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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Snæfellsnes


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Dusk was rapidly approaching as we crossed the causeway over the serene waters of Borgarfjörður into Borgarnes. It was a small, pretty town that occupied a polypoid peninsula that was similarly shaped to the one on which Höfn was located but even smaller. Borgarnes was another city, like Blönduós, that I had chosen mainly because it had the most celebrated restaurant in the region. The odd wrinkle of the Settlement Center is that it is primarily a museum of Icelandic history, which is not the sort of place where one would typically expect to find a top notch restaurant. Once again my strategy of making dinner reservations for most nights before the beginning of trip was validated as we were escorted through a growing crowd of walk-ins to our table. We had done way too much that day to stand around in a restaurant lobby with no guarantee of ever being seated. The food did justice to the restaurant's reputation with the standout dish being a heaping bowl of savory steamed mussels. The standards were mostly a cut above what we had been served elsewhere and I concluded that it was the best dinner we had been served thus far. Mei Ling was still partial to Vogafjós in Mývatn which I considered a close second. Feeling satiated but still exhausted, we followed the main road to its end on the tiny island of Brákarey at the southern tip of the peninsula. It was a typically unearthly Icelandic scene as the last vestiges of daylight showed us the reflections of the mountains and clouds in the mirror-like surface of the fjord. Confident that we had squeezed everything possible from another day, we retired to our utilitarian business hotel in the commercial quarter of town.
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I knew we had a huge amount of ground to cover if we wanted to see everything on my list in Snæfellsnes and still make it to Reykjavik in time for dinner. We were able to drag ourselves out of bed and tear through the buffet breakfast more quickly than usual which meant we had a few extra minutes to see Borgarnes. Given the size of the town that wasn't an unrealistic plan. Aside from the little island we'd visited the previous night the only thing to see was the town church at the top of a hill near the end of the peninsula. At the parking lot we discovered a bonus of red currants growing wildly behind a wooden fence. The stately church stood alone on the hill from which we had pleasing views of the fjord and the causeway that crossed it.
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Highway 54 begins in Borgarnes and circles most of Snæfellsnes. We were to become intimately familiar with it over the course of the day. Our first stop was Gerðuberg, a cliff formed of stately hexagonal basalt columns. We scrambled up the moss-covered rockfall at the base of the cliff in the hope of putting our hands on the basalt but I became terrified that one of the kids would plunge through the moss into a deep hole between the rocks. Possibly irrational, but in a country where tourists have been killed by anything from sneaker waves to snap blizzards I wasn't taking any chances.
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I had done some solid research on Snæfellsnes so I knew that the gravel road that continues onward past Gerðuberg led somewhere interesting. We passed through a direful volcanic area where only moss grew on the black surface. We saw a trail snaking up the side of the Ytri-Raudamelskúlur volcano, an ominous cone of lava with a moss-covered base and a peak shrouded in mist. Despite this unpromising landscape we suddenly arrived at a parking area adjacent to one of the most beautiful lava fields we had encountered on our journey.
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Undisturbed lava fields in Iceland acquire a blanket of woolly fringe-moss that grows thicker with time but is easily damaged by trampling. This area had clearly seen very little disturbance because there were thick clumps of it everywhere that felt like a spongy mattress. It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from rolling around in it but we knew we had to respect the importance of maintaining the sight for others in the future. Instead we picked our way carefully along a path through the lava field towards the waterfall we could see on the other side. The lava and moss gave way first to a tangle of wild blueberry bushes and then an open field with tall grass. A shallow, foamy stream emanated from a chasm in the hillside and ran through the middle of the field, intermittently dropping over little rocky steps in its bed. We had arrived at Rauðamelsölkelda, also known as the boiling spring. The water is naturally carbonated due to high levels of carbonic acid which creates a large amount of bubbling wherever the flow is turbulent. Locals believe the water has healing qualities and bring bottles to fill up whenever they visit but we found the clumps of fluorescent green algae a little intimidating. At the base of the stream was an absolutely perfect waterfall. It was an idyllic scene that could be found in countless places throughout Iceland, but here we had it all to ourselves and it felt like we were the only people in the country if not the entire world. We could easily have spent hours there picking blueberries and exploring the chasm but I knew that we only had one day and still at least four more stops to make, along with whatever else we encountered along the way.
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Ytri Tunga beach on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes is considered one of the best places to watch seals in Iceland. It seemed like a worthwhile place to stop despite the icy wind that was blowing in from the bay. As we walked from the parking area down to the beach an enormous, colorful shape became visible on the sand. At first I thought it was a large volcanic rock protruding through the sand, covered by different lichens. As we grew closer I saw that the object was clearly shaped like a whale but I thought it must be a sculpture or similar artistic creation intended to simulate a decomposing beached whale. Perhaps some kind of protest against pollution or global warming? It was only when we were practically on top of the hulking mass that I understood that we had unmistakably come across an actual decomposing whale, most likely a pygmy or juvenile sperm whale. I was rather shocked because I assumed that beached whales in populated or touristic areas would be hastily carted away or otherwise disposed of but it was clear that this whale was being left to the elements, as it was already in a fairly advanced state of decomposition. We hadn't noted the smell at first because of the direction of the wind but when it was blowing the right way the odor was quite intense. I've seen a couple of videos of dead whales spontaneously exploding so I made sure that we passed by the enormous animal at a safe distance. It probably wasn't the ideal circumstance under which to see our first great whale but still quite impressive and memorable.
