The second half of our Iceland vacation focused on Akureyri, Siglufjordur, Vatnsnes Peninsula, West Fjords, Isafjordur, Latrabjarg cliffs, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Golden Circle, Kerlingarfjoll, Reykjadalur Hotsprings, Blue Lagoon and Reykavik. Kerlinarfjoll ended up being our favorite destination in Iceland – spectacularly beautiful and well worth the rough ride out there. Iceland is truly a special place on earth and we are sure to be back!
13 July, Sunday: The sun was shining when we awoke, and we hoped the weather would remain pleasant as we drove out to Godafoss (aka “the waterfall of the gods”). This waterfall is famous for being part of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity in AD 1000 when the Althing debated the issue. A lawmaker named Thorgeir decided that Iceland should adopt Christianity, but that pagan worshipers could do so in private. Legend has it that after Thorgeir’s conversion, he returned home to throw all of his statues of Norse gods into Godafoss…hence the nickname “God Falls”. Even though we got here fairly early, the parking lot was packed. Busloads of tourists kept arriving, and we found it quite difficult to escape the crowds. After initially viewing Godafoss from the west bank, we decided to head over to the east bank which was better…less crowded and a nice view of the entire waterfall. A guesthouse on the east bank had opened up its restrooms up to the public, so we decided to cook an early lunch of ramen and tuna here so that we could wash up afterwards.
Next on our agenda was a visit to the Laufas turf houses, easy to get to as it is north of Rt 1 on Rt 83. The turf-roofed farmhouse of Laufas is a fine example of a gabled farmhouse, and the oldest sections of timber date from the 16th and 17th Century. Nearby, the Laufas church was built in 1865 (with a pulpit from circa 1698). The museum charges an entrance fee to view the inside of the farmhouse, but we thought that the exterior actually was more interesting (plus we could peek through the windows to check out the artifacts on display). From Laufas, it was a 40 minute drive to Akureyri, which we were quite excited to visit as its Iceland’s largest city in the north. Our guidebooks had forewarned us that Akureyri has some of the strictest disc parking rules and all vehicles have to display a cardboard dial clock tag (available at the tourist information office, gas stations, guesthouses). When parking your car in a designated parking zone, the clock must clearly indicate what time you parked. The parking zones appear to be free (as there are no nearby meters) but they are actually limited by 15/30/60/120 minute increments. As long as you don’t exceed the authorized parking time, you are good to go. Failure to comply with the parking time limits or failure to display a parking disc will automatically result in a fine ranging from ISK 500 – 2000 or US$100, depending on which guidebook you believe. We heard the Akureyri parking patrol takes their jobs seriously and decided not to chance it so our very first stop was to the Hof, Akureyri’s tourist information office. Here, we found out that because today is Sunday, parking is free! Everywhere…all throughout town. No possibility of getting a fine. That was great news.
We asked about some of Akureyri’s highlights and one of the first things the volunteer mentioned was that Akureyri has not one, but two Bonus Supermarkets! We laughed but made a mental note to stop by there as we needed to restock our supplies and the supermarkets would be closing earlier than normal because today was Sunday. Other highlights suggested included a stroll down Hafnarstraeti Street up to Akureyri Church, from there walk down Eyrarlandsvogur Street to check out some of the quaintest houses in town. Then, we were to head over to the Artic Botanical Gardens before looping back into town. Sounded like a plan to us and we enjoyed a nice, leisurely stroll through pretty Akureyri. Hafnarstraeti is a colorful street and seems to be where most of the action is. Bars, backpacker joints, storefronts, restaurants…it’s the most happening place in the capital of the north. Robby even ran into a couple of Akureyri trolls while strolling the streets here. Meanwhile, a drunk looking polar bear put Becky in a bear hug. The botanical garden was better than expected as a riot of colorful flowers was in bloom everywhere. A massive line had gathered outside the city’s most popular ice-cream parlor (Brynja), but we weren’t keen to wait forever for our own cones so we decided to head over to the Bonus supermarket where we ended up getting a whole one-liter tub of ice-cream. To our amazement, ice cream is quite affordable in Iceland! We couldn’t believe it…a whole tub for under $5. Bargain. Even though we originally meant to stay overnight in Akureyri, we felt like we had seen most of the highlights and it was time to move on.
With some time to kill, we added an extra detour of a trip down south to check out Grund Church (built in 1905), supposedly one of Iceland’s prettiest with its unique Onion shaped dome. Enroute, we passed by the perennial Christmas House, located just outside Akureyri. Here, you can celebrate Christmas 365 days a year. Santa’s house looks like a hybrid of a gingerbread house and an Icelandic fisherman’s house, and it is a very popular stop on the tourist trail. We did the obligatory stop and browse but didn’t find anything to catch our eye. Grundarkirkja (Grund Church) was definitely worth a brief visit though. From Grund Church it was decision time. Do we overnight in Akureyri or make our way further north up to Siglufjordur? Since the day was still young, we decided to head further north, passing by Akureyri and taking Rt 82 towards Dalvik. We had briefly considered the thrice weekly ferry from Dalvik to Grimsey, an island on the Arctic Circle, but had eventually crossed it off our “to do” list.
From Dalvik, we drove on to Olafsfjordur where we took a tunnel linking Olafsfjordur to Siglufjordur. The tunnel, completed on 2 October 2010, has greatly opened up travel to isolated Siglufjordur. The town’s claim to fame was the herring industry (which was booming in the 1940s and 1950s). However, it has since died out with the disappearance of herring. Even though it was overcast when we arrived, we could still make out the charm of scenic Siglufjordur. The campsite was located smack dab in the center of town, near the main square and town harbor. It was a bit surreal pitching our tent right next to the main road a main walking path in the center of town. It almost felt like everything we did would be on display for all to see but it also felt quite welcoming. Where else in the world would you be encouraged to erect a tent in the center of a village (and feel completely safe and protected)? Facilities here were good with hot water showers, numerous toilets, a sink area with hot and cold water and a washer/dryer. Everything a camper could ask for. The town’s main attraction, the Herring Museum, was closed well before our arrival, but it was still interesting to check it out from the outside. After cooking up our dinner, we strolled around the sleepy town before calling it a night ourselves.
14 July, Monday: As we were finishing up breakfast, a campsite representative actually approached us for payment for the night’s camping. Caretakers are few and far between so we were a bit surprised that someone was walking around collecting money. Thankfully, our camping card came to the rescue and we just had to cough up an extra ISK 100 for the lodging tax fee. Before departing Siglufjordur, we stopped by the gas station to fill up and took some photos of old boats down by the harbor. Then it was a short drive towards Hosfos, our first stop of the day. Enroute, we got an opportunity to play with some Icelandic horses. At first, they were a bit standoffish but after making several offerings of freshly pulled grass, they started approaching us in curiosity. A couple of them really enjoyed getting stroked and scratched and patiently allowed us to pat them down. There were several young foals roaming about, but most of them stuck to their mother’s side.
Hofsos (population 200) is a tiny village on the eastern coastline of Skagafjörður. We headed towards its miniscule harbor, where the Icelandic Emigration Center (Vesturfarasetrið) is strategically located in several buildings right next to the waterfront. Here, visitors from Americas and Canada that are of Icelandic descent can trace their roots and genealogy. The town’s real claim to fame is its amazing infinity pool, and everyone has an opportunity to swim in one of the country’s most beautifully located outdoor pools. We learned that the Hofsos pool was designed by the same architect who brought the Blue Lagoon to life. The sun was out and we decided to have a picnic lunch in pretty Hofsos before heading towards our next destination, the turf-roofed Grafarkirkja (located on the left hand side of Rt 76 in the middle of a field between Hofsos to Holar). Next stop was Holar, site of the oldest church in Iceland. Built in 1763, Hólakirkja is red in color and was built from stone taken from the nearby Hólabyrða Mountain, which looms above Holar in the background. Entrance to the church is free, and there are quite a few treasures within the church to take note of, such as the carved altarpiece (circa 1520). Adjacent to the church is the free standing 27 meter high church tower which visitors can also check out for free. Lastly, just behind the church on a small hill is the quaint 1854 Nýibær turf house, which is open to all visitors (also free). Apparently, the turf-house was lived in until 1945. If you look closely, you can see a distinct zigzag pattern created with the turf wedges to build the walls. Holar was definitely a worthwhile stop, and we were glad we took the detour on Rt 767 to get here.
