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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Geldingadalur Volcano & conclusion

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Having been originally settled only a thousand years ago, Iceland does not have a long and complex cultural history compared to continental Europe or Asia. The most fascinating story of Iceland is in the physical birth of the country itself about sixty million years ago when mantle plumes uncovered by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates spewed vast quantities of lava onto the ocean floor. The lava eventually rose to sea level to form a large island and the volcanic activity generated by those same plumes continues to shape the coastline and the interior of Iceland to the present day. Virtually every piece of rock in Iceland is of volcanic origin, mostly various forms of basalt. Not long after Iceland made its appearance at the ocean surface another story began to write itself. This was the story of living things, a green wave that transformed the island from shades of black and grey to patchworks of lichen, carpets of thick moss, valleys of low-lying plants, and even birch forests. Although most of the trees were destroyed by the original Norse colonists the greenery of Iceland remains just as remarkable as its geology. However, the ancient tale that Iceland and Greenland were given their oxymoronic names to confuse pirates is probably an urban legend. Although the origin of the term Iceland is uncertain, the country is most likely to have been named for the glaciers and frozen fjords that the original settlers first came across when they arrived from Norway.

Over two weeks in Iceland we had witnessed countless manifestations of Iceland's diverse and changing geology, from glaciers and canyons to thermal pools and geysers. While many of these places are in rapid evolution from a geologic perspective one can be relatively certain that they won't disappear between one year and the next. On our last day in Iceland we had an opportunity to have an incredible experience that might only occur once in a lifetime, a hike within a few hundred meters of an erupting volcano. The eruption of Geldingadalur, also known as Fagradalsfjall, began in March 2021 after a series of minor earthquakes. It was the first volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula in eight hundred years. Unlike the typical explosive volcanic eruption like the famous ones at Pompeii or Mount St. Helens this was an effusion of lava from a magma dike that had extended to the surface. It wasn't spectacular enough to get much attention on a global scale but it was also perfectly safe to get within a close distance of the main cone and the lava flow. We had seen one of the crowded parking lots from which people were embarking on the hike to the lava when touring the peninsula on our first day in Iceland. My research hadn't given me a very clear picture of what that hike would be like or what exactly we could expect to see at the end, but we had a time slot open on that final afternoon and the weather was good so we decided to head to the beginning of the trail and see what came of it.

From the parking area we could see a line of people snaking up a trail that went up to the top of a tall hill that was almost barren of vegetation. Although we were comfortable in our hoodies I insisted on packing the winter parkas, knowing how quickly the wind and temperature could change. As we set off I decided to intercept a small group of returning hikers to glean more information about what to expect from the journey. One member of the group was practically bouncing with exhilaration. He told us that there would be three hills, each one taller and steeper than the last, and that even if we thought we had achieved an adequate view of the volcano we should keep going because the next overlook would be an order of magnitude better. He kept on repeating that it was a life-changing experience and was so effusive that I eventually had to detach myself politely from his enthusiastic recapitulation. It was a relief to learn that we wouldn't be disappointed in our experience that day as I had read that on some days the lava didn't seem to be flowing at all.

Just as we had been promised we could already see the cone and the lava flow once we reached the top of the first hill. It was an amazing sight and more than I had expected as I would have been satisfied with just a trickle of lava. The wind was much stronger at the top and the temperature had begun dropping as well so I was grateful for my decision to bring the heavy coats. We could see a long walk ahead of us along the ridge to the base of the second hill and there's a good chance we would have turned back here if not for that chance encounter with the exuberant returnee. Given what he had told us we had no choice but to keep going.

The view from the crest of the second hill was similar to the first but a little closer and more intense. I was so focused on watching the bursts and waves of lava flowing over the sides of the cone that I didn't really pay much attention to the third hill until we were almost at its base. This was a much steeper climb than the prior two hills and the trail switched from a straight line to a series of switchbacks. Even with that modification it was very difficult to get purchase on the muddy slope and I had to teach the kids to brace their feet against the rocks that were embedded in the mud. Even so we were constantly slipping and our boots and pants legs became caked in mud. The temperature continued to drop so that the wind chilled us even through the winter coats. The struggle to get to the top of the final hill seemed interminable but eventually we made it and had an absolutely stupendous view of the cone from the shortest distance possible. The sight of the glowing red lava sloshing around and overflowing from the cone was hypnotizing especially with the knowledge that just a splash of that molten rock would be enough to incinerate us. Overhead a helicopter circled precariously through the plume of smoke that emanated from the cone. I had given some thought to this ultra-expensive way of seeing the eruption but learned there was a weeks-long waiting list despite the prodigious cost. At this point I was very glad we'd had no choice but to do things the hard way as the whole experience had been quite rewarding.

