A Travellerspoint blog

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Vatnajökull and the Glacier Lagoons

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After our monster day of exploring the southern coast, the kids went to sleep in their long underwear and just needed to have three more layers thrown on ahead of our glacier hike. We hurriedly packed and cleared out of our expensive villa and drove down the hill for buffet breakfast at Adventure Hotel Hof, which was quite good. Newly fortified we drove another fifteen minutes back along the Ring Road to the Skaftafell Terminal Tour Center to meet our hiking guide. It was quite a busy place and after some difficulty I identified our outfit at the far end of the parking lot. I brought the kids over but our guide looked a little concerned when she saw Spenser. She asked how old he was. I told her he was six, which was the minimum age for the hike. I'd had to search quite hard for an outfit that would take six year olds and this had been the only one. She told me that the smallest crampons they had were a size 34, which corresponded to a US size 2. Spenser is an average size kid but his shoe size is 11 (kids) meaning that he would have needed size 28 crampons. Size 34 would have been absolutely enormous for a six year old and I couldn't understand why they would have a minimum age of six if the smallest crampons they had were for an average size eight year old. Even Ian, who was just about to turn 8, had shoes that were too small for the size 34 crampons. The guide kept insisting that their booking site made it clear that size 34 was the minimum but we had booked through a third party that had provided no such information. We tried to think of a solution but it seemed like the guide and another employee she had called over wanted us to just give up on the idea of the hike. This wasn't a disaster on the order of the vaccine card at the airport, but it would have been quite infuriating to have lost one of our major planned adventures and to have stayed at the $700 villa for nothing.

Of course it was Mei Ling who ultimately solved the problem in a way I would never have come up with. The tour outfit happened to have some extra pairs of kids' hiking boots in the van that fit their smallest crampons. Of course they were way too big for Spenser but Mei Ling told me to go back to the car and get all the winter socks we had brought. Fortunately we hadn't skimped on packing thick socks because it took about four layers before Spenser's feet wouldn't slip out of the boots. We put another two layers on Ian 's feet and he was good to go as well. The boys both tromped around for a bit and the boots stayed in place. The guide was rather nonplussed but agreed it was an acceptable solution. She was far from the first and won't be the last person to get spun around by Mei Ling's resourcefulness. I should be used to it but I was also in a state of disbelief as we piled into the van. We'd delayed our start by a good twenty minutes but there was only one other couple on the tour and they were good sports about it.

The jeep took us on a gravel road to the edge of a glacier called Falljökull, one of dozens of tongues of the enormous southern glacier Vatnajökull. Our guide explained to us that since "ll" is pronounced more like "tl" in Icelandic it was easier for English people to call it "Fat Yogurt". The actual pronunciation is closer to Fahtle Yuhkuhtle. The lower edge of the glacier was black with ash, making it look more like the filthy piles of plowed snow on a New York City sidewalk than the pristine white expanse we had imagined. We crossed a wooden bridge over a murky brown stream emanating from under the glacier and then climbed a hill of volcanic rubble before we reached the beginning of the ice.

Putting on the crampons was a fairly difficult procedure requiring several rounds of working and tightening the straps. Our guide had finished two kids before I was done with one and had to rework the one I'd done as well. Once we set out uphill on the ice it was clear that the crampons were indispensable as there would have been no traction gained with even the best hiking boots. The kids adapted to them fairly quickly although Ian did trip a couple of times. It was easy to tangle the crampons by walking without focusing on keeping one's feet widely spaced. One of the first things we encountered on the ice were clusters of "glacier mice", small balls of moss that form on the slope and gradually roll downhill via mechanisms that are still largely a mystery to scientists.

We didn't penetrate very far into the glacier, which might have disappointed me if we hadn't had the kids with us. It was pretty obvious that glaciers could be very dangerous places as well and our guide's top priority was keeping us well away from holes and crevasses. We all wore harnesses that could be hooked into if one of us was unfortunate enough to fall but I had no desire to find out if they worked. As we moved up the mass of ice we saw larger and deeper holes in the ice that were filled with water. Some of them were large enough to swallow the kids, or maybe even the adults. We peered into one and couldn't see the bottom, just an emptiness that disappeared into a blue haze. Further up was a tantalizing tongue of jagged ice but that was clearly beyond our capabilities. Instead we explored one shallow and wide crevasse between two ridges.
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We were offered one last challenge which was called a glacier push-up. Our guide demonstrated by placing her axe across a stream of clear water running downhill. Using the handle of the axe to brace herself she lowered herself enough that she could drink from the stream without her body touching the ice. Mei Ling was able to do it as were the kids with a little assistance. I took the role of photographer.

