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.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Akureyri to Husavik

The morning started with a trip into Akureyri, the largest city outside of Reykjavik, and often referred to as the Capital of the North. It is a beautiful city overlooking a fjord, with an obviously middle to upper middle class population. There were a lot of large houses, even by Canadian standards. The downtown had a big city feel to it, with lots of stores, coffee shops, and restaurants. We took in some of that, but the real find was the Akureyri botanical garden. Akureyri, even though it is very far north (only 100 km south of the Arctic Circle), it has the most mild climate in Iceland, with 120 frost free days. The botanical garden had a wide array of plant species, including many I would not expect to see here, like poppies, marigolds, roses, and many others. Best of all, it solved the mystery for me of where the bees are in Iceland. THEY LIVE HERE!

We figured they must, but we just hadn't seen any. Not just bees, but insects in general. But you can't have honey without bees, and they love honey here. And the bottles show that it's produced in Iceland from wildflowers. We just haven't been in many areas with lots of plants yet.

After leaving Akureyri, we headed toward Myvatn. Myvatn is the name of a lake in one of the most geologically active areas in Iceland. It sits right on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Nearby is Krefla, an active volcano that last had significant activity in the 70s and 80s. The magma activity in some spots is only 2 km below the surface, reachable by current drilling technology. Even without accessing the magma, the incredible energy bubbling up from below led to the creation of a 30 MW power generation station just outside the closest town, Reykjahlid.

Before we got there though, we stopped at Godafoss, a beautiful waterfall that is accessible on foot. Really accessible. I got so close to it that Sarah said she was gritting her teeth in anxiety the whole time she was watching me. But it was worth it. You'll see it when you see the video I'll upload later.

Myvatn has so much to see, you can easily spend an entire day there. We started by checking out the pseudo-craters known as Skutustadagigar. They are known as pseudo-craters because they are not connected to a magma source underneath. They occur when a lava flow from an explosion nearby starts to flow over a body of water. The intense heat over the water creates steam explosions which is what forms the craters. They look the best from above. From the ground, they are really neat, but you don't get the same effect. And you get marauded by these infuriating little flies that hang around the lake because of the massive population of waterfowl that summer here. There are around 2000 birds in the area this time of year but in spring there are closer to 10000. There are 14 species of duck that breed here, and their density is said to be unmatched anywhere in the world. We stopped at one area and the lake is seriously covered with ducks. I've never seen so many in my life. Apparently in the spring it is like a scene out of Hitchcock's The Birds.
Next was Dimmu Borgir, a collection of unique lava rock formations that form a bleak looking landscape. The name means "dark castles", and it is a suitable name, as you'll see in the pictures. It also happens to be the area where they filmed the scenes for Mance Rayder's camp beyond the wall in Game of Thrones. There were so many to see we walked around for well over half an hour.
Next was Hverir. This is an above ground manifestation of the subsurface magma activity. Here it manifests as a series of bubbling mud pits and steam vents that have so much heat and pressure escaping them that the sound is deafening. Once our pictures are uploaded, you will see the desolation of this area. It was really cool though. There were very well marked paths with lots of warnings not to stray off, as the ground is unstable, and the bubbling mud is at about 200C. Tourists have suffered serious burns in the past when they didn't pay heed to the warnings.

Then we went to the Myvatn Nature Baths. This is like Banff Hot Springs on steroids. And not totally sanitized and sterilized. The water is still very natural, so full of minerals that you cannot see your lower body in the water. Plus, you could probably fit 4 or 5 Banff Hot Springs inside Myvatn Nature Baths. It contains 3.5 million liters of water and is kept at around 40C the majority of the time. Not only was the water gorgeous and the view fantastic, but they will bring you beer right to the pool, and they brought out live music after a half hour. Doesn't get better than that.

By this point, we were so hungry we felt sick. So we checked out Gamli Bistro. The service really left something to be desired, but the food was excellent. Around this area a really popular dish is geyser bread with smoked arctic char. Geyser bread is basically a simple rye bread. When the dough is made, it is put into a container, buried in hot rocks near an active geothermal vent, and left there for 8-12 hours. It is sliced very thin and then spread with cream cheese. On top of that they lay smoked Arctic char. I cannot describe to you the taste. It is otherworldly. And even better, they also use the bread to make a dessert called Hot Spring Bread Soup. It is kind of like bread pudding. The bread is softened with what I imagine is a syrup-like mixture including molasses, and then covered with whipped cream. Unbelievable.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Saudarkrokur to Akureyri

What can I say about today? Today was, quite simply, the best day we've had so far. It was a combination of multiple once-in-a-lifetime experiences that we will never forget.

Knowing that we'd be whitewater rafting today, and knowing that we were woefully unprepared to be doing so on a glacier fed river in cloudy weather with temperatures of around 10C, we went to the local store to find some warm clothing. Ugh, stuff is so expensive here. A pair of long johns was like $60. So Sarah settled for some fleece leggings and we decided she would just wear my clothes. No one cares how snazzy you look when you're freezing your ass off on a raft.

With rafting not starting until 3pm, we had time to kill. And did we ever kill it in style.

