A Travellerspoint blog

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 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 they 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 faded 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 for dinner. My first and second restaurant choices were closed on Mondays, but Einsi Kaldi 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 the belugas were sometimes away 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 of 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 four o'clock 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)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Arrival and Reykjanes peninisula

View Iceland 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

2021 has been a wild year so far for our family in many ways. After not traveling at all in 2020 due to COVID we've overloaded our plate this year with spring break in Belize and not one but two huge summer trips. For the first we were able to thread the needle with a month-long road trip in the American Southwest that ended just before the delta wave of COVID crashed into the United States. We were exhausted on our return and had to decide quickly if we were going to cram another trip into the tail end of summer vacation. It seemed fateful that Iceland, one of our most desirable targets, had recently relaxed their entry restrictions and we would now be able to enter the country without any quarantine as long as we were fully vaccinated with negative pre-departure tests. Our small children had no requirements at all. Our only other choice was Alaska and we were ready for a dose of a different culture that only another country could provide. Painful as it was to abandon the comforts of home so soon, I nevertheless got hold of a Lonely Planet for Iceland and went to work. I quickly realized that it's not easy to book accommodations in Iceland three weeks in advance. I was able to find a place at every stop I wanted but at one remote location I had no choice except to put down a non-refundable payment of over $700 for one night. The other accommodations were generally quite expensive as well, partly because there's almost no Airbnb/Vrbo presence in Iceland outside of the capital. Whether that is because of the sparse population or government restrictions I don't know. The cost of our two week 4WD SUV rental was over $5000 as well and that was with a local Icelandic outfit called Lotus. The international brands were considerably more expensive. This two week trip was going to cost us more than our month in the Southwest, even excluding the airfare difference.

The choice of Iceland wasn't based purely on word-of-mouth and impulse. I'd been there alone on a brief visit almost twenty years previously and only seen Reykjavik and the island of Vestmannaeyjar. I'd especially loved the island and clearly remembered standing atop a mountain there looking down at the only village and the surrounding islets, vowing to myself I would one day return when I had someone with whom to share this indescribably view. I now had four of those people in my life and I eagerly anticipated returning to that island. I was also excited about finally driving the legendary Ring Road and seeing all the natural wonders that are near it, as well as the myriad opportunities for family adventure that Iceland provides. I created a two week itinerary that covered the entire Ring Road with enough time to experience all of Iceland's more accessible adventures. The only regions excluded were the Westfjords, which would have required another two or three days, and the Highlands which seemed too risky and strenuous for the kids. Realizing how difficult it had been just to arrange accommodations, I had taken the extra step of making restaurant reservations for almost every night of the trip as well. Being forced to scrounge for dinner at a gas station convenience store would have been a lousy way to end an exciting day of travel.


Our trip to Iceland was almost over before it began. We packed two days in advance and carefully reviewed our checklist. I even remembered the binoculars I had forgotten to take to the Southwest. We arrived at the Delta check-in desk with our passports and COVID tests in hand and the agent asked us about our vaccination records. I had kept mine in my wallet ever since it was first issued, but I saw a stunned look come over Mei Ling's face. This was the first time we'd needed vaccination in order to travel and she'd never thought to take the card out of her folder in the filing cabinet. We had a little more than an hour to departure, nowhere near enough time to take an Uber back to the house. The only person at the house was Mei Ling's mom who didn't know how to drive or even text us a picture of the card. Mei Ling started frantically calling her friends and found someone on the third call who was available. Meanwhile the gate agent was on the phone and confirmed we needed the actual card to get us through screening in Iceland, not just a photo. I simply could not conceive how someone could drive to our house, find the card in the filing cabinet, and bring it to the airport in time for our flight. Taking the flight to Iceland without proof of vaccination was not an option. We were almost certain to get quarantined in a grim hotel for the first five days of our fourteen day trip which would have been worse than just staying home. Meanwhile Mei Ling was unable to contact her mother because she was napping in Spenser's room and had left her phone on the other side of the house. Mei Ling's friend arrived about ten minutes later to a locked house with no one answering the bell. Here our luck finally started to turn. Spenser's bedroom is at the front of our single-story house and I was able to direct our helper to the window facing the front yard. Mei Ling's mom must have had the shock of her life to be awoken by banging on the window. When she came to the front door she finally picked up her phone and Mei Ling explained to her what was going on. Then I had to guide Mei Ling's friend to my office, to the correct filing cabinet, and then to the actual folder. The next moment of despair came when she emptied Mei Ling's medical folder onto my desk and the vaccination card wasn't there, followed shortly afterwards by a return to exhilaration when she found it in the adjacent folder. We now had forty minutes until departure and our check-in agent had very patiently waited for us for about twenty minutes. The card had been retrieved but our home was twenty-five minutes from the airport under the best of conditions. We decided that I would take the kids through security while Mei Ling waited for her friend at check-in. The agent weighed and tagged our bags and stored them behind the counter pending the arrival of the vaccination card. I'd been through so many cycles of despondency and elation in the last half hour that I was almost numb. Even though we were in a much better position than when we first realized Mei Ling hadn't brought her card, I still couldn't see how we would make our flight. I'd put so much work into organizing every step of our trip and now our itinerary would have to be cut short if there was even space for us on a flight in the coming days. We shuffled along on the way to the TSA desk and then after what seemed an impossibly brief period of time Mei Ling ran over with vaccination card in hand. It couldn't have been more than twenty minutes since her friend had been in our house. I still have no idea how she managed to get to the airport so quickly but somehow the universe just seems to flex in all the right ways when Mei Ling needs help. Amazingly our flight was departing from the very first gate after we got through security. We arrived just as people were starting to line up to board without even suffering the indignity of a mad rush through the airport. I planted myself in my seat in a state of complete shock, my head spinning as I contemplated the emotional roller coaster we had experienced over the last hour. It was time to put the trauma out of mind because we were now embarking on the first leg of our trip to Iceland and it seemed that we had skirted disaster. Just to keep our karma in good shape Mei Ling Zelle'd a solid tip to the check-in agent who had let us occupy his station for half an hour while we frantically dealt with our self-inflicted wound. The funniest part was that this wasn't even the first time we had come so close to missing an entire vacation. Four years ago we forgot to renew Cleo's passport and Mei Ling conducted a Jedi-like act of persuasion on the supervisor at check-in that got us on a flight to Mexico.

