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This is the Place: Salt Lake City and Park City


View Salt Lake City 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

The kids just get a week off school for Spring Break but somehow we've managed to work some of our most memorable trips into that short interval. Five years ago we took an extra week to tour Sicily and Malta but since then we've managed to stay within the confines of the school vacation to see Buenos Aires, Louisiana, and Belize. Late March is a great time of year to visit Central America and I had anticipated tackling Costa Rica, but the kids had made so much progress on their second ski trip in Vermont over New Year that we decided it would be a better idea to keep building on it. We had Southwest Airlines vouchers from our canceled trip to Belize in 2020 that would expire over the summer which meant flying to either Salt Lake City or Denver. Denver would have been a direct flight but frankly I'd found the city to be as boring as dirt on our first ski trip at the end of 2019. We'd already been to Salt Lake City as well on our huge Southwest road trip the previous summer but I liked the vibe there more and I had a couple of ideas for things to do on a return visit. Salt Lake City also had a profusion of ski slopes within an hour of downtown that catered to every budget and level of proficiency.
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There was a huge price difference between departure days for the flights so I decided to cut our trip down to five days. I figured it wouldn't really matter since three days was as much skiing as I could tolerate and I could only think of a day's worth of other activities in Salt Lake City. It felt strange to be sorting through all our ski clothes again so soon after our last trip. Making sure five sets of ski parkas, ski bibs, balaclavas, goggles, gloves, wool socks, warm hoodies, and long underwear are safely packed is not a trivial task. One large suitcase was full before we even turned our attention to the regular clothes and sundries. The only significant annoyance of the flight out was having to make a connection in Houston. Oddly enough, the first time I ever used the in-flight tracking app was the first time we ever deviated significantly from the planned route on a domestic flight. Instead of heading directly across the Gulf of Mexico to Houston we were headed northwest towards St. Louis and the app showed an arrival time an hour and a half past schedule. I kept expecting to see our flight path curving back south and we kept heading in the same wrong direction. Rather than bother the kids who by now were cocooned in charging cables and ear phones I waited for a flight attendant to come by, an event that didn't take place over the next hour. By then the app showed that we were practically over St. Louis, a huge detour from our expected route. I wondered if our plane was destined to disappear over uncharted ocean like that Malaysian Airlines flight. When an attendant finally passed by I flagged her down with barely suppressed anxiety. She seemed a little puzzled by my question and told me that we were going to be arriving late and an announcement had been made at departure. I was sure I hadn't heard anything. A couple of minutes later the captain came on overhead and said that we'd made a detour due to weather and we'd be arriving a almost an hour and a half behind schedule. This would give us less than an hour to make our connection to Salt Lake City which I could see in the app was scheduled to leave on time.

