24 Hours Around Snæfellsnes: Part 1

Hello, internet! Have you missed me? I know that in internet time, as in dog years, what seems but a moment is actually an eternity. So my apologies for those of you who languished without my ramblings for the past week: I am alive and well and have lots to tell you now!

Last week was reading week at school, which meant take-home tests for me and lots of reading for Mark. We also had company! Mark’s dad (R) came to stay with us, which led to much adventuring both around town and out of it, although the weather was particularly unobliging for basically all but six hours of his visit. Iceland in February is a fickle gal: before R arrived, we had been blessed with some amazingly spring-like days, all in a row. During his stay, it rained, and rained, and rained, and set new standards for fog, at least outside of Reykjavík. Gave us a break with the wind–thanks for that, Iceland–but made our sight-seeing jaunts a bit difficult. (It bears noting that now that R has left, I’m sitting in my kitchen, with lots of cheerful sunshine on my face. Admittedly, it just stopped snowing a little but ago, but it’s sunny, galdurnit!)

R arrived on Sunday in the early morning, and was obliging enough to allow himself to be packed into a rental car just moments after he touched down and be driven about two hours Northwest to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which is itself very near to Borgarfjörður, which you no doubt remember from our recent travel adventure in December. R’s vacation unfortunately coincided with a fair number of time constraints for Mark and I–Mark was actually starting a short course this week, and besides having midterms to attend to, I had also just started a martial arts class on Mondays and Wednesdays (more anon). So we didn’t have a great deal of time to fit in a trip out of town. Luckily, there are many wonderful places to visit in Iceland that can be reached within a short drive of Reykjavík. And places that we haven’t seen yet, too!

What follows is a short recap of all the awesome stuff we crammed into 24 hours around Snæfellsnes. If you want to see all of the photos I took—all 139 of them—proceed to the photo blog and commence ooh-ing.

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Daytrip Around Borgarbyggð, West Iceland

When last we left off from our post-Christmas relaxication in West Iceland, Mark, Graham, and I were doing a lot of reading, a lot of sleeping, a lot of fish-dinner eating, and a lot of listening to the eaves creaking and the roof sounding like it was going to fly off the house, Wizard of Oz style, due to the super intense gales swooshing around our cozy cabin which were even more formidable in that we were situated just on the edge of a fjörð. (If you take anything away from this blog, let it be this: the wind in Iceland is something fierce.)

Of course, it (the wind) somewhat adds to the whole cozied effect if you are warm and pj’ed inside. But we had hoped to get outdoors at least a little bit, for maybe a day hike to a nearby waterfall or up Akrafjall, the mountain just outside of Akranes which “boasts of one of the biggest breeding colonies of the great black-backed gulls in the country.” Given the wind, however, spending a lot of time exerting ourselves out-of-doors was just not going to work, so instead, we decided that we’d make the most of it and take a day’s drive around Borgarbyggð, which is, as Wikipedia helpfully explains, the collective name for the “various amalgamated populated rural areas in the West or Vesturland region of Iceland.”

I’ve posted the photos from this excursion here, but will give you a little more info about the highlights below.

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Relaxication in Hvalfjörður: Part 1

Over Christmas and New Year’s Mark and I were very lucky to have our friend Graham come to visit us. It says a lot for him that he was willing to come visit during this time of year–not only is it generally cold(ish), wet, windy, and very dark, there are also just a lot of things that you can’t do in Iceland between Christmas and New Year’s because so much is closed. There are actually still a decent number of tourists here, but many of those I saw walking up and down the shopping streets seemed a bit confused and glum about the forced window shopping. Iceland highly values its tourism industry, and, I think, tends to treat tourists very well, but they definitely don’t pander to out-of-towners around the holiday season.

I consulted with a friend who has lived here for awhile about what to do (with guests) over a winter visit, and received the very good suggestion to look for a cabin in the country with a hot tub, and spend a few days there relaxing and enjoying some nice long soaks, even if (or especially if) the weather was lousy. It was also suggested that one of the outdoor hot tub perks might be seeing Northern Lights while sitting in a jacuzzi, but it was unfortunately pretty cloudy the whole time we were on our relax-ication, so no Northern Lights for us. (Nature doesn’t perform on command, I guess.)