From Holar, we drove onward to Saudarkrokur, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of the fish-drying racks. We eventually discovered them down by the harbor but the racks were empty…guess it wasn’t fish-drying season just now. Glaumbaer turf-roofed houses were our next stop…boy, we sure getting a chance to see a bunch of turf-roof houses today! This popular spot had a steady flow of visitors, and the parking lot was full of tour buses. We left Glaumbaer in search of the Vidimyri Church. For the first time since our trip kicked off, our Iceland map let us down. The church was incorrectly labeled as being on Rt 751 so we drove fruitlessly for about 20 minutes before backtracking and discovering that the church is actually located just off Rt 1. Reminiscent of a hobbit’s house, we were put off by the hefty entrance fee, so we decided to just enjoy looking at it from the outside. Next up was another church, Pingeyrar. Unlike the other churches we had been seeing, this one is built entirely out of stone and its claim to fame is its gold star studded blue ceiling. To get to Pingeyrar, we had to leave Rt 1 and drive north on the bumpy Rt 721. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, Pingeyrar was locked up so we could only admire it from the outside.
As we were still making good time, we decided to tackle the scenic route 711 drive on Vatnsnes Peninsula. Listed in Lonely Planet as one of Iceland’s highlights, we had high expectations. The road was quite rough…full of potholes and very bumpy. Worried about the gravel doing some serious damage to our car, we drove slowly and eventually made it to our first stop on the peninsula, Osar. Here, we pulled into the parking lot of the hostel and dug out our tripods and long lenses. We were hoping to spot some seals! There are two types of seals that hang out in Osar, harbor and gray seals. It was a short downhill walk from the hostel towards the beach and when we arrived, we could see dozens of fat, lounging seals sunning themselves on the beach across the river about 50-75 meters away. The seals seemed to be quite leery of people. Every loud noise or unfamiliar sound elicited a worried scan of the horizon from the entire seal colony. The seals definitely kept their distance from our shore line. Still, it was pretty cool to see so many of them. These seals are lucky to be in Iceland where they are a protected species and can thrive.
From Osar, we stopped by to see Hvíserkur, which is a 15 m high monolith standing just offshore. So many birds call this monolith home that parts of the rock appear to be white from all their excrement! After leaving Hvíserkur, we rounded the Vatnsnes Peninsula and started to head towards Skagastrond. Why Lonely Planet claims route 711 to be one of Iceland’s most “scenic drives” is beyond us. Yes, it was pretty but all of Iceland is gorgeous. We didn’t really find the special charm of this portion of our trip. A fish rack by the oceanfront in the distance caught our attention and we drove up for a closer look. There were lots of different types of fish and sting rays drying on the rack. We couldn’t tell if this was a tourist gimmick or the real deal…the fish had obviously been drying on the rack for a while. After reaching Skagastrond, we finally got onto a decent paved road where we found our campsite for the night, Hvammstangi. This excellent campground had great facilities…free hot water showers, a kitchen with stove, free Wi-Fi, and a washing machine. The nearby ground had deep tire track damage from the soft soil and recent rain…it was obvious that campervans were getting stuck. Thank goodness our Jimny had no problems tackling the soft soil. After setting up our tent close to bathroom/kitchen area, we headed over to cook dinner. The kitchen area had lots of tables and chairs to accommodate folks having a meal as well as campers taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi.
15 July, Tuesday: While having breakfast in the kitchen, we decided to take advantage of the power outlets to charge our gear while downloading (and backing up) our photos. A French tourist saw that we both had Nikon cameras and begged us to use our charger so he could recharge his dead battery. Unlucky for him, his charger died so he was at our mercy. We didn’t intend to hang out in Hvammstangi campsite for long, but figured that we could allow him to charge as we did a complete backup of our photos. Afterwards, we backtracked to a nearby seal sanctuary, hoping to get lucky and spot some more seals. While there were some seals basking in the sun, they were on rocks about 40 – 50 meters away so it was quite difficult to get a decent photo of them. By lunchtime, we were ready to head over towards Isafjordur.
Our road trip took us through Holmavik, home to the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft. Neither one of us was keen on stopping by here, so we kept going. It was a scenic drive through the winding roads of the West Fjords and we were making good time. In Sudavik, we had to stop at the arctic fox center which was closing for the night. However, Freddy (an orphaned fox) was in a pin just outside, and he was so excited to have company. To our surprise, Freddy was delightfully playful, obviously habituated to humans already. A nearby sign stated that Freddy would be released to the wild in a few weeks and we wondered if he would seek out human companionship after his experience at the fox center? Freddy really enjoyed chasing us from one side of his pen to the other, and constantly hopped up on the fence trying to get a bit closer to us. He was smart enough to be gentle when playfully gnawing on our fingers, and we fell in love on the spot. Whenever we would turn to walk away, his whole demeanor would change, and he seemed to be put out that we were leaving him. It was hard to tear ourselves away but we still had to get to Isafjordur, our final destination for the day.
From Sudavik, it was a short drive to Tungudalur, which was our campsite for the night. Located about 4 KM away from Isafjordur, we were quite impressed with this place. First of all, it was situated right next to a waterfall. Second, there actually was a proper reception area that was being staffed. The reception also handily doubled as a small convenience store so that campers could stock up on snacks or supplies without having to make a run into town. The facilities appeared to be very well maintained, with clean toilets, private showers (free), laundry, lots of sink space, and a welcoming kitchen area (with stove, water boiler and microwave). We found a nice spot to set up our tent before checking in, and were given stickers to place on our dashboard and tent. Good thing we did check in as the staff later did their rounds throughout the campsite, trying to find those who might have snuck into the campsite for free. Since it was getting late, we cooked up a hot meal and managed to take a hot shower before crashing into our sleeping bags. Even though today was a lot of driving and not many activities outside the car, we were both wiped out.
16 July, Wednesday: After breakfast, we drove into town and went directly to the Bonus Supermarket. Amazingly, the supermarket doesn’t open on weekdays until 11 am! So we figured we’d just hit town first and do a bit of sightseeing before swinging back around to do our shopping later in the day. Our first stop was to park at the tourist information office where we saw to our chagrin that a cruise ship had pulled into town. Hundreds of passengers had dismounted into sleepy Isafjordur and many of them were making a beeline to the tourist information office. We didn’t want to stand in line to ask about the town’s highlights, so we just popped in to grab a map and popped right back out again. Immediately outside the tourist information office, we overheard some of the passengers getting details about horseback riding (which would set them back a pricey ISK 10000 for a 2 hour tour). Armed with our map, we headed over to the Maritime museum. Housed in one of Isafjordur’s oldest buildings (circa 18th Century), the museum is focused on maritime history. No big surprise there as Isafjordur was established and based on the fishing industry. Massive fishing nets were laid out just behind the museum, and dried, salted fish packets were for sale. From the museum, we walked towards the new harbor and onward to the tiny town square. Isafjordur’s houses were an unexpected delight, complete with picket fences and placards boasting the age of the home. Since the Bonus Supermarket was now open, we swung by to grab a few more groceries and snacks before driving off to our next destination, the Osvor Museum in Bolungarvik.
We had to drive through a short tunnel to get to Bolungarvik where a signpost led us on the east side of the bay to the museum. This open air, turf house museum contains a replica 19th Century salt shed, fish drying hut, and fishing boat that the fishermen used in yesteryear. An elderly man dressed in the “traditional protective clothing made of skin”, served as a guide. We balked upon seeing the entrance fee. The view from the road was quite fine, so we drove up to the nearby lighthouse and managed to take a photo from afar. There were some modern day fish drying shacks on the road between Bolungarvik to Isafjordur, so we stopped by to take a closer look. Apparently, insects aren’t a problem as huge slabs of fish are hung up and left to dry in the open. After backtracking to Isafjordur, we headed over to the fishing village of Sudureyri through the Y-shaped Vestfirdir tunnel system. This system was pretty interesting because in certain sections, the tunnel was reduced to just one lane, and there were pull-off sections to allow right of way traffic to bypass. The unique Y-intersection in the middle of the tunnel allows the towns of Sudureyri, Isafjordur and Flateyri to be linked together with just one tunnel system…fascinating!
Sudureyri is reputed to be the quintessential fishing village in Iceland, and the locals have set up tours to allow tourists the ability to “experience traditional Icelandic life firsthand by going out on original fishing boats or visiting the fish factory in town”. We arrived in time to have lunch by the harbor and watch as a fishing vessel unloaded its massive haul of fish. We asked the captain how long he was out to sea for (24 hours) and how the fish were caught (long-line). The village is known for using the traditional long-line fishing method instead of the more modern net method. The sheer amount of fish that this one man hauled in singlehandedly was really impressive…we could hardly believe that he was able to catch that much in a 24-hour period.
