(Yes, it’s been a while since a proper post, but I just took my first real vacation in more than three years, which should tell you how things have been. Since my last vacation, northern Norway in 2012, I took a job that involves a lot of staring at a screen and fixing other writers’ words, leaving me with little time and less energy to write for myself. I also adopted a cat (Charles), bought a house, adopted a puppy (Tyche), went to Japan for a week for work, adopted another puppy (Pullo…full name Titus Pullo 13th for any fellow fans of HBO’s Rome. Tyche’s name comes from the show, too), tried fostering a special needs dog (Waldo) and ended up adopting him as well, only to see him cross the Rainbow Bridge last month, leaving my house and my heart very empty (Charles, Tyche and Pullo are all doing fine, and actually seem happy to have my full attention again. Waldo was a sweet dog but a lot of work). I’ll probably post about all of that at some point but for now…Iceland!)
After scoring a ridiculous deal on Icelandair for r/t airfare, three nights hotel with breakfast, airport transfers, nighttime aurora hunting boat trip and Blue Lagoon spa package for $750, I headed to Iceland last week with two friends from Antarctica. It was a whirlwind trip but a very welcome break from the office and a respite from my sadness over Waldo’s death.
Update: It’s good to know a photo editor…I told my pal Ernie that I was disappointed in my photos so he worked his magic on a few, including this one:
Day One: Drive Baby Drive
After our overnight flight we arrived at Keflavik International in the darkness of an early Icelandic winter morning and hopped on the FlyBus to our hotel (the excellent Hotel Cabin…ask for a more recently updated room on the sixth floor). We picked up our rental car at Sixt near the harbor (highly recommended…friendly staff, clean cars and cheaper than anyone else) and set off in the gloomy late morning along Route 1, aka the Ring Road, aka the only road connecting communities through much of the country.
It’s been eight years since my last trip to Iceland (a great few days spent on the Westmann Islands) and that’s way too long. I figured this was my sixth trip (the first was hiking in the Westfjords and Thingvellir, the second hiking outside Hvergerdi. I spent a few days in Reykjavik heading to and then from the Faroes, and am counting them as two visits. And then there’s the Westmann visit). Each visit has been wonderful: Iceland is one of those places, like New Zealand, where I feel both at home and in awe of my surroundings.
So even though this was my first time driving (on earlier trips I just took the bus nearest I could get to the trailhead) and there was some snow and occasional ice on the road, I felt comfortable. Our rented Opal was a sporty little thing that handled well, too.
There are a lot of Icelandic horse farms in the area and plenty of those adorable tjolting animals were chillaxing close to the road.
One of the things I love about them is how prehistoric they look, reminiscent of Przewalski’s horses.
The horses were just hanging out near the road and seemed untroubled by the paparazzi, so we took several photos, including of these li’l fellas.
THEY’RE SO FUZZY!
I love the steamy breath in the shot below.
We named this one Fabio.
The Fabio family.
There weren’t enough places to stop for photos safely, but we were able to pull off in a couple places. One was near a gravel road where we could see the Westmann Islands in the distance.
We also stopped at Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s many beautiful waterfalls.
Another shot of the foss, this time with its surroundings:
In mid-November in Iceland it gets light around 10 and dark by 4, but the sun stays low on the horizon even at midday, when most of these photos were taken (to be fair, it was also overcast).
The murky skies sadly made it impossible to see much of the glaciers and the mountains and volcanoes, including Eyjafjallajokull, famous for burping loudly and disrupting international air traffic for days a few years ago.
You may know I love hazard signs. Here’s one for the collection, near the sea stacks between Dyrholaey and Vik.
I love that the artist took the time to give the stick figure a mouth frozen open in terror.
By the time we got to Vik it was near dark and the wind and rain had picked up. Still got some good shots of the area’s famous sea stacks and windows.
We missed the turn to Dyrholaey but could see it ever so moodily from a distance.
I love the twisted basalt columns all over the area, including around the sea cave where we got out of the icy, pelting rain for a couple minutes.
Here’s another shot of Dyrholaey:
Driving home in the dark on no sleep and jet lag was…exciting, but I got us back in one piece, perhaps sustained by the promise of a bag of the most epic potato chip flavor ever:
Day Two: Snaefellsnes Peninsula
We were on the road by 0830 the following morning, heading north along the coast in the inky darkness. Things started to get light just as we descended into the 6 kilometer tunnel near Akranes. A bit spooky, but also reminiscent of the many tunnels of the Faroes. By the time we were above ground, the sun was up. Or at least up-ish.
