Campaganza 2016: Hraunborgir

Midsummer is nigh here in Iceland and although our run of astoundingly sunshiney summer days seems to have finally caved to the status quo and gotten rainy again, Mark and I have finally gotten the Summer 2016 Campaganza (that is a camping-extravaganza…the portmanteau maybe didn’t work as well as I was hoping) underway. Having done an absurd amount of research on tents, collected a not inconsiderable amount of gear, and investigated a number of local campground options, we decided to take our inaugural outing this weekend—a sort of test run, if you will, for a longer two-week expedition we intend to take further afield in July.

Because we were leaving later in the day on Friday, we decided to find a campground relatively close to the city and settled on Hraunborgir, a campground/summer cabin community close to Selfoss which boasts a swimming pool, golf course, mini golf ‘course,’ and a rec center where it’s possible to order yourself a pizza and watch sporting events of note, such as Iceland’s just-fine-not-great Eurocup match against Hungary on Saturday.

The weather forecast was, in all honesty, not so spectacular for Friday and Saturday, but waiting for the right weather in Iceland is a distinctly futile exercise, and also, what is the point of finding yourselves a sweet, water- and windproof tent with a sheltered ‘living room’ if you only camp in the driest and sunshiney-ist of conditions? So off we went, getting rather lucky with our weather on the first afternoon and night, even if it did go from being super warm to super chilly quite quickly. Which is when I realized, a bit despairingly, that I’d forgotten both a coat and a scarf.

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Throwback Touring: Trip to the Vestmannaeyjar (Feb. 2015)

As of Friday, I am officially done with work, done with school, and tots on summer vacation. Which means all sorts of free time…at least until I fill it. Until that happens, however, I’ve got time finally to share a little bit about the trip that Mark and I took to the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), right off of Iceland’s south coast, in February.

We had been wanting to visit the Vestmannaeyjar for quite some time, so when I was invited to write a travel piece for Icelandair’s in-flight magazine, I jumped at the opportunity. And even though it was the off-season and many of the island’s major tourist draws (such as boats out around the smaller, uninhabited islands to see puffins and other sealife) weren’t running, we really had a fabulous trip.

For one, we got to hold puffins, which was just as awesome as you’d expect. For two, we were escorted around by a photographer, Óskar, who is a lifetime resident of Heimaey (Home Island). Óskar (whose lovely photos you can see here) drove us all over the island, shared local stories and histories, arranged for us to get into museums after closing hours and to meet the curators, asked his friend to let us join an island tour (which included a delicious lunch at Einsi Kaldi, an upscale restaurant that uses a lot of local ingredients), and even had us over for dinner at his home. It was, as you can see, quite the royal treatment.

View of Heimaey from the top of Eldfell, the volcano that looms directly over the town.

View of Heimaey from the top of Eldfell, the volcano that looms directly over the town.

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South Coast Gems: Naughty Nuns, Cozy Coffeeshops

Why, hello there, Internet. I’m alive! The school year has come to a close, and my work year is nearly finished as well (nine days and counting), so I find myself, mysteriously, with time on my hands. I’ve so far been filling it with walks and binge reading and Eurovision and cooking, but perhaps I can get back in the habit of updating this blog, too.

To start with, I’ll be posting some backlogged writing and photos in the up-and-coming, and I thought it best to start with this oldie-but-goodie that was published in the Grapevine in April. The trip, I should note, was one that Mark and I took in October of 2013, although the story itself didn’t make it into print until rather a long time afterwards. I should also note that my original article was about a kazillion times longer (there’s a lot to say about the sights we saw and I wasn’t watching my word count very closely), so while I’ll just excerpt the article itself in this post (with photos), I will also add in some of the passages that I had to cut for length.

The full set of photos from this trip (and there were many) are posted on the photo blog. I’ve arranged them by site, so click the location titles to see all the photos from that place. (General photos from the road have been sprinkled throughout this post and can also be found here.)

(Click the title link below to see the full article.)

Misbehaving Nuns, Ancient Ice: Five Seasonal South Iceland Sights

Ideally, all of your travels in Iceland would be accompanied by mild weather and cloudless skies, but waiting for perfect weather in this country is much like waiting for Godot. This shouldn’t faze you, though, because the shoulder seasons (September and October, March and April) are frequently, if intermittently, lovely. They are typically a bit cold and windy—but also bright and clear and with enough daylight to allow for a decent day’s hiking or sightseeing. On a recent three-day drive along the South coast, my partner and I went to see some new sights and return to some favorites. Here are a few highlights.

