Summer Trip to Iceland: Not Just Nature in the North

Due to Reykjavík’s location in the southern part of Iceland, most of the popular tourist destinations in the country are the waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanic features in that part of the country. So, as we continued our counter-clockwise loop around Iceland into the north, the crowds of tourists were smaller, and we were still able to find more stunning scenery while finding out a little more about the culture of Iceland itself.

Goðafoss

Our first stop after leaving Mývatn was another beautiful, glacier-fed waterfall. Goðafoss, meaning “waterfall of the gods,” is named so because after Iceland’s official religion was changed to Christianity at the Alþingi in the year 1000, the lawspeaker threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall.

You can park on either side of the waterfall; we chose the east side. Goðafoss is very pretty, with crystal blue water, but the gnats here were very persistent so we didn’t linger very long. There is a smaller series of waterfalls just downstream that are also worth taking a look at.

 

 

Akureyri

The Ring Road then passes through the city of Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest urban area. We parked our campervan for free near the fancy Hof Cultural and Conference Center. We wandered through the small and cute main part of the central business district, and climbed the stairs to Akureyrarkirkja, the main Lutheran church in town. We found a relatively cheap burger place called DJ Grill and got some tasty burgers for lunch before hitting the road again.

 

 

Tröllaskagi Peninsula / Herring Era Museum

We next took a detour off of the Ring Road to drive the edge of the Tröllaskagi (“Troll”) Peninsula, a mountainous finger of land jutting out into the ocean with fjords on either side. Unfortunately, the gloomy weather didn’t let the area show off its best side, but we did enjoy the views we could see. We also experienced a few one-lane tunnels, which were pretty nerve-wracking to go through! They weren’t controlled by lights at all; instead, traffic both ways used the same lane with pullouts every few hundred meters to help solve the issue of two cars meeting head on. Nerve-wracking to say the least!

 

We stopped along the way in the town of Siglufjörður to visit the Herring Era Museum. In the first half of the 20th century, herring was a huge part of Iceland’s economy. Siglufjörður itself, located on a fjord near some of the best catching grounds, became a boomtown, with thousands of laborers flocking to the town and working in the catching or processing of herring. However, in the 1950s, the herring numbers precipitously declined, and by 1969 they were gone, and Siglufjörður’s golden period ended. Three of the old buildings from the herring era have now been converted into an immersive museum allowing you to get a feel for what that time in Iceland and Siglufjörður was like.

The first building, an old salting station, has exhibits on the history of the herring trade, and then on the upper levels has recreated the dormitories where the “herring girls,” the seasonal workers who came to the town to work in the summer, and the herring fishermen were housed. The second building, an old herring factory, has exhibits and old machinery demonstrating how herring was converted into both meal and oil. The third building contains old boats used for herring fishing set up on recreated piers.

Our visit happened to coincide with a local arts festival, with different members of the community showing off their talents. The boat building had musical acts, including a man playing an accordion, which definitely helped transport us back to the heyday of Siglufjörður and the herring industry.

 

Camping in Varmahlíð

After finishing our scenic detour along the Tröllaskagi peninsula, we rejoined the Ring Road and then stopped for the night in the town of Varmahlíð. Our original plan was to camp in the town’s main campground, but it was packed with Icelandic families and we wouldn’t have been able to get a spot close to the WC. Instead, we headed back to a place we had seen on our way into town that looked more like a private residence but did have a camping sign.

The sign gave its name as Lauftún. There was a large grass field that we just pulled into and picked a spot, then went up and rang the doorbell at the house. An older woman took our camping fee, which was by far the cheapest we paid all trip. It appeared to be a working farm, and Della had fun playing with the horses in the pen nearby. We later discovered a large room with seating and cooking areas that was being used by a local hiking club for their annual party. There was a small bathroom and a hot shower.

 

Glaumbær Turf Farmhouse

We had both been reading the book “Burial Rites” which is set on an Icelandic farm in the 1830s and describes the traditional Icelandic farmhouse made out of turf, so we were excited to get the opportunity to see an example of one in person. Glaumbær is just up the road from Varmahlíð so we made it our first stop the next day.

A farm has stood on the spot since Iceland’s “Age of Settlements” around 900 AD, and the turf farmhouse that you can tour was built in 1876. We used the self-guided tour brochure to explore the different rooms of the house. The walls are indeed made of thick pieces of turf, and the house has very few windows. The rooms are independent units accessible off of a single hallway, so they do not feel very well connected. One of the rooms we were most interested to see was the baðstofa, which served as the main sleeping and living quarters for all of the residents. It would have been very cozy confines during those long winters!

 

Kolugljúfur Gorge / Kolufossar Waterfall

We took a short detour off of the Ring Road to visit a small gorge with a pretty series of waterfalls. We took a short series of trails in either direction from the small parking area to get good views of the series of cascades. Note that there are no services here.

