Sunday, 22 August 2010

It's always better on holiday part II: Ísland

Well! This got long! Apologies, but I didn't want to forget anything!

After the inevitable and eternal train ride from Stansted, N and I arrived back in Oxford quite late on the Friday night and almost immediately went to bed. The next morning I got to introduce N to E and we enjoyed some delicious, delicious Manos before hitting the Museum of History of Science. Then I went to print our boarding passes for Iceland and sent N to check out the Pitt Rivers, completely forgetting to tell him that he needed to walk through the University Museum to get there... I feel a bit bad about that. He seems to have enjoyed the UMNH though.

After a somewhat fraught race across Oxford, we made it onto the bus with seconds to spare. Our ride to the airport ended with us observing the seemingly endless parade of 747s owned by British Airways that just... taxi round and round Heathrow. Our flight to Iceland was nice -- N had gotten us exit row seats -- and the Icelandair flight attendants were gorgeous as always.

We landed at Keflavik very late and staggered our way to the Flybus. I had a great sleep on the Flybus but was so exhausted that somewhere in this journey I left behind my hiking boots. I still have not found them and am very, very sad about it -- I haven't felt this sad about losing something since my bike was stolen in 2005. I haven't lost something this valuable to me since that bike either, so it makes sense.

We arrived at our flat and were pleasantly surprised by it. For 200 euros for seven days, we got a great deal. It was a bit tight, and the acoustics were a bit too good (Jim, downstairs and quite far away, yelled at us that he felt like we were in the same room), but otherwise it was lovely. We went to bed, feeling exhausted from constant travelling, and were awoken early the next morning by the delightfully long Icelandic summer morning.

For our first day, we enjoyed the sights of Reykjavik, N got his first taste of Skyr, and we walked across town to the beach at Nauthólsvik. This was a beach that I had wanted to visit on my first trip to Iceland -- it's heated by geothermal springs pouring out into the icy North Atlantic. We spent some time in the hot pool before trying out the spot in the ocean heated by geothermal water -- there are some mixing problems, naturally, with the cold water staying at the bottom but currents of hot spiralling above. So long as I swam, I wasn't cold, but if I put my feet down...

Next I decided that I wanted to swim in the actual, non-heated North Atlantic. I headed over to the beach next to the geothermal one and decided to swim out to a buoy. I was joined by N and J, who seemed to see getting into the water as some sort of sporting challenge -- I just enjoy cold water! Eventually we also convinced R to join us, but the others remained in the hot pool. To complete our time in the ocean, N grabbed my hand and we dunked our heads under water together. So refreshing! I missed Iceland so much!

N and I also did a bit of shopping and he bought us both adorable Icelandic hats. Hats were clearly the theme of the holiday. It also would not have been a complete Icelandic vacation without all of us spending some time agonizing over which 66 North gear to drop an absurd amount of kroner on, so we did that too. I got myself a nice red fleecey/sweater/jumper/zip up thing.

The next day, the others went horseback riding, so N and I explored the church, Hallgrimskirkja, that towers over Reykjavik's skyline. We were able to go to the top of the church and look out across the brightly coloured buildings of Reykjavik, and across the Flaxafloi towards Videy and brooding Mt Esja, which was covered in cloud for the duration of our trip.

Another thing that we saw in Reykjavik was the ninth largest personal yacht in the world -- Octopus -- owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. It has two helicopters and two submarines! Apparently it was docked in Reykjavik harbour because they were using it to look for a sunken ship. From the moment I saw it, I was consumed by a desire to tell Kanye West about it. Thanks to Twitter, I did.

On Tuesday afternoon, we all took a trip the island of Viðey, the largest of the many islands in the bay just north of Reykjavik. We purchased our tickets and then took an extremely small ferry across a short but choppy channel to the island. Viðey is essentially a low, flat, volcanic blip in the middle of the bay, covered in green grass, with the occasional rocky beach and wildflower outcropping. It reminded me strongly of Rottnest Island off the west coast of Australia near Fremantle, but only because it was a small island that I walked all the way around.

Our initial intention was to take one of the free bicycles around the island that we had read about in the guidebook. We walked away from the small cafe to a shed with a motley collection of bicycles outside of it. I selected one with a flat tire and spent a bit of time negotiating in broken Icelandic/broken English with several men inside the shed to get it aired up. Several of them came out to help, but unfortunately used a car pump. I kept tapping the rapidly airing tire and making encouraging, please-stop-now noises, and they kept tapping it and nodding, and then it exploded. Cue lots of Icelandic laughing and taking the piss of the guy running the pump. We decided against the bikes and set out of on foot around the island for an enjoyable walk.

That evening we met several of Tom's friends, and then N and I headed off in search of some dinner alone.

