My dad was over in Europe for business, and the idea was pitched for us to meet somewhere new. His initial suggestion was Morocco but timing made that one unjustifiable. I countered with Iceland which offered us a more accessible location. It took some salesmanship to green-light a vacation somewhere knowingly cold, but the uniqueness, and adventure it offered eventually won us over.
Dad took in a day of Reykjavik before snagging me from the airport early the next morning, and it was in a 24 hour Subway that we actually determined what we wanted to do that day. This trip was following my standard formula of figuring everything out on the fly, which was especially enabled by the rental car at our disposal. There was early discussion about hitting the barren nothingness of the Westfjords, though weather dictated we venture inland. With the plan set, we took off towards Þingvellir National Park. (Þ makes a ‘th’ sound, and the ‘ll’ makes a ‘t’…Icelandic is indeed a bizarre language.) We of course needed to gas up and grab the first of an absurd number of Icelandic hot dogs.
We drove miles and miles past what we would soon come to know as Iceland’s default landscape. The leg took longer since we still had the patience to pause at every interesting vista and rock formation around; soon though, the bar for such stops was raised markedly. Nothing was known about Þingvellir when we arrived, but the visitor center set us straight. Iceland is the only portion of the Trans-Oceanic Ridge that sits above sea level and marks a spot where two tectonic plates are creeping apart. This national park contains the low-lying rift valley visible below. We walked through some of the massive cracks and crevices that have formed across eons, just an inch at a time. Adding historical merit to the stop was that fact that this very spot was once home to the planet’s first parliament.
There was nothing to see of the former government though. It appeared that this was merely where various representatives from across the island gathered, but no permanent settlement was ever actually established. As our first stop, it was nice to walk around and feel like we were experiencing Iceland, though the whipping winds and constant drizzle had us eager to get back in the car.
We consulted an absurd number of maps to plot a course north towards a glacier. It all started by veering off the nicely paved road onto a wide dirt one….which almost immediately tapered down to a single ‘lane’ of matted rocks. At least we were making use of our 4×4 upgrade. Although we only needed to cover something like 30km, it was easily the slowest going stretch of the trip. Being so far out into oblivion, we could only nervously joke about how tragic a breakdown here would be. One bit of excitement involved us tooling along on our merry way only to have a car crest a hill and gesture frantically for us to turn back. Unbeknownst to our party, we were set on a collision course with a rally race. Safely parked in a clearing, they zoomed past one by one until the road was again deemed passable. We did finally get to the glacier, though temperature, wind, and wetness kept us from staying any longer than was necessary to establish a photo record.
In terms of elevation alone, the Eiríksjökull (Eirks-yer-CUDDLE) was the apex this leg, and the ride down offered a break in the weather and also gave led us to one of the most impressive sights of the trip. With only a puny road sign beckoning us, we were amazed to find a waterfall running out from beneath an ancient lava flow all along the length of a river. The double rainbow arching above certainly did nothing to detract from the shot. Evening was spent in the town of Borgarnes where little existed aside from the hostel. We strolled on over to get our first traditional Icelandic meal of the trip: fish mixed into mashed potatoes, and a hearty sheep stew. A few excellent beers to christen the trip were ordered as well. The wind howled that night, but nothing could keep us from sleep.
Breakfast was enjoyed over an unfolded map, and it was decided that the next leg would involve driving a sevearl hundred kilometers around the perimeter of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Judging by topography alone, we knew fjords, mountains, and an unbroken coastline awaited us. We cruised for a good long while before making our first stop to inspect the the thick blanket of moss sprawling across the landscape. The luscious green pelt was at least two inches thick. We were also lured to a museum celebrating one of Iceland’s traditional tastes – fermented shark. This little outpost was run by a family who had long fished the Greenland shark, and they walked us through the history, recipe, and offered a tasting as well. The texture of the pale, marshmallow-sized morsels was chewy, and the poignant notes of ammonia overwhelmed the palate. Not the best snack per se, but certainly unique. We showed ourselves around the drying house where the slabs of shark meat was hung to age.