 

We enjoyed our brief time in northern Iceland, seeing more beautiful sights and getting to learn a little more about Iceland’s history and culture. Next, we would again detour from the Ring Road and drive the circuit of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

 

 

Summer Trip to Iceland: Magnificent Mývatn

The Mývatn region in the northern part of Iceland surrounding a lake (the eponymous Lake Mývatn) contains a large number of interesting geologic features related to the still-active volcanoes in the region. Since there were so many things to do there, we decided to spend a whole day exploring the region.

Dettifoss

Our first activity in the general area is not technically part of the Mývatn region. We approached the Mývatn region at the end of a long travel day that started in the southeastern part of Iceland, taking a slight detour towards the end of our long driving day to visit Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

We took the fairly new well-paved road to a parking lot on the west side of the falls. From there it was about a kilometer down a surprisingly barren path to see the Dettifoss. The water for the falls comes from the Vatnajökull glacier, the same one we had been exploring the day before. At the falls, there is both an overlook and a closer viewpoint.

 

There was an optional trail to Selfoss, another waterfall, but we were feeling tired so only walked far enough to see it from a distance.

 

Dimmuborgir

After getting a good night’s sleep (see below), we were ready to see the sights around Lake Mývatn. We didn’t end up taking the most optimal path between sights, but with our campervan it meant that we didn’t end up wasting too much time.

Our first stop for the morning was the eerie lava fields of Dimmuborgir. We got there at 10 for a guided hike led by a park ranger. With her, we walked through the shorter loop, learning about the geology and flora of the area. We also saw the cave of the “Yule Lads”, 13 elf-like creatures (each with a different personality) that function like Santa Claus, bringing different gifts in the 13 days before Christmas.

 

After the guided walk, we did the larger loop on our own to see the Kirkjan (Church) lava tube formation. All in all, we spent about two hours in the park, but would have spent less if just on our own.

 

Note to future visitors: the bathrooms here require a fee. Also, the small gnats are quite annoying, and do not seem deterred by bug spray. Luckily, they do not bite.

Lunch Break at Vogafjós

While self-catering our meals helped us save money, it did tend to get a bit repetitive. And, we had a hard time feeling like we were getting enough good vegetables. So, we decided to splurge and eat out for lunch at Vogafjós restaurant. It is attached to the cowshed of a local farm! Eric got a lamb sandwich, and Della got a crepe with rice and mushrooms. Both came with a salad with house-made cheese. And of course we had to get the ice cream made from the cows on the other side of the walls; it came with two flavors: geysir bread and schnapps.

 

Grjótagjá Cave

Being fans of Game of Thrones, we had to check out Grjótagjá, the small cave in the area with a thermal spring inside, made famous as the location of an intimate moment between Jon Snow and Ygritte. The cave was smaller than we expected, but the water was very pretty, and we could feel the heat rising off of it. Unlike the characters on the show, regular visitors are asked not to get in the water. We also enjoyed exploring the rift that the cave is formed from, and tracing its path all the way down to the rift we saw in Dimmuborgir.

 

Námafjall Hverir geothermal area

Walking through this area of orange soil, screaming steam vents, and bubbling mud pots made us feel like we were walking around the surface of Mars! What doesn’t come across in the pictures is the strong smell of sulfur that permeates the area. We found the whole area very fascinating and enjoyed taking it all in.

 

 

Hverfjall Crater Hike

After initially thinking it might be too tough, we changed our minds and decided to hike up the Hverfjall Crater which dominates the views around Mývatn. It only took us about ten minutes to hike up to the rim. The skies cleared into a sunny day, so we took about an hour to walk the circumference of the rim and take in the views of the surrounding area.

 

Mývatn Nature Baths

As a literal hotbed of geothermal activity, Iceland is known among other things for a plethora of geothermal pools to bathe in. Some of the geothermal waters have been converted into full-scale facilities that are popular tourist attractions. The most famous is the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavík. The second most popular is probably the Mývatn Nature Baths. We visited these baths at the end of our long day exploring the Mývatn region.

Before entering the pool, we followed the local custom of taking a full shower first (in gender-specific bathrooms). We were a little concerned about whether Della could swim in the pool, since she was six weeks pregnant at the time. But, we had read that it was ok as long as the water temperature was at or below body temperature. A constantly updating chart in the visitor center showed that one end of the pool met this criteria, so we spent almost all of our time lounging in the water there. Eric did explore a little bit of the warmer parts as well. The mineral-rich water has a cloudy consistency and left a smooth sheen on our skin. It was a very relaxing way to end out day exploring Mývatn!

 

Camping

The main hub for the Mývatn region is the town of Reykjahlíð, which has a few camping options. We chose the Hlíð campground just outside of town because it was slightly less expensive and less crowded than the Bjarg campsite closer to town. We actually didn’t even take a spot, but instead just “camped” in the parking lot because that kept us close to the bathrooms for nighttime visits. The shared kitchen and dining facility is outdoors, but enclosed in plastic so it was pretty warm.

