A Travellerspoint blog

Iceland

Dipping my toes in Viking territory

semi-overcast 35 °F

What a day. Or, rather, 2 days rolled into one. I started my preparations for this trip at the very last minute. Our flight to Reykjavik, Iceland was to leave at 2pm on Friday but I was still running errands and doing laundry until late into the night on Thursday. Oops!

From Columbus it was another hop, skip and jump kind of travel day. We lucked out, for once though, no crying babies on any of our three flights. Amazing!

We touched down at 6:46am in Iceland - just as the sun was rising. What a strange landscape! This part of Iceland is quite barren and covered by volcanic rock. It's almost lunar. Breezing through passport control and customs, we grabbed our bus which dropped us off at our hotel - Hotel Klopp. Yes, Klopp. At least it's easy to pronounce. The Icelandic language is another of those where there are way too many consonants and strange pronunciations. We checked in and went to our room. Those of you who have been on cruises would be very familiar with our room. The only difference is that we have a slightly larger bathroom and a real window. It's TINY. It really does NOT look like the picture on the web. Oh well, we won't be spending much time there anyways.

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View of Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirka

We settled in and hit the road. Today was planning day. Since so much of Iceland sightseeing depends on the weather we were unable to plan much ahead of time. Our first stop was the Tourist Information Office. We picked the brain of a very nice lady and got an idea of our general plan for the week. We've decided to take a couple of pre-packaged tours and also to rent a car for a couple of days to see some of the more out of the way places. Hopefully, things go as planned. Stay tuned for the outcome on that!

Plans set, we decided to take the rest of the day getting our bearings and seeing a few sites. We wandered the streets looking for good views and getting slightly lost. Downtown Reykjavik is a quaint smallish city with little streets and colorful buildings. Such a nice change from cookie-cutter Columbus, Ohio. The first major site we visited was Hallgrimskirka which is an immense church with a clock and bell tower that affords breathtaking views of Reykjavik and the surrounding area. Inside, the church is very plain except for a beautiful pipe organ. The organist was playing while we were there. What angelic sounds! In fact, there will be an organ concert of Bach and Mozart pieces on Monday. If we hadn't already made plans for Monday, I'd try to drag Mike back. Oh well, I got a taste. And what a sweet taste it was!

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Pipe organ in Hallgrimskirka

For the afternoon we had planned on taking the ferry to Videy (pronounced Vithey) Island. It's uninhabited but is supposed to have some nice scenery. Unfortunately, the very nice lady at the Tourist Info Office wasn't quite right in where we should catch the bus to the harbor. We waited in vain at the cold bus stop for over 1/2 hour waiting for a bus that never came. Oh we'll, it had started to cloud over anyways. Maybe later.

Plan B. Since the weather wasn't as pretty as it had been earlier we decided to check out one of the museums. We finally figured out the bus system (thanks to a kind bus driver willing to practice his high school English) and made it to the Saga museum. This museum has very well done wax figures portraying various episodes in Icelandic history. The museum itself is a little cheesy and overpriced but that's ok. The building that houses the museum also has a restaurant on the top floor with panoramic views of the city. It was windy up there, but the scenery was worth it!

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Diorama at the Saga Museum

We're ending the day at the hotel which has a happy hour. Decently priced Viking beer. A good way to end a very long day. Tomorrow, we're taking one of our tours - The Golden Circle which includes lots of cool sites. Cross your fingers for good weather!

Posted by Jengt 11:52 Archived in Iceland Tagged church vikings iceland pipe_organ Comments (0)

Riding the Golden Circle

A primer in Icelandic history

sunny 32 °F

Day two started early. Mike and I had scheduled a tour of the Golden Circle through the tour company Gateway to Iceland. We had asked the nice lady at the Tourist Info desk if she recommended one tour company over another. She suggested GTI since they use minivans instead of the big tour buses. I'd much rather have to deal with a smaller group. Plus, it was cheaper than all of the others we looked at. Win-win!

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North America on the left and Europe on the right

We were picked up for our tour with 8 other people. A nice, small group. Our tour guide, Thorsten was quite talkative giving info on Icelandic history and geology. The first stop was Thingvellir - the original spot of Icelandic Parliament in 930 making Iceland the oldest democracy. Another interesting thing about this area is that it sits right next to where the North American and European plates meet. So technically, you can cross back and forth from North America to Europe just by walking down the crevasse. And here I thought I was already in Europe!

The Althing is a big open (and WINDY) plain alongside the nation's largest freshwater lake. The scenery was spectacular! Mountains in the background with a glassy lake stretching out in front of you. They say the reason they picked this spot was the natural acoustics for the people speaking. It was definitely a place of power.

