Saturday, July 22, 2017

Iceland: Around the Ring

Seyðisfjörður

Driving Iceland’s Ring Road is one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. The first three days of the trip is covered here. Now we’re rounding the corner on the Eastern coast and heading up towards Iceland’s Capital of the North: Akureyri.

Day 4: Eastern Fjords

This morning started with a long drive to the town of Egilsstaðir in the East. At this point, the Ring Road starts to follow the coast and the coast turns into one fjord after another. Meandering along the coast is not the quickest way to get somewhere, but it’s hard to complain when you get views like this:

Iceland's East Coast

Once you get past Selfoss, the towns in Iceland are tiny. Each one is announced with a city sign, and then you pass a couple of buildings and suddenly there’s a sign announcing that the city is over. I got used to small towns and seeing houses scattered in precarious places on the hillsides. We stopped at the town of Djúpivogur simply because it was the only town on the East coast for miles and miles. We ate at a cafe there where the local townspeople had been having coffee with delicious Icelandic meringue since the 1800s. We explored the town and surprisingly found out that we were NOT the only ones here.


Nat Geo is Everywhere! 

Playing Behind Djúpivogur's Cafe

After Djúpivogur, we continued into a valley that reminded me of my favorite place on the planet: Glacier National Park. Except, this was way better (the former Park Ranger from Glacier and I both agreed).

Just another beautiful valley we had to drive through. This road sucks.

Although the Ring Road is the main road around the island, it’s not even paved the entire way. Signs like this would sneak up on us consistently.

Photo Credit: sciamanna.com

Once we reached Egilsstaðir, we broke away from the main road and took Route 93 to an amazingly picturesque town called Seyðisfjörður. It is nestled into a lovely fjord and the drive toward the water is riddled with beautiful views and waterfalls. We ate reindeer pizza at a small cafe that had board games and crayons. I even figured out where the Dread Pirate Roberts is currently stationed - he was our waiter!

Westley!

We saw some art based on sheep parts (weird!) and walked up to a beautiful waterfall cascading over the town. Then we admired the fjord from a small harbor in town.

Seyðisfjörður 


Icelandic waterfalls are EVERYWHERE. There have to be so many the entire 325,000-person population can have its own personal waterfall, probably right in their backyard. It’s just stunning!

We returned to Egilsstaðir, visited the Nettó grocery store and made our own meal that night. The food in Iceland is very expensive! A typical meal out for us, a family of four, was usually around $100. We bought soup and some apples at a tourist road stop once: $68. We took advantage of grocery stores whenever we could, but it’s hard to cook when you don’t have a cooler. This trip, I discovered that Cheerios just doesn’t cut it for breakfast, not even when they come in a familiar box with cryptic words.

Honestly not sure if this is Icelandic or Danish

Day 5: Whales & Water

Day 5 was epic. We drove two hours to see Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall (by volume).

 Dettifoss

Then we found Hverir, a large geothermal area with steam vents and mud pots. This is one thing that the US has over Iceland. Yellowstone’s geysers and thermal features are far better, but it’s still amazing to see the Icelandic ones.

Thermal Vent 

Sulfur Smells Great

One of the best experiences of the whole trip was eating lunch at a cowshed right on the banks of Lake Mývatn, Vogafjós. The food was all from the farm itself (burgers, lamb soup, ice cream) -- so good. I had the best glass of milk of my life and all with a beautiful view of an amazing lake. The girls even got to pet a cow!

After lunch we snaked our way to Húsavík, the whale-watching capital of Iceland. In the summer they have a 99% whale-spotting success rate on their ships (we went through North Sailing) and an insane number of species you might be able to see (orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, etc). I had been nervous that the girls wouldn’t be able to be on a boat for three hours without going crazy, but they loved it!

Iceland gets creative with its street signs 

Hello from the top deck!

They gave us warm pullovers (which were necessary) and we set off into the bay with the most glorious views of snow-covered peaks. It didn’t take long before we spotted two humpback whales. By the time we were done, we’d seen at least four and a group of white-beaked dolphins. This was a highlight for most of us. The girls liked it not just because they got to see some whales, but because they fed us cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate on the way back!


Setting Sail 

My Best Photo of a Humpback Whale 

Whale with a Rainbow | Photo Credit: Nathan King 

Whale Tail | Photo Credit: Nathan King

They're on a Boat (and Are Giant Goofballs)

The day was fading fast, but in a world where the sun never sets, you’ve got a lot of time to fit extra activities into your days. Since the first thermal bath was such a hit, we decided to visit Mývatn Nature Baths before going to bed. The Nature Bath was a huge, warm, rocky pool with milky water and a wonderful view of Lake Mývatn. I enjoyed jumping from the pool to a small hot tub to the steam room again and again, but we didn't stay long. The photo below was taken when we left at around 10pm.