We went to the Glaumbaer Folk Museum. Let me tell you. This place is unbelievable. An absolute must see if you're in this area of Iceland. Not going there should be a crime punishable by permanent exile from the country.

It is the site of a very old settlement, with archaeological evidence suggesting signs of organized human settlement as early as 900 AD. The majority of the property that is displayed dates from the 1700s. It is a traditional Icelandic turfhouse.
Now, by using the singular above, you may think I made an error. I did not. That is indeed one house. If you check our pics in the Iceland July 11 album on Facebook, you will see the inside of said house. It is incredible. There were around 11 rooms inside. It was a well to do farm family that lived here, and many generations lived on the farm. There were up to 25 people living in this house at once. They slept two to a bed, and calling the beds twins would be generous.

We were able to overhear a tour guide giving a bit of a spiel to her group. Although this was a well heeled family, they still lived in hard times. They rarely bathed, instead often saving horse urine and washing with that. They would leave it exposed to the air to gas off the more potent components. Apparently it works really good for keeping your whites white. Try it out! In the winter, they often stayed indoors and did much of their work by oil lamp, as there is only full sunlight for about 3 hours.

But it was amazing the accoutrements they had in this house. They roasted green coffee beans and then ground them up right there. They had massive pantries where they stored all their food. An indoor fireplace,, which obviously smoked out the whole house, but which they took advantage of to also smoke the meat hanging in the meat pantry. Apparently the house was still inhabited in the late 40s, at which point it received money from a wealthy British nobleman who loved it and donated money to start a museum foundation for it.

Check out the pics on Facebook. It was a truly fascinating place, and seeing that this was an actual house that people lived in, and how the turf construction was done was fascinating.

Then we went in search of a secret. There is a tiny natural hot pool nearby called Fosslaug (which translates as "waterfall pool") because of its proximity to Reykjafoss (which translates as "smoky waterfall). I read about it online after seeing it inconspicuously mentioned on a local tourism website. The directions given on one blog were a bit sketchy, so I wanted to ask someone local.

When I asked the lady at the tourism info centre where it is, she looked at me kind of funny. She leaned it and got a little quieter and then pulled a map out from under the desk and said "We don't like people knowing about this. But when they ask specifically about it, we will tell them how to find it."

Turns out this little hot pool is on private ranch property. The rancher is okay with people accessing it as long as it doesn't get out of hand and they follow the rules. She showed me the directions (down a back gravel road, to the end of another gravel road, through three gates and over an old wooden bridge) and made sure to drill it into my head that I MUST CLOSE THE GATES BEHIND ME. "Not on your way back. RIGHT AFTER YOU GO THROUGH THEM!!" See the rancher has almost taken the steps of closing it off completely because some tourists didn't close the gates, and his sheep and horses got out. Not cool tourists. Not cool.

What can I say about this place? Unbelievable is really the only word that comes to mind. It is a small little pool that fits maybe 6 or 7 adults. But it is just a hole dug in the ground and lined with rocks. A natural hot spring feeds right into it. The water is about 40C. And if you sit near where the spring enters the pool, it is unbearable. Like so hot that it burns your skin. In fact, the water in the tiny little brook from the spring is so hot it is bubbling. But when it gets into the larger volume of the pool, the temperature is perfect. And you are only maybe 50 feet from a gorgeous waterfall to boot. So you sit there, soaking in this natural hot water, mud between your toes, listening to the intoxicating, hypnotic roar of water crashing down over rocks. It is enough to lull you to sleep.

Sadly, we couldn't stay there forever. The time came to head off to the whitewater rafting base station. The company, Viking Rafting, is run by a Canadian from Montreal. He hires what looked like mostly foreign young men. The main guide was named Zach, and was clearly American. He comes from Idaho, and just bought a one way ticket, got this job, and doesn't know when he's going back home.

After getting the safety spiel, we took off with the bus. There were 16 of us in all, plus three guides. One from the US, one from the Netherlands, and one from Nepal. It was about a twenty minute drive to the put in. We had dry suits on, which were a new experience for me. But because I was wearing four layers on top, and two on bottom, I was feeling pretty good. But it was damn cold out. Probably only around 8C and the wind in some areas was crazy strong. Enough to blow your paddle right out of your hand. And keep in mind this is a glacier fed river.

We had signed up for the family friendly tour. Mostly due to timing and cost. So it wasn't the most adrenaline pulsing action packed rafting tour you'll ever go on. But the scenery was breathtaking. It was a very deep canyon with fascinating rock formations on both sides. The water was fantastic actually, even though it was ice cold. And the piece de resistance of the whole trip, was our quick shore stop.

They pulled over to the shore where another natural hot spring bubbled up. They had a bucket of cups stored there. We each took a cup and filled it up with what was boiling hot water from the spring. The guide then took out hot chocolate powder. The kind with marshmallows. Yeah he did. It was seriously epic. And the water was perfect. It didn't have a sulfurous taste that I feared it might.

We continued down the river. Sarah and I were the front paddlers so we had to set the pace. And the guide said we were a great team. Uh, yeah, duh.  Except for the time my paddle got jammed under a rock and pulled under the boat and I almost fell out. I did say almost. I totally owned that damn rock and kept dry. Take that. Stupid rock. Didn't even lose or break my paddle. Boo yah!