After some delightful research (winter-rental cabins, hot tubs, Icelandic countryside), we settled on renting one of the two cozy cabins at Kalastaðir, located right on Hvalfjörð (Whale Fjörð), in West Iceland. Driving the long way, as we did on our trip there, takes you all around the fjörð, which is absolutely breathtaking. Taking the efficient, super-space-age Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel on the way back–which Wikipedia tells me is “is 5,770 m long and reaches depth of 165m below sea level”–it was just a snappy 45 minute drive from Reykjavík. Which was really perfect, for our purposes, in that it was not too long a drive, and featured lovely scenery and countryside peacefulness, in a brand new (for us) part of Iceland.

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48 Hours in Iceland: Daytrip Around the Reykjanes Penninsula

To resume where we left off with Georgia and Lance’s 48 Hour Visit to Iceland:

(As per my new habit: if you want to skip straight to the full archive of photos from this trip, you can do so here. I’ll note that it was a pretty windy, overcast day, so some of my photos–particularly those taken by the coast–are a little more blurry than is ideal.)

After our very successful city day in Reykjavík, Mark and I wanted to take our friends out of the city and into the country, if only for a little bit. Luckily–since they had to be back at the airport at 3:00 PM–it isn’t hard to get to the country in Iceland, nor is it hard to find some really amazing landscapes in the very direction of the airport, less than an hour’s drive outside of Reykjavík.

The sprawling lava plain of the Reykjanes Peninsula is something that most everyone who leaves the Keflavík airport gets to see at least a little of on their way into Reykjavík. That is, unless you arrive in Iceland in the winter and by the time you get out of the airport at 4:30ish, it is already dark. (This was, as you might have inferred, the case for G&L.) But although the peninsula is “a lunar landscape pitted with volcanic and geothermal wonders,” (that per the above-linked tourist website), my impression is that Reykjanes often gets overlooked by tourists who speed through it on their way to volcanoes and the Blue Lagoon. But as far as I am concerned it is more than worth a day trip. If you remain unconvinced, perhaps this description which I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook will make the point. This is the passage that really sold me on visiting this area, at least:

“One of the most wild and wonderful spots is Valahnúker, where a dirt track leads off the main road through 13th century lava fields down to the most desolate cliffs imaginable. You can clamber up to the ruins of the oldest lighthouse (1878) in Iceland…and contemplate the fragility of life and the futility of everything.”

Sounds awesome, right? (Seriously, someone give that travel writer a raise.)

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The End of the Road: The Southern Roadtrip Conclusion

At last! Here we are at the end of our road trip, which began–and ended–about two months ago. I’m sorry it’s taken this long, guys, I just couldn’t cram all those photos and fun facts in shorter or fewer posts. I hope it has been edifying.

We’ll keep it simple today, though, because after Dyrhólæy, Mark and I’s journey home was more about the drive itself. There were several quirky-sounding country cafes that we read about in our guidebooks that we tried to stop at, but these were closed for the season (it was October, remember), and the short hikes we had planned on ended up coming to nothing as well. For instance, we’d read about a nice hike around the historical site of Keldur, which was the homestead of a minor character in Njal’s Saga, but when we got to the site–which is still a working farm–we felt a little strange just walking up to the farmers and asking them where precisely on their land was the prettiest place to walk. So instead, we checked out the turf houses that are open to the public on the property and then turned back around.

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But the Rangárvellir valley where Keldur is located is beautiful, and the sometimes marshy landscape was quite different from the wide-open sea-boardered valleys that we’d been driving through just an hour or so before. Parts of it looked a lot like rural Pennsylvania to me, actually. So the drive was well worth the detours.

