Jillian & Bob

European adventures 2017

Icelandic Idyll

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27/28 September – Took off from LA mid-morning on-time on Alaska Airlines to Seattle with a change there and on to an Iceland Air flight to Keflavik, the international airport on the island.  12 hours later we were on the ground in a rather cold, wet and miserable looking Iceland – time change meant that we arrived at 6.30am having only had a couple of hours sleep.  Our poor old bodies thought it was bed time, so neither of us were all that bright.  Both flights were quite full with limited seating space, so not all that pleasant; the longer Iceland Air flight also made you pay for food or entertainment if you wanted it.

Entry into Iceland was easy – no queues so we were out very quickly.  Picked up our little Renault Clio rental and headed into Keflavik town for breakfast while we waited for our room to be available.  Found a nice little bakery in town with good coffee and run by a Columbian family.  Have decided that Iceland has a real thing about roundabouts – we have come across more in our first few hours than the whole of the USA.   A short visit to the local Viking museum filled in another hour and then we could hit the B&B and take a very welcome nap.
A few hours later, suitably refreshed, decided to go out and explore, taking a circular drive around the peninsula from Keflavik.  First impressions of this area – a lot of lava and very barren.  The lava flows range from bare black rocks through to mossy covered lava and then slightly more fertile areas with tundra like grass.  Down to the coast at Grindavik and back up via the Blue Lagoon.  Didn’t go in for a swim as you had to have a prior booking, but we could see the brilliant blue starkly contrasting with the black lava.  Back in town we found a small cafe for dinner before crashing out for an early night.
29 September – Body clocks not adjusted yet so it was wide awake time at 5am.  Breakfast was a mix of Scandinavian/European with cereals and fruit, as well as all manner of cold meats and cheeses – a nice start to the day.  Sorted out flights and trains by internet for the Scandinavian stage of our journey before checking out and starting on the first leg of our island adventure.  Fortunately, the rain had cleared for the most part and we could actually see the landscape around us – still quite chilly though.  Headed down a small road to the south coast, lava fields giving way to more fertile land which even had small shrubs and heather like plants growing.  The coast is very rugged.

Inland to join their major road (the only one!) Highway 1 to Selfoss for lunch in a nice little cafe.  From Selfoss on towards Vik, came into farmland with sheep, the odd cow and quite a lot of Icelandic horses.  These look rather like ponies but are larger than the Shetland variety and are true horses although very stocky, and come in all manner of colours.  Iconic little white farmhouses with red roofs dot the landscape. In places towering black cliffs loom above the green fields.  Waterfalls made up a lot of the special scenic stops on this route – the Western US could certainly do with some of the abundance of water we see here.

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Our Nordic GPS found our accommodation very easily – a sheep farm with two blocks of rooms.  Very nicely fitted out with a shared kitchen, lounges and bathrooms for the eight rooms in our block.  Super clean with nice fast wi-fi to boot.  We had a hiccup with our debit/credit card whilst in Selfoss – first the cafe and then the ATM at the bank would not work.  The B&B owner kindly let us use his phone to ring the USA so see what was wrong.  Turns out the bank’s fraud dept had stopped the card because I had tried to pay online from outside of the USA this morning when booking flights, even though we had told them exactly where we were going.  They reversed the stop straight away and all is now working again.  A real nuisance – we couldn’t even make a collect call as in Iceland they are so up with technology that there is no international operator any longer to arrange it.
Decided to flag going out for a meal, settling for cheese (back to real cheese again, yeah!!) crackers and fruit which we had fortuitously picked up from the supermarket yesterday.
30 September – Body clocks almost back to normal – pretty murky start to the morning.  Scandinavian breakfast with plenty to eat in the dining room before setting off.  Quite surprised how many young Asian people are travelling here independently.  With 290 kms to go to our next night’s stop at Hofn, we set off soon after breakfast.  First up was a detour down to the coast at Dyrholaey and a cliff viewing point – wind was a challenge once out of the car and the waves were really kicking up a frenzy.  What a treacherous bit of coastline; there were the remains of a rocket launch site to a nearby island and a large winch which must have been used in the past for recovering boats.  Back up to the main road and on-wards, which revealed a huge variety of scenery today.