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Icelandic church and buildings next to Thingvellir

From here we went to Gullfoss - an impressive two level waterfall. He dropped us off in front of the obligatory souvenir shop and cafe. Both Mike and I were amazed at how many people went in to shop or eat instead of checking out the natural beauty of the huge waterfall just outside! Now, it's been a very long time since I've seen Niagra falls so I can't really compare the two. I know Niagra is much larger, but Gullfoss was breathtaking on it's own. (Or was that just the gale force winds trying to knock me down?) We wandered around snapping photos from every angle hoping each one would be better than the last. It was. The skies were amazingly blue and the mist billowing up from the falls made the scenery that much more ethereal.

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Gullfoss

Too soon we had to get back in the van and head to our next stop...Geyser - the original geyser. Unfortunately, due to recent seismic activity, Geyser is unpredictable and does not erupt very often. However, there is another geyser, Strokkur, which is right next to Geyser and erupts every 5 to 6 minutes. What a show! Just as we were walking up, Strokkur threw a huge plume into the sky. We stood behind the line as instructed by our driver to take our photos with 100 or so other fine folks. (As we were driving up Thorsten was sure to give a horror story of a woman who crossed the line and stepped through the crust burning her foot nearly off. Must keep the tourists in line!). Right on schedule, Strokkur blew over and over again. The first time, I was so startled I jumped and didn't get a single photo. Lucky for me it would blow again just a few minutes later. We were given nearly an hour and half to check out the geysers and surrounding hot springs. Oh, and to also visit one of the lovely restaurants and gift shop. All of them well beyond my price point. As Mike and I were heading over to warm up a bit we decided to try photos of Strokkur again. What we didn't realize is that we were down wind and Mike got soaked! I'm not sure how I managed to stay dry standing right next to him. However, I'm NOT complaining. I guess it was a good thing that we had all that time to allow Mike the time to dry off.

From here, it was time to head back to Reykjavik. As we went, Thorsten would throw in little "surprise" stops. One of them was a horse farm where he keeps his 4 horses. We all stepped up to the fence and the horses came up to be petted. I kept apologizing that I didn't have an apple or sugar cubes.

Our next "surprise" stop was a much smaller waterfall. It was nice, but it paled in comparison to Gullfoss. Then we stopped at Skalholt, the main bishopric (religious center) in southern Iceland. From the outside, it's a very plain church. Inside is rather plain as well but it has some rather beautiful stained glass. As Thorsten gave his rather lengthy description of the history of the Icelandic church I let my eyes wander around and take in the beauty. The sun was in just the right spot for the warm afternoon light to bathe the walls in a kaleidoscope of color. What a wonderful way to end the tour.

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Dancing colors

On the ride back, Thorsten took questions from the group about daily Icelandic life. He was quick to give his view but was considerate enough to remind everyone that there are always two sides to any story.

All in all, a great day. We got back to our hotel with time to rest up and grab a bite to eat. Tonight is our Northern Lights tour. Here's hoping the weather gods are kind. We'll let you know next time.

Posted by Jengt 01:21 Archived in Iceland Tagged waterfall geyser Comments (0)

Night Lights

Cross one more thing off the bucket list

25 °F

One of the big reasons for coming to Iceland was for Mike and I to see the Northern Lights. We've been trying for years to make it here. Of course, there are plenty of other Reasons to visit Iceland - Vikings, the Northern Lights, the scenery, the Northern Lights, Vikings, the Noerthern Lights. You get the idea. So needless to say, one of our first priorities was to book a Northern Lights excursion. The nice lady at the Tourist Information Desk suggested the tour company Gateway to Iceland since they use minivans instead of the big tour buses. Also, they were cheaper. Even better! Mike had been doing his homework online to see the best days to see the Aurora Borealis for several weeks before we left. According to the websites, Monday was supposed to be the most active during the time we were going to be here. However, when the clerk at the hotel called to schedule our tour, the folks at the tour company said they'd rather we book for Sunday night as the forecast for Monday was supposed to be cloudy and Sunday was supposed to be clear. Oops! We hadn't even thought of that! What good is an active light show if you can't see it because of the clouds? Monday it was. Plus, there's the added advantage that if we didn't see anything on Sunday, we could go out another night for free.

Our tour company picked us up shortly after 9pm. Bob, our guide, (obviously not Icelandic) started by giving us all background and more info on the Northern lights than most people will ever know. I'm sure to let us all understand that even though there is science behind the Northern lights, they are very unpredictable. He had checked with the weather center who said the weather should hold. The forecast for the lights was good so we just needed the moon to not be too bright (not easy when it was nearly a full moon). We tried one spot which, according to Bob, was not ideal so we headed back to Thingvellir. Ours was the first group there so we had our pick of where to set up. Mike and I set up our tripods and waited in the cold with everyone else. Nearly an hour later, one of the other guides said "they've started". The thing is, you can't really see them with your naked eye unless they're extremely strong. About the only way you can tell they're there is by a band of what looks like clouds in the sky. It's only the camera (with a long exposure) that can see the color. I'm so very, very happy I just got myself a better camera. Lots of folks around us were just standing there in the cold wind looking at a faint band of what might just as well have been clouds. That would have killed me!

