Incredible Iceland

 

Day 1. April 29

We flew from Manchester to Reykjavik with Icelandair, a short and easy flight, but very full. Next we picked up our rental car at the airport and drove the short distance to Reykjavik where we stayed the night at REK Inn, a pleasant little apartment located very conveniently next to the supermarket. 

 

Of course unlike the UK, in Iceland it is not possible to buy a bottle of wine or beer while picking up the groceries, so we had to go in search of a bottle shop, which we have learnt was called a Vinbuden. We found one not too far away and on the recommendation of some friendly locals and the shop assistant selected some of the local beers to try out over the next few days. One of locals was very keen on the EinstökToasted Porter, a dark beer, which became our firm favorite as well.

 

Having stocked up on provisions we went for a walk around Reykjavik, which seems to be experiencing a bit of a building boom. There were cranes everywhere.

 

Day 2. April 30. Reykjavik to Vik.

We didn’t find much to keep us in Reykjavik, so next morning we headed out on the first stage of the famous Icelandic Ring Road, travelling anti-clockwise. Our first stop was at the Geothermal Energy Exhibition at Hellisheiði Power Plant, about 25 km from Reykjavik.  The exhibition has an interactive display showing how electricity and hot water are produced as well as the history of the development and use of geothermal energy in Iceland. Worth a look.

 

The Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant is located at Hengill, which is a popular recreational area in the warmer months. Over 100 km of hiking trails provide great scenery, including hot springs and warm rivers. Since the weather was decidedly wintry at the time of our visit, we settled for admiring the view from inside the warmth of the exhibition centre.

 

From here we continued on the road through the pretty little town of Selfoss (not to be confused with the waterfall of the same name which is in the north of Iceland) and on to our first waterfall – Seljalandsfoss. Seljalandsfoss waterfall is probably one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. The falls are about 60 m high, very beautiful and very accessible, being just off the Ring Road. Much less well known is the (also beautiful) waterfall of Gljúfrabúi, which is just nearby, although we didn’t visit.

The next waterfall is Skógafoss, 30 kilometres further east from Seljalandsfoss, again just off the Ring Road. Skógafossis 60 m high and 25 meters wide and you can walk right up to it. It is worth many photos.

 

Continuing on the Ring Road we pass the famous volcano Eyjafjalljokull, which is mostly under a glacier. It looks quite innocuous for the moment, but appearances are deceptive. On the coast side of the road we come to a very popular tourist attraction – the wreckage of a plane. In 1973 a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur. Fortunately, everyone survived, but the plane wreckage was left behind. Until recently it was possible to drive to the wreck, but the landholders have closed the road as visitors were causing too much damage by not following the track. The site can still be reached after a brisk 45-minute walk (one way) from the car park, which certainly gives one an up close appreciation of the volcanic ash ‘desert’. The walk also provides views in the distance of the Dyrholaey rock arch, another noted feature in this area, near the town of Vik. We spent the night at Vik, a very small coastal town, where we stayed at the Icelandair Hotel. The hotel is decorated in Icelandic ‘minimalist’ style, and was very pleasant and comfortable, but as with most Icelandic accommodation, somewhat on the expensive side. We had a quiet room at the back away from the road, and with a good view of a seabird rookery on the cliffs behind the hotel. In the evening, we visited the Reynisfjara beach near Vik. The beach is noted for its black sand and the view of the impressively shaped Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks. There were masses of seabirds of many varieties on the cliffs above the beach, but unfortunately we were too early for the puffins. In season, this is a good spot to view puffins by climbing the path to the cliff.

 

Day 3. May 1. Vik to Hofn

The drive from Vik to Hofn is an easy day, filled with amazing scenery, and even more amazing scenery. A highlight is driving through the mossy lava fields, which are an out-of-this-world landscape. A major attraction on this part of the route is the Skatafell national park, on the edge of the huge Vatnajokull glacier. The park offers great hiking and is also home to the Svartifoss waterfall, another of Iceland’s most well known waterfalls, in this case for the basalt column walls that surround it. After Skatafell, the Ring road turns back towards the coast and skirts the edge of the Vatnajokull ice mass, affording numerous spectacular views of glaciers. A must do tourist stop, right on the road, is Jokulsarlon lagoon, which is full of icebergs from the glacier. Boat trips and other activities are available on site. The lagoon feeds into a river mouth where there are many seals swimming and diving. A useful blog with many links and giving a local’s view on this part of Iceland is: http://stuckiniceland.com/south-iceland/

 

After driving through yet more amazing scenery we arrive at Hofn and our home for the night – Seljavellir Guesthouse. The guesthouse is a few km out in the country just before the town of Hofn and has spectacular views of mountains and glaciers. It is very new and well appointed, and is also a very reasonable price. Highly recommended.

There are a number of restaurants in Hofn, where the specialty is the local lobster, often served on pizza. Restaurant food is expensive in Iceland, and pizzas are one of the more affordable options eating out.