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The seals at Ytri Tunga were an anticlimax after the decomposing whale. We spotted a few but they were far out on the rocks and barely distinguishable from their surroundings. It was a far cry from the enormous colonies of seals and sea lions in La Jolla, California that we had walked among a few years earlier. The kids always find a way to have fun whenever we're on a beach, even if it's practically freezing, and this was the first beach in Iceland which had typical brown sand rather than the black volcanic variety.
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Another twenty minutes driving down the coast brought us to Búðakirkja, a photogenic black church at the site of a former fishing village. No trace of the village remains and the pristine church is as new as it looks, having been rebuilt in 1987. Nevertheless it's an attractive if not essential stop on the Snæfellsnes itinerary. We thought we might avoid the typical pedestrian Icelandic lunch at the well-regarded hotel restaurant next door but they were only serving burgers and fish and chips at that hour.
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Our next stop was supposed to be the village of Arnarstapi but a few miles short of our destination we saw a busy parking area on the inland side of the road. By this point we knew that meant something worth checking out so we pulled in. We followed some people walking uphill towards the mountainside and saw what had not been apparent from the road, a colossal fissure in the moss-covered cliff that narrowed as it approached the ground. This was Rauðfeldsgjá, a gorge named for a possibly mythical boy who was thrown to his death there in the ninth century by his angry uncle. A stream of chilly water emanated from the chasm and rolled down the hillside. At the opening it was clear that careful footwork would be required to avoid soaking ourselves so I left everyone behind and scouted ahead. Within the fissure there was a wide chamber with sky overhead, and beyond that some people were proceeding further into the mountain as the chasm narrowed and twisted. There was no longer a dry path and it was far too early in the day to immerse my feet in icy water so I returned to the group outside. I learned later that the path eventually ends at a knotted rope which allows the waterfall to be ascended to the opening at the top of the cliff, but waterproof clothing is required unless one is OK with being drenched. That was far too intrepid for us but this video gives some idea of what the adventure is like.
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Soon afterwards we arrived at Arnarstapi where the first order of business was lunch. We found a place that was a cut above the service station level with excellent fish soup and roast lamb. Newly fortified, we followed the pedestrian path to the Bárður Snæfellsás statue. At first glance this would seem to be some primitive construction of stacked volcanic stones but it is actually a modern depiction of the peninsula's half-troll guardian by one of Iceland's most renowned sculptors.
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The path led all the way to the water's edge where the flat landscape terminated at a scalloped cliff. Thankfully the viewing platform had a solid railing so that I could take my eyes off the kids for a few moments at a time. The most impressive formations at the shoreline were a cave lined with basalt columns and Gatklettur, a threadbare natural basalt arch decked in vegetation and guano. The path continued along the cliffs all the way to the village of Hellnar two miles away but we were so short on time that wasn't even a consideration. The consensus seemed to be that the best views were from Arnarstapi anyway.
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We continued west towards the end of the peninsula and encountered another promising parking area at the side of the road. This was Lóndrangar, another section of seaside basalt cliffs with its own unique beauty. The parking area is close to a viewing platform at the highest part of the cliff with spectacular views over the sea and the coastline. To the west we could see a path leading down the hillside to a lave field and further in the distance an amazing structure of jagged basalt projecting from the ground at the shoreline. Even though we were pressed for time this was impossible to resist and we picked our way across the path through the lava field, occasionally passing uncomfortably close to deep holes in the lava and the edge of the cliff. Up close the enormous rocky pillars proved to be worthy of the hike. The jagged formations are reminiscent of a ruined medieval castle and occupy a majestic, surreal position on an otherwise flat landscape. Back at the parking area the inland mountains and low clouds formed the classic Snæfellsnes tableau.
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At the farthest reaches of the peninsula we encountered Djúpalónssandur, one of Iceland's most famous black beaches and a top attraction of Snæfellsnes. The parking lot here was relatively large and quite crowded. We found an available space that others had overlooked just adjacent to the path downward to the beach, a fortuitous event as we were quite short on time thanks to our unscheduled stops. The path is an attraction unto itself as it winds between jagged projections of mossy lava rock that look like the fossilized teeth of some gigantic extinct carnivore.
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Djúpalónssandur has been called the black pearl beach because it consists of rounded black lava stones and pebbles rather than fine grains like Reynisfjara. Countless scraps of twisted and rusted metal are scattered around the inland portion of the beach. These are the remnants of a British trawler that wrecked off the coast in 1948, killing fourteen of the nineteen sailors aboard. Rescue teams from the peninsula were able to save the other five thanks to heroic efforts in horrendous weather conditions. The metal pieces have been left on the beach as a memorial and it is considered very deplorable to disturb them or cart a piece off as a souvenir. I had to watch the kids carefully as they hopped around the area as some of the pieces are quite sharp.
