Friday, April 23, 2010

Day 7&8--Hvergarði to Kevlavik, the Blue Lagoon, and FLight Delays

We awoke in our beautiful room just as breakfast was being served, so we dressed, packed, loaded the car and headed to the dining room.  The breakfast was lovely.  Though it was the typical breakfast foods, it was served with such an eye for art.  The dining room had a huge painting stretched across one wall--a local representation of the last supper, the floor was laid with end-cut wood, the tables had delicate and lovely arrangements on them, the table had a custom-made place mat about a local artist, and we ate off lovely handmade dishes. Throughout our stay at Frost og Funi, Frost and Fire, we were impressed and touched by the attention to detail.  It's clear whoever designs and maintains this place, cares about art, and appreciates beauty in everything.  Altogether an extremely positive experience.  My favorite of all, in fact.

So after finishing breakfast, we chatted with Kira, the staff person, while settling our bill.  We filled our water bottles with water that didn't smell like rotten eggs, and took the leftover bread for lunch.  We decided to re-explore the southern coast where the flooding had been, so we again followed trusty Route 1 east along the coast.  We drove through towns and countryside, all quite lovely, but I was struck by how magnificent the north had been.  It was so full of drama and spectacular views that this drive felt tame by comparison.  Nonetheless, we marveled at the landscape and enjoyed the new, more moderate, climate of the south.

We did notice, however, that everywhere seemed desolate.  Even more than usual.  Shops weren't open, folks weren't out driving....  "It must be some kind of holiday," we were starting to suspect.  So at our next opportunity, we stopped at a tourist information center, which also happened to be a Media Center {One room was full of more than a dozen reporters, all deciding on their next move.  Clearly they had all been sent here to report on the volcano, and were running out of story}.

So we went in the tourist center to get the most recent information on the volcano, the roads, and a place to stay in Keflavik.  We found out both good and bad news.  We got the bad news first, but I'll tell you the good news.  Fortunately, the  volcano is slowing down, which is great, and the roads have been rebuilt--also great, and they have started sending flights back to Europe, fantastic.  Good things, both for us, and the locals.  Not so good was the news that the winds had already started to shift, and they feared that by tonight they would be blowing to the west.  Not good.  This meant there was a chance that our flight would be affected.  We were a little concerned, but tried to just be patient and wait and see what happens.

As for the last of our requests, she said, the roads have been rebuilt, but they are not totally finished, and they advice that you use extreme caution and only travel on them if it is totally necessary.  Not only are the surfaces rough, but everything has been covered with ash and it is very dangerous.  She also gave us the name, number and address for a hostel in Keflavik, and informed us that it was indeed a national holiday today:  the first day of summer.  Wow.  Summer.  In Iceland, I can totally see why that would be deemed a holiday.

So we heeded her warnings, but drove on wards towards Vik.  We were determined to see how a week had affected the scene at the flood plain, and to see a bit further along the coast.  Soon we came upon the site at which we had stopped and explored on our first day.  It was quite a different view indeed.  Not only were the media trucks and onlookers gone, but so were the glacial chunks and standing pools of water from a week before.  Now everything was covered in an inch of snow, changing the landscape altogether.  Onward we went, over the bumpy gravel of the new roads, all the while marveling at the dramatic peaks to our left--the mountains surrounding the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

(What appears to be clouds in this shot is actually the volcanic ash cloud lingering over the peaks.)

(This is the same shot from my Day 1 post.  It looks remarkably different now.)

Once on the other side of the once-barricade, we actually got to see the effects of the ash.  It was really wild.  Everything was covered with it.  Houses, cars, and most dramatically, the roads and fields.  It turns out that about 70 farms were affected by the ash, and probably 20 were ruined because of it.  With a landscape this harsh, and with this much rock, clearing a field is no easy task, so to know that their farms are ruined is quite a tragedy indeed.  We read later that night that this ash, called Tephra, though rough in individual texture, is very slippery to walk or drive on, acting just like quicksand.  The ash itself isn't fertile, either, so it will take some time before the soil turns again, so most people are hoping to remove the ash completely.

After getting our fill, we turned around and headed back towards paved roads that we knew would be open.  We stopped in a few small shops that caught our eye, but soon decided to head to the Blue Lagoon for the afternoon, Bláa Líndið.  We followed the signs from the main road, the turn off taking us through a winding road around a volcanic crater and through a lavafield of huge, black sharp chunks of volcanic rock. Weaving our way around, we found ourselves at the front gate.  Not too many cars were in the lot, but there were a few tour buses there, too.  We paid our entry, got our magnetic entry bracelets, and found our way to the locker room.