When we finally arrived we hustled off the plane but fortunately we were in Houston's smaller Hobby airport and our next gate was just a hundred yards away. We still had enough time to grab sandwiches before the next flight. On the news I saw that there had been a storm and even tornadoes in Louisiana that afternoon so clearly our detour had been justified. We had actually been lucky to have such a long layover in Houston that we were never in serious danger of missing our connection but it was another reminder that nonstop flights are almost always the best option.
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I hadn't made a dinner reservation for our first night in Salt Lake City, figuring there was a good chance the kids might be sleepy or just beat up from the travel, but everyone seemed in good shape so I made a couple of calls and wound up with a table at Bambara. We picked up our SUV from Alamo and arrived at our Airbnb close to the state capitol uneventfully, quickly dropped off our bags and headed to the restaurant downtown. I generally don't think twice about what I wear to a restaurant in most American cities, especially in Miami, but when I walked into Bambara I felt a little self-conscious about our sloppy travel clothes. The bistro occupied the space of a former bank lobby with a travertine marble floor and a central kitchen that dominated the space. We arrived just half an hour before their closing time so I can't imagine the staff was thrilled to see us but they were very pleasant and didn't betray any sign of annoyance at the sight of the kids. I wasn't surprised when our orders were taken quickly and our food arrived even quicker but we were on the same page regarding getting through the meal with no time to waste. The food was excellent, including creative preparations of regional specialties like elk and salmon. We were thoroughly stuffed after ordering about half the items on the menu and we had an eye-watering bill as a souvenir.
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In the morning we took an early leave of the Airbnb and drove a short distance to the Oasis Cafe for breakfast. This was an upbeat little restaurant with a bohemian flair that shared its building with a bookstore. The windows extended from the floors almost to the ceiling which made us feel like we were eating in the atrium of a hotel. We ordered the usual suspects for a filling breakfast such as waffles and breakfast burritos and left quite satisfied.
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The fueling up was necessary because we were about to hike to the top of Ensign Peak. This was a trail we'd accidentally discovered on our first visit to SLC over the summer but couldn't attempt because of the triple digit July temperatures. Now that it was March we were dealing with far more comfortable weather for walking. It seemed like an easy hike from what I'd read but I wasn't going to take anything for granted so we packed plenty of water. The trail was steep in a couple of places but it proved to be fairly short and we reached the summit quickly. There were great views of the State Capitol and the short skyline of Mormon office buildings. To the east of the valley were the majestic peaks of the Wasatch Range and to the west were the more modest Oquirrh Mountains. According to local lore when Mormon leader Brigham Young first entered the valley he uttered the words "This is the place", indicating that he believed it was the valley in the Rocky Mountains that their prophet Joseph Smith had instructed him to find. A monument at the summit commemorated the moment in 1847 when Young and eight associates gazed over the empty valley and laid out their visions for a new city. Directly below us were the beautiful mansions of the Ensign Downs neighborhood that we had admired on our last visit. On the way down we noticed a few patches of snow whose heavy contents were perfect for packing. Ian lagged behind with me and was able to surprise his siblings with a snowball in his hand once we were close to the bottom.
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We had already knocked out most of the things I could find to do in Salt Lake City on our first visit. All that was left on my list was the city's botanical garden, Red Butte Garden. To visit the garden we had to drive all the way past the University of Utah to the eastern border of the city, where expansion was limited by the rising foothills of the Wasatch front. The garden is designed to merge almost seamlessly with the untouched wilderness of the mountains. It was a pleasant place to explore and stretch our legs but the time of year meant that almost nothing was in bloom so it felt more as though we were in a park than a botanical garden.
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We still had time to kill before our dinner reservation in Park City so we decided to stop off at Woodward Park City to check out the facility and look at their snow tubing runs. The kids had enjoyed snow tubing on their first ski trip in Denver but my research had told me that once spring came the quality of the runs deteriorated due to the melting snow. I hadn't wanted to commit to the activity and then find out that we would be dragging our tubes down the last half of the slope. Woodward also has ski slopes although these are geared more towards freestylers. The boys had fallen asleep when we arrived so Cleo and I went inside on our own. As I had suspected the tubing didn't look that great. Hardly anyone reached the end of their runs and I saw lots of people getting out and dragging their tubes. Even so there were a fair number of people lining up to participate. I figured there would be a chance to do it better wherever we went to ski the following winter. The inside of the huge, warehouse-like facility was partitioned into different areas for skateboarding, trampolining, and bike tricks. We watched kids skateboarding over ramps and flipping into a foam pit for a while, which I found somewhat terrifying even though it clearly wasn't particularly dangerous. I'm not sure how I'd feel if any of my kids decided they wanted to get into those kinds of sports.

