Sunday, July 19, 2015

Our last two days :-(

Our last full day in Iceland was relatively uneventful. We had booked a spot at the Blue Lagoon, the insanely popular geothermal bathing resort outside of Reykjavik, so decided to take it in. I've got to say, I was a little disappointed. The Myvatn Nature Baths in Myvatn in the north of the country completely dominate the Blue Lagoon. Hands down. It's not even a contest. The water is more pleasant, it is less expensive, it is not so overtly touristy, they bring beer right to you, and they had a live band. Like I said. Not even a contest.

Unfortunately, Myvatn is like a five hour drive from Reykjavik, so if you only have a short time, I guess you should do the Blue Lagoon. The whole experience of the massive outdoor geothermally heated bathing area is certainly worth doing. But if you were in Reykjavik for a short time and had to pick one attraction to pass on, I'd pick this one. They tried to sell us a 60 Euro skin care package because "the water will really dry out your skin". But you just finished telling me that the water is soothing and great for my skin in your promotional materials. I'm confused.

Oh, and they don't tell you before you come to Iceland that you have to shower before you go in the pool. Standard right? Except here you MUST BE NAKED. In the men's washrooms they don't monitor it because, well, guys could really care less. We're fine with showering nekkid in front of other dudes. And even if we aren't, there are private cubicle showers if you want. But them women's change room? Different story.

True story, there was a staff member in there monitoring whether or not the women showered naked. But, of course, there were private cubicles. So it didn't stop the ladies from just telling the naked shower patrol that they had indeed washed naked, but did nothing of the sort. I passed by a young British lady who was recounting the whole experience to her friends. "She actually came up to me after and said 'Did you make sure to wash your private parts really well? With soap?'" True story.

The rest of the day we just chilled in the city, checking out all the different shops, finding some awesomely unique wedding gifts, and just taking in the awesome ambience in the city.

To finish the night, and our trip really, we attended a comedy show at the gorgeous concert hall and conference centre on the harbour, Harpa. It is a comedy show written by an award winning writer and producer in Iceland. The show is called How to be Icelandic in 60 Minutes. It basically touched on all the stereotypes about Icelanders, why they are the way they are, why they stay here despite the miserable weather, etc. It was really enjoyable. Just the perfect level of humour, not overly raunchy or vulgar, and was a nice way to cap off the trip by encapsulating everything we've experienced over the last 16 days.

Tomorrow we head back home to our beautiful kids who we miss so much, and to our normal work-a-day lives, which we don't miss so much :-)

Until next time Iceland....

Hella to Reykjavik via the Golden Circle

The last day of our trip outside Reykjavik was spent doing the Golden Circle, which is the circle of really touristy sites to see that are in close proximity to Reykjavik. It is what many tourists do if they just have 2 or 3 days to spend in Reykjavik.

And it didn't disappoint. There were certain features of the GC for which there were better iterations in other parts of Iceland. But those other iterations were substantially further from Reykjavik. So realistically, for the person just spending time in the capital region, these are perfect.

We drove a little bit off our intended route to a little town called Hveragerdi. It's a beautiful little place and not far from there is Reykjadalur, the Smoky Valley. There are steam vents all over the valley and you can see their billows everywhere. There is also a geothermal park right in town, which is the only one of its kind in Iceland. The rest are all outside of urban areas. Unfortunately, they charge for entry to the park. Kind of defeats the purpose of a park if you ask me. One thing we noticed though was the abundance of greenhouses, which will become significant later.

After that we proceeded to the Golden Circle proper. First was Kerid, a massive crater formed thousands of years ago, roughly 6500. It is 180 ft deep, 560 ft wide and 890 ft long. The scale of it is really hard to put into words. It's enormous, no matter how you put it.

Shortly after Kerid was Fridheimar, a family run greenhouse specializing in tomatoes and cucumbers. Iceland is actually ideal for greenhouses for a lot of reasons. Because of its somewhat unforgiving climate, there are very few natural plant pests and diseases. As well, during the summer, they get nearly 24 hours of sunlight. The abundant geothermal resources allow for efficient heating of the greenhouses, as well as an abundant supply of carbon dioxide gas to aid photosynthesis. All of this combines to make the area around Hveragerdi and Fridheimar ideal for greenhouse growing, and it shows. 80-90% of the cucumbers and tomatoes consumed in Iceland are grown domestically, which is impressive if you think about its location and that the RECORD HIGH for Reykjavik is 26.2 Celsius. Seriously. The record high. Like the highest temperature every recorded.