From Sudureyri, we drove down towards Dynjandi Waterfall. It was a pleasant drive, and the view overlooking Borgarfjordur was particularly beautiful. Even from the road, Dynjandi looked spectacular! As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we knew we’d have to don our mosquito net hats right away…it was a full-force attack of the midges as soon as we opened the car doors! We decided to lug our tripod up the hill as there are quite a few smaller waterfalls further down the river. As we kept climbing higher and higher, the views were getting better and better. At the very top of the hill, the biggest and widest part of Djnjandi awaited us…it was simply amazing. Becky quickly voted Dynjandi to be her favorite Iceland waterfall. We had timed our visit just right and were the only tourists at the top of the waterfall, allowing us to enjoy the amazing vista without anyone else for a good 10 minutes. We noticed as we were making our way back down to the parking lot that there was a small campsite at the base of Dynjandi. And according to our guidebook, it is completely free! This is worth noting if you want to camp beside one of Iceland’s prettiest waterfalls.
From Dynjandi, we had a short onward drive to our campground for the evening, the Flokalundur campsite (overlooking Vatnsfjordur fjord). Midges were aplenty here, and they were driving us bonkers. Unwilling to cook out in the open (because the midges were dive-bombing us), we took over the entire sink area inside the camping hut and used it to prepare our meal of pork chops and ramen. A representative from the Flokalundur hotel swung by at 8 pm to collect camping fees…he quickly checked off another box on our camping card. This campsite had decent facilities…the only advice we will give to future campers here is to take a shower early! The hot water quickly runs out and cold water showers were not popular with anybody. Nearby the campsite, there is a hot pot you can soak in. After dinner and wash up, we quickly retreated to our tent as there was no way we could enjoy being outdoors with all the midges flying around.
17 July, Thursday: Puffins! Today we were headed to Latrabjarg bird cliffs, which is one of the best spots in Iceland to spot puffins up close. We were super excited since both of us go bonkers when it comes to puffins. From the Flokalundur campsite, we drove on Rt 62. According to our map, there aren’t any gas stations near Latrabjarg so we filled up at the last gas station on Rt 62. Manned by an elderly gentleman, he was thrilled to get customers so early in the morning and welcomed us warmly. After shaking our hands and letting us know he was a huge President Bush fan, he retreated to his shack to dig up an Iceland postcard to give us…very friendly guy! From Rt 62, we took Rt 612 all the way to Latrabjarg. The scenery was spectacular even if the road was a bit bumpy and difficult. Enroute, we passed by the oldest steel ship in Iceland, the Garðar BA 64 whaling vessel. Built in Norway in 1912, the vessel was in use until 1981 when it was deemed unfit for duty. Instead of retiring it out at sea (sinking the ship used to be the custom when it went out of service), Garðar was beached on the shoreline at Skápadalur valley in Patreksfjörður. We had a brief stop here to check out the vessel before continuing the rugged drive towards Latrabjarg. In Hnjótur, we passed by an Aviation Museum but decided to give it a miss, driving on to see birds. Nearing Latrabjarg, we drove past the picturesque Breidavik beach (which actually looked quite inviting).
When we arrived to the parking lot of Latrabjarg, we realized there were no toilet facilities so back down the hill we went (there is a tiny campsite at the bottom of the hill complete with basic facilities). Then it was back up to Latrabjarg. Even though the parking lot was quite busy, we easily found parking. By now, it was lunch time. Even though we yearned to run out and take photos of the puffins (many of them were tantalizingly close to the cliff’s edge where you *could* easily reach out to touch them), we figured we had all afternoon to spend with them, so lunch was in order. Robby whipped up a quick hot meal on the stove which we hurriedly downed before grabbing our cameras and stalking some puffins. There were a couple of warning signs advising tourists to be careful at the cliff’s edge. Latrabjarg cliffs, home to millions of birds, is 14 KM long and up to 441 meters high. It is so easy to get lulled into a false sense of security because most folks don’t realize just how high up they are. A moment’s miscalculation, a strong gust of wind, the fragile earth beneath your feet at the cliff’s edge crumbling, or simply not paying attention to your surroundings could have fatal consequences as it would be quite easy to tumble off Latrabjarg (unfortunately as a German tourist did in June 2010 when he plummeted 140 meters to his death). There isn’t a barrier of ropes or guardrails at the cliff’s edge, and common sense is your only protection. A signpost advises you to get down on all fours and wiggle on your stomach to the cliff’s edge. That way, you can’t lose your sense of balance and go tumbling down. After seeing just high up we were, neither one of us wanted to push the limits here.
It is utterly amazing how close you can get to the puffins. Many of the ones closest to the parking lot have become quite habituated to humans…they didn’t even blink an eye or budge when some of the tourists became a bit too intrusive on their privacy. We spent hours at Latrabjarg. The weather, initially quite pleasant, quickly turned into rain while we were there and yet neither one of us was willing to call it a day. We hiked several kilometers along the cliff’s edge before backtracking along the same path. Puffins were constantly coming and going, and we were buzzed by a couple of low flying puffins…quite a jolt when you realize that a puffin was mere inches away from your head! By 6 pm, we were all puffin’d out. We had initially debated whether to camp overnight and make another day of puffins tomorrow but both of us agreed that we had gotten our fill. So we left Latrabjarg and headed away from the West Fjords, driving on Rt 60 towards Reykholar, which had a campsite that we were eyeballing for tonight.
The Grettislaug campsite is located adjacent to the town’s pool (near the church), and we pulled in just as the caretaker was leaving for the day. This was the first campsite where we actually had to pay the full ISK 107 lodging tax. Every other campsite had rounded down to ISK 100, but the caretaker stated that was 2013’s fee. Who were we to argue? The petite campsite had everything we needed. We had just missed being able to take showers by about 5 minutes as they are located at the swimming pool area which is open daily from 3-10 pm. However, the toilet hut contained several sinks (which had hot and cold water), and the caretaker suggested we could take a birdbath if we wanted. After setting up our tent, we whipped up dinner while watching the magnificent sun set. Pink skies at midnight will always be something we remember about Iceland.
18 July, Friday: It was a drizzly morning when we awoke. Neither one of us was motivated to budge from our tent. We were so far ahead of schedule that we figured a nice lie-in was due. By the time we got up at 10:30 am, the rest of the campers had departed from Grettislaug already. What to do on a rainy Icelandic day? Go soak in a hot pot of course! Stykkisholmur was our destination for today, but we noticed we would drive right past an inviting hot pot in Laugar. So a detour was in order, and what a mighty fine detour it was. The hot springs of Laugar in our own private hot pot was pure bliss. Yes, algae was thriving in the hot pot but it was so nice to have it all to ourselves…not a single other tourist was in sight. After a good hour long soak, we had a quick lunch before continuing on our long drive to Stykkisholmur. Our guidebook had raved about this scenic tourist town. Apparently, Stykkisholmur is the main gateway to the Breidafjordur fjord and its 3000 islands. As a result, most of its residents earn their living from either fishing or tourism. The town is reputedly in a “time warp”, with its perfectly preserved antique houses (each painted in a different color). As we were driving in, the sight of a Bonus supermarket pleasantly surprised us so we hurried in to do a quick restocking of our food supplies. It was time for our second tub of ice-cream, which we enjoyed down by the harbor next to the hungry gulls. Afterwards, we hiked up to the lighthouse for a panoramic view over Stykkisholmur’s scenic harbor front. Strolling the streets of quaint Stykkisholmur was quite pleasant, and we quickly saw the appeal of this lovely little village.
After making a quick detour to check out the town’s quirky church, we drove to the outskirts where we hiked up nearby Mt Helgafell (“holy mountain”). This small mountain on the Snaefellsnes Peninsular is worth a quick hike up as there are fantastic views to be had from its summit. From Helgafell, we drove towards Grundarfjordur. Even from a distance, we were mesmerized at the sight of the looming Kirkjufell (“church mountain”). As our guidebook described it, Kirkjufell is a “cathedral of stone that rises up in the middle of the fjord. It’s a stunning postcard vision, printed in ads and brochures but often without any acknowledgement”. We found the perfect location to take a photo of Kirkjufell. Unfortunately for us, another tourist beat us to the exact spot, and he was trying to use his backpack as a tripod in a long exposure shot. Imagine his joy when he discovered that we had a tripod he could borrow. We didn’t mind sharing but the weather was turning bad yet again, and we only managed to take a couple of photos before a fast moving cloud cover completely obliterated the top half of Kirkjufell. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be nice! It astounds that within a 5 minute time span, the fickle weather in Iceland can quickly turn on you. Ah, the weather in Iceland…truly the bane of tourists visiting this lovely country!
From Kirkjufell, we made our way further west, driving to Olafsvik. Here, we took a quick look at its funky church (a series of triangles) before finding the campsite. This was the first campsite where RVs were banished to one field, and tents to another. The soft ground (near the facilities) had proven to be impossible for RVs to navigate so cones had been erected preventing vehicular traffic from entering the field. Not a problem for us! We set up our tent in the children’s playground, one of the few solid dry spots. Plus we were close to the facilities, which was a bonus. Olafsvik campsite offers free hot water showers (yay), toilets and sinks…perfect for our needs. Dinner was whipped up on our stove in no time, and we prayed for decent weather tomorrow even though the weather forecast was looking dismal indeed.
