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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Selfoss to Landeyjahöfn


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Selfoss is an idyllic small town that sits on the bank of the Ölfusá river, nor far from where it empties into a wide estuary on the southern coast. Although well short of ten thousand people, Selfoss is the largest town on the south coast and the fourth largest in all of Iceland (if all the municipalities of Reykjavik are lumped together). Selfoss is the only significant town that sits on a river and the town is clearly proud of the distinction, with most of the major commercial establishments arranged along the riverside thoroughfare of Arvegur. I wish I could say we stayed in a fashionable abode with a view of the water, but our Airbnb was a pokey converted garage set several blocks back from the river.
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As tempting as the meager twin beds appeared after a day and a half of sleep deprivation, we forced ourselves to unpack for the first time and get our gear sorted. The top restaurant in town was undoubtedly Tryggvaskáli, situated in a renovated 19th century house filled with antiques. The crowded first floor provided immediate validation of my strategy of making dinner reservations for the entire trip. I gave my name and we were immediately escorted to one of the private dining rooms upstairs, where we had a solid meal which included horse tenderloin. If I hadn't known better I would have thought I was eating beef. As is common in Iceland the bill was paid at the front desk. When I arrived a man with a Spanish accent was demanding to leave a tip even though the waitress told him it wasn't necessary. It seems with every year that the American custom of tipping is becoming the default for the rest of the world, even in countries that generally want no part of it. Iceland in particular doesn't subscribe to the practice but here was a customer who wasn't even American himself pushing a tip on his server. Eventually she laughed and told him she wouldn't refuse it which seemed to satisfy him. I'm a committed 20% tipper in the United States, but only for the specific reason that certain service workers are underpaid with the expectation they will make up the difference in tips. In most of the rest of the world those service charges are included in the prices so it is silly to duplicate them. Americans still believe they are demonstrating their exceptional generosity by tipping in Europe, but they would laugh at a tourist in the United States who tried to give a tip to a supermarket cashier or a clerk at an electronics store.
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On the way back to our car we detoured for a closer look at the elegant grey and white town church Selfosskirkja, sitting serenely at the edge of the Ölfusá. It was a peaceful conclusion to a very exhausting day and a half that had begun with a frantic near-catastrophe at the Miami Airport and had taken us through two plane flights and an adventure-filled drive through just one tiny segment of the fascinating country that would be our home for the next two weeks.
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I anticipated that the kids would wake up at some unholy hour of the night during jetlag, but all three of them and Mei Ling slept blissfully until the morning. It was actually I who awoke at 1:30 in the morning despite having been awake for thirty-six hours before finally putting my head on the pillow. I knew this meant I would have a second exhausting day but I was wide awake with no chance at going back to sleep. I used the time to review our itinerary for the next two days and also caught an early e-mail from the horseback riding tour we were scheduled to meet up with in the morning. They wanted to know if we could change from 9 AM to 1 PM because of some conflict they had. I didn't really like to disrupt our tight schedule but I try to accommodate people as much as I can when they ask a favor. I figured we could still make our ferry to Vestmannaeyjar if we drove straight there after riding. That meant we wouldn't be able to visit the swimming pool at Hella but that hadn't been a very high priority stop in the first place. Instead we could drive a short way back west towards Reykjanes and visit the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel, which I had previously planned on seeing when we did the Golden Circle at the end of the trip. By the time everyone else had woken up I had reorganized our day. After a buffet breakfast at one of the hotels on the river we headed south towards the coastal road. As soon as we reached the coast we saw a pretty little village wedged between the road and the coastline. This was Eyrarbakki, once a major trading port but now a very modest fishing village. We had a little extra time so we pulled off the road and drove down the single main street admiring the colorful houses and the stately church in its own little square.