 

 

We definitely enjoyed the wide variety of activities in Mývatn, and are glad we dedicated a complete day just to the one region! But, after the unique experience of camping in the same place for two nights, the next day we would hit the Ring Road again and continue on to more natural wonders of Northern Iceland.

Summer Trip to Iceland: Grand Glaciers and Incredible Icebergs

After exploring the waterfalls and other scenic sights of southern Iceland, we continued east on the Ring Road. Over the next day, we would have multiple chances to see different pieces of the massive Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland.

As we drove along the Ring Road, we were able to get glimpses of the different “tongues” of the glacier spilling down over the mountains. As we neared one section of the glacier, the surrounding scenery was replaced by a flat plain with very little vegetation. This was the result of a jökulhlaup: a massive flood (filled with icebergs) caused by geothermal events rapidly melting a part of a glacier. The highway was broken up by many metal one-lane bridges that were quite scary to navigate (there are sections in the middle that are two vehicles wide to allow for waiting). This is because parts of the Ring Road had been washed away in a jökulhlaup in 1996. Compounding the stress of driving through this section was the fact that it started raining very hard!

 

 

Skaftafell National Park – Svartifoss Waterfall

We were able to make it through the pouring rain to main entrance of this national park situated at the foot of a tongue of Vatnajökull. We were trying to find the trailhead for one particular trail based on a point on our maps app, but could not actually get there so just went to the crowded visitor center instead. It’s a good thing we did, because that’s where the trail started anyway. It was still raining, so we took some time exploring the visitor center and watching a film about the area, and eating a quick lunch in the car. We then put on a bunch of layers and headed out on the hike to Svartifoss.

The hike was labeled as “easy” at the visitor center, and while it wasn’t rocky, it definitely included a steady and significant elevation gain. We got very sweaty under all of our layers, and it wasn’t even raining much anymore. The waterfall was not as big as the ones we had seen in the previous days, but its background of black basalt columns made for an unique setting.

 

Svínafellsjökull

Just past Skaftafell was a dirt road turnoff for a viewing area of Svínafellsjökull, another tongue of Vatnajökull. This was our first chance to get a close view at a glacier. Just past the parking area is a small trail along the wall of a canyon that contains the massive amount of ice. We sat for a while and tried to take in the sheer amount of ice spilling down from the peaks above into the bay below.

 

Fjallsárlón Glacial Lake

We continued on the Ring Road around the southeast corner of the island and starting heading north along the eastern coast. Our next stop was at Fjallsárlón, a glacial lake made where another tongue of Vatnajökull has formed a body of water and deposits icebergs. It is less well known and visited than the neighboring Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon (although still relatively crowded). We walked down to the shore of the lake and enjoyed the views of the icebergs on the water and Vatnajökull in the distance.

 

We stayed here for about 40 minutes. A note to interested visitors: there is no public toilet here.

Jökulsárlón

Just up the road was Jökulsárlón, the more famous (and crowded) glacial lake filled with icebergs with a small channel connecting out to the ocean. We enjoyed watching as a few big icebergs started slipping down the channel, only to be caught on a shallow part.

 

We followed the channel out the ocean and the black sand beach, where there were small remnants of icebergs that the ocean had pushed back onto shore.

 

To cap off our visit, we walked back out to the main lagoon and watched the big icebergs in the middle, observing their different subtle behaviors. As we were leaving, we noticed a cool effect: the tide had started to come in, so the flow of the channel was reversed, pushing icebergs back into the lagoon.

 

All told we spent over an hour here, and there were public toilets.

Camping in Höfn

We spent the night at the main campground in the coastal town of Höfn. Lonely Planet says the town’s name “is pronounced like an unexpected hiccup (just say ‘hup’ while inhaling)” – gee thanks, that really clears it up! The campground was fairly crowded but we were able to get a spot in one of the areas off to the side close to an ablutions. The main ablutions block with a kitchen area was a little far away, so we didn’t cook there, but we did wash dishes there, take hot showers (fee required), and spend time in the indoor heated area.

 

Driving along the Eastern Fjords

The next day was a long travel day, as there were not any sights that we were particularly interested in seeing along the eastern part of the country. However, the drive was scenic, weaving along the coastline and then in and out of the eastern fjords (with Eric taking his first turn driving the manual transmission campervan).

 

One unexpected highlight was a black pebble beach just off the road, part of Hvalnes Nature Reserve. It was nice and sunny out, which had warmed the smooth black pebbles to a toasty temperature. Della really enjoyed laying on these warm stones and soaking in the heat.

 

By the end of our long driving day, we had bid goodbye to the wonders of Vatnajökull and its associated tongues and lakes, and were back along the continental divide in the magical area of Mývatn, which will be the subject of our next post!

