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)

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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)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 4: Fjadrargljufur to Egilsstaðir, via the Eastfjords)

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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.

DSC_0040Once 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.

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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.

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DSC_0107One 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.

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DSC_0114As 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 . . .

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. . . and this close up …

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. . . 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.

IMG_0344In 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.

IMG_0357Icelandic 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.

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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!

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*****

Current listening:

National high

The National – High Violet (2010)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 3: Pingvillir to Fjadrargljufur)

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After Pingvillir (and a quick stop at the gift shop for travel snacks), it was time to head south to the Ring Road.  As I mentioned in my previous update, the Ring Road circles the entire country – it’s the thoroughfare everyone uses to get where they need to go, and for this first serious leg of our journey we were headed east to Vik, a tiny town on Iceland’s south coast.  One thing immediately became clear: Pointing out every beautiful thing we saw would quickly leave us with laryngitis.  It wasn’t uncommon to be cruising along and just happen upon a sight like the one above, a little farm hanging out at the foot of a magnificent hill.  But that’s what the drive was like for much of the day.  Flat land to our right (the ocean just out of sight) and imposing cliffs frequently punctuated with waterfalls to our left.

DSC_0030Our first stop of the day, after winding several miles back an unpaved road, was Keldur, location of the oldest turf homes in Iceland (which, yes, also sounds like something Clark Griswold would have taken his family to see in National Lampoon’s Vacation).  Projected to date back to the 11th Century, this was one of our surprisingly rare glimpses into ancient Iceland, and it’s all been well restored (and preserved – we were required to wear crime scene booties in the house), as evidenced by the small church now on site.

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As we were getting ready to leave, another couple approached us outside one of the turf homes, and the woman asked in broken English if we wouldn’t mind giving them a ride back down to the Ring Road.  Icelandic hitchhikers?  Don’t mind if I do!

After dropping our new companions at a gas station in Hella, we breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t been butchered for our car, bought some truly heinous gas station food, and then sent off for the first of the day’s two scheduled waterfalls.  We could see Seljalandsfoss from a distance, so far away that it appeared to be just a trickle of water slipping over the edge of a cliff.  Over the course of the next five(ish) miles, the scale of the falls revealed itself.  One of us might have whispered, “Holy shit.”

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The best thing about Seljalandsfoss is that you can walk all the way around it (which you can sort of tell in the above photo, if you haven’t been too distracted by the insane people swimming in the frigid water).

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A little further down the road we arrived at the powerful Skogafoss.  Like virtually every waterfall we encountered, you could walk right up to the base of it …

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… and, in most instances, there was access to the top of it, too. (And if you were lucky you found a rock formation that resembles your own profile, like I did below.)

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For reference, check the looooooong set of steps winding up to the top of the falls in the photo below.

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Amanda and I both observed that Iceland is similar to Ireland in that they don’t seem to be particularly litigious – or at least aren’t as terrified of litigation as their American counterparts.  At Skogafoss, as at every other falls we visited, there was a solitary warning sign – you know, something like, “Fall and you might die” – but that was about it as far as security went.  And, wonder of wonders, no one seemed to be falling and/or dying.

On to Vik.  With fewer than 3,000 people, it’s mainly a coastal stopover for tourists in the summer, roughly halfway between Reykjavik and towns like Höfn in the Eastfjords.  It sported an N1 gas station (our go-to chain), a couple restaurants (where I had my first taste of Icelandic fish stew), and not much else.  That didn’t stop it from being intensely beautiful, especially as a massive wall of fog rolled in off the mountains toward the ocean.

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Vik is also notable for being near two very cool geologic formations.  The first is Reynisfjara, a series of basalt columns on the edge of the North Atlantic.

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To help with the geography of all this, the two rock formations in the previous picture can be seen from a distance in the photo of the fog rolling in.  We’re talking maybe a ten-minute drive, and that’s only because it wasn’t a straight shot.

A further ten minutes brought us to Dyrholaey, a pair of arches that looked extra impressive with the added fog.  This was taken from Reynisfjara, because when you actually drive up to Dyrholaey, you’re too close for the photos to amount to much.  Weird.

