Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Iceland's Fire & Ice

The latest country checked off the travel list is now Iceland. And when I say 'country' we did indeed see the full country. Before heading to Iceland I got questions from people as to why on earth I was going there. The response was that I kept hearing all about it - obviously the hot new place to be going so I needed to see what all the fuss was about - and it's home to that dang Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted in 2010 and stranded me in Dublin. Also, I'd seen some pretty awesome pictures and thought sure, why not.

Well, I can now say firsthand that you should definitely travel to Iceland - it's an incredible experience... the landscape of waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, lava fields, bubbling and steaming earth, and coast lines, along with friendly people (when you did actually see anyone), food that was much better than anticipated, and enough sheep, horses, cows, swans, reindeer, and goats to outnumber the population by many times over made for amazing sights. It's also a place deeply rooted in it's history, stories, and legends of both real and mystical mythical peoples. I'm now quite keen to begin reading some (or if I'm really ambitious, all) of the Icelandic sagas that we heard so much about. Additionally, when I think about places to go and things to see these days I'm not only searching out a specific city or country that I've never been to it's more the chance to see something that I've never seen in my life and might never see again. Two items that made the 'never seen before' list after being in Iceland - icebergs floating in a glacial lagoon and washed up on a black sand beach (amazing!) and aurora borealis (northern lights).

If you're thinking about Iceland do it soon - tourism has taken off there thanks curiosity following to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and I think in a few years it may be quite a different country. With the exception of a few very touristy spots Iceland still feels raw and untouched. As more and more tourist come more roads will likely be paved, signs posted, and even places made off limits. Based on what we learned about the Icelandic culture this will not go over well - while individuals in Iceland may technically own land there's no such thing as trespassing so you're free to pretty much go and do as you please and they don't want to be told otherwise. Signage, lines on the road, etc appeared to be more of a suggestion than requirement.   

And when you go you've got to be flexible and bring your adventurous side. The weather changes ridiculously fast and can be quite different from one area to another so if you're willing to change directions and plans to follow the weather you'll have a much more enjoyable time. Also, driving away from Reykjavik and off the main roads is the best way to see things. It's gonna be a bumpy ride and potentially a long one so just buckle up and try not to hit every hole in the road.

All the pictures can be found here. Enjoy the photo journey through Iceland and it's changing weather!

The trip began with a quick pit-stop in Dublin for one night to pick up my travelling companion, Yvonne. There are direct flights between Iceland and Dublin a few days a week so we headed off on a Sunday afternoon with a return ten days later on the following Tuesday crack of dawn flight. Prior to my arrival in Dublin I'd done very little of the planning for what we might see and do for nine days due to the Mont Blanc trek - luckily Yvonne was much more on top of it! Also, thanks to a recommendation from a friend we were hooked up with a local tour guide who we planned to spend three days with. Best decision ever! Teitur made our trip fantastic and gave us much more confidence in our driving and what we could see and do for the few days that we were without him. 

We saw so much and drove almost 4000km over nine days that I can't even remember every location let alone every detail so I'll share the highlights. I want to create a map but Google Maps is being way to temperamental for me right now so it will suffice to say that we essentially drove the Ring Road (Route 1) from Reykjavik heading West to East along the South, then made our way up to the north and around counter clockwise adding in both the Westfjords and Snaefulness Peninsula.

Between Teitur's knowledge of anything and everything Icelandic and what we read in the process of going cover to cover through our Lonely Planet guides I definitely think we got to see and experience much of the best that Iceland has to offer. While I don't think I need to rush back I'd love to see it covered in snow with waterfalls frozen over and also be back earlier in the summer to get out into the mountains and hike.

Other than saying everything we saw was amazing here are the top 10...

1. Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon and beach - this spot was likely my absolute favorite. We actually went twice because the first time we saw it the afternoon was very grey but luckily the weather forecast looked like it might be clear first thing in the morning. We were only staying about 45 minutes away so we got up early drove back to the lagoon and got some amazing pictures.

2. Pinpointing a favorite waterfall is difficult - they're big, small, known, unknown, and everywhere - so here are a few that I very much enjoyed... Godafoss, Dynjandi, Gljúfrabúi, Seljalandsfoss

3. Snaefulness Peninsula - this is an area north of Reykjavik with a national park, cliffs along the coastline, a massive glacier, and apparently the most photographed mountain in Iceland. We didn't have great weather here but there were spots of sun and it was still beautiful.

