A Travellerspoint blog


Iceland...for Spring Break...?

Some would say I'm flying the wrong direction...!

28 °F

Okay, so I know most Spring Breakers head to sunny climes, like the beaches of Florida or even the Caribbean. And I know that by March most people are fed up with the cold and snow - at least people from Ohio, like me. However, I have been wanting to visit Iceland for more than a decade. And when Jenny and I saw a package including 6-nights hotel and airfare for around $600, we couldn't resist. Sure, there will be things I won't be able to do that I could if I visited in summer. It'll be cold there, but usually no worse than the Midwest of the United States. The Gulf Stream current warms Iceland though its tip touches the Arctic Circle. Add to that the possibility that I might see something I wouldn't be able to if I visited in summer: the northern lights,or aurora borealis. I have been dreaming of seeing those most of my life. One vacation in northern Michigan I went out late several clear nights, hoping to spot them. So far, no luck. Iceland is smack in the middle of the swath where they are most visible, though. With luck and clear nights, I may finally attain that goal.

So, that is only one of the reasons I'm heading to Iceland. I have always been fascinated by Viking history, and Iceland is a living museum of it. Toss in natural wonders like glaciers, waterfalls and geysers, and the lures outweigh the negatives of a nippy spring break in the far north. I leave in 3 days, so look for my updates once again. I hope to have some great stories and photos for readers, soon. Until then, cross your fingers for clear nights and bright northern lights...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 18:03 Archived in Iceland Tagged lights spring northern break iceland aurora borealis Comments (0)

It's not so cold...well, it's kind of cold, here...

Day 1 in Reykjavik, Iceland

Lake Tjornin in downtown Reykjavik

So my first thought was, "Nah, it isn't that cold here in Iceland!" Later in the day when the sun went away and we were exposed to the frigid blasts of Icelandic winds, I changed my tune a bit. It is definitely nippy here in Reykjavik when the winds catch you. And as our sunny day turned overcast about mid-afternoon, the hood was up and the alpaca wool gloves were on.

We arrived about 7 am on Saturday morning in Keflavik airport (about 40 minutes away from Reykjavik). At 4:45 minutes, it was my shortest flight to Europe, yet. I never sleep well on planes, but tried to squeeze in at least a couple hours. The only rough part of the trip was transferring in Boston from our USAirways flight to Icelandair. Logan Airport is still in the 1970s, with slow, inefficient buses between terminals. I predict a missed connection next week when we return, but that is just me being pessimistic, maybe...

Statue of Leif the Lucky (as he is known here) donated by the U.S.

Anyway, once in Reykjavik, we caught the Flybus from the airport to the empty bus terminal to a minivan to our hotel. About 5 other parties got off at the same stop, so Jenny and I hustled to be first through the doors. Hotel Klopp is well aware that many tired travelers show up in the morning and has a "milk 'em for some cash" scheme in place. "Normal check in time isn't until 2 pm, but for an extra 30 Euros we have a room ready for you right now!" Heh heh...the Viking spirit lives on in Iceland! Jenny and I took the bait just like the Midgard Serpent did when mighty Thor went fishing for it. Our room - about the size of a Benedictine monk's cell - was clean, warm, but a bit cozy for Jenny. The cost to upgrade to the Abbot's size is $200' so my guess is that we will remain there in hopes of being spared further furies of the Norsemen.

Another view of gorgeous downtown Reykjavik

After unpacking and a brief strategy session, we headed down to the extremely helpful Tourist Information Office. I had a long list of questions for them. Most were whether destinations were feasible in late winter and if places could be visited by public transport, or whether we needed a rental car or to buy a packaged day trip. The staff fielded all my questions well, and Jenny and I made plans to return later once we'd made our decisions. We then headed out into the bright northern sunshine to take a look around town. My day one plan after a transoceanic flight is to do outside things. And since the day was sunny, I pieced together an itinerary on the fly. We had a good time, checking out scenic views of Reykjavik around its downtown lake and from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church. Yes, that is all 16 letters of a typical Icelandic word. The view deserved all its vowels and consonants, but boy, was the wind whipping up there!

