Friday, June 28, 2013

Iceland (part2)

Iceland Iceland

For the full story, see parts one, two, three, and four. For other options, see Planning Iceland.

Next morning I woke via alarm at 6am and had a shower. Other guests had arrived the previous evening and we all had breakfast together at 7am. They were from Idaho and were on their way back home. One guy owned an outfitting store near Green Mountain and his wife was an avalanche management person. They made good company.

After breakfast we drove back through the tunnel to Reykjavik to hotel Floki (now Hostel Village) to pick up Tyner & Cynthia. They were in good shape. On the way out of town we bought a gas card and filled the tank. A lady said that without the gas card you had to go in and prepay a fixed amount, which turned out to be true at most, but not all, stations. There were three or four brands of gas station in Iceland and each had their own brand of gas card that wouldn't work at the other stations.

We drove out of town back towards our farmhouse but took the long way around the fjord. The landscape is breathtaking. Further on we stopped to pet some horses. We drove a long way through fantastic landscape and stopped at Grabrok Crater and Glanni Waterfall. The weather was much nicer today.

We kept driving and stopped near a fjord at a large roadside rest stop, and had packed lunches, except Amanda bought a cheeseburger for me. The inside of the burger was very pink, so I asked the staff if that was normal, and she said "yeah, I think so". So I ate it. That raises an interesting difference in food perspective. A North American might say "You have to cook ground beef through for it to be safe to eat." Whereas a European might say "If you have to cook that ground beef through to feel safe enough to eat it then it isn't human grade food."

We continued driving and eventually detoured down a gravel road along a fjord to see Pingeyrar Church. It was the third stone church in Iceland. Apparently they don't have much stone in their soil and the farmer that built it had to drag the stones from the nearby mountain. It took him thirteen years.

Iceland has lots of modern architecture. After Pingeyrar we drove further along the highway and I pulled over to photograph a modern church. Then we detoured from the highway to see the Glaumbaer Turf Farmhouse Museum. They were closing in 15 minutes so they let us in for free. It was actually really impressive inside, full of artifacts and the smell of history, so I paid them my admission anyway.

Amanda took over driving and brought us the rest of the way to Akureyri. The landscape is even more stunning when you can stare at it without fear of swerving over a precipice. On the approach to Akureyri you're flanked on either side by jagged mountain peaks. I would have loved to stop there for a couple of days and just hike about.

Akureyri is a gorgeous little town. We stayed at Hotel Edda which is a university dorm used as hotel in the off-season. This made me nostalgic for school, because the room was tiny with two single beds, two desks, a sink and almost no storage.

We walked about town and photographed some trolls and read several menus. We decided to eat at an Italian restaurant, but ate from their traditional Icelandic menu. Each meal came with a buffet soup and salad bar and we were all stuffed by the end. I had lamb stew. The restaurant had whale steak on the menu which I considered eating since they claim the harvest is sustainable. Later I was told that almost all of the whale harvested by Iceland is either exported or consumed by tourists, so I was glad to have not participated.

After dinner Tyner and I raced up some stairs to a church, which put me really out of breath. Back at the hotel we played a few games of Dominion before bed. Next morning we split up and Amanda and I had breakfast at the hotel which was buffet style in the school's cafeteria. I had barley oats with yogurt and brown sugar and bread with blueberry jam. After this revival we went shopping at a wool store. The town was bustling with tourists as a giant cruise ship was in port. While the others were packing the car, I quickly checked out the botanical garden which was adjacent to the hotel parking lot.

On the way out of town we bought fuel and groceries. The liquor store was closed all day, so our trip continued to be dry. We had to wait a bit for the grocery store to open and killed time by trying to get a group jumping photo. We also saw some heart shaped stop lights.

We missed our turn before the airport and drove inland about twenty minutes before we realized our mistake. We stopped to photograph Grund Church before reversing direction and stopped again just out of town to photograph the city from a lookout. There was an idyllic waterfall just across the road from the lookout.

We continued driving and stopped at Goðafoss which was a pretty waterfall but was overrun by tourists. It was the first crowded place I'd been. The surrounding land looks flat but is actually filled with little grassy holes. It was really cold and windy, so after we'd got our fill of the waterfall, we sheltered in a hole and ate packed lunches. Amanda and I had yogurt and kippered snacks and crackers, which was delicious.

We continued driving to Mývatn Lake, and when we arrived the map said one road went right around the lake and another went left around it, but our map had them labeled contrary to the road signs. We decided to ignore the map and eventually arrived at Hlíð Cabins in a lava field. The guy at registration said that they kept switching which roads were which based on which was in better condition.

Our cabins were clean and had electricity, but were cold, especially with bare feet on the floor, but they literally font onto the lava field, and the shared kitchen/bathrooms were good so I do recommend them.

We trundled around the lava field for a bit then drove a short distance to the Mývatn Nature Baths. These are expensive, but were a great experience. In some spots the water was too cold to stay in because the day was cold and sometimes rainy, but other spots were so hot that I think they would have cooked you if you stayed in too long.

Before we left, I ran up a nearby lava hill to get a look at our surroundings. We really were in a luxury island in the middle of an industrial wasteland. I guess it's high praise when your industrial waste is a tourist attraction.

After the baths, we bought some groceries in town and Amanda cooked us spaghetti for dinner. It looked like the girls had everything under control, so Tyner and I played a game of of Dominion. It was a brutal game of attack cards, and Tyner bought out the lighthouses so he had one in play every turn and eventually crushed me.