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On the opposite side of the beach from the sea is another pretty spot, a small lagoon called Svörtulón that is colored green by algae and the reflections of the moss-covered lava walls around it. There was much more to explore at this amazing location and we could easily have spent another hour but we were far behind schedule at this point and I really wanted to see one more spot on the peninsula before we drove on to Reykjavik.
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Thus far we had spent the entire day on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes and I didn't want to leave half the peninsula unseen. The northern coast has all the towns that are larger than a few houses with the most significant being Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur. At this late hour in the most remote reaches of the peninsula there were few other cars on the road and we drove through a colorful yet barren volcanic landscape in quiet solitude. There were many things unseen here such as the peninsula's very own glacier Snæfellsjökull and the enormous Berserkjahraun lava field but we had no time for anything but a straight drive to Stykkishólmur. We did pass through Grundarfjörður which was an attractive little village filled with guesthouses. Just outside of Grundarfjörður is a tiny peninsula that is almost completely occupied by Kirkjufell, one of the most recognizable mountains in Iceland. It is distinctive not so much for its modest height of 1500 feet but for the steeple shape that gave it the name of Church Mountain. Kirkjufell looks tempting for a hike from ground level but it is quite steep and dangerous with at least three recorded fatalities among climbers.
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Stykkishólmur is at the tip of a ragged projection of land from the northern coast and is surprisingly large given its remote location. Of course in Iceland a large town is anything over a thousand people but after two weeks driving around the country we had adjusted for this unusual scale. By the time we arrived I had almost forgotten why I was so determined to reach this place, aside from an affectionate write-up in the Lonely Planet. Once we had filled up with gas we had no more than five minutes to spend there if we wanted any hope of eating dinner in Reykjavik. The town church Stykkishólmskirkja was an obvious destination on the highest hill in town. This startling contemporary structure was designed to resemble a whale vertebra and the shape of the facade evokes comparisons to Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik. From the parking lot we had pleasant views over a quiet residential neighborhood on the east side of town.
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Outside the church I did some quick research on the food halls in Reykjavik and found one that was open until ten. If we made a beeline for the center of Reykjavik and bent the speed limit just slightly we could get there in two hours and hopefully catch some restaurants before they closed their kitchens. As we cruised down the highway I reflected on this amazing day in Snæfellsnes packed with beautiful sights and adventures. Even though by now we were experienced with Iceland's incredible bounty the peninsula had instilled a fresh sense of wonder. It was almost like a miniature version of the entire country with its own cliffs, canyons, waterfalls, black beaches and even a glacier in a very compact area. We had been close to missing it completely since it was not in the itinerary until I was able to stretch our visit from twelve to fourteen days. My only regret was that we hadn't had two days to give the peninsula the attention it deserved, as we had spent far too little time in each place we had visited and missed many others as well. When we return to Iceland, Snæfellsnes will definitely be given at least two full days and possibly three so we can be sure we haven't missed anything from this remarkable place.

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

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Blönduós and Húsafell


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

The stretch of Ring Road from Akureyri to Varmahlíð had an eerie beauty that morning. A low fog obscured the mountaintops and merged into the milky sky. At times it seemed that we were about to drive into pea soup and I steeled myself for a near-total loss of visibility but the mists always seemed to clear at the last moment. Fortunately for my nerves there was almost no traffic in that rather unpopular region of Iceland in the early morning, despite the fact that we were on the main road that circled the country.
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When we arrived at the headquarters it was clear this was a more serious endeavor than the rafting trips we had taken in Utah. Our guide took a lot more time to give us instructions and informed us we would be wearing dry suits and helmets. The dry suits were a particular challenge to struggle into and at the end the kids looked like a band of Oompah Loompahs that had escaped from the chocolate factory. A short bus ride brought us to the departure point and as soon as I saw the river I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake. The rafts were on the bank of a river that was completely white with churning foam and the water seemed to be moving as fast as any I had ever seen. It almost reminded me of the waters of Jökulsá á Fjöllum just before they went off the edge of Dettifoss, not the most comforting memory. I was relieved to learn that the guide who had given instructions to the whole group would be navigating our raft as he seemed to be the most confident and experienced. As soon as I had a chance to talk to him privately I made it clear that I didn't see any of my kids getting pitched into the water as part of the adventure. I wanted him to do whatever he needed to do to keep us all in the raft. He seemed to get what I was saying and told me not to worry. They'd had plenty of young kids on the rafting trips before and never had any serious problems.