 

Day 4. May 2. Hofn to Egilsstadir

The first part of the drive was mostly along the coast with more stunning scenery everywhere we looked. Lots of birds – seabirds near the coast and elsewhere water birds such as ducks and geese in many varieties. In the latter part of the trip we drove higher into the hills, and through a dusting of snow, to reach the town of Egilsstadir, where we stayed the night at the Arctic East apartments. Egilsstadir is a modern and pretty little town, near a large lake, which is popular in the summer.

 

Day 5. May 3. Egilsstadir to Akureyri, via Myvatn

There can be plenty to see in the Myvatn area if the weather favours you. Unfortunately, since we were travelling very early in an unusually wintry May, we were unable to reach a number of the places we wished to see. The trade off is that later in the season your chances of seeing everything is higher, but the tourist numbers are much, much greater.

A major attraction is Dettifoss (Europe’s most powerful waterfall) of the Prometheous film fame. On the same river, Jokulsa a Fjollum, is the equally famous Selfoss, only 11 m high, but wide and powerful. Hafragilsfoss is the third waterfall in this series. Sadly, the road was completely closed and we missed seeing any of the falls. For photos and more information see http://www.zigzagonearth.com/dettifoss-selfoss-iceland/

 

The area around Myvatn is an active geothermal zone. The Namafjall geothermal field, also known as Hverir, is located on the east side of Lake Myvatn. Here there are boiling mud holes, steam vents, hot springs and a strong smell of sulphur. We found it a little underwhelming after visiting geothermal areas in New Zealand. To the east of Myvatn there is a distinctive tephra cone or tuff ring volcano, called Hverfjall. The crater is approximately 1 km in diameter, and it is possible to climb to the rim of the crater via one of the two permitted paths, from the northwest or from the south. Tephra has been carried from Hverfjall all over the Lake Myvatn area. There are some well-known geothermal baths also just to the east of Myvatn (second in popularity to the Blue Lagoon) but the weather was closing in and we were keen not to be caught by a snow storm, we kept moving. This proved to be a good decision as the following day parts of the road were closed due to snow and we would not have made it through.

 

Our disappointment at missing Dettifoss was somewhat compensated for by a stop at yet another spectacular Icelandic waterfall, the Goðafoss (Icelandic: waterfall of the gods or waterfall of the goði). It is easily accessible on both sides from the Ring Road to the west of Myvatn, and is worth viewing from both banks. It is on the river Skjálfandafljót, with a height of 12 metres over a width of 30 metres. Very impressive. The waterfall gets its name from a story concerning the conversion of Icelanders to Christianity. In the year 999 or 1000 the LawspeakerÞorgeir Ljósvetningagoði made Christianity the official religion of Iceland. After his conversion it is said that Þorgeir threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goðafoss

After a fairly lengthy day in snowy driving conditions we were pleased to arrive at our stop for the next two nights – Akureyri.

 

Day 6. May 4. Akureyri

Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland, set in a large and beautiful fjord. It has a permanent population of around 17,000, but this number increases markedly in the summer when up to 5 cruise ships can arrive each day. The harbour and the city were mostly empty when we arrived, with the exception of a handful of hardy road trippers like ourselves, and a Philippe Starck designed luxury cruiser in the harbour.

Our home during our stay was at AK Apartments, some modest but very well equipped and comfortable apartments run by the owners of the next door solarium and spa. The apartments are located within easy walking distance of the harbour, town centre, supermarket and shops. There is a wide range of tourist shops in the town with items to suit all budgets. We spent the day exploring the town and doing some souvenir shopping, as well as catching up on our laundry at the local backpackers, where you can also have a beer, coffee or meal while waiting for the laundry. The day ended with a relaxing sauna and soak in the spa, provided by our kindly hosts at the AK Apartments.

 

Day 7. May 5. Akureyri to Blonduos – Gladheimer Cottages

This day turned out to be a public holiday, although no one we asked seemed to know exactly what for, other than it was “some religious thing”. Fortunately we had done all the shopping we wanted to do the previous day. The drive through to Blonduos was not arduous, and the region was notable for numerous herds of the very hardy little Icelandic horses, even more so than elsewhere in Iceland. Riding and horse trekking are very popular, and Icelanders also eat the meat. The horses are outside in all sorts of weather, whereas we saw only a very few sheep and cattle, as they were mostly still in the winter barns. In our whole trip we see one solitary reindeer. At every farm there are stacks of large round bales of hay in plastic covers, used to feed stock over winter. Unfortunately, much of the plastic seems to end up torn and festooned on the fence lines and in trees, which rather detracts from the otherwise beautiful scenery. We arrived at Blonduos early afternoon, and found everything was shut. There is an interesting textile museum here according to the guide books. Our very comfortable two bedroom cottage at Gladheimer Cottages was ready and waiting however so we had a warm and cosy afternoon watching the snow fall, and relaxing with a good book. These cottages are extremely well equipped and also come with a spa bath (with the most amazing plumbing) and a barbecue on the deck.

