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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Arrival and Reykjanes peninisula


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2021 has been a wild year so far for our family in many ways. After not traveling at all in 2020 due to COVID we've overloaded our plate this year with spring break in Belize and not one but two huge summer trips. For the first we were able to thread the needle with a month-long road trip in the American Southwest that ended just before the delta wave of COVID crashed into the United States. We were exhausted on our return and had to decide quickly if we were going to cram another trip into the tail end of summer vacation. It seemed fateful that Iceland, one of our most desirable targets, had recently relaxed their entry restrictions and we would now be able to enter the country without any quarantine as long as we were fully vaccinated with negative pre-departure tests. Our small children had no requirements at all. Our only other choice was Alaska and we were ready for a dose of a different culture that only another country could provide. Painful as it was to abandon the comforts of home so soon, I nevertheless got hold of a Lonely Planet for Iceland and went to work. I quickly realized that it's not easy to book accommodations in Iceland three weeks in advance. I was able to find a place at every stop I wanted but at one remote location I had no choice except to put down a non-refundable payment of over $700 for one night. The other accommodations were generally quite expensive as well, partly because there's almost no Airbnb/Vrbo presence in Iceland outside of the capital. Whether that is because of the sparse population or government restrictions I don't know. The cost of our two week 4WD SUV rental was over $5000 as well and that was with a local Icelandic outfit called Lotus. The international brands were considerably more expensive. This two week trip was going to cost us more than our month in the Southwest, even excluding the airfare difference.

The choice of Iceland wasn't based purely on word-of-mouth and impulse. I'd been there alone on a brief visit almost twenty years previously. I'd only seen Reykjavik and the island of Vestmannaeyjar. I'd especially loved the island and clearly remembered standing atop a mountain there looking down at the only village and the surrounding islets, vowing to myself I would one day return when I had someone with whom to share this indescribably view. I now had four of those people in my life and I eagerly anticipated returning to that island. I was also excited about finally driving the legendary Ring Road and seeing all the natural wonders that are near it, as well as the myriad opportunities for family adventure that Iceland provides. I created a two week itinerary that covered the entire Ring Road with enough time to experience all of Iceland's more accessible adventures. The only regions excluded were the Westfjords, which would have required another two or three days, and the Highlands which seemed too risky and strenuous for the kids. Realizing how difficult it had been just to arrange accommodations, I had taken the extra step of making restaurant reservations for almost every night of the trip as well. Being forced to scrounge for dinner at a gas station convenience store would have been a lousy way to end an exciting day of travel.

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Our trip to Iceland was almost over before it began. We packed two days in advance and carefully reviewed our checklist. I even remembered the binoculars I had forgotten to take to the Southwest. We arrived at the Delta check-in desk with our passports and COVID tests in hand and the agent asked us about our vaccination records. I had kept mine in my wallet ever since it was first issued, but I saw a stunned look come over Mei Ling's face. This was the first time we'd needed vaccination in order to travel and she'd never thought to take the card out of her folder in the filing cabinet. We had a little more than an hour to departure, nowhere near enough time to take an Uber back to the house. The only person at the house was Mei Ling's mom, who didn't know how to drive or even text us a picture of the card. Mei Ling started frantically calling her friends and found someone on the third call who was available. Meanwhile the gate agent was on the phone and confirmed we needed the actual card to get us through screening in Iceland, not just a photo. I simply could not conceive how someone could drive to our house, find the card in the filing cabinet, and bring it to the airport in time for our flight. Taking the flight to Iceland without proof of vaccination was not an option. We were almost certain to get quarantined in a grim hotel for the first five days of our fourteen day trip which would have been worse than just staying home. Meanwhile, Mei Ling was unable to contact her mother because she was napping in Spenser's room and had left her phone on the other side of the house. Mei Ling's friend arrived about ten minutes later to a locked house with no one answering the bell. Here our luck finally started to turn. Spenser's bedroom is at the front of our single-story house and I was able to direct our helper to the window facing the front yard. Mei Ling's mom must have had the shock of her life to be awoken by banging on the window. When she came to the front door she finally picked up her phone and Mei Ling explained to her what was going on. Then I had to guide Mei Ling's friend to my office, to the correct filing cabinet, and then to the actual folder. The next moment of despair came when she emptied Mei Ling's medical folder onto my desk and the vaccination card wasn't there, followed shortly afterwards by a return to exhilaration when she found it in the adjacent folder. We now had forty minutes until departure and our check-in agent had very patiently waited for us for about twenty minutes. The card had been retrieved but our home was twenty-five minutes from the airport under the best of conditions. We decided that I would take the kids through security while Mei Ling waited for her friend at check-in. The agent weighed and tagged our bags and stored them behind the counter pending the arrival of the vaccination card. I'd been through so many cycles of despondency and elation in the last half hour that I was almost numb. Even though we were in a much better position than when we first realized Mei Ling hadn't brought her card, I still couldn't see how we would make our flight. I'd put so much work into organizing every step of our trip and now our itinerary would have to be cut short if there was even space for us on a flight in the coming days. We shuffled along on the way to the TSA desk and then after what seemed an impossibly brief period of time Mei Ling ran over with vaccination card in hand. It couldn't have been more than twenty minutes since her friend had been in our house. I still have no idea how she managed to get to the airport so quickly but somehow the universe just seems to flex in all the right ways when Mei Ling needs help. Amazingly our flight was departing from the very first gate after we got through security. We arrived just as people were starting to line up to board without even suffering the indignity of a mad rush through the airport. I planted myself in my seat in a state of complete shock, my head spinning as I contemplated the emotional roller coaster we had experienced over the last hour. It was time to put the trauma out of mind because we were now embarking on the first leg of our trip to Iceland and it seemed that we had skirted disaster. Just to keep our karma in good shape Mei Ling Zelle'd two hundred bucks to the check-in agent who had let us occupy his station for half an hour while we frantically dealt with our self-inflicted wound. The funniest part was that this wasn't even the first time we had come so close to missing an entire vacation. Four years ago we forgot to renew Cleo's passport and Mei Ling conducted a Jedi-like act of persuasion on the supervisor at check-in that got us on the plane.