We had a few hours before our scheduled boat tour of the glacier lagoon and I considered making a stop at Múlagljúfur Canyon. This would have been a rather challenging adventure as the turn-off from the Ring Road is notoriously hard to find and I wasn't sure how much hiking would be necessary to reach the payoff. Our glacier guide seemed to think it might take us an hour each way which probably wouldn't give us enough time to do the hike and eat, even if we didn't get lost at all trying to find it. In the end I decided to give it a pass as there wouldn't be any shortage of hikes for the rest of the trip, but according to some people we may have missed one of the most amazing places in the country. If you decide you're up for it this link provides the GPS coordinates for the turn-off and the parking lot.

Since we skipped the canyon we reached Fjallsárlón glacier lake more than an hour early. Rather than trying to get on an earlier boat we kept driving until we crossed the bridge over Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon. People were lined up on the bridge to take pictures of the lagoon and traffic moved slowly. On the other side was a large parking lot with a couple of food trucks. We could see the blue water of the lagoon with clusters of icebergs floating near the shoreline. Some of the ice was tinted in different shades of pale blue while other blocks were striped with ash. The kids were sleeping so Mei Ling and I went out in shifts to explore. Mei Ling went first and got some amazing shots of the lagoon and even caught a huge iceberg flipping over on video.

The kids were up by the time my turn came and I took Cleo and Spenser over to the famous Heimahumar food truck for lobster soup and a lobster roll. It was kind of a stretch to call the diminutive Icelandic langoustine a lobster but nevertheless the meat was delicate and sweet and the soup was the best I'd had in Iceland so far. Afterwards we took our own stroll along the banks of the lagoon to admire the oddly-shaped chunks of floating ice. Some of the flatter bergs were being used as rafts by flocks of Arctic terns and gulls.

Back at Fjallsárlón we found ourselves getting kitted out for the second time that day, this time in bulky drysuits and flotation devices. We tromped across the rocky landscape to the Zodiac boats that were lined up at the shore. This was a different scene from Jökulsárlón in that there were far fewer boats in the water and no one standing at the shore, so it felt less like a roadside attraction. At the far end of the lake a tongue of the glacier rolled right up to the water's edge, providing a clear view of the enormous mass of ice that had given birth to the bergs that were floating in front of us.

It felt good to be out on the water as the Zodiac skimmed the rippled surface. The lake was filled with tiny chunks of ice that floated at the surface and we were able to grab some to taste. The guide explained the variation in color of the icebergs, and particularly why some were blue on their undersurface and white above. The ice contains countless microscopic air bubbles which reflect blue light but disappear from the ice under direct sunlight. The ice protected from the sun by overhangs maintains its blue color for much longer.

We crossed the bridge over Jökulsárlón once again but this time we took the turn-off on the right side for Diamond Beach. I had gotten the kids worked up by telling them the name of the place but not the reason for it, and they had concluded on their own that there would be diamonds scattered around free for the picking. At first they were disappointed to see that the diamonds were actually jagged chunks of ice of various sizes that had washed up onto the black sand, but soon they surrendered to the fun of targeting the larger ones with rocks. I was hypnotized by the gradual disintegration of the irregular pieces that were being lashed by waves in the surf. I could see their shapes slowly changing and they would suddenly shift to new stable positions as the water washed away their supports. Further out in the ocean larger icebergs wavered between drifting out to sea or being washed up onto the sand as well. I found one smaller piece with a hole that was perfectly finger-sized and gave it to Mei Ling to compare with the relatively tiny piece of ice I'd put on her left ring finger ten years earlier.

On the other side of the parking lot a pile of boulders formed a seawall for the short strait between the ocean and the lagoon. From here we could marvel at the sight of the icebergs slowly making their way under the suspension bridge, with a backdrop of the glacier and the mountains partially obscured by low clouds. Several seals were making intermittent appearances in the strait as they hunted for fish in the frigid waters.