Summer Trip to Iceland: South Iceland’s Stunning Scenery

After touring the Golden Circle, we headed east on the Ring Road along the southern coast of Iceland. When we were making our list of sights to see in Iceland, this area definitely had the highest concentration. We were able to see all of the places we describe in this blog in just a day and a half!

Seljalandsfoss

This waterfall is just off of the Ring Road -in fact, you can see it as you are driving up! There is a path that goes behind the waterfall which we knew we wanted to take, so we made sure to put on our rain gear and snow pants to make ourselves as waterproof as possible. We spent about 30 minutes exploring.

Gljúfrabúi

Just north of Seljalandsfoss is another waterfall which appears hidden from a distance, as you can only see the top part of the falls with the rest obscured by a rock. You can get to the base of the waterfall by walking through a narrow canyon – we were able to do this by hopping from rock to rock. It was quite wet in there but very pretty. We also climbed a steep path on the rock that blocks the view of the falls to see it from that vantage point but were underwhelmed with what we could see from up there.

Camping at Gljúfrabúi

At Gljúfrabúi, there is a campsite right next to the falls. We decided to stop our travels for the day here and enjoy the view of both Gljúfrabúi and the nearby Seljalandsfoss. Again, the campground was mostly just an open field so we had our pick of spot. The campground has a main building that includes a shared kitchen which we used to cook our dinner and do our dishes in a warm environment. We hung out here throughout most of the evening enjoying the cozy environment and free Wi-Fi. There were hot showers at this campground, although you had to pay to use them.

Eyjafjallajökull

The next morning we packed up and continued east on the Ring Road. We paused briefly at a pulloff with views of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano which had a large enough eruption in 2010 that its ashcloud disrupted flights in and out of Europe.

Skógafoss

Our next stop was another massive waterfall, Skógafoss. We first enjoyed the view from the base of the falls, then climbed a path of approximately 420 steps to get a view of the top of the falls.

Sólheimasandur

In 1973, a US Navy plane crash landed on the black sand beach of Sólheimasandur. Everyone survived, but they left the wreckage of the plane on the beach. You used to be able to drive all the way out to the plane, but the local landowners decided to restrict access. Now, you have to park right off the Ring Road and walk 4 km to the crash. We were nervous that we would miss the parking for this unofficial site, but there was a large parking lot full of vehicles that was easy to spot. We spent about 2 hours total here, walking out, taking pictures, and then walking back.

Dyrhólaey

We then stopped at the Dyrhólaey peninsula, the formation we could see from Skógafoss. Our main interest here was watching the puffins that nest in the cliffs. We also enjoyed the views of the various sea arches ranging from small to massive. We chose not to drive to the top of the promontory where there was a lighthouse.

Reynisfjara

On the other side of the bay from Dyrhólaey is a beautiful black sand beach with mystical basalt column caves. We had a fun time sitting on the columns and imagining how they had been formed. We were happy that there was a bathroom here as there hadn’t been at the previous two stops.

Eldhraun

As we continued our drive along the Ring Road, we enjoyed the views of glaciers in the distance and purple flowers in the foreground. We then drove through the massive lava field of Eldhraun. The lava flows, which are the biggest lava flow in the world resulting from a volcanic eruption in the late 18th century) are now covered with thick, puffy, green moss. We felt like we were in a fairy tale! We first stopped at an official rest area where we could get somewhat close to the lava, and then at a more unofficial pull-off where there was a road through the fields. We were very careful to stay on existing paths/roads as the moss is fragile. These viewing areas weren’t on many maps, so if you are curious to visit, the official rest area is here and the unofficial area is here.

Fjaðrárgljúfur

Towards the end of the day we visited this canyon near the Eldhraun lava field, following the trail along the canyon rim. Our legs were pretty tired so we only went to the first few viewpoints. There was a bathroom here as well.

Camping in Kirkjubæjarklaustur

We spent the night in the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in its main camping area. This tongue twister of a name means “Church Farm Cloister” – the locals just call it Klaustur for short. The camping area was probably the most crowded of any camping area we stayed in. Many of the other campers seemed to be Icelandic families there with their children. We enjoyed our dinner outside, but then retreated to the shared kitchen and dining area for some warmth later in the evening.

Kirkjugólf

Within walking distance of the campground was Kirkjugólf, the “church floor”. Here, the hexagonal basalt columns like we saw at Reynisfjara have been smoothed down to ground level. It really does look like a tile-work floor at first glance!

 

Next, we continued on the Ring Road to the southeastern portion of Iceland, where our first glimpse of glaciers was to be had!

Memories of My Dad

My dad passed away on October 15 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. At his memorial service, I shared these memories of him. I put them here on this blog so that those who couldn’t be there could also learn about what a great dad he was. – Eric

In some ways it’s hard to know what to say about my dad. I’m supposed to be sharing my memories, but given his disease, the word “memory” takes on a different connotation. How can we talk about memories when his own memories were lost? And when his memories were lost, his family’s memories of him changed, as he himself did.