Since we'd passed on the tubing we arrived in Park City a full two hours ahead of our dinner reservation and I really wasn't sure what to do. It's an attractive, narrow little town surrounded on either side by steep hills. The town originally came to prominence in the late 19th century after large deposits of silver were discovered, but by the mid 20th century the silver was exhausted and Park City was a ghost town. Just thirty years later a new boom developed in the form of recreational skiing and mountain biking and Park City experienced a rebirth. The residential side of town is filled with modest homes on the hillside that might be typical of any small town in the western United States. There's a sharp demarcation at the beginning of the historically-preserved Main Street where the homes give way completely to a profusion of restaurants, boutiques and galleries that characterizes upscale resort cities from Aspen to Sedona. Despite it being so late in the season, the sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians who looked like they had just returned from the slopes. A few had bright pink sunburns, a consequence of failing to appreciate the power of the spring sun at high altitude.
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For the next two hours we made our way north on Main Street, sliding into any galleries and shops that looked sufficiently interesting. Much of the artwork in the galleries referenced the town's history with display cases made from antique mining lockers and plenty of silver work. Our favorite establishment was a combination bookstore and gelato cafe that also served up a mean cup of coffee. It was the perfect way to keep up the kids' spirits without messing up their dinner.
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Dinner was at Riverhorse on Main, which my research had indicated was the best choice for our single evening in Park City. Not only did the food have a great reputation for quality and creativity, but the entrees included several varieties of local wild meats such as venison, elk, and trout. This would be our second round of elk in two days but as far as we're concerned there's no such thing as an excessive amount of game. For the second night in a row we got carried away with the ordering and we were so preoccupied with making sure that we didn't leave anything too expensive behind that we almost forgot to enjoy the meal.
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Once dinner was complete we had a one hour drive via the interstate to Ogden, which would be our home for the next three days as we completed the skiing portion of our vacation.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:52 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip skiing family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Geldingadalur Volcano & conclusion


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

Over two weeks in Iceland we had witnessed countless manifestations of Iceland's diverse and changing geology, from glaciers and canyons to thermal pools and geysers. While many of these places are in rapid evolution from a geologic perspective one can be relatively certain that they won't disappear between one year and the next. On our last day in Iceland we had an opportunity to have an incredible experience that might only occur once in a lifetime, a hike within a few hundred meters of an erupting volcano. The eruption of Geldingadalur, also known as Fagradalsfjall, began in March 2021 after a series of minor earthquakes. It was the first volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula in eight hundred years. Unlike the typical explosive volcanic eruption like the famous ones at Pompeii or Mount St. Helens this was an effusion of lava from a magma dike that had extended to the surface. It wasn't spectacular enough to get much attention on a global scale but it was also perfectly safe to get within a close distance of the main cone and the lava flow. We had seen one of the crowded parking lots from which people were embarking on the hike to the lava when touring the peninsula on our first day in Iceland. My research hadn't given me a very clear picture of what that hike would be like or what exactly we could expect to see at the end, but we had a time slot open on that final afternoon and the weather was good so we decided to head to the beginning of the trail and see what came of it.
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From the parking area we could see a line of people snaking up a trail that went up to the top of a tall hill that was almost barren of vegetation. Although we were comfortable in our hoodies I insisted on packing the winter parkas, knowing how quickly the wind and temperature could change. As we set off I decided to intercept a small group of returning hikers to glean more information about what to expect from the journey. One member of the group was practically bouncing with exhilaration. He told us that there would be three hills, each one taller and steeper than the last, and that even if we thought we had achieved an adequate view of the volcano we should keep going because the next overlook would be an order of magnitude better. He kept on repeating that it was a life-changing experience and was so effusive that I eventually had to detach myself politely from his enthusiastic recapitulation. It was a relief to learn that we wouldn't be disappointed in our experience that day as I had read that on some days the lava didn't seem to be flowing at all.

