Iceland is already feeling like a blur after only one day removed from our six days of travel on the island. Sarah put out the reminder (mandate) yesterday that both Max and I owed her a post already. I’ve been giving a bit of thought over the past week on what perspective I’d like to provide through these blog posts. I’ve decided to make sure to cover the angle(s) that Sarah and Max won’t cover, some of the logistical stuff, and some work/personal/cultural observations. It’s probably worth noting that I don’t much enjoy writing. It’s definitely not one of my strong suites and my natural default is bullet point lists in my normal course of life. I’ll give it a go, but gotta believe I’ll change course several times on this writing thing several times over before we are done traveling.
The diversity, scope and immensity of what I saw in Iceland blew me away…..especially given it was all just on one Island. That stated, aside from the amazing vast fields of moss-covered rocks that spanned for miles and the geothermal power plants, I’ve had the fortune to have seen all of the following before across the U.S:
– Waterfalls (but…we did see literally hundreds of them in Iceland)
– Glaciers and glacial lakes
– Natural Hot Springs
– Rugged high plains
– Northern Lights
– Pristine creeks, rivers, and lakes
I’m guessing we may run into the same wonders all packed into an island when we get to New Zealand, but the condensed diversity of interesting and amazing things to look at while driving was non-stop in Iceland.
We landed in Reykjavik on September 2 at around 7 a.m. and were greeted by a younger Icelandic dude who was there to pick us up to take us to the rental car store about 5 minutes away. We picked up our little 4-door Renault “208” and were on our way. My first car, which I purchased at age 14 for $300, was a Plymouth Horizon. Sometime after turning 16 on a return trip from skiing in Michigan with my father, the transmission dropped out of the thing. We limped it into a one stoplight town in the middle of Michigan that night, found a hotel, and the following a.m. decided to find another car on the spot from the only car dealer in that town. There were very few cars in my price range and the choices were whittled down to either a brand new Yugo (yep, it was right about the time those cars had hit the U.S. and one could be purchased for $4,000 new) or a slightly used Renault Fuego. In hindsight, I now realize it was the lesser of two very bad evils. At the same time I was delighted to have the perceived notion of an upgrade from the Plymouth Horizon. I went with the Fuego and for the next couple of years had car payments and problem after problem with that car. Literally, something broke on it or fell off of it every week. Thankful that my loving dad accepted the title (and remaining payments) from me when I left for college and took the car off of my hands.
That was the last time I drove a Renault. Given the heavy damage waiver sales pitch we received from the car rental salesman and his descriptions of all of the catastrophes-in-waiting that lie out just outside the rental car office, I was increasingly doubtful that driving this little 4-cylinder over 1,000 kilometers in Iceland would be a better experience. We were immediately off in search of a grocery store to purchase some road snacks as we understood restaurants were expensive and all costs went up significantly the further out from Reykjavik one traveled. The drive from the international airport to Reykjavik is over 40 kilometers and we stopped at no less than five establishments that didn’t open until 10. This seemed incredibly odd as there definitely was a “rush hour” feel to the roads as we neared the city. People were up, but apparently the Icelandic people are wicked good at planning and have already secured any provisions for the early part of the next day the evening prior. We bypassed the downtown section of Reykjavik – knowing we were going to spend a chunk of the last day there – and headed Northeast to drive the “Golden Circle” loop. In the last suburban town outside of Reykjavik in that direction, we found a bakery and grocery store that were open. Had a little breakfast and purchased some road snacks.
The Golden Circle is an approximate 200 kilometer loop near Reykjavik that hits several of the natural wonders/items listed in my list above. In a sense…a mini-highlight tour for people staying in Reykjavik or European/North American travelers who chose to do a one day stay over in Iceland in order to say they saw more of the Island than just the airport. Personally, I don’t know if it would be worth it for one day. Between the drive to/from the airport, the loop drive, and hotel costs in Reykjavik, it could modestly set one back at least $500-$700 for the day and only get a slight, distorted taste of the country. I’m still running the totals for us (NOTE: One of my goals/tasks for this trip is to track all of our cost for the trip and report that back out in a later post as SO many people had questions about this prior to our departure) on our total costs, but we spent roughly $2,900 for Iceland for the 3 of us…..$2,000 if you take out the flight costs to get there. In six days, I think we were able to capture the essence of the Island, but still only a sampling of it. To really get Iceland, I think one would need to drive many, many more of the less-traveled side roads, experience the seasons, and try to go deep with the people who were born and raised there. People in the Northern U.S. states and Canada are resilient and rugged. I get the sense that the people of Iceland are that….plus some. On the Golden Circle drive loop, we checked out:
– Pingvellir National Park (huge land rift; interesting rock formations; place where vikings would meet once in a while, make laws, pretend they were making a difference….like D.C. or the UN, but with at least something to look at). It felt like visiting one of the more popular National Parks in the U.S. with all of the tourists – think Old Faithful at Yellowstone in July kind of crowds….and we were supposedly here at the beginning of the off season. Sarah and I hiked 3-4 km there while Max slept in the car.