One of the best parts of the trip was at the end. We took out at a part of the river bank surrounded by very steep sides. I had no idea how the guides would get the rafts up the bank. Then I saw a little cart. It was clearly handmade, and just big enough to pile the three rafts on. When we got to the top we saw an old tractor. We couldn't have our phones with us on the raft so I couldn't get a picture. But picture this old tractor. Like really old. It's been sitting in the same spot for 20 years, so is thoroughly embedded in the ground. The tire has been taken off the back left wheel, and the drive train has been disconnected from the back right wheel.

A thick steel cable is attached to the back left wheel. The other end of that cable is all the way down the river bank connected to the little cart, on which the guides stack the rafts. The old guy who helps them out, who I think is like in his 70s, has a hat he got in Gimli, Manitoba (a town full of descendants of Icelandic immigrants), speaks very little English, and I'm pretty sure, despite my best attempts to pronounce the Icelandic word for pharmacist, thinks I am a farmer, hops on the tractor and fires it up. That turns the drive train, which turns the wheel, which pulls the steel cable, and pulls the cart along a handmade wooden rail. It was hilarious and impressively resourceful.

Finally when we got back to their base, and we were changing out of our dry suits, I struck up a conversation with a Dutchman. He thought it was awesome that I'm of Dutch heritage, and he knows exactly where our ancestral town (Dalfsen) is and that of much of our extended family (Genemuiden), this despite my complete butchering of its pronunciation. Then when I put on my All Blacks shirt, his young boy went totally googly eyed. Turns out rugby is becoming a popular sport in the Netherlands. His lad has been playing for six years now and is completely obsessed with the All Blacks. He also plays the same position I did in school (prop). Honestly, I think I made the kids day. Especially after I told him that rugby is way better than football, with which his father wholeheartedly agreed. Risky thing to say in front of a Dutchman, but my gamble paid off.

As always, we finished off the night with a great meal, and are staying in an adorable country hotel overlooking the fjord near Akureyri. Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland. Looking forward to checking out the downtown tomorrow, and then off to the Myvatn area, which is one of the most popular areas for tourism in Iceland. They have nature baths, multiple hot springs, lava formations, craters, and much more. Should be a busy day!

Drangsnes to Sauðárkrókur

Not far from Drangsnes is Hólmavík, a seaside town of only 375. However, the entire region, called Strandir, is known for its history. A good part of that history centres around witchcraft and sorcery, which is why they've made a museum to that effect, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. Superstition was rife for many years in Iceland, but sorcery and witchcraft as it is more commonly known started to come to light in the 17th century.

When you look at the history presented in the museum, it is very clear that the fear of sorcery and witchcraft, and subsequent accusations, trials, and executions, was really just an effort by a wealthy family or group of families to maintain their wealth and power. They have a very detailed genealogy in the museum that shows that the majority of those accusing and persecuting the sorcerers and witches were from one large family. They even did so to some of their own, likely those who entered the family that other family members did not approve of. Interestingly, in contrast to the history of the witch hunt in Europe and North America, only 2 of the 21 documented cases of execution were of women. The rest were all men.

The museum had exhibits of various books of incantations and wooden plaques called staves into which one would carve certain symbols to carry out a spell of their choosing. There were three particularly interesting things I came across. 

One was an exhibit showing an ancient spell used to conjure sea storms against your enemies. You needed the dead dried head of a ling (kind of like a cod), which you put on a pike, and inserted a special stick with the proper runes engraved in it. You then pointed the head of the ling in the direction from which you wanted the wind to blow. One of the men executed in the region was sentenced because a man he was known to dislike got caught in a terrible storm. After the storm ended, amid the wreckage was a piece of driftwood with runes on it, a dead ling head, and a stick. I wonder how many shipwrecks end up with fish heads and driftwood washing up alongside? But coincidence didn't fly with these folks, so they figured it must be the man they "knew" was a sorcerer, and so charged him, tried him, and executed him.

The second was the necropants. So here's how this worked. You had to make a deal with a friend to allow you to dig up their body when they die. When you do, you flay their corpse, and then step into the skin of their legs from the waist down. You then have to steal a coin from a poor widow and place it in the scrotal sack of the necropants, along with a piece of paper bearing a certain sign called nabrokurstafur. The scrotum will then magically draw money into it, as long as the original coin remains. But you must find someone to take the necropants from you before you die. Good luck with that.

Finally was a cool stone that locals found nearby that had a clear indentation identifying it as a bowl-like vessel. Scientists analyzed the stone with fluorescein, that stuff they use to fluoresce blood in CSI. It glowed slightly around the edges of the bowl but very strongly at the bottom, where fluid would collect. Because it did not glow elsewhere in the stone, it is unlikely the fluorescing was due to contaminants in the stone and so the scientists studying it postulated that it was used to hold blood for mixing things needed for spells.

All in all, the museum was super cool.

We then went to the Icelandic Sheep Museum. This is a museum dedicated to the history of sheep farming in Iceland, which goes back a long way. Long enough that sheep are partially blamed for the deforestation of Iceland. It is highly unlikely they are the cause, but popular history posits that after the Vikings stripped the land bare of all its trees, the heavy grazing of the sheep ensured continued erosion of the land and inability of the trees to reestablish. Regardless, sheep farming is huge in Iceland. Like massive. And they do it very differently. 

