For Part I of our Iceland adventures, click here.
If you read my previous entry about Iceland, in which I waxed rhapsodic about the gorgeous waterfalls we encountered during our travels, I might have given you the impression that the country was conjured up by fairies to seduce humans into thinking their otherworldly realm truly does exist. Well, consider me seduced.
We knew we weren’t in New Jersey anymore as soon as we hit the road in our rental car. With a few hours to kill before checking into our first cottage, we explored the Reykjanes Peninsula, which gave us nice preview of the aquatic and volcanic landscapes we’d see during the course of our vacation.
Our first cottage was about a mile from the southern town of Hveragerdi, which is known for its geothermal activity. The sulfurous hot spring in the photo below was a short walk from our lodging. Its pungent smell and stark beauty, while at complete odds with one another, formed the perfect atmospheric partnership.
We visited Iceland at the height of the tourist season and the popular Golden Circle sites near Reykjavik were by far the most crowded places we encountered. We tackled the three main attractions – Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall and Þingvellir National Park over two days, taking our time to add less well-known sites to our itinerary, which we often marveled at in near solitude.
Shortly after we embarked on the first day of our Golden Circle tour, we stumbled across a parking lot and an outsized mound of dirt. Deducing that the people stopped there for a reason, we got out of the car and had a look. We had stumbled upon Kerið, a 6,500-year old explosion crater, filled with stunning turquoise water that provides the perfect contrast to the red-hued earth that surrounds it.
We never made it further east than Vik, a nondescript fishing town that boasts a spectacular setting. We climbed the nearby cliffs of Dyrholaey, admiring the dramatic stone arch formations and bird life, and strolled along the black sand beach of Reynisfjara, collecting rocks and sand for our friends back home.
When one is in Iceland, one takes photos (making good time when driving from point A to point B was constantly a challenge – we stopped more times than I could count). Lots and lots of photos. I enjoyed taking photos of Chloe taking photos. And I stood close by to ensure she didn’t get too close to the edge of the cliff.
There isn’t much wildlife in Iceland, other than arctic foxes, which we did not encounter, and birds. Lots and lots of beautiful birds. I know nothing about birds – even the seagulls seemed exotic to me – but I loved watching them go about their business.
After our explorations in southern Iceland, we made our way west and north. Sophie, who had already made it abundantly clear that she’d seen enough waterfalls to last her a lifetime, was eager for something new.
After a precarious drive (as I mentioned in my previous post, don’t make the same mistake we did and skimp on the car – rent a 4WD) inland towards Husafell, we made our way to the largest lava tube in Iceland, confidently called “The Cave.” Dressed in our warmest clothes and outfitted in incredibly unattractive helmets, we disappeared underground and spent 90 minutes exploring its remarkable depths and ice formations.
Once we had ventured as deep as we could go, our guide asked everyone to turn off their headlamps. We spent the next several minutes in the darkest dark I’ve ever experienced. It was unsettling and creepy, and I was beyond glad to see daylight again.
During our time in the north, we stayed a couple of miles from Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest “urban” area. With a population of only 17,500 people, calling it a city is disingenuous, to say the least. But its charm more than makes up for its modest size, and it’s a great base for exploring a spectacular part of the country that is often overlooked by tourists who stay closer to the more accessible region near Reykjavik.
One of my favorite northern stops was Asbyrgi Canyon in the Jökulsárgljúfur section of Vatnajökull National Park. Even in the rain, the setting was magnificent. If at this point in our trip I still harbored any lingering doubts as to whether Iceland is the capital of the fairy realm, this spectacular horseshoe canyon dispelled them.
A visit to the north would not be complete without a tour of Lake Myvatn, which translates into “midge fly” in English. When I returned to the car accompanied by dozens of little beasts after taking a few photos, the name of the lake suddenly made a lot of sense. Chloe was beside herself as the tiny insects seemingly multiplied on the window in front of her eyes.
A trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without a hot springs visit. The most famous of the spas is the Blue Lagoon on the Reykjanes Peninsula, which we studiously avoided because of the crowds and cost. We opted instead for the turquoise waters of Myvatn Nature Baths in the north and the more understated Secret Lagoon in Fludir in the south. After long days sightseeing, it was a treat to unwind in the springs’ warm, mineral-rich waters.
If there was one region I wish we’d had more time to explore, it was Snaefellsnes. Dominated by the Snaefellsjokull volcano and surrounded by the sea, the landscapes are stunning. We spent one night in the small village of Hellnar and I would have loved to spend more time hiking on the peninsula. Chloe and I took a lovely walk along the coastal trail that connects Hellnar and Arnarstapi, and it was magnificent.
We returned home a few weeks ago and have settled back into our summer routines, yet I can’t shake (nor, I suppose, do I want to) the vivid images from our trip. I expected Iceland to be stunning, but I was in no way prepared for the number of times the landscapes took my breath away. I’d return tomorrow if I could.
Practical Information, Part II
Dining: Perhaps it was because we had just arrived and were eagerly anticipating all the wondrous sites we’d see over the next ten days, or maybe we were just famished, but our lunch at the tiny Bryggjan Cafe in Grindavik was my favorite meal of the vacation. From vegetable stew to smoked salmon, we all found something to like on the modest menu, and the food was fresh and delicious.
Bakery: Kristjans Bakari, in the center of town. Great breads and pastries.
Ice Cream: Brynja, which many consider to be the best ice cream in Iceland. It was yummy, indeed.
The northern hub for whale-watching, it’s a must-visit if you’re a fan of these majestic aquatic mammals.
Whale Watching: We booked our 4-hour “Whales, Puffins & Sails” tour with North Sailing and set sail on a beautiful schooner. It was a highlight of our trip, although we didn’t get as close to, or spend as much time among, the puffins as I would have liked.
Dining: After our expedition, we enjoyed a good meal at Salka Restaurant next to the harbor. The menu offers something for everyone, including decent pizzas, salads, soups and fish.
See my previous post for practical information relating to Snaefellsnes.