Once I was sure we'd absorbed everything we could from watching the cone there was no choice but to return. I wasn't thrilled about retracing the whole trek but at least there would be more downhill than up this time. When we got to the bottom of the third hill we saw that several people had clambered down the side of the ridge and were standing at the edge of the recently solidified lava flow. This was quite far away from the flowing red lava and didn't seem particularly unsafe so we decided to get a closer look as well. This was the lowest section of the ridge and it was easy to get down at this point. The fresh lava was truly remarkable, a substance with a shape and texture I had never experienced before. At the bottom it looked like congealed black mud but was dry and hard to the touch. This seemed to be lava that had flowed underneath an older upper layer which had cracked and fragmented and resembled the mature lava fields we had seen except without a speck of vegetation. I was nervous about climbing on top of the lava, knowing that there was molten rock flowing underneath the benign-appearing upper layer, but it seemed unlikely that it extended all the way to the edge. Others were venturing out much further and I hoped they wouldn't find out the hard way that mother nature can be very unforgiving.

My instinct was to climb back up to the ridge and return to the car the same way we had come. It wasn't very exciting but at least we knew exactly how long it would take for us to get to the car and we did have a dinner reservation in Keflavik although we still had plenty of time. On the other hand Mei Ling wanted to follow the lava trail along the bottom of the ridge. I had some misgivings because I wasn't sure exactly where that route would take us but she was insistent and I gave in. At first this seemed like it had been the right choice because we got a much better look at the river of glowing red lava from the lower level.

As we made our way along the base of the ridge some uncomfortable developments began to take place. The route continued to progress downward while the ridge next to us became taller and taller. The ground became more slippery and irregular and a light rain began to fall which worsened the muddiness of the ground and the coldness of the environment. It seemed that continuing to follow the lava might take us further and further away from the car and actually deposit us in a completely different parking area. From there I had no clue how we would eventually make it back to where we needed to be. I looked at the side of the ridge and while it seemed like a daunting climb it appeared doable. People were making their way along the top of the ridge and I ached to be back on a familiar path so we decided to set off up the slope. At first we did fairly well on the grassy area but as the footholds disappeared and the steepness increased parabolically we began to lose our purchase on the ground. I realized that even though the top was temptingly close the climb was only going to get more treacherous and would ultimately put us in serious danger of injury if we continued. Regretfully I made the decision to turn around and descend back to the trail down by the lava. The thought of returning all the way to the spot where we had originally left the ridge was unbearable so there was no choice except to continue onward and hope for the best.

For the next three quarters of an hour we straggled along the muddy path under the cold rain. I have to give credit to the kids for continuing onward although they frequently slipped and were obviously suffering. We helped them as much as we could and Mei Ling eventually put Spenser on her back. The other two were just way too big to be carried. Finally with an enormous sense of relief I could see that up ahead the trail led to a flat area across from which was the base of the first hill we had climbed. We were going to get back to our car after all. We were all totally muddy, chilled, and exhausted but I knew we had completed a once-in-a-lifetime experience none of us would ever forget. Not only had we seen an erupting volcano but we had done it the hard way with blisters and scrapes to show for it. Even though we technically weren't allowed to take any souvenirs I did pocket three tiny fragments of that fresh spongy jet black lava for the kids as a memento of their enormous accomplishment that day.

Thanks to the long detour and our failed attempt to scale the ridge we had barely enough time to make our dinner reservation. We piled into the car without even changing and raced down the peninsula as fast as I dared. When we arrived at the hotel restaurant it was still raining and I stopped under the hotel canopy so Mei Ling could bundle the kids inside. I parked across the street and realized my muddy hiking pants and boots were completely unacceptable. I changed into jeans and shoes in the rain next to the car, way past caring about what passing drivers might have thought. I needn't have worried as the dreary wet street was devoid of traffic. Mei Ling had already ordered once I finally made it inside. I saw the kids were also way too muddy for an upscale hotel restaurant so I returned to the car and unpacked clean pants and shoes for each of them as well. I shuttled them individually to the restroom and got them changed. It was a process but it was the last time we would be dealing with the consequences of Iceland's unpredictable terrain and capricious weather. Dinner was the typical underwhelming presentation of old standards we had become accustomed to with a tasty sweet reward for the kids at the end.