Our next big destination didn't work out that well. We were misdirected to the incorrect bus stop and missed the ferry to the island of Vithoey. The sky had clouded over, and the wind was biting harder, so it is probably a good thing. So, instead, we took the time to master the bus system (we think) and dash off to the Saga Museum. Iceland has a number of interesting museums. My thought was to save them for times when the weather proved nasty. We were stretching it a bit to call the afternoon nasty, but it was out of the way enough to justify doing it at a different time than the other ones. In the long run, I'd have to say I'm a bit underwhelmed by the Saga Museum. It was a bit...well, cheesy, to put a word on it. The wax mannequins were realistic. (creepy, almost - to use my 7th graders' favorite word). It just seemed a bit over the top. Too much drama and too little solid history. The gift shop was even cheesier. You'd think a museum with the name of "saga" would have copies of those Icelandic masterpieces of medieval literature for sale, but no. Why do that when you can sell cheesy fur hats, cheesy "Viking jewelry" and fluff books with Viking "recipes"?

Viking mayhem on wax figures in the Saga Museum

All is well that ends well (doubtless in the Viking Phrases book the gift shop had for sale). Jenny and I made it back to the hotel in time for happy hour and a much deserved Viking brand beer. Really. It is good....I swear - no sarcasm! The next 3 days are probably going to be the heart of our trip. We are making like Vikings and hacking up our silver jewelry to pay for 1 package tour followed by two days of a rental car. Toss in a Northern Lights watching package, and the next three days should be awesome if all works out like we've planned. Keep an eye out for my updates because the wireless Internet here kicks Georgia and Armenia's butt like Snorri Sturluson writes a mean saga!

Important safety tip from the fine folks at the Saga Museum...but shouldn't it be preceded by a No..."?

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:41 Archived in Iceland Tagged views hotel museum reykjavik saga hallgrímskirkja flybus klopp Comments (0)

Golden time on the Circle

Thingvellir, Gulfoss, Geysir, and more

sunny 42 °F

Gulfoss waterfall

The Golden Circle refers to three main sights not far from Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. We'd booked an excursion that took them in with Gateway to Iceland tour company. We picked them mainly because not only was their price competitive, they also used vans rather than huge tour buses. I'm not a fan of guided tours, and we figured the smaller the tour the less obtrusive it would be. As a bonus, when our driver Thorstein picked us up, he promised we'd make a number of surprise stops - in addition to the scheduled attractions.

Our first stop was the site of Iceland's first parliament - the Althing. Created by the Viking settlers in 930 A.D., it is a national park, now. Virtually all of Iceland would attend during the two weeks it was held each summer. The 12 chieftains were bound by law to attend, where they held court and judged disputes between their tribes. The Vikings chose a pretty significant spot for their meeting, too. Thingvellir just happens to be the spot where the North American and European geological plates are pulling apart at a rate of about an inch a year. This has created a large rift valley, with looming walls of stone on either side of you as you venture down to the historic sight. This is also the spot where Iceland voted to change their religion to Christianity in 1000 A.D. So, it there is a historic church located onsite, too.

Thingvellir, site of the Viking's first parliament

There really aren't a lot of physical remains of the Althing in the park. You can see some stone foundations of habitations the Vikings would build up over their two weeks camping out. Also, on site is the largest lake in all of Iceland. A dried, millennia old lava flow and surrounding snow-capped mountains complete the picture. This was the only part of the trip when I felt kind of rushed, being part of a tour. There was really no time to check out the visitor center. We pretty much just walked down into the rift, looked around a bit, snapped some photos, and then worked our way across the bridges to where our van was waiting. I'd read up a bit about the site, so didn't feel too mystified by it all. I just felt that, being on a guided tour, we'd get a little more...you know, guiding!

After we were all aboard the van, Thorstein sprang our first surprise stop on us. We pulled up not far from the lake shore and he took us down to taste the spring-fed, clear and pure water. It was also a nice chance to take some pictures of the lake itself, as there isn't an unobstructed view of it at Thingvellir. A short time later, we pulled off to the side of the road to pet a herd of Icelandic ponies. They were friendly and came right up to the barbed wire fence. Their shaggy appearance only made them look even stockier than they are. I made friends with one, and he let me scratch his ears and stroke the soft hair on his snout and nose.

