Category Archives: Iceland

Iceland 2013 – to the north and back!

This is the second of two posts that cover my recent trip to Iceland in May 2013, see the previous post for part 1.

It was a long drive, nearly 400km – from the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular to the shores of Lake Mývatn in the central north of Iceland. Not that long drives are a problem is this scenic country as there are stunning landscapes to take in wherever you go. The first 80km of the drive was along a windy gravel road, which meant it was quite slow going but we weren’t in a rush so we took it easy stopping regularly to take in the impressive views. We also had a few coffee and pastry (with such good coffee and bakeries we had to make the most of it!) stops in the towns of Búðardalur and Blönduós. Once we finally met up with the (glorious) tarmac of the main ring road 1, which loops around the country, we were able to go a lot quicker. The road took us through endless lava fields making it feel like we were driving across the moon, and a snowy mountain pass that felt like Antarctica.

It was late into the afternoon when we arrive in Akureyi, Iceland’s second city – although with a population of only 18’000 it’s a lot smaller than Reykjavik. The city (if you can call it that) has quite a setting at the end of Iceland’s greatest fjord and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We were only just outside the Arctic Circle here and we had expected it to be colder in the north, but it was relatively sunny and warm during our 3 day stay there. We had a quick look round the botanical gardens, which boasted an impressive array of plants given the cities latitude, and a coffee we set off on the last leg of our journey. The clear blue skies made for some awesome views looking back across at the town from the other side of the fjord.

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As we drove towards Lake Mývatn, which would be our base for a few days, we happened across Goðafoss (waterfall of the gods), which rips straight through the Búðardalur lava field along the main highway. It might not be Iceland’s largest or most powerful waterfall but it is no less impressive – one of the highlights of the trip for me. We had a little walk along the edge of the waterfall, crossing a rickety wooden bridge that looked like it was barely hanging on in the powerful water.

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As we got closer to the main step of the waterfall the view of the water crashing into the basin below, framed by sunny skies and snowy peaks, was simply specular.

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We arrived at our cosy guesthouse at Vogafjos on the short of Lake Mývatn at 8ish, nearly 12 hours after leaving Grundarfjörður – it was nice to get out of the car! We were pretty hungry and sampled the house special at Daddi’s Pizza – smoked trout, nuts, and cream cheese pizza – washed down with a bottle of ‘Viking’ Pilsner it was lovely. In the late evening the sun went low (but didn’t set) and the sky went orange and we had a little walk along the picturesque lake – a fitting end to a lovely day.

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It is easy to see why Lake Mývatn is a magnet for visitors to Iceland, nestled on the mid-Atlantic ridge the surrounding landscape is volcanically rugged. There are also plenty of geothermal wonders to admire, walks for all abilities, and the lake and its marshes are bird watchers delight. There’s a 36km tarmacked road around the lake and with our own car we were able to explore most of the area in one day. Before we set off though we made the most of the fantastic Icelandic breakfast, including smoked lamb and trout, provided by our guesthouse in a Cowshed – complete with cows portioned off from us by glass, thoroughly recommended!

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We started the day on the east side at the Dimmuborgir lava field, which is a giant lava field with some interesting lava formations, the name means ‘Dark Castles’ in Icelandic. The locals believe the area is inhabited by trolls – the guesthouse owner told us quite seriously that she had seen two there, and given the creative lava formations it is easy to see how she could.

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I walked through the lava arch in the above photo through the lava field and up to the top of the nearby crater known as Hverfell. Although it looks like volcano crater it is in fact a tephra cone that formed 2700 years ago in a cataclysmic eruption.

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Rising 463m from the ground and being over 1000m wide it is one of the most noticeable landmarks in the Mývatn area. It was a warm day and it was quite hard work going on the steep shale path but the views over the lake from the top made it worth it.

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Mum and Katie had driven around to an easier (less steep) path on the other side of the crater so I walked round the crater rim to meet them admiring the views on both sides. Next stop was at the southern end of the lake where we did a short walk at Skútustaðir around a series of pseudocraters – otherworldly formations that occur when molten lava flowed into the lake triggering a series of gas explosions. It was an easy walk, even with some of the path being covered with snow, with lots of good views to take in and plenty of bird watching opportunities for Mum.

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On the western side of the lake we made a quick tea stop at the Sigurgeir Bird Museum where we spotted an Owl at the side of the road on our drive in. The museum’s artefacts are all mainly stuffed birds, so we didn’t linger long but it was a good place to spot some live birds – particularly through the museums telescopes.