Our final night in Iceland was spent in a grungy motel in the colorless town of Keflavik. There was one final formidable obstacle to overcome, one that we had absolutely no control over. Living in Florida I'm used to keeping a watchful eye on the paths of hurricanes during the summer but ironically the one that was presenting a problem for us now wouldn't even have been on my radar at any other time. Hurricane Henri had started out in the mid-Atlantic, nowhere near Florida, but was projected to make a direct impact on Boston right about the time that our plane would be arriving there. It would be the first hurricane to hit Boston in thirty years which left me feeling quite unlucky even though we'd had plenty of good luck so far on the trip. I had no idea if our flight would even take off so I was constantly refreshing the hurricane tracker as well as the airline site to see if we would find ourselves spending an extra day or two in Iceland. When I awoke at dawn to make sure everything was packed and prepared I saw that the hurricane's impact had been pushed back a couple of hours which gave us a much better chance of arriving in the US as scheduled. Our flight from Boston to Miami was another matter entirely but at least we wouldn't have to worry about being stranded in a foreign country with expired COVID tests.

Mei Ling was unperturbed about the probable disruption to our return, perhaps because there was nothing we could do about it anyway. We returned our car smoothly and the agent failed to notice a scraped bumper on her cursory inspection. The kids got a thrill after boarding when the flight attendants recognized them from the volcano hike and got them some special treats for their toughness. Our flight took off as scheduled and upon landing in Boston we learned that the hurricane had made a last minute turn inland which had caused it to fall apart fairly quickly. It seemed the weather was no longer a threat and we had another uncomplicated flight on the domestic leg. It was a final stroke of good fortune in a trip that had seen several potential disasters culminate in miraculous positive outcomes. Being back in Miami was quite disorienting at first because over two weeks in Iceland it had begun to seem like we had always been there and our previous life in Miami had been a dream. Now we were looking at Iceland in the rear view mirror and that experience seemed completely unreal. Had we really walked on a glacier, rafted a turbulent and freezing river, and gazed upon an erupting volcano or had it been some kind of wild virtual reality experience? I couldn't really compare this two week journey to our month-long road trips in continental Europe but it seemed like this might have been our greatest short trip yet. The only one that might have been comparable was our tour of Sicily four years previously. There weren't enough memorable meals to rank them but the outdoor experiences more than made up for the lack of culinary pleasures.

10. Ásbyrgi Canyon
9. Reynisfjara black sand beach
8. Rauðhólar red hills
7. Downtown Reykjavik
6. Rafting on the West Glacial River
5. Fjallsjökull glacier walk
4. Snaefellsnes
3. Eldfell crater hike on Vestmannaeyjar
2. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
1. Geldingalur volcano

I chose these ten out of at least sixty individual outdoor sights and adventures that we had in Iceland, a stunning number for a trip just two weeks long. Even though we managed to circle the entire country I know we missed many amazing places between lack of time, lack of knowledge, and lack of courage. Will we be back? I certainly hope so, but probably not until the kids are all in their teens and ready to tackle the more challenging exploration of the interior. I don't know if we'll ever be up to doing the famous multi-day hikes but I would certainly love to see places like Askja and Þórsmörk. Of course there's so much of the world left to see it's really hard to look that far into the future. I feel that between Iceland and the incredible road trip we took in the American Southwest immediately beforehand our family made enormous progress in terms of our ability to explore and appreciate the natural world along with the cities and restaurants that typically form the backbone of our trips. That opens up an entire new dimension of travel for us both in Europe and in the developing world.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog fagradalsfjall Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: The Golden Circle

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The classic stops on Iceland's famous Golden Circle are the waterfall Gullfoss, Geysir geothermal area, and Þingvellir National Park. Those three are on a straight line east from Reykjavik, so one has to throw in a couple of extra stops such as Secret Lagoon or the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel to make it a genuine loop. We had been to Raufarhólshellir on our second day and were completely finished with swimming pools and lagoons so our plan was to make it a Golden Line.

We decided to start with the more straightforward sights and bypassed Þingvellir to get to Geysir. Although Geysir is the origin of the English word geyser and is the largest of the geysers in the geothermal area, the only one that visitors are likely to see erupting is its smaller neighbor Strokkur. Geysir erupts less and less frequently every year and no one seems to know the current frequency or when the last time was that it erupted, but it's safe to say it probably isn't going to happen during any particular visit. It's no big deal either way because Strokkur puts on a nice display every few minutes.

Behind the cluster of geysers and hotpots near the road a dirt path climbed up the hillside. At the top was a narrow ridge that led to an overlook with a bird's eye view of Strokkur. On the other side of the ridge was a beautiful valley with a meandering creek and farmland with grazing sheep.

We rested at the overlook for a while and watched Strokkur erupt a couple of times. It definitely wasn't as impressive as being right in front of the geyser but it felt good to breathe the fresh air again after spending so much time in the sulfurous vapors at ground level.

We made a very brief stop at Gullfoss, just ten minutes further east. It's a beautiful, wide waterfall but we'd lost count of all the waterfalls we'd seen over the last two weeks. In terms of size and forcefulness it was similar to Dettifoss and we decided not to make the trek down to the viewing platform to get soaked by the spray.