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At this point it was 9:30 p.m., which you can clearly tell from the dazzling sunlight in all these photos.  After a long day and still feeling a little jet-lagged, it was back to our spacious accommodations…

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… where we jerry-rigged another Rube Goldbergian contraption to minimize the daylight and fell into an exhausted slumber.

When people think of Iceland (if they think of it at all), I’m guessing they picture it in the same way we did prior to our visit: a land of waterfalls and glaciers and mountains.  (And whimsical singers, but that’s just the music nerd in me asserting himself.)  But the below photo is what greeted us as we made our way east along the Ring Road after leaving Vik.

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It was a low, gray sky that accompanied us for most of our morning drive across what could charitably be referred to as a postapocalyptic wasteland.  But somehow that only made it even more impressive, more otherworldly.  These lava fields were related to the ones we’d seen on the first day near Reykjavik, but the combination of cloud and fog and intermittent rain brought home the extreme desolation of the landscape in which we were traveling.

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But the desolation didn’t stop people from playing with the rocks.

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tourist signOne additional thing Amanda and I picked up on (in addition to the fact that Icelanders don’t seem to be a bunch of lawsuit-happy dumb dumbs) is how well-marked the country’s natural attractions are.  If we ever passed a road sign sporting the symbol to the right, we usually made a hard turn and followed the sign wherever it was leading us.  It often meant we’d be traveling down some hair-raising, single lane, unpaved roads, but whatever was waiting for us at the other end was invariably worth the effort.

And so it was with Fjadrargljufur.  We weren’t sure at first.  It was 10km back an unpaved road, and I could only cross my fingers that the Auris was up to the trip.  And when we got to the parking area, it didn’t look like any big deal.  A narrow track leading up a gently-rising slope – probably a nice walk, but the country had no shortage of nice walks.  We resolved to give it ten minutes before turning around and heading up the road.  What could possibly be on the other side of the hill?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Like, oh, this.

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At the crest of the hill, a huge valley opened up beneath us.  We walked for another half hour, and even at that point the trail still meandered off in the distance.  Of all the unplanned and unscheduled spots we discovered, Fjadrargljufur was without question our favorite – one of those happy accidents that occurs when you’re willing to risk a flat tire in the pursuit of a memory.

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Up next: Höfn (by way of the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon)

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*****

Current listening:

Wax american

Wax Idols – American Tragic (2015)

 

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 2: The Golden Circle)

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Reenergized by the soothing waters of the Blue Lagoon and coursing with adrenaline after nearly being run down in the parking lot by a bus while taking a photo, it was time to hop in the Auris and head for the Golden Circle.  While the most popular sites in Iceland can be seen on or near Route 1 (the Ring Road, named for the way it circles the perimeter of the country), the Golden Circle is a smaller loop east of Reykjavik that includes four of the country’s most well-known attractions: Kerid Crater (a crater), Geysir (a, erm, geyser), Gullfoss (a waterfall), and the minor miracle that is Pingvillir National Park.  We were staying near Gullfoss that night and were due to snorkel in Pingvillir the next day, so we resolved to catch the first two attractions, see the third after dinner, and then call it an early night.

A word on driving in Iceland: It’s easy.  Knowing the Ring Road was the only major thoroughfare in the country and that it was the height of tourist season, I was expecting, if not bumper-to-bumper traffic, then at least some minor inconvenience that would make me glad I’d been tempered by the congestion of the freeways of Los Angeles and Atlanta.  As it turned out, traffic was almost nonexistent.  We could go ten minutes or more without seeing another car, and once we got to the northern part of the country and into the Westfjords we were more likely to see sheep on the road than other tourists.  If you’re expecting hair-raising tales of vehicular adventure, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  Driving in Iceland was no worse (and usually a hell of a lot better) than driving in the States.

Kerid Crater, the 3,000-year-old remnant of a volcanic eruption, is pretty impressive.  Like most of the sights in Iceland (and unlike virtually anything comparable in the U.S.), it just sort of sits out in the open.  No gates, no fences, no guards.  There was a kiosk at the parking area that said we’d have to pay ISK3,000 to enter, but the friendly-looking kid in the booth just waved us through.  We hiked up a short hill which suddenly opened out onto the crater itself.