Unfortunately, with such a full moon, the lights were very faint an short lived. Bob finally called it a night at midnight. We were all happy to get out of the cold and back into the warm van.

I did manage to get photographic evidence that we did see them though. And I'm a very happy camper!!!

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Posted by Jengt 15:53 Archived in Iceland Tagged northern_lights Comments (0)

Waterfalls, Glaciers and Black Sand

Heading out to see the countryside

sunny 37 °F

One thing both Mike & I prefer to not do is see a country with big tour groups. So when we were planning our trip to Iceland, we thought about where we'd like to go and how to go about getting there. Some things are just easier to do via tour group. Especially if its in a difficult area or if a guide would give a better understanding of the place or places you're going. That's why we decided to take a tour for the Golden Circle. For the rest of our trip, we figured going solo would be best.

The southern coast seemed doable and the nice lady at the Information Office agreed. The weather was forecast to be mild so the roads should remain open. We decided to rent a car for a couple of days to see what we could see. They drive on the right (correct) side of the street in Iceland so it appeared it shouldn't be a problem. Mike had a list of things he'd seen in the guidebook that sounded interesting. We'd discussed them and decided on several "must-dos". One of those was a glacier hike on the Solheimajokull ice cap. We had booked the 'Blue Ice' hike for 1pm. That gave us plenty of time so see lots of other stuff along the way and still get back at a decent time.

We set off early - with Mike, the driver and I, the navigator - and headed southeast. First on our list were a couple of waterfalls. As we approached the first, we decided to check it out again later in the day. The sun wasn't in just the right place. Next up was Skogar. Sometimes life is good. Sometimes it's amazing. This was one of those amazing moments. As we walked up to the falls both Mike and I took a deep breath. The sun was in just the right spot and there was a HUGE waterfall with a matching rainbow. Yippee! Alongside the waterfall was a set of stairs climbing the steep hillside. We looked at each other and started up. We were rewarded by spectacular views of not just the falls bit the birds nesting on the cliff face and a quirky rock formation that looks like a man's face looking directly at the falls. I mused to myself that there are MUCH worst things to have to stare at for all of eternity.

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Skogar Waterfall

We climbed back down the stairs and checked out the falls from below. There wasn't a bad view to be seen. No matter which way we looked, the rainbow followed us. Good omen? I'd like to think so.

It was after noon and we had to keep moving to make our hike. As we drove along, the mountain views just kept getting better and better. By the way, have I mentioned lately how much I LOVE mountains? We made it to the end of the glacier with a few minutes to spare. We met up with our guide, Christine, and two other couples. Christine fitted each of us with crampons (those spiky things on the bottoms of your shoes to give you grip on the ice) and an ice axe. Yep, she gave ME an ice axe. And Mike wasn't worried at all.(?) I have to say, it wasn't exactly what I expected. I wasn't unhappy with the hike but I was hoping to see more blue ice and ice tubes. The hike was supposed to last 1 1/2 hours but we were out over 2 hours. At least we got our money's worth.

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Hiking on a glacier

Back in the car, we continued our trek southwest. We decided to go to the furthest on the list and work our way back. That furthest point was the town Vic (pronounced veek). Vic has black sand beaches and was one of the locations Clint Eastwood used for his Iwo Jima film Flags of Our Fathers. There are also tall sea stacks which the locals refer to as the Troll Rocks. As we approached Vic, the weather behind us (to the west) had turned cloudy and it started to rain. It gave the sea stacks a misty, moody feel. Perfect! We walked along the beach taking lots of photos and just soaking in the atmosphere. We laughed as a couple of teenagers took off their shoes and walked up to the approaching tide. I don't know about you, but swimming in the North Atlantic does NOT sound like a good idea to me. One of the kids actually made it out into the surf up to his hips! As my friend Leslie's mom used to say..."Where there's no sense, there's no feeling." Truer words were never uttered.

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The trolls

There was one other site on our list to see. It's a rock arch along the coast back towards the west. As we approached the area, it started to rain a little harder. We sat in the car waiting for it to blow over again. We could see blue sky in the near distance so we figured it would only be 10-15 minutes longer. Finally, after 30 minutes, we decided to bag it and head back to Reykjavik. At least it gave us time to look through our guide books and plan a little more for the next day's adventure.