We were going to need to find somewhere to eat before tackling Þingvellir and the only place on our route I knew anything about was the tomato farm Friðheimar. My impression was that it was something of a tourist trap but probably unique enough to be a worthwhile experience regardless. The parking lot was packed and we walked down a tree-lined dirt road to the greenhouse which housed the restaurant. It was something of a madhouse inside and we were originally told that the tables were booked until closing, but Mei Ling worked her usual Jedi magic and got us onto the waiting list. We occupied our time examining the gift shop and the long rows of cherry tomato plants with fruit in various stages of ripeness. Many of the products in the shop were related to the bumblebees that flock around the greenhouse pollinating the plants.

Eventually we got our table and started off with some of the famous Friðheimar bread. Some people were taking advantage of an all-you-can-eat deal for the bread and tomato soup but it seemed like a waste given the other interesting dishes we saw on the menu. We had quite a good meal of Caprese salad, tomato ravioli, a tomato quesadilla, and some very succulent mussels which we washed down with beer and tomato-based cocktails.

Þingvellir is a confusing place to visit because few people seem to know its boundaries and several roads enter the park from the main highway. The park is roughly defined as the area between the north shore of the Þingvallavatn lake and the curve the highway makes around it. When most people mention Þingvellir they are really referring to a walking path that extends about a mile from Langistígur canyon to Almannagjá gorge and incorporates most of the well-known sights in the park. There is also a renowned dive site called Silfra in the lake and numerous hiking paths for those planning a longer visit. We ended up at a parking lot in the middle of the walking path, close to the waterfall Öxarárfoss.

Öxarárfoss isn't a very impressive waterfall by Iceland standards but is interesting in that it results from a manmade diversion of the Öxará River designed to create a source of drinking water for the assemblies that were convened there. It is also the source of the renowned Drekkingarhylur "drowning pool" that was used for the execution of women convicted of adultery or incest.

We followed the boardwalk north to Langistígur which proved to be the most enjoyable part of our stop at Þingvellir. We had this gorge almost to ourselves which made for a very peaceful and enjoyable walk between the jagged, blocky walls of basalt. At the end of the fissure we were able to clamber to the surface level where we could look back along the path almost to Öxarárfoss. Beyond the gorge was the blue expanse of the lake.

We reversed course and walked all the way back past Drekkingarhylur to Almannagjá. This spot is very significant in Icelandic history because it is the site of the country's first nationwide assembly, the Alþingi. The assembly continued to take place at Almannagjá for eight centuries until it was moved to Reykjavik in 1844. Almannagjá was also chosen symbolically as the site at which Iceland formally declared its independence from Denmark in 1944. For most travelers the main attraction of Almannagjá is that the two sides of the canyon belong to two different tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. The path through the canyon is often described as the "walk between continents". I was pretty sure we had just done the same thing in the quieter Langistígur, and for that matter we had explored another section of this rift just hours after stepping off the plane. If I had insisted on walking the length of Almannagjá I would have faced a mutiny from my tired and hungry family so we returned to our car.

We poked around for a little bit at the edge of Þingvallavatn, trying to get some good perspectives on this famously beautiful lake, but the sun was already beginning to drop and we thought that Mývatn had been far more pleasing aesthetically. We made our way back to Reykjavik, eventually passing through the familiar string of dizzying roundabouts. I counted about fifteen before something distracted me from my tally. We only had one more chance to try a food hall and I chose Grandi Mathöll in the refurbished harbor district. The food was good although we didn't find anything as enjoyable as SKÁL! from the previous night.

After eating we spent a little time walking around the harbor checking out the various colorful and weatherbeaten boats that were tied up to the docks. The neighborhood seemed rather inactive in the evening and we decided we would come back in the morning to see if it was more lively. On the way home we saw Reykjavik's famous Harpa Concert Hall lit up in purple for the evening.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel geysir gulfoss travel_blog thingvellir tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Reykjavik

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After almost two weeks of driving through rural Iceland Reykjavik seemed like a hulking metropolis. We passed through an impressive periphery of residential suburbs and a seemingly endless series of roundabouts before arriving at the city center. In a departure from our usual pattern I hadn't made any dinner reservations in Reykjavik, correctly guessing that we would have grown weary of eating in upscale restaurants. Instead we had decided to sample the capital's cornucopia of food halls, and for our first night I had chosen Hlemmur Mathöll for the simple reason that it stayed open the latest. Hlemmur hosted an excellent restaurant called SKÁL! and between that and pizza for the kids we put together a very satisfying dinner. We were even able to treat the kids to ice cream before the food hall finally closed for the night.