Skipping the canyon hike had allowed us to spend a lot of extra time at the glacier lagoons which had turned out to rival Eldfell as the top experience of the trip to that point. For the next hour we were treated to the most scenic Ring Road driving of the entire journey. The mountains on the inland side had a unique terraced appearance that created dark striations against a background of greenery. Every few miles we would see another tongue of the glacier creeping through a pass between the mountains. There were no towns at all, just a few scattered farms and clusters of buildings that were mostly guesthouses. We took one interesting turn-off and encountered a partially-painted whale skeleton on the ground, possibly an art project that had been abandoned.

Eventually we pulled into Höfn, a town whose position at the tip of a short peninsula at the southeastern corner of Iceland suggested it would be extraordinarily beautiful. Instead it was a disappointingly utilitarian place and our motel was the most bleak and depressing accommodation of the entire trip. We were excited to try the highly-recommended restaurant Pakkhus which was famous for its seafood, but they didn't take reservations and by the time we arrived at 7:30 they already had a waiting list that carried through closing. Fortunately our second choice Otto Matur & Drykkur was just a few steps away. There we had our standard serviceable Icelandic dinner and retired to our two motel rooms rather grateful that we hadn't stuck with an early plan to base ourselves in Höfn for two nights.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:52 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel glacier_lagoon family_travel_blog glacier_hike Comments (0)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:43 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip vik family_travel reynisfjara family_travel_blog fjaðrárgljúfur Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss

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With Vestmannaeyjar behind us, I wondered if we had possibly peaked too early. Could anything compete with the exhilaration of topping Eldfell and gazing at the entire volcanic island of Heimaey laid out before us? Little did I know we were about to embark on two days of driving through some of the most beautiful landscape either of us had ever seen on a route filled with adventures.

Once we were reunited with our car on the mainland, we returned to the Ring Road where we immediately encountered our first waterfall of the trip. Seljalandsfoss is one of the most visited and photographed waterfalls in Iceland. It isn't the tallest or most forceful, but the water separates into sheets of droplets halfway down the cliff in a way that's perfect for generating rainbows. In addition there's a footpath behind the waterfall that gives the visit a pleasant interactive element as long as one is willing to get a little wet.

Only a small fraction of visitors to Seljalandsfoss make it to Gljúfrabúi, another waterfall just a short walk away. This "hidden waterfall" is largely enclosed within a small cavern. It's absolutely worth getting damp one more time to see the streams of water falling into the cave from a source obscured by bright sunlight.

We had barely enough time to check into our hotel before our eight o'clock dinner reservation. Despite the unassuming name of "The Garage", this turned out to be the most impressive accommodation of our entire trip. The hotel sat at the base of a tall cliff with a waterfall of its own and was surrounded by horse pastures. Our hosts were a genial married couple who offered us freshly-baked bread and showed us to a very large and comfortable bedroom. They had warned us in advance that there was no restaurant at the hotel so I had arranged to have dinner at the Hotel Anna nearby. This restaurant had a warm, countryside atmosphere and the food was as good as we had enjoyed anywhere thus far on the trip. Our waiter was particularly friendly and we had a little talk about traveling with children while I was paying the bill.

The restaurant was on a small semicircular offshoot of the Ring Road which it shared with a larger resort hotel and one of the typical Icelandic red-roofed churches. As we drove closer to the resort some of their horses strolled over to the fence, probably because they get treats from some of the passers by. We let the kids out to have a closer look at the horses, which were very amenable to being petted but probably disappointed that the kids had nothing to offer them except handfuls of grass. Fortunately they ignored the buttercups Cleo was pushing towards them because as I found out later they are actually poisonous to horses.

At the other end of the road was something that really fascinated us. We could see a deep gash in the hillside behind the houses that looked like the mouth of a canyon. We dedicated ourselves to reaching it and after several dead ends we eventually found a cluster of cabins that seemed like they were very close to our goal. I saw the opening to a path through a thicket marked with a wooden sign with a picture of a hiker and the word "Gongulei". A short distance down the path I came to the mouth of the canyon which was absolutely beautiful. I could see the trail led up to a footbridge which spanned the creek that had carved the canyon. I didn't want to keep going since it was late and everyone else was waiting in the car, but I decided this would probably be a fantastic way to kick off our adventures the next day.