Gulfoss waterfall

The highlight if the trip (at least for me) was next. We were given about 45 minutes to explore Gulfoss waterfalls. Although the wind howled along the edges of the great river cleft, the sun shone brightly making the water sparkle and its plumes of spray bright. Caked ice lined the shores in weird formations and gleamed in the sunshine. The waterfall was a constant drumming, and phantoms of mists made of fine droplets rose up like ghosts seeking a way out of the surging river. I alternated taking photos with shooting video with my new camera. To toggle the video camera's controls, I had to take off one glove. Although it was supposed to be in the 40s today, the wind ripped that temperature to shreds and kept me bundled up with my hood tied tightly around my head. I took several dozen shots, though - I would guess. Gulfoss drops in a series of falls, and every different angle promised a new panorama and spectacle.

Next up was a visit to the site of the original Geysir, which all other geothermal steam vents are named after. The area has a number of pools that are still, bubbling, percolating or gushing. The old man, Geysir, is no longer regular in its eruptions. His place has been taken over by a smaller geysir named Strokkur, which shoots off every 5-10 minutes. It was fun to sit there and try to catch it on camera or video. Thorstein warned us to NOT try to film it with the wind blowing in your face. He didn't warn us to beware of sudden 90 degree wind shifts, though. On the final eruption, the wind veered suddenly and soaked me with warm water and spray. Luckily, I was layering to stay warm in Iceland and my top layer was a rain jacket. I also turned away in time to protect my camera lens. It was funny watching the crowd scatter as the giant column of steam and water descended on us. All we needed to complete the humor was a Monty Python-esque, "Run away!"

Strokkur Geysir

I dried off in the visitor center cafeteria. The cheap food Thorstein described was anything but...so, I satisfied myself with a large bag of peanuts and a water bottle I'd saved from the flight. We looked around the souvenir shop. To get ideas for later in the week, but didn't buy anything.

We closed out the day with another surprise stop, Skaholt. We had the church to ourselves and it was obviously a favorite stop of Thorstein. He sat us down and told us about the building and history of the church in great detail. He even gave us a probably too lengthy run-down of the sanctity (or not) of various bishops of Iceland for the last 1,000 years. It was a pretty, graceful church decorated in sparing, Lutheran style. The original Skaholt's ruins were just outside the church door. This version is less than a century old, but has attractive stained glass that the sun was doings its best to illuminate for us.

Interior of Skaholt Cathedral

Thorstein was an entertaining guide, and regaled us with story after story about Icelanders and their history. He even gave us insights into the national psyche, answering and soliciting numerous questions. I learned a lot about what makes Icelanders tick...at least in the opinions of one of them. As I am finishing typing this, we are on board another minivan heading out into the night in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Hopefully, we succeed, and I'll be breathless with more wonders of Iceland to spin tales about...!


Posted by world_wide_mike 00:48 Archived in Iceland Tagged golden iceland circle geysir gulfoss strokkur thingvellir althing skaholt Comments (0)

Wheels, water, and crampons

A day on the south coast of Iceland

sunny 45 °F

Worldwidemike, brave Arctic explorer

So, did we see the northern lights on Sunday? Yes. Cross it off the "bucket list." That said, the nearly full moon washed out the display, and it was not the most impressive sight. Nevertheless, as the photo below shows, I did see the aurora borealis. Thank god I brought my tripod, otherwise I think I would have seen little. To the naked eye, the arc of the aurora across the sky looked like wispy gray clouds. On my 15-second exposure, you could clearly see the green, though. Many people come to Iceland and never see them, so I shouldn't complain.

My admittedly weak northern lights photograph

We were up early once again the next morning to pick up our rental car. We wanted to see the south and west coasts of Iceland and renting a car was supposedly the most economical way. I'm always a bit daunted taking to the road as a driver in a foreign country. I'd much rather rely on public transport, which unfortunately is limited in winter here in Iceland. Excursions are fairly expensive, so we felt this was the way to go. As it turned out, we had zero problems on day one. A nice thing about renting a car is you can pull over nearly anywhere to take pictures of a scenic view that catches your eye. Plus, you can generally squeeze in way more sights than you ever could on public transport.

Our first stop was Skogarfoss waterfall. Yes, we'd gotten quite an eyeful at Gulfoss yesterday, but this one was smaller and more intimate. It was still impressive with a bright double rainbow gleaming in the day's sunshine, though. Plus, there is a set of metal stairs that climbs the hillside next to the falls, with several amazing viewpoints. Both of us were enchanted by it, and along with the perfect, yet relatively warm day, it was a perfect way to begin. Seagulls wheeled around it continuously, and the place was far less overrun with tourists than yesterday's sights.

