04 April 2012


Get ready for a rave.

Flying to Iceland in March, I was expecting cold weather, lots of snow and hoping for some northern lights sightings. Basically, I was looking for the winter that never came to central PA, or much else of the east coast this year. Iceland did not disappoint.

Our trusty rental car -- with heated seats!
Walking out to the rental car, a benign wind was swirling light snow around the parking lot. With my gloves not easily accessible, I took to scrapping ice off the windows barehanded. But I was rewarded immediately when I plopped down on a heated seat. Maybe I just grew up cheap, but until that moment, heated seats and I had never met. It was love at first sensation. The heated seat button was pressed and lit under my butt for the rest of the trip. I still miss it.

The plane dropped us off at 6 a.m. As we drove into Reykjavik, the country was waking up. The sun must have been rising, but it was impossible to tell by looking at the sky. Snow was blowing around the car. The closer we got to the city (about a 45 minute drive), the more cars seemed to be joining us.

Once we parked and started exploring, the snow took a break, but the wind kept us company. The clouds let the sun through a couple of moments in Reykjavik that first morning. The wind hung with us the whole trip at one speed or another. The sun only made occasional visits.

Empty Icelandic roads.
Driving away from Reykjavik, map in tote, it was like we were driving away from civilization in Iceland, back to a time before cars when quiet homesteads were tucked beneath ragged, black peaks, each hint at humanity separated by miles. There may be cars now, and stretches of paved road, but people outside of Reykjavik haven't felt compelled to move closer to each other.

The island nation is home to just 300, 000 people who share a swath of inhospitable land about the size of Kentucky. It was wonderful to drive for hours and see just a few cars. Logic tells me the lack of people is a result of the season. (Tourists find summer in Iceland lovely, I hear. So much so that all of the rental cars on the island have been booked at once.) But being in an environment where humans are rare is so satisfying to me that I choose to pretend Iceland is always vacant.

Ate our first meal in Iceland while watching the falls.
We took the Ring Road counter-clockwise around the island in seven days. The first evening we stopped at a waterfall just off the main drag that was flooded by two spotlights. The waterfall has a path behind it, but we opted to appreciate the sight from the front side. It was drier. The parking lot had two heated restrooms in the corner. Don't tell Iceland, but we made dinner on our camp stove inside the handicapped bathroom. It had a table and running water so we could even do our dishes!

That took us past Vatnajokull National Park, the largest National Park in Europe. The park is basically one huge glacier and is the home of the highest point in Iceland, Hvannadalshnuker. We attempted a climb, but I got spooked by a local school marm. She let us crash in her basement, but told us a chilling bedtime story about two boys who climbed up on the glacier and never came back.

Richard and I made it back, but our poor knowledge of the glacier, and its crevasses, the horrible visibility we had and the violent wind encouraged our turn-around. We'll give it a try again in the right season and with someone who knows the way.

The next stretch of the Ring Road followed the south east coastline up and back along fjords. We stopped in Hofn, "pronounced like an unexpected hiccup" says Lonely Planet, for a meal and to taste the local beer. There's glacier water in it, apparently. The meal was seafood, duh.

6km tunnel. Richard was like a kid at Christmas.
By this point, we were three days into our trip and we made some serious miles. Richard found a 6 kilometer tunnel on the map, which was a must-do. We visited the largest forest in Iceland. There aren't too many trees in Iceland. The wind keeps them from growing too high and the occasional volcano eruption works to control population growth.

Reindeer enjoying the winter clime. Too windy for my taste.
The forest grows along the east shore of Lagarfljot, the Icelandic twin of Loch Ness. The 38km-long, 50m-deep lake is believed to harbor a monster. The Lagarfljot Worm has been sighted since Viking times, allegedly. I didn't see it, but I found the trees more exciting than trying to stare into the muddy-brown water.

Richard "standing" on the crater lip.
The next day we climbed to the top of a crater that formed about 2500 years ago. It rises 463 meters and stretches 1,040 meters across. It is a landmark of the Myvatn area. Myvatn is a pretty, blue lake circled by black lava fields. Super cool. Hverfell, the loose-graveled crater, is on the east shore. The sun was shining, the snow was deep and soft and the wind was battering. I cannot describe the speed of the wind except to say it completely altered my opinion of a swift breeze. Turning into to climb down made my chins burn and my eyes water. It was impossible to stand upright. Nor was it possible to walk without using my ice axe as a crutch. I needed two points of contact to keep from loosing balance completely.

After glissading down, we treated ourselves with a local treat. Hverabraud is a moist, cake-like rye bread that is slow-baked underground. It was delicious alone or with cheese.

Next we drove to Akureyri, the second-most populated town in Iceland. We visited on a Sunday which means EVERYTHING was closed. Therefore, I was not impressed by the town, although I'm sure it's lovely any other day of the week.

Does it get any better? There were beer holders built into the rock, so no.
After a nerve-racking stretch of road up and over a mountain pass where my visibility was impaired, sometimes completely, we dropped down to Varmahlid. We were able to stay in a cabin perched above the town. The best part, clearly, was the stone hot tub. We took two dips that evening to bookend our meal of risotto and fried fish balls found at the local grocery. And took another soak in the morning before we checked out. WONDERFUL.

Halfway up Trollskagi.
After a quick tour of the nearest fjord, and a toe-dip in the Arctic Ocean (I kept the shoes on), we climbed part-way up Trollskagi. I was just in my running shoes and we had no food or water, so we turned back after an hour or so. Nice view though.

The next part of the drive, I don't remember too well. I was napping. But Richard steered us toward Snaefellsjokull, the volcano Jules Verne sent his characters into in Journey to the Center of the Earth. The clouds hid the summit and the best road to access the glacier was impassable, so we hung out around the base. It sits right at the west end of a peninsula, so we watched the waves smash against rocks until a hail storm sent us racing back to the car.
My buddies singing for food.

That evening we made our way back to Reykjavik. We got a hotel room right in the center of the city on the top floor. After a culinary sampler of traditional Icelandic food, which included putrified shark (gross, by the way), we hit the bookstore and spent the rest of the night packing for the flight home.

On the way to the airport, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's premier hot bath spa. We stayed so long in the creamy, blue pools that we almost missed our flight.

Just two days into the trip, we were discussing the agenda for our return trip. So, Iceland, you'll be seeing more of me.

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