19 July, Saturday: Boo! We awoke to a rainy, foggy, overcast morning. Our hopes that decent weather could salvage our plans were immediately dashed. With a heavy fog hanging low, visibility was poor. Our original plan was to check out Snaefellsjokull’s highlights, but it was obvious we’d have to reconsider our itinerary as the weather for the next couple of days was supposed to be more of the same (rain, rain, rain). Snaefellsjokull, made famous by Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, is one of Iceland’s most popular sites. This dormant volcano is believed to be one of earth’s seven energy spots (apparently new age gurus believe it to be a heart chakra), and there is a steady flow of visitors who seek out the energy that is supposedly radiating from this area. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t see a thing. Snaefellsjokull was completely covered by fog so we decided to skip this area entirely. We did make a detour to Hellnar, where we hoped we could hit their tourist information center for a Wi-Fi signal as Robby had some personal banking issues to resolve. The tourist information office wasn’t helpful so we drove on. Next stop was at Arnarstapi’s stone monument of Bárður (half human, half troll). The horrible weather was preventing us from admiring the unique rock formations along Arnarstapi’s coastline, so we reluctantly drove on. The wooden church at Budir was next on our list, but with the inclement weather, a visit here was hardly worthwhile. None of the surrounding landscape could be seen, which strongly discouraged us from taking any pictures. It felt like the entire morning was a bust…Snaefellsjokull was highly disappointing because of the weather. If we ever return to Iceland, this will be the first place we revisit, as we really didn’t get a chance to see any of its highlights. In any case, we decided to drive on…perhaps putting a couple hours distance would improve the situation somewhat.
While we had originally intended to hike out to Glymur waterfall (Iceland’s highest waterfall, a good 4 hour hike), we knew that it would be a wasted effort because of the horrible weather conditions. Instead, we drove towards Borgarnes where we hopped onto Rt 1 heading north. At the Rt 50 turnoff (towards Reykholt), we watched as an idiot driver just barely managed to avoid sideswiping not one but two cars! The driver was completely reckless and out of control (and we thought we might be part of the carnage) as he careened from one side of the road to another. It was a miracle that no one was hit…that incident was the scariest moment we had driving on Iceland’s roads. Both of us reckoned that the driver must have been a tourist! Once on Rt 50, we easily found Deildartunguhver, reputed to be Europe’s most powerful hotspring (180 liters per second). Piping hot, bubbly water emitting huge clouds of steam pretty much sums up Deildartunguhver. Tomatoes harvested from the nearby greenhouses were for sale, but we were boycotting all vegetables on our cheap Bonus supermarket diet. After lunching in the parking lot, we drove onward towards the Snorrastofa culture/medieval center in Reykholt. This site pays homage to Snorri Sturluson, perhaps Iceland’s most famous poet, historian, and politician. Snorri wrote Egil’s Saga (Iceland’s most popular saga), Heimskringla, and Snorra-Edda (Nordic mythology). Tour buses offering Saga Tours filled the parking lot, and this site seemed full of Scandinavians. We checked out the old church (built in 1887) as well as Snorralaug (Snorri’s very own hot pot) before driving off to our next destination, the waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafossar.
Hraunfossar is a series of waterfalls that gently flows over a lava field, while nearby Barnafossar gushes wildly through a narrow canyon…both waterfalls are worth a quick stop. From here, we decided to check out the golden circle sights of Thingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. Since it was mid-afternoon, we figured we’d see as much as we could today with the remaining daylight. From the Hraunfossar parking lot, we backtracked on Rt 518 to Rt 50, and then Rt 52 all the way to Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site is of geological importance because the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can easily be seen in the faults here. The plates continue to move up apart at a rate of up to 100 mm each year. We walked down what could be considered a “canyon” between the two plates, with North America on one side and Eurasia on the other. Thingvellir is also of cultural and historical importance because the Althing (the world’s oldest parliament) would meet here for two weeks each year from 930 until 1798 to settle disputes, discuss laws, and debate issues in an open air assembly. We hiked up to the information center for an overlook of the entire area, before driving towards Geysir.
After getting briefly disoriented (we drove on Rt 36 towards Rt 365 and backtracked because it felt like we had been on Rt 36 forever and must have missed the turnoff to Rt 365), we finally made it to our last destination of the day. Geysir is Europe’s first known geyser. It used to erupt up to 70 meters quite regularly, but has stopped in recent years. What we were visiting instead was the nearby Strokkur, which erupts an impressive 30 meters every 15 minutes or so. Since it was nearing 9:30 pm, Strokkur was nearly empty…there were a few hardy tourists lingering to witness the frequent eruptions. We stood around Strokkur in awe that we could get so close to the eruption. There was a safety line, but even so, everyone was dangerously close to getting completely soaked each time the geyser blew. Strokkur would erupt at infrequent times…sometimes it would only take 3 minutes between eruptions while others would take over 20 minutes. Lucky for us, Strokkur erupted quite frequently when we were there (enabling us to take a bunch of photos). However, as we left to explore the rest of the area, we noticed that a sizeable crowd had gathered up at Strokkur’s base, patiently waiting for over 30 minutes for an eruption that was a long time coming. It was almost comical watching as some had given up taking a photo in exasperation…only to have Strokkur erupt (with them missing the moment). Mother nature playing her cruel tricks! Geysir was an unexpected highlight…it was very cool being there so late at night and having a few minutes of solitude to enjoy this sight all to ourselves. Tonight’s campsite was at the nearby Skjol on Rt 35. A brand new campsite, it had only opened for business a few weeks ago and was still in the construction phase. The shower facilities had not yet been completed, but the bar/pizzeria area was really nice and welcoming, and the toilet facilities were super clean and private. The free Wi-Fi signal could even reach our tent, which was a nice bonus. The campsite is conveniently located midway between Geysir and Gullfoss, perfect for us as we planned to see Gullfoss first thing tomorrow morning.
20 July, Sunday: We pulled up to an empty parking lot at Gullfoss, which was amazing considering this is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. The tour buses hadn’t arrived yet, and we had a few precious minutes to enjoy the waterfall by ourselves. Within a few minutes, more tourists started arriving and it quickly became crowded, so our moment of bliss didn’t last too long! Gullfoss has an interesting backstory…it was front and center in Iceland’s first environmental issue back in the early 20th Century! We learned that in 1907, a landowner named Einar Benediktsson signed away the rights to Gullfoss to be used in a hydroelectric dam across the Hvita River. However, budding environmentalist Sigridur Tomassdottir (whose father was also involved in the deal) was so upset about the project that she took legal action against the developers. Amazingly, even though she lost the case, public opinion fully supported her and the project never took root. Sigridur is singlehandedly responsible for protecting and preserving this incredible national treasure (Gullfoss was eventually donated to Iceland as a special reserve)! We quickly realized that Gullfoss can be viewed from both the top and the bottom. Both views are worthwhile. The top view is the easiest to get to from the parking lot. It is also quite safe as you view the waterfall from afar behind a guard rail. However, you do have to contend with a jostling crowd elbowing you. The bottom view is also quite interesting as you can get completely soaked by the spray. There are no safety rails or warning signs here…use common sense as you approach the waterfall. Gullfoss drops a good 33 feet from the bottom view, allowing you get a good scale of the waterfall.
From Gullfoss, we decided to drive on the Kjolur route (F35 which was allowed by Blue Car Rental in our Jimny) towards our next destination, the volcanic mountain range of Kerlingarfjoll. The Kjolur route is an unpaved road that traverses Iceland’s interior between the icecaps of Langjokull and Hofsjokull. There is public debate on whether this F road should be paved or not. Obviously, if the route were paved, it would greatly reduce travel time from north to south. However, some Icelanders prefer it remain in its current state (rough and pot holed) as traffic is limited to 4×4 vehicles only at reduced speeds. We wanted to visit Kerlingarfjoll after reading our guidebook’s write up, “Similar to the colors and shapes of Landmannalaugar, what sets this place apart are its massive scale and fewer crowds. For all the talk of ‘fire and ice’, no other place in Iceland lets you experience both in such an active way….it’s the mountains, ice, and steam that make this such a remarkable hiking destination”. The only concern we had was whether we’d have to traverse any rivers to get there. Now that we’ve been, we are happy to report that all the rivers have been bridged or built over…our tires didn’t get wet at any point on the rough F35 track or turnoff leading to Kerlingarfjoll (F347). Lucky for us, the sun was shining by the time we reached the parking lot of the Kerlingarfjoll highland resort.
