For its size, Iceland offers an unparalleled array of sights and experiences – from the bustling capital, Reykjavik (covered in Iceland Post 1) to serious treks and outdoor activities (second Iceland post) to every kind of topography one can think of. Today, I wrap up my Iceland entries with a compilation of all the other great stuff we saw and did in our eight days in this marvelous little country.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula: With a just-barely-more-pronounceable name than the famous volcano in my last post, this western spit of land was one of our favorite parts of the island. Perhaps it was because it was our first destination outside of Reykjavik, but the Snæfellsnes peninsula really struck us with its natural beauty. We covered nearly the whole peninsula in the car, starting on the south shore with a hike near Hellnar, passing through Hellasandur and the national park at the tip, and circling back on a more northern route via Olafsvik, Grundarfjörður, and Stykkishólmur. At the end, we crossed the rugged mountain range separating the north and south coasts. Highlights were a short hike from Hellnar to Arnastapi (under two hours round trip) on a coastal trail reminiscent of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, wild horse sightings all along the roads in the national park, and the charming fishing village of Stykkishólmur.
The South and Southeast: Maybe it was the appearance of the sun one day, but the whole south coast was among the most memorable of our countryside outings. We loved the marshy, riparian look of Hella and Hvolsvollur, the lush mountains above Skogafoss in Skogar, and the eerie black “ashtray” landscape near Thorsmork. Continuing east, we marveled at the blue-tinged chunks of ice in Jokulsarlon’s glacial lagoon and the black sand beaches of Vik. We hit luminous Höfn at the peak of afternoon sun and lazily drank a beer at a picnic table in the harbor, then ambled out along the beach with a spectacular view of mountains, a glacier, marshy grasses, and water. We did not do justice to Skaftafell National Park, a majestic collection of trails and sights; it was the day after our intense Fimmvörðuháls hike and our legs were just not cooperating! We stayed for two nights in tiny Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a perfect location between all the sites above, and found our most economical meal of the trip here – delicious pizza and salad at Systrakaffi.
The Golden Circle: This loop, just a bit north of Reykjavik, is the most popular tourist route outside of the capital. The iconic Iceland sights are all here – the geysers in Geysir, the stunning double waterfall, Gullfoss, and the heart of the nation, Thingvellir, where early parliaments met and the impressive continental rift can be seen. In spite of its fame, this area was one of my least favorite overall; the driving was unexciting and the crowds detracted from the rough Icelandic beauty we saw in so many other places. It was a must-see while in the country, but I’m glad we spent a few hours here and not a whole day. (Likewise, the Blue Lagoon was an interesting stop on our way to the airport at the end, but definitely not a highlight – too many tourists and vastly overpriced.)
Big scenery, small buildings: Everywhere we went, we saw huge mountains, trees, and waterfalls looming over teeny houses and churches. There’s a reason so many photos of Iceland portray this contrast; it’s an irresistible juxtaposition of the grand and the simple. In many ways, it’s symbolic of the country in general. The scenery in Iceland is some of the most striking and imposing in the world, yet the human presence in this sparsely-populated land is meager – only some 320,000 people in the whole nation.
Language: With two language teachers on the road together, it was inevitable that we would be fascinated by the daunting-looking Icelandic language. Like German, to which it is related, Icelandic is an agglutinative language that uses many compound words, resulting in long strings of vowels and consonants that look outrageously difficult to pronounce but can easily be broken down into separate words that we began to recognize over the course of a week. Nevertheless, we found ourselves using only the first few syllables as we checked our maps and books; we stayed in “Stykkish,” drove to “Jokuls,” climbed near “Eyja,” and slept in “Kirk.” We had loads of fun turning the noun “snyrting” (toilet or restroom) into a verb and ordered many a “pylsur” (hot dog) in the gas stations along our route. (And by the way, gas stations like N1 were a godsend to our food budget; these clean, well-stocked shops had wonderful – sometime even chic – cafés with good food and shelves of healthy snacks.)
From town to country, peak to shore, majestic to simple, Iceland was a land of stunning contrasts – and we loved them all.
Just a few weeks ago, in a post called “Facing Fears,” I confidently stated that skinny ledges at great heights were not at the top of my fear list. Well, I take that back. But let me start at the beginning.