The magnetic bracelets are pretty cool, aligning to whatever locker you choose so that you can open and close it easily.    They can also be used to charge food and drinks form the cafe so you don't need to have money with you in the lagoon.  They also serve as your pass in and out of the subway-like turnstiles to enter the vicinity.  Clever.  They have really thought of everything.  They make the process as streamlined as possible, and also make it as easy as possible for you to spend money there, being that they also have spa services, a hotel, a restaurant, and a gift shop with their full line of beauty products.  Good business and marketing.

Anyway, we soaped up and headed into the lagoon.  We opted to enter through the indoor tunnel rather than face the cold wind in our bathing suits.  You need only climb in the indoor pool, and then make your way through the little underwater door.  We emerged through it to the view of a volcanic rock dome, designed as a wind shield for the cold days and a sun shield for the hot ones, no doubt.  The walls of the lagoon are lava, having been carved directly into the ground itself and then coated with a protective coating of some kind.  The rest of the pool are small inlets, winding pathways, carved underwater benches, a waterfall,saunas and steam rooms.  Truly decadent.  The lagoon itself is essentially a waist-deep pool of salt and fresh water that hosts a special kind of bacteria and minerals from deep within the earth.  The water is between 98-102°F and is supposed to heal all kinds of health problems and skin conditions.  We soaked and swam and explored, covering our faces with the silica mud, purported to be very cleansing for the skin.  It stings a bit as it dries, but my skin does feel pretty nice a day later!  We spent a few luxurious hours there, and then showered off to find a place to eat dinner.

We headed to nearby Gindavik and their only restaurant therein--Salhusik.  It is a log cabin building that smells of wood from the moment you open the door.  It was striking because much of the country is without trees, and those they do have are often short.  As one man even related, his travel guide said, "If you ever get lost in the forest in Iceland,...  stand up,... and stop drinking."  Ha haha.  Perfect.  The climate and landscape are too harsh here to support large trees.  Consequently, the most common building materials are metal and cement.   Anyway, we enjoyed Cod and Halibut served with sir fried vegetables and a baked potato, drizzled with an herbed butter.  Yum.  Full, relaxed  and satisfied, we headed off to find a hostel for the night.  What we found instead, being that it was nearly 11 at night and we were tired, was a cute little hotel near the airport at a decent price.  Not ideal, but it'll do.  So we tucked ourselves in after another adventurous day.

We awoke the next morning, had our breakfast, packed, and got ready for our final day in Iceland.  Just before we checked out of the hotel, we decided to quickly just check our airlines bag requirements and all.  I surfed the page a bit, scanning a few sections on carry-ons and checked bags...  the usual regulations.   But when I returned to the home page, and scanned downwards, I saw this:  URGENT.  Keflavik airport closed.  All flights canceled.  Hmmmm.  That means us.  Pulse rate went up.  I scanned the page further, just to be sure I was seeing it right.  Yup.  Our flight was on the list, and we were going to have to board a bus to Akureyri, yes the very same town we had attempted to make once, and finally did make it to a second time, a 5 hour drive away.  From there we would board a plane to Glasgow, and a connecting flight home.

Wanting to get information from the horses mouth, we went to the airport, since we were close by, to make our arrangements.  It felt really strange to walk through a deserted airport.  The only person I saw the first 5 minutes of my exploration, was a camera man, filming the emptiness.  I did eventually find the airline's customer service desk, where they booked us on a flight to Glasgow at noon the following day, saying that we would need to catch a bus the next morning at 5am.  We raced to Reykjavik, checked into a hostel, and had a tremendous dinner.  The staff at the hostel had recommended a nice restaurant called the Sea Baron, which is frequented mostly by local fishermen.  When you walk in, on the left there is a cooler with various skewered meat.  There were skewers of shrimp, scallops, salmon, halibut, horse, potatoes and minke whale.  Ultimately this meant that mom and I were down to 5 choices, and not 7.  I'm sure you can understand why.  We selected a skewer of shrimp, one of scallops, and one of salmon, in addition to some potatoes and a bowl of their famous lobster soup.  It was a delicious meal, especially when complemented with a nice Pilsner.  Yum. 