They basically let the sheep roam freely in the hills and mountains all spring and summer. Then in the fall the whole community gets together and rounds up all the sheep in the area. They even bring out helicopters. Seriously. They always get their sheep. Each farmer in a region has ear tags that mark his sheep. When they are all corralled, they then go through a sorting process where each farmer has to separate his sheep from the rest. Finally they are taken home and put in the barn for the winter, where they are often shorn twice. It is still a very important industry in Iceland and lamb goes for a very high premium in Iceland's restaurants. They are very proud of the fitness and health of their sheep and the farmers seem to be held in quite high regard. 

Finally we headed off to Sauðárkrókur. But we'd been told there is excellent seal viewing near a town called Hvammstangi on the Vatnsnes peninsula. So we took the drive off the main road. It was kind of worth it. Sort of. There were about 6 seals chilling out on the rocks. But it was SO DAMN COLD that it was hard to enjoy it. 

But we finished off the night in a cozy little restaurant in Sauðárkrókur called Olafshus. I had a delectable minke whale steak that was to die for. And we stayed in a great little hotel called Hotel Mikligardur. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Isafjordur to Drangsnes

Today we had a relatively short trip to our next stop so decided to enjoy the beautiful little seaside town of Isafjordur.

That, for Sarah, of course included going to the local wool shop. Apparently Lopi wool is renowned among knitters of all persuasions. In Canada, a ball of this yarn is roughly $6. In Iceland, where it is harvested and processed, it is $3. She loaded up. They had great kits to make sweaters with all the required yarn and patterns included.

I bought an adorable children's book about trolls. They love trolls here. For example, in the village we are in right now, Drangsnes, there is an enormous island in the bay called Grimsey, and a large rock formation on shore right next to our guesthouse. The story goes that there were three trolls who were fighting to see who could separate the Westfjords from the rest of Iceland. Two of the trolls were competing and smashed up so much land that they created the uncountable islands in Breidarfjordur Bay. The lady troll stayed around Drangsnes and tried her darnedest but couldn't break a single piece of land. At the end of the night, when she noticed the sun rising, she was furious at her failure and slammed her shovel into the ground. It broke off the piece of land that became Grimsey and she ended up being turned into stone where she stood and still stands, watching over the island she created.

They actually present "evidence" for this tale because the geological layers of the island match those of the mainland perfectly. I guess trolls sheared South America from Africa too :-)

Unfortunately, when we got the book back to the hotel, Sarah noticed I'd bought the German version. They had English, French, and German. I chose the 1 of 3 my children wouldn't understand. Sigh. Thankfully the exchange policy in Iceland is rather liberal.

We had a "light" lunch at Gamla Bakariid. This was a very European bakery specializing in pastries. They all looked so incredible that we couldn't decide which to get. I had a chocolate covered honey cake with strawberry cream filling and Sarah had a delectable rhubarb cake.

Off we went to Drangsnes. On the way we saw many more breathtaking fjords, waterfalls, and mountains, as well as a high mountain pass that almost brought us up into the clouds. Up there were numerous lakes that collect every year from the melt water. Man did they look cold.

When we arrived in Drangsnes, it was SUPER COLD. Like probably 5C plus a nasty wind on top of it. But we still took advantage of the hot tub next door to our hotel. And so apparently did a bunch of Icelanders. They are swim-crazy here. It was absolutely freezing outside but they were just joyful and playful in the pool, including little kids. Meanwhile us "tough Canadians" sat in the hot tub the entire time, right up to our chins.

At the end of the night, we ate in the restaurant run by our guesthouse. It was either the best or second best meal we've had. Sarah had an amazing fried cod. She says she wishes she could figure out how to cook fish like that because if she could, she would eat fish more often. I had fish stew. They have an interesting idea of what constitutes stew. It is not what we think of as stew. It is basically mashed potatoes mixed with fish that's been shredded up. Don't get me wrong. It is phenomenally delicious. But just not "stew" as I think of stew.

Off to Saudarkrokur tomorrow to see the witchcraft and sorcery museum, feed lambs from a bottle, and do some seal watching!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Stykkisholmur to Patreksfjordur to Isafjordur

This was done over two days, the first stretch being from Stykkisholmur to Patreksfjordur, and the next from Patreksfjordur to Latrabjarg and then to Isafjordur.

Day 1: Stykkisholmur to Patreksfjordur

Stykkisholmur is a glorious little seaside town. We had lots of time to walk around and take it in. Instead, we spent that time shopping at Bonus, the Icelandic equivalent of No Frills, which has a logo that looks not unlike a drunk pig. But it rocks there. It's the only place I've found where you can buy food at prices even roughly approximating those in Canada.

And we of course had to go to Vinbudin, the government owned liquor store. Because what's a holiday without ample supply of alcohol?

Our pre-booked boat tour of the Breidafjordur Bay started at 11am. The boat was packed, so it wasn't always easy to get the best view, but everyone was very cordial and made sure to move away once they'd taken their pictures. The purpose of the tour was to see the many birds nesting in the cliffs on the islands dotting the bay. Which we did. We saw guillemots, kittiwakes, shags (related to cormorants) and LOTS of puffins. And from a distance we could see a white-tailed eagle, of which there are only 200 remaining in all of Iceland.