Skogarfoss waterfall

Next, we drove to our glaciar hike we'd scheduled. Neither of us had been out on a glaciar, so we were looking forward to it. Our hike included only six of us and a guide. She quickly taught us how to strap on our metal-spiked crampons for walking on the ice and we were off. The glaciar we were hiking on is only a few miles from the volcano that erupted last summer in Iceland for a month. So, it's surface is speckled with black, volcanic ash - making it look like a quadruple scoop of vanilla ice cream with crumbled Oreo cookies on it. It wasn't the pristine landscape of ice I'd expected. Nor was it an amazing frozen world of blue ice and tunnels and crevices. It was more like a hike across a snowy mountain slope. Yes, we saw sinkholes the ice dug into the glaciar's surface. Yes, we saw snow-edged crevices where the glaciar cracked apart as it flowed downhill. It was cool how slick and how vertical a surface you can walk on with crampons. All in all, though, I found myself slightly disappointed with the glaciar walk.

Walking on a glacier in Iceland

Next, we drove to the rainiest town in Iceland, Vik. On the way, we experienced sun, rain, and sleet, but the skies cleared as we walked out onto Vik's black volcanic sand beaches. Some of Clint Eastwood's movie, "Flags of our Fathers" was filmed here to stand in for Iwo Jima. The sea was pounding, and made for an interesting mood with the black basalt columns looming off shore. Icelanders say they are the remains of three petrified trolls who were caught out in sunlight as they walked out of the surf after fishing. Our luck with the weather let up after we left, Vik, though. We crossed a causeway to the dramatic seascape of Dyrholaey. A rain squall closed in and then spun around, blowing onshore then back offshore - all the while refusing to leave. We could see sun and patches of blue out to sea, but the rain stayed with us, throwing showered of spray across the windshield as we tried to wait it out. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to Reykjavik, about two and a half hours away.

Petrified trolls in the rolling surf at Vik, Iceland

During the day, we'd taken full advantage of being able to stop and photograph iceland's spectacular scenery along the way. To me, that was one of the best parts of the day - having total control of what I could photograph. I snapped nearly 100 photographs today, and hope to be able to do the same tomorrow when we head north and west to check out the tongue-twisting Snaefellsnes Peninsula. If you'd like to see more photos than I uploaded here to the blog, check out my photobucket album, here: My Photobucket Iceland album.

Icelandic scenery not far from Vik

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:38 Archived in Iceland Tagged car walk glacier iceland vik renting skogarfoss crampons Comments (0)

A Beautiful Lady Named Snaefellsness

Day 4 in Iceland and a drive around a peninsula

sunny 46 °F

I normally don't like photos of myse,f standing in front of places, but I could not resist this beauty...

So, there are two things I love when I travel: history and gorgeous scenery. Today was tops in the second category, as we drove our rental car around the Snaefellsness Peninsula. The peninsula is the westernmost arm of Iceland, and has a spine of tall, snow-capped mountains all along its length. Our plan was to circle the peninsula mostly along the coast. It would be a long day - taking more than 8 hours round trip from Reykjavik. We'd hoped for good weather and rewarded with the sunniest, warmest day in Iceland yet.

From the beginning, the image that captivated me most was the scattered homesteads, farms and villages, looking tiny - isolated by all of Iceland's towering wilderness. Again and again, I stopped the car to take a picture of a lonely farmhouse looking like a brightly colored doll house beneath a massive, snow-capped mountain range. Churches stood like shepherds by themselves, with sweeping views of the sea. Their bright primary colors contrasted sharply with nature's browns, blues, golds, and of course, the white of snow and black of volcanic rock. Here, the man-made structure, though it often looked lost on the landscape, was as much a part of the scenery as any mountain or lake. In fact, these houses with their bright blue, red and green roofs gleaming in the sunshine served as exclamation points on the peninsula.

Isolated farm house on the Snaefellsness Peninsula

We began our sweep around Snaefellsness on the southern coast. Our first real stop was the village of Beothir. It's black-painted church was more than three centuries old, and brooded amidst its graveyard, staring out to sea. The church sat surrounded by gnarled, lava rock fields that local legend says are home to elves. Most of the tombstones were from the 1800s. It seemed the village's population was slowly shrinking, because there were very few homes and farmsteads around. A signless hotel sat beneath the church, its large windows looking out on stunning views in every direction.

