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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Reynisfjara and Fjaðrárgljúfur


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Just to the west of the coastal village of Vik is a wide estuary called Dyrhólaós, separated from the ocean by two promontories with a narrow channel between them. The western promontory is a rocky nature preserve called Dyrhólaey, while on the eastern side is the famed black sand beach Reynisfjara. There is no bridge across the channel so the two sides have to be accessed separately from the Ring Road. The access road to the upper part of Dyrhólaey was closed, likely to protect nesting birds, so we parked in the lower area close to the tip of the promontory. Here I was grateful that we had broken out our long underwear for the first time and we were all in four comfortable layers. The unobstructed Arctic wind blowing in from the ocean made this by far the coldest place we had experienced in Iceland to that point. We braved the frigid air for views of the pristine black sand and sheer cliffs, and there was also a pretty cool arch of jagged basalt. The view of the outcrop with the keyhole arch wasn't very good from the lower level but we opted against following the line of people taking the trail up to the cliffs. It wasn't worth the time or the discomfort to get that perfect Instagram shot of the arch.
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Everyone was starving by now so we opted to have lunch in Vik before heading to Reynisfjara. There are hardly any actual towns on the southern coast so the pretty little village of Vik is a relative metropolis filled with restaurants and accommodations. Fortunately the restaurant I'd placed on our itinerary, Sudur Vik, was open and had plenty of tables. We had an excellent lunch there which fortified us to return to the freezing winds at the shoreline.
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Reynisfjara lived up to every bit of its reputation as one of the most amazing destinations in Iceland. The kids loved the black sand despite the coldness and occasional drizzle. We made sure to be careful to keep them well away from the shore line due to the extremely dangerous sneaker waves that have claimed the lives of several tourists at Reynisfjara as well as at Dyrhólaey before access to that beach was closed. At the foot of the formidable mountain behind the beach was an amazing display of hexagonal basalt columns, a geologic formation caused by rapidly cooling lava that can be seen in several locations around Iceland. Few of these locations are as impressive or easily accessible as Reynisfjara. The columns in front were shorter and their height gradually rose as the formation receded into the cliff so that it was possible to climb quite high by jumping from column to column like a character in a volcanic video game.
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Another extraordinary feature of the cliffs was the enormous number of birds that nested in their heights. Mei Ling soon noticed that a sizeable number of these birds were puffins, the species we hadn't even attempted to track down in Iceland. Many people seek puffins out in remote and isolated locations and here there were hundreds in one of the most touristic places in the country. The birds were constantly detaching from the cliff and flying out over the water, presumably to catch fish, and we noticed that the puffins had a very wobbly flight pattern. Watching the birds proved to be a nice diversion while the kids were preoccupied with the sand and the columns. On the far side of the cliff was a shallow cave with an amazing ceiling of undulating hexagonal basalt that looked like a mathematician's paradise.
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After the majesty of Reynisfjara I felt almost silly driving to Hjörleifshöfði hellir, more popularly and pronounceably known as the Yoda cave. This cave's sole claim to fame is that the mouth of the cave bears some resemblance to the Star Wars character Yoda. That's it. Normally we wouldn't go out of our way for a silly photo op but it was only ten minutes from the Ring Road and we had managed not to fall behind in our schedule. In the end it was worth the detour because the paved road ended well short of the ultimate destination and we were able to drive over hardened black sand right up to the mouth of the cave. We were the only visitors at the time as well which helped maintain the illusion that we had struck off into uncharted territory. The mouth of the cave was enormous despite its lack of depth, and a horizontal bridge separated it into a triangular upper section and a rhomboid lower section. I suppose one could see Yoda there but I thought it stood alone as a fairly cool and unique sight. On the way back we ran into a few sheep lolling on the sand. They were probably accustomed to being ignored and looked at us strangely when we drove over for a closer look.
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I realized I'd become overconfident in Google Maps when it took us to the wrong location when I plugged in Fjaðrárgljúfur. Fortunately we only lost fifteen minutes and we weren't directed into any horrendous dead ends which used to happen to us quite a lot in Spain and Italy. Fjaðrárgljúfur is a beautiful and accessible canyon that has acquired the unfortunate nickname of "Justin Bieber canyon" in recent years thanks to this music video that was shot entirely in Iceland and features the site prominently. I think part of the reason places in Iceland get nicknames like "Justin Bieber canyon" and "Yoda cave" is that people are intimidated by their long, seemingly unpronounceable Icelandic names. However, I found that if one learns just a few simple rules Icelandic pronunciation really isn't that hard. Take that awful "j" for example. How the heck does one pronounce a "j" after an "f" or an "h"? Very easily, as it turns out. Remember "fjord"? That scary "j" is just a "y" in disguise. Next up are the funny letters ð and þ. They're both "th" but ð is "th" as in "that" while "þ" is "th" as in "thing". Say those two words out loud a few times and you'll realize that English uses "th" for two sounds which are quite different. In English you have to know which word uses which sound while in Icelandic the phonetic rules make it easy. ð at the end of a syllable is a little more tricky, but I just remember it as "dth" as in "width". Each vowel can have an acute accent. "a" is "ah" while "á" is "ow" as in "cow". "e" is "eh" while "é" is "yeh". "i" and "y" are both a short "i" while "í" and "ý" are both "ee". "o" is "aw" while "ó" is a long "o" like "oh". "u" is "uh" while "ú" is "oo". The other important vowels are the o with an umlaut "ö" which is similar to "uh" as in "fur" but a little more drawn out and the "æ" which is a long "i" as in "pie". Thus Fjaðrárgljúfur is pronounced fyadth-rour-gluh-yoo-fur. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue but not overwhelming. After that there's a couple of things with consonant combinations but you'll get pretty close if you just remember the basic sounds. You'll feel much more comfortable asking for directions and you might even see some raised eyebrows from the locals who aren't used to hearing words pronounced correctly.