We paused at a typical Icelandic roadside picnic spot:
Looking down at the long, low bridge to Bogarnes, I had to wonder if waves have ever washed anyone off it during a storm.
I also noticed a trail that got my toes tingling. I love hiking into the wild in Iceland, and while this was not that kind of trip, I took notes for future use.
Past the excellent service station at Bogarnes with super clean, plentiful rest rooms and free coffee refills, we headed north by northwest into the Hitardalur, a broad moor between the mountains and the sea, leading us to Snaefellsnes peninsula.
I love feeling like a puny human in these open, empty, hauntingly beautiful landscapes.
Update: Here’s the image Ernie’d:
It’s one of the many things I love about Iceland.
Another thing to love: every road I’ve traveled in the country, even out in the hinterlands, has been in great shape.
As we neared the actual peninsula, a guy in an ATV drove a bunch of horses onto the road in front of us. Clearly the horses knew where they were going, but the guy didn’t seem, ahem, up to muster. They ran on and off the road several times over about a half mile. We didn’t mind.
After driving along the coast for a bit, we headed up and over the central spine of the peninsula, along the Vatnaleid, which I believe means Lake Way. It was stunning.
My favorite feature was called Horn, for obvious reasons.
But wait, there’s more!
Okay, just one more shot of the Vatnaleid:
I lied…here’s our car on the Vatnaleid. You can’t quite see it but it was a lovely deep teal.
Once back down to sea level, more or less, we passed through the Berserkjahraun, lava fields that, legend has it, were cleared by a couple berserkers who were then killed by the guy who hired them for the job. Icelandic legends are messy.
We also passed – SHARK! –the turn-off for Bjarnarhofn, where they make the notorious fermented shark delicacy. Like I said, we passed.
Instead, we continued along the road through the lava fields. Lava fields happen to be another favorite landscape of mine, especially in Iceland and most especially on a gloomy day when the moss seems to glow green.
Beyond them, to the west, was the equally beautiful Seljafjordur.
And beyond that, Kolgrafafjordur:
Then we caught our first glimpse (at right of photo below) of a certain mountain known as Kirkjufell:
Kirkjufell is to Iceland what the Bishop’s Mitre of Milford Sound is to New Zealand. It’s the most photographed and most recognized mountain. Photogenic qualities aside, it’s got pretty cool geology. But don’t take it from me…take it from the signage:
And here it is, seen at midday:
And perhaps the best known view, from waterfalls nearby:
The waterfalls (top tier…there is another below):
Here’s Kirkjufell with its neighbor, Stodin:
We continued on as far as Olafsvik, but the wind was picking up again and the gloom was descending, so instead of driving all the way around the peninsula, we turned around and went back the way we came, over the Vatnaleid and across the moor of Kolbeinsstadahreppur, where the sun made a (very) brief appearance.
We returned to Reykjavik in darkness at about 6pm to learn our aurora hunting boat tour had been cancelled due to the weather, so we rescheduled for the following day and enjoyed some delicious soup in a bread bowl at the famous Svarta Kaffid in downtown Reykjavik.
One more shot of Icelandic horsies:
Day Three: The Thing(vellir)
We set out again in darkness, shortly after 0800, this time heading just about 40 minutes northeast of the city to what is arguably The Biggest Deal in terms of both Iceland’s human history and geology: Thingvellir. It’s the site of the Viking-era Logberg, where folks gathered for the first democratic parliament in the world, though as I recall the Faroese make a similar boast about a site I saw there. In any case, the spot marking the Logberg is more or less ceremonial. No one is sure exactly where in the Thingvellir area it was, and the place itself looks very different than it did more than a millennia ago.
This is where all our Earth’s crazy is on grand display: the lava, the plate tectonics, the forces of nature we puny humans have yet to really figure out, never mind claim dominion over. Thingvellir is where the European and North American plates are pulling apart, and the area has seen more than a few shifts, earthquakes and lava flows. The swanky new visitor’s center (well, “new” since I was there more than ten years ago) said the ground level has risen 3-4 meters in places since the days of the Logberg.
While the amenities have changed since my first visit, the appeal of the rocks have not. I am 90 percent sure I took this exact photo last time, too. I just love the way the basalt is twisted and churned like taffy.