In the morning we asked our hosts about the canyon, but they didn't seem familiar with it despite the fact it was just a five minute drive away. I told them about the "Gongulei" sign and they smiled wryly. Apparently gongulei means "trail" in Icelandic. We packed the car and had a solid buffet breakfast at the riding resort, then drove back to the trailhead at the nameless canyon. This time we all got out together and clambered up the riverbank to the footbridge. Looking deeper into the canyon there was no sign whatsoever that the human race had ever existed. It felt as though we had been transported back to prehistoric times or to a fantasy world populated only with elves and trolls.

The path continued up the steep hillside on the other side of the bridge. The kids navigated the trail without much difficulty but as we continued to ascend through the wet grass I began feeling more uneasy. The cliffs along the riverbank were nothing compared to others we had seen in Iceland but they were still at least ten feet high around the bridge. They might as well have been a hundred feet high as far as safety was concerned. If one of the kids slipped could he roll all the way down the hillside and over the cliff into the river? It seemed unlikely, but was I willing to bet my kids' lives on it? I wasn't about to do that. Mei Ling was strolling around the hill obliviously shooting pictures while I pondered our next move. Just then a black dog bounded up the hill from the bridge with his tail wagging furiously. He made a beeline for the kids who rewarded him with vigorous petting. Meanwhile I had decided that we had enough adventures ahead that it wasn't necessary to risk anyone's life on this particular unknown trail. The hillside seemed three times steeper and slicker on the way down that it had been coming up and I felt a little bit of vertigo as I maintained a position between the kids and the cliffs at all times. We made it back across the bridge safely and wistfully bade farewell to Gongulei Canyon, still unexplored. If anyone wants to have a beautiful canyon all to themselves you can find it here.

Soon after we began our onward journey we saw a small parking area by the side of the highway that was almost full. I was starting to realize that this was a good way to pick up on interesting sights that I'd missed in my research. We could see a large monolith of volcanic rock standing alone in the flat expanse of grass that fronted the coastal mountains. Small stone and wooden houses had been built into the base of the rock. This was Drangurinn, thought to have been a home to elves that cared for the cows of local farmers when they were giving birth. From the side the rock had a completely different shape due to its thinness, and on the far side was a little slope that was a dense garden of all the wild plants we had seen on our journey thus far.

Our next destination was as crowded as the canyon had been solitary. Skógafoss is a very powerful waterfall right by the Ring Road that is surrounded by verdant landscape. There's no trail behind the waterfall but it's still possible to get close enough to be drenched in spray.

Next to the waterfall is an enormous staircase that leads to a viewing platform at the top level where the Skógá River spills over the edge of the cliff. It doesn't look overwhelming from the ground but as the steps became taller our legs began to burn and our breathing became labored. Soon we were thankful for the chilly wind which cooled the sweat that was forming on our foreheads. Spenser surprised all of us by tearing off ahead. I kept expecting him to get exhausted and start complaining but he barely paused on his way to the top. forcing me to quicken my pace to prevent him from being alone at the upper level.

From the observation platform we had good views of the knobbly green hillsides with occasional clumps of grazing sheep. We decided to follow a paved trail heading inland along the river bank. We didn't know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the fifteen-mile Fimmvörduháls trail that continues all the way to the valley of Þórsmörk. We walked the trail for about half an hour and admired the changing contour of the river as it meandered through its shallow canyon on its way to the waterfall.

It was a good thing we had arisen early because despite the unplanned stops at the nameless canyon and Drangurinn we were still on schedule to be in Vik for a late lunch. There were still several important destinations on this day's busy itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:25 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Vestmannaeyjar

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So far things had gone smoothly for us in Iceland. We had accomplished everything I had planned in the first day and a half and we were now proceeding to one of my most eagerly anticipated destinations. Eighteen years earlier I had stood alone atop the dormant volcano Helgafell and seen the most breathtaking view of my life up to that point. With no one to share it with, I resolved to return one day with a family of my own. That moment had now arrived although our late ferry departure meant it would have to wait until the next day. The short ferry ride passed quickly as I braved the sharp wind to watch birds swooping around the uninhabited islets of Elliðaey and Bjarney. The islands are ringed by steep cliffs and each has a single puffin-hunting lodge that is the only sign of human intrusion.