Our stomachs full, we headed to our temporary home to be sure that we had packed fully, and that we were rested for our long journey the next day.  We set our alarm for 3:45 to assure that we made it to the bus terminal in time to return the car and called it an early night.  All of Saturday was spent in transit.  We had a 5 1/2 hour bus ride (with a brief break), then 3 hours waiting in line at the tiny Akureyri airport, ill-equiped to handle this load of passengers, then a 2 hour flight to Glasgow, a 1 1/2 hour layover, than a nearly 7 hour flight home.  It all worked out in the end, thankfully, but when I got home at 11 Saturday night, I was completely wiped.  It took nearly 24 hours for us to make a trip that had taken us 6 hours in the opposite direction.  Phew.  It feels good to be home.

Day 5&6--Myvatn to Borgarnes, Borgarnes to Hvergarði

While of course each day here in Iceland is special, and everything we see is amazing and worth noting, days 5 and 6 of our trip were much the same.  We spent these two days mostly just backtracking our way from the north so that we were in the SW to catch our flight.  We traveled many of the same roads and saw many familiar sights, now from a different direction.  Actually, let me correct that.  We spent the days mostly on Route 1.  Route 1 is our friend.  It is paved, it is wide, and it goes around the whole island. 

It was still snowing lightly when we awoke, a few inches having gathered over the night in Myvatn.  We had a lovely breakfast of typical fare: toast, cheese, ham, salami, tomatoes, cucumbers, jams, corn flakes, mueslix, juice, coffee and tea, with the additions of sliced apples and oranges and hot chocolate.  Also, there was a local treat.  This region, it turns out, is known for its earth-baked breads!  Much like the food cooked in the Caldeiras of the Azores, here bread dough is mixed up and placed in underground plastic buckets for 24 hours to cook.  The bread comes out with a very smokey, earthy flavor.  Though I was glad to have tried it, it was a bit to heavy, and far too smokey for me.

So we packed ourselves into our new, fancy car, and headed for the hills.  Literally.  Given that it was still less-than-ideal weather, we opted to spend much of the day tracking our way back west.  We knew that we only have a few days left, and we wanted to be sure that we weren't scrambling to make our way back in the last moments, particularly when the weather proved itself to be so unpredictable.  So without even stopping to see the local nature baths, the strange bubbling pink mud, or any more of the incredible volcanic landscape, we headed off.

While much of the day was spent in the car, 11 hours, the scenery started to blend together so that my memories are mostly distinguished by the weather.  We were shocked to find ourselves in white out conditions for perhaps an hour, and then suddenly, to be in bright sunlight with far off  clouds...  Then not long after that... freezing rain!  By the time our heads hit the pillow, we had experienced just about every weather pattern, save extreme storms.  One of the most remarkable moments, though, came when we were passing along the north side of a fjord.  I remember distinctly the feeling of the sunlight on my arm as we drove.  There was so much sun streaming in from the right side, that the car was getting hot and we were both feeling a bit sleepy.  Just as my eyelids were drooping, wouldn't you know, from over the cloudy peaks to our left came bit, fat, fluffy snowflakes.  What an odd feeling.  On the left of the car, clouds and snow, while on the right, sun and blue skies.  Magical.   In fact, I think I might have to write a letter to Disney.  I have now realized that their theme parks are falsely advertised.   Perhaps Iceland could just adopt their tagline instead, and Disney could use a more realistic one like:  "The second most magical place on earth,".... or perhaps   "Moneytrap" or "Adults wearing costumes."....I'll workshop the replacement, but suffice to say, Iceland deserves it more.

We ended our day from Myvatn in Borgarnes, in a small and simple hostel--Mom´s first experience in one!  The next night we found an amaaaazing guest house.  We had been driving for some time and had been unlucky in finding a place to stay.  We happened upon a good sized town and gave it a shot.  We had gotten loose directions to a hostel in the town and tried our best to find it.  It was in our search for this hostel that we found the sign for Frost og Funi, Frost and Fire guesthouse.  The prices were fair, and their location amazing--right on the edge of a hill next to a babbling stream and overlooking steaming geothermic holes.  Awesome.  We checked in and went to grab some dinner.  When we came back, Kira, the staff, showed us to our room and informed us that we had access to two hot pots (jacuzzis) and a pool.  Excitedly we changed into our bathing suits and courtesy robes and sandals, and headed out to the back.