Mývatn Nature Baths

Day 6: Driving

A relaxing Ring Road trip is really a 10-day affair and we were doing it in 8 days with one of them spent on the Golden Circle (not technically part of the Ring Road), so we had to play catch-up somewhere! We slept in and started the long drive around Lake Mývatn toward the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, but didn’t get far.

We HAD to stop at Grjótagjá, which, in and of itself is a really cool cave. It also happens to be the place where Jon Snow and Ygritte...do some stuff...in Game of Thrones.

Grjótagjá 

Grjótagjá from Above

Nathan found a birding museum and we stopped for an hour to look at dead birds and learn that more species of duck nest on this lake than anywhere else in the world.

Birdman

Then we stopped at my favorite waterfall of the trip: Goðafoss. To get to a good viewpoint, we followed the throngs of tourists across precariously slippery stones over waterfall runoff. People had to randomly help the kids across, but it was completely worth the danger of falling in to see this.

Goðafoss

On the way back, a German guy took a huge spill off one of the rocks and knocked Alison over. She took it like a champ.

We hit Akureyri, Iceland’s Capital of the North around lunchtime. We needed something fast because we had six more hours to drive that day. The guidebook called Hamborgarafabrikkan (Hamburger Factory) the closest thing to fast food that the country had (it also said it was WAY better than our fast food chains), so we tried it. First off, their version of “fast food” is a full service restaurant (probably the closest thing in reality are their hot dog stands). They had 15 different kinds of specialty burgers, a delightful kids’ menu that included Octopus Hot Dogs, and a cupcake that looked like a burger.

Dessert Burgers

It was surprisingly good! They have the best milkshakes ever (so good that we went back to another Hamburger Factory in Reykjavik only a day later because Nathan wanted to try it).

After that, we drove and drove on roads that were sometimes paved, sometimes not until we got to Stykkishólmur, a beautiful town on the North side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is surrounded by islands of every size and shape dotting the ocean as far as the eye could see. We trekked up to the top of a viewpoint overlooking the bay to see this:

Stykkishólmur


Our Airbnb for the night was nearby in Grundarfjörður, right at the base of perhaps the second-most-photographed mountain in Iceland: Kirkjufell. There was a hot tub with an amazing view. It was just perfect.

View from the Hot Tub

Day 7: Maddie’s Birthday

Madeline turned four today! She was such a great traveler the entire trip -- so laid-back, so funny, such an all-around wonderful kid. I’d mentioned her birthday to our Airbnb host months ago, but they remembered and had cake, cold milk, a card, and homemade necklaces for both girls waiting when we got there. This was the best place we’d stayed in the whole country (stay there)!


After a short celebration, we hit the road again. At this point, we’d felt like we’d seen the country. The everlasting sun and constant driving were wearing on most of us. If I had to plan the trip again, I’d skip this final day and just go straight to Reykjavik, but the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is many people’s favorite place on the island, so I didn’t want to miss it. It turned out to be a recap of almost every feature we’d seen on the Ring Road.

There were amazing waterfalls and mountains.


The famous photo everyone gets | Photo Credit: Nathan King

Rocky coastlines with views of amazing Glaciers.

Skarðsvík Beach | Photo Credit: Nathan King

Sand Castle! 

Snæfellsjökull Glacier (and the entrance to the center of the Earth)

We traveled through Snæfellsjökull National Park, where Jules Vernes’ Into the Center of the Earth is set. We saw black sand beaches with spires and a shipwreck.

Djúpalónssandur

We stopped to admire bird cliffs and amazing views. We tried to eat at a cute seaside fishing shack, but they’d just lost power.

Bird Cliffs in Hellnar 


We even stopped at a horse farm and the girls got to sit on a horse.

Maddie on her first horse | Photo Credit: Nathan King

But we were beat, so we trudged on toward Reykjavik to find some food and souvenirs. I took the family to a place I’d eaten with a new friend last trip: Svarta Kaffið. It’s a small cafe that serves two types of soup a day in a bread bowl and beer/cider. I can’t imagine a better mix of foods for a country whose summer temperatures hover in the 50s.

Svarta Kaffið

Maddie had a good birthday. There was only one last thing we needed to do before leaving Iceland.

Day 8: The Blue Lagoon

There’s an iconic place in Iceland that most people doing stopovers see because it’s right by the airport. The Blue Lagoon is the “Disneyland of Thermal Spas”. It is a gigantic complex with a huge, warm pool with blue-green water filled with silica, which gives it a milky look and makes your skin feel silky soft, but your hair feel like a witch’s fingernails for a week. There is a facial bar, a drink bar, an hydraulic waterfall, steam room, sauna, a couple of restaurants, a massage area, and a hotel. This place is HUGE and all set in the middle of a lava rock-filled landscape that could be from another planet. You can walk around in the pool and relax for hours.