Just as we had been promised we could already see the cone and the lava flow once we reached the top of the first hill. It was an amazing sight and more than I had expected as I would have been satisfied with just a trickle of lava. The wind was much stronger at the top and the temperature had begun dropping as well so I was grateful for my decision to bring the heavy coats. We could see a long walk ahead of us along the ridge to the base of the second hill and there's a good chance we would have turned back here if not for that chance encounter with the exuberant returnee. Given what he had told us we had no choice but to keep going.
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The view from the crest of the second hill was similar to the first but a little closer and more intense. I was so focused on watching the bursts and waves of lava flowing over the sides of the cone that I didn't really pay much attention to the third hill until we were almost at its base. This was a much steeper climb than the prior two hills and the trail switched from a straight line to a series of switchbacks. Even with that modification it was very difficult to get purchase on the muddy slope and I had to teach the kids to brace their feet against the rocks that were embedded in the mud. Even so we were constantly slipping and our boots and pants legs became caked in mud. The temperature continued to drop so that the wind chilled us even through the winter coats. The struggle to get to the top of the final hill seemed interminable but eventually we made it and had an absolutely stupendous view of the cone from the shortest distance possible. The sight of the glowing red lava sloshing around and overflowing from the cone was hypnotizing especially with the knowledge that just a splash of that molten rock would be enough to incinerate us. Overhead a helicopter circled precariously through the plume of smoke that emanated from the cone. I had given some thought to this ultra-expensive way of seeing the eruption but learned there was a weeks-long waiting list despite the prodigious cost. At this point I was very glad we'd had no choice but to do things the hard way as the whole experience had been quite rewarding.
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Once I was sure we'd absorbed everything we could from watching the cone there was no choice but to return. I wasn't thrilled about retracing the whole trek but at least there would be more downhill than up this time. When we got to the bottom of the third hill we saw that several people had clambered down the side of the ridge and were standing at the edge of the recently solidified lava flow. This was quite far away from the flowing red lava and didn't seem particularly unsafe so we decided to get a closer look as well. This was the lowest section of the ridge and it was easy to get down at this point. The fresh lava was truly remarkable, a substance with a shape and texture I had never experienced before. At the bottom it looked like congealed black mud but was dry and hard to the touch. This seemed to be lava that had flowed underneath an older upper layer which had cracked and fragmented and resembled the mature lava fields we had seen except without a speck of vegetation. I was nervous about climbing on top of the lava, knowing that there was molten rock flowing underneath the benign-appearing upper layer, but it seemed unlikely that it extended all the way to the edge. Others were venturing out much further and I hoped they wouldn't find out the hard way that mother nature can be very unforgiving.
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My instinct was to climb back up to the ridge and return to the car the same way we had come. It wasn't very exciting but at least we knew exactly how long it would take for us to get to the car and we did have a dinner reservation in Keflavik although we still had plenty of time. On the other hand Mei Ling wanted to follow the lava trail along the bottom of the ridge. I had some misgivings because I wasn't sure exactly where that route would take us but she was insistent and I gave in. At first this seemed like it had been the right choice because we got a much better look at the river of glowing red lava from the lower level.
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As we made our way along the base of the ridge some uncomfortable developments began to take place. The route continued to progress downward while the ridge next to us became taller and taller. The ground became more slippery and irregular and a light rain began to fall which worsened the muddiness of the ground and the coldness of the environment. It seemed that continuing to follow the lava might take us further and further away from the car and actually deposit us in a completely different parking area. From there I had no clue how we would eventually make it back to where we needed to be. I looked at the side of the ridge and while it seemed like a daunting climb it appeared doable. People were making their way along the top of the ridge and I ached to be back on a familiar path so we decided to set off up the slope. At first we did fairly well on the grassy area but as the footholds disappeared and the steepness increased parabolically we began to lose our purchase on the ground. I realized that even though the top was temptingly close the climb was only going to get more treacherous and would ultimately put us in serious danger of injury if we continued. Regretfully I made the decision to turn around and descend back to the trail down by the lava. The thought of returning all the way to the spot where we had originally left the ridge was unbearable so there was no choice except to continue onward and hope for the best.
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For the next three quarters of an hour we straggled along the muddy path under the cold rain. I have to give credit to the kids for continuing onward although they frequently slipped and were obviously suffering. We helped them as much as we could and Mei Ling eventually put Spenser on her back. The other two were just way too big to be carried. Finally with an enormous sense of relief I could see that up ahead the trail led to a flat area across from which was the base of the first hill we had climbed. We were going to get back to our car after all. We were all totally muddy, chilled, and exhausted but I knew we had completed a once-in-a-lifetime experience none of us would ever forget. Not only had we seen an erupting volcano but we had done it the hard way with blisters and scrapes to show for it. Even though we technically weren't allowed to take any souvenirs I did pocket three tiny fragments of that fresh spongy jet black lava for the kids as a memento of their enormous accomplishment that day.

