One World Passport (Iceland, Part 6: Whale watching in Húsavík and a Trip to Ásbyrgi Canyon)

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Greetings, readers.  If you’re just joining me and planning to read this post, it might be helpful for you to catch up with the first five parts of the trip to Iceland my wife and I took in July 2015.  Here they are:

Part 1: Atlanta to the Blue Lagoon

Part 2: The Golden Circle

Part 3: Pingvillir to Fjadrargljufur

Part 4: Fjadrargljufur to Egilsstaðir, via the Eastfjords

Part 5: Egilsstaðir to Húsavík, via Mývatn

And now, Part 6 . . .

Puffin may be a soporific, because I slept like a baby.  It’s also likely that by this point – five nights into the trip – I was finally acclimated to the fact that the night sky never got any darker than a mildly overcast afternoon.  Also, Amanda and I had grown adept at MacGyvering the blinds to maximize the gloom, so this convergence of factors meant we were both well-rested as we headed down to the Húsavík waterfront to catch an early boat.

DSC_0085Our whale-watching tour was set to take three hours on Skjálfandi Bay – supposedly one of the richest areas for spotting whales in all of Iceland – and we suited up in our cold-weather waterproof gear.  As you can see in the photo to the left, layers were key: T-shirt, Patagonia fleece, REI waterproof jacket, sexy waterproof jumpsuit, and eventually some sort of raincoat.  As we pushed out into the bay, our guide, the dashing Norwegian Aksel Bjarnason, filled us in on the geography and history of the area (Flatey Island, home of many, many puffins, was just outside the boundaries of our tour).  We were also told we’d likely see humpback and minke whales, and while there were blue whales in the bay, sightings were extremely rare.  So we tooled around in our boat, looking for the telltale spray and flocks of sea birds that meant whales were close.

It wasn’t too long before Aksel spotted our first whale.  As we had been promised, it was a humpback, the whale breaking the surface and then the stereotypical fin following it back underwater.  We cruised in circles for a bit, following the whale and trying to get close enough for photos.  Because tourists like annoying animals in their natural habit.  It was at this point, though, that near us, maybe 20 feet away and without warning, another whale surfaced just long enough for Aksel to exclaim that we were seeing what few people ever saw: a blue whale.

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Look: A photo, especially one taken by an untrained photographer with frozen fingers on a rocking boat, just isn’t going to do the moment justice.  But man.  There was something truly majestic and awe-inspiring and sort of overwhelming about seeing something so huge, so rare, right there next to us.  Part of me wanted to get closer, but part of me also wanted to just leave it alone so it could eat krill or flirt with other whales or whatever a blue whale does when it’s not dodging boats.  It finally took a dive and left us to circle for a while longer.  We saw a couple more humpbacks, but sorry humpbacks – once you’ve seen a blue whale, you’re a little anticlimactic.

For most of the tour I’d been feeling pretty smug.  Earlier I mentioned all my cool layers, and as I saw my fellow whale-watchers shiver in the wind and spray I couldn’t help but feel pretty cozy in my waterproof duds.  Even my shoes were waterproof.

However.

Waterproof shoes do you no good when frigid Icelandic water sloshes up over the top of and into your shoe.  So, with roughly an hour left before docking, both my feet started to feel distinctly like ice cubes.  By the time we returned to Húsavík, I couldn’t flex my toes.  We hobbled back to the guesthouse (well, I hobbled; Amanda walked because her feet were fine), and I stripped off my shoes and socks to see feet that had taken on a decidedly purple tint.  I’m not sure at what point frostbite sets in, but I had to’ve been close.  After soaking them for 20 minutes in warm water, I was finally ready to head back out.

We didn’t have much of an agenda for the rest of the day, so we decided on a detour west to Ásbyrgi canyon.  This is another one of those places that photos can’t accurately capture, especially because of the enormity of the location.  A huge, horsehoe-shaped depression with steep rock walls and a pond at its base, Ásbyrgi was formed, legend has it, when Odin’s horse rested one of its hooves there.  In reality, it was probably caused by glacial flooding, but it’s still pretty spectacular, Odin’s absence notwithstanding.

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After Ásbyrgi it was back to Húsavík for dinner at Naustid, a really good seafood restaurant on the waterfront.  Funnily enough, this was the restaurant where we had the best service on our trip – probably because our waitress was an expat from New Jersey.

A word or two about guesthouses, since I keep mentioning them.  Iceland only has two hotel chains – IcelandAir and Hotel Edda – both of which (and IcelandAir, especially) tend to be overpriced.  Most of the affordable lodging is in small guesthouses, basically bed and breakfast deals with maybe a dozen rooms at the most.  Here’s our Husavik guesthouse:

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And Egilsstaðir:

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And Höfn:

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They’re not extravagant, but when you’re mainly only using the room for sleeping, extravagance is secondary to a comfy bed.  And sometimes you get a cool sitting room right outside your bedroom, like we had in Húsavík.

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And, if you’re really lucky, the guesthouse owner will fix you a kick-ass blueberry Skyr tart for breakfast.  It ain’t Holiday Inn; it’s better.

Up next: Angus!

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*****

Current listening:

Promise nothing

The Promise Ring – Nothing Feels Good (1997)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 5: Egilsstaðir to Húsavík via Mývatn)

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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.

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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.

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After white-knuckling my way over the pass for 45 minutes, we descended into Seyðisfjörður, which, as advertised, was certainly beautiful . . .

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. . . 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.

IMG_0347In 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.

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It’s pretty cool from a distance, but even more striking close up.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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. . . 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.

puffinIt 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.

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What does it look like when someone is eating puffin?  Like this.

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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!

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*****

Current listening:

Feelies here

The Feelies Here Before (2011)