ford streams and glacier run-offs numerous times. Ah…but what glorious country this was! Tongues of ice snaked their way down mountain glaciers and their melt-water streams converged into the rocky Markarfljot river. We stopped at a hut beside the riverbed, where picnic tables and bathrooms were available. Across the wide expanse of boulders and river, we observed the Mitsubishi club heading in another direction and, not surprisingly, heard several tire “blow-outs” occur. Sverrir commented that our group appeared “fit” and suggested a climb of nearby Mt. Valahnukur. It was a steep scramble to the summit, but the view was amazing! Vistas of mountains, riverbeds and glaciers exploded in all directions. It wasn’t just the altitude that took our breath away and I took so many photos I ran out of film.
Next it was on to Stallholtsgjer for a hike up a rocky riverbed to a cleft that suddenly appeared in the mountain. Once inside, the passageway continued to narrow, and the boulders increased in size. Enormous icicles hanging from rocky walls were visible in the gloom. Several hikers were exiting the area and one had an extended conversation with Sverrir. He translated for us, “The icicles are falling, do we wish to continue”? Of course, but as one of our group joked, “Just make sure our obituaries don’t say foolish tourists killed by ice.” Ultimately, the women decided to abandon the venture 15 feet before the final destination, since the boulders became so large and slippery with ice that caution overcame our anticipation. The men pressed on and were rewarded by the sight of an amazing waterfall that twisted as it fell from an overhang. Waiting for them to return, we heard a huge splash as one of the icicles hit the water below the fall. Was everyone O.K.? Fortunately, we could hear voices and soon they re-emerged raving about the beautiful waterfall the women had missed. Now I was really sorry to be out of film.
Our final destination was Seljalandsfoss, a magnificent waterfall that plummets over a rocky escarpment into a deep pool beneath. As this attraction is just off the paved Ring Road, other tourists were also admiring the sight. A path meandered behind the falls and with the sun shining, rainbows were everywhere. Thank goodness for rain-gear or we would have been soaked by all the spray.
Our drive back to Reykjavik followed the south shoreline where Sverrir pointed out, “There is nothing but ocean between here and Antarctica”. He also regaled us with feats of the clever Icelandic horses, (never call them ponies) as well as tales of the country’s trolls and fairies. Icelanders are supposed to be great story tellers, and he was no exception. Dropped off at our Guesthouse by 6:30 p.m., we decided to dine at the Prir Frakkar again but ordered a different fish. It was another great meal: the perfect ending to a wonderful day!
Before checking out of Guesthouse Sunna the next morning we decided to explore a bit of the city. The Hallgrimshirkja church, a modern basalt structure was note-worthy, as well as a nearby sculpture garden featuring works by Iceland’s most famous sculptor, Njardargata. By 11:00 a.m. we were on our way, heading south along the Ring Road. It was dramatic scenery, with mountains, glaciers and moss-covered volcanic boulders as well as occasional glimpses of the ocean. Lunch was at the same gas station where we had stopped en route to Porsmork the previous day. Then it was on to Skogafoss, a splendid 62 meter waterfall easily visible from the road. After admiring the fall from its base, we followed a series of steps up to the top. Unfortunately, although this higher vantage point offered an excellent panorama of the surrounding countryside, it was not optimal for viewing the fall itself. I noticed one man inching his way along a narrow earthen path approximately 75 feet below the summit. Encountering the man on the way down, he encouraged us to observe the fall from a different perspective. Although this involved leaving the main track, how could I resist? Carefully making our way along this alternate trail, we peaked around the rocky edge. Our efforts were rewarded by a splendid view of the Skagafoss.
Nearby was the Skogar Folk Museum, which housed a collection of Iceland artifacts, ranging from the sublime (the first bible printed in Iceland) to the ridiculous (a sheep chastity belt). They had been assembled over many years by an elderly local man, who personally led us on a tour of his collections. He related that he first became interested in local history as a young boy, listening to his grandmother, a midwife to the fairies. Hmmm… first our guide and now this gentleman believed in fairies. But after only two days in Iceland, even I was starting to be less skeptical.