Raufarhólshellir is one of the better known lava tubes in Iceland, partly because it is one of the largest and also because it is easily accessible from Reykjavik for day trippers. For our guided tour we got to wear helmets with lights, which was exciting for the kids and frustrating for us as we kept having to escalate our threats to keep them from constantly clicking through the different brightness settings. A gravel path led to an ominous hole in a lava field which permitted our group's descent into the underworld.
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The cave was a good choice for us as it required a little bit of clambering to reach the metal walkway but nothing too strenuous, and there were no tight squeezes or areas of danger. The walls of the spacious tube had an intriguing jagged and rocky composition, almost as though they had been constructed by a giant gluing boulders together. Deeper inside some of the walls had a smoother, grooved surface testifying to the passage of lava centuries earlier. We had chosen the standard one hour tour but there is also an option for a more rigorous four hour tour which requires significantly more climbing and navigation of tight spaces. Our kids were nowhere near the minimum age of twelve so this was never a consideration for us, and it remains to be seen if we'll be up for that kind of adventure in five or six years.
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We had to pass back through Selfoss on the way to horseback riding so we decided to eat at Mjólkurbúið Mathöll, a food hall in the center of town that we'd accidentally discovered the previous evening while walking to our dinner restaurant. The operation occupies an old dairy building and is part of a major renovation of the center of town that was ongoing at the time of our visit. It was a small food hall with only six or seven restaurants but still quite impressive for a town the size of Selfoss, and quite busy as well. We had Thai food along with some skyr, a cultured dairy product similar to yogurt that has been a part of Icelandic cuisine since medieval times.
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Horseback riding is a very popular activity for travelers in Iceland mainly because of the small stature of the horses, their friendly dispositions, and their flowing manes. It's common for travelers to feed horses close to the Ring Road, much to the annoyance of farmers. Our riding experience was with Riding Tours South Iceland on a small farm called Syðra Langholt. It was the prototypical Icelandic farm with bales of hay rolled into white coverings like giant marshmallows on the pastures. I was a little nervous about the trip because on our last attempt in Belize a few months earlier Spenser had been too afraid to go through with the ride. It hadn't mattered because Mei Ling had taken his spot and Spenser had hung out with me at the barn, but this time all five of us were planning on riding together. I spent the minutes before we got on the horse building up his confidence and the guides were very patient with him as well. They taught us how to control the horses with the reins, although I think it was an illusion as our horses generally followed the lead of the guides. The only exception was that since our pace was slow they would frequently stop to chew on some favorite grasses and weeds. The kids were also impressed by the volume and duration of flatulence a couple of the horses emitted on the trail. It was a pleasant experience although Mei Ling and I were mainly in it for the kids and our butts were pretty sore at the conclusion of the experience. Spenser finished his ride despite some initial anxiousness and was quite pleased with himself.
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We finished horseback riding half an hour later than scheduled which meant there was no way we'd be able to make our scheduled ferry to Vestmannaeyjar. This seemed unlikely to be a tragedy since the boats left every couple of hours and there didn't seem to be any problem with space, especially as we weren't planning on bringing our car. I confirmed this by calling ahead and they assured me there was plenty of room on the later departure, although I would have to wait until I arrived physically to change the ticket. That gave us an additional hour and a half which I hoped to spend at the Lava Centre, but when I checked the hours online I saw a very early closing time of four o'clock. The earliest we could make it there would be a few minutes before closing. I had no other plan except to wait at the ferry terminal but fortunately I let Mei Ling convince me to drive to the Lava Centre anyway. When we arrived we learned that 4:00 was just the time they played their last movie and that visitors could stay until five. As usual Mei Ling had made the right call. The admission price was pretty steep but the Centre had glowing reviews online so we decided to go ahead with it. The exhibit turned out to be pretty small with just one or two interactive features. The part my kids enjoyed the most was a video timeline of Iceland's formation that could be advanced or reversed by spinning a giant wheel. On the roof there were placards explaining the different volcanos that were visible on the horizon. Overall I would say the Lava Centre definitely wasn't worth the price of admission, but it was better than sitting in the lobby of the ferry terminal.
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The ferry to Vestmannaeyjar usually sails from the port Landeyjahöfn which sits on the closest part of the southern coast to the island, in which case the ride is about forty minutes. In times of bad weather, which is much more common in the winter, the ferry sails from the small town of Þorlákshöfn at the base of the Reykjanes peninsula and takes almost three hours. I can only imagine what a miserable experience that must be on a rolling ocean. Fortunately luck was on our side and the seas were calm when we arrived at Landeyjahöfn. It was clear we had arrived at the right place from the large puffin statue at the turnoff from the Ring Road. We had to sort our belongings in the parking lot to avoid bringing both large suitcases to the island while being careful not to leave behind anything essential. I changed the time of our departure after paying a tiny fee and soon enough we were shoveling our kids and belongings onto the ferry. After eighteen years I was finally making good on my promise to return to Vestmannaeyjar.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 15:58 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog selfoss reykjanes tony_friedman family_travel_blog raufarhólshellir lava_centre icelandic_horses

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