We still hadn't found an open liquor store, but they sell 2.5% beer in the grocery stores, so I bought us a six pack of that which we drank while playing Dominion after dinner. We went to bed after midnight, but it was still bright as day.

Next morning, Amanda made us oatmeal for breakfast. By this time my body was aching everywhere. That last run up the hill at the baths may have been overdoing it.

After breakfast we drove to Húsavík for whale watching. It's a beautiful little town at the base of a mountain covered with purple lupins. Sadly there was no time to climb any of these hills.

We walked a bit around town and had a packed lunch on a bench that is part of the patio of a restaurant. I can't imagine there ever being a day where one could sit there while not wearing multiple thermal layers and full rain gear.

Our North Sailing Húsavík boat arrived. It looked like a small tall ship but had no sails. Just as it arrived a bus full of Americans pulled up, which counted for most of the tour's seats. On the ship we pulled snowmobile suits on over our gear, and later when it started raining, rain coats over that. This put Amanda at eight layers, and she was finally warm enough.

At first all we saw was birds. Then we saw a humpback from about fifty meters, but a small motor boat tour zoomed up and kept zooming to the spot where the whale had just surfaced. They did this right after our guide explained that the whale tourism industry isn't regulated but that most operators try to idle their engines when whales are near an not disturb their movements, i.e., unlike that motor boat.

Eventually the motor boat zoomed back to harbour and the whale had a little party. Instead of surfacing briefly and far away, it came right up to our boat and flapped its tail a bunch of times, which was spectacular. Our guide said the whale was probably thirteen meters in length.

On the way home they fed us cinnamon buns a hot chocolate and we saw another humpback from a distance. I was very happy with the tour, and especially with our guide.

Back in the harbour, we stripped off some layers and had a fantastic dinner at Gamli Baukur whose patio we had lunched next to earlier. It was built of timbers and decorated with brass and copper boat parts. I had a pint of Thule and the catch of the day which was pan fried catfish with potatoes and salad and was superb. Definitely the best meal so far in Iceland.

After dinner we walked around the town a bit, then Amanda drove us home. I slept in the car. At home we had a nap and a snack and I wrote up my journal.

It had been cold and rainy all day, so we played some Dominion in the common area. A group from France was cooking and the fire alarm kept going off even though their cooking didn't seem smoky.

The next morning I repacked everything so that Amanda and I could share one medium gear bag. We made breakfast then toured the Mývatn Lake area. First we drove to the industrial area next to the hot baths and took some photos.

Next we drove to Hverfjall, a massive gravel crater and hiked part way around the rim. There is a big parking lot at its base and there were several buses and maybe fifty people hiking at least to the summit. It felt pretty crowded until you got past the rim. I wanted to hike south to what looked like near hills but was probably mountains many kilometers away.

Next we drove to the Krafla Power Station and further to a gorgeous blue lake in a crater. This was Víti which is part of the Askja Stratovolcano. There were other craters nearby and a strange sulfur formation. On the way back we stopped at a lava field and ate our packed lunch. There were buses here too but it didn't seem as crowded. There was also a hotdog stand. Even in the middle of nowhere, Iceland is high tech. I paid for the hotdog (and almost everything else) with visa.

On the way back towards Mývatn Lake we stopped at the Hverarönd Geothermal Site. The bubbly mud and hissing sulfur piles were even more amazing then the stuff at the power plant. We walked about and took photos and I ran up and back down the adjacent hill in eighteen minutes. It was actually surprisingly steep, treacherous and difficult.

That took a lot of the day, and I was pretty exhausted but we decided we still had enough juice to hike a bit around the Dark Fortress (Dimmuborgir) on our way to our next accommodation. It was a very nice nature hike amidst flowers, chirping birds, and twisted black magma columns. We were very lucky to just miss a fleet buses. As we were walking out, groups were arriving in waves, and we counted a total of nine full sized buses in the parking lot.

Stöng Farm was huge and luxuriously warm. First thing, I had a long shower and washed my shirt. Next we cooked a giant dinner, and I ran back to the lobby to buy some local beer, which in this case means brewed at the farm. It had a picture of the house we're staying at on the bottle.

Feeling a little drunk, very stuffed and thoroughly satisfied, we went to bed in anticipation of an early start and a big driving day.

We got up at 7:30 and had a big buffet breakfast that came included with the room. I made meat, cheese, cucumber, red pepper sandwiches (like at the first farm house) and had muesli in yogurt.

We tried to wrangle some sheep but they wouldn't let us come within twenty paces. We checked out and packed the car and drove the long dirt road out of the farm. We stopped twice to photograph sheep and tried to approach them, but they were equally standoffish.

We picked up some groceries in town, and started our long drive. We detoured off the highway to see Dettifoss which is in the middle of a broad blasted landscape. We put on our rain pants and jackets before hiking out to the waterfall which was definitely the right choice. Depending on the wind, the spray from the falls literally rained down on us.

We also hiked up the river to see the smaller Selfoss. Both were beautiful, but the place was pretty overrun by tourists. It seems that bus tours frequent all the well know landmarks. In my view, all of Iceland's landscape is phenomenal, and you'll be just as happy hiking in any random direction, so I'm not sure it's a good strategy to visit the most renowned landmarks.

We continued on our long drive through some beautiful mountain passes and some desolate interior landscapes. Eventually we drove down into a beautiful river valley and pulled over to hike up one of the many waterfalls, and stop for lunch. As it turns out, just a kilometer further there was a larger waterfall and an official pull-off, but of course, that one was crowded.

Further down the road we stopped for groceries, liquor and gas. There were some horses penned in town which were very tame and let us pet them.

On to Part Three.

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