So today I don’t want to remember the way he was after the disease ravaged his mind, because that wasn’t him. I want to remember the dad that did a great job raising his two children and had a lot of fun along the way.

While I was reflecting on my memories, I came to the realization that my dad was a “cool dad.” On sitcoms, the standard trope is that kids are always embarrassed to be around their father, and cringe when he tries to hang out with them and their friends. But in my dad’s case, I don’t think that was true at all.

When I was in elementary school, he came in to give a career day presentation, talking about his profession as a commercial artist. I remember feeling very proud, because the other kids loved his presentation. He wasn’t talking about boring adult jobs – he was able to draw things for a living! And all of his pictures that he brought in to show were quite impressive both to the class and to me, with their precise lines and accurate renderings of real objects. It was also pretty cool to see his work out in the real world, whether it be in the newspaper or on the album cover of this little local bluegrass band named the Dixie Chicks.

Since he was self-employed, he was able to serve as a chaperone on many of my field trips. Rather than be annoyed that he was around, I was happy, because I thought it was fun to spend time with him, and I thought my classmates did too. His goofy sense of humor helped him fit right in. The most impressive example of this was when he came on a multi-day trip to Big Bend, driving a van full of rowdy teenage boys all the way out to West Texas. Those of you who have been to Big Bend know how far that is from here, so that was quite a feat!

My dad also helped lead the youth group at our church for many years, and here also his affable style was a great fit for the group. In our many Sunday night sessions, we became quite a bonded group, led by his caring and friendly style, with a lot of laughs mixed in. I also have very fond memories of the two of us driving back from those youth group meetings, listening to the “Beyond Bows and Arrows” radio show of Native American music which we both found fascinating.

On a hike with the youth group

We shared a lot of inside jokes as well. Every morning, we would both read the Mark Trail comic strip and then laugh at the unintentional irony of the adventures those characters got into. Also every morning, my dad would drive me to the bus stop for my bus into school. We would always listen to the Musers on the Ticket, and their fake characters and other hijinks would be a constant source of jokes between the two of us. My dad and I listened to the Ticket from basically its beginning as a station, and would go every year to the first night of Ticketstock to get the free t-shirt and see the hosts. I still listen to the Ticket today even in Denver, and get a smile on my face when I hear something that I know would have made my dad laugh.

Matching Ticketstock t-shirts

My dad wasn’t the cool dad just because he was funny – I was also in awe of his bike riding habit. As often as he could, he would go out riding with his friends, and pretty serious distances too. I was impressed if I could just make it around White Rock Lake, and he was able to do rides like a 100 mile ride in the summer heat of Wichita Falls, all without complaining about the difficulty!

He was also a brave dad – he beat prostate cancer when I was in college. I remember visiting him in the hospital, where he didn’t ever want to make a big deal out of it. And then, as he recovered, we spent the summer catching up on old seasons of The Sopranos together, back before binge-watching was a thing.

He was a natural at getting to know people around him. When he was self-employed, I would visit him at his office occasionally, and often on Fridays he and his officemate would go out to the hamburger restaurant Chips for lunch. Going to Chips with him felt like we were going to visit with his group of friends – he and the cashier called each other “Cookie” and would exchange the same coupon back and forth each visit. He got to know one of the cooks well enough to learn about his family back home – which had a nice benefit for me, because whenever I ordered a grilled cheese, it would come to me as a double decker because they knew I was Steve’s son.

When I would visit him at his last job at Central Market, again it was like he was friends with everyone in the store. When we walked with him through the store, he would be greeted warmly by people from every department. He even became friends with the Sudanese refugees who helped bring the carts in.

Dad made the chalkboard lettering and art

After he retired from Central Market in 2009, he came out to Colorado to join me and Della on a raft trip with her family. On this trip, the two of us shared a tent, and one night, after a few beers, he confided in me the fears about what was happening to him – “my brain is turning to mush” was how he put it. So when I think about his passing, I am not sad for him, because I know the fear and confusion I heard in his words that night has now gone for him. What I mourn for is that so many people will not have a chance to get to know the Steve that I knew growing up, including his grandchildren. So I hope all of those here who have those memories will help keep them alive.

My dad’s favorite movie was undoubtedly “Dances with Wolves.” When I was young, we would watch it together at least once a year. Even as his disease progressed, one of the best ways that caregivers could calm him down was to pop in the dvd of “Dances with Wolves” and play it on repeat. In the final scenes of the movie, the main character has to leave the tribe that he has come to know as his family due to circumstances outside of his control. As he leaves, a member of the tribe shouts from a hilltop at him “Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?” I think that my dad’s passing is kind of like this. Circumstances out of his control caused him to have to ride away from us sooner than he would have liked, and with a sense of sadness. As he rides away into the next life, I am shouting after him “Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?” And I think, now that his mind is once again clear, he knows and remembers that all of us were, and will always be, his friend.