Since it was lunchtime already, we heated up some BBQ chicken wings on the resort’s deck before taking advantage of the kitchen to wash up. After that, we were all set for an afternoon hike. One of the Kerlingarfjoll staff suggested that we focus our efforts on Hveradalir (“valley of hotsprings”). She suggested we drive up a few KMs to the parking lot. From there, we could then hike up the Maenir mountain (quite steep in some places), as well as tackle a rewarding 2 KM circular loop which was closer to the base of the mountain. The Kerlingarfjoll map boasted that tourists to Hveradalir can see “when a glacier retreats, how the hillsides begin to slide as the ground thaws and finally when the first vegetation starts to grow. All the while, the steam-spouting hotsprings flanking the hiking path and the rare combination of colors characteristic of hotspring zones make this walk an unforgettable experience”. Kerlingarfjoll absolutely blew away our expectations. It was freaking fantastic. The colors, the mind blowing views, the fact that there was no rain, and we had the entire valley all to ourselves all made for an unforgettable afternoon hike. Tourists really do shun Kerlingarfjoll (in comparison to Landmannalaugar, which it supposedly resembles), but that is their loss and our gain. We LOVED Kerlingarfjoll and this was easily our favorite day in Iceland so far.
The hike up the mountain, while physically challenging, offered amazing panoramas in all directions. After returning to the base of the mountain, we found the circular route which took us to the geothermal section of Kerlinarfjoll, which was visually stunning. The fine weather definitely had a positive impact, as the rich brown, ochre and green hues were definitely enhanced by the sun. The earth gets its red color from the rhyolite stone that this mountain range is made up of. Minerals from the numerous hotsprings that dot this entire landscape color the ground in beautiful shades of green, red, and yellow…it’s a magnificent combination. After spending the entire afternoon soaking in Kerlingarfjoll’s natural, raw beauty, we decided to call it a day. We did drive over to the parking lot of Snaekollur to check out the view of Mt. Keis. Amazingly, when we looked back towards Maenir Mountain, fast moving clouds had already overtaken its peak and the gorgeous sun that we had been soaking up all day had disappeared. We briefly considered finding the hot pot near the highland resort to soak in, but after hearing it was a good 20 minute hike away (each direction), we decided to give it a miss as the thought of walking back all wet and uncomfortable did not appeal to either one of us. Instead, we looked around for a decent place to camp for the night. An abandoned mountain hut met our needs perfectly…we had privacy, shelter from the wind, and a flat comfortable space to erect our tent. There really was no sense in paying a resort camping fee (ISK 1700 each) just to use their facilities when we could bush camp a few KMs away for free.
21 July, Monday: Our campsite was completely covered in fog as we awoke. However, as we prepared breakfast, the fog slowly lifted to reveal another decent day at Kerlingarfjoll. We stopped by the highland resort to wash up our breakfast dishes before loading up into the Jimny for the bumpy ride out to Hveravellir (“hot spring fields”), about 40 KM away. It took about two hours to reach Hveravellir, a popular stop on the Kjolur route as it seems everyone breaks up their journey from north to south by taking a dip in the geothermal hot pool here. We were going to stop in at the welcome center to check out what was on offer here until we noticed a signboard outside stating Hveravellir had fees for everything! There were parking fees, toilet fees, use of facilities fees, etc. The only thing that appeared to be free was jumping into the man made hot pool itself! The whole fee system was ridiculous…we haven’t had to pay to park anywhere in Iceland so far, and yet this remote outpost in the middle of the Kjolur frontier wanted to charge a car parking fee! No freaking way. The hot pool was crowded when we first arrived, so we decided to walk around the geothermal area to see what Hveravellir had to offer. To be honest, we had high expectations after our guidebooks described Hveravellir as a unique nature reserve and “one of Iceland’s most terrific hotspots”. For us, it was underwhelming. Sure, there are some hot pools, bubbling water holes, hot springs and fumaroles, but nothing stood out as a “must see”. Unless you are already passing by the area, we really wouldn’t recommend a special detour out here to see the mediocre sights. After hiking around the area, we were both ready to leave. Neither of us was keen on a dip in the hot pool, so we gave it a miss. Back on F35, we bumped and bounced our way back down the entire route towards Gullfoss. It was a tediously long drive back on the unpaved gravel road. Once we hit the tarmac road again, it was all smiles to our campsite. What a massive difference a paved road makes! Since we had enjoyed Skjol campsite so much the first time, we decided to stay here again. Amazingly, we could see Strokkur erupting at random intervals from the doorway of our tent. Spectacular!
22 July, Tuesday: We had whipped through our itinerary and now had a few extra days with lots of time to kill. What to do with an unexpected free day? The “golden circle” tour hadn’t been officially completed yet as we had only seen Thingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir. The last sight on the Golden Circle remained…Kerid Crater. This volcanic Crater Lake is easily located (15 KM north of Selfoss, off of Rt 35), and it was a short drive from our campsite. Even though it was fairly early when we arrived, the parking lot was packed with tourists. Both of us were surprised to see a signpost stating an entrance fee was now to be paid (ISK 350/2 Euro/$3). We watched as several people blew right past the booth, which boded well for us. Happily, we discovered there was no one there to collect the fee! So we got in for free. Later, we found out that you could actually enter from a parking lot path that bypasses the booth completely. So unless you are desperate to part with your money, save yourself a few bucks by entering via the parking lot path on the right hand side (as you are facing the crater). A local man overheard our discussions about being shocked that while most of Iceland’s stunning sights are free, it seemed the new trend was for landowners to start charging fees to enter their property. He interrupted our conversation by informing us that this new policy of charging fees was extremely controversial amongst Icelanders themselves, the majority of whom believe these fees to be illegal due to a general public right called “everyman’s right”. This right gives the general public the ability to access public and privately owned land for recreation and exercise (with the obligation to not harm, disturb, litter or damage wildlife or crops). Also known as “allemansratten” or the right of public access, Icelanders strongly believe that fees should NOT be charged to access any natural sights. He further explained that some of the landowners were now charging fees so they could provide upkeep to their property, to allow tourists a safe and comfortable visit. However, many of the landowners were facing lawsuits about the fees being illegal, so who knows what the policy will be in the future? We thanked him for his insight, and walked around the crater rim of Kerid. A couple of intrepid tourists were swimming in the lake but we knew the water must have been freezing, judging from their shrieks and shouts.
From Kerid, we drove towards Selfoss, where we planned to revisit the Bonus supermarket there. By our calculations, this should be our last shopping stop as we now had enough supplies to last us the duration of our trip. After restocking enough fresh meats, milk, beans and ramen, we threw in a container of ice-cream which we devoured in the parking lot. Gotta love Iceland’s ice-cream. From Selfoss, we drove to Hveragerdi, a renowned hot spring area that is quite popular due to its proximity to Reykjavik. The locals boast that Hveragerdi is the “hot spring capital of the world”, and they back it up in the form of numerous greenhouses strewn throughout the town (all of which are heated by hot water from the volcanic hot springs). The friendly tourist information office provided us with directions on hiking to the nearby Reykjadalur area (“smoky valley”), where we could soak au natural in a lovely hot spring. But first, we paid a visit to the fenced off Geothermal Park. Unfortunately, the park must have seen its heyday many years ago as almost all of its hot springs and fumaroles have since dried up. Robby was able to boil an egg (10-12 minutes) in one of the remaining hot springs, while Becky soaked her feet just downstream. We actually thought the open air (free) hot springs around town were much better. It was easy to see the pillars of steam rising from the ground around town, signifying a hot stream is nearby.
By mid-afternoon, we were ready to start our hike up to Reykjadalur. Located just north of Hveragerdi, it is a fairly simple one hour uphill hike into the valley. We really didn’t know where to go exactly, but just followed the unending stream of visitors headed in the same direction. The trail eventually led us to a thermal area with a hot spring running through it. There was plenty of steam rising from the hot water…it looked like bliss. Everyone just found their own private “pool”, which had been created by stacking a pile of rocks across the river bed, essentially creating a dam to trap the water in. The first pools we dipped our toes into seemed a bit cool…we wanted to linger for hours and needed a hot pool so we kept on hiking. The weather started out quite pleasant, but by the time we had reached the hot springs, the storm that had been threatening us all day long finally unleashed torrential rain. No better time like the present to strip down and hop in! With our backpack rain covers, we attempted to keep our clothes and boots dry while we spent the next few hours soaking up the lovely hot water. The hot spring was fantastic, and we enjoyed it all the more with the heavy rain splashing down all around us. The cool rain made the piping hot water tolerable, and the hours flew by. Sadly, we decided the rain wasn’t going to let up, so it would be a wet trudge back downhill to our car. Little did we know exactly how wet we would get! Even though we managed to keep our clothes and boots somewhat dry, the rain rectified that in a matter of minutes. Both of us were completely soaked to the bone by the time we reached the parking lot an hour later. Our boots were waterlogged and our clothes thoroughly drenched…it was a lost cause. We didn’t want to soak the interior of the jimny so we stripped down to next to nothing and hopped into the car, hoping that we could dry some of our clothes by putting the heat on full blast.