4. Viking Village and beach near Stokksnes light house - a Icelandic film director built a Viking village to be used as a movie set but it's been delayed so this village is just sitting there in a field with mountains on one side and water on the other. Also the drive up the east coast from here to the town of Djupivogur was fabulous.

5. Hiking on the Svinafellsjokull glacier where Interstellar was filmed - We couldn't be in Iceland and not experience a glacier first hand. With crampons on and ice axes in hand Teitur took us for a wander on the Svinafellsjokull glacier. It was stunning and definitely looked like an alternate universe! Comparing this glacier hike to one I did in New Zealand this one definitely felt more rugged and natural. New Zealand's Fox Glacier was great but here in Iceland there were no pre-defined paths and set routes. And while there were tour groups coming and going it wasn't full of them.

6. Bubbling, steaming, and spewing earth near Myvtan and Krafla - while the stench of sulfur can be pretty nasty watching steam blowing from the ground and mud and water just boiling away is pretty cool. We saw a few different spots like this throughout the trip but this was the best. Just a thin rope and one or two signs keep tourists away from the ridiculously hot earth as you wander around.

With all this hot water of course comes the natural hot springs and hot tubs. We took advantage of a few along the way at night, but certainly not enough!!

7. Turf Huts - traditional Icelandic homes and buildings were made out of turf with grass roofs. We stayed in a turf hut one night when we were in the highlands and then later saw the amazing historical site of Glaumbaer with preserved huts.

8. Aurora Borealis - September isn't known as the best time to see the northern lights so I wasn't going into the trip with my hopes up. Though when Teitur told us that he'd seen an amazing night of lights at the end of August of course I was eager to see the same. We did get a little lucky on one night. They weren't super bright and I could only really see green but it was very clear that there was activity in the sky and it was dancing from side to side. When at midnight Teitur came running into our hut yelling 'Jessie, Yvonne, the lights' I slowly moved myself out of bed and put all my warm clothes on unconvinced that I wanted to get up - but I'm glad I did.

9. Fjords - Iceland is filled with fjords and they make for beautiful landscape with the land just dropping down into the water. In the East and West of the country we drove in and out of a few of them. The area of the Westfjords which is very sparsely populated and according to the Lonely Planet book only about 14% of tourists actually visit the area was beautiful. The weather wasn't great and we only had time to drive and explore one of the areas, but still totally worth it. We went to the Western most point of Iceland and also of Europe (if you're not counting the Azores) but it was so windy we didn't say out of the car for too long for fear of being blown over!

10. Animals are everywhere and many of them are very friendly - sheep, cows, goats, horses, reindeer, swans, arctic foxes, and birds of all kinds definitely outnumber people throughout Iceland. Sadly I missed seeing any puffins but that's OK, I saw enough images and pictures of them to make it seem like I saw them in person.

The Icelandic horses are beautiful curious creatures that come right up to you to see what's going on. We discovered that goats really enjoy Pringles, or I'm sure anything you're feeding them, sheep like to stand in the middle of the road and just stare at you as the car approaches before making a decision about which way to run, and swans are everywhere across the country because they (and many other birds) use Iceland as a breeding ground. Seeing a few swans swimming in a pond will no longer feel like a special sight after seeing so many in Iceland.

If you're wondering yes, we did do Reykjavik, the Golden Circle driving loop, and the Blue Lagoon but they didn't really make the top highlights. They're great if you just have a few days but there's so much more country to see. Reykjavik takes about 30 minutes to walk around and with a few sights you could make a half day or day of it. We really just used it as a starting point to get our bearings before heading off. The Blue Lagoon is certainly an experience and one that is recommended. It's like being in a factory with loads of tour buses, people with their selfie sticks, and even some wearing water wings in water that's not very deep. But we just put the face masks on like everyone else and just enjoyed it!

I could keep going on and on with more details and stories of the adventures and mishaps along the way but it's already gotten long so I'll stop for now. I'm making my way east through Europe for a bit before finding my way back to San Francisco in a few weeks. 

No comments:

Post a Comment