Heimaey is the only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar, which is known to English speakers as the Westman Islands. The rocky outcrops surrounding the harbor were like natural versions of the stone forts ringing the port of Valletta, Malta. The twin volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell loomed behind the town with the former's enormous crater clearly visible.

The town seemed larger and more impersonal than on my last visit, but perhaps my memory had eroded over time. The sky was overcast and there were few people on the windy streets. I had to drag the large suitcase with its eroding wheels about half a kilometer to our hotel, where our room was mercifully on the ground floor. We only had a short time to unpack and recuperate before walking around the corner to Einsi Kaldi for dinner. My first and second choices were closed on Mondays, but the restaurant provided us with a solid meal. Our friendly waitress helped address my confusion about the different names I'd heard for the town. Of Vestmannaeyjar, Vestmannaeyjabær, and Heimaey which referred to the archipelago, which was this island, and which was the town on the island. The waitress assured us all the terms were interchangeable and could refer to any of the locations but I think she just wanted to spare us from having to pronounce the longer words. We asked her about eating puffin and she told us it could no longer be found on restaurant menus due to a decline in the population from my last visit. Apparently there's still some limited hunting permitted and she actually called her aunt to bring in some cured puffin breast for us to try. The heavily spiced raw meat wasn't anywhere near as enjoyable as the savory grilled puffin breast I'd enjoyed on my prior visit but at least Mei Ling could say that she'd tried it.

In the morning we fortified ourselves with breakfast at a no-frills bakery down by the port. According to my weather app it was low 50's, same as every summer day in Iceland, but it felt a lot colder thanks to a biting wind that whistled unimpeded through the low buildings. I knew if we headed southeast to the outskirts of town we would find our way to the base of Eldfell. It wasn't possible for us to miss it - the twin peaks were visible from every spot on the island. Not far from our hotel we passed through the beautifully-landscaped town park. There was a small playground with a colorful trampoline made of a vinyl sheet stretched over trapped air underneath. It was a quite effective piece of equipment and I wondered why I'd never seen anything like it before. Later we would see the same kind of trampoline in half a dozen other towns in Iceland.

As we continued onward the wind grew stronger and more chilling. Thankfully we'd brought and worn our heavy winter coats but I'd decided against the long underwear that day. The islanders obviously took great pride in their small plots of land and many had quite creative arrangements of plants and flowers. I saw a sign for the Eldheimar Museum and we ducked inside more to get out of the cold for a short time than out of any particular desire to see the exhibits. The museum is dedicated to the 1973 volcanic eruption that created Eldfell and buried half the town under a lava field. Due to a series of fortunate coincidences no lives were lost during the eruption and much of the town was spared from incineration by the incandescent material ejected from the volcano. Although Heimaey could easily have been rendered uninhabited like the other islands in the archipelago, the town recovered and thrived and is now more populous than ever. Outside the museum we found an abandoned ball and passed it around for a bit before it was lost over the hillside.

Behind Eldheimar we found a dirt path leading up a steep hillside. This was the beginning of the trail to the Eldfell crater. Even though the top of the hill was always in sight, it never seemed to get closer no matter how long we scrambled up through the green scrub. Spenser and Cleo tore off ahead and seemed to have limitless energy while I had to struggle to keep up. I couldn't let them get too far ahead because I didn't really know for sure what we'd find at the top. Warning signs are a rare sight in Iceland. Meanwhile the town below us was gradually beginning to look like it was made out of Lego.

Once we finally clambered over the lip of the hill there was a sudden change in terrain. We were now on a wide platform at the edge of Eldfell crater, about halfway between the upper and lower lips. There was no sign of plant life on the edge, just volcanic gravel with a scattering of larger porous rocks. The northern cliffs, Norðurklettar, formed an imposing green backdrop to the town. they looked tame and surmountable from this angle but I knew from my research that it was one of the more treacherous areas of the island. Looking over the lower lip of the crater I could see the lava field from the most recent eruption, now coated with moss, and the mountains of the peninsula on the far side of the harbor.