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

Swimming is something of a national pastime in Iceland thanks to all the geothermal activity that allows natural heating of pools. Some of the most small and remote towns have the most renowned sundlaugs, or swimming pools. The pool in the miniscule village of Hofsós is often rated as the top swimming pool in all of Iceland. I thought this reputation was worth checking out and it's never hard to convince the kids to go to a swimming pool. We drove about a half hour north partway up the western coast of the Tröllaskagi Peninsula to Hofsós, a typical Icelandic coastal village with a blue-roofed church and a backdrop of mountains shrouded in mist. The unique feature of the pool was its infinity design but a rim of land around the far edge detracted from the illusion of continuity with the fjord beyond. I think the kids would have preferred slides like the ones in Höfn but they still enjoyed themselves.
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A fringe benefit of the detour to Hofsós was that we got to drive Highway 75 which traversed the innermost point of Skagafjörður. The landscape is always more beautiful closer to the water. We crossed the base of the Skagi Peninsula before arriving in Blönduós, a tiny town that I had chosen mainly for a restaurant owned by two well-known Icelandic chefs. I had selected our guesthouse despite my concerns about a community bathroom but when we arrived it was clear that the only bedroom we weren't using would be vacant that night. Being the only occupants made the guesthouse more like an inexpensive, oversized Airbnb with substantial common areas. The COVID precautions that were prominently displayed seemed somewhat eccentric. Avoid contact with stray animals in market areas in Iceland?
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The coastal town was bisected by the mouth of a river and most of the hotels were packed into a quaint little corner on the southern bank of the river right next to the fjord. I hadn't even realized that our guesthouse was next door to the restaurant so we only had a two minute walk to dinner. Our hotel was adjacent to a classic little Icelandic church and a horse pasture.
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Brimslóð Atelier seemed like a prime candidate to provide our first exceptional dinner in Iceland. The owners have published several cookbooks and are among the most well-known chefs in Iceland. The particular attraction of the restaurant is that the set menu provides locally sourced dishes with the atmosphere of a home-cooked meal. The kitchen was indeed continuous with the dining area although largely blocked from visibility by cupboards, and with two long communal tables there was actually more seating than some of the other restaurants we had visited. We proved unlucky with the evening menu as the appetizer was tomato soup and the entree was Arctic char, a dish we had seen on almost every dinner menu and were trying to avoid. The fish was well-prepared and tasty but I couldn't describe the dinner as a memorable experience from a culinary perspective.
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Our Ice Cave Tour in Húsafell didn't start until three so we needed something to do in the morning. Unlike in southern Iceland, where there were always enough waterfalls and canyons and Ring Road sights to fill an entire day, exciting activities in northern Iceland were somewhat sparse. I couldn't find anything worth seeing en route so it looked like we'd have to hang out in Blönduós for a bit. We went back to Brimslóð Atelier for breakfast which we oddly found more enjoyable than the previous night's dinner. It seemed Blönduós had a decent swimming pool with slides like the one in Höfn. The kids had just been swimming the previous day in Hofsós but there hadn't been any slides so they jumped at the chance to go again. As it turned out the slides were even longer than the ones in Höfn so they had a blast. I was going crazy trying to keep track of all three of them because they kept stopping in the middle of the tube and I was imagining one of them getting stuck on something inside. Fortunately there was no one else around to hear me frantically yelling into the tube every two minutes. The most amazing part is that entry was completely free for the kids and our only expense was renting a towel to dry them off with. In the lobby they were selling ice cream but I found the brand name somewhat unappetizing.
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We'd already seen what passed for an old town in Blönduós by walking a few steps from the guesthouse to the restaurant. The only other distinguishing feature of the town was the uninhabited river island of Hrútey which is protected for nesting birds. It is open for hiking all year except for the spring. A footbridge connects the island to the northern bank of the river.
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When we arrived we discovered that there was an avant garde installation by an Icelandic artist called Shoplifter on the island. Colorful tufts and towers of synthetic fiber were strategically placed close to the path that circled the island. Our walk quickly turned into a competition between the kids for who could be the first to spot the next composition. Some were obvious but others were hidden behind other features of the landscape. Our progress was regularly slowed by the profusion of wild blueberry bushes that surrounded us. We were so entranced with the island that we almost forgot our itinerary and had to rush through the final leg of the path to stay on schedule.
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The two hour drive to Húsafell was fairly bland relative to the scenery we had seen on the southern coast and the wild northeast. Nevertheless we had some pleasant views of fields dotted with wrapped hay bales and occasional clusters of Icelandic horses. We drove as quickly as we dared given Iceland's strict photo-enforced speed limits and arrived at the departure site of our next tour in sufficient time to wolf down a quick lunch before rushing to the bus.
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One of the few disadvantages of visiting Iceland in the summer is that the natural ice caves that form under the glaciers every winter are too unstable to visit. The next best thing is the man-made ice cave that was built under the glacier Langjökull in 2015. The bus drove us to the edge of the glacier, Iceland's second largest, where we were outfitted in waterproof outfits and boots. A specialized glacier truck then drove us over the icy surface for forty minutes until we reached the mouth of the tunnel. We had seen plenty of desolate volcanic landscapes in Iceland but this was a completely different kind of bleakness. The ash-stained ice extended around us to the horizon in every direction and once again we felt like we had taken a spaceship rather than an airplane to this singular country.