The rest of the evening, until well near dark, we soaked ourselves in a lovely hot pot with vies of the river and steam and all....  chatting with a father and son from Pennsylvania here for a week.  They are doing the exact opposite of what we are.  While we are charting our course day to day, driving here and there as the spirit moves us and making arrangements as needed, they are on a package with a guide.  They snowmobile one day, snorkel the next, climb a glacier the next....  "a real man´s vacation," as mom put it.  They don´t have to worry about anything.  Their guide picks them up, drops them off, provides their meals, and all of their entertaining stories.  Most amusing was the fact that their young guide, only 30 years old, claims to have driven his truck on Antarctica, and both the north and south poles.  This is of course after he owned his own construction business and had to move because a volcano destroyed his town.  Not too bad for a man of 30.

Nonetheless, their stories certainly were entertaining, though they made our tales of adventure pale by comparison.  When we told of our car breaking down and getting a new one, they regaled us with tales of deflating their tires to drive over 5 feet of snow ....  advantage, Men.  When we told of arriving at our first hotel with horse on the menu, they told of their guide serving them nearly raw horse as a delicacy which they ate to be polite,...  advantage, Men.  When we spoke about arriving at the continental divide and walking to the waterfall, they said the next day they had plans to snorkel in the lake there where you could see the divide go 900 meters down,...  damn.  Advantage, Men.  So sure, their vacation is a lot more adventurous, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that they must be paying through the nose.  Iceland is incredibly expensive, so to have someone else make all your arrangements, while easier, is no doubt costly.  sniff, sniff.  I´m almost convinced that our vacation is just as cool... are you?

Looking back on those two days in the car, I see now that everything about Iceland is unpredictable.  The weather, the volcanoes, the tourist industry, and the landscape seem to change at the drop of a hat.  One minute it is sunny, but at any moment clouds could move in and rain or snow could fall.  You have to be prepared for anything.  Certainly the changeability of the volcanoes is obvious to all now, given the headlines. Most notably, In one day's drive you could see a wide variety of landscapes.  As we drove, I was amazed at how familiar parts of the scenery felt.  At times views felt like the sedimentary peaks of the Badlands in the US, at other times, I felt like I was back in the Azores with the sharp looming peaks and bubbling hot springs, and still other times the townships felt distinctly European....  While I suppose this could be a testament to Iceland itself, to me it is starting to be more of a reminder of our world.  Human societies have developed to cope with the individual environments they face, and different cultures may deal with the same challenges in different ways, but all in all, the more I see, the more commonalities I find.  While cultural differences and topographical variances stand out, underlying it all is so much of the same.  It's easy to see how all of this land was once connected.  It makes life on this planet seem so simple, but yet so amazingly complicated at the same time.  Nowhere is the simplicity of life or the path or environmental change more evident than in Iceland.  It's a great place to go if you are in need of a little reality check, and a humbling sense of how decadent, convenient and indulgent our culture is here in the US.  Apparently my address is on Easy Street, and I had no idea.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 4--Akureyri and Myvatn

We awoke in our cozy hotel room to sunlight straining to get in through the curtains.  Kris, the staff at the hotel, was busily preparing our breakfast.  It was the traditional breakfast, with the added flare of different flavored cheese spreads (much like cream cheese), dark and grainy local breads, salami, cheerios, hot chocolate and cookies added to the buffet options.  We ate and chatted with Kris, as she gave us fantastic advice about how best to travel, where to go, the weather condition, etc.  She looked up the roads for us, showing which parts of the roads were safe, and which had warnings of any kind.

It turns out that the patch of road with the plows the previous day, is one that gets plowed regularly--a few times a day, she says.  While this was meant to ease our anxiety, I think for Mom, it exacerbated it.  "I don´t want to travel on a road that needs to be plowed that frequently," she says.  Nonetheless, Kris´advice was very helpful, and we decided to head back to Blönðus, since Route 1 was the only was to go further east and its conditions were too treacherous.  We were going to try to visit the coast to see some seals.  Since this was one thing that I particularly wanted to see, I was excited as we headed off.