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In this photo you can see the parking area at the top of the lefthand slope.  An unprotected trail leads all the way around the crater, and if we’d been so inclined we could’ve strolled down the gentle grassy slope on the right side of the photo to the water’s edge.  But because we’d only been in the country about four hours at this point and weren’t exactly sure what we could get away with, we stayed at the top to take in the scale of it all.

Back in the car and on to Geysir.  Okay, look: nothing against Geysir.  It’s perfectly lovely.  It was very popular.  Amanda bought a troll at the gift shop.

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But heated water spewing from the ground looks in Iceland exactly like it does anywhere else in the world.  I don’t regret the stop (I mean, look at that troll!), but it really was the one truly underwhelming thing we saw on our entire trip.

Gullfoss, on the other hand, was our first brush with majesty.

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Located a short two minute drive from our guesthouse, Gullfoss (“foss,” just so’s you know, is Icelandic for “waterfall”) was our introduction to the phenomenon we like to call, “What the Hell Can We Possibly Say About This?”  At some point you’re faced with such beauty that words fail and all you can do is grin goofily.  That’s how we spent much of this trip: in a near-constant state of wonder.

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IMG_0325How beautiful was it?  Even though our reaction to people taking selfies is usually to want to run by and knock them over, we suddenly found ourselves taking some of our own.  Iceland is so beautiful it will make you compromise your core values.

At this point we’d been going virtually non-stop for 24 hours.  I don’t often sleep on planes, although it’s not for lack of trying.  I can squeeze in thirty minutes here and there between the person behind me kicking my seat or the drink cart obliterating my shoulder, but managing some sustained period of slumber rarely happens.  Amanda had slept more than me, but not by much.  All of which is to say at this point we were nearing a state of exhaustion.

And here’s where things got tricky.  You’ve heard of the land of the midnight sun?  That’s Iceland in the summer.  At the time we were there (early July), the sun literally never sets. It’s not full daylight, but it’s bright enough.  Imagine dusk lasting for eight hours.   We got back to our guesthouse and, through an elaborate system of pillows, hair ties, and elbow grease, were able to MacGyver the blinds so they let in as little light as possible.  It wasn’t perfect sleep that first night, and it was really, really bizarre to wake at 2:00 a.m. and see 4:00 p.m. light coming through the windows, but things would get better.

We rose early, got acquainted with Icelandic breakfasts (lots of bread and cheese, also lots of lunch meat and cold fish), and hit the road for Pingvillir National Park.

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The park’s big historic claim to fame is that it was the seat of the Icelandic government from AD 930 to 1798.  Its geographic claim to fame is that it’s where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet (and are currently spreading apart).  I’ll illustrate in the next two photos.  In the first one, the tall wall on the far side of the parking lot is the edge of the Eurasian plate.  In the second photo, taken from the top of the Eurasian plate, the distant snowline at the base of the mountains is the edge of the North American plate.

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In the middle of the area between the two plates is Silfra, the tectonic boundary that forms the fissure in which we’d be snorkeling.  After struggling into our drysuits and waddling across the road to the edge of the water, we slowly descended into the frigid water (roughly 34 degrees Fahrenheit year-round).

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Once again, what can I possibly say?  The water was shockingly clear, and as I paddled along the fissure it was breathtaking (and, yes, okay, sort of creepy) to watch the rocks fall away to reveal the fissure’s full 60-meter (200-foot) depth.

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I’m not a water guy.  Give me rocks I can climb, and I’m a happy dude.  I’ve never been drawn to beaches or lakes, and I find the immensity and power of the ocean to be fairly intimidating.  So there was a brief moment of panic as I learned to work my arms in tandem with my flippers and an additional moment of discomfort as I waited for my exposed skin to finally numb the hell up in the cold water.  But once I figured all that out and told my brain to take some time off I could sit back (metaphorically) and enjoy what I was seeing.  Maybe this is paradoxical (and I’m probably going to do a crap job of describing it), but the best way I can explain it is in terms of flight.  Silfra was so deep that being able to float along the surface and peer straight down into the belly of this underground cave was (at first) disorienting and then sort of exhilarating.  It’s not often you’re given the chance of capturing a bird’s eye view of something a couple hundred feet underwater.