A lucky and unforeseen bonus of eating at Hlemmur was that when I plugged the address of our Airbnb into the GPS it turned out to be just a block away. We were able to get all our stuff into our high rise downtown apartment without having to move the car. Even though we were exhausted there was one crucial task to be completed. We had brought half a dozen BinaxNOW COVID-19 antigen tests from the United States and they had been occupying space in our luggage all the way around Iceland. It was finally time to break them out and complete the swabs with an online proctor now that we had less than 72 hours before our flight home. This would save us the inconvenience and expense of getting the swabs done at a clinic but I was worried that the online portion wouldn't work out as planned. Of course this was a miniscule concern compared to the far greater problem that we would have if one of us tested positive. Iceland was only having about a hundred cases a day of COVID at that point but given the small population that was equivalent to a hundred thousand cases a day in the United States. The vast majority of those cases were occurring in the capital. The decision to place Reykjavik at the end of the trip was in no small part to ensure that any exposure to COVID would likely come after we had already recorded our negative tests, but that was no guarantee that none of us had picked up the virus in the preceding two weeks. The online proctoring was fairly well-designed but there was no way the person on the other end could continuously monitor the swab as it made its journey from the nose to the testing kit. Once my test came back negative I realized it would be quite simple to switch everyone else's swab with my used swab before inserting it into their kit. That maneuver would have been beyond my ethical boundary but if someone had been positive I think I would have regretted completing the process honestly. Regardless, all of us were negative and a major impediment to our safe and timely return home had been eliminated.

In the morning we drove a few blocks to the highest-rated breakfast place I could find, a bakery cafe on a pedestrian section of the main drag Laugavegur. We had to park a couple of blocks away which gave us a chance to absorb some of the colorful downtown Reykjavik atmosphere on the walk to the cafe.

There was a long line outside and we made the mistake of deciding to wait, assuming that the long line was confirmation of the positive reviews. By the time we'd realized that no breakfast restaurant could possibly be worth an hourlong wait we'd already committed too much time to walk away. The kids ended up eating takeout sandwiches while we were still on line. Once we finally sat down the process of ordering and getting served absorbed more than another hour of our precious morning so we ended up with a very late start for the sake of a decent but unmemorable breakfast.

We spent the rest of our day visiting attractions on the Golden Circle which I have written about in a separate entry.

On our last morning in Reykjavik we drove to the Grandi port neighborhood to have breakfast at Kaffivagninn, which is reportedly the oldest restaurant in Iceland. It seemed most of the kitchen staff was in COVID quarantine so only pastries were available. The place had a very strong neighborhood vibe, filled with middle-aged men who looked like regulars that worked around the port.

The neighborhood was a little more active in the morning, especially a strip of small restaurants and boutiques that had been built inside old storage units with pull-down doors. At one gourmet food store I was surprised to find red bell peppers for the same price that I would have bought them for at a supermarket in the United States. Everything else seemed extremely expensive. Although Grandi has gained a reputation for hipness it seemed run down and a little bit depressing to us.

I wasn't sure how to fill the rest of the morning. I considered taking the ferry to Videy island but I wasn't sure the payoff would be worth the hassle. I decided we would drive back to the center of town for a closer look at Reykjavik's iconic Hallgrímskirkja which we had only seen in passing the previous day. Opinions are sharply divided on the architectural merit of this imposing Lutheran church. Many admire the broad wings composed of concrete hexagonal columns that evoke the natural basalt structure of Reynisfjara but all others see is an enormous phallus. I could see the merit of either viewpoint. The interior of the church is most notable for the pipe organ with 5275 pipes which one might think of as a giant organ within a giant organ.

The area across from the church seemed promising so we meandered down the street directly opposite from the statue of Leif Eriksson that stood in front of the church. There was a fascinating grid of commercial streets here with painted sidewalks, wall murals, and street sculptures.

Eventually we found ourselves back on Laugavegur which was closed to traffic and whimsically painted with an enormous hopscotch board followed by a foot racetrack. When we turned the corner onto upsloping Skólavörðustígur we were greeted with the amazing sight of the entire street painted in rainbow stripes with the central tower of Hallgrímskirkja at the dead center atop the hill.

Continuing east on Laugavegur we eventually crossed Lækjargata which was the widest and busiest street we'd seen in the country. On the other side was a densely commercial district filled with restaurants, hotels, and government buildings. As we meandered around we were surprised to come across a large pond filled with birds in the very center of the busiest part of town. This was Tjörnin, a natural body of water that may have provided the impetus for the first human arrivals to settle in the area. For centuries the water was brackish due to influx of ocean tides but the installation of locks in 1989 converted the pond into freshwater. Apparently over forty different species of birds can be seen around Tjörnin but the most dominant by far were throngs of seagulls and terns fighting each other over various snacks tourists were tossing into the water. One of the more unfortunate of these offerings was the contents of a bag of giant marshmallows that the gulls would mournfully peck at and then ignore. On the cobblestone patio of a restaurant adjacent to the pond stands the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, a bronze statue of a man whose upper body is encased in a featureless block of stone. This anonymous individual is captured for eternity on his way to or from one of the numerous government offices in the area where he likely helps to craft obscure policies regarding plumbing fixtures or traffic patterns.