Anyways, I digress. The coolest thing about Fridheimar is the restaurant they built in the greenhouse. It is only open for four hours for lunch and the menu is really simple. Homemade tomato soup and artisan bread. The tomatoes all come from their greenhouse, naturally. As does the basil they put on your table that you can snip into your soup. It is a perfect example of beauty in simplicity. The other interesting thing was the bee box. They have about 300 bees that service the greenhouse to aid with pollination. They had one box with a plexiglass top that you could observe. I enjoyed watching the worker bees buzz about busily, while the queen just chilled out and watched them as well. Of course behind the safety of a plexiglass barrier. I do not like bees particularly much.

Next was Faxafoss, a beautiful waterfall that looks like something you'd see on A River Runs Through It. And right next to the waterfall was an old fish ladder. If you've never seen one, it is essentially a series of steps, with holes on alternating sides for each step. The river water flows down it as well as continuing to flow down whatever obstacle the ladder is aiding the fish to pass. This helps the fish continue migrating up the river where they spawn.

Geysir was next. This is an active geothermal area with an abnormally high collection of geysers. The original Geysir is located here, but only activates after earthquakes and volcanoes. But it is from which all other geysers got their name. The active one here is called Strokkur, and it bursts every 2-3 minutes, sometimes up to 35 m up. It is really quite miraculous to watch. The way they work is best explained as hot springs that have screwy plumbing.

Just like any other hot spring, a below ground geothermal heat source heats the water coming from the spring. But most of them just bubble nicely to the surface, pour out above ground, and create hot pools or just run off into rivers. The unique "plumbing" of the geyser leads to the eruptions that occur. As the water source is below ground, and that is where the heat source is, the water is hottest closest to the heat source, obviously. But the column of water above the water at the heat source exerts incredible pressure on the hot water below. This raises the boiling point of the water, just as occurs in a pressure cooker. This means that the geothermal heat source continues to heat the water to incredibly high temperatures before it finally starts boiling.

When it does start boiling, the turbulence created below push some of the water in the column above out of the geyser. You see this when you watch them. They sort of heave and what looks like is going to be a bubble just subsides, but some of the water ends up spilling out of the geyser.

What this does though is suddenly release some pressure from the water at the heat source that is currently boiling. Now that the pressure has dropped, so too has the boiling point. This has the effect of causing the currently boiling water to instantaneously convert to steam, causing a steam flash. As water in its gaseous form takes up a much greater volume than the liquid form, it expands rapidly and pushes everything above it out of the top, causing the glorious explosions that define the beauty of geysers. Pretty cool, right?

The visitor's centre at Geysir had an interesting exhibit on the volcanoes in the country, many of which I've written about already. One I haven't is Hekla, one of the most active volcanoes in the country. For a long time, it erupted every 10-15 years. It is predicted that it will be the next major eruption in Iceland, and those predictions took on greater importance when Keflavik, near Reykjavik, experienced about 200 earthquakes in a single day at the beginning of July 2015. Scientists are monitoring the instability to determine if it is going to cause any activity at Hekla.

Next was Gullfoss. This is a beautiful and stunning waterfall near Geysir. It's story is even more interesting. In the early 1900s some investors wanted to install a hydroelectric plant at Gullfoss to harness its immense energy. The farmer that owned the land would not allow it but the investors were persistent. The farmer's daughter, Sigridur Tomasdottir, worked with her lawyer and the government to protect the waterfall from corporate interests, which was achieved when it was purchased by the nation in the mid-20th century.

The last thing we saw was Thingvellir, which was one of the things I was most excited about seeing when we planned this trip. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for two reasons. First of all is that it is one of only two places in the world where you can observe a rift valley between two continental plates. The North American plate and the Eurasian plate are slowly moving away from each other. This creates a relatively flat and low valley between them which is most markedly noticeable at this site. The rest of the rift travels right through the middle of Iceland in the highlands and glaciers, so is not easily accessible. But here it is gloriously apparent. This formation of the rift is also why divergent plate boundaries are so volcanically active. Something needs to come up from within the earth to fill this space, and often it is molten eruptions forming flood basalt that covers massive tracts of land.

