A Travellerspoint blog

November 2021

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Blönduós and Húsafell


View Iceland 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

large_e0c4ddd0-5040-11ec-b17e-59bea39f6b26.png

My kids had never been river rafting before this summer, and here we were on our way to do it for the third time. I had carefully planned these adventures to begin as mildly as possible and slowly progress in difficulty once I was able to see how they managed the excitement. The first trip in Utah had been more like a float and they had enjoyed the second which had some light grade II rapids. My understanding was that we would be in for some grade III rapids today on Vestari-Jökulsá, the West Glacial River. The fact that they allowed six year olds on the raft allayed my nervousness to some degree but I still wondered if I was really making the best judgment of risk versus reward in scheduling this activity.

The stretch of Ring Road from Akureyri to Varmahlíð had an eerie beauty that morning. A low fog obscured the mountaintops and merged into the milky sky. At times it seemed that we were about to drive into pea soup and I steeled myself for a near-total loss of visibility but the mists always seemed to clear at the last moment. Fortunately for my nerves there was almost no traffic in that rather unpopular region of Iceland in the early morning, despite the fact that we were on the main road that circled the country.
large_IMG_20210817_153055a.JPGlarge_IMG_20210817_082240.jpg

When we arrived at the headquarters it was clear this was a more serious endeavor than the rafting trips we had taken in Utah. Our guide took a lot more time to give us instructions and informed us we would be wearing dry suits and helmets. The dry suits were a particular challenge to struggle into and at the end the kids looked like a band of Oompah Loompahs that had escaped from the chocolate factory. A short bus ride brought us to the departure point and as soon as I saw the river I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake. The rafts were on the bank of a river that was completely white with churning foam and the water seemed to be moving as fast as any I had ever seen. It almost reminded me of the waters of Jökulsá á Fjöllum just before they went off the edge of Dettifoss, not the most comforting memory. I was relieved to learn that the guide who had given instructions to the whole group would be navigating our raft as he seemed to be the most confident and experienced. As soon as I had a chance to talk to him privately I made it clear that I didn't see any of my kids getting pitched into the water as part of the adventure. I wanted him to do whatever he needed to do to keep us all in the raft. He seemed to get what I was saying and told me not to worry. They'd had plenty of young kids on the rafting trips before and never had any serious problems.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that we all ended up surviving the rafting trip. The water was fast and the rapids were certainly rougher than anything we had experienced, but we never came close to getting tossed out. I did notice our guide steering us away from the most turbulent sections but fortunately our kids weren't old enough to notice they were getting a softer treatment. The kids also didn't seem to mind when I declined the offer to jump in the water although the Icelandic teenagers on the raft ahead of us seemed to enjoy it. I was very relieved when it was over and everyone had enjoyed themselves without injury. We had lunch in a cafe attached to a service station in Varmahlíð, which isn't as bad as it sounds. In fact this was our third service station lunch in Iceland and the offerings can be quite varied and substantial. As Varmahlíð was barely large enough to qualify as a village the cafe was also our only option.

Swimming is something of a national pastime in Iceland thanks to all the geothermal activity that allows natural heating of pools. Some of the most small and remote towns have the most renowned sundlaugs, or swimming pools. The pool in the miniscule village of Hofsós is often rated as the top swimming pool in all of Iceland. I thought this reputation was worth checking out and it's never hard to convince the kids to go to a swimming pool. We drove about a half hour north partway up the western coast of the Tröllaskagi Peninsula to Hofsós, a typical Icelandic coastal village with a blue-roofed church and a backdrop of mountains shrouded in mist. The unique feature of the pool was its infinity design but a rim of land around the far edge detracted from the illusion of continuity with the fjord beyond. I think the kids would have preferred slides like the ones in Höfn but they still enjoyed themselves.
large_IMG_7758.JPGlarge_IMG_20210817_162115a.JPG

A fringe benefit of the detour to Hofsós was that we got to drive Highway 75 which traversed the innermost point of Skagafjörður. The landscape is always more beautiful closer to the water. We crossed the base of the Skagi Peninsula before arriving in Blönduós, a tiny town that I had chosen mainly for a restaurant owned by two well-known Icelandic chefs. I had selected our guesthouse despite my concerns about a community bathroom but when we arrived it was clear that the only bedroom we weren't using would be vacant that night. Being the only occupants made the guesthouse more like an inexpensive, oversized Airbnb with substantial common areas. The COVID precautions that were prominently displayed seemed somewhat eccentric. Avoid contact with stray animals in market areas in Iceland?
large_IMG_7766.JPGlarge_IMG_7767.JPG

The coastal town was bisected by the mouth of a river and most of the hotels were packed into a quaint little corner on the southern bank of the river right next to the fjord. I hadn't even realized that our guesthouse was next door to the restaurant so we only had a two minute walk to dinner. Our hotel was adjacent to a classic little Icelandic church and a horse pasture.
large_IMG_7763.JPGlarge_IMG_20210817_184905.jpg