Of course, just a little ways west, the rain stopped. However, the skies stayed cloudy the rest of the way back. We've noticed a pattern in the weather...the skies are usually blue and cloudless in the morning and early afternoon. In the late afternoon, around 3:30 to 4:30 it starts to cloud up. It doesn't always rain, but you do lose the sunshiny look if you're taking pictures. Always good to know.

All in all, it was a great day. Here's hoping for great weather tomorrow when we drive around the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Posted by Jengt 12:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged beach glacier waterfall iceland Comments (0)

Mountains, Oceans and Amazing Views

What a way to spend a day!

sunny 33 °F

Have you ever had one of those days where you just knew it was one of the best days of your life? That's the way I felt the entire day on Tuesday.

Mike and I had decided to rent a car to see the Snaefellsnes peninsula - northwest of Reykjavik. There was supposed to be some great scenery and mountains. You know how much I love mountains (or should by now). The nice lady at the tourist office said it was a doable drive but would probably take the entire day so we headed out pretty early. Mike was driving and I had my maps arrayed around me to make sure we didn't get lost. It was another cloudless sunny day - The travel gods were looking down and smiling upon us.

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Farm on the Snaefellsness peninsula

The guide books all recommended that we start our tour on the north side of the peninsula (it runs east/west) but we remembered that the weather tended to change in the late afternoon. Most of the best scenery is in the south so we decided to buck tradition. We're that kind of people.

On the western end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula is Snaefellsjokull mountain. Jules Verne used Snaefellsjokull mountain as the setting to Voyage to the Center of the Earth. All along the southern side of the peninsula were small "villages" (clusters of 2 or 3 houses and a church) and fishing towns. As we rounded each curve in the road we came across better and better views of the mountains and the ocean. Quaint little churches and farm homesteads with the mountains looming overhead. We commented to each other that you have to be a very hearty kind of person to live in rural Iceland. You can go for miles and miles before you get to your nearest neighbor. In winter, it must get very lonely. It's definitely not the kind of lifestyle I could handle.

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Church at Buthir

Even so, the scenery was truly amazing. Both Mike and I kept looking out of the windows of the car and watching in turns for places to pull off the side of the road for a place to pull the car for our "Kodak moment". Really, we didn't have to pull off the road. We were the only car on the road for up to an hour at a time. When we did see another car, we were almost surprised. They say that this is a very popular place to visit during the summer but it's pretty deserted on the off-season, which is plenty fine with us. The only problem with that was several of the sites we were hoping to see (museums and such) were closed. That's ok, they can't close the views because the tourists aren't there.

At each stop the view kept getting better and better. As we rounded the westernmost end, we checked out some volcanic stacks at Malariff. Both Mike and I commented on the similarity between this part of Iceland and the Scottish coastline.

As we rounded the northwestern tip of the peninsula, we came across the most beautiful view! All along the road to this point there were signs indicating upcoming photo views. This time there was no sign but I guess if you were looking you couldn't possible have missed it. There, in front of us, was the most gorgeous snow-covered mountainside sloping into a placid mirror-like lake. Definitely one of the top 3 views of my life. Both Mike and I shot many photos to be sure we got at least one that we could use. That view alone made the day's trip worth it!

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Lava pillars at Londrangar

Back in the car and heading back east we could see clouds ahead and south of us. Not a good sign. The last major stop on today's itinerary was the fishing village of Stykkisholmur which is where the guidebooks recommended we start. Even with the clouds it was a lovely little village with breathtaking views. They have a lighthouse on a tall basalt hill across a causeway. From there, you can see north across to the westfjords - the next most northern peninsula on the western side of Iceland. Looking out, we could see why this was a must-see in Iceland. Unfortunately, it's still winter and the museum we wanted to see was closed...again. That's ok, the views were worth the visit to this sleepy (during the winter) little town.

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Amazing view outside Grundarfjotthur

As we headed back south out of town, the mountains had an ominous look to them. It appeared there was snow which wouldn't be good since the road back went over a mountain pass. We both figured the rental company wouldn't rent out cars knowing what the weather is like if they didn't think the car would make it. We (ok, I) worried for nothing. There was snow over the pass, but it was just very light flurries that didn't even stick to the road. Yay!

All the way back to Reykjavik, I remembered the amazing sights we'd had the good fortune to see. Iceland's scenery is in some ways very similar to other countries and in other ways so very, very different. The lava fields take a lot of getting used to. All in all, this had been one of the most amazing sight-seeing days I've ever had. How fortunate I am to be able to experience this beautiful country!

Posted by Jengt 10:19 Archived in Iceland Tagged mountains church fishing_village lava_field Comments (0)

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