The beauty of Heimaey was beginning to reveal itself but we were still only halfway up the sloping crater. We could see a few scattered figures walking precariously on the upper edge, and I was weighing whether it was safe and advisable to push on to the top. Mei Ling, Spenser and Cleo took the decision out of my hands by tackling the upward path along the ridge while I was still trying to judge the force of the winds at the top. I had no choice but to chase after them, dragging Ian along with me.

It would have been tragic if we had called off our ascent at the middle. As soon as we reached the upper edge I was reminded of why I had maintained my desire to return to Vestmannaeyjar for so many years. To the north Bjarnarey's green surface provided a sharp contrast to the volcanic barrenness we were standing on. Behind it the mainland blurred into the ocean so that the glacier Eyjafjallajökull appeared suspended in midair. To the south the lush Stórhöfði peninsula projected into the ocean and beyond that just a few rocky islets broke the serenity of the watery expanse. I pointed out to the kids how the wind created waves and ripples in the grass on Helgafell that made it seem like water. It's difficult to find words to describe the complexity of the exhilaration I felt at the ridge above the crater. It was a simultaneous awareness of the heights of the world's beauty, the constant struggle of living things to adapt to and overcome the environment, and the cruel indifference of our planet to the life that makes it unique in the known universe. The wind was frighteningly loud and gusty but never threatened to push the kids off their footing.


We spent some time exploring the upper rim but there really wasn't much to do except gape at the views and examine some of the larger blocks of tephra from the eruption. I realized that there was no way we'd be able to walk to the end of Stórhöfði as I had planned. It was much further than I had remembered, and there was probably more to see if we walked north. On the descent I regretted not wearing my hiking boots as my knees kept twisting on the loose lava. We tried to find a trail that would take us directly through the lava field but eventually we gave up and followed the road to Gaujulundur, a whimsical garden carved out of the lava field a few years after the eruption. Besides hundreds of varieties of local plants, the garden contains elf houses and a miniature windmill.

Here we found a walking path towards town that allowed us to enjoy some waist-high scrub and an overlook with views of the harbor channel. Some kind of quarrying operation was taking place at the water's edge but it didn't detract from the beauty of the ocean as it slipped serenely between the peninsula and the mainland.

A few hours after departing town from the south we re-entered it from the east, close to the port. We ate at the popular restaurant next to our hotel which was awful, the first bad meal we had had in Iceland. We still had a couple of hours to kill before our ferry departure so we went to the Sæheimar Aquarium, which is also a beluga whale sanctuary. I'd been warned that if the belugas were sometimes out in open water and there was very little else to justify the high admission price, so I was careful to ensure that they would in fact be present before we went inside. They were indeed there and very interactive with the humans they could see through the glass wall of the enclosure. It was my first time being up close with these beautiful and graceful animals and I was glad we had chosen to stop by. The only other part of the aquarium worth noting was a puffin rescue center with just one occupant. I'm not sure if he was a recent rescue or one of the permanent inhabitants they get from time to time.

We had spent less than half an hour in the whale sanctuary and still had time to kill. We followed the road past the port to the northwestern corner of town which was an industrial area with a strong odor of fish. We scrambled up a low wall and a grassy bank and we found ourselves at the foot of the northern cliffs. I was instantly wary because I had already researched this area and concluded it was far too dangerous for us to climb in. From one cliff we found a rope that the locals used for practicing spranga, the island sport of rappelling. Mei Ling and Cleo still seemed to have inexhaustible energy and took off up the steep grassy slope with Spenser not far behind. I really didn't want them to climb all the way up to the ridge and I didn't feel like chasing down the kids so I implored them to stop halfway up. Thankfully they acquiesced and turned their attention to following around some bemused sheep. After five or ten minutes of that it was time to head down to the terminal and catch our ferry back to the mainland. It had been an extremely productive day of hiking and although we hadn't explored the island completely I felt I had kept the promise I made to myself almost two decades earlier.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:09 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip tony family_travel travel_blog westman_islands tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Selfoss to Landeyjahöfn

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Selfoss is an idyllic small town that sits on the bank of the Ölfusá river, nor far from where it empties into a wide estuary on the southern coast. Although well short of ten thousand people, Selfoss is the largest town on the south coast and the fourth largest in all of Iceland (if all the municipalities of Reykjavik are lumped together). Selfoss is the only significant town that sits on a river and the town is clearly proud of the distinction, with most of the major commercial establishments arranged along the riverside thoroughfare of Arvegur. I wish I could say we stayed in a fashionable abode with a view of the water, but our Airbnb was a pokey converted garage set several blocks back from the river.