Brimslóð Atelier seemed like a prime candidate to provide our first exceptional dinner in Iceland. The owners have published several cookbooks and are among the most well-known chefs in Iceland. The particular attraction of the restaurant is that the set menu provides locally sourced dishes with the atmosphere of a home-cooked meal. The kitchen was indeed continuous with the dining area although largely blocked from visibility by cupboards, and with two long communal tables there was actually more seating than some of the other restaurants we had visited. We proved unlucky with the evening menu as the appetizer was tomato soup and the entree was Arctic char, a dish we had seen on almost every dinner menu and were trying to avoid. The fish was well-prepared and tasty but I couldn't describe the dinner as a memorable experience from a culinary perspective.
large_IMG_7762.JPGlarge_IMG_7761.JPG

Our Ice Cave Tour in Húsafell didn't start until three so we needed something to do in the morning. Unlike in southern Iceland, where there were always enough waterfalls and canyons and Ring Road sights to fill an entire day, exciting activities in northern Iceland were somewhat sparse. I couldn't find anything worth seeing en route so it looked like we'd have to hang out in Blönduós for a bit. We went back to Brimslóð Atelier for breakfast which we oddly found more enjoyable than the previous night's dinner. It seemed Blönduós had a decent swimming pool with slides like the one in Höfn. The kids had just been swimming the previous day in Hofsós but there hadn't been any slides so they jumped at the chance to go again. As it turned out the slides were even longer than the ones in Höfn so they had a blast. I was going crazy trying to keep track of all three of them because they kept stopping in the middle of the tube and I was imagining one of them getting stuck on something inside. Fortunately there was no one else around to hear me frantically yelling into the tube every two minutes. The most amazing part is that entry was completely free for the kids and our only expense was renting a towel to dry them off with. In the lobby they were selling ice cream but I found the brand name somewhat unappetizing.
large_IMG_7776.JPGlarge_IMG_7775.JPGlarge_IMG_7777.JPG

We'd already seen what passed for an old town in Blönduós by walking a few steps from the guesthouse to the restaurant. The only other distinguishing feature of the town was the uninhabited river island of Hrútey which is protected for nesting birds. It is open for hiking all year except for the spring. A footbridge connects the island to the northern bank of the river.
large_IMG_7778.JPGlarge_IMG_7780.JPG

When we arrived we discovered that there was an avant garde installation by an Icelandic artist called Shoplifter on the island. Colorful tufts and towers of synthetic fiber were strategically placed close to the path that circled the island. Our walk quickly turned into a competition between the kids for who could be the first to spot the next composition. Some were obvious but others were hidden behind other features of the landscape. Our progress was regularly slowed by the profusion of wild blueberry bushes that surrounded us. We were so entranced with the island that we almost forgot our itinerary and had to rush through the final leg of the path to stay on schedule.
large_IMG_7795.JPGlarge_IMG_7788a.JPG
large_IMG_7792a.JPG

The two hour drive to Húsafell was fairly bland relative to the scenery we had seen on the southern coast and the wild northeast. Nevertheless we had some pleasant views of fields dotted with wrapped hay bales and occasional clusters of Icelandic horses. We drove as quickly as we dared given Iceland's strict photo-enforced speed limits and arrived at the departure site of our next tour in sufficient time to wolf down a quick lunch before rushing to the bus.
large_IMG_20210818_134543.jpglarge_IMG_20210818_123448.jpg

One of the few disadvantages of visiting Iceland in the summer is that the natural ice caves that form under the glaciers every winter are too unstable to visit. The next best thing is the man-made ice cave that was built under the glacier Langjökull in 2015. The bus drove us to the edge of the glacier, Iceland's second largest, where we were outfitted in waterproof outfits and boots. A specialized glacier truck then drove us over the icy surface for forty minutes until we reached the mouth of the tunnel. We had seen plenty of desolate volcanic landscapes in Iceland but this was a completely different kind of bleakness. The ash-stained ice extended around us to the horizon in every direction and once again we felt like we had taken a spaceship rather than an airplane to this singular country.
large_IMG_1778.JPGlarge_IMG_20210818_172905.jpglarge_IMG_7802.JPG

The entrance to the tunnel was like the open mouth of some giant glacial worm. We quickly reached a chamber where we were provided with crampons to give us footing on the wet ice of the tunnel floor. For the next hour or so we gingerly plodded through a network of neat rectangular tunnels with glistening, lumpy white walls. We occasionally stopped at points of interest such as illuminated chambers, a bottomless hole, and streams of meltwater which could be caught and drunk from a bottle. It was somewhat interesting and fun for the kids but probably not comparable to the beauty of a natural ice cave. At the end we clambered back into the glacier truck and reversed the process until we were back at the departure point in Húsafell.
large_4c632de0-5040-11ec-b17e-59bea39f6b26.JPGlarge_IMG_20210818_165828.jpg