Reservations for our third and fourth nights were at Hotel Edda in the small seaside village of Vik, population 400. By now the sun was obscured by clouds, the wind was picking up and it was getting colder. Nonetheless, it was imperative to see the famous Black Beach of Vik, the only non-tropical shoreline to be included in Island Magazine’s list of the world’s top ten most beautiful beaches. The place certainly was dramatic with black sands of lava, crashing surf, jagged sea stacks and cliffs hosting scores of soaring birds! Some of the birds were arctic turns that migrate from southern Chile to nest. The dark sky provided the perfect backdrop, but the cold wind discouraged much beach-walking. It was time to eat. The receptionist where we were staying had recommended the Haldorskaffi, a nearby café where we enjoyed locally-caught trout with homemade bread and mushroom soup. Back at Hotel Edda, we encountered an older New York couple who celebrated their anniversary by bringing an extended family of seventeen to Iceland. After hearing of our fabulous meal, they immediately rushed to make reservations for the following evening. Oh no! The café was small and with so many people, would a table be available for us tomorrow night? After a wild and stormy night, we awoke to a pouring rainstorm. However, Iceland experiences only “samples of weather” and after purchasing gasoline and picnic supplies, we optimistically headed east on the Ring Road. Soon the rain diminished and the occasional patch of sun was visible. The road passed numerous waterfalls, wastelands of black sands and glacier debris as well as long stretches of the moss-covered volcanic rock. Eventually Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, came into view. The fingers of the icecap were clearly visible from the road, cleaving through the mountains. In 1996, a volcano eruption beneath the icecap in Gjalp unleashed a glacier burst which buried large parts of the area, destroying bridges and erasing the Ring Road. A portion of the twisted bridge had been retained as a poignant memorial to nature’s power. The rain ceased as we drove into Skaftafell National Park but at the Visitor’s center, all seats were taken by a tour group, engrossed in an aerial video of the 1996 eruption. However, nobody else was on the1/2 hour trail we took to the snout of the Skaftafellsjokull glacier. The huge smoky-grey expanse of ice was an impressive sight but, sadly, markers along the trail designated the glacier’s significant retreat in the last hundred years. Returning to the Visitor Center, we joined a smaller number of tourists viewing the video. This time it was in French, but no language was needed to comprehend such massive destruction. Since the rain was resuming, we opted to forgo a hike to the park’s Svartifoss waterfall, ate our picnic lunch and continued driving east.
The sun was out by the time we arrived at Jokulsarlon Lake, famous for its icebergs. An absolutely gorgeous spot, it lies right beside the Ring Road, is easily accessible, and looks like a scene straight from an Arctic travelogue. This early in the season, the lake was filled with calves of luminous blue-tinted ice from the Breidamerkurjokull glacier. Fortunately, we had extra film as I lost control trying to capture such an amazing sight on camera. There was even a pair of seals in the water. In great excitement we scampered along the shoreline but decided against taking the amphibious boat tour, since the large vessel could only skirt the periphery of a lake so clogged with icebergs. Eventually, we tore ourselves away and headed back towards Vik where we were able to get dinner in the café before the large New York group arrived.
The next morning, blue skies prevailed as we left Vik and headed west. Our plan was to see the attractions north of Reykjavik including Glymur, Iceland’s highest waterfall. According to our map, the fall was located somewhere on the eastern tip of Hvalfjordur Sound. It was a scenic drive as the road hugged the coastline and offered expansive views of ocean, red-roofed farmhouses and black pebble beaches. Although Glymur was intended to be the first of several stops, finding the place was such a challenge it became our only destination of the day. Obviously this area was off the beaten tourist track, for all hikers were speaking Icelandic. Several trails led off from the parking area but there were no informational signs to guide us. Finally, one young man offered to “show us the way” but, after following him through rocky terrain and an unlit cave, we balked when it became apparent the trail crossed the river over a suspended log. Our “guide” pointed out a longer alternative route before leaving us at the log, but ultimately we decided the trail was too rugged and turned around. Still, it was a fascinating two-hour hike and we did catch a glimpse of the waterfall from a distance.
Checking back into the Guesthouse Sunna, we learned we had been upgraded to a suite with kitchen facilities. The helpful receptionist recommended the Restaurant Vid Tjornina near the city hall and lake Tjorn. It was a longer walk, but seeing a new area of the city was fun and the meal was delicious.
Our final day in Iceland was warm and sunny with no wind: a perfect time to go whale watching. After a leisurely morning, we walked to Reykjavik’s harbor for lunch and by 1:00 p.m. were onboard for the two-hour excursion. First stop was Puffin Island where, at last, we saw Iceland’s famous puffins. Most of the birds were swimming near the shore and appeared much smaller than I had imagined. Before returning to port, we observed four dolphins and had over 25 sightings of minke whales breaching nearby. On a more somber note, we passed the floating carcass of young male minke, which, according to our captain, was a very rare occurrence.
With a scheduled flight to Frankfurt Germany at 7:30 a.m. the next morning, we spent the night in Keflavik at Motel Alex chosen for its convenience to the airport. Our cabin was clean, but extremely small. Following a leisurely seafood dinner at a nearby dockside café, it was an early bedtime. Mother was right: We loved Iceland!