2014 June – Iceland

Before I start chalking out the details of our travel, I have to announce that there is no place on earth like Iceland – at least not like the ones we have visited so far. It seems to have everything that nature lovers could ask for – waterfalls galore, volcanoes, geothermal activity, greenery, gurgling streams and rivers, mountains, oceans, black sand beaches… you name it, you got it!!

The one thing I missed there was “people”! – If you are looking for big city fun, Reykjavik is your only bet – every other place is a small town there. With only 320K people in the whole country (and 500K sheep!), it is quite sparse on people for land its size. But no complaints – we went there to enjoy the summer and got more than what we bargained for! The Ring Road (Highway 1) circles the Palm of Iceland – for some 1300 kilometers. It is considerably longer if you travel up the “fingers” like we did. Lots of sheep and the wonderful Icelandic horses along the way…

Day 1 – Arrival in Reykjavik

Arrived at Keflavik airport early in the morning at 9 AM so we had the whole day to us after picking up the rental car. The city of Reykjavik is about 30-40 minutes from the airport and the famous Blue Lagoon is on the way – a mere 15 minutes drive from the Airport – so we headed straight there. The ticket is a steep 40 Euros per person but they let you get in and out for that day. The lagoon, contrary to our belief, wasn’t all natural water fed – it is pumped from a nearby Geothermal plant that gives the water it’s blue hue and supposedly therapeutic properties. There is a bar-like structure in the lagoon that offers drinks, face algae masks, volcano mud that you wash off right there in the pool. You can stay there for a few hours or several – it’s quite a rejuvenating experience, especially after a long and tiring flight.

Arrived at Keflavik airport early in the morning at 9 AM so we had the whole day to us after picking up the rental car. The city of Reykjavik is about 30-40 minutes from the airport and the famous Blue Lagoon is on the way – a mere 15 minutes drive from the Airport – so we headed straight there. The ticket is a steep 40 Euros per person but they let you get in and out for that day. The lagoon, contrary to our belief, wasn’t all natural water fed – it is pumped from a nearby Geothermal plant that gives the water it’s blue hue and supposedly therapeutic properties. There is a bar-like structure in the lagoon that offers drinks, face algae masks, volcano mud that you wash off right there in the pool. You can stay there for a few hours or several – it’s quite a rejuvenating experience, especially after a long and tiring flight.

Day 2 – Golden Circle, Reykjavik Area

Reykjavik is the land of the midnight soon so make sure you have eye covers – it takes some time getting used to seeing the sun at all times, even if you happen to wake up at 2 AM in the morning. Luckily we got over our jet lag rather quickly, and set off to see the Golden Circle with time remaining for visiting all kinds of souvenir shops along the way. The complete Golden Circle driving time takes you only 2-3 hours with 3 major stops along the way. The first stop was Thingevellir, about 45 minutes drive from downtown area. The highways are quite well maintained there and not crowded at all, even thought we were there in the peak of tourist season! Thingevellir is famous for the Continental Divide where the Eurasian and North American plates meet – these are now moving apart at the rate of 2 cm
per year! The Thingevellir park also gives an option to go scuba diving in the lake between the 2 tectonic plates…even though we did not get to do it, we have been told it is a wonderful experience…the water is so cold and so clear, apparently you can’t even make out whether you are looking at the surface or the ocean floor. The first Parliament of Iceland was established here…there are several nice trails to walk around. You also have the options of trekking to waterfalls with gorgeous scenery all around, reading about history and much more. The next stop for the golden circle was Geysir which is about 45 minutes from Thingevellir. Geysir is what has given the name “geysers” to everything in Yellowstone and around! The area is bubbling with geothermal activity – no seriously – however, most of the geysers are dormant except one…Strokkur is the only one that erupts and it puts on an amazing show every 8-10 minutes. The others are also nice to see because they are gurgling and releasing (foul smelling) gases, with pools of water of some very interesting colors, thanks to the various minerals dissolved in there. Geysir is truly amazing but you can be done there in around an hour or so. The last but not the least destination in the Golden Circle was Gullfoss.

