TRAVEL: An Icelandic Saga

It has been a while since I have blogged something and it has been approximately 10 days since we have come back from our trip to Iceland. So I thought I might share with you our experience in Iceland as it could be helpful to others. Please feel free to comment or ask any questions. Also, if you would like to see more pictures of the trip or buy one, please contact me.

Day 1 — Wednesday August 11th, 2010 — Keflavik

After spending a few days in London with some friends we thought we had seen all the bad weather we could but that wasn’t much compared to what awaited us in Iceland.

We flew London Heathrow to Keflavik on Icelandair. For what it’s worth, I think this airline company is absolutely fabulous. We obviously flew coach but in relation to certain companies I have flown with it felt we were in first class. Let me explain. The flight was only 3 hours from London but we still had individual, built-in screens and could enjoy a nice selection of movies. Not only can you choose what movie to see, you decide when to start it, pause it or rewind it.  Also, you can start watching your movie before take off and stop watching after landing. Fantastic!

But that’s not all…

I use my iPhone 3Gs quite a bit and my battery hardly ever lasts a full day without charging it. When we boarded my battery was already down to 37%. Well what a surprise when, right next to the screen in the seat in front of me, I spotted a USB plug. Yes, I was able to plug-in and recharge my iPhone during the flight. I could also have been my iPad. Nice to know you can watch movies/podcasts without worrying about your battery life.

Now back to Iceland. So we land in Keflavik airport at 23:00 and as we walk out, not only is it much colder than in London, it’s also raining! We take a taxi to a nice motel we found on the internet: Motel Alex. It’s only 1 or 2 kilometers from the airport. Very convenient.

The rooms or actually cabanas are quite small but are all equipped with a kitchenette and a bathroom. You can also decide to camp if you would like. The price for a room, 73€, is a bit high but apparently Iceland is a very expensive place to visit and this will be confirmed throughout the trip.

Day 2 — Thursday August 12th, 2010 — Keflavik to Skógar

After a not so great night we get up and go pick up our car at Geysir. We are handed the keys to a Hyundai Tucson. Let the adventure begin! The drive out of Keflavik was quite easy and extremely scenic. It takes a while to realize you are not actually driving around in a lunar vehicle.

Anyway, we headed to the «Bridge between two Continents». I must admit there is not much to see but it is amazing to think you can pass from the European to the North American tectonic plate by taking one step. Then we went to what the Lonely Planet guide calls the Eiffel Tower or Disney World of Iceland: «Blue Lagoon». We just drove by and took some pictures. We did test it out our last day in Iceland and I will tell you about it later. The colors and contrasts are beautiful but that is about it, nothing much else to see. Lunch at the Northern Lights Inn was nice and the restaurant has a nice view on the volcanic rocks and surrounding hills but we could not really take advantage of it because of the fog.

We then drove to Seltún in Krýsuvík, a geothermal area which is rich in colors, hot springs and bad smell. At first, the smell of sulphur is quite unbearable but you get used to it and it is a good thing. The place is really incredible and deserves a visit. Seeing the mud and water boil from the heat underneath the earth is very strange yet mesmerizing.

Now this is when the first aggravation occurred. The Icelandic road signs are absolutely useless! It took us over an hour and many detours to get to our next destination which was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall near Selfoss. We drove around and around and almost ended in Reykjavik which is the total opposite of our destination. But we made it and it was worth it. Although small in its width — it is the highest waterfall in Iceland — it is nice and you can take a slippery walk along the path behind it. Needless to say I did not risk it with my gear on my back.

After that we drove to our accommodation for the night, Hotel Edda in Skógar. Nice, clean but, once again, not cheap. 63€ for a room with shared showers and restrooms.

Day 3 — Friday August 13th, 2010 — Skógar to Skaftafell National Park

NO SOAKING WAY!

We woke up to torrential rains that lasted most of the day. I was unable to photograph Skógafoss waterfall without getting the front element of my lens absolutely soaking wet. I tried absolutely everything to keep it dry. From wipes to covers nothing could help me keep it dry.

So I forgot about photographing Skógafoss and we drove from there to Dyrhólaey and that’s when things got even worse. There is a saying in Iceland that says something like this: «If you think the weather is bad, wait five minutes it will be worse». In Iceland rain falls horizontally so the minute we stepped out of the car we were drenched. It was not funny at all . We came to Iceland totally prepared for the cold weather but completely unprepared for such heavy rain. Lesson learned.

I sort of regret the bad weather at Dyrhólaey because it really seemed to be an incredible place but the lack of visibility due to the heavy fog made it hard to photograph.

Next we drove to a little town called Vik, population 310 and the southernmost village in Iceland. Not much to see except for a small church with some nice stained glass windows.  We did stop and had coffee and lunch in a hotel/restaurant called Hotel Lundi (Monday in French, Puffin in English). They only offer a buffet at lunch but it was really good with some typical Icelandic dishes. Highly recommended.

