Amazing Iceland: Land of mystery and wonder

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Keflavik to Bláa Lónið, a.k.a. the Blue Lagoon, to Reykjavik
It’s about 1AM Minneapolis time, but now we’re in Reykjavik and it’s 6AM. After deplaning, we made a beeline to the Hertz Rent-a-Car to pick up our car. The lights were bright, which seemed appropriate for “last call”, given the hour, at the makeshift Hertz desk made out of particle board. The Icelandic Hertz rep simply said to exit through that door and our car would be in the adjacent lot. We scanned all four lots, pulling our suitcases all the way and finally found the correct license plate, and car.

We both slept a lot on the 6-hour flight from Minneapolis to Keflavik, so we were ready to drive to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The spa is located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwestern Iceland, not too far from the Keflavik airport. It’s located close to the world’s first renewable methanol plant, which uses Carbon Recycling International’s carbon dioxide to methanol fuel process.

After the Blue Lagoon, we tried to use the old skool GPS device that came with the car to find our AirBnB. It was my first time booking an AirBNB. The GPS brought us to the outlying suburbs, even though the notes said that it was very close to downtown Reykjavik.

We found the white stucco split-level house and a young guy smoking on the steps. I asked him, “I’m looking for number 4…” as he groggily pointed to the other side of the 4-plex. After knocking on the door, we were greeted by Dagny, or at least I thought that he was Dagny since there was a woman’s photo on the AirBnB site. He finished vaccuuming, briefly introduced us to his toddler daughter and showed us the studio apartment. Of course, the wide-angled photos on the website did a lot to make the apartment look very spacious which wasn’t a reality. The wood floors were nice and he asked us if we liked cats. We both chimed in, “Yes, we have two at home!” So, he said we could invite the cat in through the small door at the bottom of the door, or we could lock it shut. The small bathroom was down the hall. I noticed that there were only a few squares of toilet paper left. He showed us the “shower” which was the common full nozzle, eco-friendly type, which was in a small room, in close proximity to the water pipes. We could also use the hot tub out on the deck, but we had to fill it up. We were very tired so we thought a short nap would do us some good.

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Soon we were greeted by the resident, indoor/outdoor black cat! He purred instantly and immediately decided we were okay. We dropped the suitcases and retreated to the twin beds with the signature Northern European, individual duvets. The sweet black kitty was right there at my side. After about an hour of deep slumber, we slowly collected ourselves to seek out a nearby grocery store to stock up for the next day when we would drive through the Reykjanes Peninsula, en route to the southern coastline on our way to Hveragerði. We found an excellent 6-day “self drive” package tour via Iceland Tours.


Day 1: Lava rocks, sea views, and isolated farm houses
Approximate driving distance: 60 km / 37 miles.
July 27, 2015

Ah, yes, the open road, but a very narrow one! It appeared that we were the only car on the road, at least for the first ten kilometers. We could see the sea far off in the distance. In between there were miles of bumpy, rounded lava fields covered with different shades of green and gray moss. This landscape must have gone unchanged for hundreds of years after the volcanoes pushed the molten lava across the green land. It didn’t occur to me at first, but I realized that there are not a whole lot of trees in Iceland, on account of the lava and scarce resources for fuel. After several generations of downing trees for firewood, there may not have been an incentive for replanting trees or perhaps only evergreen trees can survive harsh winters.

lava-field

I took my turn at the wheel, since it was a day without too much activity. I hadn’t driven a manual shift car since I was about 23, but it’s really just like riding a bike. You get right back on and it’s exactly where you left off. The two-way lanes are very narrow, without any shoulders, so you really have to pay attention. For the most part, it was sunny with a few scattered, 10-minute showers. We were glad that we had bought stuff for sandwiches and sparkling blackberry juice since there’s really not a whole lot of places to stop for lunch! Besides, it’s more fun to set up shop at the back of the car, with a spectacular view. We drove on after lunch, pulling over when we could to take photos of the lava rocks and the random farmhouse. Soon enough, we approached Hveragerði and almost immediately found the one and only Hótel Örk.