Just this one experience made us admire the bicyclists we see zooming around Iceland. When they get wet, how do they dry their gear? How do they tolerate being bone cold and dripping wet from the fickle Icelandic rain? Honestly, I don’t think I would ever want to bike around Iceland…the weather is just too brutal. At least we now had a roof over our heads, and a chance to dry off. Just imagine how much it would suck to be hitchhiking or biking our way across the country?
From Hveragerdi, we hopped on Rt 1 for a short drive to Mosfellsbaer, which was where we planned to camp tonight. With the torrential rain pounding our windshield, visibility was nil as a low hanging cloud lingered on the highway. Both of us were terrified to drive the speed limit (90 km/hr) as neither one of us could see but a few feet in front of us. Of course, the experienced locals were driving in the storm like it was no big deal, overtaking us at great speeds. Once the visibility finally cleared, we were able to pick up our speed and before we knew it, Mosfellsbaer was in sight. Amazingly, we found the town’s campsite right away, thanks to the well marked signs posted all throughout Mosfellsbaer. Our clothes were slowly but surely drying from the car’s heater, and we eventually braved the elements to erect our tent, trying to work as fast as possible in the rain. The campsite here has pretty good facilities that are well maintained. There were a lot of “donated” goods from previous campers…it was obvious that due to its proximity to the airport, this is a popular last camping spot before departing from Iceland. This campsite listed showers as part of their facilities, but we couldn’t find any. But honestly, after our hours long soak, we really didn’t need a shower!
23 July, Wednesday: It was a short drive from Mosfellsbaer to Reykjavik. We packed everything up when we left this morning as our plan was to hit a couple of Reykjavik highlights before driving down to Grindavik. Our first activity today was a visit to the tiny Reykjavik zoo. Even though we knew it was part of the Laugardalur Park, the zoo wasn’t actually easy to find. Our first attempt brought us to the employees’ parking lot, where a staff member pointed down the street and told us to keep on going. After cruising around the park, we finally got out and asked some teenagers for directions. Unbelievably, their directions were spot on and before we knew it, we were in line for tickets (ISK 700 each). Even though it looked like we were entering a kiddie park, the ticket seller reassured us that we wanted to head off the right, make a U-turn across a bridge, and viola…we would be there.
Reykavik’s zoo is unlike any other we’ve been to. It is more like a petting zoo with lots of Icelandic farm animals (horses, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and rabbits), and we could see why the zoo is so popular with young kids. We came to check out the reindeers, arctic foxes, minks and seals, since we had only managed to spot a handful of seals and two arctic foxes on our own. The reindeer and minks had proved impossible to spot in the countryside, hence our visit to the zoo. The arctic foxes were particularly playful, and we couldn’t believe how many there were! The only adult fox was scavenging for food bits that had just been laid out, and he was hustling back and forth, collecting and hiding the treats within the burrows. The rest of the foxes appeared to be juvenile, and they were more focused with playtime and rough housing each other than hoarding food.
Our visit to the zoo was quite pleasant, and we had a quick snack in the restaurant area before heading over to the nearby Laugardalur swimming pool. Touted as Reykavik’s biggest pool, we thought it was excellent value at only ISK 600 each. This gave us complete access to a 50 meter outdoor pool, several “hot pots” (ranging in temperature from warm to hot to bloody hot), a salt water hot pot, a steam bath, gym, mini golf, waterslides and a children’s pool. Not to mention the wading pool which was perfect for lounging in while lazily working on a tan. Cameras are strictly forbidden here as we found out the old fashioned way (we just thought they weren’t permitted in the dressing/shower area, not the pool itself). To enter the pool, everyone has to strip down naked (in “his” and “her” separate shower areas). The naked part really isn’t optional. Icelanders take their hygiene seriously, and as the pools don’t have any chlorine, they are adamant that everyone has a good scrub down before being able to enter the swimming area.
Laugardalur was fantastic…we really loved this swimming pool complex. The place was crowded with locals catching up on their gossip, and we ran about like little kids, giddy at the prospect of the waterslide which kept us entertained for hours. The hot pots and steam bath were awesome too. Actually, the entire pool complex just rocked! We highly recommend a visit if ever in the Reykjavik area. It’s a must do! It was late afternoon before we could tear ourselves away. And guess what? The shower area had a spin cycle machine to dry our swim suits. Plus shampoo/soap to shower with. Two thumbs up for Laugardalur.
From here, we studied the map, as our last activity for the day was a visit to the Arbaejarsafn open air/folk museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed by the time we arrived, but since its open air, we were still able to check out the perfectly preserved buildings. The museum was created in 1957, and it is Iceland’s largest open air museum. Since we arrived after closing time, we missed seeing the live actors dressed in traditional clothes perform their respective traditional jobs. But there were plenty of turf-roofed buildings for us to check out, and an eclectic collection of architecture found all over Iceland in a recreated town square/village. This was definitely a worthwhile stop, and we were glad that we had included it on our itinerary.
From Arbaejarsafn, we drove down to Grindavik, which is where we planned to stay for the night. Enroute, we couldn’t help ourselves as we detoured to check out Iceland’s most famous sight, the Blue Lagoon. The Grindavik lava field is such a surreal sight against the backdrop of an unbelievably bright blue lagoon. We only admired it from the outside since that was free at the LAVA restaurant/bar where we were able to climb up to the top floor to get a nice vista overlooking the entire Blue Lagoon. Back at the blue lagoon entrance, we did run in to do a quick price check and found out that the cheapest entrance fee is a whopping 40 Euro! So we drilled the staff about whether we could buy a ticket in advance (no), whether we could buy a ticket and leave for a few hours (yes), and what was the earliest time we could enter (9 am). Armed with everything we needed to know, we planned to get our money’s worth. We’d be the first to enter tomorrow, and would spend the entire day there, only breaking for lunch back at our campsite. That was our plan anyway…we’d have to see how the execution of it went tomorrow.
The Grindavik campsite is one of Iceland’s nicest. Plenty of tent and RV space, hot water showers (free), and plenty of toilets. A large, well stocked kitchen with tons of traveler’s leftovers. There is a corner full of donated and free camping supplies. Note to anyone coming to Iceland…do yourself a favor and save yourself a bundle by stopping by Grindavik’s kitchen area and stock up on the butane gas canisters (there were dozens of them here and many of them were completely full). Some of the donated items included: a gas grill, pillows, cooking supplies, food, spices, canned goods…there was an unbelievable selection of goodies. We wish we’d known about this place when we first arrived! After setting up our tent, we went over to the kitchen area where we discovered that the staff had locked up for the night! Bummer…the kitchen closes at 10 pm sharp, so we were left to cook on our stove. Still, we really liked the setup of Grindavik, and made the decision to camp overnight here again tomorrow night.
24 July, Thursday: The kitchen area was packed at 8 am, but we managed to score a free table and chairs for breakfast. One of the guests brought his own toaster to the kitchen which confused everyone else as no one realized it was his personal toaster (hence why he refused to share it with anyone else). Way to make camping buddies, guy! Since we had already decided to stay an extra night here, we didn’t have to worry about tearing down our tent. Our gut impression of our fellow campers was pretty positive…everyone seemed honest and we didn’t think that anyone would mess with our tent or gear if we left it unattended all day. And guess what? Even though we came back at lunch time to find the ENTIRE campground deserted (everyone else had packed up and moved on), our solitary tent was still standing, unmolested.
And how did we spend our day? At the Blue lagoon! It was freaking awesome. We arrived by 9 am and were first in line to buy tickets for the day. Each of us was given our own wristband that served as the key to the locker of our choosing. A helpful staff member warned us not to lose the wristband, as we’d have to pay a hefty replacement fee. She also reminded us to remove all silver jewelry…the minerals in the water is famous for discoloring silver. At our respective locker rooms, we locked up anything that wasn’t needed during the day. The shower section of Blue Lagoon is pretty swanky…no expense was spared. Everyone must bathe before entering the lagoon (preferably sans swimsuit). Huge dispensers of Blue Lagoon shampoo and conditioner are in each shower cubicle. We heeded the sign recommending everyone massage copious amounts of conditioner to soak in their hair (to be rinsed out after the lagoon experience). However, we saw hundreds of guests ignore that advice while dunking their hair into the lagoon. Some even lathered and rubbed mud in their hair…we couldn’t understand the logic behind that. There is no freaking way their hair would feel good after doing that! In fact, a quick internet search will reveal plenty of horror stories from previous visitors who warn that submerging long hair into the lagoon will result in dry, brittle, tangled hair for days on end. Some have even compared a dunking in the Blue Lagoon to soaking household cleaners into your hair…would you voluntarily do that? No f-ing way! Even the Blue Lagoon website warns visitors that the geothermal water is full of high levels of silica, and that while silica is not harmful to hair, “getting it wet will result in stiff and difficult to manage hair”. There you have it people! Use the free (and lovely) conditioner to lather and leave in your hair while swimming in the lagoon. Keep your hair out of the water and rinse liberally when done…viola, your hair will look perfect.