I almost made a very stupid mistake once we reached the correct location. We came to a sign directing 4WD vehicles only down a dirt road to the canyon and indicating there was a parking area further down the paved road. Even though our car was 4WD drive I wasn't comfortable with the ground clearance so we proceeded onward. It was another kilometer to the parking and I assumed we would have to walk all the way back to the beginning of the dirt road. I was getting ready to set us all off in that direction when Mei Ling saw people setting off on a trailhead at the other end of the lot. That was the real access and I had almost wasted half an hour on an unpleasant uphill walk on an asphalt road. I sheepishly followed Mei Ling to the correct entrance once again grateful I didn't have to rely entirely on my own critical thinking skills.

The Fjaðrárgljúfur walk was surprisingly easy. There was a roped-off gravel trail on a gentle incline with a mesh covering. Once we got up the slope we could see an enormous lava field stretching into the distance on the other side of the parking lot. There were some short detours to the lip of the canyon from the main path that seemed safe enough to explore and allowed for some good views down the barrel of the canyon. As usual the river at the bottom seemed far too innocuous to have carved such a huge gash in the earth. After just twenty minutes or so of walking we reached a staircase that took us down to a metal platform with a secure railing that projected out into the canyon. It might have detracted a little from the naturalness of the surroundings but it was perfect for an anxious dad with small kids. There were small waterfalls cutting their own channels into the main canyon as they flowed downward to feed the river. Eventually the walls of the canyon receded and the river became level with the ground before it split and coursed around either side of the lava field.
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I had underestimated the time it would take to reach the restaurant at the Fosshótel Glacier Lagoon so we had to drive straight there without first stopping at our night's accommodation. By this point we were starting to become accustomed to fine dining in Iceland. Cod and lamb entrees were inevitable and always serviceable with uninspiring sides. The other choices would either be char, beef tenderloin, or vegetarian. If we were lucky there might be horse or reindeer, but it was typically indistinguishable from beef. Appetizers were hit or miss, and most of the time desserts were chocolate cake, creme brulee or ice cream. We were getting palatable food but Iceland was not going to be very memorable from a gastronomic perspective. By this point we had figured out to take advantage of the children's menu which provided a piece of cod as large as the regular entree for half the price. We needed all the help we could get because although the food was no different than any of the other restaurants we'd eaten at, the bill at the busy hotel was another 25% higher than the extraordinary prices we'd paid previously.

It was freezing cold and getting dark when we doubled back to the tiny village called Hof where we had rented a villa for the night at the painful rate of $700. There was simply nothing else available on that date and I had decided to pay rather than rework the whole itinerary to save $300-$400. To add insult to injury Google Maps deposited us in the middle of a cluster of buildings without street numbers and the directions we'd been given didn't clarify which was the correct house. I spent about fifteen minutes circling around the different houses trying to find the one with a hot tub in the back before it finally occurred to me to go back and look at the photos on the site where I'd originally made the booking. It turned out not to be any of the houses around us but a rather unusual single story home built into the hillside above us. Inside it was quite luxurious but as it was already eleven at night our only focus was to get the kids into bed and asleep as we had a full day of adventure beginning the next morning. I ended up paying $700 for a place we stayed in for just eight hours.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 17:43 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip vik family_travel reynisfjara family_travel_blog fjaðrárgljúfur

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