Thingvellir is also the site of the first formation of the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, which more or less means "general assembly". As the people settled the land, they realized they needed laws and rules to govern life in this land. So they would meet at Thingvellir and discuss what these laws should look like, as well as pass judgment on judicial concerns. The Parliament today is still called the Althing and considered the oldest still existent parliamentary institution in the world, and Icelanders are rightly proud of it. The site of the meetings is still visible at Thingvellir, especially the Law Rock, where the Law Speaker (kind of like today's Speaker of the House), stood and read the new laws and conducted the meetings. Early on this was an extremely prestigious position because the laws were not written. The Law Speaker's job was to memorize all the laws and recite them when needed. Finally they decided it would probably be pretty wise to start writing stuff down.

The night ended brilliantly with a trip to Matur og Drykkur (Food and Drink), a phenomenal restaurant near Reykjavik's harbour. The food was masterfully prepared and artfully presented and a true treat for our tastebuds.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Vestmannaeyjar to Hella

The morning started early on the island. After an epic breakfast at the hotel, we met our guide, Unpronounceable Someonesson. He is the owner and operator of Eyja Tours and was so sociable and knowledgeable. It was probably the best guided tour we took the whole trip.

It covered pretty much everything. First he showed us Sprangan, a traditionally hobby of islanders. They anchor long ropes into certain cliffs where birds nest. They learn how to control the swing of the rope, allowing them to swing along the face of the cliff and reach the nests of the birds. Historically they did this because they required the eggs for nutrition. Now it is mostly for fun and tradition. But it takes a lot of skills. Young kids and tourists who attempt it often end up in the hospital with broken bones. And speaking of bones, sometimes the eggs are fertilized, and they have small formed bones inside them. Our guide says in that case they usually just grit their teeth and swallow. Eww. But they are not just reckless egg hunters. If they come across a puffin nest, they NEVER take the egg. Puffins breed for life with the same partner, and they only lay a single egg each season. The puffin colonies are already facing population stressors, so eliminating their population growth would be very damaging. There is enough stress on them that in the last 5 years the amount of hunting days the locals have been granted by authorities has dropped from close to a week to only 3 days. Our guide suspects next year there will be no puffin hunting authorized.

Speaking of hunting, they do it on the small islands around Heimaey. There are single cabins built on these secluded islands, and the men on the island are each a member of a different cabin. It's kind of like a club. When they do go to hunt puffin, they go out there as a group and spend the days free from their wives, as he put it. He called it a giant, luxurious, and private man cave. Ha ha.

We then went to a large field snuggled in the cliffs. It is the sight of a major music festival that occurs the last week of August every year on the island. It is attended by over 15 000 people. There is not enough hotel space for that many people, so they spread tents all over the field and the surrounding golf course. Various Icelandic and European musicians play the festival, and it is basically a four day drinking binge. They do various traditional activities and there are thing for kids. At the end they light flares off the fence bordering the field. One flare for every year they've held the festival. Last year was the 150th anniversary, so they fired off 150 flares into the night sky. I imagine that's quite the sight to behold.

Next we traveled up to the windiest spot in Europe. Not for the wind, but to see the puffins. They love to nest on this cliff because they are pathetic flyers so need help from the wind to carry them aloft. They make up for it by being talented swimmers and fish catchers. The kittiwakes, kind of like seagulls, are excellent flyers but not such great swimmers. So they often wait for the puffins to catch the fish, and then fly in gracefully and snatch the fish from them. Nasty kittiwakes.

Then we visited the slopes of Eldfell, the volcano that erupted and buried part of the town in 1973. It is still recent enough that not much has grown on the lava field. In order to keep the dust down, they imported lupin seeds from Alaska. The lupins established quite well. A little too well in fact. They now spread rapaciously all over the island and the mainland (which I'm aware is also an island) and choke out native plants. Thankfully they are really pretty. But man are their stalks thick. I would hate to be the guy who has to mow those things next to the highway.