Our time at Thingvellir was short because I needed to be back in Reykjavik for a work-related meeting, interviewing a couple sources for a story you’ll see in the next few months. But afterward we stopped at the Holavallagardur Cemetery, which dates back to 1838.
Among the graves were at least two memorials to sailors lost at sea, including those aboard the Acorn, out of the Faroe Islands:
And one, as far as I can tell from my limited knowledge of Icelandic and French, to French sailors lost off the coast:
After a brief rest at the hotel, we headed back out, this time to the southeast and Reykjanes Peninsula for our date with bliss.
For all the times I’ve been to Iceland, I’ve never been to the famous Blue Lagoon, their hydroelectric wastewater processing facility/luxury spa. Gotta give it up to the Icelanders to turn what would be an eyesore in other countries into an otherworldly tourist destination.
The road to the Blue Lagoon runs through more lava fields, including plenty of fissues and tubes.
Some can even be explored.
The hydroelectric plant is visible in the distance (look for the rising steam) but once we reached the spa I went off the grid and didn’t even take in my camera.
I didn’t want to be one of the tourists anxiously holding their camera or cellphone in a plastic bag over their heads. I wanted to soak, which is what I did, in the pale blue water while the sun set and left the lagoon in an ethereal blur of night and steam.
Once we were suitably prune-like, we headed back to Reykjavik, this time to the harbor to catch our rescheduled nighttime boat trip to see the Northern Lights. It was fantastic just being on a boat in the darkness at the edge of the North Atlantic (we stayed in the harbor) but it was not the best place to see auroras. We saw a few faint ones, but I felt like there was too much ambient light. We couldn’t even see all the stars that we knew were up there. I did see a shooting star (meteor) though, which always makes me smile. The best thing about the boat ride was the Icelandic crew member, I think Sveinn was his name, who recited poetry in hopes of luring the auroras (an old tradition and one we did even in Antarctica). He had a lovely voice, and that combined with his dramatic delivery and the seductive lilt of Icelandic really sold it…unless you were an Ugly American. Alas, there were several on the boat, complaining that they weren’t getting the laser light show they expected. Pfft. Tourists.
After the boat docked around midnight, we had a brief rest and then set out again to hunt for the auroras, this time by land. We went to the Seltjarnarnes Lighthouse, right at the west edge of town, jutting out into the sea. It was just a few minutes from our hotel and wonderfully dark. We got to see a few more auroras, but they were still faint. My friends are serious about photography and had much better gear(with much better results) but I did pick up at least a hint of one with my point and shoot camera.
Update: Yes, Ernie worked his magic on this one, too:
Whether a single faint green aurora like we saw off Saltjarnarnes or the full-sky, multicolored dazzling display I’ve seen at McMurdo and also from the plane while flying to Iceland, I find any aurora sighting to be a humbling, comforting experience. I feel my puny humanity, minute in the grand scale of the universe, but I’m also reminded of some Nordic and Inuit folk tales that taught the auroras were the spirits of animals, or of women who died without ever being married. And I think that would be a wonderful place to end up, dancing across the skies with all my pets.
Day Four: It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over
Our final morning in Iceland, after aurora hunting nearly till dawn, my friends slept in while I returned our car and then walked the two or so miles back to our hotel along the harbor in the glorious morning sunshine. Sunshine! I don’t need sun to enjoy my surroundings, but it’s nice to see it now and then.
That’s the famous Sun-craft sculpture along the water, which everyone thinks looks either like a Viking longboat or a bug but is supposed to represent neither. My favorite sculpture though was outside the Harpa concert hall:
It shows the shape of the harbor and how it’s changed over time, which I thought was fascinating. And the harbor has changed. It was unrecognizable from my previous visits. The Harpa was new to me:
As I drew near to the hotel, I played around with my camera’s settings (I just got it in August) and got this zoomed-in shot of a gull. I like the light in the bird’s eyes.
I took a shot of Hofdi House, where Gorbachev and Reagan reached détente nearly 30 years ago:
…and also a photo of a piece of the Berlin Wall now installed nearby:
My first experience traveling alone was after college, when I lived in Germany, right after the wall fell and just as the Germanys were reuniting, so I felt seeing that piece of history—both the world’s history and my own personal story—right before I got on the bus to the plane home made the trip feel complete.
And, a mere two planes and 18 hours later, I was home. Or, as my beloved Sigur Ros would say, heima.