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The entrance to the tunnel was like the open mouth of some giant glacial worm. We quickly reached a chamber where we were provided with crampons to give us footing on the wet ice of the tunnel floor. For the next hour or so we gingerly plodded through a network of neat rectangular tunnels with glistening, lumpy white walls. We occasionally stopped at points of interest such as illuminated chambers, a bottomless hole, and streams of meltwater which could be caught and drunk from a bottle. It was somewhat interesting and fun for the kids but probably not comparable to the beauty of a natural ice cave. At the end we clambered back into the glacier truck and reversed the process until we were back at the departure point in Húsafell.
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We had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to Hraunfossar on the way out of Húsafell. The unique feature of this wide waterfall is that it emerges from below the edge of the enormous Hallmundarhraun lava field when it reaches the Hvítá River. The water originates in the nearby glacier but is completely invisible until it reaches the river because it flows underneath the pahoehoe lava. A walking path provides different perspectives on the waterfall and eventually leads to another waterfall named Barnafoss where the river churns through a twisting passage of sculptured basalt.
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Soon we were gazing once again at marshmallow haystacks dotting green fields on the forty-five minute leg west to Borgarnes, where we would be having dinner and spending the night. It felt good to be back on our normal hectic schedule after slowing down our pace on the northern coast. From the looks of things we were going to be pretty busy for the next three days as well.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:20 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Akureyri


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Akureyri may be Iceland's second largest city (when all of Reykjavik's suburbs are counted as one municipality) but its population of less than twenty thousand wouldn't make it stand out among coastal villages in the rest of Europe. Many Ring Road travelers just stop by for a few hours or even bypass it completely but we had chosen it for our only two-night stay aside from Reykjavik. We had been moving nonstop for a week at this point and we needed a moment to slow down for a little and enjoy just one day without packing our bags and jumping back on the road. I knew that Akureyri had a pleasant shopping street, an interesting church, and a botanical garden but not much else about the city.
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We slept a little bit later than usual, but not much, and drove down from our guesthouse for breakfast. Kaffi Ilmur is located in a hundred-year-old house halfway up a hill at the end of Hafnarstræti, the main commercial street of Akureyri. It's the most popular place in town for breakfast for locals and tourists alike but fortunately it was only moderately busy on a Monday morning. Mei Ling went inside and ordered while I supervised the kids at the playground at the base of the hill. The food was good enough to justify the reputation and it was pleasant to watch the colorful street and the busy little playground while we ate.
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A stroll down Hafnarstræti barely took half an hour even though we stopped for a look in most of the small stores on the street. The buildings were painted in vivid colors and some had little steeples to accentuate their fairy tale character.
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From the corner we could see the town's landmark church Akureyrarkirkja atop a steep hill. The church has the same architect as the renowned Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik although it doesn't boast the same awesome dimensions. Nevertheless its position at the apex of several exhausting flights of stairs and its geometrical, modernist facade endow the church with substantial gravitas. The church was closed for a ceremony so we couldn't see the famous stained glass windows or the ship suspended from the ceiling but we enjoyed the climb and the view of the harbor from the top of the hill.
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We came down the other side of the hill to Kaupvangsstræti, the other main street in the center of town. We were hoping to look around the Deiglan art gallery but it was closed until the afternoon. Across the street we saw the sidewalk pavers in front of the Akureyri Art Museum were painted like a quilt of bright colors. Planters next to the building were overflowing with colorful flowers. It seemed that someone had put a great deal of effort into beautifying this part of the street. Even the trash receptacles were covered with thick, woven frog cozies. We were so entranced by the vibrant display we almost didn't notice the woman who was working on a paper mache sculpture just outside of an open studio in the same building as the museum.
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The artist seemed pleased to encounter the kids and we stopped to chat with her for a while once it was clear we weren't disturbing our work. She was gracious enough to invite us all to tour her studio and didn't seem the slightest bit concerned about any of the kids damaging the artwork that was stacked everywhere. She worked in an extraordinary variety of media and it was clear she was the person remarkable for the frog cozies on the garbage receptacles.
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At this point we had seen everything of any possible interest to us downtown and it was still morning. If we spent a couple of hours in the Botanical Garden we'd be finished by two with six hours to go before dinner. I started searching for other things to do near Akureyri but the north of Iceland is far less interesting than the south when it comes to outdoor activities and scenic vistas. Eventually I settled on the Laufás Museum, a vicarage composed of nineteenth century turf houses that has been preserved as a heritage site. On the way back to the car we walked along the city harbor where a whale watching boat was getting ready to depart. Local teenagers were doing backflips from a short esplanade into the murky water.