We had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to Hraunfossar on the way out of Húsafell. The unique feature of this wide waterfall is that it emerges from below the edge of the enormous Hallmundarhraun lava field when it reaches the Hvítá River. The water originates in the nearby glacier but is completely invisible until it reaches the river because it flows underneath the pahoehoe lava. A walking path provides different perspectives on the waterfall and eventually leads to another waterfall named Barnafoss where the river churns through a twisting passage of sculptured basalt.
large_IMG_7806.JPGlarge_IMG_7819.JPGlarge_5fe88fa0-505d-11ec-a72d-63a23d2d45e1.JPGlarge_IMG_7820.JPG

Soon we were gazing once again at marshmallow haystacks dotting green fields on the forty-five minute leg west to Borgarnes, where we would be having dinner and spending the night. It felt good to be back on our normal hectic schedule after slowing down our pace on the northern coast. From the looks of things we were going to be pretty busy for the next three days as well.
large_IMG_20210818_193030.jpg

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:20 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Akureyri


View Iceland 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Akureyri may be Iceland's second largest city (when all of Reykjavik's suburbs are counted as one municipality) but its population of less than twenty thousand wouldn't make it stand out among coastal villages in the rest of Europe. Many Ring Road travelers just stop by for a few hours or even bypass it completely but we had chosen it for our only two-night stay aside from Reykjavik. We had been moving nonstop for a week at this point and we needed a moment to slow down for a little and enjoy just one day without packing our bags and jumping back on the road. I knew that Akureyri had a pleasant shopping street, an interesting church, and a botanical garden but not much else about the city.
large_73c41110-458c-11ec-aba7-ef8ad181d6cd.png

We slept a little bit later than usual, but not much, and drove down from our guesthouse for breakfast. Kaffi Ilmur is located in a hundred-year-old house halfway up a hill at the end of Hafnarstræti, the main commercial street of Akureyri. It's the most popular place in town for breakfast for locals and tourists alike but fortunately it was only moderately busy on a Monday morning. Mei Ling went inside and ordered while I supervised the kids at the playground at the base of the hill. The food was good enough to justify the reputation and it was pleasant to watch the colorful street and the busy little playground while we ate.
large_IMG_7710.JPGlarge_IMG_7712.JPGlarge_4d38ffe0-4589-11ec-b632-ddd78a517a19.JPG

A stroll down Hafnarstræti barely took half an hour even though we stopped for a look in most of the small stores on the street. The buildings were painted in vivid colors and some had little steeples to accentuate their fairy tale character.
large_IMG_7714.JPGlarge_IMG_20210816_101557.jpglarge_IMG_20210816_101711a.JPG

From the corner we could see the town's landmark church Akureyrarkirkja atop a steep hill. The church has the same architect as the renowned Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik although it doesn't boast the same awesome dimensions. Nevertheless its position at the apex of several exhausting flights of stairs and its geometrical, modernist facade endow the church with substantial gravitas. The church was closed for a ceremony so we couldn't see the famous stained glass windows or the ship suspended from the ceiling but we enjoyed the climb and the view of the harbor from the top of the hill.
large_IMG_7718a.JPGlarge_44b0e7f0-465d-11ec-8dbc-93bf11444204.JPG

We came down the other side of the hill to Kaupvangsstræti, the other main street in the center of town. We were hoping to look around the Deiglan art gallery but it was closed until the afternoon. Across the street we saw the sidewalk pavers in front of the Akureyri Art Museum were painted like a quilt of bright colors. Planters next to the building were overflowing with colorful flowers. It seemed that someone had put a great deal of effort into beautifying this part of the street. Even the trash receptacles were covered with thick, woven frog cozies. We were so entranced by the vibrant display we almost didn't notice the woman who was working on a paper mache sculpture just outside of an open studio in the same building as the museum.
large_IMG_7721.JPGlarge_IMG_20210816_122440.jpglarge_IMG_20210816_122711a.JPG

The artist seemed pleased to encounter the kids and we stopped to chat with her for a while once it was clear we weren't disturbing our work. She was gracious enough to invite us all to tour her studio and didn't seem the slightest bit concerned about any of the kids damaging the artwork that was stacked everywhere. She worked in an extraordinary variety of media and it was clear she was the person remarkable for the frog cozies on the garbage receptacles.
large_IMG_20210816_122956.jpglarge_IMG_20210816_123727a.JPG