Iceland is a relatively easy journey from Miami but it requires a connection through NYC or Boston. Red eyes are a good option for us because Mei Ling and the kids sleep pretty well on planes, allowing us to start fresh in the morning rather than arriving exhausted. The flip side of that is that I can rarely sleep at all on a plane and I do most of the driving. I've discovered from experience that my long years of working overnight combined with the adrenalin of kicking off a road trip are enough to keep me active and alert through that first day as long as we don't try to push ourselves too late. Mei Ling and I wore N95's under our cloth masks on the way to NYC and then relaxed our precautions a little on the second leg, figuring virtually everyone on that flight had both been vaccinated and recently tested negative (with the exception of the kids). At the baggage carousel we had to endure one final episode of suspense as our bags failed to appear after almost every other passenger had moved onward. Had the gate agent remembered to load our checked bags onto the carousel or had he left them at the desk? Mei Ling had been so consumed with the vaccination card that she hadn't paid attention. Then our bags popped out together at the top of the ramp and we could finally breathe again.

Although Iceland's international airport is often referred to as being in Reykjavik, it is actually located near Keflavik at the end of the boot-like Reykjanes peninsula forty-five minutes drive from the capital. We picked up our rental, a Kia Sportage 4WD SUV, from Lotus Car Rentals without incident. There was a GPS that came with the car but we were able to use Google Maps for the entire trip without any difficulty. Google Maps is always the best choice because GPS is very difficult to use without a street address, and canyons and waterfalls rarely come with street addresses. Years ago we encountered lots of problems using Google Maps in Europe but the app has come a long way since then and in Iceland it was almost infallible. We stopped at the first gas station we came to for a snack and a Siminn prepaid SIM card. For a little over twenty bucks I got 5GB of data and 50 minutes of call time which proved to be more than adequate over our two week stay. It was a major price improvement over the $140 it would have cost me to roam my iPhone, and I had the best network for rural areas. I don't know what coverage would have been like with roaming but with Siminn I only lost service when we were out on a glacier. There were no activation annoyances either. I switched the SIM cards and my phone was immediately up and running.

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The Reykjanes peninsula gets ignored by most travelers who are rushing to either Reykjavik or the Ring Road, but sometimes the least visited places turn out to be the most interesting for us. As soon as we left the airport area we found ourselves in a completely unfamiliar landscape. The ground was uneven and rocky with patchy areas of long grass. It was clear we were driving over land that was in various stages of evolution after volcanic eruptions. On our way to our first planned stop we saw cars pulling into a small parking lot by the side of the highway. On instinct I followed them even though our scheduled visit to the Blue Lagoon didn't leave us much time. A path led to a shallow chasm traversed by a metal footbridge, and I immediately recognized we were at the Bridge Between Continents. This is one of several locations in Iceland where one can observe the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The bridge spans the two plates and a popular activity is to toss a football across the chasm from one continent to another.
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At the heel of the Reykjanes boot are the cliffs of Valahnúkamöl. This area contains some of the peninsula's most dramatic scenery. A side road from the highway took us first past the hill topped by the Reykjanes lighthouse, which was surrounded by flocks of circling and swooping Arctic terns. We drove slowly to avoid the birds which flew low around the car and even paced on the road in front of us. Other drivers clearly hadn't afforded them the same courtesy as there were several squashed birds on the asphalt.

