If you’re going to book a 10-day trip to Iceland and you’ve never been there before, how do you decide where to stay? I wish I had some great insight to share, but my grand strategy was basically to confine each day’s driving to about three hours. This would give us plenty of time for our scheduled stops but also allow us the flexibility to explore – which is really the only reason we were able to have happy accidents like Fjaðrárgljúfur. My highly scientific method, then, was simply to book rooms in decent-sized towns (remembering this is Iceland and what passes for “decent-sized” is much smaller than what passes for “decent-sized” in the States) roughly three hours apart. This worked most of the time, with only two exceptions. Egilsstaðir – probably the most underwhelming town we visited – was the first.
I shouldn’t be too harsh. It’s perfectly fine for what it is: a picturesque town without much to do. But it certainly didn’t have the dramatic vistas and geographic features of Vik or the road to Höfn. (Actually, its main claim to fame is the Lagarfljót Worm, a mythical serpent that supposedly lives in the Lagarfljót River that runs through Egilsstaðir. If the Worm is real, we didn’t see it.) The town is, however, within driving distance of Seyðisfjörður, an isolated fishing community that’s supposedly one of the most beautiful spots in the Easfjords. After a brief intermission to check in at our guest house, we hopped back in the trusty Auris and headed off the Ring Road to Seyðisfjörður. We made a quick stop-off at Fardagafoss, one of those gorgeous spots just hanging out by the side of the road that Iceland might as well claim as its national speciality.
What we didn’t realize – because why do research? – is that to get to Seyðisfjörður we had to drive over the Fjarðarheiði mountain pass, which, even in July, is snow-swept and foggy. The higher we drove, the worse the visibility, until we were poking along behind one other car into an impenetrable scrim of mist.
After white-knuckling my way over the pass for 45 minutes, we descended into Seyðisfjörður, which, as advertised, was certainly beautiful . . .
. . . but ultimately no more lively than Egilsstaðir. Back in the car then and over the mountain to the guest house and an early night in.
In the morning, however, we were immediately ready to forgive Egilsstaðir when we discovered a tiny bakery tucked away toward the back of an auto mechanic’s. It was nothing flashy – coffee and pastries – but I can safely say that all future pastry will be judged in comparison to what I ate that morning and undoubtedly be found wanting. I remember discovering pain au chocolat on my first trip to France and thinking that was as good as it got. This pastry makes the best pain au chocolat look like the last stale donut sitting in a gas station display case. If heaven exists, it probably smells a lot like that bakery.
Fortified with sugar and caffeine we headed northwest – ultimately heading for Húsavík, our first two-night stop of the trip – with a few key sights to see. The first was Dettifoss and Selfoss, two waterfalls located a short ten-minute walk apart but with very different personalities. If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, you’ve seen Dettifoss. Its reputation is that it’s the most powerful waterfall in Iceland, and I didn’t see anything to dispute that claim. It’s so impressive that a photo tends to minimize its impact, so here’s a short video that does it more justice. Stay tuned for my dopey reaction at the end.
Afterward, we wound our way through lava formations to Selfoss, another in Iceland’s long line of “Well, shit, that’s really unbelievable” vistas.
It’s pretty cool from a distance, but even more striking close up.
The one thing that we heard repeatedly about Iceland before the trip is that it had an abundance of waterfalls. I remember thinking at one point, “Waterfalls? Big deal. At some point once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” As it turns out, I’m a big dope. We saw a dozen or more during our time in Iceland and they were always beautiful, always fascinating, and, most importantly, always different. I used the word personalities above because it’s apt. Whether they were well-marked tourist stops or just unnamed falls we stumbled across as we drove from place to place, it was pretty remarkable just how distinctive each one was. Selfoss, for the record, is probably my second favorite, right behind Seljandsfoss, which we saw on Day 3. You’ll be quizzed about this later.
After Dettifoss and Selfoss, it was time to head toward Lake Mývatn, with a quick stop at Krafla Crater on the way.
The geothermal activity in Iceland is everywhere, and the area around Mývatn is especially known for it. There are baths (not unlike the Blue Lagoon from Day 1) at the lake itself, and on the drive up to Krafla you pass a massive geothermal power plant. There are also the mud pots at Hefrir. It can be easy to forget just how volcanic Iceland is. Until you’re there. Then it’s inescapable.
Evidence of a different sort could be found in the lava fields at Dimmuborgir. We sampled only a very small part of this area; there were miles of trails winding through the formations, but with an hour or more to Húsavík, we very selectively hiked one of the smaller loops.
Lake Mývatn itself is, surprisingly, not very photogenic (or at least we didn’t make it to the photogenic part because, again, no advance research), but the drive to Húsavík more than made up for it. This part of the trip took us off the paved Ring Road and onto an unpaved secondary road, where the landscape opened wide in front of us, granting spectacular views of the mountains to the west.
Húsavík itself was my favorite stop of the trip. It had a different character from the fishing villages of the Eastfjords, due maybe in part to its reputation as a prime whale watching spot. So in addition to its quaintly beautiful scenery . . .
. . . there was also a surprisingly high-quality whale museum (describing all things Cetacea, including whale physiology and the Icelandic whaling industry), a museum devoted to Iceland’s history of exploration (including when the U.S. space program conducted training missions there in the mid 1960s), and several restaurants and pubs that did booming business in the evening.
It was at one of these, Salka, that I guiltily indulged my culinary interest in trying puffin. I know, I know. They’re arguably one of the cutest birds in the world. Only someone without a moral compass would feast on something so adorable. Does it help for you to know puffin are as common in Iceland as chickens are in the States? No? Well, then, I recommend you stop reading now, because you’re surely not going to like what comes next.
How is puffin prepared? Like this.
What does it look like when someone is eating puffin? Like this.
I wish I could tell you it was horrible, that I was karmically repaid with a sour aftertaste and an evening of gastrointestinal distress. I wish I could tell you that. But it was actually delicious. It was smoked (and accompanied by a horseradish purée), and it tasted like a heavier pastrami – surprisingly more like beef or venison than chicken or duck. If it makes you feel any better, I also ate horse in Paris and kangaroo in Sydney, so at least I’m an equal-opportunity eater of cute things.
With the prospect of an early-morning whale-watching trip greeting us the next day, it was back to our guest house to rest up and prepare to head to the high seas.
Up next: Blue whale to starboard!
The Feelies – Here Before (2011)