As tempting as the meager twin beds appeared after a day and a half of sleep deprivation, we forced ourselves to unpack for the first time and get our gear sorted. The top restaurant in town was undoubtedly Tryggvaskáli, situated in a renovated 19th century house filled with antiques. The crowded first floor provided immediate validation of my strategy of making dinner reservations for the entire trip. I gave my name and we were immediately escorted to one of the private dining rooms upstairs, where we had a solid meal which included horse tenderloin. If I hadn't known better I would have thought I was eating beef. As is common in Iceland the bill was paid at the front desk. When I arrived a man with a Spanish accent was demanding to leave a tip even though the waitress told him it wasn't necessary. It seems with every year that the American custom of tipping is becoming the default for the rest of the world, even in countries that generally want no part of it. Iceland in particular doesn't subscribe to the practice but here was a customer who wasn't even American himself pushing a tip on his server. Eventually she laughed and told him she wouldn't refuse it which seemed to satisfy him. I'm a committed 20% tipper in the United States, but only for the specific reason that certain service workers are underpaid with the expectation they will make up the difference in tips. In most of the rest of the world those service charges are included in the prices so it is silly to duplicate them. Americans still believe they are demonstrating their exceptional generosity by tipping in Europe, but they would laugh at a tourist in the United States who tried to give a tip to a supermarket cashier or a clerk at an electronics store.

On the way back to our car we detoured for a closer look at the elegant grey and white town church Selfosskirkja, sitting serenely at the edge of the Ölfusá. It was a peaceful conclusion to a very exhausting day and a half that had begun with a frantic near-catastrophe at the Miami Airport and had taken us through two plane flights and an adventure-filled drive through just one tiny segment of the fascinating country that would be our home for the next two weeks.

I anticipated that the kids would wake up at some unholy hour of the night during jetlag, but all three of them and Mei Ling slept blissfully until the morning. It was actually I who awoke at 1:30 in the morning despite having been awake for thirty-six hours before finally putting my head on the pillow. I knew this meant I would have a second exhausting day but I was wide awake with no chance at going back to sleep. I used the time to review our itinerary for the next two days and also caught an early e-mail from the horseback riding tour we were scheduled to meet up with in the morning. They wanted to know if we could change from 9 AM to 1 PM because of some conflict they had. I didn't really like to disrupt our tight schedule but I try to accommodate people as much as I can when they ask a favor. I figured we could still make our ferry to Vestmannaeyjar if we drove straight there after riding. That meant we wouldn't be able to visit the swimming pool at Hella but that hadn't been a very high priority stop in the first place. Instead we could drive a short way back west towards Reykjanes and visit the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel, which I had previously planned on seeing when we did the Golden Circle at the end of the trip. By the time everyone else had woken up I had reorganized our day. After a buffet breakfast at one of the hotels on the river we headed south towards the coastal road. As soon as we reached the coast we saw a pretty little village wedged between the road and the coastline. This was Eyrarbakki, once a major trading port but now a very modest fishing village. We had a little extra time so we pulled off the road and drove down the single main street admiring the colorful houses and the stately church in its own little square.

Raufarhólshellir is one of the better known lava tubes in Iceland, partly because it is one of the largest and also because it is easily accessible from Reykjavik for day trippers. For our guided tour we got to wear helmets with lights, which was exciting for the kids and frustrating for us as we kept having to escalate our threats to keep them from constantly clicking through the different brightness settings. A gravel path led to an ominous hole in a lava field which permitted our group's descent into the underworld.

The cave was a good choice for us as it required a little bit of clambering to reach the metal walkway but nothing too strenuous, and there were no tight squeezes or areas of danger. The walls of the spacious tube had an intriguing jagged and rocky composition, almost as though they had been constructed by a giant gluing boulders together. Deeper inside some of the walls had a smoother, grooved surface testifying to the passage of lava centuries earlier. We had chosen the standard one hour tour but there is also an option for a more rigorous four hour tour which requires significantly more climbing and navigation of tight spaces. Our kids were nowhere near the minimum age of twelve so this was never a consideration for us, and it remains to be seen if we'll be up for that kind of adventure in five or six years.