According to the tour guide, something like 80-90% of the known world population of puffins summers in Iceland. There are a lot of them in this bay, in the Westman Islands, and on Latrabjarg, a cliff in the Westfjords that we get to soon.

Although this tour was supposed to be about birds, we got a lovely surprise when they introduced the Viking Sushi component. I didn't understand the name of the tour until it started. They dropped a small trawling rig to the bottom of the bay and dragged it for about 5 minutes. When they hauled it up, it was stuffed full with all kinds of sea creatures, including starfish, sea urchin, crabs, hermit crabs, and most of all, scallops.

Right in front of us, when the haul was dumped out onto the sorting table, the crew was shucking and cleaning the scallops for us. So it was every tourist for himself, grabbing at each scallop as it was presented. I ended up having 3, and they were made all the more delicious by the availability of soya sauce, ginger, and wasabi.

After the tour ended, we went back to the hotel shortly to "use the facilities". While waiting for Sarah, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman at the front desk. He was very friendly, spoke impeccable English, and was clearly very intelligent (Icelanders have the highest average years spent in education of all Europeans). We talked about our respective countries, and it was interesting to hear about how his country fared after the 2008 recession. In a word: badly. They were heavily reliant on the financial sector, so their economy really tanked, and inflation hit 20-25%. Since then, the cost of living has gone way up. Thankfully, they threw into jail many of the bankers responsible for some of the crooked trading that went on. But he said, to an extent, the labour participation rate is so high in Iceland, because you can't afford not to work.

Before hopping on a ferry and saying goodbye to Stykkisholmur, we climbed to the top of the island that houses the lighthouse. Sweet merciful crap was it ever windy up there. So bad that you could lean into the wind and not fall over. It was a gorgeous view, but I didn't stay very long.

We finally got onto the ferry around 1600 and started the 3 hour trek across the bay to Brjanslaekur. From there it was a short but mortifying drive to our hotel in Patreksfjordur. The Westfjords are the most isolated area in Iceland, particularly the area around Patreksfjordur. So the roads in the mountainous areas are almost all gravel, and very narrow. Just barely enough room for two cars passing one another. It was quite the experience.

Once we settled into our hotel we ate at the delightful family owned restaurant, Heimsendi. The burgers there were to die for. In fact, burgers in Iceland are just plain better. I don't know that their beef is any better, but they know how to cook it! They cook them around medium I'd say. Just a thin strip of pink on the inside. When you squeeze the bun together, so much juicy goodness comes out. Delicious. And their dessert was outstanding. It came out as what looked like a solid chocolate Death Star on a bed of yogurt. But then the waitress pours a hot caramel sauce on it and, voila! The chocolate melts, revealing two flavours of ice cream trapped inside. Brilliant.

Day 2: Patreksfjordur to Latrabjarg to Isafjordur

First thing in the morning after eating breakfast, we headed out to Latrabjarg. We'd heard that the 60 km trip takes 90 minutes. We didn't believe that until we started driving it. Oh. My. Goodness. The roads were so bad that at one point I caught Sarah on video, as I was filming their frightening state, saying "As soon as I'm done this drive, I'm having a drink!" They really were terrible. And it really did take us almost 90 minutes.

But when we got there, we knew why so many people make the trip. It was magnificent. A 14 km long cliff that is home to nesting birds of all kinds. The gull type birds are probably the most numerous but there are tons of puffins too. It is estimated that during the early summer there are roughly 1 million birds on this cliff. The puffins are surprisingly tame. I was within touching distance of quite a few of them and they just looked at me unfazed. They are beautiful birds and sort of silly like penguins. Some of the terns are not so silly. They form these circling towers in the air around anyone crazy enough to walk on the beach nearby and repeatedly dive bomb them. I saw a few tourists running frantically away from the beach waving their hat violently to get rid of them. The fulmar, if you make it feel threatened, will vomit on you as a way of scaring you from its chicks. Yuck.

Latrabjarg is also the site of the westernmost point in Europe. Iceland is not all part of the European continent, as it sits right on the mid-Atlantic ridge, so part of it is part of the North American continent. But it is politically part of Europe, so they list it as the westernmost point of Europe, about 2500 km from Cape Spear, the easternmost part of Canada.

After Latrabjarg we headed back to Patreksfjordur and then on to Isafjordur, the largest city in the Westfjords, with a population of roughly 2600. On the way, we drove in and out of numerous fjords, which made the drive much longer than one would think. But it was beautiful. Particularly when we came to Dynjandi. This is an enormous water that comes straight down from the top of a fjord and empties into the ocean. It is actually a series of waterfalls, and each of them is given a different name. The whole collection is 330 ft high. It is stunningly beautiful as the moss and lichen in the area grows thickly on the rock surrounding the waterfall, making it a deep rich green. The site was full of tourists but it was still pretty easy to access and take some great pictures. They will go up eventually.