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Easter Trip, Day 2: Hiking Laugarvatn and Reykjadalur (or, The Best Thing We’ve Done in Iceland)

For all of the photos from this day, check out the photo blog here.

Picking up from before, the Easter vacation week was a good one, trip-wise, for Mark and I. After a nice first day walking around Þingvellir and Laugarvatn, we woke the next morning, had a delightful breakfast at our B&B, Gallerí, (complete with made-to-order waffles and rye bread baked in a local hot spring) and then decided we’d take advantage of the sunshine to check out the walking paths around the base of Laugarvatnsfjall (Laugarvatn Mountain).

Laugarvatn Tourist Map

Laugarvatn Tourist Map

The path we took on our second day was, due to all the recent rain, a lot less path-like, and we actually did end up hiking a fair amount (versus just walking, I mean). We followed the river bed up toward the base of the mountain as far as we could until it became clear that continuing would necessitate real climbing gear. It was a very pleasant hike, as you can see:

We had thought that we’d spend the later part of the day at the Fontana Wellness Spa, which is pretty reasonably priced and boasts a number of mineral baths, saunas (situated right on top of the natural hot springs), and a warm black sand beach. But with the weather being so nice, we decided to improvise a little.

Drum roll…..for……The Best Thing We’ve Done in Iceland:

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Reminiscences on Easter Holidays: Part 1

One of the kabillion chocolate Easter eggs made in Iceland this year.

One of the kabillion chocolate Páskaegg (Easter eggs) made in Iceland this year.

It’s a bit late to be telling you all this, but Easter is a big holiday in Iceland. As during Christmas, it is a multi-day holiday—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday (which I had no idea was an observed holiday anywhere, actually, but it really is) are all public holidays, in which pretty much all your key services and shops—buses, grocery stores, pools…vinbúðin—operate on a either a vastly reduced schedule, or don’t operate at all. There’s also a week off from school. To maximize your spring (Easter) enjoyment, it’s best to plan ahead in regards to grocery shopping (and alcohol, should you be in need of it), buy one of the baby-sized hollow Nóa Easter Eggs which are filled with candy and enigmatic fortunes (although the smaller eggs are fun, too, as you will surely be able to tell from the picture above), and, if you don’t have family to visit, find yourself a nice place to relax for a few days.

I received two Easter fortunes from candy eggs myself:

Oft hafa fagrar hnetur fúinn kjarna
Beautiful nuts often have rotten cores

and

Ef þú ferð ekki upp á fjallið færðu ekki útsýni yfir dalinn
If you don’t climb the mountain, you won’t get the view of the valley

The university’s Easter vacation (Wednesday to Tuesday) presented Mark and I with the perfect opportunity to embark on a few more outings: one, a nice overnight for just the two of us, the other, a roadtrip to Ísafjörður (a small, but very notable town in the Westfjords) with two of the other Fulbrighters. We’d been wanting to get up to the Westfjords anyway, but what made the timing of this trip rather perfect was that there is an annual free music festival over Easter there, “Aldrei fór ég suður,” (I never went south) on top of which, another Fulbrighter is living and studying in Ísafjörður this year, which meant there were a couple couches/living room floor for us to crash on during our visit.

I’ll be recapping both trips over several posts (just wait for The Best Thing We’ve Done in Iceland So Far – no spoilers!), but you can also check the photo blog, which I will be updating shortly. All the photos from Mark and I’s first night in Laugarvatn have been posted now, however, and you can look at them here.

***

Day 1, Part 1: Walking in Þingvellir and Laugarvatn

Mark had a class on Tuesday morning, so we waited until after it finished and were on the road by early afternoon. We were graced with very nice weather—maybe a touch cloudy, but not too chilly and no rain—and we decided to start our journey with a walk around part of Þingvellir National Park which we hadn’t spent much time in thus far. Looking at a map at one of the guest centers, we figured that there are actually a number of trails around the park which follow the various rifts, highlight abandoned farms, run through a little forest, and travel around Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland at 84 km² (about 52 miles²).

View over Þingvallavatn from Vatnskot camp site

We decided that we’d walk around the lake for awhile and started from the apparently popular Vatnskot (Lake Croft) camp site. Vatnskot is also the site of an abandoned farm. According to this interactive map of the park,

Vatnskot [Lake Croft] is believed to have been an outlying estate, leased from the estate of Þingvellir Church. It was probably inhabited over the centuries, but was abandoned as a farm in the 19th century. It remained in use as a “dry-house” (without facilities for any livestock), with rights to fish in the lake. Vatnskot is now a popular campsite.