Summer Trip to Iceland: The Golden Circle

After our two days in Reykjavík, we headed out on the main purpose of the trip: renting a campervan and driving the Ring Road around the country.

Our Go Campers Campervan

When we visited southern Africa, we decided that the best way to see and experience the area was to rent a 4×4 truck for a self-drive safari. We had read of many people doing the same thing in Iceland: renting a campervan to allow them to explore the beautiful countryside at their own pace.

After a lot of research and comparison, we decided to rent through Go Campers. We chose their smallest model, the Go SMART 2-person Camper. This vehicle would be both our transportation and accommodation for the next ten days!

Included in the Go Campers rental was pickup from the main bus station in Reykjavík, which was in walking distance from our accommodations. We were happy to see that our Dacia Dokker van was quite new, with only 5730 km (3560 miles) on the odometer and not much wear.

We paid a little extra to rent a cooler, table and chairs to add to the included kitchen and camping gear. We had brought our own sleeping bags so we didn’t have to rent those, but pillows, light blankets and a mattress were included.

IMG_0078

Making dinner the first night using the small pullout shelf. You can also see the chairs and cooler, as well as the storage boxes in the back of the van

The Golden Circle

After acquainting ourselves with our campervan, we headed to the most popular area of the country for visitors: the Golden Circle. This is not a geographic designation but rather just a way to describe the grouping of popular tourist sites near Reykjavik which are located roughly along a circle of highways.

Reykjadalur

Our first stop wasn’t actually one of the main Golden Circle sights but was in the same area. We drove through the town of Hveragerði to the trailhead for the hike to Reykjadalur, the “steaming valley”. We had thought this would not be too popular of a spot since not too much had been written about it, but the crowded parking lot was our first lesson that nothing in Iceland in the summer is unknown.

IMG_0060

The hike was a little tougher than we were expecting, about 3 km with 200 m elevation gain. We also were introduced to the gnats that would pester us throughout the trip (luckily not biting). The scenery was nice but not stunning – until we got to the final part with the large mud pots and steam vents. It felt like we were walking into another world as we walking through the sulfurous steam.

The final destination was a river that we could bathe in – hot water from the springs runs down into the cold water resulting in a very pleasant temperature. We searched for a spot that was not too hot and stayed in for a while, soaking away. We dried ourselves off using the small towels we had brought and then headed back down.

Overall we spent about 3.5 hours. There was a WC at the coffeeshop at the trailhead. We thought there was supposed to be one by the bathing area but could not find it.

Kerið

We spent about 30 minutes walking around the rim of this volcanic crater and then down to the lake in the middle of it. Unfortunately, it had gotten overcast, so the reds of the rock and blues of the lake did not contrast quite as nicely as we had hoped. This was also one of the few natural attractions that we visited in Iceland that charged admission.

Þingvellir National Park

Our first visit to one of the big 3 on the Golden Circle was the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This park is both of geographic and historic interest: it is located in the rift valley between the North American and European continental plates, and it was the site of the Alþingi, a yearly meeting of Icelandic clan chiefs which started in 930 AD (considered the world’s first Parliament). The site was used as a meeting place for Parliament up until 1800.

We walked around the park and saw the main attractions: Lögberg, the “law rock”, where the Lögsögumaður (Lawspeaker) would recite the laws each year (and where the decision was made to switch the national religion to Christianity in 1000 AD); the remains of búðir, meaning “booths”, the structures where the Alþingi attendees and their retinues would stay during the meetings; Þingvallakirkja, one of Iceland’s first churches; and Öxaráfoss waterfall.

Snorkeling in Silfra at Þingvellir

There are so many amazing outdoor adventures to do in Iceland, but we knew we couldn’t afford to do them all. Instead, we went with something we thought sounded pretty unique: snorkeling in glacial water in between the tectonic plates!

A company called Dive Iceland runs snorkeling and diving tours in the Silfra fissure which leads into the Þingvallavatn lake. This fissure is fed by glacial water, so the water is crystal clear… but ice cold! You may be wondering how we could snorkel in such water. Dive Iceland provides full dry suits for all of the guests to be able to stay in the near freezing water.

Since it was the summer, we were able to book a tour that left at 9 PM, and there was still a lot of light. We met up with our guide Tonya, the on shore assistant Elanora, and four other guests. We had worn a bunch of thermal layers as instructed, and they provided an additional thermal onesie. Getting squeezed into the dry suits was an adventure in itself, requiring assistance from one of the guides. Having tight neck and wrist seals was the most important part.

Diving into the cold water was a little scary, but the dry suits did a pretty good job. The gloves are “wet” gloves, so your hands did get cold after a while. And your mouth is exposed directly to the water as well. It was a bit weird to be snorkeling in fresh water after so many times in seawater.

The water was very clear, and almost blue tinted. Our snorkel tour took us through the rift in the direction that the spring water was moving, so we didn’t actual have to spend much energy kicking, as the current would move you along.