Back on the road again, we just cruised along and stopped at whatever caught our eye. There was black pebble beach, gale force winds atop an ancient volcanic crater, and a narrow mountain fissure that I navigated into. Although noninclusive of these features, it was in fact this national park where Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed. We offered a lift to some hitchhikers, and paused for a moment to marvel at the Londranger Cliffs. It was dark before we finally arrived to our hostel in Arkanes. I do want to add that in Iceland, bed sheets and a duvet are not included at hostels, and will cost and additional 20ish dollars to rent for the night…
Breakfast the next morning consisted of bakery treats and more gas station hot dogs before we set out for some of the Golden Circle sights. This circuit is the crash course day trip that most short term visitors see by bus. Hitting them at our own pace, and in whatever order we pleased was preferable to the expensive, linear group tour option. Stops included the impressive Gullfoss and Seljandsfoss waterfalls, Geysir – namesake of all geysers – and a jaunt to the sheer 350 ft. Dyrhólaey Cliffs. Below are some shots from this leg that include the aforementioned spots, as well as waning evening light, and my enjoying some licorice flavored candy. Northern Europe LOVES salty licorice…
This was the Seljandsfoss. Standing there for more than a few moments would soak an individual in the heavy, freezing mist…and for some reason that was the exact spot dad chose to sort through his photos to free up phone memory. The folks in the background do well to display the immense scale of these falls.
This blast is not actually from Geysir, as that one only erupts in times of tectonic turmoil. This one right next to it gave us a show every few minutes.
It’s possible to get right up close to the Gulfoss and be truly awed by the incredible volume of water cascading past, and crashing down.
The natural silhouette reflected well.
The Dyrhólaey Cliffs were stunning, came equipped with a nice little lighthouse, and also a ledge that mother would not have been a fan of.
It had been a full day of driving around, and we got ourselves loaded up onto a passenger ferry heading towards the Vestmannaeyjar, anglicized as Westman Islands. This was only going to be a quick visit, but we had heard some great things about it from others. We checked into our hotel well after sundown and then dined at a pizza shop where we were drawn into worthless conversation with intoxicated locals. That next morning we rose early to take in whatever possible before our return ferry back. Some scheduled maintenance resulted in fewer ferries that day, so we had just a couple of hours with which to play.Part of this island’s notoriety comes from the 1973 Heimaey eruption that threatened to wipe humanity off the face of it. A quick visit to Wikipedia tells me that lava buried 20% of the city before it was eventually doused with an unfathomable 6.8 billion liters of sea water. We drove around areas where signs highlighted the previous locations of streets and homes that at times sat 50 or more feet below us – amazingly there was only one fatality. Unrelated, but I was also pretty shocked to learn that Turkish marauders once sailed all the way up here to take people as slaves in the 1600s.
Aside from just driving around, we also scaled the Eldfell Volcano that spawned the eruption. We were tight on the time, but still able to rush up the orange, igneous slopes. The top offered a good view of the town and crater, but also interesting was the lingering warmth that could be felt just a few inched below the surface. Not wanting to be stranded, we jogged back to the car and tore off towards the port. Had we been around during the right time of the year, we could have perhaps seen the famed puffins, but alas… Back on the mainland, we turned toward the Occident with plans to sleep that night in Reykjavik.