The last stop on the tour was Selheimar Aquarium. It is an aquarium and seabird rescue centre. The children on the island traditionally go around at night in late August and early September looking for hurt or lost seabird babies and bring them here to be rehabilitated, at which point they are released. If they find any during the remainder of the year, they will bring them in as well. They mostly look in August and September because that is when the puffin colonies go back out to sea to feed for the winter. When they do, some of the pufflings get lost and end up in town in backyards. If they weren't rescued they'd die from starvation or be eaten by a domestic pet. The children hunt for them and bring them to the centre, and then the folks there take them up to a high, windy cliff and throw them off to help them catch the wind. This gives them the headstart they need and they fly out to sea to join their friends.

At the aquarium we met Toti. He was rescued as a 5-day old puffling. He has lived at the aquarium for 4 years and is super tame. He lets people hold him and he follows the tourists around as they check out the aquarium. He really liked me. Not only did he follow me everywhere, but he thought my shoes were tasty and was pecking and nibbling at them. The owner said it's actually a sign that he approves of me.

Before we left, we saw an adorable book about a lost baby puffin and how he was rescued by the children of the town. It was written by the previous owner of the aquarium, the current owner's father. There were versions in many different languages, so since we got the book of troll stories in English, we bought this one in French.

We had lots of time to kill before catching the ferry so took in a delicious local bakery, and roamed the town. The most interesting thing was walking on the lava pile that resulted from the 1973 eruption. Underneath your feet, meters below, rest the homes of 1000s of people. The former streets are marked out by wooden signs, showing where they are directly below. And all throughout the town, there are black markers that mark the depth of ash that settled at that location. Just across from our hotel, the ash was 137 cm deep. It took months to clean the town and, interestingly, the first place they cleaned out was the graveyard. Go figure.

Back to the mainland we finally went and reunited with our car. We didn't have much else planned on the itinerary, so we went to a "hidden" hot pool. Turns out it is not so hidden anymore. You see, some time back, an Icelander published a book called "The Thermal Pools of Iceland" with detailed descriptions and directions to almost every thermal pool in the country. Tourists were delighted, but Icelanders were not so much. This one was a pretty old one. There sort of was a change room, but it was a rough structure and very dirty on the inside. It was not really maintained obviously as it's like 3 km off the highway and then a 15 minute walk into the mountain valley. But it was still very pleasant to sit in and we met some friendly folks there.

The conclusion to the night ended up being one of the more memorable of the trip. We arrived out our originally booked hotel, Hotel Laekur, a farm hotel. The owner, Gunnar, looked a bit concerned when we arrived. He had realized earlier that morning that he'd made an error, and he'd overbooked his hotel. We technically had no room. But all was not lost. His son owns a similar hotel down the road about 7 minutes. He arranged with his son to give us the king size suite, which usually costs much more, but they did not charge us anything extra. And he sent us on our way their with a free bottle of wine. Sweet. When we got there, boy did we hit the jackpot. The room was beautiful and spacious, the view was breathtaking, the host was friendly and helpful, and they had a hot tub free for guest use. And since it's a farm hotel, there aren't that many people there. So it was just the two of us enjoying the relaxation of the hot tub and the stunning view. Perfect.

Vik to Vestmannaeyjar

Before heading to the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic) in the afternoon, we had some time to get in a few more sights on the mainland.

We started at Skogafoss, a beautiful waterfall situated not far from the road, which was a treat compared to many of the waterfalls here, which are usually a pretty good hike off the beaten path. Legend has it that a settler in Skogar, the town nearby, hid a chest of treasures behind the waterfall. One of them, a golden ring, was said to have special powers, and villagers would try all sorts of things to get at it, but they never did.

What I found most interesting about Skogafoss though was that just behind it was Fimmvorduhals, the eruption fissure that started the massive Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010. The eruption started at Fimmvorduhals and then transitioned to the larger glacial volcano. The most damaging thing about this eruption is that it was so intense that it melted such a large portion of the glacier that it created enormous floods that barreled down the mountain and completely washed out the bridge and highway that passes nearby. You can take a 25km hiking trail up Fimmvorduhals and see the craters that were created by this eruption.