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Laufás was about a half hour drive north of Akureyri, on the eastern side of Iceland's longest fjord Eyjafjörður. Without any time pressure we were able to enjoy the amazing feeling of driving on an Icelandic coastal road with the fjord on one side of us and the omnipresent snow-capped mountains on the other. We frequently pulled over to take pictures and soak in the feeling that we were the only people in this beautiful part of the planet.
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While many of Iceland's surviving turf houses are single bedroom huts, Laufás was a relative mansion with numerous rooms that remained in use until the 1930's. The indoor furnishings were preserved as well down to the cooking implements and the skis and snowshoes used by the occupants. It was hard for us to imagine that people had been living in such different conditions in Iceland just a hundred years previously. As with many places in Iceland the setting of the vicarage in tall grass surrounded by snow-capped mountains was breathtaking. We had a light snack in the museum cafe to tide us over until dinner.
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We still had plenty of time to kill so we continued north alongside the fjord to the tiny fishing village of Grenivik. This was the end of the highway and beyond lay the wild and uninhabited Fjörður Peninsula, accessible only by four wheel drive. The village was very modern and well-maintained, but we weren't surprised to see no sign of its human population. From a short concrete dock we could look out over the fjord to the formidable mountains on the opposite side.
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Lystigarður Akureyrar has the reputation of being the northernmost botanical garden in the world. We weren't expecting very much given the city's diminutive size but we were quite favorably impressed. There was an extensive network of paths through an extraordinary variety of colorful and interesting plants and trees, as well as several fountains and pools. We saw far more people here than we had anywhere else in Akureyri, sipping drinks at the central cafe or sprawled on the grassy meadow in front of the gazebo. It was probably the most enjoyable experience we had in the city.
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Our final approach to the problem of how to fill a day in Akureyri was to move up our dinner reservation an hour to six thirty. This worked out well because we hadn't had a real lunch and were quite hungry, and of course we had absolutely nothing else to do once we finished with the botanical garden. It was a strange situation to be in after the frantic rushing that had consumed every day of our journey up to this point. I didn't regret our decision to spend two nights in Akureyri but I can't say I recommend more than one night in the city for travelers who like to stay busy. Tonight's dinner was special because it was Ian's eighth birthday. The first time we had celebrated his birthday while traveling was five years earlier and the restaurant at Prague had done a wonderful job singing Happy Birthday to him in Czech. I was hopeful we would be able to repeat the experience in Icelandic and perhaps create something of a tradition. I had planned to make a reservation at Strikið. which seemed to be the top restaurant in the city, but for some reason it was completely booked for the whole weekend when I checked a month in advance. Instead I chose the Japanese-Icelandic fusion restaurant Rub23 which was almost equally lauded. It was right next to the art museum on Kaupvangsstræti where we had visited the studio that morning.
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Rub23 turned out to be a pretty typical Icelandic restaurant. The Japanese food was rather mundane and the portions were tiny, requiring us to lay out an ungodly amount of cash to avoid leaving hungry. The host got a hunted look in her eye when I asked about the birthday song and told me she would ask and let me know. Later on when I hadn't heard back I asked our waitress if it was going to happen and she told me it was. Eventually she came out all on her own with the little dessert and a candle and sang so meekly we could barely hear her. I felt a little guilty because clearly this wasn't the kind of thing they were used to doing in Iceland but the important thing was that Ian had a huge smile on his face.
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When we left the restaurant there was a large crowd of hopefuls waiting for a table. I felt gratified that our decision to eat earlier meant that another family wouldn't have to be turned away. I was also glad to have the time to beginning packing our bags in the evening as we had to be back on the Ring Road fairly early in the morning. One of our most eagerly anticipated Icelandic adventures lay just ahead.

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

Waterfalls and Glaciers: The Diamond Circle


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From Mývatn we retraced our route about forty minutes to Dettifoss and then continued another twenty minutes to the turnoff for Rauðhólar. This isolated geological marvel should not be confused with the site by the same name located just outside Reykjavik. We could see the red hills that the site was named for in the distance but their visibility was deceptive. We had to trudge along the dirt path for almost an hour through what seemed like an endless lush carpet of green and purple scrub before we finally arrived at the base.
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A trail led us close to the crest of the tallest hill but a rope prevented hikers from treading on the red surface of oxidized scoria. Up close the maroon slope of the hill was even more impressive, especially when contrasted with the greenery that was attempting to overtake one side. On the side of the hill that faced the river the red scoria mixed with black in a streaky pattern. In the other direction a steep and narrow trail led downward towards the irregular lava pillars of Hljóðaklettar.
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We saw some more intrepid hikers braving the steep path but we opted for a more prudent route at the base of the hill. In the end we decided not to make the journey all the way down to the river to see the formations of Hljóðaklettar up close. I've since wondered if we might have missed a very unique experience, but the extra hour would have meant skipping something else later in the day. I was still thankful that I had figured out a way to fit Rauðhólar into our itinerary since both the walk through the green and purple field and the views from the top of the hill had been amazing.