This was truly our first real magnificent waterfall in Iceland. It was only 7 minutes away from Geysir with some real beautiful scenery along the way. Although we saw several other waterfalls along the way over the next few days, Gullfoss remained our favorite – a real spectacular fall where you can go up to the top of the falls, catch a bird’s eye view, get right in front of the falls, really close to the falls, basically see them from all sorts of vantage points. Just outstanding! There isn’t much else to do there except hear the peacefulness of the falls. Gull in Icelandic means “Gold” and Foss means falls translating to “Golden Falls.” The story goes that long back a man had thrown in all his earnings in the form of a bag of gold into the falls because he didn’t want anyone to steal it or anyone to have it after he died. Overall the Golden Circle was amazingly extraordinary. Drove back to the city…all stores and shops close at 9:30 PM even though it is bright and sunny outside – don’t let the light fool you!

Day 3 – En-route to Akureyri (North Iceland)

Most people drive around Iceland in counter-clockwise direction, but we decided to do the other way and headed to West Iceland and then to North Iceland from Reykjavik. About 2 hours north of the city is the falls of Barnafoss and Haufnfossar, right next to each other. Having seen so many other falls along the way, Barnafoss really didn’t impress us – however, Haufnfossar was something else! It is formed by rainwater seeping through the lava beds and forming an underwater river, which comes out in a spectacular display of water running down the rocks in waterfall fashion for almost a mile! This was my personal favorite, knowing that we could not see any overt river out there. As we drove further north, the scenery changed from the trees and hills to the ocean like cliffs with several nesting areas of birds along the way. Since we had all day to get to Akureyri (our final
destination in North Iceland), we deiced to take a minor detour to the town of Hvamsstangi to see Rock of Osar,which was completely worth it! The drive along the whole peninsula took an unexpectedly long 1.5 hours but the scenery was so beautiful (even though the road was not paved) that we didn’t mind it at all. For getting to the actual Rock of Osar, we decided to get down the cliffs to the actual black sand beaches and walk along the ocean. In the bargain, we got to see hundreds of seals resting – as well as got chased and attacked by several arctic terns (sea birds) who probably thought we were after their eggs (June is prime nesting season all over Iceland).

Drive to Akureyri was as beautiful as the rest of the area there – another 2 hours away. We stayed in a very quaint and scenic place called “Lamb Inn” just outside of Akureyri. The owners were the best people we encountered all over Iceland – very friendly, respectful and accommodating. Highly recommended!! Since it was only 10 minutes from the main (small) town, we could make several trips back and forth as needed. The town itself has a unique charm of it’s own with small stores all over the place, good food in several varieties and of course, shopping (albeit as expensive, just like the rest of Iceland)!

Day 4 – Akureyri and Lake Myvatn

Just an hour east of Akureyri is the Lake Myvatn area – a dream come true for anyone interested in Geology! On the way is Godafoss Falls (Falls of the Gods) – another one of Iceland’s powerful gargantuan falls. Lots of hiking trails around it – but not really all that impressive if you have already seen Gullfoss and Haufnfossar, A little further east starts the lake Myvatn area with Highway 1 and 890 running around it in a loop. It is evident here how volcanic eruptions over a period of time have played a crucial role in the formation of the whole landscape. There are several areas of interests here and plenty hiking trails, but we just tried to touch upon the main areas only. Right at the entrance of Highway 89 are the wonderful Pseudo Craters – these were formed in steam explosions when molten lava flowed over wetland. These are covered with grass and surrounded by the lake now and fit right into the scenery – an easy 30 min walk around them. But beware!! Even though Iceland does not have mosquitoes, this area particularly is infested with small mosquito like bugs that swarm you by the thousands – most people were walking around with little nets attached to their heads. A few kilometers further down is the Dimmuborgir lava area – completely full of several gigantic lava formations. Several trails run around the area (Easy, Medium, Difficult) that you can take based on your interest. Apparently they also provide options of taking a dip in the lake at a few spots, but we decided to give that a skip, having already encountered the Blue Lagoon waters.

The geothermal area Hverir by Namaskaro (Just 5-10 min from Myvatn) is full of “activity” – complete with steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pools, much more active than the Geysir area we saw earlier. After spending about an hour walking around there and “soaking in the scenery (along with various gases), we hiked up to a steep hill and got a bird’s eye view of a lot of geothermal activity all around us. Just 10 km from there is the Krafla area of Myvatn, which houses the awesome Viti Crater. Luckily that was right next to the parking lot but was completely worth the minor detour we took. The blue water of the deep crater is an absolutely amazing site. The complete circle walk around the crater takes about 45 minutes and lets you see the crater from all angles possible. A photographer’s delight!