Thanks to the long detour and our failed attempt to scale the ridge we had barely enough time to make our dinner reservation. We piled into the car without even changing and raced down the peninsula as fast as I dared. When we arrived at the hotel restaurant it was still raining and I stopped under the hotel canopy so Mei Ling could bundle the kids inside. I parked across the street and realized my muddy hiking pants and boots were completely unacceptable. I changed into jeans and shoes in the rain next to the car, way past caring about what passing drivers might have thought. I needn't have worried as the dreary wet street was devoid of traffic. Mei Ling had already ordered once I finally made it inside. I saw the kids were also way too muddy for an upscale hotel restaurant so I returned to the car and unpacked clean pants and shoes for each of them as well. I shuttled them individually to the restroom and got them changed. It was a process but it was the last time we would be dealing with the consequences of Iceland's unpredictable terrain and capricious weather. Dinner was the typical underwhelming presentation of old standards we had become accustomed to with a tasty sweet reward for the kids at the end.
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Our final night in Iceland was spent in a grungy motel in the colorless town of Keflavik. There was one final formidable obstacle to overcome, one that we had absolutely no control over. Living in Florida I'm used to keeping a watchful eye on the paths of hurricanes during the summer but ironically the one that was presenting a problem for us now wouldn't even have been on my radar at any other time. Hurricane Henri had started out in the mid-Atlantic, nowhere near Florida, but was projected to make a direct impact on Boston right about the time that our plane would be arriving there. It would be the first hurricane to hit Boston in thirty years which left me feeling quite unlucky even though we'd had plenty of good luck so far on the trip. I had no idea if our flight would even take off so I was constantly refreshing the hurricane tracker as well as the airline site to see if we would find ourselves spending an extra day or two in Iceland. When I awoke at dawn to make sure everything was packed and prepared I saw that the hurricane's impact had been pushed back a couple of hours which gave us a much better chance of arriving in the US as scheduled. Our flight from Boston to Miami was another matter entirely but at least we wouldn't have to worry about being stranded in a foreign country with expired COVID tests.

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

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

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

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

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Blönduós and Húsafell


View Iceland 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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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 Eastern Fjords


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We had now been traveling in Iceland for five complete days and working non-stop. Someone might scratch their head at the use of the term "working" but for us travel has never been about taking it easy. It's more like a constant quest for new experiences, distinctive sights, and unexpected situations. We find the idea of spending days lounging around a resort with a fruity drink in hand to be gruesome, but there's no question that all the planning, packing, unpacking, navigating, shepherding, dining, and everything else that goes into road tripping with three kids is a form of work. It's very rewarding, worthwhile work but it's not for people who believe that vacations should be relaxing. As far as we were concerned we had done more memorable living in those five days than we did in several months at home. We had walked on a glacier, boated around icebergs, summited a volcanic crater, ridden on horseback, explored a lava cave, and hiked through canyons. We had cleared out of our accommodations early every morning, hustled our way through a demanding itinerary every day, barely made our dinner reservations, and crashed out in a brand new spot just to begin the process anew the next morning. Every ounce of effort and stress had been worth it for the experiences Iceland had given us. It had also been amazing to see our kids rising to all these new challenges and appreciating some of the natural wonders they were being exposed to. They were clearly on their way to becoming intrepid travelers.