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We continued north on 862 and eventually intersected with 85, a long loop that provides access to the northeastern coast of Iceland while the Ring Road courses inland. Just a few miles east we found the turn-off to Ásbyrgi Canyon and had a quick lunch at a service station. Ásbyrgi isn't one of Iceland's best known sites, probably because no one makes it there unless they have more than a week to complete the entire Ring Road with time to spare to venture into the northeast. That was fortunate for us because if Ásbyrgi was on the Golden Circle it would be so packed with tourists that the atmosphere would be completely destroyed. Ásbyrgi was completely different from the narrow gorges we had seen previously in Iceland. The canyon was an enormous horseshoe-shaped sloping depression with walls of sheer basalt. As one proceeds further into the canyon the walls become higher until they reach a breathtaking one hundred meters. A separate tongue of basalt called Eyjan extends from the beginning of the canyon into the center where it suddenly terminates in a sheer cliff. From the road, Eyjan looks like a giant monolith in the middle of the canyon but it is an illusion. Behind the cliff is a strip of land that gradually converges with the rising ground level.
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A short, easy trail led from the parking area through a wood to an algae filled pond at the base of the basalt cliffs. Here the cliffs were at their tallest and most impressive. It was hard to believe that something so immaculate could have occurred through the chaotic forces of volcanism and flooding. The ancient Icelanders must have felt the same way as they concluded the canyon was a hoofprint of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin. In more modern terms it was like a scene from a video game where the cliffs defined the boundary of a virtual world. The basalt had developed a chunky, faceted appearance from years of erosion and displayed patches of red from oxidation and green from plant life. There was one viewing platform at the water level and another on a slope overlooking the pond.
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The path on the slope ended adjacent to the cliff, where a sign warned that rocks fell from the walls at frequent intervals. Dusty chunks of basalt at the foot of the cliff testified to the truth of the warning. That didn't seem to deter many visitors but was enough for me to keep that part of our exploration brief. The texture and coloration of the stone walls was even more impressive up close.
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I was so taken aback by the awesomeness of Ásbyrgi that I completely forgot about my plan to walk the two kilometer trail to the top of Eyjan, which would have afforded a bird's eye view of the entire parabolic extent of the cliff face. I only felt a sudden pang of regret once we were already well on our way to Húsavík. Regardless, the cliffs of Ásbyrgi had been even more breathtaking than Rauðhólar. It had definitely been a wise decision to complete the Diamond Circle rather than driving straight to Akureyri from Mývatn.

The main draw of the coastal city of Húsavík is the profusion of whale watching boats that depart from the port. That wasn't an option for us as Mei Ling gets seasick easily and the boys are somewhat susceptible to it as well. I've heard a lot of horror stories about seasickness on those trips. We stopped in the town just to get a quick look at the port and see the Whale Museum, which I would describe as modestly interesting. The green and white town church was an attractive landmark in the upper part of town overlooking the port.
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We continued west on 85 from Húsavík which eventually terminated once more at the Ring Road. Here we reversed direction eastward a short distance and found the turn-off for Goðafoss. Like Dettifoss, there are two roads leading to opposite sides of the waterfall although in this case it's a much shorter drive to go from one to the other. Goðafoss translates to "waterfall of the gods", a name it received when the Icelandic chieftain Thorgeir Thorkelsson tossed his pagan idols into the cataract in the 11th century after deciding the country would bow to pressure from Norway and convert to Christianity. It has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland but after seeing so many over the previous week we couldn't find much to set it apart from the rest. The wind was exceptionally strong and cold so we decided against taking the path down to the lower level or visiting the opposite side.
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We finally rolled into Akureyri without much time to spare before dinner. We had a beautiful drive down the shore of Eyjafjörður which gave us a nice preview of the city on the other side. Eyri Restaurant was in a tiny suburb called Hjalteyri, about fifteen minutes north of the city. Aside from the restaurant there were nine or ten houses and the obligatory abandoned fish processing plant. Beyond the plant we could see the snowcapped mountains on the other side of the fjord. There was a playground with one of those colorful bubble trampolines that the kids seem to never get tired of. The restaurant was a farm-to-table type of place with a great reputation but I suspect they were short-staffed or otherwise having an off night. Fortunately we had already learned to temper our expectations regarding dining out in Iceland. We had a short drive to our guest house which was also north of the city and crashed almost immediately thanks to another exhausting day.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 03:40 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog husavik tony_friedman family_travel_blog asbyrgi rautholar Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Mývatn


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We made it to Mývatn just in time for our dinner reservation at Vogafjós Farm Resort, a farm that also operated as a hotel and restaurant. We had to walk right by the cow shed to enter the restaurant and the smell confirmed that the farm was in full working order. The food lived up to the restaurant's rating as one of the best in the lake area, especially the sampler plate of Icelandic specialties.