– Gullfoss Waterfall (decent sized waterfall). Crapload of tourists. Check out a picture of it online and it would suffice, especially if one was planning to drive more of the Island than the Golden Circle loop. Sarah and I walked only about a kilometer there and back to the care as we didn’t have the energy to deal with the hoards of people. Max slept and was bummed we didn’t wake him for the waterfall. We tried to explain he didn’t miss much. He didn’t.
– Efstidalur Farm (Cow Farm – with local Ice cream, cheese, beef). Pretty cool place with a glass panel separating the cows in the barn from the ice cream shop. We looked at the cows watch us eating something that came out of them. Not too touristy, but there were a few people. We had some good ice cream.
– Geyser. The beauty of this place is that it literally is right off the road and there are several speed bumps in that area to guard the masses of tourists. The speed bumps force traffic to slow enough that you can look over – even while driving – and see the geysers and mud pools without actually having to stop and navigate the throngs of people. Of all the places, this one felt like Disneyland with tons of giftshops and stores on the other side of the road. I saw some people smiling.
– Fridheimer Tomato Greenhouse. Big tomato greenhouses and farm with a restaurant. Not a huge tomato fan, but it was nice and interesting to see the lengths folks need to go through here to produce food locally. I’m definitely a value food consumer and struggle with (refuse to go to) restaurants that have tapas-sized entrees for a fortune. They had a tomato soup buffet with some good assorted breads. Given the cost of food in Iceland, I think I was able to get a good value for what I consumed….even if it was tomatoes.
We were all pretty spent and it was nearing 5 p.m. We headed to the guesthouse near Hveragerdi/Selfoss, located East of Reykjavik about a hour or so. From this point forward, we would essentially be traveling counter-clockwise around the Island from there on the loop road (Hwy 1).
The next morning (Sept. 3) I slept in past sun-up. That phenomenon occurs about 3-4 times a year for me. Still groggy, I wanted (needed) to get out on a run. One of the best things about Iceland is that while the roads are narrow and provide virtually no shoulder, almost every paved road has a walk/tractor/atv/horse type of path running adjacent to it made from crushed stone/lava. Ran out two miles and returned. About a mile into the run, two farm dogs joined me and ran the remaining “out” distance with me. One was wearing a head cone and was often running too close to me, which my foot would kick every so often giving the canine repeated whiplash. We ate some of our road provisions and headed out on Highway 1 to the East.
The road between there and Hofn was stunning with dozens of worthy stops. If I only had one day to spend in Iceland, I would definitely recommend the drive along the southern coast instead of the Golden Loop drive. Even though one would need to retrace their steps back to Reykjavik, the stunning views would provide a different perspective heading back and be well worth it. We stopped at several cool waterfalls, hiked to a glacier, checked out the glacier lagoon, walked a smooth black rock beach with some great formations, and passed time at a cliff overlook to the ocean. We also checked out a seemingly remote hot springs pool. Off the main road 5 kilometers, followed by another few kilometers of rough gravel road, and then a 10 minute hike. No sooner did we park the car and a tour bus pulled in behind us. Quaint hot springs turned pool party. We did the hike, but weren’t too excited about the masses. Ate lunch in Vik. Max and I had some good veggie burgers, Sarah had an interesting and tasty pizza. We didn’t get to Hofn until early evening. Checked out a couple of restaurants. Expensive, heavy on meat options, and we weren’t that hungry. Had some more of our road food for evening snacks and hit the sack.