In the middle of our Iceland trip, my son and I booked a hike with a local mountain guiding company. Sometimes called the Volcano Hike, the 24-km trek follows the Fimmvörðuháls Trail from Skogar to Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) and is a challenging walk anytime, but particularly so on a chilly, rainy day at the very beginning of the hiking season. The trail goes up over the pass between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull volcanoes, through the new lava fields from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, and finally down into Thorsmork.
The first several hours were an ascent up past the incredible Skogafoss waterfall and 22 additional falls. Even the rigors of a 2000-foot elevation gain in a few short hours could not diminish the wonder of rounding a bend and discovering yet another thundering gusher amid mossy green hills. This part of the trek was not scary, just a bit tiring climbing high and fast as our guide knew the weather was going to change dramatically and was practically marching us up the mountain in the ever-increasing mist.
After about 2 ½ hours, we reached a rickety old bridge to cross the river we had been following. Here, the landscape began to change and we left the lush green land and rushing river behind. As the trail became dark and rocky, the mist changed to sideways rain. We were told we had finished the hard part and that we had about 4 hours left, meaning we would finish in 6-7 hours what took most people 10 hours to complete. (Some people even do this hike over two days, staying at a hut near the pass.) We were psyched – visions of finishing by 4:30, getting back to Skogar by 6:30, and eating dinner in a warm, dry restaurant instead of on a rock out of our packs sounded great!
After a steady 1000-foot climb, we were on the flanks of a high lava field with theoretically great views of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and stopped European air traffic for weeks. Our view, however, was of ever-thickening mist and low clouds, and here we began to cross vast snowfields. Sinking deep and sliding backwards with each step, we slogged for a long time until one of the young men in our group could not continue. His legs were fried, and he had to stop to rest and eat while the rest of us stood in howling winds and sideways sleet, becoming stiffer and colder with every passing moment. Finally, we got moving again and asked how much more snow there would be. “Oh, just a few more minutes until we start to descend.” False. Egregiously false. We continued through that exhausting and freezing snow for nearly two more hours. Our legs were stiff logs, our socks sodden, our feet and toes frozen.
On those compromised legs and feet, we had to pick our way carefully down the next precarious and slippery section, where any false step could mean a fall of several thousand feet. On one steep area, there were chains to hold onto, but the poles into the ground were pulled out! Our guides stationed themselves at both ends of the chains and held on while we went down one by one. At the bottom, there was the tiniest ledge of all, and we had to eventually fit all nine of us on that skinny ledge overlooking a horrifying drop before the guides could rejoin us after holding the chains. Eek!
This ledge is the Heljarkambur ridge that lies near the pass and is a narrow, 50-meter-long traverse with a near-vertical rock face on one side and a steep snowfield dropping off from the other side. Any relief at the end of it was short-lived as we then had to cross the thin pass and begin the descent to Thorsmork along the Kattarhyggir (“Cat’s Spine”) ridge. I have never been so terrified for so long on a trail; my unflappable son said later he was too! I think in good weather these spots would be a bit tricky, but with dead, frozen legs, ice and mud on the ground, and limited visibility, they were truly nerve-wracking.
The rest of the descent was a killer on the knees and quads as we went the remaining 2000 feet down on steep muddy hills. The guide kept saying we had “30-40 minutes” left but it was another two hours until we stumbled into a hut area to await a bus back to our car in Skogar. Still way ahead of the hike time estimate, we discovered we had to wait for the only bus of the day, which was not due to arrive for an hour and a half. (This seems to be a state secret unless you know to check on it; since the trek, we have read over and over how visitors don’t understand that there’s only one way out of Thorsmork, and it’s the 8 pm bus.)
We were soaked to the bone, not a single dry piece of clothing or supplies among us. We shivered and waited and ate the soggy food in our backpacks. The bus finally came and we had a two-hour ride across the eerie, ashy fields between Eyjafjallajökull and Thorsmork – an otherworldly landscape of pure lava and zero sign of life. There were multiple streams of the Krossá River flowing at fast speeds, and we had to repeatedly cross them in the bus. Wheels churning and the bus listing, our vehicle seemed sure to be carried off by the current, but we were so exhausted we could not even focus on how scary it was. We finally made it back to our car in 2 1/2 hours, drove over an hour to our hotel, and arrived there near midnight, still soaking wet.
The next day, sore and exhausted, we marveled at our feat and laughed only half-jokingly about the PTSD we were suffering. This is a trek we will remember for a long time but, unlike many great hikes of the world, one we have no interest in redoing anytime soon!