The upcoming day would provide a change of pace. We would be driving more miles than any other day of the trip thus far but we wouldn't be visiting any natural sights at all. Instead the day would be dedicated to exploring small coastal villages in a part of Iceland that most Ring Road travelers bypassed entirely. It might not be as exciting as the previous days but it would be interesting to see places where there were actually more locals than tourists for a change.
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The best thing about our depressing motel in Höfn was departing from it. We had found the town overall to be a disappointment, much less interesting or pretty than similar-sized places like Selfoss and Vestmannaeyjabær. We drove down to the western shoreline for the view but aside from one cute little rock garden there wasn't much worth seeing. We had spotted some impressive slides at the town swimming pool and we figured we could probably manage a later start so we took the kids there for a couple of hours. We discovered that swimming pools in Iceland are actually a really good deal for us. Small kids generally get in for free and the slides are better than the ones our kids are allowed onto at a water park in the US without the lines. Our only expense was for renting a towel which cost more than buying one in a store but we had all three kids share one. They had a blast and we practically had to drag them out of there.
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We had a full hour and a half of coastal driving before we encountered our first village at the end of a long peninsula between two fjords. By most standards Djúpivogur is a little hamlet but it was the largest and most energetic of the towns we visited in the early part of the day. Our first stop in the village was Eggin í Gleðivík, a quirky sculpture by the port that displays thirty-four oversized eggs representing every local species of bird. Apparently the concrete pedestals for the eggs were remnants from a dismantled fish processing factory. Rather than remove the pillars as well the town manager consulted with a renowned Icelandic artist and the idea for the sculpture was born.
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As we left the port area we passed a large red house with whale skeletons in front of it. There were prominent signs indicating it was a gallery so we pulled in. We found a lot of whimsical carvings and sculptures made from wood and whalebone. Behind the house there was a steep hill with stacked rocks and carved wooden heads arranged along its face. Spenser immediately started climbing the hill with Mei Ling close behind, while I explored the grounds with the older kids. We found the artist working in the main house and he acknowledged us amicably but didn't interrupt his work. The interior was crammed with smaller pieces and it was clear that the owner had dedicated much of his life to the work he was doing.
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We had lunch at Við Voginn, which was a fish & chips type of place but also had interesting choices such as an Icelandic sampler platter. The platter had a variety of quite tasty cured meats and some pickled fish which made a nice break from incessant preparations of lamb and cod.
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The gallery we had on our itinerary to visit was JFS Handicraft, which gets a prominent mention in the Lonely Planet. The establishment was strangely similar to the other gallery we'd visited, a house crowded with sculpture and crafts and a steep hill in the back. Here the emphasis was on stones and the artwork was several notches less creepy. JFS is Jon, a very friendly guy whose grey beard belies his youthful energy. It seems that every village in the Eastern fjords has at least one rock collector and Jon must have one of the largest collections. His house and the backyard were filled with colorful chunks of jasper and agate in raw and polished forms. Some had been fashioned into jewelry and small sculptures. Jon told us how he scours the countryside for rocks that bear the characteristic signs of having a crystalline interior. He was amazed that his hobby has brought him visitors from al over the world and caused him to be featured in travel guides written in many different languages. Before we left he gave each of our kids a polished white stone and we bought three beautiful woolen hats that his daughter had knitted.
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Djúpivogur had been a very enjoyable little village and we hoped that the ones ahead would be similarly interesting. We drove along the southern edge of Berufjörður enjoying some breathtaking scenery on either side of the Ring Road. The landward side was sealed from penetration by a formidable series of terraced mountains but every now and again a narrow pass gave us a tantalizing view of a green valley within the peninsula. Out in the fjord boats were tending to rows of circular fish farms that looked like a setup for a giant's game of lawn darts. Dense fog obscured the mountains on the other side.
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At the end of the fjord we ignored the Öxi shortcut to Egilsstaðir and continued onward to the next inlet and the tiny hamlet of Breiðdalsvík. There were only a couple of commercial establishments here. Kaupfjelagið Art and Craft cafe had a small grocery store and some souvenirs in addition to an array of appealing cakes. There wasn't much to be seen in the way of arts and crafts. We only hung around long enough to get some coffee for ourselves and a snack for the kids. Next door the Beljandi craft brewery was just opening up so I had an IPA while the kids messed around on the pool table. No other customers showed up and the atmosphere wasn't exactly festive. We had been looking for a quiet place off the tourist track and Breiðdalsvík definitely fit the bill, but we had enough of it fairly quickly and got back on the road again.
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One fjord further was Stöðvarfjörður. Remember your Icelandic pronunciation? Stuhdth-var-fjuhrdther. Stöðvarfjörður has another famous stone collector but we'd already had enough of colorful rocks and this one was charging admission. Instead we headed to the Fish Factory, one of many decommissioned fish processing plants in Iceland that have been repurposed for artistic use. Despite having minimal artistic capabilities myself I'm fascinated by artwork and crafting and I always seek out opportunities to visit artists in their workspaces when we travel. The Fish Factory was a rather decrepit warehouse-type building near the port that had some cool graffiti-style paintings on the outside walls but otherwise looked abandoned. We finally found the entrance where a sign was hanging that stated that tours were available by advance appointment only. I was a little disappointed since we had nothing else to see in the tiny village but I didn't want to disturb anyone inside who might be engrossed in their work. Mei Ling doesn't have the same Western inhibitions that I do so after I retreated to the car she went to the entryway herself. She reappeared a few minutes later triumphantly and announced we were getting a tour. Our guide turned out to be a friendly artist from Pennsylvania who was in the middle of a residency at the factory. He showed us the different workshops and performance spaces and informed us that artists from all over the world come for periods of up to six months to work on their own projects in the beauty and isolation of the Icelandic coast. At the end we bought a hideously expensive T shirt and a shopping bag to support the endeavor and then got back on the road once again.
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At the end of the next fjord over the Ring Road turned inland to Egilsstaðir. There are a couple of other peninsulas in the Eastern fjords with their own tiny villages but the roads on those reach dead ends and my research hadn't uncovered anything in particular worth seeing. Instead we stopped briefly in Egilsstaðir to fill up on gas before dinner. Buying gas in Iceland can be a little confusing. The two options are to use a credit card with a pin or to buy gas debit cards at the N1 gas stations. The problem with the gas cards is that they come in small denominations and most of the gas stations outside of the main towns don't have any attendants to sell cards. We bought one and used most of it on our first fill-up, and never had an opportunity to buy another. My American debit card with a pin didn't work but fortunately I remembered I'd called one of my credit card companies years ago to request a pin and it still worked. We were filling up as soon as we got below half a tank because we didn't want to run out of gas on some isolated stretch of road, but we needn't have worried about Iceland where gas stations seemed to be everywhere.