We proceeded to the Skogar folk museum. This little gem (well, not really little actually) is a combination of three museums: the folk museum, the turf house and old buildings, and the museum of transport and communication. All of them were interesting in their own right, but Sarah of course was most fascinated by the turf houses. She loves them so much that she bought a book of pictures of turf houses and plans on building a turf garden shed when we return home.

It was a little tight for time, as we had to get to the Vestmannaeyjar ferry. We thought we had booked tickets for our car, just assuming that with two adult tickets the car was included. Whoops. When we got there, the lady said there was no booking for the car and there was no room left on the ferry. So we had to frantically scramble through our luggage to take what we would need for 24 hours and then boarded the ferry sans auto. We learned later that even with tickets this is not uncommon. The ferry also acts as the freight carrier for the Westman Islands. So if there is an abnormally high volume of freight for that trip, cars sometimes get bumped out. I asked why they don't just have a separate ship for freight, but no one could really tell me why.

Oh well. It's a small island and very walkable. The island itself is one of 18 that form the plural Westman Islands. The island where the town is is called Heimaey. Roughly 4500 people live there and it is a quaint, beautiful little town. The people are incredibly friendly, probably the most friendly that we encountered our entire trip. And they are fiercely proud of their heritage and their history. They're also tougher than nails. Vestmannaeyjar has the strongest average winds in Iceland and one of the hills there has the highest average recorded winds in Europe, sometimes as high as 215 kph. We experienced winds there that were easily close to 100 kph.

After checking in to our luxurious hotel, Hotel Vestmannaeyjar, we headed down to the harbour to meet our guides for Rib Safari. This unique tour takes you on a rib boat. It is a powerful motorized raft boat. The seats are raised but aren't really seats as much as they are like saddles. You straddle the cushion and hold onto the seat handles in front of you. You see, when a boat like this has a 600-hp outboard on it and it guns it on rough seas, you get some pretty insane air. And remaining seated when said boat lands on said rough sea is a terrible idea for the maintenance of intact vertebrae. Straddling like this allows you to pump your legs up and down so they absorb the impact and not your back.

We toured the small islands around Heimaey and saw the thousands of birds nesting in the cliffs, as well as the many hidden caves in the islands. Some of these islands raise straight out of the sea before plateauing a hundred feet above the sea level. Yet there were still sheep up there. It is a hobby for islanders and they basically compete to see who can raise sheep in crazier places. The sheep are originally brought there by, I kid you not, tying a rope to them and hauling them up using a pulley system. They are lowered down into the boat later when they are ready for slaughter. The best area we toured was a small bay formed by the cliffs. It was here that Keiko, the orca whale made famous by Free Willy, was released after he finished his filming. He had been born near the Westman Islands before he was purchased by Marineland in Canada. And that is to where he was returned. He swam in an open ocean pen for awhile to ensure he didn't suffer shock.

When Keiko was released, he undertook an enormous swim to Norway, where he eventually died in one of the fjords. Veterinarians believe it was pneumonia that did him in, and that he may have succumbed to it because he did not develop resistance to diseases prevalent in the wild.

Next was Eldheimar Volcano Museum. In 1973, the volcano Eldfell erupted. The eruption lasted just over five months, and when all was said and done, 400 houses were buried and 1500 people were homeless. The islanders were evacuated early, and close to 1000 did not return, reducing the population of the island. They rebuilt the town eventually, but it was forever changed, not only due to the population change, but the island itself grew in size because of the lava flow. In the 2000s, excavation started on one particular house. Eventually, the entire home was excavated, and the town decided to build an ambitious museum around the house. Thus was born the Eldheimar Museum. It is, in my opinion, a world class museum. The unique nature of building it around a preserved relic of a natural disaster combined with the multiple interactive exhibits makes it one of a kind. It is a must see for anyone visiting this beautiful little town.

Finally we visited Lyngfell stables to go horseback riding with two members of the operating family. The Icelandic horses, which are smaller than North American riding horses, were so well tempered and a breeze to ride. They are well suited to uneven terrain, which is perfect because lava rock and sand is a bugger to walk on. The 17-year old son that joined us was very intelligent and very friendly. We chatted almost the entire one hour ride about our respective nations. He unfortunately knew very little about Canada except Rob Ford. But he sure knew a ton about his home nation and, specifically, Vestmannaeyjar. He shared with me many historical stories and customs and traditions of his home. It was a special experience.