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To start with we had quite a bit of farmland – cows, sheep and horses, with hay bales stocked up in preparation for winter evident everywhere.  Halfway through our journey we saw glimpses of the first of what was to be many glaciers coming down the valleys.  There were only a few settlements along the way so it was a challenge to find places to eat – morning tea and lunch were in restaurants of sorts attached to service stations.  A lot more lava fields in various states of regeneration of vegetation along this part of the trip.

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The roads are built up about 15ft above the fields right through these areas.   The afternoon run continued for about 60kms with huge cliffs one side and flat black ‘sands’ stretching for several km’s out to the sea.  These sands are from the retreating Vatnajokull ice-field on top of the huge mountain.  The start of the National Park (which is said to contain the Europe’s largest ice cap outside of the Arctic) had us crossing this vast volcanic sand area laced with hundreds of rivers coming down off the mountains.

We stopped off at one area devastated earlier following an eruption in 1996 which started off a huge flood from a glacier – in just over 15 hours vast ice laden flood waters took out bridges and the main road isolating the region.  The power of the water had twisted the steel bridge beams like they were made of rubber.  Once through the sands, the mountains came closer to the road with glaciers around every bend.

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The most spectacular had to be the glacial lagoon – a 20 sq km lake at the foot of a glacier, full of ice calved off the front of the glacier.  The colours were quite amazing – bright blues, black from the basalt and brilliant white.  The wind off the glacier was unbelievable – standing up was a challenge and the cold was biting, but despite this the clouds and gloom from the morning had blown away leaving nice clear skies.

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We didn’t have too far go from there – our stay for this night was another B&B lodge just a few km’s from the town of Hofn.  Another spotless place – Scandinavian in design and very pricey but it was the only available place I could find when booking this trip a few months back.  We popped into the town to pick up a few supermarket items and I also needed a battery charger for my camera (had to leave the one I had in the US behind with Wanda’s new owners as it was not rated for the 220v here) – nearly fell through the floor with the price, but it was that or no photos so had to bite the bullet.
01 October – Body clocks have gone haywire – we nearly missed out on breakfast after sleeping so late!  With breakfast out of the way it was a battle to go the short distance to the car, the wind was so strong – move over Wellington, you are nothing compared to the winds here!  Another drive of greatly contrasting scenery – started off in the rain and murk following the coastline with huge cliffs on the land side and water on our right.  Great roads – nicely sealed and although not super wide, were quite OK for our small car.  On the other hand Wanda would have really struggled, especially with the high winds!  Followed the coastal road (which also had the odd farm) for most of the morning before crossing over countless rivers and through some very marshy areas.

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Stopped off for morning tea at Djtipivogur – a little fishing village.   The rain had fizzled out but we were still left with a bit of wind.  Next up was a lovely drive up the first of our fjords, Benifjordur – I suppose we followed it up about 10 kms until we crossed over and came back down the other side.  Nice farming area – again mostly sheep.  Back on to the coast and at Breiodalsvik stopped for lunch – not many places to choose from, so settled for the only one open and managed to get soup of the day – a nice hearty dish on a cool day.  We had a choice when leaving to go over the top to Egilsstadir or via the coast – not looking at the right map we decided that the coastal road might be unsealed and looked a lot longer, so opted for the over-the-top version.  It turned out to be about 50km of gravel, but a good road and speeds didn’t have to go much less than 80kmh.  It was a spectacular drive though, first up this blind valley and at the top we were surrounded by high cliffs – it didn’t look like there was any way out of there, but the road led us up the side and over the summit.

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The colours coming up the valley were gorgeous – autumn is well on it’s way and the heath and shrubs were all turning, so it was vibrant reds, yellows and oranges.  The view back down the valley from the top of the pass was also stunning – but getting out of the car was a mission as the wind was terrific.  I didn’t feel it very much when driving but once we had stopped that was another thing.  Coming down the pass the other side was equally pretty and it opened out into a fertile valley before hitting the top of Lake Lagarfljot and into Egilsstadir for our next little guesthouse.  This one was quite cute – again shared bathrooms but very clean, with communal kitchen.  On arrival the owner told us that the coastal road option was all sealed, would have taken about the same time and was the recommended route!
Took a nice little walk up the road to the local ‘forest’ – a pretty track alongside a small river and in among the birch trees.  Dinner was chez-nous again: after a big lunch we were happy to settle for fruit and cheese.