Finally we got to Isafjordur, a beautiful little town that is built on a sand flat. It looks like it would be impossible to build a city there, but the sand flat is large and stable enough, I guess they figured out how to make it happen. Before entering Isafjordur, after traversing terrifyingly high mountain passes, you enter this enormous tunnel that goes right through the mountain and exits to Isafjordur on the other end. I've been through tunnels in the Rockies. This should be easy, right? Well, not when it is single lane traffic. Yeah. Single lane. And you are relying on the goodwill of those driving toward you to pull into the side spaces in the walls. They are frequently placed, but there are no apparent rules for when you have to enter them and when they other driver has to. Thankfully, it seemed like everyone going in the opposite direction was just waiting for our stream of traffic to get through before pulling back out, so we didn't have to stop. It was 6 km of uncertainty, fear, and claustrophobia.

Everything in Iceland closes at 6pm. Seriously. So early. And it doesn't open until 11am. So once we checked into our hotel, we set out to find a place to eat. Everywhere we went was fully booked. It was crazy. The only place we found was a really expensive place in one of the hotels, but that's what happens when you don't plan ahead. I ate a gigantic plate of fresh mussels from a bay not far from the hotel. They were fantastic. And Sarah had peanut steak. Yeah. I know. It was a vegetarian dish and was actually really delicious.

It was too damn cold (around 6C with a really cold wind) to really walk around town so we decided to save that for the next day.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur

I've given up on creating fancy names. It's just too much work. And I'm tired.

The day started off gloriously with free breakfast at Hotel Fron, our home in Reykjavik. Nothing beats fresh muesli and Skyr (Icelandic yogourt). Except when you forget that the white yogourt in Iceland usually isn't french vanilla. Yack. Oh well. Fixed that real quick by mixing it with copious amounts of blueberry jam.

We then got picked up by our rental car company (nope, not Enterprise!). Holy slap me silly with a puffin are rental cars ever expensive in Iceland. We paid for the car itself as part of our tour package. But it is highly advised to get gravel and sand protection, as wind storms come up out of nowhere, especially in the remote areas. I read too many horror stories to not consider doing it. But it cost like $45 a day. Frick.

Oh well. Into the wilderness we march! Or not... because Sarah saw a giant shopping mall. Into the shopping mall we march! After purchasing some new shoes, which in fairness she really needed, we were finally on our way.

And let me tell you, I've never seen anything quite like what I saw today.

This is the route we took. All in all it was around 350 km. But it would be like doing 350 km on roads not unlike the Icefields Parkway. In fact, the whole drive reminded me a lot of the Icefields Parkway. It took us from 10:00 until 18:00 to get to our destination. 8 hours to cover 350 km. Why you ask?

Well, if you look at the pictures on Facebook in the "Iceland July 6" album, or here on Google Drive, you will understand why it took us so long. Every corner you came around there was some other incredible sight to see. But before I get to that, let me tell you about the sheep.

Oh the sheep. The little buggers are EVERYWHERE. And they just roam freely all over the countryside. At one point I almost soiled myself because I suddenly noticed that the lump next to one of the roadside markers was a little lamb all snuggled up having a nap. Later when we were hiking to one sight, I heard a semi driver just blasting away on his horn. When I looked back to see what was going on, I saw that about 20 sheep were crossing the road and taking their sweet time. He was trying to inform them that this was not leisure time and they needed to get their act together. Later, us and three other cars had to stop dead on the highway for a big ram who just stood in the middle of the highway like he owned the place. They are hilarious.

The roads aren't bad. They are all paved. But they are remarkably narrow. Enough so that I was white knuckling it every time I came upon another vehicle.

It was worth it though. We saw so many beautiful sights I can't even describe. From the waterfalls, to the craters, the canyons, rapidly flowing meltwater rivers, climbing up a steep embankment just to see if I can get where the sheep are, cliffs teeming with birds, and a highway so full of birds that there is actually a road sign warning you of the risk of pegging one off with your car. And then there were the adorable seaside towns, the bridges over the fjords barging their way inland, and the outstanding meal we had at a surprisingly gourmet restaurant in a town of 1100 people.

It was a long day, and we did more hiking than I think I've ever done in 24 hours. Some of the sights were quite a way off the road, so you had to hike to them. And some just had to be climbed, like the ancient volcano that made a beautiful crater, and the trail next to the canyon, where the sheep were hiding, just challenging me to climb up to them.

It was incredible, and I can't wait to do it again tomorrow.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Of Vikings and Penises

I've moved my blog back over to my personal blog because for some reason the blog on TravelPod got flagged for violation of their terms of usage? I have no idea why. Whatever.

Today we did what every parent dreams of: slept in until 1 in the afternoon. We were obviously exhausted.

Not to be deterred, we set out quickly, to a quirky little cafe called C is for Cookie. They had delicious sandwiches and their coffee was excellent. In fact, coffee in general is rather excellent in Iceland. In fact, they are the 3rd highest per capita consumers of coffee in the world. And it shows. They make regular drip coffee here as well as cappucinos, lattes, espressos, etc. One complaint I've heard from Canadians when they go to Europe is that "you just can't find a regular cup of coffee anywhere". Well, if that bugs you, go to Iceland. You can find a good regular cup of coffee EVERYWHERE.