The night ended with a visit to Slippurinn, what is still the best restaurant of the dozens we visited while in Iceland. Unbelievable food and top notch service. You cannot visit the Westman Islands and not eat at this restaurant.

Hofn to Vik

The first thing we did in the morning was one of the cooler things we did on the trip. At the base of the Breidamerkurjokull glacier, which itself is a smaller part of the Vatnajokull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, is a natural glacial river lagoon. As the ice breaks off the glacier, it floats slowly out to sea from inside a small bay. That means the water in the bay is salt water, which I learned when I decided to take a refreshing drink from it. The icebergs sit in the lagoon for many days before they finally enter the larger sea. This creates the perfect setting to boat among the icebergs. A couple of companies offer this service but the coolest is the company that uses an amphibian boat. Massive tires on land, prop boat in the water. Awesome.

What is not so awesome is the wait. We had pre-booked tickets but it is an open voucher. When you show up, they assign you a time based on the demand. I waited in line for about 20 minutes and at that point is was around 11am. The first available trip was not until 1. But I did better than many because they reserve a few seats on each trip for pre-booked tickets. Most people buying on the spot had to wait until 1:30-1:50. It is very busy there, but I can see why. It isn't terribly expensive, and the experience is unique. The icebergs are gorgeous, with varying shades of deep blue and white. And the guide takes a basketball-sized piece of ice from the lagoon and breaks off small chunks for everyone to sample. Doesn't get much fresher tasting than 1000-year old glacial ice.

We then stopped at Skaftafell National Park, home of Skaftafellsjokull glacier and Svartifoss. Unfortunately, the hike to the glacier itself, round trip, took a good hour. It was worth the hike as it was a beautiful day and you could get almost right up to it. But that didn't leave any time for the 90 minute round trip hike to Svartifoss. Too bad, because it sure is pretty. Oh well, out of all the things I wanted to see, this and Asbyrgi canyon were the only two I missed. Not too shabby.
On we marched to Kirkjubaejarklaustur, often abbreviated as "Klaustur" for obvious reasons. Near here are two peculiar natural monuments. One is called Dverghamrar, which translates as "dwarf rocks". It is a formation of basalt columns that looks like natural pillars holding up the rock above.
The other is called Kirkjugolfid, or "The Church Floor". This is also a monument of columnar basalt, but the majority of the column is below ground. So all you see is the stony tops, giving the appearance of a stone church floor. It is quite incredible to look at. It really looks like it was manufactured by humans.
Then we went to Fjadrargljufur, a narrow and beautiful canyon that has beautiful lighting giving it an otherworldly appearance. It was stunning.
Finally we stopped at Reynishverfi, the "black beach". The "sand" on this beach is all lava rock that has been ground down into smaller pebbles. It is like nothing I've ever seen. One Icelander told me that it doesn't have to be very hot for the sand to be unbearable to stand on unshod. The waves were very strong there and the sun was dipping low on the horizon, so it was the perfect ending to a perfect day. We settled down to sleep at Hotel Vellir, a beautiful little farm hotel.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Egilsstadir to Smyrlabjorg

Today was a day filled with wonder and a couple of heavy doses of disappointment.

We started off a bit later than normal because I had a glorious plan. This plan started out by heading to the discount store. Nothing is discount in Iceland. Nothing. But here was a discount store. We couldn't pass it up. And stuff was pretty decently priced there. Enough so that we loaded up on chocolate and candies for the kids, some stuffies for the kids, a Buff for Kees (we'd already found one for Sacha and Ivy too), and Sarah got a new bathing suit.

Then it was out to Hallormsstadur, the largest forest in Iceland. It was a beautiful drive and exceptional given the stark absence of trees in most of Iceland. There was much more forest in Iceland upon settlement in the 800s. But not nearly as much as some accounts suggest. And much of it would've been lower shrub and brush, not towering forests like you see in Canada. Nonetheless, there was more, but the settlers hacked it down, the sheep heavily grazed the country, preventing comeback of the forests, and the Little Ice Age came along and diminished forest cover further.