In the mid-afternoon we drove north of the lake through the lava fields along the main highway to the geothermal wonderland of Hverir – a luna like landscape of boiling mud pits, steaming vents, and bright mineral deposits. Unfortunately, despite it being sunny and warm, as soon as we arrived it started raining, which dampened my spirits as I was wearing shorts and a light jacket! Nevertheless, it was interesting to walk around, one must be careful not to get to close, all the natural features and peer into the boiling mud pools that gave the area a powerful rotten egg (sulphur) smell.

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Feeling a bit cold I was keen to getting warmed up and conveniently around the corner was the Mývatn Nature Baths, an outdoor naturally heated bathing pool. The mineral rich water, which has a turquoise colour, is heated by the areas geothermal activity and fed up through the earth below. It was great to be in the warm water with the cold of outdoor air whilst taking in the views. The experience left us feeling warm, very relaxed, and our skin soft – highly recommended!

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Another good day was rounded off with some good food, I had lamb shanks, in the cowshed, washed down with some Viking Beer.

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Next morning after another hearty cowshed breakfast (sadly we only stayed two nights!) we checked out of our guesthouse and drove north of the lake to the Krafla area, which was covered in lots of snow. Krafla is an active volcano that has shaped much of the area around it and it is also the site of a geothermal power station that we had to drive through (literally) on our way up to the Viti crater. Viti is another explosion crater, about 300m in diameter, formed in an eruption in 1724 that lasted 5 years. Today, despite plenty of steaming vents and some boiling mud pools, it is considered inactive. The crater lake was frozen on our visit, but nevertheless it was a nice walk around the crater and we had some excellent views over Krafla on your way round.

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From Viti we drove about 60KM west to the harbour town of Húsavík, which is Iceland’s whale watching capital. It’s a picturesque little town with colourful houses set in a scenic bay surrounded by snowcapped peaks. We came here to go whale watching but before we headed out into the bay we had a quick look in the towns Whale Museum, which told us all we needed to know (and more) about these gracious creatures. There are two companies that run whale watching tours from Húsavík and we did a bit of research to choose – the only difference we found was that ‘North Sailing’ gave you cinnamon buns so we opted for that!

Whales of various species enter the bay from June until October each year to feed in the plankton rich waters here. As it was just the start of the season there was no guarantee we would see any whales, but we were optimistic as tours on previous days had seen several Humpbacks, Minke, and even a mighty Blue Whale. As it was reasonably cold out on the water we all donned warm sea suits for the trip – I already had on several layers so was soon a little too hot!

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Once we were out of the bay we started seeing plenty of sea birds including Puffins, which inhabit the nearby island of Grimsey. As we cruised across the bay the captain announced that we had just crossed from Europe to America as the tectonic plates of each meet in the middle of the bay. We had been cruising for 45 mins or so when the first whale was sighted, a humpback 🙂

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Soon we were surrounded by whales, everywhere you looked, all rising up to the surface to breathe before going for a deep dive to the depths of the bay. We saw their heads as they came up and their tails as they dived down. There were also dolphins and porpoises swimming around the whales and sea birds stealing the leftovers. All this set against the back drop of the snow peaks of the bay it was very spectacular.

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It was a three hour tour but the time went really quick and before we knew it we had to turn around and head back to the harbour. The cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate on the way back deffo made it a good choice! Once back on dry land I couldn’t resist a hotdog from the hotdog stand on the harbour either. Then it was an hour or so drive back to Akureyi where we stayed on a picturesque farm about 10Km south of the city – a slightly random experience due to our hosts being a little odd, but the views were good!

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The nest day was all about the long drive, about 320km, south back towards Reykjavik – although this time it was all on the main highway so there wasn’t any gravel roads to slow us down. View the views it’s not dull driving in Iceland and we did break up the journey with a several stops. Firstly at the Turf Museum at Glaumbær, a quaint collection of traditional Icelandic Turf houses where we sampled some Icelandic pancakes (stuffed with cream) in a 19th century house/tearoom.

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About halfway through the journey we visited the Icelandic Seal Centre at Hvammstangi, which told us all about the conservation of the seals – the population has been severally reduced due to hunting. There were several stuffed seals in the centre but we wanted to see a real one so headed about 30km (gravel road) along the Vatnsnes Peninsula where we found several lazing around on some rocks in the bay ?

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On the way back to Hvammstangi we got a real treat as we spotted a Minke Whale in the bay. It was close enough for us to see it with the naked eye as it came up to breathe after some deep dives.