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A Few Days á Suðarlandi: Dyrhólæy

So, happy post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas, everyone! As we enter that time of year in which everything becomes an extended blur, I think it is only fitting that I take a moment to enjoy a cup of coffee in the light of the newly-risen sun (it’s almost 11 AM, y’all, and we still have pink, streaky sunrise clouds outside) and avoid studying for my finals for just a little longer so that I can tell you about the last day of our now epically-extended Southern roadtrip. Following our awesome and literally rainbow-filled hike in Skógar, Mark and I had no fewer adventures on our way home. We decided to take a meandering route back to Reykjavík, following promising detours and possibly taking a short walk or two, but we had two definite stops in mind: the Dyrhólæy Nature Preserve and the colorful fishing village of Eyrarbakki, where we planned to have a nice seafood dinner at the well-known Rauða Húsið restaurant. Anything else would be (and was) gravy.

I was going to compress the full day into one last post, but no such luck for all of you. It’s just Dyrhólæy today, or I won’t get any studying done at all.

As with my last post, I have chosen some of the best photos to post below, but if you want the full experience (and to skip ahead to the end of the journey), you can take a look at all of the photos, which I posted here.

Dyrhólæy–thought to have been created in a volcanic eruption 80 thousand years ago–is a lovely spot for a bit of surf-and-bird watching just outside of Vík.

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A Few Days á Suðurlandi, Day 3: Hiking in Skogar

This three day driving trip has now stretched on for, like, four weeks on this blog, so sorry for dragging it out everyone. But I think the wait will be worth it because the next stop on our trip–after exploring the black beaches at Vík–was back at Skógar, a very tiny “town” on the South coast which happens to boast a very big, incredibly beautiful, waterfall.

When I came to Iceland with my mom in April this year (a pre-Big Move, post-grad school celebration trip), we also drove South and this was one of my favorite stops along the way. At that time, while my mom waited patiently below, I climbed up to the top of the waterfall and tip-toed out on a totally not-safe-for-tourists ledge to play chicken with the fear of death (and to watch some pretty birds). But we didn’t do any actual hiking that time. Since I’d spied a trail head at the top of the waterfall, though, I was eager to actually go do a little further exploring this time out.

Mark and I started, obviously, by standing at the base of Skógafoss for a few minutes because as you may have gleaned from my previous posts, there are like a million waterfalls in this country, but they are all amazing, and they all have their own particular character and, yes, personality. I really, really like Skógafoss, and I’m going to go ahead and say that it really likes me, too, because it was in particularly fine form when we were there this time around. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful–we actually had to take our jackets off pretty early on because it was too warm–and we were greeted at the base of the waterfall by three or four very clear, very full rainbows.

Another way to account for the many rainbows–one which perhaps conflates several unrelated folk traditions but nevertheless doesn’t include a natural site being happy to see me (I really need a dog, guys)–is in the legend of the settler Þrasi who is said to have hidden a chest of gold behind the waterfall. So yeah: pot of gold = lots of rainbows, right? That’s got to be the reason.

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A Few Days á Suðurlandi: Roadtrip Day 2 (Part 1)

I’m breaking Day 2 of our trip recap into two posts, otherwise you’ll surely grow tired of reading all this before I finish writing it and my hands will claw up for nothing. Anyway, it’ll help me draw out the anticipation, and spread out the photos…

When last we left off in our travels, Mark and I were driving out of Stokkseyri on a bright, crisp fall morning, headed toward Vík. (We got absurdly lucky with the weather, for reals.) Day 2 of our adventure took us, briefly, off the beaten (read: paved) path (read: Route 1) and along meandering routes that lead through some truly beautiful farmland. The driving itself was a little nervous-making for a time, mainly in that the posted speed limit was frequently set at 60 km/hr, but although I had been assured by the woman at the rental agency that “it’s just so common” for cars to get dinged up by small stones on unpaved roads and “not to worry about it,” there were still those damage fees to pay if we kicked up a larger rock. That and the fact that the roadway often alternated between paved and unpaved sections–you’d be flying along at 90 km/hr, only to hit a gravel stretch for 40 feet, hit the brakes and then almost immediately run back up onto a paved section for 20 feet, then hit a gravel section…But honestly, for those of us who aren’t completely jaded by the Icelandic countryside (and that would be most tourists), a nice leisurely pace is all the better to appreciate the scenery. (As long as you don’t end up with an impatient local driver behind you, but more on that anon.)