While driving to the Vatnajökull glacier, we could see the weather was sort of clearing up but it wasn’t perfect yet. Although very dirty and gray (maybe because of the ashes from the Eyjafjallajökull erruption?), the glacier, the biggest in Europe, is quite impressive and beautiful. You can walk up the side of it but if you want to hike on the glacier itself you have to have a guide come with you. Ravines are apparently numerous.

Our next mission was a to find a place to camp and that is also when the sky decided to really clear up and let the sun finally shine. We stayed in a nice little camp site which cost Ikr 950 per person (approx. 6€) per night but they offered full facilities. Shower, toilet and even pool and wifi.

Once our tent was up we took the car and went back to photograph the glacier with a beautiful light and kept driving a little to take advantage of the light and landscape as much as we could. When we came back, we saw a dog gathering a pack of sheep. It is impressive to see it run from one side of the pack to the other.

Day 4 — Saturday August 14th, 2010 — Skaftafell National Park to Djúpivogur

What a nice feeling to wake up to some nice weather in Iceland. I was really excited about this day as it was the day were going to visit Jökulsárlón (a lagoon with icebergs all around it). It’s one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. You are surrounded by blue waters and right in front of you is a huge bloc of ice just sitting there. I can only imagine how cold that water must be! I did dip a finger but it was shallow thus warmer than in the center of the lagoon. We were fortunate enough — and we realized this later — to acces Jökulsárlón an unofficial way and that allowed us to basically have the place to our selves. It was only when leaving that we saw the official road to it and all the tourist buses, etc.

Our next stop, straight ahead, is determined to be in the Easter fjords, in Djúpivogur but first we stopped for lunch in Höfn and ended up in a small a bit kitsch but nice café called Cafe Tulinius. I had a smoked lamb sandwich and skyr cake which are both traditional icelandic foods.

Now we are on our way to Djúpivogur on the sinuous roads that go in and around fjords. This is when we almost had a crisis moment. The car is suddenly signaling that I need to stop at the nearest gas station and fill up the tank. Problem: there are no gas stations before Djúpivogur. So I do everything I can to use as little gas as possible. Go freewheel down hill, drive real slow, etc. not knowing if we will make it to our destination or if we will have to walk who only knows how far to get some gas. Fortunately, and boy were we relieved when we saw a sign pointing to Djúpivogur at 1km, we made it! The town is quite small, in a dead end and has an eerie feel to it. We met a man who collects stones and bones. Yeah, bones, any kind! I was already imagining the tent's zipper opening in the middle of the night and seeing this strange dude smiling at us and holding an axe! HAHA! Obviously and thankfully, that did not happen.

Day 5 — Sunday August 15th, 2010 — Djúpivogur to Lake Mývatn

Once again, we wake up with some heavy fog and rain. Our drive away from Djúpivogur is, I am sure, very scenic but we can't see more than 100 meters away so I concentrate on the dirt road ahead of me. While leaving Djúpivogur I came up with a theory, trying to convince myself, that it is probably foggy in the fjords as humidity and clouds are trapped between the mountains on both sides. I do not know if my theory is correct or not, all I know is the closer we got to Lake Mývatn, the nicer it was.

We did stop on the way to check out the Dettifoss waterfalls which are the most powerful waterfalls in Europe with an average water flow of 200 cubic meters per second.

We found a guesthouse in Vogar because the last two nights camping were a bit rough. I still can not believe how much we paid for two terrible beds 4 white walls and shared facilities… 90€!! So after digging a hole in our wallet we decided to go have a coffee in a place recommended by Lonely Planet: Vogafjos Guesthouse. It is fun because they milk the cows right before your eyes while you are eating Hverabrauð — a rye bread that is baked in natural geothermal steam vents in the earth for over 20 hourswith smoked trout. Then the waitress comes out with a pitcher of fresh out of the cow milk and serves it to everyone in the place.

After that we took a drive around the lake as it is not very big. The area is well know amongst bird lovers as many species come here during the summer. I must admit I find birds beautiful but do not have the patience to learn about them nor photograph them!

The whole lake region is volcanic and very beautiful. Every where you look you can see the remains of a volcano, big or small. We actually climbed up the highest one around. It is a very wide volcano and it was nice being up there.

Diner was once again extremely healthy. After eating canned pasta, canned beans, etc we had pizza! Not just any pizza though, we had Daddi Pizza's Mývatn pizza which has BBQ sauce all over it!

Day 6 — Monday August 16th, 2010 — Lake Mývatn to Hveravellir

What would it be like to wake up in Iceland and not have rain? Plain boring I guess. Although the woman at the hotel said it was going to be a nice and warm day we sort of expected it would not be, by our standards at least. Our first stop today is a quick hike in Dimmuborgir lava fields. They have different marked paths of different lengths and we walked the shortest one as we knew the day was going to be a long one.

Then we decided to drive to Húsavík to go whale watching. Last time we did this — decide last minute to drive a couple hours to go see some whales — was four years ago in Canada when we drove from Québec City to Saint-Siméon. We spent a total of 6 hours on a boat on the Saint-Laurent and saw nothing! We still took the risk and it was well worth it. Although we did not see any tails, fins or jumping whales, we did see three minke whales up close and personal. We were freezing after the boat ride so a quick stop to get some coffee was great. Especially considering how long a drive we had to get to the camp site in Hveravellir.