Only ten minutes into our drive, we came upon a choice.  Take Route 742, a gravel road, to traverse the peninsula, or take Route 1 directly there.  Airing on the side of caution after yesterday´s adventure, we stayed on the main road and headed back west.  Not but a few moments later, a warning light came on.  We searched through the manual to determine what it might mean, and though I was eventually able to locate it, we couldn´t tell exactly what it meant because the entire guide was only in Icelandic.  Whoever heard of such a thing?  You know in the US everything comes in 29 different languages!?  Anyways, we safely made it back to a fuel station in the town.  A nice man from the station came out and opened the hood, only to find we were leaking some weird tannish-brown liquid, that had been splattering all through the inside of the engine.  He fussed with some nozzles and poked around as we collected our rental forms, searching for a number to call.

Our minds raced with options given our circumstance.  Do we get it repaired and get reimbursed by the company, losing valuable travel time?  Do we have to wait while someone comes from the company, which could take hours?  Before our minds could run through too many options, the man who was helping us said, "I´ll just call the company.  They have an office here.  I´m sure they can send over another car."  Sure enough, it was as simple as that. A mere 20 minutes later, we were driving off in a new car.  A better car.  In fact, the rental guy even said, "You have a good car now, that one was a piece of crap."  Awesome.  For 3 days we had been driving around remote landscape in a piece of crap.  Hilarious.  This new car is indeed pretty remarkable.  Not only does it have 4WD and "Sport" mode ideal for mountain roads (it actually says just that in the manual, which, yes, is in English!), it has studded tires.  A fact that I found this so utterly amusing, I couldn´t stop laughing for the next ten minutes.

Needless to say, with our new car, we had a new sense of confidence.  So, at the same intersection where we had once made a left to go back west to Blönduos, now we made a right, bringing us towards Akureyri, and the same stormy mountain pass we had aborted from the day before.  We reveled in the new power and control in our current ride as we climbed in elevation back onto Route 1.  We soon found ourselves passing through the very same snowy pass, and crossing the very same line made by the snow plows.  Though still careful, now we were confident.  The vistas seemed to get more remarkable by the minute.  Mountains upon mountains unfurled in front of us.  Absolutely amazing.  We gawked and photoed...  struggling to find the words to adequately explain what we were seeing, and knowing that no words nor photos could ever really do justice to this scene.

We traversed our way through this mountain pass and made it safely to Akureyri, no worse for the wear, but perhaps a little lighter by loss of sweat.  The town itself proved somewhat anti-climactic, so we stopped into the tourist center and opted to head straight to Myvatn, a lake region riddled with geothermic activity and wild landscapes.  The drive there proved similar to the previous mountain pass--icy roads, blowing wind, and thick, luscious snowflakes.  While still careful, we had made it through worse before, so we were less anxious and could enjoy the view more readily. 

Once we eased out of the mountain pass, we entered some of the strangest landscape I have ever seen.  It truly felt as if we had landed on some other planet.  I was actually speechless... (rare, I know).   It was so easy to see the volcanic activity surrounding us as craters littered the horizon, piles of black rock, covered every step, and deep cracks cut through rolling smooth black rock.  One can easily imagine how each formation came to be...  flowing lava here, projectile molten rock there, bubbles bursting through the surface here...  Absolutely amazing.   The weather had gotten colder and windier, so we had to only take a quick look around before finding a place for the night. 

First, though, we stopped for dinner at a totally unusal cafe with direct views of the volcanic crater, called Vogafjoss Cowshed Cafe.  It turns out that this place is so named because they have a cow holding area within the building.  In fact, you can sit right next to the cows and watch them through the glass as you eat.  They escorted us into the holding room, and we pet the calves and the cows waiting to be milked.  I left the room, though with a mixture of awe and sadness.  A truly special experience, no doubt, but a sad life for a cow, no?  There certainly aren´t pastures to roam here, and the cells leave little space to do anything but stand and eat, jammed in next to your cellmates.  Despite my animal empahty, I´m very glad to have gone, having sampled some of their homemade cheese, bread cooked in the earth, butter, and cheesecake while admiring the mountains and craters reflecting in Myvatn lake.  I would highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area.  A true gem.  Well fed on once-in-a-lifetime (for a non-Icelander, anyway) meal, we headed towards the "town" and found ourselves sleeping bag accomodation in a guest house for cheap.  All in all, for a day that started out rather rocky, no pun intended, it had finished up rather nicely, I dare say!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 3--Sauðarkrokur and the North Coast

Our third day commenced a little later, as I took advantage of the internet access and we both took advantage of the more elaborate breakfast.  I made a couple waffles, though they didn´t quite turn out. Packed, fed, and wrapped up against the wind, we set out to explore the northern shoreline.  Turning off Route 58, the little side road that takes you onto the smaller peninsula on which Stykkisholmur is located, we turned back onto the main road, Route 54.  Actually, to be honest, we went right past the turn and had to go back.  The road signs here are understated and the intersection marked little in advance.