It was so amazing having the blue lagoon to ourselves for about 20 minutes before what seemed like every other tourist in Iceland joined us. We discovered the silica mud boxes further into the lagoon and liberally applied a mud mask to each other’s faces. However, the persistent rain kept rinsing it off, so it felt like a lesson in futility. No matter…we just enjoyed the heck out of the lagoon, finding the elusive hot spots and getting as close to the source as we could bear before finally retreating to a private cove to just relax and soak it all in. By 1 pm, we decided a little lunch break was in order. As the staff had promised, we had no problem leaving our gear in the lockers while heading out for a few hours.
The kitchen at Grindavik campsite was empty, so we prepared a leisurely hot lunch. Returning back to the Blue Lagoon parking lot, Robby got the brilliant idea of getting preloaded on drinks before we headed back in for the rest of the day. Our duty free bottle of vodka somehow got mixed with Bonus supermarket’s generic version of red bull and several hours later, the tipsy pair of us giggled our way back into the Blue Lagoon. It was a perfect (and cheap) way to drink alcohol without paying the extortionate lagoon bar prices. Lingering for hours at the Blue Lagoon was the most relaxing part of our entire vacation…we definitely got our money’s worth by spending the entire day here. By 9 pm, we were ready to call it quits. After taking a long shower to rid ourselves of any and all silica remnants, we finally big adieu to the Blue Lagoon. Unbelievably, there were some tourists who were just arriving to the facility and we pitied them as they would only get to spend an hour or two here…definitely not enough time to really enjoy and appreciate this wonderful place. Back at our campsite, we had enough energy to prepare dinner before crashing into our sleeping bags and sleeping soundly for the rest of the night.
25 July, Friday: Today we were going to have to return our car back to Blue Car Rental! Sad times…our Jimny had performed admirably over the past few weeks, and we had grown quite attached to it. We had driven a total of 5330 KM around Iceland and our trusty Jimny managed to take us everywhere, safe and sound. Choosing who to rent from in Iceland can be a scary experience, especially because there are so many horror stories flooding the various travel forums. Blue Car Rental was awesome…great prices (even with all the extra insurance thrown in), reliable communications with Magnus (owner), and a friendly staff. We highly recommend them.
So the only thing on our agenda this morning was to get from Grindavik to Reykjavik. Enroute, our mission was to find an Orkan gas station (since we still had some Kronur left on our prepaid gas card). We also hoped to find a free wash rack so we could give the Jimny a good scrub down, and if we were lucky, find a vacuum so we could clean the interior of our now dirty car. The N1 gas stations have definitely won the gas war near the Reykavik area. They must have outnumbered Orkan at least 20 to 1. We were getting a bit worried because every single gas station from Grindavik to Reykjavik was an N1 gas station. They were everywhere! Eventually, we spotted a pink O on the horizon…could it be? Yes, it sure was. We had finally spotted what seemed to be Reykavik’s only Orkan gas station. Only problem was it was on the highway in the opposite direction. When there is a will, there is a way and we eventually found a circuitous route to the gas station where we topped up the car. Amazingly, this gas station had not only a wash rack but a vacuum hose (both of which were free!). We got busy cleaning, scrubbing, and beautifying the car. In no time at all, our Jimny sparkled and looked brand new. Mission accomplished! And all that before our noon meeting time with Daniel, our Reykjavik B&B host.
Finding our apartment (on Grettisgata street) was a bit tricky as Reykavik’s downtown area is full of one-way streets. Thankfully, we had plenty of time to cruise back and forth until we finally managed to find an open parking spot within two blocks of Daniel’s apartment. In case you aren’t in the know, check out the amazing selection of apartments on AirBnB if you are planning on staying in Reykjavik for any length of time. We found the apartments to be of far greater value than any of the hotels that Reykjavik has to offer. Our private room in downtown Reykavik cost us only $80 a night, which we thought was great value in the pricey capital. Plus our host, Daniel, had dozens of rave reviews. Who better to explain the highlights of this lovely city than a local? Daniel was instantly welcoming and ushered us to our room. He had two tiny Chihuahuas who happily adopted our laps whenever we sat down on the couch in the living room. His girlfriend Kim was visiting and she had a lovely husky (named Panda)…we instantly fell in love. As dog people who don’t normally have any dogs to play with, we were in heaven. We definitely chose the right apartment to stay at in Reykjavik! After Daniel showed us where to score free parking (just outside his apartment), we relocated the Jimny so that our afternoon turn in would be a breeze. Since we had a couple of hours to kill before linking up with the Blue Car Rental rep, we decided to check out Reykjavik’s petite down town area.
Our apartment was one block over from Laugavegur, the main shopping street of the city. Full of funky bars, restaurants, cafes, and stores, it didn’t take us long to walk the entire length of Laugavegur. We did discover Reykjavik’s Bonus Supermarket, where we stocked up on more energy drinks for this weekend’s “runtur” or pub crawl. The Hallgrimskirkja church in the distance beckoned. Tourists can pay ISK 700 to take an elevator to the top for a bird’s eye view of the city. Since it was an overcast day, we decided to wait it out and see if tomorrow’s weather was any better. We did have just enough time to hop over to the BSI bus terminal where we inquired about the FlyBus schedule. It conveniently departs from 4 am onward at 30 minute intervals, which was perfect for our early morning flight to Amsterdam. Two one way tickets were ISK 1950 each. Note to anyone who anticipates buying their tickets on board the bus. You can’t! Our bus driver strictly enforced this policy, so make sure you book ahead (at least going from Reykjavik to Keflavik airport). Surely you would be able to purchase tickets from Keflavik to Reykjavik on board the bus? In any case, we were thankful that we bought our tickets today when we saw the hard time given to those passengers without tickets on the morning of our departure. Our driver refused to accept cash payments, and he insisted that those without tickets go into the bus terminal to find a machine that would dispense a ticket. Talk about pain in the butt!
Our meeting time with Blue Car Rental was scheduled for 4 pm just outside of Daniel’s apartment and a representative showed up on time. He was super impressed that we had cleaned the car, and after a brief inspection, signed off on our turn in paperwork. It was such a simple, pain-free process. Two thumbs up for Blue Car Rental. It was nap time after we turned in the car. We knew the runtur pub crawl wouldn’t be happening until late (midnight-ish), so a few hours snooze would do the body some good. By 8 pm, we were up and preloading on drinks in Daniel’s living room. He introduced us to the wonders of “Epic Rap Battles of History” and other mindless entertainment. By midnight, it was time to hit the town. In case you are wondering, the “runtur” pub crawl is one of Reykjavik’s finest traditions. Everyone preloads prior to going out since alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Iceland. We were staying at the best location in the city as the pub-crawl happens on Laugavegur Street (stumbling distance from our apartment), which gets overrun with revelers hopping from one bar to another until around 5 am. Our participation in the revelries was cut short when Robby ended up regurgitating his dinner. Perhaps we had preloaded for a bit too long and a bit too hard? Regardless, the runtur was good fun.
26 July, Saturday: Daniel surprised us this morning when he invited us to join him for an early morning swim in the ocean. Even more surprising was when we said yes! Were we crazy or what? Who willingly swims in a freezing ocean? We do, that’s who! The Chihuahuas were adamant in joining us too…they ran down the stairs, knew which car to head to, and hopped onto our laps for the short ride to Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach (close to the Perlan building). Daniel cheerily reported that the ocean’s temperature this morning was a balmy 11 degrees Celsius (about 52 degrees Fahrenheit). As was custom, we had to strip down naked to thoroughly rinse off first, before hopping into a long rectangular hot pool. Daniel, who swims in the ocean frequently (in both summer and winter!), strongly urged us not to get too comfortable in the hot pool as the shock to our bodies would be too much to bear once we got exposed to the ocean’s temperature.