I had read an article about a Reykjavik Street Food Market that was supposed to take place every Saturday in this area, but there was no sign of it at the designated location. Instead we stopped at Kolaportið, a weekend indoor flea market close to the port. It was a reasonably interesting place to browse around for half an hour but flea markets aren't really our thing and we didn't have any room in our luggage even if we had wanted to buy anything. The time had come to take our leave of Reykjavik and begin our final adventure in Iceland before returning home the next day. On the way out of downtown we saw a cluster of people admiring the famous Sun Voyager sculpture by the shore but it wasn't worth the trouble to make our own stop. We were eager to make our pilgrimage to Iceland's newest attraction, the erupting volcano Geldingadalir.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:35 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Snæfellsnes

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Dusk was rapidly approaching as we crossed the causeway over the serene waters of Borgarfjörður into Borgarnes. It was a small, pretty town that occupied a polypoid peninsula that was similarly shaped to the one on which Höfn was located but even smaller. Borgarnes was another city, like Blönduós, that I had chosen mainly because it had the most celebrated restaurant in the region. The odd wrinkle of the Settlement Center is that it is primarily a museum of Icelandic history, which is not the sort of place where one would typically expect to find a top notch restaurant. Once again my strategy of making dinner reservations for most nights before the beginning of trip was validated as we were escorted through a growing crowd of walk-ins to our table. We had done way too much that day to stand around in a restaurant lobby with no guarantee of ever being seated. The food did justice to the restaurant's reputation with the standout dish being a heaping bowl of savory steamed mussels. The standards were mostly a cut above what we had been served elsewhere and I concluded that it was the best dinner we had been served thus far. Mei Ling was still partial to Vogafjós in Mývatn which I considered a close second. Feeling satiated but still exhausted, we followed the main road to its end on the tiny island of Brákarey at the southern tip of the peninsula. It was a typically unearthly Icelandic scene as the last vestiges of daylight showed us the reflections of the mountains and clouds in the mirror-like surface of the fjord. Confident that we had squeezed everything possible from another day, we retired to our utilitarian business hotel in the commercial quarter of town.

I knew we had a huge amount of ground to cover if we wanted to see everything on my list in Snæfellsnes and still make it to Reykjavik in time for dinner. We were able to drag ourselves out of bed and tear through the buffet breakfast more quickly than usual which meant we had a few extra minutes to see Borgarnes. Given the size of the town that wasn't an unrealistic plan. Aside from the little island we'd visited the previous night the only thing to see was the town church at the top of a hill near the end of the peninsula. At the parking lot we discovered a bonus of red currants growing wildly behind a wooden fence. The stately church stood alone on the hill from which we had pleasing views of the fjord and the causeway that crossed it.

Highway 54 begins in Borgarnes and circles most of Snæfellsnes. We were to become intimately familiar with it over the course of the day. Our first stop was Gerðuberg, a cliff formed of stately hexagonal basalt columns. We scrambled up the moss-covered rockfall at the base of the cliff in the hope of putting our hands on the basalt but I became terrified that one of the kids would plunge through the moss into a deep hole between the rocks. Possibly irrational, but in a country where tourists have been killed by anything from sneaker waves to snap blizzards I wasn't taking any chances.

I had done some solid research on Snæfellsnes so I knew that the gravel road that continues onward past Gerðuberg led somewhere interesting. We passed through a direful volcanic area where only moss grew on the black surface. We saw a trail snaking up the side of the Ytri-Raudamelskúlur volcano, an ominous cone of lava with a moss-covered base and a peak shrouded in mist. Despite this unpromising landscape we suddenly arrived at a parking area adjacent to one of the most beautiful lava fields we had encountered on our journey.

Undisturbed lava fields in Iceland acquire a blanket of woolly fringe-moss that grows thicker with time but is easily damaged by trampling. This area had clearly seen very little disturbance because there were thick clumps of it everywhere that felt like a spongy mattress. It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from rolling around in it but we knew we had to respect the importance of maintaining the sight for others in the future. Instead we picked our way carefully along a path through the lava field towards the waterfall we could see on the other side. The lava and moss gave way first to a tangle of wild blueberry bushes and then an open field with tall grass. A shallow, foamy stream emanated from a chasm in the hillside and ran through the middle of the field, intermittently dropping over little rocky steps in its bed. We had arrived at Rauðamelsölkelda, also known as the boiling spring. The water is naturally carbonated due to high levels of carbonic acid which creates a large amount of bubbling wherever the flow is turbulent. Locals believe the water has healing qualities and bring bottles to fill up whenever they visit but we found the clumps of fluorescent green algae a little intimidating. At the base of the stream was an absolutely perfect waterfall. It was an idyllic scene that could be found in countless places throughout Iceland, but here we had it all to ourselves and it felt like we were the only people in the country if not the entire world. We could easily have spent hours there picking blueberries and exploring the chasm but I knew that we only had one day and still at least four more stops to make, along with whatever else we encountered along the way.