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Despite the excellent food I felt irritated that we hadn't been able to see anything on our itinerary north of Dettifoss. I had marked Rauðhólar and Ásbyrgi as optional stops, but was I sure we weren't missing something exceptional? As we ate I studied the map and realized that there was a way we could return to the area and visit those places without compromising our itinerary for the next day. Since we were having an early dinner, we could knock out a couple of the sights around the lake before it got dark and then get out of Mývatn earlier the next day. We could retrace to Rauðhólar and Ásbyrgi and then take the coastal road west through Húsavík. If we didn't dawdle too long at any one place we'd be able to make it to Akureyri for our dinner reservation at 8:30.
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After dinner we wasted no time driving back along the Ring Road to the turn-off for Krafla. This volcanic caldera is famous for the blue pool called Viti at the base of the crater. The eruption that formed the crater is also responsible for the nearby steaming lava field called Leirhnjúkur. On the road to Krafla we passed by an enormous geothermal plant and then parked in a lot right next to the caldera. We could see Viti from the lowest part of the crater rim but decided to walk up the narrow edge of the crater anyway. It was a little scary because of the wind and the steep slopes on either side of the rim, but probably not steep enough for us to fall all the way down into the water. Viti appeared more dark blue than the legendary turquoise, possibly due to the clouds and the lateness of the hour. The area around the crater was another volcanic wasteland dotted with other calderas and small patches of grassland between them.
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On the way back to Mývatn we stopped at the Hverir geothermal area right off the Ring Road. This was more impressive than Seltun from the first day but the lack of a boardwalk made me nervous to take the kids for a stroll among the boiling mudpots. The kids were more than happy to stay with me on the viewing platform because of the powerful sulfur smell and the clouds of annoying midges that were harassing us. Mývatn is actually named for the midges which periodically swarm the entire area around the lake. Some people claim they bite but this is hotly disputed and we didn't feel any bites, but nevertheless they are quite annoying and get into every part of the face including the mouth and eyes. After a while I realized it was preferable to breathe through my mouth and swallow the occasional midge than to suck them into my nose. One way to avoid the issue is with hats that come with nets attached but out stay in Mývatn was so short that we didn't bother.
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The quickest route to our hotel was along the western shore of the lake. Mývatn was completely different from Lagarfjlót, the lake we had driven alongside in the morning, but no less beautiful. Instead of a mirror-like surface, Mývatn had an irregular shoreline full of little projections and inlets as well as numerous little ponds not far from the main lake. The vegetation around the lake was lush and there were numerous uninhabited islets that were equally verdant. Guesthouse Stöng was another ten minute drive down a dirt road from the main highway. By the time we arrived the sun was below the horizon and the isolated cottages were half buried in the mist, illuminated by the last few rays of sunlight that filtered through the clouds. It was a ghostly sight but we were glad to finally have a place to rest our heads. When we unpacked we found Ian's lost hoodie in the dirty clothes bag and no one would admit to having stuffed it in there. Regardless, we accepted this find as a good omen for the second half of our journey.
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In the morning we had better light in which to take stock of our surroundings. It seemed as though we had stumbled upon another beautiful accommodation in the middle of nowhere. The cottages looked as though they had fallen from the sky into an enormous field of dandelions. The lake was too far away to be visible and the cinder cones that surrounded it were just distant shadows on the horizon. This bucolic environment was a world apart from the volcanic wasteland we had explored the previous night. The only hotel we had stayed at with a more impressive setting was The Garage in southern Iceland.
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After a typical buffet breakfast we got started on our itinerary. We wanted to find the best way to experience the lakeside atmosphere so we drove to the nature preserve Höfði. From the small parking lot a trail led into the wooded area which was surprisingly dense for Iceland. Eventually we reached the shoreline where we could get right up to the clear, aquamarine water and enjoy the curiously shaped little islets that dotted the surface of the lake. I was expecting to be tortured by the midges here but we had no problem with them at all, perhaps because it was so early.
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The turn-off for Dimmuborgir was just a short distance away. This protected area of lava pillars was formed by steam pressure from ground water trapped beneath a pool of lava. The entrance had some elevation which made it a good vantage point to look outward over the lake. There's a lot of local mythology about Dimmuborgir due to the resemblance of the structures to a miniature city. It was quite a long walk from the parking area to the most well-known formations. Kirkjan is a short tunnel whose entrance has an ogee arch shape suggestive of a Gothic church.
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It's strictly prohibited to climb on most of the lava formations due to their brittleness. One exception is the short clamber up to an elevated circular window in a wall of lava that's a favorite for photographs. On the other side of the window is a trail leading to Hverfjall, the largest cinder cone in the lake area. There's a path to the top of Hverfjall but since we had already climbed to the top of the caldera at Krafla we gave that one a miss.
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If I had to do Dimmuborgir over again I probably would have skipped Kirkjan. The walk took a lot of time and the formation was crowded with tourists and not really that impressive. We could easily have spent another day at Mývatn checking out all the different ravines and hot springs or even fishing but we still had a lot on our plate before our arrival in Akureyri that evening. We bid our farewell to the lake and got back on the road to complete what is known as the Diamond Circle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:24 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog krafla husavik viti tony_friedman family_travel_blog goðafoss dimmuborgir hverir Comments (0)

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