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Back on the main road it was a straightforward drive to the unassuming town of Borgarnes, which for us was a convenient overnight stopover north of Reykjavik. It’s a pleasant enough place set on a little peninsular off the main highway, and we stayed in a cosy apartment in the town cenre. The city is home to the Icelandic Settlement Centre, which offers an interesting insight into the history of Iceland dating back to the time when the Vikings first settled here. The centre also has a lovely traditional Icelandic restaurant where ate a fantastic meal – I went for Icelandic fish stew, which I was surprised to find had a coconut curry sauce.

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On our last day in Iceland we drove back to Reykjavik, about an hour, along the highway – noticing how it got a lot busier as we got closer, we had been so used to being in remote places even quiet Reykjavik felt busy! In Reyjavik we had a quick stop at the Perlan, which is a complex built around two huge hot water tanks – quite touristy but the views over the city make it worth a visit.

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We were going to try out a new café, but having enjoyed the Sandholt bakery so much the last time we decided we would go back – and made the most of it, the coffee and pastries here are amazing!

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We also did a bit of souvenir shopping and had a look in the city’s cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja, built from concrete to resemble basalt lava flows it’s one of the most standout buildings in the city. Inside it is a warm and bright atmosphere, which compared too many cathedrals I found appealing.

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After a little walk along the harbour, including a quick look in the quirky concert hall, we headed 50km south of the city where we visited Iceland’s top tourist attraction (saved the best till last) – the Blue Lagoon. It’s expensive (40 euros) and touristy, but it’s a special place set in a black lava field it’s a milky blue natural spa. The difference between this one and the one at Mývatn is that the Blue Lagoon is fed by sea water – mineral and silica rich and superheated. As the price suggests, it’s a bit poncy, there’s a bar in the pool for example but nevertheless it was the same relaxing experience and our skin felt soft and silky afterwards and I would recommend you to visit it.

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We stayed in a B&B close to the airport in the town of Keflavik and spent the last evening driving along to the tip of Reykjanes peninsular, which was a nice lookout spot with a surprisingly (all the other beaches we had seen were black volcanic sand) white sand beach.

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I was worrying as the car was nearly out of fuel as we were told to leave the rental car as empty as possible, but made it back to the SADCars depot just before midnight (handy they allow you to return the vehicle so late). After a quick night’s sleep, as we were up early for our flight home, we sadly found ourselves leaving Iceland. It was a fantastic trip that we all thoroughly enjoyed – a stunningly beautiful country with desolate landscapes, abundant wildlife, friendly people, and lovely coffee, pasties, and hotdogs!

I will go back!

I have posted all of the photos from our trip here.

Iceland 2013 – Arrival, The Golden Circle, & the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular

Iceland has long been on my wish list of places to visit and finally got the chance, together with my Mum and Sister (Katie), to visit for 10 days in May 2013.  Although rather than ticking it off the list the experience has left me wanting to return for more!

We arrived in Iceland on May 24th at the Keflavík international airport on a 2.5 hour flight from the UK with EasyJet.  From the airport it was very easy to take the FlyBus the 50km to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.  The took us along the Reykjanes peninsular, which has quite a barren landscape with pitted lava fields as far as the eye can see.  After checking into our basic but excellent value guesthouse near the city centre we had a walk through Reykjavik, which was quite lively as it was a Friday night.  Two thirds of Iceland’s population (circa. 300k) live in the capital, so this is unsurprisingly the busiest place in the country.  However, the world’s most northerly capital is a quaint place, set against a backdrop of snowy mountains it has colourful buildings and giving it something between a seaside town and a big city vibe.

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Getting around Iceland is tricky without your own vehicle, so the following day we picked up a hire car from the ominously named, but recommended, SADCar Rentals.  Car hire is very expensive in Iceland but SADCars offer older cars to their customers for reasonable prices – we had a slightly battered Toyota Carolla that gave us no problems.

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Despite having lived in Germany for a while this was my first time driving on the right, something that I was a little nervous about.  However, as Iceland’s roads and very quiet, with only Reykjavik having any sort of ‘traffic’, I found I soon picked it up and felt comfortable.  On our first full day in Iceland we drove around ‘The Golden Circle’, which is a popular tourist route looping around 300km from Reykjavik into the central highlands and back – taking in three of Iceland’s main sights along the way.

