And so the intrepid explorers pressed on from Fjadrargljufur, armed only with their GPS and a semi-stale handful of nut mix left over from Pingvillir. We made it to Kirkjubæjarklaustur around lunch time. This was a scheduled stop, although once Amanda and I arrived we weren’t entirely sure why. It was a cute(ish) little area, but to call it a town would be stretching the definition of the word. It did, however, have a decent-looking restaurant, Systrakaffi, so rather than settle for more gas station food – what were we, barbarians? – we pulled in for a bite to eat.
Let’s talk about fermented shark. It’s one of those dishes we’d always heard about and, yeah, okay, been warned against trying. But c’mon – how bad could it be? It’s only shark that’s been stored in a hole in the ground for three months then cut into strips and hung up to dry for six more. The waitress’ funny look when I ordered it should have been a hint as to what we were getting ourselves into. And then she brought it out. There were no immediate red flags. It was in cubes, looking sort of like a cheese plate, with a shot of Brennevin, Iceland’s native liquor, on the side. It didn’t look disgusting, but its reputation couldn’t be denied.
“So . . . how do we eat this?” There might have been a note of panic in my voice.
The waitress laughed. “You take a bite of the shark, chew very fast, then drink the Brennevin to take away the taste of the shark.”
With that glowing endorsement, we tucked in.
It was awful: overwhelmingly fishy, hard to chew and even harder to swallow. And the Brennevin wasn’t much better. As I choked it down I detected notes of turpentine and death. But Amanda and I toughed it out and ate our cubes of rotten shark like the gullible tourists we are.
Once we were sure our lunch would stay down, it was a quick drive over to an odd little geological curiosity: Kirkjugolf (which translates into English as “church floor”). It looks phony, like someone put down some asymmetrical tile in the middle of a field and then took a permanent smoke break. But it’s actually a relative of the basalt columns of Reynisfjara (see Part 3). The difference is that the columns of Kirkjugolf are underground, and we’re just seeing the tops. Nifty!
It was approaching mid-afternoon by this point, and we knew we had a decent drive ahead of us to get to Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon, and then at least another hour past that to our guesthouse in Höfn. All of which I mention only to explain my one regret of the trip. We made a quick stop at Skaftafell National Park, mainly to see Svartifoss, the park’s signature waterfall, which is flanked by more basalt columns. But by the time we reached the park and saw that it was a mile-plus hike to the falls we knew it was a non-starter. So on we went, Svartifoss-less. I won’t even look at the picture, but I include a link here so you can see what we missed.
As we made the drive across the southern part of the country toward Jökulsárlón, the landscape changed again. We were crossing right at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier, so it was on this leg of the drive that we were seeing a stark demarcation between the lava fields and the glacier.
And then we got to Jökulsárlón itself, and suddenly it didn’t seem so tragic that we’d missed Svartifoss. Formed by the retreat of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, this glacial lagoon is one of the most majestic and distinctly foreign things we saw on the trip.
One thing these pictures can’t convey is just how cold it was at Jökulsárlón. In the space of an hour we went from temperatures in the mid-60s at Skaftafell to what had to be the low 40s at the glacial lagoon. But we still hung around for a bit, taking pictures and just sort of trying to process the enormity of what we were seeing before deciding that even with the cold it would be foolish to pass up the chance for a boat tour. So we booked our tickets, climbed into the “boat,” and pushed off into the lagoon. There’s really no way to do it justice in words, so I’ll just drop in some photos and rest assured that they’ll convey the experience better than I could. The trip continues on the other side of the picture break.
As soon as we were off the boat, we high-tailed it along the Ring Road to Höfn, a seaside town for which the word quaint was apparently coined. We got there pushing 8:00 p.m., and the town had largely closed up for the night. Höfn’s few restaurants, however, were doing a booming business (no matter where we went in Iceland, dinner service didn’t really start to pick up until about 8:00 in the evening), but we finally managed to find a table at Kaffi Hornid. We probably should have had something with langoustine (a lobster-like crustacean that’s apparently the local speciality), but after our long day, neither of us were in the mood to work for our meal. After dinner and a walk around town, we stopped briefly for drinks at Pakkhus, a beautiful little restaurant on the harbor, and then retreated to our guesthouse so we could rest up for next day’s drive to the Eastfjords.
Here’s what you need to know about the Eastfjords: they’re beautiful but repetitive. All the fishing towns that dotted our route sort of looked like this from a distance . . .
. . . and this close up …
. . . so rather than give you a blow-by-blow of all the little towns we drove through on the way to Egilsstaðir, I’ll provide instead some highlights that don’t really fit anywhere else.
In Breiðdalsvík we experienced our first Icelandic hotdog (or pylsur). I don’t know how appetizing it looks to the uninitiated, and I fully realize what I’m about to say is tantamount to heresy, but Icelandic hotdogs beat American hotdogs hands down, full stop, every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Some of it has to do with the dog itself, which is made mostly from lamb. Some of it is the condiments: raw onions, fried onions, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade. The real secret weapon, surprisingly, is that the condiments go under the dog. The result is that you get a satisfying bite with all the ingredients rather than having it slop all over the place like the pylsur’s American counterpart. We sampled Icelandic hot dogs at every opportunity, and they never disappointed.
Icelandic beer, on the other hand, was underwhelming. My favorite of the four in the photo to the right was the Einstök toasted porter: a rich beer with coffee and chocolate accents that generally ticked all the boxes I look for in a dark beer (Einstök also does a pale ale and a white ale and a couple seasonal brews). The other three were serviceable, but largely interchangeable and nothing special. Do you like Heineken or Stella Artois? If so, you’ll like Viking, Gull, or Vatnajökull. Fun fact: Beer with an ABV higher than 2.25% was banned in Iceland until 1989. This is one of the only ways the U.S. has ever been more progressive than Iceland.
One driving oddity that we experienced a lot on the Ring Road, but especially in the Eastfjords, was the one-lane bridge.
For whatever reason, most bridges – even the big ones – were one lane wide. This wasn’t a big deal as long as nothing was coming in the other direction. But if a car was headed our way, there was a little bit of jockeying for position to determine who was closer to the bridge entrance and therefore got to cross first, while the other car pulled off to the side. As with most things Icelandic, these were the most polite games of chicken ever played.
Up next: Snowmageddon!
The National – High Violet (2010)