Husavik is a small town, northeast of Akureyri and is very popular for its whale watching tours. We took about an hour detour and drove along the peninsula enjoying the scenery, in order to get to Husavik. In as much as we wanted to take the Whale Tours there, it was way too cold (even in the month of June) to get out in the open ocean – even though most boat companies supply you with extra warm clothing. Another charm of this area is the proximity to the Arctic Circle – a tour that is about 2 hours round trip to the island of Grimsey… worth doing if you want to get Arctic Circle off your bucket list! The town of Husavik is as pretty as anything else in Iceland – something we were getting used to by then!

Day 5 – En-route to Hofn (East Iceland)

The previous night we had to come back to the Akureyri area because that’s where our hotel was. (Lesson learned – we should have booked something in the Myvatn area). In the morning we started eastwards again, in the direction of Lake Myvatn and beyond. 30 minutes from there is the humongous Dettifoss Falls, located in Vatnajökull National Park in Northeast Iceland, and touted as the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It is 44 m high and about 100 m wide. There are two entrances to it – we took the West entrance but felt that the East one would have given us a better view (grass greener on the other side of the fence anyone? J). Another ten minutes walk south of there is another called Selfoss, 100 m high, and further north is Hafragilsfoss (27 m high). It is possible to reach the waterfalls from both sides of the glacial river Jokulsa. While spectacular, by this time we had already visited umpteen falls, each more unique than others in its characteristics, not counting the several large ones we encountered along the way. So this wasn’t all that impressive to us – also, considering the fact that we had to take a 45 minute detour to get to them, and then a 20 minute hike to them, the result seemed like it wasn’t worth it.

After visiting the falls, we started driving towards the town of Hofn, which is set in the southeast corner of Iceland. The complete drive is laced with stunning highlands on the coastline consisting of deep fjords with high mountains on either side. Straight driving time is about four hours, but we stopped at so many places on the way, it took us about seven. The highlight was the Town of Lon, which is famous for bird watching since it has so many nesting grounds in the area… all different kinds – egrets, arctic terns, ducks, swans, et.al.

Remember that the addresses in Iceland are not very well laid out and since the population is so thin, signboards are not aplenty! It took us a while for us to find our cottage (Lambhus Inn) what was literally set in a cowshed like area – saving grace being that it was bang at the foot of the glacier, visible from our window. We drove back eastwards to the seaside town of Hofn for dinner – had it not been freezing outside, we would have enjoyed the walk there as much as we enjoyed the local food, that consisted of the uber-delicious langoustines (Icelandic shrimps/lobsters) prepared in several interesting ways.

Day 6 – Vatnajokull Glaciers (South Iceland)

Vatnajokull glacier is a part of Europe’s largest national park, established in 2004. The massive power of the glacier reveals itself where glacial “tongues” slide south at several spots into the mainland. Since it was only 40 minutes west of our cottage, we reached there around 9 AM to make the best of the day! South of the glacial border, trapped between the glacier and the sea is the glacial lagoon Jokulsarlon. In fact that was our first stop, 30 minutes west of our cottage. The imposing glacier right in front of our eyes, massive chunks of ice boulders floating in the lake formed by the melting glacier, a river being formed by the melting icebergs and then flowing into the Atlantic Ocean across the road was a magnificent sight and a highlight of the trip!! We chose the amphibian boat tour (the other catamaran tour takes you closer to the glaciers and has fewer people on it) and it was a blast! Floating amongst the icebergs, some of them hundreds of years old in the blue water lake, face-to-face with the massive glacier was a visual treat for us, never experienced earlier.