The first stop, only 30km from Reykjavik is Þingvellir, a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance.  The site marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.  There are some good views, where the fault lines can clearly be seen, at the lookout point at the visitor centre on the shore of the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn.  It’s a special place and must have been for Iceland’s ancestors too, as they founded the world’s oldest Parliament (Alþingi) here in AD 930.  Though the site is no longer used for such purposes Þingvellir continues to play a central role in the history of the country today.  We had a little walk and came across a wooden house on the shores of the lake, which I later learned was the Prime Minister’s summer residence – I had just walked up to it and had a nose through the window!

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Next stop was at the site of Geysir, which is a Geyser that has given its name (derived from the Icelandic verb geysa, “to gush”), to all others in the world as it was the first one known to modern Europeans.  It has been know to erupt up to 70 meters in the air, but sadly this has been infrequent since rocks were put into the blow hole in the 1950’s by some tourists looking to trigger an eruption.  Thankfully there is a geyser nearby, Strokkur, that erupts every 5 mins or so up to 15-20m high.  As you can imagine it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but the reliable Strokkur makes for impressive viewing.

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The final stop on the Golden Circle was probably my favourite, the three-step waterfall ‘Gullfoss’ on the Hvítá river.  It is simple massive, with powerful flows of water pounding over it into a crevice below – on first approach it looks like it the water vanishes in into the depths of the earth!  There are easy walking trails that take you above and alongside the waterfall, although be careful of the spray blown up – we got absolutely soaked.  Nevertheless, it was an awe-inspiring view.

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Traditionally people have visited Gullfoss for a coffee as there has been a café here since the 1920’s.  We’d had a coffee earlier though, and being hungry opted for some hearty Lamb Stew to warm us up after getting cold in the chilly winds outside.

On our second day we leisurely drove about 170km north west from Reykjavik to the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular, which is crowned by the  glistening ice cap of the Snæfellsjökull.  We
didn’t leave Reykjavik though until we had fully enjoyed its lovely café culture and some delicious Danish pastries at the fantastic Bakarí Sandholt. Soon after leaving the city we went through a 6km tunnel under Hvalfjörður (“Whale fjord”), which went under a mountain and an estuary – for a while it felt like we were descending into the depths of the earth, a fantastic feat of engineering!  Once on the other side of the tunnel the scenery changed to big volcanic peaks, with long fields of lava flows, we stopped regularly to take it all in.

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We drove right around the peninsular and did a walk from the lighthouse at Malariff to some interesting lava formations.  Mum, as always, had her a binoculars out and spotted what we think was an Orca (Killer Whale) in the bay – we only saw the thin long fin but it certainly looked like an Orca to us.  Pretty cool to see 🙂

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On the peninsular we encountered our first gravel roads (Iceland has many!) and one is particular was a mountain pass with stunning views, gushing waterfalls, and dramatic bends.  We stayed at the little fishing community of Grundarfjörður in an apartment ran by the local hostel, right on the idyllic bay surrounded by sugar-loaf peaks.  The sun didn’t really go down during our stay in Iceland, but we did have some nice sunsets whilst in Grundarfjörður.   NB:  There’s a really cool hotdog van in Grundarfjörður that is very worth trying!

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It was pretty cold with some very strong icy winds whilst we were on the peninsula, but nevertheless we did several walks around it.  Including ascending the 73m holy peak of Helgafell, which, as legend has it, grants three wishes to those who reach the top.  The walk to the top starts at a small quaint church and in order for your wish to come true you must start at the grave of an ancient local heroine in its graveyard, then walk up to the top without muttering a single word or looking back along the way, at the chapel ruins at the top you must turn east while wishing and make your request with a pure heart.  This we all did, despite the strong wind making virtually impossible to stand up (the chapel made a good shelter, and the views were very impressive.

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To escape the relentless cold winds we also visited the harbour town of Stykkishólmur for a warming cup of coffee and a look round the Volcano museum (Eldfjallasafn), which offered some interesting info on Iceland’s volcanic eruptions – including the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.    Down the road at Bjarnarhöfn, with a taste for adventure (literally), we visited the region’s leading producer of Hákarl (putrid Greenland shark meat, aka. rotting shark meat) – a traditional Icelandic dish.  There’s a small museum where the friendly owner showed us the process of catching the sharks and fermenting the meat – basically hanging it in the wind to dry for four to five months.  We saw a recently caught (dead) shark, and the drying house at the back, and of course had a little nibble on the delicacy(?) – rubbery and fishy – washed down with some Rye bread.  An interesting experience.

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We stayed on the windswept peninsular for two nights before heading north on the windy gravel road along its northern shore.  I’ll cover the second half of our trip in Iceland in another post, but in the meantime you can view photos of our trip here.