The first part of the fissure was narrow and deep, with big boulders at the bottom. Following this were a few shallow parts that we had to navigate over. We started to see interesting green kelp that looked like Silly String. The last large part is nicknamed “The Cathedral.”

We finished up by getting out of the current into a shallow lagoon. Here we could stay in as long as we wanted. Our hands had gotten pretty cold, so we didn’t linger. We did make sure and drink directly from the water – since it is straight from a glacier it is safe to drink.

Back at the meeting place, we squeezed back out of the dry suits and had some nice hot chocolate. Even then it took us a while to warm back up. We definitely enjoyed this unique experience!

Camping at Þingvellir

We didn’t finish snorkeling until late, so it was nice that there was a campground right there at Þingvellir. Earlier in the day we had paid to stay here, which was kind of a funny story. We had been assuming that there were assigned spots and were concerned to make sure to get one, but as it turns out all of the campgrounds in Iceland are basically just open fields. Once you pay for a night, you can just choose any spot in the field you feel like. We tried to pick one pretty close to the ablutions block, which had toilets, showers and utility sinks.

Setting up the campervan for sleeping was a pretty simple process. We simply moved our luggage up into the front seats and spread out our sleeping bags on the mattress in the back. We slept with our heads near the front seats and our feet near the back, with just enough room to be able to lie flat.

Geysir

The next morning we headed to one of the other big attractions on the Golden Circle, the geysers at Geysir (Geysir is where the English word geyser came from). There are multiple hot water spouts and bubbling mud pools in this area crowded with tourists. The eponymous spout Geysir erupts very infrequently currently. However, the geyser Strokkur is very reliable, erupting about every 4 minutes when we were there. We spent about 45 minutes exploring the area and watching the explosions of water. There is a large tourist center with food and restrooms here as well.

Gullfoss

The last major stop on the Golden Circle is the massive waterfall Gullfoss. It is actually composed of two tiers of massive drops. We first walked down on the lower part to get a close-up view, making sure to put on rain jackets to stay dry from all of the spray. We then headed to a nice viewpoint above the falls. We spent about an hour in total exploring here. There are bathrooms in the parking lot, but you have to pay (credit cards accepted, as everywhere else in Iceland).

Back to the Ring Road

Following Gullfoss, we headed back down on a few different highways to rejoin the Ring Road. We didn’t stop for any more attractions, other than to say hi to some Icelandic ponies.

Once back on the Ring Road, we headed east to explore the waterfalls and coastal formations of Southern Iceland.

Summer Trip to Iceland: Reykjavík

After our year-long trip around the world, we knew that we still wanted to travel, but we would have to limit our travels to the summer months when Della was on summer break. This meant that often we were travelling to places that were quite warm. Traveling in warm weather is not terrible, but it can lead to faster burn-out or general unpleasantness.

Therefore, in 2017, we decided to look for a location that would still be cool (but not too cold) in June or July. Ultimately, we decided on Iceland. Plus, we had read and heard so many great things about the beautiful countryside, so we figured we should hop on the bandwagon and check it out for ourselves.

DSCN1924

Preview of our time in Iceland, showing our typical cool weather dress. Also, you should be impressed by Della’s jump, since she was jumping FOR TWO!

Flights to Iceland are known for being affordable, especially if you can travel on off-peak times. Many low-cost carriers use it as a base to get to the European continent. However, summer is probably the peak season to travel to Iceland, so we didn’t see any great bargains. Instead, as in years past, we figured out how to use airline miles to get there. Using miles earned from signing up for the Delta Gold SkyMiles American Express, we were able to find a fare from Denver to Iceland’s main international airport, Keflavík (on the outskirts of Reykjavík), for $5.60 per person.

The journey consisted of two legs: first from Denver to JFK (New York), then an overnight flight from JFK to Keflavík. The flight from New York to Keflavík is less than six hours, so actually pretty short. The downside was that since it was so short, we didn’t really sleep very well.

We landed in Keflavík at around 7 AM, with our bodies thinking that is was just 1 AM. Our first task was to get from the airport into Reykjavík itself, since the airport is is over 30 miles away from town. There are no great budget options to get there. We booked with one of the private bus providers, Gray Line, and chose the option that would drop us off at a hotel (vs just the main bus terminal). We were a little confused when on the outskirts of the city we were shuffled off of the bus, but then we were just transferred to a smaller van to drive through the narrower streets of town.

Accommodations in Reykjavík are quite expensive. Even a room in a dorm is about $50 a person if you want to stay anywhere near the old town. We found an Airbnb in a good location close to town that was a better deal than that, so we decided to just book that. It turned out to feel more like a guesthouse – the place had nine different rooms, a couple of shared bathrooms, and two shared kitchens. The downside was that there was no reception desk, so we had the weird feeling of never really interacting with any sort of host. But, it was within walking distance of all of the attractions we wanted to see, and cheaper than many other places would have been.