Hallormsstadur lies next to Lagarfljot, a long, deep lake. It is similar in appearance to Lake Okanagan and Loch Ness. And it too has a mythical lake monster, called Lagarfljotstormur, or the Lagarfljot worm. A recent video from 2010 garnered national news attention and over 5 million views on YouTube.

Then we came to Hengifoss. This is supposed to be one of the more photogenic waterfalls in Iceland. It is a rather demanding hike, up over 400m from the parking lot and taking well over 30 minutes. Problem is, there is a nasty cold front all over the eastern portion of the country. Cold front equals low clouds. Low clouds equals heavy fog cover in upper altitudes. Heavy fog cover in high altitudes equals zero visibility of gorgeous waterfall after a 40 minute tough, wet, muddy, slippery hike. I took a picture of the fog and the non-visibility of the waterfall, to give pictorial evidence of what disappointment looks like.

Then came disappointment number two. The whole reason we left a little later than normal is because the plan was to attend a renowned cake buffet at a restaurant called Klaustur Kaffi. I had done my research. This was going to be all the sweeter because we'd just had our asses handed to us on the side of a mountain.

When we got there, things were looking good. It was a gorgeous early-20th century mansion built by Gunnar Gunnarsson, a famous Icelandic novelist who did most of his work in Denmark, but always focused on his home country. He was considered for the Nobel Prize in literature. He was approached by Walt Disney to use one of his stories, The Good Shepherd. However, Disney supposedly suggested that Gunnarsson would be paying him to make a movie from the work. Gunnarsson hung up on him. He was also a proponent of Scandinavianism, the notion of combining all the Scandinavian nations into one larger united nation of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands.

Anyways, it was a gorgeous little mansion and the restaurant was bustling. Then the disappointment. Cake buffet does not start until 3 pm. DAMN IT!!! Oh well, they had a wonderful lunch buffet including lamb stew and reindeer pie, both of which were mind blowing.

The rest of the day was mostly driving but we saw some beautiful sights, including a gorgeous beach teeming with seabirds and incredible hardened lava formations on the shore. An impossibly enormous mountain that was right next to the highway and was basically a giant pile of gravel. I've never seen a mountain made of that much loose rubble. It was rather unsettling. And we saw a glorious number of swans, some of them very close.

Our dinner was in another harbour town, Hofn. It was at Pakkhus, a very busy and obviously popular restaurant built from a converted warehouse. I had langoustine pizza, as the langoustine here is considered the best in Iceland. Sarah had ling cod and roasted potatoes. For dessert we had a Skyr volcano, which was a bed of Skyr covered with various sweets. There were "lava rocks" which were basically dark grey sponge coffee, and pop rocks, as well as another sweet I couldn't identify. Delicious and fun.

Tomorrow we are off to Vatnajokull, the largest ice cap in Europe. There we will go on a boat tour of the glacier lagoon!

Husavik to Egilsstadir

The first order of business in Husavik was to join a whale watching tour. Whale watching is THE thing to do in Husavik. There are many tour providers, but supposedly one of the best is North Sailing. That is the one our tour operator booked us with. Their ships are beautiful. A bit vintage looking. The one we took was a traditional Icelandic oak boat. For their longer trips they also have two traditional tall ships.

There was a very chatty Italian tour group that got on the boat at the same time as us. They were all very energetic, almost rambunctious. So it was a real gong show when we were all picking through all the cold weather coveralls that the company provided. They were basically like snowsuits but for trips out to sea. They were a huge pain to get on, but once it was on, it was very welcome. Because it got bloody cold out there later.

Off we went. The boat was rather small, comparatively. And the ocean was pretty rough. I was a bit concerned about Sarah's ability to handle the rocking, as she is prone to motion sickness. She was okay, but by the end of the trip 3 hours later, one woman was leaning over the side hurling into the ocean. Sarah said she saw another man near the bow doing the same.