By the time we realized and returned to the road, we saw why we had missed it.  Our main road, the road we had been traveling on all  the previous day, had now, magically, suddenly, turned to gravel.  Now this may not seem like a big deal to readers who have not visited this country, but let me tell you, this volcanic rock is no joke.  It is super hard, and some pieces are so sharp that it is uncomfortable to even hold.  Needless to say, flat tires are really common.  This fact, too probably means little.  I beseech you to recall the kind of landscape you have known us to be traveling--remote, quiet...  often an hour between towns with a fuel station.  Add to this the fact that it is not unusual for us to see another car only once an hour.  Once an hour!  A country of only about 310,000 people, two thirds of that population lives in the grater Reykjavik area.  That leaves only about 100,000 people to populate the entire rest of the island.  Add to this now the fact that the wind generally whips so fast that doing anything delicate with your fingers, such as taking a photograph or changing a tire, perhaps, gets painful pretty quickly at -4°C (about 25°F)*.  So between the infrequent traffic, the wind, the cold, and the desolate landscape, I hope now you can understand our trepidation.  Oh yeah, and neither of us have ever changed a tire.  Ever.

It was with all this information looming, that we cautiously headed down Route 54 towards Buðardalur. Mom gripped the steering wheel, lowering her speed to 50km/hr as we both kept a sharp eye for pot holes.  Before too long, we eased a bit as we saw a similar local car whiz by at at 90km/hr, reassuring us that folks do, in fact, travel on this road without the use of heavy machinery.  While the road was precarious, the views were spectacular.  We snapped photos, snacked and made our way north.  After about two hours, we were relieved to return to asphalt when we rejoined the main, circuitous Route 1.  Following this along Hrutafjorður, a NW fjord.

We were headed now to see Glaumbær, a Viking settlement dating back to 1104.  Several peat buildings have been resurrected and relocated from their excavation site to demonstrate what original homes were like.  Pretty cool, actually, and it was good to check off one of the sites Mom was eager to visit.  After investigating as fully as we could without the museum itself being open, we had decided to head for Akureyri, a large town on the north coast boasting a university and botanical gardens.

It proved to be a long day of driving, with few small excursions to distract us from this fact.  Additionally, by now the elevation and lattitude (not sure which had the greatest effect) were so high, that we lost radio signal.  We no longer had the mix of local Icelandic folk/pop, slightly out of date club hits like Rihanna´s "Umbrella," and old school jams, like Bob Marley´s "No Woman, No Cry"  to keep us entertained.  So, we watched the landscape with extra intentness.

Towards the latter part of the afternoon, around 17:00 or so, we started to climb in elevation to pass through a few mountains before arriving in Akureyri.  We marveled at the steep walls on either side of us, and their snow-capped peaks.  It was truly remarkable.  As we continued northwards, the peaks get snowier by the minute, and soon they were magical, pristene, white slopes.  We were totally awestruck.  Absolutely spectacular.  We stopped wherever possible to try to capture what we were seeing, but nothing really can.

We were marveling at our fortune to be just where we were and snapped as many shots as we could before the peaks were immersed in clouds.  Soon though, we noticed the clouds getting thicker, the winds picking up, and the roads showing signs of ice.  We slowed a bit, but continued onwards.  Moments later, coming towards us we see two snow plows, each casting of fresh snow.  "No,"  Mom says, "No."  We stop and turn around right in our spot.  A snowy and icy mountain pass was too risky in a small, foreign car with no snow tires. 

Though it was getting late, we headed the 1-2 hours to the nearest town likely to have accomodation.  We had passed through Varmahlið earlier to get some gas and a cup of coffee for Mom, and having seen a hotel near the fuel station, we decided to give it a try.  It was a sight for sore eyes in the fading light to see its form ahead of us.  I went to the door and pulled.  Nothing (We found out later that the manager´s number was taped to the door, and all one needs to do is call and someone will come and open up).  Not knowing this, we headed north to a town called Sauðdarkrokur, purported to have great scallops and a lovely, unique hotel.