Iceland is a relatively easy journey from Miami but it requires a connection through NYC or Boston. Red eyes are a good option for us because Mei Ling and the kids sleep pretty well on planes, allowing us to start fresh in the morning rather than arriving exhausted. The flip side of that is that I can rarely sleep at all on a plane and I do most of the driving. I've discovered from experience that my long years of working overnight combined with the adrenalin of kicking off a road trip are enough to keep me active and alert through that first day as long as we don't try to push ourselves too late. Mei Ling and I wore N95's under our cloth masks on the way to NYC and then relaxed our precautions a little on the international leg, figuring virtually everyone on that flight had both been vaccinated and recently tested negative (with the exception of the kids). At the baggage carousel we had to endure one final episode of suspense as our suitcases failed to appear after almost every other passenger had moved onward. Had the gate agent remembered to load our checked bags onto the carousel or had he left them at the desk? Mei Ling had been so consumed with the vaccination card that she hadn't paid attention. Then our bags popped out together at the top of the ramp and we could finally breathe again.

Although Iceland's international airport is often referred to as being in Reykjavik, it is actually located near Keflavik at the end of the boot-like Reykjanes peninsula forty-five minutes drive from the capital. We picked up our rental, a Kia Sportage 4WD SUV, from Lotus Car Rentals without incident. There was a GPS that came with the car but we were able to use Google Maps for the entire trip without any difficulty. Google Maps is always the best choice when it's working because GPS is very difficult to use without a street address, and canyons and waterfalls rarely come with street addresses. Years ago we encountered lots of problems using Google Maps in Europe but the app has come a long way since then and in Iceland it was almost infallible. We stopped at the first gas station we came to for a snack and a Siminn prepaid SIM card. For a little over twenty bucks I got 5GB of data and 50 minutes of call time which proved to be more than adequate over our two week stay. It was a major price improvement over the $140 it would have cost me to roam my iPhone, and I had the best network for rural areas. I don't know what coverage would have been like with roaming but with Siminn I only lost service when we were out on a glacier. There were no activation annoyances either. I switched the SIM cards and my phone was immediately up and running.


The Reykjanes peninsula gets ignored by most travelers who are rushing to either Reykjavik or the Ring Road, but sometimes the least visited places turn out to be the most interesting for us. As soon as we left the airport area we found ourselves in a completely unfamiliar landscape. The ground was uneven and rocky with patchy areas of long grass. It was clear we were driving over land that was in various stages of evolution after volcanic eruptions. On our way to our first planned stop we saw cars pulling into a small parking lot by the side of the highway. On instinct I followed them even though our scheduled visit to the Blue Lagoon didn't leave us much time. A path led to a shallow chasm traversed by a metal footbridge, and I immediately recognized we were at the Bridge Between Continents. This is one of several locations in Iceland where one can observe the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The bridge spans the two plates and a popular activity is to toss a football across the chasm from one continent to another.