 

Day 8. May 6. Blonduos to Hotel Ljosaland

Day 8 was supposed to be a drive from Blonduos to Isafjordur in the Western Fjords, but unfortunately the weather really set in and snow made the road impassable. We decided as we could not go north we would explore the peninsula of Snæfellsnes instead. On the way we overnighted at the Hotel Ljosaland, a short way north of the town of Budardalur (Búðardalur), which lies at the north-eastern end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The hotel is a work in progress but has all facilities, comfortable rooms and an in-house restaurant, as well as sweeping views over a rural Icelandic landscape.

 

Day 9. May 7. Hotel Ljosaland to Stykkishomer

It was a short drive from the hotel to the peninsula. Snæfellsnes has its own ‘mini’ ring road, and is in many ways a microcosm of Iceland as a whole. If you had limited time in Iceland, driving around the peninsula is a must do. The scenery is stunning, with snow-covered mountains, volcanic craters, basalt pillars, caves, glaciers, black beaches, birdlife and photogenic Icelandic villages. We mention a few highlights below, but for more information see http://www.enjoyiceland.is/Places/snaefellsnes/Attractions/default.aspx

We started from Stykkishomer and drove west anti-clockwise, but it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Our first photo stop was near the village of Grundarfjörðurto photographKirkjufell, or “Church mountain”, so-called because of its shape. It is very beautiful, with water on most sides. We continued on to the church of Ingjaldshóll, near the village of Rif in the northwest. The current church building is believed to be the oldest concrete church in the world, built in 1903, but there has been a church at the site for many centuries and the site is the main setting for the Víglundar saga. A painting in the church by the Icelandic artist Áki Gränz (1925-2014) shows Christopher Columbus conversing with the local clergyman in 1477 about the voyages of Icelanders to the west (America), but unfortunately the church is mostly locked so we did not see it.

Life stories of Columbus indicate that he visited this part of Iceland in the company of English merchants at Rif in order to get information about the earlier Viking voyages to the west. Further on, a side road takes you to the western most point of the peninsula at Öndverðarnes, where there is a lighthouse and an ancient well. Returning to the main road, the end of the peninsula is dominated by Snæfellsjökull (1,446 m), an ancient cone volcano, which on a fine day can be seen from Reykjavik. The adventurous can climb the glacier, which takes about 4-6 hours to the highest peak, Þúfur. We preferred to just look. The crater of Snæfellsjökull is famous as the entrance to the underground way in Jules Verne’s novel, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

 

The road continues south past the mountain, the fishing village of Dritvik and the unique Lóndrangar rock formation of two pillars. These two pillar rocks are the only remains of an ancient volcano, which has been eroded away. We head east along the southern side of the peninsula, which has beaches and more beautiful Icelandic scenery and then back over the hills on route 56 to our hotel at Stykkishomer, the Hotel Breidafjordur. It is warm and comfortable, with a welcoming host and free breakfast. The town is small and the harbour and restaurants are within easy walking distance of the hotel. A few metres away is the Galleri Lindi Handicraft store, which has some fabulous Icelandic knitwear, jewelry, hand bags and other handicrafts – some of the best we had seen. Worth a stop and a browse – you can see the knitters at work. Stykkishomer is one of the prettiest coastal towns we saw in Iceland, and has a compact little harbour. A short climb to the lighthouse offers spectacular views in all directions. In summer months the ferry leaves from here to Flatey Island (home to puffins) and the western fjords.

 

Day 10. May 8. Stykkishomer to Thingviller

We leave Stykkishomer and cross the peninsula on route 56 before rejoining route 54 on the way to Borganes and then Þingvellir (anglicised as Thingvellir). On the way we pass Eldborg, a particularly nicely shaped crater easily visible from the highway. It is believed to have erupted once many thousand years ago and again in settlement times, and is responsible for the extensive lava flows in the area. It is a protected natural feature.

After Borganes our route takes us along the coast and through an undersea tunnel at Hvalfjordur almost all the way back to Reykjavik before we turn to Þingvellir. It is getting late in the day so we continue on to our accommodation east of Þingvellir at Laugavatn, the Golden Circle Apartments. These are very well equipped, comfortable and well priced apartments with a view of the lake. They are conveniently located in the middle of the tourist attractions of this area with Þingvellir to the west and Geysir and Gullfoss to the east.

 

Day 10. Thingviller to Keflavik

Next day we retrace our steps to Þingvellir and view the sights. Þingvellir lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the mid-Atlantic ridge between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, and the region is traversed with cracks and faults. There is considerable earthquake activity at times. The area is also of great historical significance for Iceland as it is the site of theAlþingi (“Althing” in English), the original Icelandic Parliament, which was established at Þingvellir in 930, and remained there (with some minor interruptions) until 1798, when it moved to Reykjavik. And of course, being Iceland, the scenery is stunning. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Þingvellir

After Þingvellir, we make our way slowly back to Keflavik, as we are (reluctantly) flying out very early the next day. We head down to the south coast and drive through lava fields and more ‘out of this world’ Icelandic scenery as far as Grindavik where we turn north past the famous Blue Lagoon thermal baths and reach our final hotel for the trip, Bed and Breakfast Airport Hotel. Ideally located for an early start.

Farewell Iceland.

 

 

 

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