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Hótel Örk was an older hotel, perhaps built in the 1960s. The hotel manager greeted us at the front desk. I thought he didn’t look quite like the typical Icelander; not tall and lanky with light blond hair. Turns out, he was originally from Guatemala and had lived in Iceland for many years. I’m sure his Icelandic was perfect, much like his French and German and of course his native Spanish. We made a dinner reservation for 8PM at his suggestion, and made our way up to our room to change into bathing suits. This would be our first whirlpool. The locker rooms reminded me of the högskolan changing rooms in Gävle; very open and simple. I met Ernesto out at the whirlpools. There was a pool with a big yellow slide and two whirlpools that had different temperatures. We sunk into the warm pool and looked up at the older hotel with the mountains in the background. It had an eery resemblance to the Grand Hotel in Kubrick’s “The Shining”.


Day 2: Waterfalls, cliffs, black sand beaches, huge puffin colony.
Approximate driving distance: 190 km / 118 miles.
July 28, 2015

We left Hótel Örk in Hveragerði to continue on road number 1 through Selfoss and on to see the geysers in Geysir.

The Geysir area covers three kilometers of geothermal field where hot springs and geysers are abundant. I guess they named the place appropriately, since the main geyser blasts up several hundred feet into the air every ten minutes. The whole area contains a variety of hot springs and bubbling pools. We climbed up the cliff to get a better view. We neglected to get enough lunch supplies this time around, so we went to the Geysir cafe, among all the other tourists. So, two small salads and a drink cost us a mere thirty dollars! Little did we know that the gorgeous Gullfoss would be right around the corner. It seems like there are vastly different climate zones and sights every 100 kilometers. Gullfoss, also known as the “Golden Waterfall” is a beautiful double-folding waterfall that many believe to be the most scenic in Iceland. It thunders 105 ft over a fault into a gorge, which measures 1.5 miles in length and up to 230 ft deep in places. After ooing and awing over this majestic display of nature, we made our way back up toward the car. Off to our right, though, we noticed a big corral of Icelandic horses. There were English style saddles strewn about the somewhat muddy terrain and several leaders and tourists with their high, black boots were resting against them. We asked the trainer what they were doing there. They offer a 26 kilometer tour on horseback and one of the sights along this particular tour was Gullfoss. Fortunately both horses and riders were able to take a much needed break.

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We made our way down road no. 32 to follow the course of the mighty Þjórsá, Iceland’s longest river and the most important source of electric energy in the country. We were hopefully on our way toward one of the recommended sights, the double waterfall called  Hjálparfoss. The itinerary neglected to say how long it would take to get here. After a couple hundred kilometers and multiple stops to find the place, we found it! It certainly was worth it once we saw the towering cliffs, salmon fishers and of course the double waterfall.

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We drove onwards to the tiny village of Vík, which is the southernmost borough in Iceland. The western border is marked by the glacial river, Jökulsá, to the east by the river Blautakvísl, and to the south by black, volcanic beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. The area has rich birdlife with the country’s largest nesting colony of arctic terns just east of the village. In the cliffs west of the village there are thousands of puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars. We were very lucky to see them since they take off toward the beginning of August.

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We found the Vik Icelandair Hotel, finally, after asking someone at the gas station directly across from it! And what a beautiful, modern hotel. It’s one of those well designed eco-friendly hotels with wood floors, minimal square footage, and a low flow, modern shower. The view was not that of the ocean, but a majestic moss covered wall with tiny flowers growing out of it. We made our way to the dining room since it was already almost 10PM. It’s difficult to “feel” what time it is unless you’re hungry. I had a special Icelandic craft beer and Ernesto had his Chilean Malbec. The server didn’t exactly recommend the Icelandic snapps and I probably squinted when she said it had a licorice flavor. We each had the seared scallops with a strange, pink, faux roe of tapioca pearls. The Icelandic Charr was delicious, though. This would be the first of two nights at this hotel.


Day 3: Skaftafell, Europe’s Largest National Park and Glacier, Glacial Lagoon with Icebergs.
Approximate driving distance: 270 km / 168 miles.
July 29, 2015

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We head out on familiar road no. 1 through the impressive Skaftáreldahraun lava field, which was created in the volcanic eruption at Laki Craters, supposedly the biggest lava field on earth coming from only one eruption, which is now all covered with moss.