The drive was long but beautiful! The weather did clear up and the 100km of dirt roads (once we found them) were amazing. We crossed paths with two other cars only.

We were fortunate enough to be gratified with the sighting of a full rainbow over the Highlands but our joy was short as the presence of the rainbow meant more rain at our destination.

Minutes before arriving at the camp site, we did have a moment of panic. The road was blocked by a closed fence. It had something written in Icelandic but could not read it. My Icelandic is a bit rusty… I summoned my girlfriend to get out of the car and open the damn gate, whatever it took! I was not going to drive back on dark dirt roads in the middle of the night! Luckily the gate opened and were able to setup the tent in freezing cold rain.

Day 7 — Tuesday August 17th, 2010 — Hverarellir to Þingvellir National Park

We woke up to some heavy fog and the coldest drizzle ever but I guess that after a while, you just get used to it. Or not. Off we were again on the dirt roads towards Gullfoss. The sky cleared up as we were driving and the drive was quite fun as the previous night's rain had left big mud puddles all over. I felt like Colin McRae driving around in my Hyundai Tucson!

When we arrived in Gullfoss people we looking at us because the car was so dirty! Anyway, I had mixed feelings about the place. They were, in my opinion, the nicest falls we had seen so far. Plus, they were the first falls I could photograph with some blue sky but the place was packed with tourists which was a brutal change from the rest of the trip where there were some tourists but in limited amounts. Gullfoss being part of the Golden Circle explains why there are so many tourists there.

Next stop is Geysir. While the actual Geysir only sporadically bursts a couple times a day, its little brother Strokkur pops out of the earth approximately every 6 minutes. It is amazing to see the earth "spit out" water like that. Also, I was wondering why everybody was standing on the same side of the geyser. I got my answer fairly quickly.

We the drove to Þingvellir National Park and setup our tent by the lake there. The situation, weather and everything else was idyllic.

Day 8 — Wednesday, August 18th, 2010 — Þingvellir National Park to Reykjavik

How great it is to wake up and actually feel warm. Yes, warm!

After a quick coffee, we decide to go near the rift on which there is a really nice waterfall: Öxarárfoss.  We take a short walk around the rift and then start driving towards Reykjavik. Back to civilization. It was quite a shock. First thing we do is clean the car. It is more than necessary and we do not want to be charged extra for cleaning. The rental was expensive enough as is.

We find our hotel, Hotel Sunna, which is about 200 meters from the Hallgrímskirkja church. Reykjavik is really a cute city. Good vibe here. We stop for lunch and order soup in bread. Yeah, they actually serve you soup in a huge loaf of bread!

Later we decide to trust the Lonely Planet and attend the volcano show. The host and filmmaker, Villi Knudsen, is excentric to say the least but knows, presents and absolutely love his subject: volcanos.

We finally had dinner at the Fish Market. A sort of hip, trendy restaurant in Reykjavik. The place is nice, the food was really good and although not cheap, the food for money ration was very honest. Highly recommended!

Day 9 — Thursday, August 19th, 2010 — Rekjavik to Grindavik

This Thursday morning was dedicated to shopping. We wanted to buy some souvenirs as well as traditional Icelandic sweaters. We headed to Kringlan and Smáralind shopping malls but found nothing in those places. Finally we went back downtown Reykjavik and found everything we needed. We also decided to try «Eina með öllu» at the best pylsur stand inn Europe: Bæjarins beztu. Now let me translate. We had «One with everything» at the best hot dog stand in Europe: Bæjarins beztu. You might be wondering what «everything» is. Well, condiments include ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. Honestly, these hot dogs are good. Bill Clinton even came here to eat while staying in Reykjavik.

Once we had eaten and done all the shopping we could, we drove towards Grindavik, our stay for the night. We stayed in Guesthouse Borg and Björk, the owner is very welcoming and nice. It is nice to feel at home while away from home. After settling in and taking a quick nap, we drove around the area saw some icelandic horses and discovered a geothermal area where the ground was warm and literally smoking.

Day 10 — Friday, August 20th, 2010 — Departure

So we decide to be true tourists and go to the Blue Lagoon. It is the biggest rip off and most expensive pool I have ever been to. I guess you need to experience it once, at least, but I would definitely not recommend it to people. It is simply not worth the 28€ per person. Yeah, that is right! 28 € per person! Scandalous! What Blue Lagoon is, is basically a giant outdoor natural pool. And when I say natural I do not mean it was there naturally. What I mean it does not have a liner, etc. The bottom of the pool is made of volcanic rocks and sand. Yes, I banged my feet several times. So you are in a waist high hot pool and you see people waling around looking like ghosts. They have some kind of cream made of various things including silica you can apply on your face. Very strange experience.

After this, we drive back to the airport, drop off the car, check our luggage and fly away from this wonderful place. I will definitely be back!!