Next to the parking area was an incongruous statue of a solitary great auk, a flightless species that once frequented the area but was hunted to extinction. Close to the shore was the tiny islet of Eldey, a bizarre-appearing rock that looked like it had been cleaved obliquely with a giant sword. The slanted facet facing us was patterned with long white stripes of guano. The cliffs were jagged and daunting, tantalizingly hilly and climbable from the landward side but then ending in abrupt precipices. I couldn't deny the kids their first opportunity for a real scramble but it was quite unnerving trying to keep between all three of them and the seaward side of the cliffs.
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One popular attraction that almost everyone visits on the peninsula is the Blue Lagoon, a man-made spa filled with cloudy, sky-blue water that is ideal for Instagram posturing. Although the water enjoys a reputation for being beneficial to the skin, most patrons would probably be horrified to discover that it is actually the discharged water from a geothermal power plant that has been directed into a hollowed out lava field. The water acquires its unearthly and photogenic color from dissolved silica and blue algae. After the lagoon started becoming popular among locals the site was expanded and upgraded to make it more amenable for visitors and it has now become one of the crucial boxes to check for international visitors. The admission prices vary by demand but typically range from $60-76 for the most basic package which only provides a towel and one free drink. Children under 14 are free, which was nice for us. We had booked well in advance to get a lower price and to be sure to get the time slot we needed. I hadn't planned on eating at the Lava Restaurant at the lagoon since it had a reputation for being overpriced and uneven on quality, but when we arrived we were starving and the restaurant was almost empty. We ordered the Icelandic standards of cod and grilled lamb and were quite pleased with the food. Afterwards we spent about an hour in the pleasantly warm water wading around and getting our free silica masks, which were a lot easier to put on than to wash off.
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Our next stop was the geothermal area Seltún, positioned conveniently right by the road and traversed by a well-maintained boardwalk. Although we would see more impressive hot springs and mudpots later in our journey, this was the first time the kids had seen anything like it. They were even more amazed that the earth could produce a sulfurous stench more intense than the most noxious flatulence any of them had ever emitted. There are opportunities for more extensive hikes in Seltún but we opted for the simple walk along the boardwalk and then took a dirt footpath back to the car. Across the road was a pond that was bright blue with algae and an abandoned farm with graffitied silos.
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Just a few minutes drive north is Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on the peninsula. The water was an amazingly deep shade of blue that contrasted with the surrounding black sand beach. As we approached an enormous flock of white birds rose from the beach in synchrony, swirled in the air, and departed.
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By now we had checked off all our planned sights on the peninsula and we were ready to drive inland to our Airbnb in Selfoss. I saw that Google Maps was directing us all the way to Reykjavik to pick up the Ring Road when there seemed to be a perfectly acceptable shortcut via Highway 417. We decided to take the shorter route but after just ten minutes or so we found that the highway was completely closed in both directions. Before we turned back we noticed a car pulling out of a small parking area next to the barricade. We pulled into the now-empty area and saw a sign indicating we were near the Leiðarendi Lava Cave. We followed a gravel path from the parking area into the lava field by the highway. We had already seen a few of these lava fields from the road but it was totally different to walk through the middle of one. The lumpy basalt was covered in patches of thick spongy moss as far as the eye could see. The dark grey rock that was still exposed was a patchwork of lichen in white and tan. In the background were steep hills with the characteristic striped pattern caused by flows of black volcanic sand over the green carpet of grass at the base.
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Most lava tubes form when the outside of a lava flow cools and solidifies while the hot lava underneath continues to pass through. If the flow is fast enough the deep magma will pass through and leave an empty space behind. Iceland has many lava tubes, some of which are vast and highly popular as tourist attractions. Leiðarendi isn't one of the most famous but it seems to be fairly well-known. We arrived at the opening of the tube and I clambered down into the small entrance chamber. I couldn't see to the back and my cautious nature inhibited me from trying to proceed any further. I didn't even have a flashlight, let alone a helmet or any familiarity with the cave so it was probably a wise decision not to push onward. We made our way back through the lava field and charted out our new route to Selfoss.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:15 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland family_travel reykjanes tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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