Ytri Tunga beach on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes is considered one of the best places to watch seals in Iceland. It seemed like a worthwhile place to stop despite the icy wind that was blowing in from the bay. As we walked from the parking area down to the beach an enormous, colorful shape became visible on the sand. At first I thought it was a large volcanic rock protruding through the sand, covered by different lichens. As we grew closer I saw that the object was clearly shaped like a whale but I thought it must be a sculpture or similar artistic creation intended to simulate a decomposing beached whale. Perhaps some kind of protest against pollution or global warming? It was only when we were practically on top of the hulking mass that I understood that we had unmistakably come across an actual decomposing whale, most likely a pygmy or juvenile sperm whale. I was rather shocked because I assumed that beached whales in populated or touristic areas would be hastily carted away or otherwise disposed of but it was clear that this whale was being left to the elements, as it was already in a fairly advanced state of decomposition. We hadn't noted the smell at first because of the direction of the wind but when it was blowing the right way the odor was quite intense. I've seen a couple of videos of dead whales spontaneously exploding so I made sure that we passed by the enormous animal at a safe distance. It probably wasn't the ideal circumstance under which to see our first great whale but still quite impressive and memorable.

The seals at Ytri Tunga were an anticlimax after the decomposing whale. We spotted a few but they were far out on the rocks and barely distinguishable from their surroundings. It was a far cry from the enormous colonies of seals and sea lions in La Jolla, California that we had walked among a few years earlier. The kids always find a way to have fun whenever we're on a beach, even if it's practically freezing, and this was the first beach in Iceland which had typical brown sand rather than the black volcanic variety.

Another twenty minutes driving down the coast brought us to Búðakirkja, a photogenic black church at the site of a former fishing village. No trace of the village remains and the pristine church is as new as it looks, having been rebuilt in 1987. Nevertheless it's an attractive if not essential stop on the Snæfellsnes itinerary. We thought we might avoid the typical pedestrian Icelandic lunch at the well-regarded hotel restaurant next door but they were only serving burgers and fish and chips at that hour.

Our next stop was supposed to be the village of Arnarstapi but a few miles short of our destination we saw a busy parking area on the inland side of the road. By this point we knew that meant something worth checking out so we pulled in. We followed some people walking uphill towards the mountainside and saw what had not been apparent from the road, a colossal fissure in the moss-covered cliff that narrowed as it approached the ground. This was Rauðfeldsgjá, a gorge named for a possibly mythical boy who was thrown to his death there in the ninth century by his angry uncle. A stream of chilly water emanated from the chasm and rolled down the hillside. At the opening it was clear that careful footwork would be required to avoid soaking ourselves so I left everyone behind and scouted ahead. Within the fissure there was a wide chamber with sky overhead, and beyond that some people were proceeding further into the mountain as the chasm narrowed and twisted. There was no longer a dry path and it was far too early in the day to immerse my feet in icy water so I returned to the group outside. I learned later that the path eventually ends at a knotted rope which allows the waterfall to be ascended to the opening at the top of the cliff, but waterproof clothing is required unless one is OK with being drenched. That was far too intrepid for us but this video gives some idea of what the adventure is like.

Soon afterwards we arrived at Arnarstapi where the first order of business was lunch. We found a place that was a cut above the service station level with excellent fish soup and roast lamb. Newly fortified, we followed the pedestrian path to the Bárður Snæfellsás statue. At first glance this would seem to be some primitive construction of stacked volcanic stones but it is actually a modern depiction of the peninsula's half-troll guardian by one of Iceland's most renowned sculptors.

The path led all the way to the water's edge where the flat landscape terminated at a scalloped cliff. Thankfully the viewing platform had a solid railing so that I could take my eyes off the kids for a few moments at a time. The most impressive formations at the shoreline were a cave lined with basalt columns and Gatklettur, a threadbare natural basalt arch decked in vegetation and guano. The path continued along the cliffs all the way to the village of Hellnar two miles away but we were so short on time that wasn't even a consideration. The consensus seemed to be that the best views were from Arnarstapi anyway.