Though we found the town easily enough, accommodation was harder than expected.  We drove around for nearly 30 minutes calling whatever numbers we could find in our guidebook, and any we found taped to guest house doors.  Soon we were lucky enough to find Hotel Tindastoll, highly recommended in our guide.  We called the manager, who came right over and let us into a very cute little room, with lots of unique little touches making it feel like home.  She directed us down the street to Olafshus Restaurant, the only place to get food in town, where we both supped on Atlantic Char, roasted potatoes and vegetables.  Yum.  After uploading and saving photos, blogging and emailing, I turned in for the night full and happy.

*The temps, from what I have seen, have ranged from -1°C to -5°C (30°F to 23°F), but I don´t what the wind chill factor is... some days, I´d wager, incredibly high.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 2--Gullfoss and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

We awoke Saturday morning after a much needed full night´s sleep.  Light had been streaming in the window for hours, though it was only 8:30 when we got up.  After a quick shower and change, we headed out to a lovely breakfast in the traditional Icelandic style.  All the same elements were present, in addition to hard-boiled eggs and canned fruit this time.  We grazed for a while, looking over the maps and deciding on our plan for the day.  Having learned from our previous day´s adventure, we also booked a hotel before leaving, to assure that we weren´t wandering the countryside in search of a warm bed.  We opted to spend the day exploring the West Coast and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Our first stop along the way was to a road that we had passed in our misbegotten 60km adventure the previous night, and then again on the way to the hotel.  It was just a small road to the side, but I was desparate to know what you could see there.  Unknowingly, we creeped our way along the road until this view was visible.

It turns out that this is Gullfoss, the attraction for which the area is named.  It is a multi-tiered waterfall feeding into a large ravine. 

The falls themselves generate so much mist that the entire area was layered in thick white ice.  We carefully watched our footing as we went in for further exploration.  Every individual stone in the driveway, the protective ropes, the posts, each blade of grass,...  everything was covered with ice.

After about an hour of exploration here, we decided to pack it in and head out for our long drive to the west.  Easing out of the parking lot, we headed towards a lake called Pingvallavatn.  Aside from the usual amazing landscape of grassland mingled with dramatic hills and far off mountain vistas, we now admired the clear blue of the lake as we hugged its Eastern shore.  Once to the northern tip, we passed through the tiny town of Pingvellir, which has only a church and a few houses, and turned south along its western shoreline. 

This brought us to a small parking lot adjacent to a rocky crevasse.  With a quick hike up, I realized that this gap marks divide between the Eurasian and North American continental plates!  It was right here between these rocky ledges that the plates are spreading 1.5cm a year!  As Mom sketched and wrote in the car, I walked along the boardwalk for a time, admiring the wrinkled metamorphic rock, the snowy mountain peeks in the distance, and the feel of the sun and breeze on my face.   Soon thereafter, I came upon a lovely waterfall, which cast mist far and wide.  After a few snapshots here, I jogged my way back to the car to continue our journey.


We wound our way to the coast, even passing through the longest tunnel I have ever been in, aside from the Chunnell, of course.  Upon emerging from it´s other end, with a much needed break for some fresh air and a sigh of relief, we hugged the shoreline of Borgarfjörður, a fjord just below the Snæfellsnes peninsula.  Crossing over, we stopped for a snack at a local grocery store called Bonus, which claimed an amazing location at the edge of a town called Borgarnes.  This was the view from the shop.  I was struck by this, as in the states, this sort of real estate would be clogged with condos and high-rises.


We fueled both ourselves and our car, and continued north.  The last leg of our journey weaved us around the entire shoreline of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, so with ocean constantly on our left and towering mountains to our right, we drove.  We saw quaint fishing villages, rocky cliffs with nesting sea birds, lava fields, the Snæfellsjökull glacier, and more volcanic landscape than I had ever seen.    At the very end of the peninsula were two volcanic cores, standing boldly against the now setting sun.  I jogged over quickly to snap some pictures, before we headed to our destination for the night. 

Just another hour and a half of driving brought us safely to Hotel Stykkisholmur.  The claims of incredible views were certainly accurate, as this is what could be seen from our window.

Exhausted from another long, exciting day, we tucked ourselves in for the night in Stykkisholmur, on the norhtern coast of hte peninsula.