At this point we had seen everything of any possible interest to us downtown and it was still morning. If we spent a couple of hours in the Botanical Garden we'd be finished by two with six hours to go before dinner. I started searching for other things to do near Akureyri but the north of Iceland is far less interesting than the south when it comes to outdoor activities and scenic vistas. Eventually I settled on the Laufás Museum, a vicarage composed of nineteenth century turf houses that has been preserved as a heritage site. On the way back to the car we walked along the city harbor where a whale watching boat was getting ready to depart. Local teenagers were doing backflips from a short esplanade into the murky water.
large_IMG_7722.JPGlarge_IMG_7723.JPG
large_fc1863c0-472d-11ec-8e02-d3ef21d8e3be.jpg

Laufás was about a half hour drive north of Akureyri, on the eastern side of Iceland's longest fjord Eyjafjörður. Without any time pressure we were able to enjoy the amazing feeling of driving on an Icelandic coastal road with the fjord on one side of us and the omnipresent snow-capped mountains on the other. We frequently pulled over to take pictures and soak in the feeling that we were the only people in this beautiful part of the planet.
large_7994d8b0-480f-11ec-a047-dbc81e2c83b0.pnglarge_IMG_20210816_142156.jpglarge_IMG_7737.JPG

While many of Iceland's surviving turf houses are single bedroom huts, Laufás was a relative mansion with numerous rooms that remained in use until the 1930's. The indoor furnishings were preserved as well down to the cooking implements and the skis and snowshoes used by the occupants. It was hard for us to imagine that people had been living in such different conditions in Iceland just a hundred years previously. As with many places in Iceland the setting of the vicarage in tall grass surrounded by snow-capped mountains was breathtaking. We had a light snack in the museum cafe to tide us over until dinner.
large_IMG_20210816_143256.jpglarge_IMG_7727a.JPGlarge_IMG_20210816_142916.jpg

We still had plenty of time to kill so we continued north alongside the fjord to the tiny fishing village of Grenivik. This was the end of the highway and beyond lay the wild and uninhabited Fjörður Peninsula, accessible only by four wheel drive. The village was very modern and well-maintained, but we weren't surprised to see no sign of its human population. From a short concrete dock we could look out over the fjord to the formidable mountains on the opposite side.
large_IMG_7732.JPGlarge_IMG_7736.JPGlarge_IMG_7733.JPG

Lystigarður Akureyrar has the reputation of being the northernmost botanical garden in the world. We weren't expecting very much given the city's diminutive size but we were quite favorably impressed. There was an extensive network of paths through an extraordinary variety of colorful and interesting plants and trees, as well as several fountains and pools. We saw far more people here than we had anywhere else in Akureyri, sipping drinks at the central cafe or sprawled on the grassy meadow in front of the gazebo. It was probably the most enjoyable experience we had in the city.
large_IMG_7743.JPGlarge_IMG_7747a.JPGlarge_IMG_7746a.JPG

Our final approach to the problem of how to fill a day in Akureyri was to move up our dinner reservation an hour to six thirty. This worked out well because we hadn't had a real lunch and were quite hungry, and of course we had absolutely nothing else to do once we finished with the botanical garden. It was a strange situation to be in after the frantic rushing that had consumed every day of our journey up to this point. I didn't regret our decision to spend two nights in Akureyri but I can't say I recommend more than one night in the city for travelers who like to stay busy. Tonight's dinner was special because it was Ian's eighth birthday. The first time we had celebrated his birthday while traveling was five years earlier and the restaurant at Prague had done a wonderful job singing Happy Birthday to him in Czech. I was hopeful we would be able to repeat the experience in Icelandic and perhaps create something of a tradition. I had planned to make a reservation at Strikið. which seemed to be the top restaurant in the city, but for some reason it was completely booked for the whole weekend when I checked a month in advance. Instead I chose the Japanese-Icelandic fusion restaurant Rub23 which was almost equally lauded. It was right next to the art museum on Kaupvangsstræti where we had visited the studio that morning.
large_IMG_20210816_195706a.JPG

Rub23 turned out to be a pretty typical Icelandic restaurant. The Japanese food was rather mundane and the portions were tiny, requiring us to lay out an ungodly amount of cash to avoid leaving hungry. The host got a hunted look in her eye when I asked about the birthday song and told me she would ask and let me know. Later on when I hadn't heard back I asked our waitress if it was going to happen and she told me it was. Eventually she came out all on her own with the little dessert and a candle and sang so meekly we could barely hear her. I felt a little guilty because clearly this wasn't the kind of thing they were used to doing in Iceland but the important thing was that Ian had a huge smile on his face.
large_IMG_20210816_185232.jpglarge_IMG_1708.JPG

.
When we left the restaurant there was a large crowd of hopefuls waiting for a table. I felt gratified that our decision to eat earlier meant that another family wouldn't have to be turned away. I was also glad to have the time to beginning packing our bags in the evening as we had to be back on the Ring Road fairly early in the morning. One of our most eagerly anticipated Icelandic adventures lay just ahead.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:22 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog grenivik laufas Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 5) Page [1]