A few more photos …
My recent trip to Iceland was so full I cannot do it justice in one blog post. Today I’ll just talk about the capital, Reykjavik, one of the most relaxed and enjoyable towns I’ve ever visited.
First of all, we arrived in the world’s northernmost capital at about 11 pm, but with the summer solstice right around the corner, we had daylight throughout the hour-long bus ride from the airport in Keflavik and, in fact, did not see darkness tonight or any other night for the next week and a half. Ostensibly, the sun did set for a few hours each night, but even after 1 am and as early as 3 am, I never saw anything more than dusk. My kind of place!Being jetlag deniers, we were up at a decent hour for our first day of exploring despite an overnight flight to Europe, 12 hours in Dusseldorf, Germany where we ran on fumes and beer, a 3 ½-hour flight back to Iceland (simple explanation: free ticket), and the one-hour bus from the airport. Our first stop, even before breakfast, was Hallgrímskirkja, the distinctive landmark church from which there is a grand bird’s-eye view of Reykjavik. The city is a clean, colorful spread, broken up by water and greenery; I can only imagine how sparkling it looks in the sun, which did not deign to appear until our next-to-last day. 😦
We strolled trendy Skólavörðustígur Street and poked into as many little shops and galleries as a 20-something guy would allow (i.e., not many) and then began a search for brunch. We settled on Bergsson Mathús, a fantastic choice. Son A had a plate of lamb shawarma and three side salads and I had the veggie plate of salads only. So good, and the relaxed café vibe (and the chewy bread!) added greatly to our pleasure and started our Reykjavik stay on a very positive note.
For the rest of this day and the next, we followed a “When in Rome/Reykjavik, …” plan and hit as many coffeehouses and bars as possible and meandered all over the city in between. We loved The Laundromat Café with its walls full of maps and shelves full of books, we had Sunday coffee and read the Grapevine paper with the locals at Kaffismiðjan (or Reykjavik Roasters), and we whiled away a few hours with our books and laptops at Stofan Café one afternoon. All of the coffeehouses morph into bars at night and by late afternoon, our coffee mugs became beer glasses full of Brio, Gull, Boli and Úlfur.
Our stomachs were filled and our wallets emptied by a string of great meals. Our splurge was a dinner of monkfish and salmon at Fiskmarkaðurinn, a sleek, high-end spot with Icelandic-Asian fusion dishes, and our budget-offset meal was a hotdog from the famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur stand, which I had to try (and enjoyed!) despite years of vegetarianism.
Other favorites included K-Bar (more fusion; this time Korean-Icelandic), Vegamót (nothing to do with vegetables!), and Micro Bar. All of Iceland’s prices are shocking and appalling, nowhere more so than in the restaurants and bars, where a basic hamburger goes for $19 and the cheapest beer we found was about $9. (Later posts will reveal our best food budgeting strategy – eating in gas stations – which is not only common in Iceland but surprisingly satisfying!)
We rounded out our time in Reykjavik with a free walking tour, an evening show at Harpa (the stunning concert hall and conference center on the water), a leisurely stroll on the main drag, Laugavegur Street, and a long haul out to the harbor and docks to find Farmers Market, a sought-after shop “where heritage meets modernity” and where I found beauty met unaffordability! We peeked into the real farmers market on Saturday morning; the goods were not so good, but the dried fish and razorbill eggs were fun to see. The sun showed its face for about 30 minutes late one afternoon and I zipped outside along with about 75% of Reykjavik’s citizens, it seemed, to sit in a square and eat an ice cream cone.
I adored Reykjavik and would go back in a minute. With Icelandair’s stopover deals to Europe, this may be in my future as I’d love to introduce more of my family members to this lively city that combines small-town charm and big-city energy. Reykjavik is quaintly quirky and sleekly sophisticated, home to both craggy-faced old men in worn Icelandic sweaters and natty young professionals in slim-fit suits. Having seen the city in its summer light, it might be fun to go back and cozy up in those coffeehouses and bars in the endless winter darkness someday.
It is Friday, right? I’m in Reykjavik, Iceland, and I’ve sort of lost track of time after an overnight flight, 12 hours in Dusseldorf, Germany, and a late-night flight into Keflavik, Iceland. I’d pre-loaded a few photos for today not knowing if I’d have any new ones uploaded yet (it made perfect sense to post a couple of oldies-but-goodies from Tibet and China, I thought), but I do have a few colorful views of Reykjavic today. Stay tuned for more on Iceland!