We didn’t actually find the trail we had been looking for, but still had a nice time picking our way along the coastline of the lake, and then walking back to our car along the road, just for a change of scenery. Here are some photo highlights:

1.

Þingvellavatn has a great deal of fish. Anglers come to Vatnskot in the summer to fish from this lovely pier.

Þingvellavatn has a great deal of fish. Anglers come to Vatnskot in the summer to fish from this lovely pier.

2.

Looking down into Þingvallavatn from the pier. These rocks looked like deliberately laid floor tiles.

Looking down into Þingvallavatn from the pier. These rocks looked like deliberately laid floor tiles.

3.

One of my favorite things in Iceland is the ubiquity of  picnic tables in isolated, beautiful spots. Here's one such picnic table.

One of my favorite things in Iceland is the ubiquity of picnic tables in isolated, beautiful spots. Here’s one such picnic table.

Following our walk, we drove to the nearby town of Laugarvatn, a small community on the edge of a large lake (for which it is named) which also boasts Fontana, a geothermal bath and spa (which itself sits on top of some natural hot springs), a satellite location of Háskoli Íslands which specializes in health and fitness studies, and a wonderful restaurant called Linden.

Mark and I ran across Linden completely on accident during our first trip to Iceland–we were driving to the sites along the Golden Circle and encountered a detour on the main road, which ended up taking us through Laugarvatn. We were hungry, so we walked into the restaurant, not knowing at the time that it is one of the best around. It was practically empty, so we got a seat right at the window, looking over the lake, had a delicious lunch of char sandwiches (with char fished from said lake) and truly enjoyed ourselves. It was because of this experience that we had initially wanted to stay in Laugarvatn on our overnight, but as fate would have it, the restaurant is not open on Tuesdays in the off-season. Nevertheless, we found a lovely B&B/arts studio called Galleri there, and since there were also a number of nice hikes/walks in the immediate vicinity, decided to stay the night anyway.

In lieu of Linden, we decided to drive to the restaurant at Geysir for dinner that evening, but had time (and light) beforehand for another short walk along a running trail at the base of the mountain (Laugarvatnsfjall) that we could actually see from our B&B window. This was a nice, easy wooded trail and all the more enjoyable for the exercise signs that had been placed at regular intervals along the path. The exercises, and the accompanying wisdom about keeping one’s body healthy, all came from the same text which was written (if I am remembering right) in the 20s. I didn’t understand all the text, but the images speak for themselves…

1.

IMG_2039

2.

A nice gate (with no attached fence) at one end of the running trail on Laugarvatnsfjall

A nice gate (with no attached fence) at one end of the running trail on Laugarvatnsfjall

3.

This particular stretch looked like an illustration from a super hero comic book, we thought.

This particular stretch looked like an illustration from a super hero comic book, we thought.

I’ll leave the rest of our travels for following posts–I should be studying!

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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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 2)

In the event that you are tired of reading election predictions, let me take you back with me to the South of Iceland, where when we last left off–back before music festivals took over my posts here–we were reciting epic dialog behind Seljalandsfoss and getting ready to move on to the black beaches at Vík.

We had booked a room at the Hotel Dyrhólaey, named after the nearby Dyrhólaey nature preserve, which I am willing to bet is one of the most hotel-y hotels within 100+ miles and which wins the prize, currently, for most beautiful view-over-valley-from-a-mountain that I’ve had in a hotel room. Since we weren’t quite sure where the hotel was located, we decided to find it first (our rented GPS, heretofore unused, served its purpose, albeit briefly) before heading into Vík proper and taking our walk along the beach. Since we weren’t quite sure where we were going, we meandered slowly through the Mýrdalur valley, which is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve been thus far in Iceland. Then, after checking in at the hotel and being warned that that evening’s dinner was being catered to the large school group visiting (burritos, ice cream), decided that we’d plan to find our dinner somewhere around town.

As we drove into Vík, the bright sunny weather we had been enjoying earlier on in our travels gave way to a less cheery, but far more atmospheric, overcast and misty afternoon. It was as though there was a storm cloud that had just settled itself right over Vík, and this continued to be true for the next couple of days. You could actually see a sharp line where sunny weather became cloudy right over Vík. As I said, though, this was incredibly atmospheric and made for a rather romantic (I mean this in the medieval/knightly sense) walk along the beach.

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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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