Entering the Lagoon 





The thing I LOVE to do in the thermal spas in Iceland (why don’t we have these in the US?!) is that you can sit by a wall, submerged in the warm, wonderful water, but have your arms out, resting on the edge with the refreshing Icelandic breeze running constantly over them. It is the most relaxing experience. I want to go back so, so much. Best of all, this is what families in Iceland do for fun. So, while our hot tubs in the US are adorned with warnings against kids under 14 using them, all kids above 2 are welcome at The Blue Lagoon. We stayed for two hours and then it was time to catch our flight to London.

Iceland is a dream. It reminds me of what this planet could be if we hadn’t already overpopulated most of it. It has miles of dramatic and ever-changing landscape, and is one of the most unspoiled places that we have left on Earth. I am torn between my desire to go back again and again and the need to keep it pristine for others to see. You should go. And when you do, take me!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Iceland: The South Side

Jökulsárlón

When I went to Iceland last year, my whole family was jealous (as they should be) and complained that I didn’t take them. The excuse that they had school/work and didn’t have passports started to sound like just that: an excuse. So, we decided to go back!

This was a really important trip for me. It took seven loooong years to raise a pair of amazing kids to a point where they were FINALLY old enough to understand and enjoy a trip abroad. Iceland is really accessible from DC and is one of those countries that is just different enough to be truly novel, but not so different that it’s difficult to travel in or to explain those differences to a 4 and 6-year-old. We spent 8 days exploring Iceland and the Ring Road (the road that runs all the way around the island), then 3.5 days in London -- just because I’d never ventured outside of Heathrow and the Icelandic stopover program (Iceland Air, WOW) is THE BEST THING EVER.


Day 1: The Golden Circle


Our flight out of BWI left at 7pm EST and arrived at 5am IST (Icelandic Standard Time? I just made that up.) No one slept on the plane as I stupidly chose not to drug the kids, but when it was time to exit the flight, pick-up our rental car, and start, everyone was wide awake and excited for the adventure.

Our Yaris: it’s a miracle that our bags (and kids!) fit in this thing

Day 1 was simply reliving a tour I’d taken last September: The Golden Circle, which includes:

  1. Thingvellir National Park: An amazing place where you can see the Eurasian and American tectonic plates pulling themselves apart. If that’s not enough, it’s also home to the world’s first parliamentary government.
  2. Geysir: A geothermal area with one shining star, the geyser Strokkur, which goes off every 5-10 minutes.
  3. Gullfoss: A multi-level, enormous and beautiful waterfall that will take your breath away.

For us, it also included a trip to the Laugarvatn Fontana Spa, a place I’m not sure I can do justice with words or pictures. In a week of amazing experience after amazing experience, this place was both Nathan and my favorite -- the entire trip. It’s a geothermally-heated series of pools, steam baths, and saunas, each with its own temperature. You can jump from one to the other for hours, and then, if you’re crazy (like we were), you can go jump in the beautiful glacial lake right next to it, which also provides amazing views throughout your visit. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relaxed in my life.

Thingvellir National Park 

Strokkur

Gullfoss

We were exhausted early, however, and ended up at a rather dumpy apartment hotel in Selfoss. The problem with Iceland is that it’s small and it’s not entirely ready to support the number of tourists it deserves. You have to book your hotels, especially when traveling with more than two people, early. We ended up staying at Airbnbs most of the trip.

For dinner, we had our first Icelandic Hot Dog Stand experience where we successfully ordered off of this menu:

Íslendingar elska pylsur


Day 2: Westman Islands


There was an important reason that we went to Iceland this time of year: seeing the midnight sun is on my life list and Iceland gets two weeks of midnight sun from June 16th to June 29th-ish each year. However, there was absolutely no way I was staying up until midnight given the jetlag. I set an alarm and...drumroll please…it was cloudy - wah wah. However, it was light as day and I was so thrilled I took a little walk down the street to the river, taking pictures. It was such a weird feeling. My brain was so screwed up that I probably could have gone for my typical morning run at midnight and thought nothing of it. I didn’t, I crawled back into bed and slept like a baby instead.

Midnight Sun (sort of)

I actually planned Day 2 around one of Nathan’s life goals: to see a puffin. We had tickets to go to Vestmanneayjar (Westman Islands), a pointy, mysteriously beautiful archipelago off Iceland’s Southern coast. The single city on the islands is Heimaey, a fishing village that lives in the shadow of several volcanoes. One of them is Eldfell, a volcano that erupted in 1973, sending lava into the city and causing the islands’ evacuation for months. The islands are also home to the largest puffin colony in the world: about 10 million birds.

We took a Puffin & Volcano tour around the island, learned about how the islanders still go out and collect eggs on the island cliffs, heard stories about the famous volcano eruption, went to the “windiest place in Europe” (which was quite nice that day), saw the world’s newest island (Surtsey) which is preserved as a scientific study outpost and, of course, saw puffins.