Our timing was perfect to have dinner in Seyðisfjörður, a famously beautiful town at the very end of the fjord of the same name. It was a half hour drive from Egilsstaðir along a wonderfully scenic and misty inland road that passed right by an excellent waterfall called Gufufoss.
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The two things that distinguish Seyðisfjörður from other small villages in Iceland are the "Rainbow Street" in the center of town and the colorful houses that surround the lake at the end of the fjord. The Regnbogastræti was originally created in 2016 to support gay pride and has been maintained as a tourist attraction ever since due to the positive attention it brought to the village. The street is lined by galleries with their own whimsical exterior decoration and ends at a picturesque blue church.
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The natural beauty of the tiny lake and the surrounding mountains was more impressive to us than the colorful street. We spent some time along the shoreline admiring the reflections of the houses and the steep hillsides. A land bridge at the far end of the lake separated it from the long fjord that extended eastward to the ocean.
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There were a couple of restaurants that seemed decent in the village and it would have been nice to eat in such a pleasant setting. Unfortunately this was the one night of our Ring Road journey that I had chosen not to make a reservation as I had been unsure whether we would be visiting Seyðisfjörður that evening or the following morning. It was a costly decision as all the fine dining in town was completely booked. We turned down the suggestion of one restaurant manager that we visit the local pizza joint and began calling restaurants in Egilsstaðir. The first three places I called were also booked and I started to worry we might end up eating fast food after all, but eventually i found a hotel restaurant that had a table for us. We drove back to Egilsstaðir and had a very similar meal to the hotel restaurant near the glacier lagoons. It was the usual menu of cod, lamb, and beef at even more exorbitant prices than the typical Icelandic restaurant but it was still better than settling for pizza.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:35 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel djúpivogur family_travel_blog breiðdalsvík seydisfjordur stöðvarfjörður hengifoss egilsstaðir Comments (0)

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