After that we decided we just had to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum. I've been told you can't visit Reykjavik and not go there. This truly unique museum features preserved penises from almost all the species of mammal that can be found on Iceland including, yes, Homo sapiens. A man who died not long ago had willed his penis to the museum and it is on display there in a jar with preservative, just like all the others. Many others have followed his lead and have willed their "specimens" to be given to the museum upon their death. Including one man, Jonah Falcon, who has a rather abnormal specimen, considered the largest known in the world at 9.5 inches flaccid, 13.5 inches erect.

It's hard to know what to make of the museum, because it is simultaneously scientifically serious and utterly hilarious. Regardless, it was well worth the visit.

We then walked along the harbour shore, a path that shows the beautiful Reykjavik harbour, still bustling with marine activity, a massive riverfront condominium and apartment development, the Sun Voyager sculpture, numerous restaurants, the Old Harbour, and Harpa, an enormous and gorgeous concert and conference centre.

Continuing on, we were able to also see a ship being actively worked on by men. It was dry docked, leaving the full body of the ship exposed to passersby. The enormity of the vessel was truly astounding. They look so much smaller in the water that you forget how incredibly massive they are.

Our legs brought us next to the Icelandic Saga Museum. The museum guides you through the ancient history of Iceland using dramatic life like replicas of historical figures. It goes all the way back to the first Norse settler, up to the creation of a functional Parliament, and the arrival of the Reformation. It is an audio-guided tour that took about 30 minutes. The stories were fascinating. A few facts stuck out for me.

-During the Reformation, a Catholic priest was trying to protect the Catholic religion on the island. He was beheaded, but by the time the executioner got to him, he was tired, and it took 7 axe blows before he was fully decapitated.
-Prior to the arrival of the Reformation, leaders in Iceland were trying to figure out whether to govern the country by both pagan and Christian laws. They knew they couldn't do both, but decided that officially the laws would be Christian, but that pagans could continue to practice their religion, as long as it was done privately. That was pretty unique for that era in history.
-It seems like everyone but Americans is fully aware that Christopher Columbus was not the first one to discover the American continent. It is very likely it was Norse Vikings who discovered it first, and also (possibly) that it was specifically Leif Erikson, a native Icelander born to Erik the Red and Thjodhild. Icelanders seem to take great pride in this historical narrative. Whoever it was though, historians agree it was most certainly NOT Columbus.

Finally, we settled down for supper. Sarah came upon a brilliant little restaurant called Islenski Barinn. They had phenomenal burgers, Sarah's of the beef variety and mine of the sheep. Both were delicious. In Reykjavik, you quickly learn to order your main, and skip the drinks, appetizers, and desserts. Otherwise, a meal, even at a moderately priced venue like this, easily runs over $100. Even just with the main, one drink, and a cappucino, it was $70. And that's on the cheap side as far as this city goes.

The day wasn't quite done though. I had an unfortunate mishap with a bottle of shaving cream that decided to erupt in my suitcase. So off to the laundromat we went. The Laundromat Cafe to be more specific. This is a brilliant creation, melding a super awesome restaurant with a laundromat downstairs. Adding to the general family friendliness of Reykjavik, the entire downstairs area also has tables and a giant kids play area for parents with small children. The kids that were down there were just having a ball while their parents ate peacefully upstairs. Brilliant idea.

Sarah had a little cider and I had a delicious bowl of Skyr with blueberries and white chocolate. Mmmm. Skyr.

At the end of the night, we stopped by a bookstore where they sold power converters. But I noticed this awesome little book called Iceland in Figures. Yeah. It's a little pocketbook full of nerdy statistics that I love. So I shall share some of them at the end of each post :-)

I decided it's easier to just post a link to our pictures on Google Drive. Just click on the link and you can peruse through. I don't have descriptions for all of them, but hopefully it'll be mostly self-explanatory. Enjoy!

Nerdy Iceland Statistics
-Iceland is 93% native Icelanders; the second most common citizenship of residents is Polish
-Iceland has the fifth highest fertility rate in all of Europe

Welcome to Rockjavik

Yeah, I punned it. 

Sarah vigorously rolled her eyes when I came up with that zinger at supper tonight.

We left Edmonton yesterday at roughly 6:30 pm Edmonton time and arrived in Reykjavik this morning at around 12:40 am Edmonton time, 6:40 am local time. The airport is quite nice, but wow is the setup bad. When you get off your plane, you have to go through security again before you can go get your bags. I kind of see why, because it is a major transfer airport, so many people are transferring to other flights. But for those staying in Iceland, it was just enraging. Especially considering how tired we were.

Once we finally got through, we were greeted by a tour representative who was tasked with driving us into Reykjavik to our hotel. Reykjavik is about a 45 minute drive from the airport.

Our driver was a proud local man. He pointed out many different sites to us, and patiently answered all of my questions. According to him, over 80% of homes in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy (and he was right). Fishing is still a dominant industry, but tourism has become increasingly important, especially since their financial sector crashed in 2008. In fact, there was a massive national discussion recently when the government considered adding entry fees to some of the natural areas in Iceland. It was triggered after they broke the 1 million tourists in a year milestone for the first time last year. Icelanders were apparently outraged, and the idea was quickly scuttled.