 The Westman Islands from the mainland

 Europe's Windiest Point

Heimaey from Eldfell (Photo Credit: Nathan King)

Puffins (Photo Credit: Nathan King)

We ended the tour at the island’s aquarium where we got to interact with an injured puffin and kittiwake chick.

 Alison & Her Puffin

Maddie and the Kittiwake Chick

The Westman Islands is really, really high on my list of favorite places in Iceland. Not because of the volcano or puffins, although those were both cool, but because it was amazingly scenic. We ate lunch at the Slippurinn and then climbed a hill near town to get a view from above. That was my favorite moment right there (it wasn’t even the tallest point on the island...I’ve got unfinished business here)!


We took a boat back to the mainland at 4pm and the rest of the day was no less exciting. We saw waterfalls, including one you could walk behind.

 Seljalandsfoss

Skógafoss

We saw the volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, that erupted in Iceland in 2010, shutting down air traffic from Europe.


We stopped at the black sand beach, Reynisfjara, and saw beautiful basalt columns, caves and soaring spires.






We drove past vast fields of lupine and through terrifying ancient lava splash zones.


We ended the day having an experience that I was really curious about. Many Icelanders build what they call a “summer cottage” and spend summer weekends in the countryside outside of Reykjavik. We spent the night in a summer cottage on a hill overlooking a moss-covered lava field. The view couldn’t he beat. The cabin couldn’t be cuter. I might be in love with Iceland.


Summer Cottage

Day 3: Hiking & Icebergs


Let’s take a minute to talk about the weather in Iceland, because these photos make it seem ideal and it is not. During our trip, the temperatures were always in the 50s (and I mean always because the sun never fully sets). That was a welcome change from the blistering summers of DC, but in Iceland, temperature is just one factor. It’s windy, it’s rainy, and the weather truly changes every 5 minutes (shut-up Kansas with your “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes T-shirts” you’ve got nothing on Iceland).

Having said that, what Iceland lacks in weather and comfort, it far exceeds expectations in pure landscape beauty and variability. THIS IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE I HAVE EVER BEEN!! (Sorry, Utah and Glacier National Park, I still love you). I downloaded several books to my Kindle for the drive and didn’t touch them. I didn’t take naps because I thought I might miss something.

Here is the view of the midnight sun on Day 2 from our summer cottage.

Midnight Sun: Part II

Day 3 began with a short hike along the rim of Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. It is funky and amazing.

 This is a gem.

We then drove through an enormous rainstorm, over a bunch of one-lane bridges (which is mostly what you get on the ring road) to Skaftafell National Park. Iceland has Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull (“Water Glacier” in English), and it sends glacial fingerlings through the mountains and makes them accessible for hikers and other revelers for fun and enjoyment. Skaftafell sits in the middle of two of these outlets and is one of the few places in the country with any trees. It was raining when we arrived, so we sat under an umbrella and ate fish and chips from the campground snack stand, hoping it would clear up. It didn’t, so we set off in the rain for Svartifoss (Black Falls). Dear god the kids complained the whole way up. This was the only time the whole trip when I wished I hadn’t brought them. They were excellent the rest of the trip, but I was super-annoyed that they were complaining about hiking 2.5 kilometers in the rain to this glorious sight.

 Svartifoss

Glaciers and in the foreground, part of a bridge that was washed away when a volcano under the glacier erupted and caused an epic flood.

Down the road a little ways is Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon where icebergs regularly break off and float happily toward the Atlantic Ocean. This place is magical and we spent a couple of hours enjoying what was now a beautiful, sunny day.

Icebergs!

Our pitstop for the night was Höfn, a small harbor town that’s famous for its langoustine. We stayed in a cute airbnb on the edge of town that had a horse farm in its backyard and walked the 20 minutes into town to have dinner at Pakkhús, a restaurant specializing in, of course, lobster.


This was, by far, the best meal we had in Iceland (this country is rightfully not famous for its cuisine as there’s only so much fish, lamb soup, burgers and hot dogs one can eat).

We walked past an outdoor, heated pool with slides (Icelanders love their Sundlaugin) and found a playground where I met a very nice Icelandic mother who told me all about living in Iceland. She was a pretty good salesperson. :)

A little hilltop in Höfn

At this point in the vacation, I’m always reminded of one of my favorite 30 Rock quotes: “For God’s sakes, Lemon. We’d all like to flee to the Cleve and club-hop down at the Flats and have lunch with Little Richard, but we fight those urges because we have responsibilities.”

Well, at this point in the trip, I don’t have responsibilities (except maybe for keeping everyone on the trip alive) and I’m only slightly tempted to move to Iceland. Maybe I’ll just get myself a little summer cottage there instead.

Icelandic Horses