We continued west towards the end of the peninsula and encountered another promising parking area at the side of the road. This was Lóndrangar, another section of seaside basalt cliffs with its own unique beauty. The parking area is close to a viewing platform at the highest part of the cliff with spectacular views over the sea and the coastline. To the west we could see a path leading down the hillside to a lave field and further in the distance an amazing structure of jagged basalt projecting from the ground at the shoreline. Even though we were pressed for time this was impossible to resist and we picked our way across the path through the lava field, occasionally passing uncomfortably close to deep holes in the lava and the edge of the cliff. Up close the enormous rocky pillars proved to be worthy of the hike. The jagged formations are reminiscent of a ruined medieval castle and occupy a majestic, surreal position on an otherwise flat landscape. Back at the parking area the inland mountains and low clouds formed the classic Snæfellsnes tableau.

At the farthest reaches of the peninsula we encountered Djúpalónssandur, one of Iceland's most famous black beaches and a top attraction of Snæfellsnes. The parking lot here was relatively large and quite crowded. We found an available space that others had overlooked just adjacent to the path downward to the beach, a fortuitous event as we were quite short on time thanks to our unscheduled stops. The path is an attraction unto itself as it winds between jagged projections of mossy lava rock that look like the fossilized teeth of some gigantic extinct carnivore.

Djúpalónssandur has been called the black pearl beach because it consists of rounded black lava stones and pebbles rather than fine grains like Reynisfjara. Countless scraps of twisted and rusted metal are scattered around the inland portion of the beach. These are the remnants of a British trawler that wrecked off the coast in 1948, killing fourteen of the nineteen sailors aboard. Rescue teams from the peninsula were able to save the other five thanks to heroic efforts in horrendous weather conditions. The metal pieces have been left on the beach as a memorial and it is considered very deplorable to disturb them or cart a piece off as a souvenir. I had to watch the kids carefully as they hopped around the area as some of the pieces are quite sharp.

On the opposite side of the beach from the sea is another pretty spot, a small lagoon called Svörtulón that is colored green by algae and the reflections of the moss-covered lava walls around it. There was much more to explore at this amazing location and we could easily have spent another hour but we were far behind schedule at this point and I really wanted to see one more spot on the peninsula before we drove on to Reykjavik.

Thus far we had spent the entire day on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes and I didn't want to leave half the peninsula unseen. The northern coast has all the towns that are larger than a few houses with the most significant being Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur. At this late hour in the most remote reaches of the peninsula there were few other cars on the road and we drove through a colorful yet barren volcanic landscape in quiet solitude. There were many things unseen here such as the peninsula's very own glacier Snæfellsjökull and the enormous Berserkjahraun lava field but we had no time for anything but a straight drive to Stykkishólmur. We did pass through Grundarfjörður which was an attractive little village filled with guesthouses. Just outside of Grundarfjörður is a tiny peninsula that is almost completely occupied by Kirkjufell, one of the most recognizable mountains in Iceland. It is distinctive not so much for its modest height of 1500 feet but for the steeple shape that gave it the name of Church Mountain. Kirkjufell looks tempting for a hike from ground level but it is quite steep and dangerous with at least three recorded fatalities among climbers.

Stykkishólmur is at the tip of a ragged projection of land from the northern coast and is surprisingly large given its remote location. Of course in Iceland a large town is anything over a thousand people but after two weeks driving around the country we had adjusted for this unusual scale. By the time we arrived I had almost forgotten why I was so determined to reach this place, aside from an affectionate write-up in the Lonely Planet. Once we had filled up with gas we had no more than five minutes to spend there if we wanted any hope of eating dinner in Reykjavik. The town church Stykkishólmskirkja was an obvious destination on the highest hill in town. This startling contemporary structure was designed to resemble a whale vertebra and the shape of the facade evokes comparisons to Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik. From the parking lot we had pleasant views over a quiet residential neighborhood on the east side of town.

Outside the church I did some quick research on the food halls in Reykjavik and found one that was open until ten. If we made a beeline for the center of Reykjavik and bent the speed limit just slightly we could get there in two hours and hopefully catch some restaurants before they closed their kitchens. As we cruised down the highway I reflected on this amazing day in Snæfellsnes packed with beautiful sights and adventures. Even though by now we were experienced with Iceland's incredible bounty the peninsula had instilled a fresh sense of wonder. It was almost like a miniature version of the entire country with its own cliffs, canyons, waterfalls, black beaches and even a glacier in a very compact area. We had been close to missing it completely since it was not in the itinerary until I was able to stretch our visit from twelve to fourteen days. My only regret was that we hadn't had two days to give the peninsula the attention it deserved, as we had spent far too little time in each place we had visited and missed many others as well. When we return to Iceland, Snæfellsnes will definitely be given at least two full days and possibly three so we can be sure we haven't missed anything from this remarkable place.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:40 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel borgarnes travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog arnarstapi djúpalónssandur Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Blönduós and Húsafell

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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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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