Reluctantly, we left the über-comfortable hot pool behind as we slowly walked towards the sea. Neither one of us knew what to expect…were we just going for a quick dunk? Or perhaps a short swim to the closest buoy? When Daniel volunteered his neoprene gloves and booties, Becky quickly laid claim to them. Our slow entrance into the water was truly a shock to the body…the water was freezing! The water level was the lowest that Daniel had seen in ages (in fact, he claimed he honestly couldn’t remember the last time the water was this low), so we had to wade out for ages before getting to a point where we could dunk in and fully submerge ourselves. Robby’s teeth were already chattering before we even started swimming. Our goal was to make it to a wooden platform about 100 meters away. Daniel warned us that the cold might sap our energy and we would definitely struggle to climb up the platform unassisted, but both of us managed to get on board on our own. By this point, we had both gotten used to the water’s temperature, so Daniel asked if we wanted to swim an additional 500 meters out to a small boat and back in towards the nearby beach. Why not? Robby’s skin started turning horrible shades of purplish blue so Daniel had him swim in front in case he needed any assistance. Apparently, Daniel is ICE-SAR (Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue) certified as many Icelanders are. This all-volunteer force starts its training early, in primary school. All children aged nine to eleven receive ICE-SAR training, which can continue up to adulthood with rescue teams specializing in search and rescue on both land and at sea. So Daniel reassured a freezing Robby that he would be in good hands if he suddenly went into cardiac arrest or had any other problems while in the water. Since Becky wasn’t affect by the cold at all, Daniel urged her to donate the gloves/booties to Robby who gratefully slipped them on. Then Becky started to realize the difference the gear makes in keeping one warm.
After what seems to be one of the longest swims ever, the beach eventually came into view and we happily emerged from the ocean. Neither one of us could imagine doing that swim in the winter time…it was cold enough in the summer! There was a “hot pot” near the sea filled with lukewarm water. Daniel advised that we dunk ourselves into that first to slowly get acclimated to warmer water. When he thought we could stand it, Daniel allowed us to reenter the hot pool which of course was an immediate jolt to our bodies. He explained that the reason he was so cautious and slightly paranoid was because of an experience he had in the winter time. Daniel had gone for an extra long swim in the ocean, followed by a soak in the hot tub. Apparently, he had passed out in the hot tub and would have drowned had his friend not saved him. So he wasn’t taking any chances with us!
We had really enjoyed our morning excursion to Nautholsvik, which was completely free of charge. No wonder it is such a popular place for the residents of Reykjavik! After all of us took a quick shower to rinse off, we were ready to go. Daniel had stuff to do but he happily dropped us off at the nearby Perlan, which is a multistoried building with a cafeteria, restaurant and bar, shops and a viewing deck. The views over Reykjavik from the outside deck were lovely…it was such a beautiful day! From the Perlan, we had an easy stroll back to Daniel’s apartment where we had lunch before heading back out to enjoy the rest of our day. The Einer Jonsson sculpture garden (next to the Hallgrimskirkja church) was on our “to do” list. Access to the museum is ISK 1000, but entrance into the sculpture garden itself is completely free. Jonsson is a famous Icelandic sculptor whose symbolic works revolve around Christianity, spirituality, and Icelandic mythology…our visit here was definitely worthwhile.
Next up on our afternoon tour was a stroll over to Lake Tjornin and the City Hall (Ráðhús Reykjavíkur), where a massive 3D map of Iceland can be found. After having spent the greater part of a month here, the 3D topographic map of the entire country was fascinating. From the City Hall, loud music spilled over the entire lake. What the heck was going on? We strolled over to the nearby Austurvöllur square to investigate. Surrounded by the Hotel Borg, Domkirkjan (Reykjavik’s oldest church), and the Parliament, the old town square of Austurvöllur was packed with locals entranced by a live performance. We didn’t realize it at the time but the entire event was part of Reykjavik’s annual “Drusluganga” (slut walk), an organized event to combat victim blaming and slut shaming of rape victims, no matter how they dress. The music was pumping and the appreciative crowd cheered the girls on stage with tons of enthusiasm. Plus the weather was fantastic so we weren’t surprised to see such a large turnout.
At the nearby Ingolfstorg Square, skate boarders were out in force, showing off their skills. We headed down to the harbor before making our way to the architecturally interesting Harpa concert hall. Just outside the hall, the Icelandic band “White Signal” was putting on a show for the crowd. One thing we can say is that Icelanders definitely appreciate and support the arts. The spectator turnout was very impressive for such a small city. Nearby, the Icelandic roller derby club skated to their hearts content, bopping along to the music. From Harpa, we walked over to the Sun Voyager, a popular stainless steel sculpture in the shape of a Viking ship, located right by the waterfront. Both of us were starving at this point, so we headed over to the restaurant that Daniel had recommended, a local favorite for seafood called Saegreifinn (The Sea Baron). This unpretentious, informal restaurant has long tables and benches, where you join other customers for a tasty meal. It’s definitely not an upscale formal place! As we entered on the left hand side, a showcase of various fish kebab/skewers was on display. While waiting in line at the cashier, you have plenty of time to decide which skewers you want to try. If you don’t automatically place an order of lobster soup, you are a complete moron…that is what this place is famous for! We ordered the soup, arctic char for Becky and salmon for Robby along with a platter of minke whale meat and found a free table in the back of the restaurant with plenty of room to spread out. No sense crowding in with everyone else in the frenetically busy front section of the restaurant! The lobster soup was every bit as good as everyone had claimed it to be…yum. Our fish kebabs were cooked to perfection and the whale meat was surprisingly tasty (much like an extremely lean beef with a slight gamey flavor). Both of us had been craving some decent seafood and the Sea Baron definitely filled that need.
After heading back to our apartment and packing all of our bags, we realized to our shock that we had gotten our return flight dates all screwed up. Instead of leaving tomorrow morning as planned, we had an extra day in Reykjavik! What an unexpected surprise. After breaking the news to Daniel and Kim, he kindly offered us his master bedroom (as both of his other rooms were fully booked the next night), while he slept over at Kim’s. Daniel is the perfect AirBnB host! We really appreciated his offer and immediately accepted, as we would have been in a pickle to find affordable last minute accommodations. Since we now had an extra 24 hours to spend in the city, we joined Daniel and Kim in the living room and all of us stayed up late watching movies on the comfy couch.
27 July, Sunday: The pitter-patter of feet in the morning woke us up…no sleeping in today! Kim had made skyr pancakes for breakfast, and she invited us to join her, Daniel and an early morning guest who had just arrived (Nick from Australia). Skyr pancakes are delicious! We hit it off with Nick straight away and were jealous he had the upcoming week to spend in Iceland, while our trip was coming to a rapid end. Since we had spent all of our Kronur, we roamed the streets looking for an ATM so we could withdraw just enough to cover our room for tonight. Everything was closed early in the morning, so we headed back to the apartment and asked Daniel if he would mind taking US cash…he didn’t mind, so that made things easier for us.
What to do when you have an extra day in Reykjavik? First, we had to make one last visit to the Bonus supermarket…how we will miss thee! One of their best bargains is the generic energy drink (on sale for only ISK 99 for a 0.5L can). Sitting on a bench on Laugavegur Street, we watched as the world went by. Reykjavik really is a quaint city…we started seeing familiar faces after having been here for a few days. We had pretty much seen everything we wanted to yesterday, but hadn’t had a chance to check out the photography museum. Let’s just say we didn’t miss much and good thing entrance to the museum was free! Afterwards, we strolled around Lake Tjornin again, watching as the greedy ducks fearlessly approached for food. We were craving burgers for lunch, and a quick internet search revealed Hamborgarabúllan (The Burgerjoint) was the place to check out. The place was packed when we first strolled in and ordered at the till. While the burgers hit the spot, the real treat was the milkshakes. Made with fresh ingredients, both of us agreed that we could easily have had an extra milkshake or two…delicious! Lunch for two came out to a reasonable $40…there certainly are no bargains in Reykjavik when it comes to food but we felt that we had found decent value here.
Daniel had recommended that we pay a visit to the Mál og Menning Bookstore on Laugavegur Street. Apparently, this is one of the best places in the city to get pastries in the upstairs coffee shop. The bookstore/coffee shop are jointly owned, so you can grab a book or magazine from down below and head upstairs to find one of the comfortable chairs to lounge in while you enjoy a freshly baked treat. You can stay as long as you like while catching up on a bit of reading…it was a great recommendation and we killed a few hours here. Back at the apartment, we packed for the second time in preparation for our return trip home. Daniel was already at Kim’s apartment for the night, so we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. The FlyBus was departing at 4 am, so we crashed early to get a decent night’s sleep.
28 July, Monday: Daniel’s apartment is a convenient 15 minute walk to the BSI bus station. Thankfully, the rain held off during our 4 am walk there, but started as soon as we boarded the bus for the airport…great timing! The FlyBus left on time and deposited us off at Keflavik 45 minutes later. We had plenty of time to check in for our 7 am flight to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by 4 hours, causing us to miss our connecting flight to Dubai. The reason? Unbeknownst to us, the airport at Amsterdam was going through a meltdown…all because of a thunderstorm that had delayed and cancelled dozens of flights. The poor weather, combined with KLM upgrading their software (and only training a handful of personnel to operate the new ticket issuing system), caused one of the worst and most disorganized crisis we’ve ever experienced at any airport around the world to date. But that is another story…how we spent 48 hours as refugees at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Let’s just say that we were super-thankful to FINALLY make it back to Kabul and rest in our bed again.