We had to pass back through Selfoss on the way to horseback riding so we decided to eat at Mjólkurbúið Mathöll, a food hall in the center of town that we'd accidentally discovered the previous evening while walking to our dinner restaurant. The operation occupies an old dairy building and is part of a major renovation of the center of town that was ongoing at the time of our visit. It was a small food hall with only six or seven restaurants but still quite impressive for a town the size of Selfoss, and quite busy as well. We had Thai food along with some skyr, a cultured dairy product similar to yogurt that has been a part of Icelandic cuisine since medieval times.

Horseback riding is a very popular activity for travelers in Iceland mainly because of the small stature of the horses, their friendly dispositions, and their flowing manes. It's common for travelers to feed horses close to the Ring Road, much to the annoyance of farmers. Our riding experience was with Riding Tours South Iceland on a small farm called Syðra Langholt. It was the prototypical Icelandic farm with bales of hay rolled into white coverings like giant marshmallows on the pastures. I was a little nervous about the trip because on our last attempt in Belize a few months earlier Spenser had been too afraid to go through with the ride. It hadn't mattered because Mei Ling had taken his spot and Spenser had hung out with me at the barn, but this time all five of us were planning on riding together. I spent the minutes before we got on the horse building up his confidence and the guides were very patient with him as well. They taught us how to control the horses with the reins, although I think it was an illusion as our horses generally followed the lead of the guides. The only exception was that since our pace was slow they would frequently stop to chew on some favorite grasses and weeds. The kids were also impressed by the volume and duration of flatulence a couple of the horses emitted on the trail. It was a pleasant experience although Mei Ling and I were mainly in it for the kids and our butts were pretty sore at the conclusion of the experience. Spenser finished his ride despite some initial anxiousness and was quite pleased with himself.

We finished horseback riding half an hour later than scheduled which meant there was no way we'd be able to make our scheduled ferry to Vestmannaeyjar. This seemed unlikely to be a tragedy since the boats left every couple of hours and there didn't seem to be any problem with space, especially as we weren't planning on bringing our car. I confirmed this by calling ahead and they assured me there was plenty of room on the later departure, although I would have to wait until I arrived physically to change the ticket. That gave us an additional hour and a half which I hoped to spend at the Lava Centre, but when I checked the hours online I saw a very early closing time of four o'clock. The earliest we could make it there would be a few minutes before closing. I had no other plan except to wait at the ferry terminal but fortunately I let Mei Ling convince me to drive to the Lava Centre anyway. When we arrived we learned that 4:00 was just the time they played their last movie and that visitors could stay until five. As usual Mei Ling had made the right call. The admission price was pretty steep but the Centre had glowing reviews online so we decided to go ahead with it. The exhibit turned out to be pretty small with just one or two interactive features. The part my kids enjoyed the most was a video timeline of Iceland's formation that could be advanced or reversed by spinning a giant wheel. On the roof there were placards explaining the different volcanos that were visible on the horizon. Overall I would say the Lava Centre definitely wasn't worth the price of admission, but it was better than sitting in the lobby of the ferry terminal.

The ferry to Vestmannaeyjar usually sails from the port Landeyjahöfn which sits on the closest part of the southern coast to the island, in which case the ride is about forty minutes. In times of bad weather, which is much more common in the winter, the ferry sails from the small town of Þorlákshöfn at the base of the Reykjanes peninsula and takes almost three hours. I can only imagine what a miserable experience that must be on a rolling ocean. Fortunately luck was on our side and the seas were calm when we arrived at Landeyjahöfn. It was clear we had arrived at the right place from the large puffin statue at the turnoff from the Ring Road. We had to sort our belongings in the parking lot to avoid bringing both large suitcases to the island while being careful not to leave behind anything essential. I changed the time of our departure after paying a tiny fee and soon enough we were shoveling our kids and belongings onto the ferry. After eighteen years I was finally making good on my promise to return to Vestmannaeyjar.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:58 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog selfoss reykjanes tony_friedman family_travel_blog raufarhólshellir lava_centre icelandic_horses Comments (0)

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