At the heel of the Reykjanes boot are the cliffs of Valahnúkamöl. This area contains some of the peninsula's most dramatic scenery. A side road from the highway took us first past the hill topped by the Reykjanes lighthouse, which was surrounded by flocks of circling and swooping Arctic terns. We drove slowly to avoid the birds which flew low around the car and even paced on the road in front of us. Other drivers clearly hadn't afforded them the same courtesy as there were several squashed birds on the asphalt.

Next to the parking area was an incongruous statue of a solitary great auk, a flightless species that once frequented the area but was hunted to extinction. Close to the shore was the tiny islet of Eldey, a bizarre-appearing rock that looked like it had been cleaved obliquely with a giant sword. The slanted facet facing us was patterned with long white stripes of guano. The cliffs were jagged and daunting, tantalizingly hilly and climbable from the landward side but then ending in abrupt precipices. I couldn't deny the kids their first opportunity for a real scramble but it was quite unnerving trying to keep between all three of them and the seaward side of the cliffs.

One popular attraction that almost everyone visits on the peninsula is the Blue Lagoon, a man-made spa filled with cloudy, sky-blue water that is ideal for Instagram posturing. Although the water enjoys a reputation for being beneficial to the skin, most patrons would probably be horrified to discover that it is actually the discharged water from a geothermal power plant that has been directed into a hollowed out lava field. The water acquires its unearthly and photogenic color from dissolved silica and blue algae. After the lagoon started becoming popular among locals the site was expanded and upgraded to make it more amenable for visitors and it has now become one of the crucial boxes to check for international visitors. The admission prices vary by demand but typically range from $60-76 for the most basic package which only provides a towel and one free drink. Children under 14 are free which was nice for us. We had booked well in advance to get a lower price and to be sure to get the time slot we needed. I hadn't planned on eating at the Lava Restaurant at the lagoon since it had a reputation for being overpriced and uneven on quality, but when we arrived we were starving and the restaurant was almost empty. We ordered the Icelandic standards of cod and grilled lamb and were quite pleased with the food. Afterwards we spent about an hour in the pleasantly warm water wading around and getting our free silica masks, which were a lot easier to put on than to wash off.

Our next stop was the geothermal area Seltún, positioned conveniently right by the road and traversed by a well-maintained boardwalk. Although we would see more impressive hot springs and mudpots later in our journey, this was the first time the kids had seen anything like it. They were even more amazed that the earth could produce a sulfurous stench more intense than the most noxious flatulence any of them had ever emitted. There are opportunities for more extensive hikes in Seltún but we opted for the simple walk along the boardwalk and then took a dirt footpath back to the car. Across the road was a pond that was bright blue with algae and an abandoned farm with graffitied silos.

Just a few minutes drive north is Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on the peninsula. The water was an amazingly deep shade of blue that contrasted with the surrounding black sand beach. As we approached an enormous flock of white birds rose from the beach in synchrony, swirled in the air, and departed.

By now we had checked off all our planned sights on the peninsula and we were ready to drive inland to our Airbnb in Selfoss. I saw that Google Maps was directing us all the way to Reykjavik to pick up the Ring Road when there seemed to be a perfectly acceptable shortcut via Highway 417. We decided to take the shorter route but after just ten minutes we found that the highway was completely closed in both directions. Before we turned back we noticed a car emerging from a small parking area next to the barricade. We pulled into the now-empty area and saw a sign indicating we were near the Leiðarendi Lava Cave. We followed a gravel path from the parking area into the lava field by the highway. We had already seen a few of these lava fields from the road but it was totally different to walk through the middle of one. The lumpy basalt was covered in patches of thick spongy moss as far as the eye could see. The dark grey rock that was still exposed was a patchwork of lichen in white and tan. In the background were steep hills with the characteristic striped pattern caused by flows of black volcanic sand over the green carpet of grass at the base.

Most lava tubes form when the outside of a lava flow cools and solidifies while the hot lava underneath continues to pass through. If the flow is fast enough the deep magma will pass through and leave an empty space behind. Iceland has many lava tubes, some of which are vast and highly popular as tourist attractions. Leiðarendi isn't one of the most famous but it seems to be fairly well-known. We arrived at the opening of the tube and I clambered down into the small entrance chamber. I couldn't see to the back and my cautious nature inhibited me from trying to proceed any further. I didn't even have a flashlight, let alone a helmet or any familiarity with the cave so it was probably a wise decision not to push onward. We made our way back through the lava field and charted out our new route to Selfoss.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:15 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland family_travel reykjanes tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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