On Wednesday, we rented a car with the others for a little bit of the classic Americans Abroad + 3 Britons road trip. We were promised a car that would fit seven, but the car we received was a Toyota Corolla Verso, which actually fits five, and then has two seats in the trunk (boot). R and I crammed ourselves into the back for most of the trip, sitting on what was essentially the floor, with tiny holes to peek out of at either side and our knees twisted sideways. We travelled in this way to see the fantastic waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, which is where T and J got engaged a year ago. The waterfall is immense, pouring off what was once Iceland's coastline onto the flat, lava-made plain that now stretches for a few miles down to the sea. The force of the water hitting the pool below it makes a fantastic roar and it's possible to walk behind it -- so, donning our raincoats and covering our cameras, we did! Pictures all around!

On our way to the waterfall, we were greeted by the ethereal sight of the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) floating above the water in a jagged line, their bases obscured by cloud. This was one of the most beautiful things that we saw that day.

From the waterfall, we drove onward to Vik. Vik is a town along the southern coast, in the warmest and rainiest part of Iceland. Like every Icelandic town I've ever seen, it's a cheerful place, with neat, brightly coloured houses. We went there to meet a friend of T's, who kindly took in all seven of us and gave us a delicious lunch with fresh fruit, bread, and a homemade cake. After all of her kind hospitality and conversation, she also offered up a fresh sample of tephra from her back porch from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. T scooped some of it into my nalgene and we headed back up the coast from Vik. Meeting T's friend was one of the highlights of the trip for me!

Immediately around the curve of the hill to the west of Vik, we came to a black sand beach with some stacked basalt caves. A glacial river flows in huge meanders through the black sand to the sea and, north of the beach, the white tip of Myrsdalsjökull -- admittedly recently covered in ash, and so not too white just now -- looms over a massive glacial lagoon. We wandered around the beach and up onto the basalt stacks before piling back into the car.

Our next stop was Solheimajökull, one of the tongues of Myrsdalsjökull. Pictures from the year before taken by Tom and Jim show a blue and white glacier; this year what we saw was one covered almost entirely in black ash. Black piles of ice clustered around the river at the mouth of the glacier and there was only a thin sliver of blue ice -- from a recent crack -- visible anywhere. We walked to the base of the glacier and looked at it through brooding weather -- as when I hiked to Drangajökull, the glacier seemed to generate its own nasty weather, a spitting cold rain that turned to snow as we prepared to leave.

Our next stop was Skógafoss, "Forest Falls", a strange name for a waterfall with no trees in sight. This waterfall seems to tumble from an incredible height to smack into a wide, shallow pool. N and I walked as close to the edge as we dared and then scampered up the side of the hill beside it to overlook the top.

The final thing we saw on our road trip was Eyjafjallajökull, the most famous little volcano in the world as of late April 2010. We could not see the actual volcano itself, just the glacier, which was quite literally black with ash. Although Iceland seems to have done an excellent job of cleaning up from the tephra fall and ensuing jokulhlaup (glacial flood), there were signs everywhere during this day trip of the destruction caused by even this very small eruption. Imagine if Katla were to go off -- T's friend told us that Vik has an evacuation plan, but I don't want to think about the destruction that it would cause to this place...

On the Thursday, N and I took a Reykjavik city bus to the neighbouring town of Hveragerdi and walked from the bus station out of town to an extremely active geothermal area nearby. This area is part of the Hengill volcano, and is full of springs and fumaroles -- the Hengill volcano powers much of Reykjavik through the geothermal energy it produces. This area is popular for hiking and Icelandic horse riding tours because the hot springs feed into glacial rivers and create some great pools for outside swimming. N and I hiked past many of these things until we found the perfect pool. The weather was cloudy and the vast amounts of steam generated a very foggy effect. We decided to enjoy the hot spring sans bathing suits (costumes) and spent some incredibly relaxing time floating in the warm water. It was probably something like 38C (100F).

After a briefly fraught escape when an entire train of horse riders filed past just as N attempted to get out of the pool, we got our clothes back on and continued to hike. We had seen a spectacular series of warm waterfalls on our way there and after hiking around several hills, we decided to turn back and strike out without a trail to reach them. N led the way and I followed, slightly sad as I soaked my non-hiking-boot shoes (but actually quite pleased with their performance -- I'll take a good pair of sensible Merrells over good-looking shoes anyday). We came to several boiling spots of mud and water, and then had to ford a stream in order to get down to the waterfalls. I really really hate stepping on sharp, slippery rocks in streams and was quite averse to crossing, but N talked me through it and encouraged me and eventually I gave in and made it across. I was rewarded with a gorgeous view down the side of the waterfall, not to mention a warm hug. N also noted that the sheep we saw beside the waterfall were the first sheep he'd ever been close to, which I found quite funny -- he clearly needs to spend more time in the North Atlantic.

The Hengill area is full of contrasts, talus slopes of fragmented basalt towering above incredibly lush green valleys. The earth itself is shockingly orange where iron-rich mud bubbles out of the ground. Sulfurous clouds can be choking, but it's beautiful in its extremes. One of my favorite sights was coming around a corner into a brilliantly green valley with a steaming meander of a stream -- dew condensing on every blade of grass -- and seeing a tight circle of dark Icelandic horses placidly eating grass as they waited for their riders to stop bathing. While hiking we were confronted with the problem of wanting to carry on in every direction and explore new things, but next time I'd like to carry on along the route and hike all the way to Thingvellir, which I'm told you can do -- it's 30 miles, not too bad if we camped along the way...