Since we arrived so early, we couldn’t yet check in to the Airbnb. Fortunately, the host agreed to let us drop off our luggage in a storage area so we could at least go do something before our afternoon check-in. Then, it was time to explore Reykjavík. Here’s a soundtrack to get you in the mood to read about our two days there:

The Airbnb was located just down a hill from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest church in Iceland, and one of Reykjavík’s most famous landmarks: given its location on a hill overlooking the city, it can be seen from miles around. We sat in the pews and enjoyed the sound of the pipe organ, then paid to take the elevator up the observation deck to look out over the city.

We decided we had enough energy to go ahead and do something we did elsewhere around the world: take a free walking tour. We went with the highly-rated CityWalk tour. Our guide Eiríkur (Eric) led us through the main attractions of the small city center: the Parliament house, a square built over the graves of some of the original settlers, an old neighborhood with colorful houses (to brighten up the day in the dark and dreary winters), the (unguarded) office of the Prime Minister, and a hill overlooking the city. Certainly not as many architectural gems or spots of historical interest as the other places where we did these tours, but we did enjoy getting a feel for the city and the culture of the Icelanders.

While on the tour, we had seen a restaurant called Restaurant Reykjavík advertising a lunch buffet for $23/person. Given that other places had just a hamburger for $20, we felt like this was probably a good deal and headed there for lunch. We enjoyed getting to sample the different dishes, many of them seafood.

IMG_0034

Enjoying some soup as part of the buffet

Now that we had killed enough time, we returned to our Airbnb and were able to get into our room. We took a light nap, but not too long in hopes of avoiding jetlag.

We did emerge in the evening to get some dinner. We walked to the nearby Café Babalú, a quirky little place with a small food menu. We were happy to get some hot soups. Eric got the traditional Icelandic lamb soup (they love lamb in Iceland).

20170623_212332

Walking back from dinner, we got our first real experience of the Icelandic summer: it never really gets dark. Around 11 the sun would set, but it would only ever feel like dusk. The sun would rise again a few hours later, but we never stayed up to confirm this. Luckily, neither of us had issues sleeping even in the light. Using a face mask or even just covering your face with a blanket was good enough for us.

clone tag: -9158108531369934635

This picture was taken at about 10 PM. It never got much darker than this

The next day, we were a little tired, but still wanted to see more of Reykjavík. Since it was a Saturday, we made our first stop the weekly flea market. This was a great location to look for souvenirs based on the prices we would see later in the trip. We also  had a chance to try the local delicacy of fermented shark. One bite was enough! We had lunch at the cafe in the flea market. Eric got another local favorite: a hot dog. (They could be found all over, but this turned out to be the only time we sampled one ourselves).

We next stopped at the museum “Reykjavík 871±2” (“871 plus or minus 2) which is built around the ruins of a hall from from Iceland’s Settlement Age. The amusing name for the museum comes from the fact that historians can’t agree on an exact date for the oldest part of the ruins, so they just decided to include the margin of error in the name.

Iceland was populated starting in the ninth century by Norse settlers – also known as Vikings. Many left Norway due to banishment for crimes or conflict with the monarchy there. Also, much of the early population consisted of slaves from Ireland which was also under Viking rule at the time. There were no indigenous people on Iceland, so the settlers were free to set up their farms wherever they felt like. Due to the isolation, the Icelandic language is said to be closer to the Old Norse than any of the other current Scandinavian languages.

The main structure that the museum was built around was a traditional Viking hall/longhouse. Interactive exhibits described the best guesses for how the hall was used. Also on exhibit was the turf wall from 871±2. There were not too many large trees in Iceland even before the settlers came, so thick turf walls were the primary pieces of wall construction and insulation.

We also visited the National Museum of Iceland, which describes the history of Iceland from the Settlement Era up to the present day. Iceland has gone through a few different major periods: the Settlement Era when Vikings migrated from Norway, the early Christian era when the country converted (peacefully) from paganism to Christianity, a period of rule by the Norwegian kings, then a period of rule by the Danish, and then finally a moved toward independence that was finalized in 1944. The exhibits were numbered, which Eric appreciated in terms of keeping us on the right track.

We then took advantage of the sunny weather and walked through a park back to the main part of town. We walked into the iconic Harpa (concert hall) and marveled at its beautiful glass walls.

After another rest break back at the Airbnb, we headed out for a late dinner. Unfortunately, it seemed that the late light fooled us and we maybe waited too long, as we had a hard time finding a place still serving food! The first place we tried had just run out of food, then another had just closed its kitchen, and another was completely closed. We finally settled on a Thai restaurant, getting our standard noodle and curry dishes. It was good, but significantly more expensive than getting the food in Thailand!

IMG_0048

Overall, we think that two days was sufficient to get the highlights of Reykjavík. The sights aren’t mind-blowing, but it is a pleasant, walkable city center. If you can get past the sticker shock of all of the prices, you can definitely have a good time!