I’m convinced that Icelanders have some sort of sixth sense when it comes to choosing a place to live. Once you get out in the Icelandic countryside, it appears that each house or farm is situated in the most perfect place–perhaps nestled up against a mountain (or glacier) with a waterfall right there in the “backyard,” or looking out on the ocean, or up on a ridge facing a river, or some combination of the above. Each time we drove by a new farm, I’d think, “Yeah–that guy got the best spot. His neighbors must have be really miffed that he (or his ancestors) got there first.” But then you drive about 10 feet further and as it turns out, there’s another amazing waterfall, another perfect spot tucked up under a mountain, another ridge overlooking a vast, grassy valley. Americans may be spoiled for choice when it comes to a lot of things–mostly things that don’t matter in the least, like having 30 different kinds of shampoo to pick from. But Icelanders are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a beautiful place to live. Every spot is basically the best spot. I actually don’t know if I’d be able to choose from so many perfect locations, were I in the position to just drop a house anywhere in the country. (Ah, to have such problems.)

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A Few Days á Suðurlandi: Roadtrip Day 1

Last week was the University of Iceland’s vinnuvika, or basically, a week long break for midterms/general re-invigoration. Both Mark and I had some assignments to turn in before the end of the week (he some papers; myself, a couple of take-home exams), but by the early afternoon on Thursday, we were free for whatever adventure we might want to plan for ourselves. So we decided that we’d take a few days to drive through Southern Iceland, taking in all the famous saga locations (he’s reading Njal’s Saga right now; I read and loved it last year), waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, sheep, Icelandic horses, black beaches, and coastal vistas that we could possibly hope for. We didn’t go terribly far–the furthest East we went was to the small and exceedingly lovely town of Vík (about two and a half hours away from Reykjavík) but as much as I would love to make it all the way around the country one day, it’s not all about charting distance. Because there is just so much to see in Suðurland (and undoubtedly North, West, and East Iceland as well), you can easily fill days and days of active travel without going very far.

As per usual, I took a kazillion pictures and would like the share the adventure, in excruciating detail, with all of you dear readers. So I’ll do day-by-day recaps–we were gone from Thursday afternoon until Sunday night–filled with highlights along the way in the event that you ever find yourself driving along the Southern Icelandic Coast (recommended!).

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Day 1: Stokkseyri

After a quick stop at the 10-11 (a local chain which is a cross between a small, well-stocked bodega or grocery and a gas station convenience store) to stock up on road snacks and travel essentials (chocolate-heavy trail mix, noodle cups, cheese sandwich fixings, seltzer, energy bars…), we headed to the shore town and erstwhile fishing village of Stokkseyri (pop. 464, as of 2004–check out the town website for population counts from as far back as 1864), just under an hour away from Reykjavík. It was Mark’s idea to spend the first evening somewhere close to the city so that we could have time to actually be in a place and walk around a bit instead of spending the entire first night driving somewhere further. This was a very good idea, in part because it’s far too dark in the evenings now to see any of the amazing landscape just outside of the car window, and we would have missed a lot of loveliness if we’d driven much further on our first evening. But it was also an excellent idea because it gave us a chance to spend some time in this quiet summer community which was built, along with its sister village of Eyrabakki, on Þjórsá, “the largest lava flow in Iceland,” according to the Iceland geo-survey website. Based on guidebook explanations, Stokkseyri appears to be somewhat overlooked by many travelers en route to other more dramatic locations in the South, particularly in the fall and winter months when many of the main tourist attractions–namely Draugasetrið, or the Ghost Center and Ghost Bar and the attached Icelandic Wonders ‘Museum’–are closed for the season.

As sorry as I was to miss something as delightfully campy as a guided tour through a 1,000 foot maze of two dozen reenacted ghost stories, the recreated homes of hidden people, and an “Aurora Experience”–which as far as I can tell is a extra large diorama lit with recreations of the Northern Lights–I am fairly sure that I will be back to Stokkseyri to enjoy all of those attractions (and to share a drink with the Brennivínsdrauginn, or Brennivín Ghost) in the warmer months. And in the meantime, there was plenty to keep us busy for an afternoon and evening.

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