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02 October – The wind had dropped right off and it was a cool start to the morning.  Today was a day of contrasts – from Egilsstadir we climbed up to the moors and lo and behold it had been snowing and was still lightly sprinkling as we drove through.  Made a short 100km detour down to Vopnafjord for morning tea.

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En route were some historic turf houses to look at – warm probably, but rather basic and dusty (we are now into winter schedules for tourist things so we couldn’t go inside).

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Back up the valley and continued over the moors before coming into the volcano areas – wow! what a difference – the flat barren moors gave way to craggy peaks everywhere and areas of geothermal activity.  Stopped at one area where you could walk around the fumaroles which were really hissing away with the pressure from below.

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Another stop at Godafoss to watch crazies kayaking over a turbulent waterfall.  With temperatures today from -1C to a high of 5C it was certainly a bit of a change from the near 40’s only a week ago.

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Went around the south end of Lake Myvatn which has little volcano formations poking up in the middle of the lake.  Our final destination was near Akureyri and a rather expensive hotel on the outskirts of the town, but with gorgeous views overlooking the fjord and the mountains beyond.  Can’t believe the prices one has to pay here – this hotel was nearly NZ$200 per night and was like something out of the 1960’s – clean but very outdated.  While watching the local news, found out that one of the volcanoes under the icecap had caused a huge glacial melt and flood-waters were threatening highway #1 where we stopped a couple of days ago to photograph the twisted bridge remains.
03 October – Beautiful clear start to our day – the views from the hotel over the fjord to the snow capped mountains on the other side were just lovely.  A short drive from the hotel took us through Akureyri – this is the largest town (pop. 17,000) in the northern part of Iceland. Today’s plan was to drive the coastal route which we thought would take us in and out of several fjords – turns out that the road now goes in tunnels right under the mountains and bypasses the coast altogether.

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Not to worry, we got to go through some engineering wonders – the first a single lane tunnel 3km long – the traffic is not stopped at either end – the west to east traffic has priority.  Good thing there are passing bays every few hundred metres!  I followed a big truck through figuring that everything would get out of its way.  There was only one other car coming the other way so it wasn’t a problem.  Next tunnel was 7km and two way with the final one 3km again and single lane.  We are just amazed that a country of only 340,000 people can afford to build such great roads and even put through tunnels when far ‘greater’ countries can’t even fix their potholes.  As we were off the beaten track a bit today, didn’t see very many other cars let alone tourists, which was pleasant.

Again it is a long time between settlements so it was nearly mid-day before we found our morning tea stop at a charming town, with colourful houses and spectacular scenery all around.  We visited the local bakery/coffee house which was jam-packed with locals and had a very pleasant morning tea stop.  All the locals were wrapped up in hats, coats and scarfs – I didn’t think it was that cold and that is coming recently from temperatures well into the 30’s.  It was about 7C although the wind was quite chill.

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Turns out that the snow had been laid on just for us, as this was the first snowfall of the year.  We finally got to go around some of the coast from here – so pretty and quite rugged but the west side sea was a lot calmer than the east.  The colours on the stark hills reflected the fact that autumn is well on it’s way here – small ground hugging plants turning red stand out brilliantly against the dark rocks.  The last part of our journey into Blonduos was through the moors going up to about 1700ft before descending down into another fjord and it’s small fishing village.

En route we noticed a ‘vintage vehicle museum’ so rocked on up to the farmhouse and barn to find that they had already closed for the season but kindly let us in anyway.  The cars had all been put away for the winter so were jam-packed inside and you had to fight your way around to look at them.  An interesting mix of mainly 1950’s onwards vehicles – many East European and Russian makes, but also some English or German and a few Yank tanks plus tractors and even a real SnowCat!  Anyway it was an interesting find in the middle of nowhere.

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Our stay for the night was in a beautifully restored old schoolhouse – transformed into a three roomed guesthouse with lounge, shared bathroom and immaculate kitchen area.  We were sharing with just one English speaking couple from Taiwan.  Were fortunate that the only restaurant in town was just a quick walk down the road and still open (many places are closed for the off-season already) and enjoyed our first home-cooked dinner which made a change from cheese and biscuits!  A good thing that this guesthouse was much more reasonably priced (comparatively) than the previous night.
04 October – Had a nice chat with our co-visitors from Taiwan before we set off from Blonduos for more southern climes.  Grotty day with low cloud and rain didn’t make for a very interesting trip.  We journeyed via a few more fjords and moors but with not too much visibility.  Managed to find a nice cafe for our lunch at Bordeyn, a small fishing village (pop. 250), before taking the road to Borgarnes with a little detour up to some interesting waterfalls.  It was a very quick trot to the lookout and back to the car in the pouring rain – but these falls were different.  The water was coming out of the lava walls into the river below.