We continued on road no. 1 and totally happened upon the spectacular waterfall Seljalandsfoss. This was really the most beautiful, tallest waterfall I’d ever seen. It was so beautiful that it felt like I was in some magical land where all food was plentiful and people would just live and enjoy the land. I kept thinking it was like the Big Rock Candy Mountain!

We almost missed the sign for the farm at Þorvaldseyri where there is a dormant volcano. It took about and hour to walk to the volcano, fifteen minutes to ascend to the top of the volcano and just a few minutes to decide to go back down. I’m not afraid of heights, but this big crater was so deep and scary!

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On the way to Skaftafell National Park we went to Núpsstaður, an old farm surrounded by cliffs, where there’s one of the oldest churches in Iceland with a grass-covered roof. There were three tiny houses leading up to the small church. I was trying to imagine getting through a cold winter here, in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure they did a LOT of praying in that tiny church, but they probably had to take turns since it’s so small.

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Skaftafell National Park is a masterpiece of seemingly impossible contrasts of nature. On the one hand you have the Skeiðarársandur plains, vast stretches of black sandy wasteland and volcanic debris borne from volcanic eruptions from underneath the icecap of Vatnajökull. The eruption in Vatnajökull glacier in October 1996, millions of tons of water and ice flooded over Skeiðarársandur. The flood washed away large parts of the road and destroyed two bridges. Preliminary repairs were made and the road opened again in December, only two months after the eruption. Some of the icebergs that the flood carried with it were as large as three story houses.

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On the other hand you have the enormous icecap of Vatnajökull with its valley glaciers descending like fingers in all directions. In the middle lies Skaftafell plateau where you can see gorges with clear brooks and beautiful waterfalls, birch woods, wild flowers and lush vegetation.

We stayed at Vik Icelandair Hotel for a second night. We had a nice dinner and settled in early.


Day 4: Þingvellir and Borgarfjörður Area, National Park with Geological Wonders (UNESCO),
Approximate driving distance: 280 km / 174 miles.
July 30, 2015

Today we headed to Þingvellir National Park. The park itself is situated in a stunning volcanic landscape of mountains and lava flows, on the border of Iceland’s largest lake. Surrounding the lake are faults and gorges that are considered among the best examples of tectonic movements in the world. It is the area where the tectonic plates for Europe and America meet. It’s possible to see the ridge between the continents. This is also the former site of the oldest parliament in the world, Alþingi. It was founded in Þingvellir in 930 and there most of the greatest moments of Icelandic history took place over a period of 750 years.

It was kind of a low key day. Light hiking and majestic sites.

We stayed at another eco-friendly hotel called Hamar Icelandair Hotel, located right next to a golf course. Food was great, and the outdoor whirlpool was even better.


Day 5: Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Craters, Volcanic Landscapes, Snæfellsnes Glacier, Sea Cliffs with Birdlife, Rock Formations, Quaint Fishing Villages.
Approximate driving distance: 328 km / 203 miles.
July 31, 2015

Today we drove to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. From Borgarnes, we took road no. 54 to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. We drove on to Búðir, which is situated by the shore, surrounded by Búðahraun lava. This has beautiful sandy lava fields, unique yellow sand beaches and a black church.

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We continued on road no. 574 through the little fishing villages of Arnarstapi and Hellnar, both known for their rock formations in the shapes of arches, caves, stacks, as well as cliffs alive with huge colonies of birds. At Hellnar there is a sweet small café by the seashore. The big attraction on the outdoor deck wasn’t necessarily the spectacular view of the immense bluff overlooking the ocean, but an enormous crow who was there for the random handout.

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We made our way back to Reykjavik for our last night in Iceland at the Grand Hotel, Reykjavik. What a fantastic tour through Southern Iceland. It was so well planned. The sights were magical and unexpected and the hotels were very modern, for the most part, and comfortable. This sweet little orange tabby welcomed us back to Reykjavik, among his other feline friends in the neighborhood.