September 4 was a long road day to Akureyri in the North of Iceland. Headed along the coast for awhile before cutting through part of the Northeastern section of Iceland. It definitely began to feel less touristy in this part of the country and quite a bit more rugged. A decent portion of this 500 km leg was on gravel road. I definitely felt like I was pushing the little 4-cylinder Renault.…waiting to see some part of the car bouncing off in the rear view mirror. The engine handled the fairly big mountain climbs well enough, but it was a fine balance between pushing the speed and dealing with the continual road ruts. This trip around the island was/is absolutely doable in a smaller car, but something a little higher road clearance and slightly better suspension would have been nice at times. I don’t think a four-wheel vehicle is needed for the ring road…unless there is snow/ice on the road. This drive, while a bit nerve-wracking as the driver, was pretty amazing in its own way. There is a section as one heads in from the coast up between to mountains into a valley and then up a steep switchback road onto a barren, rock/boulder strewn plain.While the Iceland coast isn’t lush, one definitely sees how dry it can be up on this plain.We spent about an hour driving the elevated plain heading toward Lake Myvatn and Akureyri.
The first turn off was to the Dettifoss Waterfall. It was 30 kilometers of dusty, crappy gravel road. Of the entire trip, I thought this was the one section where we might really lose a chunk of the car. Dettifoss was pretty incredible. Not only did it push a lot of water and felt very powerful (supposedly one of the highest volume waterfalls in Europe), but the fact of its presence in such a barren landscape was impressive. Once there, I realized had we crossed over a bridge and headed down the main road a bit further prior to taking our turnoff, we would have found a smoother, paved road to the other side of the waterfall. That stated, our side of the waterfall was not touristy (far fewer people and saw buses on the other side), was unregulated (one could walk right up to the edge anywhere), and seemed to provide better views. Drove back on the crappy road to the main road and continued onto the Krafla Volcano/lava flows, Krafla thermal power plant, and Sulfur mud pots. Had a late lunch at Daddi’s Pizza near Lake Myvatn and continued to our guest house in Akureyri.
The guest house in Akureyri was previously an retirement facility of some sort. Wide doors, accessible bathrooms, and a nice gathering room overlooking the huge bay. It had about 4 1/2 miles of horse trails on its site, which made for great runs the mornings of both September 5th and 6th. We lingered and took an easy on the 5th, not heading into Akureyri until after noon. Checked out their botanical garden of plants that will grow in this northern environment, had lunch downtown, and then spent the latter part of the afternoon at an aviation museum. Akureyri is home to the predecessor of Icelandair. We were the only visitors and received very detailed and great info/stories from the volunteers there.
Headed out in the a.m. on the 6th for another pretty long drive to Hellissandur on one of the Western peninsulas of Iceland. There were some pretty long stretches of gravel road as we traveled off of Ring Road One to get out on the peninsula. No formal touristy types of stops, but we pulled over a few times to check out vistas and waterfalls along the way. Hotel in Hellissandur was a bit weird. No staff or reception, but required key codes for main door and each hotel door. Figured that out and Sarah and I went on a walk around the little fishing village. No restaurants were there, so we went back to another town we had passed through previously (10 km) for dinner and then back to the hotel. I was able to get out on the run the following a.m. that allowed me to run to the next fishing town of Rif (only about 2 miles away) via a path.
The last full day took us from the peninsula back to Reykjavik. We spent the afternoon walking around Reykjavik before heading to the hotel out by the airport. Our flight was early the next morning or else we would have stayed in the city itself. Reykjavik was cool and could see spending another day there walking the streets and visiting a few more of the museums. There is a lot of development going on there. Several cranes, construction, and sprawl. Through most of Iceland’s history, the population never exceeded 50,000 people, only hit 100,000 in the 1920’s and now sits at about 325,000. There certainly felt to be a high quality of life to the city of Reykjavik (the whole country really, but could see more immigration to the city vs. rural areas). Given this, I could see the city struggling with some of the challenges other European cities are facing with immigration, race, and poverty issues in the near future.
All in all, it was a very impressive county/island. Beautiful in so many ways. Tourism is huge there and it’s only going grow. I don’t feel like I was able to get a good sense of the people and unfortunately because of the tourism I got the sense many of the locals saw tourists as just passing bodies/vehicles on their landscape. I think one would really have to spend some intentional time living there (at least a month, better would be more than six) to get a good sense of life in Iceland and for people to open up to you and invest in a deeper conversation with an outsider.