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Made Borgarnes in the late afternoon and found our guesthouse for the night.  Another little charmer – this one right on the water’s edge with views out over the harbour to the old part of town.  Cold and windy, so nice to stay put in the warm and relax.  Just two rooms in this guesthouse and we are sharing with a young couple from Germany.  We have a hot tub plus communal lounge and kitchen area, which is all very nicely appointed.
05 October – After a nice leisurely breakfast with our housemates we drove on into downtown Borgarnes to have a look at the old town and visit the Settlers Museum.  That was an interesting insight into how Iceland was settled by the early Vikings and how the current inhabitants can trace their lineage back to these first migrants.  Iceland has a different way of naming their children – sons are given a first name but the last name is always the father’s first name (ie. Erick) followed by “son” – eg. Knud Erickson, daughters are called Erick’s daughter, ie. Maria Ericksdottir.  If a family wants to diverge from this standard they have to go before a board to get the name approved.  In cases where there is a single mother (Anna) then it is sometimes acceptable for the children to be named eg. Knud Annason or Maria Annasdottir.  There is also an app that is used when people start dating to check that they don’t share a close lineage – so if the joint ancestor is more than 7 generations back it is OK to date, but any closer it is not considered advisable.
The rain had kicked in again as we set off for our next destination but we had an interesting drive over more fells and into fjords.  Our map showed that we had to cross over the middle of a fjord and we thought it would be a ferry but it turned out to be an underwater tunnel – 7.5km which went quite steeply down to the bed of the fjord and level for a few km’s before climbing back up and all this for 1,000kr toll (about USD8).

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A few km’s before hitting Reykjavik we turned inland again – the autumn colours were striking as we climbed over the moors and stopped at Þingvellir National Park – a place of special significance as this was where the original parliament sessions were held, starting over 1,000 years ago.  The gatherings were held out in the open and the law maker would stand high up on an elevated ridge and read out the current laws to the assembled as there was no written records back then – everything was oral.  The rain held off enough for us to walk around.  The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks which traverse this region, we could walk in one of these cracks which was about 50m apart. Þingvellir is situated on the northern shore of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake of Iceland. The river Oxara traverses the national park and forms a waterfall at the Almannagjá, called Oxarafoss.

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Back on the road with the rain starting up again as we headed to Geysir to view another thermal area, then to Reykholt and another little guesthouse for the night.  A few more rooms than our previous night and quite full, with guests from Germany and the US.  There was a nice little cafe over the road which did us nicely for dinner.
06 October – Last day for sightseeing but again started off wet and miserable.  Headed back to Highway 1 near Selfoss and turned towards Reykjavik. The little Renault has heated seats which have been so welcoming on these really cold days! First stop was a visit to a horse farm for a short show followed by a tour of the barns where we could get up close and personal with the very calm horses.   The Icelandic horse is said to be the most pure breed of horse left in the world – very lovely nature and every colour type except Appaloosa.  They are small with a range 13.2 to 14.7 hands high.   Their winter coat is very thick and shaggy, some have gorgeous manes and tails.

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Once in Reykjavik, the older part of the town was of most interest to us, so we parked near the harbour and walked around for a while, stopping for morning tea at an old renovated house which was famous for having held an historic meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev – said to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

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Finished with Reykjavik and headed back the 50km towards Keflavik for our final night.  Took a little scenic drive around the small peninsula before checking in to the guesthouse.  A very bleak area with lava fields and not a lot growing, and the odd small settlement on the coast.
We were pleased that we had chosen to do the drive right around the island.  In the summertime you could easily spend 2-3 weeks exploring and enjoying local activities.  In the cooler autumn weather at least it gave us a nice glimpse of Icelandic life and the scenery was definitely different, with so many volcanoes and lava strewn valleys, remote roads over the moors and a rugged coastline.


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