For the Friday, our last full day in Iceland, N and I rented a car again and headed off to the northwest of the country. We drove first to Barnafoss and Hraunfoss, two spectacularly different waterfalls located to the west of the Kaldadalur route that I took with J and L last summer. From the waterfalls, several of Iceland's smaller glaciers are visible -- Ok, Eiriksjökull, and some of the outlets of Langjökull. Barnafoss has water flowing violently beneath a stone arch, while Hraunfoss is created by water welling up from rocks -- no water flows along the surface to get there -- and looks peaceful enough to lie under (though since we could actually see the glaciers that the water was coming from, it seems likely that it wouldn't be quite warm).

From there we took one of my favorite drives onto the Snaefellsjökull peninsula. The first time I came to Iceland, I went to this place and saw the volcano, Snaefells, that rises at the end of the peninsula like an exclamation point -- and I knew that I had to take N there. After all, one of our favorite Colorado mountains is named after this one (Mt Sneffels!). Unlike Hekla, depicted by religious medieval types as the entrance to hell, Snaefells played an important role in early science fiction -- this is where the adventurers in Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth set out into the core. But I'm getting ahead of myself -- first we had to drive down the coast, from Stykkisholmur to Grundarfjordur, where last summer I had a fantastic camping experience beneath several waterfalls, and then on to Olafsvik where we ate mushroom soup in a small cafeteria. The coast there, and especially the many islands in Hvammsfjordur and the incredible Alftafjordur, as well as the strange landscape of Berserkjahraun (berserker's lava), is some of my favorite in Iceland and can't really be described (but I'm going to try). There are towering mountains, their tips shrouded in mist, and the haunting conjunction of cold, clear, silver sea and rocky coast, with the occasional red-roofed Icelandic church or farm standing alone on the edge of it all. Waterfalls pour down every hillside.

We then rounded the tip of the peninsula and came to a series of beaches. The first was white sand, and the water was a beautiful icy blue. The second was black sand and located next to it was some archaeological remains of an old fishing village. At this point the weather, which had never been spectacular, really started to close in -- we could barely see the volcano and the cloud and fog that shrouded its glaciated top really moved down now. We headed to a third beach, and as we arrived, the rain started in earnest. We got out of the car and walked down onto the beach. It was covered entirely in basalt rounded by the sea into "lava tears". Rain -- sleet really -- was sliding horizontally across the landscape, obscuring our view out to sea. We walked across the beach to take shelter behind some black basalt stacks and watched a crowd of evil Arctic terns (kria in Iceland) darting and diving into the crashing waves, trying to catch fish. Deciding that it was, on paper, the least romantic beach on earth, we turned back to the car and continued our drive along the southern edge of the peninsula. We turned briefly up the road that crosses the mountainous spine of the peninsula (54, I believe) but turned back due to fog and drove on to Reykjavik. As we drove through the tunnel from Akranes back to Reykjavik, I got progressively sadder and more introspective -- I didn't want to leave Iceland, or N, behind! Luckily Icelandic pop radio kept up a steady stream of the theme song of the vacation -- "California Gurls" by Katy Perry -- to annoy me out of the mood.

On Saturday, N and I returned our rental car and found ourselves unexpectedly stranded at the rental agency with very little time to catch our bus. We managed to get a taxi to BSI, Reykjavik's main bus terminal, and from there went on to the Blue Lagoon, our final stop in Iceland before Keflavik airport.

There's not too much to say about the Blue Lagoon -- it's not my favourite tourist attraction, especially given its price, but it certainly is a nice way to relax for a bit. I enjoyed a delicious strawberry skyr shake from the floating bar, too! Unfortunately I am now 2/2 for being at the Blue Lagoon on a warm, sunny day, when the blue-white water reflects enough to almost blind me -- I'm sure it's better in the winter, or in cloudy, cold weather. After that we went to Keflavik, where N and I attempted to locate my hiking boots, failed, ate a final skyr, shopped duty free (N bought an adorable bottle of Brennivin wrapped in a knitted jacket!), and then said some very sad -- but also promising of more fun times in the future -- goodbyes. N headed to his flight to New York and I headed on to my flight to London.

Just listing things that I did in Iceland doesn't really sum up my second trip to this gorgeous place. I also got to revisit things that I loved -- Icelandic food and drink, outdoor pools, the incredible landscape, the kind people... my second visit only taught me that I want to keep working on learning the language (albeit much more slowly than my housemate T), and that I can't wait to go back for more visits! I wouldn't mind visiting Iceland every year for the rest of my life (so long as I could go other places too) and I hope to continue the trend into 2011.


  1. Great post! Mayhap I'll have to visit Iceland myself some time soon, see what all the fuss is about :)