The tour itself was very productive. We first saw a humpback whale that was coming up and diving quite frequently. It was also showing off its fluke dramatically on its way back down. After watching it for awhile, we moved on to a minke whale. S/he was also seen quite frequently but when minke's dive, they don't show off their flukes. They only arch their back so you do see their dorsal surface quite clearly. Finally, the highlight of the tour was seeing the white-beaked dolphins. They were beautiful and extraordinarily playful. They were swimming very quickly next to the boat and jumping right out of the water one by one. Gorgeous.

When we got back to harbour, Sarah had to eat something, lest she lose her breakfast soon. We had a great little lunch at a harbour restaurant and then headed over to the grocery store. Sarah had heard about these sweets that Icelanders love, called Rijs Buff. They are these chocolate coated rice crisps with a goopy marshmallow filling. The guy who wrote about them online said that they should come with a warning for addiction. And he was right. They really should come with that warning. We've already blown through two boxes and bought three to bring home with us.

Then came the navigation screw up of the trip. We were heading to an area that contains Asbyrgi Canyon and Dettifoss waterfall. The was one other spot the tour agent had highlighted called Austurdalur. I saw the turnoff to that and started heading down this really rough gravel road. After about 10 km, I saw a sign pointing to Dettifoss and thought, "Hey, I'll go that way instead. I was going to go there anyways." What followed was 40 km of horrendous gravel road that was only wide enough for one vehicle. So you had to pull over if someone was coming in the other direction. I remember thinking, "This is ridiculous! It's the biggest waterfall in Europe! How can it not be paved?"

When I finally came upon it, I realized it's because I took the "back road". If I had gone only 2 km past the original turnoff I took, I first would've come upon Asbyrgi Canyon, which I never was able to see because of my error. And at Asbyrgi, I would've seen a sign pointing me to Dettifoss. Down the main national highway. The PAVED national highway, that has room for TWO cars. ARGH!!! Man I was pissed off. Oh well, water under the bridge.

So we hiked to Dettifoss. It is really big. Like I cannot state how big it really is. It is 330 ft wide and drops 150 ft. The water volume flowing over it is 193 000 litres per second. That is a lot of water. It all comes from the Vatnajokull glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland and, in fact, the largest glacier in all of Europe. It completely dominates the entire southeast of the country. It is 8100 square kilometers and takes up 8% of the land area of the country. For comparison purposes, that is larger than all of Prince Edward Island. It's damn big. Past Dettifoss is its smaller neighbour, Selfoss. It was also gorgeous. But by the end, we were absolutely drenched. Not only was it pouring rain, but the mist from the waterfalls was inundating.

Finally, on the way to our hotel, we saw another waterfall called Hengifoss. Sarah decided not to hike to it as she was too cold and soaking wet. I took the quick hike and it was worth it. Beautiful.

One quick note. Around the country I've seen multiple foreign license plates in Iceland. Which made no sense at first glance. Iceland is an island in the middle of the North Atlantic. But I'd seen Dutch, German, Spanish, French, and even Italian license plates. Turns out there is a ferry that travels from Denmark to Iceland. It is run by a Danish shipping company and carries 800 cars and up to 1500 people. You leave Hirtshals in Denmark at 11:30 am and you arrive in Seydisfjordur in Iceland at 8:30 am two days later, with a quick stop in the Faroe Islands. And apparently it's pretty popular among mainland Europeans.

Oh, one other thing. We drove through this interminable fog in the mountain passes. And we did it again, voluntarily, to get to a little fishing village called Seydisfjordur, to eat at a restaurant called Skaftfell Bistro. They make really different pizzas. I had a reindeer pizza with reindeer meat, caramelized onions, and blue cheese. It was unbelievable.

Oh yeah, one more. I swear this is the last.

The last two hotels we've stayed at have been part of the Icelandic Farm Holidays Association. This is a group of farm families that have expanded their farm into a full fledged hotel. And they aren't like little quaint guesthouses. These are full on hotels, with high end dining rooms and modern, fully equipped rooms. The attraction of them is that they're family run, the service is very personal, and you are supporting their family farm. I think it has become a way to fill the off season for the sheep farmers in Iceland, although that is just a guess. It works well for them. The sheep mostly just graze in the summer and that is when all the tourists are here. We've had great experiences at the two farm hotels so far. You can actually do self-drive tours much like we are doing, but organized through the Icelandic Farm Holidays Association.