The parish church at Beothir

Next, we stopped in the village of Arnastapi. It was composed of mostly rental cottages. Try as we might, we couldn't find a place open to use the restroom or buy a soda. The village seemed shuttered for the winter, though its quiet homes basked in a very springlike sun. Just down the road from the village, though, we came upon a magical place. A tiny turnoff from the road was perched above a panorama of ice, mountain and snow that would be hard-pressed to be topped anywhere. To one side, the row of mountains stretched their black and white fins towards the blue sky. For miles in front, though, was a sloping lava field covered in snow making it look like a massive bowl of vanilla ice cream speckled liberally with black chocolate chips. Behind us, the dome of the glacier Snaefellsjokull was decorated like a wedding cake with tiny snow-covered spires. The view was simply delicious, and I prayed my photographs would do the landscape justice.

The icy scenery near Arnastapi, Iceland

We continued on, having the road and peninsula nearly to ourselves. The issue of a bathrooms stop was getting urgent, so we were getting a bit exasperated when we pulled into Hellnar and found it similarly deserted. Hotel Hellnar's front door was open, though nobody answered the desk bell when we rang it. So, we helped ourselves to their bathrooms, then drove down the road to the village's shuttered church. Perched on a hill overlooking the sea, its red and white colors were a bright stab of color against the clear blue sky. I wandered down to its tiny graveyard, drawn by the view those in their final resting place had been granted. If I had to choose a place to lie and peacefully contemplate the passing centuries, it would be hard to choose a more scenic spot. To one side, deep blue sea sparkled or dashed itself foaming against dark rocks. To the other, the spine of Snaefellsness' mountains brooded darkly down on the homes and farms far below them.

Gravestones at Hellnar church by the seaside

The day passed by with similar sights. I think I exasperated Jenny with my frequent stops to dash out and take pictures of a scene that caught my eye. In Malarrif, a huge stack of volcanic rock stood on the shoreline like a stone giant, it's arms outstretched in horror. The coastline became even rockier, and waves hurled themselves against the shore again and again, only to have their efforts end in white spray and foam. The sea was a deep blue, and the basalt columns and rocky coast reminded me of similar ones in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Seagulls wheeled overhead or nested in tiny nooks they found on the cliffs.

The sea shore and volcanic stack near Malarrif, Iceland

At one point, we rocketed past a scenic viewpoint only to nearly slam on the brakes. Unmentioned in either of our guidebooks was one of the best panoramas of the day. A wide, still lake reflected the curve of the snow-capped mountains that encircled it. Above the razor peaks, clear blue sky was similarly reflected on the quiet pool's surface. We'd inhaled hour after hour of incredible views to be stopped breathless by this one. Every angle I took to photograph it seemed inadequate to capture its beauty. Zooming in one the lake meant leaving out part of the sinuous curve of the mountains. Panning wide to capture the whole scene shrunk the lake's surface in the frame. It was like being asked to photograph the most beautiful model in the world, but being allowed to focus on only one feature. What to leave out?

An amazing lakeside view near Grundarfjordur, Iceland

We capped off the day with a visit to the peninsula's largest town, Stykkisholmur. We'd seen many pretty villages and towns over the course of the day, but Stykkisholmur rightly deserves its praise as the fairest. We crossed the causeway in its tiny harbor to the giant basalt island that guarded it. The views from atop it were immense. Out to sea, islands stretched across the bay to the Westfjord Peninsula. In olden days, many of the islands were inhabited by tiny villages of fisherfolk. Farmers would supplement the sparse grazing land by loading their animals on boats and dropping them off on uninhibited islands to gorge themselves on its vegetation for a week or two. Looking inward, Stykkisholmur reclined up its hillslopes with its brightly colored homes shining in the light of the setting sun.

The harbor at Stykkisholmur

It had been a wonderful day - my favorite of the trip, so far. Iceland had smiled on us, today. We'd seen one of her fairest regions, and in the warm sunshine the lady had flashed us her most dazzling smile.


Posted by world_wide_mike 16:56 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland peninsula snaefellsjokull arnastapi snaefellsness hellnar stykkisholmur beothir Comments (1)

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