It was only early afternoon by the time we arrived back on the mainland, which meant we could take our time getting to the capital. Along the way we visited a few more relatively insignificant falls and settled on visiting the small town of Hveragerði, famed for its geothermal springs. We drove around the town, noting the steam billowing up from the ground, but couldn’t find anything of the geothermal pools we’d read about. When asked,a local told us of a hike that would take us a few miles up into the mountains where we would find a geothermal river however. The weather was again moist and the sun already tracking downward, but neither kept us from setting out. After plodding down the muddy path we did at last arrive to a river with a few bathers in it. I entertained the idea of getting in the water just to say I had, but the cold air and my lack of towel was enough to sway me otherwise. Those bathing admitted the water was only tepid, and weren’t particularly excited about getting out. Dad was really rocking his best fashion.Dad already had had a day in the big city, but that evening was my first chance to explore the capital. For dinner we hit Cafe Loki, which sat in the shadow of the distinctly styled Hallgrímskirkja Church. Although we had taken in bits and pieces of the local food throughout the trip (but mostly just hot dogs), this was going to be our traditional feast. We ordered some variety platters: pickled herring on rye toast, pea salad, mashed potatoes, smoked salmon & beef, a dried fish with the moisture content and texture of straw, a bit more fermented shark, and of course a few good slabs of sheep head jelly. That last one was every bit as bad as it sounds.That next day would be our last together before dad would have to bail and return to professional life. We slowed our pace a bit by sleeping in a bit before getting ourselves out to the Blue Lagoon. This place is a pricey, man made tourist trap that preys of the average Reykjavik visitors’ inability/unwillingness to visit the multitudes of authentic springs that dot the island. Having lived in Japan I well am dialed into spa culture and have pretty high standards. The primary difference here was that the entrance fee was 10x the price I would normally pay, and also that the waters were shared with every tourist in the land. With that bashing out of the way, the Blue Lagoon Resort did offer the relaxation we came for.
The two of us spent a solid hour exfoliating with silica sands, detoxing in the sauna, and letting our travel worn frames breath in new life. On the way back we made a rather unlikely pit stop. Upon hearing about our trip, the nephew of my Great Grandpa Justin L. Bussies’ second marriage advised us of a sign marking the spot where an American war plane went down with some people from his dad’s platoon. It took a few passes to locate, but sure enough, there she was.
For dinner we made a quantum leap from the sheep head the night before by instead opting for a downtown bar serving local beer and and superb burgers. I love a good stout or porter, and those of Iceland have the finest notes of roasted barley. The Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter was the best from the trip, and may very well be my new all-time favorite beer. We swung through a few tourist shops to snag souvenirs for the folks back home, and had one more drink at a neighboring establishment. Iceland’s signature spirit is Brennivin, an unsweetened shot dubbed ‘Black Death’. With such a name, and all the hubbub we’d been hearing about it, we braced ourselves for something awful…but it just wasn’t. Chicago’s own Malört is a vastly more rugged drink. The remainder of the evening was spent recollecting trip highlights at the Bus Hostel before Pa drove off to catch his red eye back to the real world. I had couple more days to explore the capital region on my own.
As with many European cities, this one had a walking tour that delivered a crash course to the area’s history, architecture, and assorted cultural oddities. Knowing that the Icelandic armed forces are nothing more than just a few coast guard boats, or understanding how the 2008 financial crisis crippled their economy, or even why the liquor stores were all on strike was of genuine interest to me. This northernmost of capitals certainly gave the sense that I was somewhere new.
There was a good amount of street art scattered throughout the city, and every every turn offered something eye catching.I got to know a pair of Hollanders and an AmeriFinn (or FinneCan?) who were all staying at the same hostel. We wound up spending those days together walking around at a leisurely pace. The old harbor was a great place to grab an ale, sit, and soak in the sights.
The last bit of excitement came on the Friday before it was my time to return stateside, as I had a 28th birthday to celebrate. While I couldn’t have picked a more expensive country in which to put away beers, (and striking liquor stores meant no pregaming) it was still a fantastic night out at the rather unlikely Big Lebowski Bar. That next morning, I bid farewell and set out towards the airport. The 8 days I spent in that country passed by quickly, and we put a lot of road behind us in that time. Though we didn’t traverse the entirety of the ring road, or reach every corner of the island, we still got a solid sense of what this country has to offer, and vastly more than one would get just staying in the capital area. Seeing and appreciating how others live their lives will forever capture my interest, and Iceland served as a temporary fix to that addiction. I would also add that the chance to hang out so far to the north with my dad was pretty cool too. Bonus fact: Did you know that the Icelandic Horses are the world’s only to have a five speed ‘gearbox’?!
The banknotes get high marks as well for color and character.