Other random observations about Iceland before I get into what we saw and did in Reykjavik today:
-The landscape between the airport and Reykjavik looks like what I imagine the surface of Mars to look like
-That landscape also smells rather strongly of sulfur, the gas emanating from the numerous geothermal vents
-There are lupins EVERYWHERE; according to our driver, they were brought over from Alaska and have since spread like wildfire; they're very pretty, but supposedly toxic to sheep
-Icelanders are VERY attractive; both genders; seriously, not kidding
-Food is crazy expensive here
-A majority of Icelanders still believe in elves and trolls
-The Althingi, the national Parliament of Iceland, is the oldest democratic parliamentary institution in the world, having started in 930; Iceland is led by a President as head of state and a Prime Minister as head of government
-Icelanders don't really have last names; they have their first name and then their father's name followed by either -son or -dottir depending on if they're a man or woman; my name, for example, would be Tony Waltersson, because my dad's name is Walter; and Sarah would be Sarah Kerrysdottir; so many of them go by just their first and sometimes middle names
-The previous mayor of Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr (see, told you they just use first and middles), started a party called the Best Party, running on a campaign to bring the Jurassic Park dinosaurs to Reykjavik, free towels in all swimming pools, a drug free Parliament in 10 years, bringing Disneyland to Reykjavik, and a promise to break all of his campaign promises if elected (it was satirical obviously); he actually won; seriously, look it up
-After Jon Gnarr became mayor, he stated that he would refuse to form a governing coalition with anyone who had not seen The Wire
-Icelanders love chocolate covered licorice; seriously; it's a thing, and it's really tasty
-Iceland is considered a global leader in gender equality; first to elect female head of state (1980), equal inheritance rights since 1850, 40% of Parliamentarians are women, one of the highest female labor participation rates in the world, both mothers and fathers have independent 3 months of parental leave (~90% of fathers use their paternal leave); full ban on strip clubs since 2010, obligations that companies have boards composed of 40% women

When we got to Reykjavik, we checked into our hotel, Hotel Fron. It honestly could not be in a better location. The metro Reykjavik area is home to 2/3 of the population of the entire country. Reykjavik proper is about 122 000 people, in an area roughly equivalent to that of the urban proper area of Halifax. But pretty much everything you'd want to see is in the downtown core.

And the most bustling street is called Laugavegur. A street on which our hotel just happens to be situated. 

We wasted little time in hitting the streets. 

First stop was Hallgrímskirkja, a massive Lutheran church and one of the tallest structures in the country. It is an example of minimalist beauty on the inside, with one of the most ornate pipe organs I've ever seen, consisting of over 5500 individual pipes. We took the elevator to the top, affording us sweeping views of the city. Noticing that there was an organ concert planned for noon, we quickly rushed back to the hotel to attire ourselves more properly, and made it just in time to attend. It was worth the rush. The music was so beautiful, and the sound so encircling, that the combination of it and the jet lag made me doze off. I awoke with a start, likely to the amusement of those around me, when the organist hammered out a Phantom of the Opera-esque bass segment. 

Apparently Sarah also had a case of the nods, so we headed back to the hotel for a nap. But not before we saw a liege waffle stand and obliged our temptations. She got the plain one. I don't do plain. I do Nutella. 

After a rather refreshing nap of almost four hours, I could actually function again. By that time, the Reykjavikers had brushed off the effects of Friday night's runtur, some of them no doubt aided by the Hangover Killer at Prikid. The place was hopping. It was like Whyte Ave if you shut down the entire street to car traffic from 104th to 109th. Which they should do, by the way.

So we joined in. We walked all the way down Laugavegur and took in all the quirky shops, including Sarah's favourite, the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland. There was the Laundromat Cafe, which literally operates as both of those things, and had a cheeky sign out front proclaiming "Come on in and feel free to breastfeed. We love babies AND boobies!" There were bookstores, record stores, clothing, expensive jewelry, and a liquor store, busier than any I've ever seen in my life. And it is so strange. You buy most of it by the single. Seriously. All the cases and 6-packs are cracked open and you just grab however many you need. Which for one guy was apparently a giant Rubbermaid container full. True story.

After all that fun, we finally decided to get some supper. And boy did we hit the jackpot. We stumbled upon Sushi Samba, a unique fusion restaurant combining the fresh seafood flare of sushi with the penchant for elaborate presentation and perfectly cooked meat of higher end South American cuisine. They had a seven course set menu that was essentially a culinary whirlwind trip through Iceland.
1. Smoked puffin with blueberries, beets, and goat cheese
2. Minke whale with date puree and teriyaki
3. Arctic char with parsnip puree, fennel, and dill mayo
4. Lobster cigar (kind of like a spring roll) with chorizo, dates, and chili chutney
5. Reindeer slider with blue cheese and portobello mushroom
6. Lamb with coriander, fennel, butternut squash puree, and fennel
7. And finally, the piece de resistance, a Skyr (Icelandic yogourt) panna cotta with raspberry sorbet, passion fruit foam, and dulce de leche.

It was seriously unbelievable. Not cheap, but unbelievable. 

So far, this city gets a 10 out of 10 on the awesometer. It is currently 11:30 pm, and the street below us is still rocking, the sky bright as day.