Most of our early afternoon was spent at our next stop another 30 minutes west of Jokulsarlon, the Skaftafell National Park, which includes the national reserve with the prettiest and highest growing birch in that area. The magnificent waterfall Svartifoss in the nation park falls down a wall of black hexagonal basalt columns…the hour-long trek up the hill to see the falls was full of beautiful shrubs and other flora and fauna. After the trek we even found time to go on an hour-long nature trail that brought us up-close and personal to the glacier, giving us time to walk on it! On the way back, we, of course, saw another waterfall, the Skorgafoss that was right off the highway and didn’t need any kind of hike to get to it. We stopped at several other glaciers and saw the icebergs forming rivers at Skaftafellsjokull, Svinafellsjokull, Falljokull and Fjallsjokull. If you haven’t figured out yet, “jokull” in Icelandic means “glacier” and “foss” means “falls” – Icelandic 101 for you!

Day 7 – En-Route to Reykjavik

The trip was now coming to an end … with a heavy heart we left our last scenic spot in the Jokulsarlon area and set off westwards, back to Reykjavik. It is amazing how Iceland forms a land of contrasts – as the glacier area tapered away, we were once again back in the lush greenery of the rolling hills covered with sheep and Icelandic horses, very quickly giving way to lava formations and various mountain ranges as we approached the Eyjafjallajökull volcano area – the famous (infamous?) volcano that had spewed out ashes and lava as recently as 2010 affecting all air traffic in Europe and around. We stopped at the visitor center along the way and saw the 30 minute film on the eruption which was quite informative!

Halfway along the trip, at the southernmost tip of Iceland is the awesomely beautiful town of Vik .. wish we had a chance to stay here. It was buzzing with charm and character. We walked around for a little bit and set off to the scenic spot of Dyrholaey – a peninsula just 20 minutes from Vik. This is supposed to be the largest colony of puffins in Iceland. We had been trying to catch a glimpse of these cute little birds throughout our trip and this was our last chance! We drove up the rocky terrain, an easy 10 minute drive and tried several vantage points to see across the water body onto the rocks where these birds nest! This itself was worth the trip because the scenery around there, the lone rock in the middle of ocean with it’s cave like look, waves crashing on the shores against the black lave rocks, all kinds of birds all over the place – it was an absolute delight! And finally! After taking a short walk up one of the rocks, we were able to find the nesting area of some puffins – a visual delight to see them taking off, landing with food in their beaks and then hiding behind the rocks, feeding their little ones presumably!

After seeing the gorgeous scenery all over Iceland, Reykjavík seemed a little run-of-the-mill, so we just roamed around the city, did some shopping (very expensive!!) and then took the flight back home early next morning!

Do’s and don’ts:

  1. There aren’t too many signs on the roads and the names are pretty un-pronounceable and therefore unreadable. Even though we had good maps, a GPS would have greatly helped.
  2. While Icelandic Food is certainly worth trying, all kinds of other food is available, especially in bigger cities – quite expensive though! Try the SKYR for sure (Icelandic Yogurt – healthy, delicious and omnipresent!)
  3. Most people take the country tour Counter-clockwise, Reykjavik to Vik to Hofn and so on…we did it clockwise and enjoyed it as much!
  4. Even though Blue Lagoon was an awesome experience, there are several Geothermal swimming pools all around the city with entry of $5 per person as opposed to $50+ at Blue Lagoon.
  5. Since it’s the land of the Midnight Sun – make sure you keep eye covers handy for the night when the sunlight is still pretty strong.
  6. Don’t ask an Icelandian for a water fountain location – Icelandic people are VERY proud of their water (and rightly so!) and seemed offended when we didn’t drink it straight from the faucet!
  7. If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait 5 minutes – it will change! J
  8. While most of Highway-1 (Ring Road around the country) is paved and highway like, there are portions that are not. Drive carefully! There are several side roads leading to major attractions that are completely unpaved – in fact, rental cars are not even allowed on what are called the F-roads that lead to several natural attractions!
  9. There are usually no barricades around falls and craters, unlike the US – so be careful while walking around them or getting too close to the falls.

Our 5 Favorite Spots: (This was a tough one for us – everything is so good there!!)

  1. Glacier Lagoon – Flipping of the glaciers (Underwater dense blue portion of the glaciers comes out and the white portion sinks in)
  2. Geothermal activity – we encountered this at several places in iceland
  3. The Greenery, waterfalls, gurgling rivers, sheep galore and majestic Icelandic horses
  4. Small towns of Vik and Husavik – the ultimate in charm
  5. Blue Lagoon – a unique therapeutic experience

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