Also, we got hot chocolate afterward.

There were other things to see in Pingvillir, like – hey! – this church…

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… but after Silfra it was tricky to come back to solid ground.

Up next: The road to Vik…

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*****

Current listening:

Pale comforts

Pale Saints – The Comforts of Madness (1990)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 1: Atlanta to the Blue Lagoon)

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Like many travelers, I suffered my first panic attack on the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

One of the inconveniences of flying out of Atlanta on summer evenings is the likelihood that the plane is going to be A) caught in a torrential downpour, B) swept away in a tornado, or C) struck by lightning.  The South’s summer popup storms are one of those things I’ve had to get used to since moving here in 2009 (along with thinly veiled racism and sweet tea).  And so here we were, Amanda and I, sitting in a grounded plane on the runway, waiting for the weather to give us a window to take off and begin our ten(nish)-day trip to Iceland.  I’m normally a calm flyer – if the plane crashes, it crashes, and at least my relatives will have a good story to tell – and it wasn’t the thought of death in a spiraling ball of flame that had me hyperventilating.

It was missing our damn connection.

We had two hours to deplane in New York and catch our flight to Reykjavik.  At this point we had already been held in the terminal for twenty minutes when the storm first descended, and as fifteen minutes on board the stifling mausoleum with wings stretched into thirty, then forty, I felt eight months of careful planning constricting my heart.  At one point, after the pilot came on the intercom to tell us we were still waiting for clearance, I might have whimpered.

Over an hour later we took off without incident.  As long as we flew direct to JFK, everything would be fine.  I relaxed.  I breathed easily.  I tried to wipe away the tears in such a way that Amanda couldn’t make fun of me later.  Finally, I cracked open Dave Eggers’ The Circle and watched our flight’s progress out of the corner of my eye on the little back-of-the-headrest screen.  So far, so good.  Until we hit New York and learned that due to storms up and down the East Coast, planes were stacked over JFK in a series of layers roughly resembling Dante’s circles of hell.  I kept watching our plane on the screen, and every time we diverted from our northerly descent to turn east over the Atlantic in another time-sucking loop, I cackled and died a little inside.

And then.

Because I’m not a religious fella, I can only chalk up the conversation I had with our flight attendant to a degree of luck that should’ve sent me immediately to Vegas – or, considering our proximity, Atlantic City.  As it turned out, the plane we were on was the very plane we’d be taking to Reykjavik, so those suckers seated in JFK scarfing down Cinnabon and Panda Express were waiting on us.

Result!

The rest of the journey to Reykjavik truly was without incident.  Amanda slept.  I read and watched a couple episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  We ate substandard airplane food and suppressed our excitement at the adventure on which we were about to embark.

Because here’s the thing: Iceland?  It was still mythological.  Besides having seen pictures and heard stories from a friend who’d honeymooned there, it was still largely fantastical to us – the land of trolls and Björk, volcanic activity and fermented shark.  We certainly had high hopes, but for the first time in our married lives we were taking a trip into the unknown.

DSC_0001We were met at the terminal by a friendly guy from Lagoon Car Rental, who drove us to the office where we picked up our Toyota Auris – which is, I’m guessing, a distant Scandinavian relative to the Yaris I currently drive.  I’ll try to avoid making too many plugs in this travelogue, but if you find yourself in Reykjavik and needing a car, go to Lagoon.  We were only the second customers to rent this particular vehicle, and we have nothing but good things to say about our experience.

On to our first stop: the Blue Lagoon.  Yes, it’s touristy.  Yes, it’s something of an Icelandic cliché.  But after a six-hour flight, submerging ourselves in a geothermal spa sounded exactly like what we needed.

But first, this, because saying it now will save me saying it multiple times later: Iceland is a land of frequently overwhelming beauty.  I’m pretty well-traveled (which I say not as a boast, but as context).  My parents took care of the U.S. when I was a wee lad (the only two states I haven’t visited are Alaska and – go figure – Utah), and as an adult I’ve done parts of Canada, most of the U.K. and Ireland, France, New Zealand, and Australia.  There are certainly large swathes of the planet I’m unaccustomed with, but I’m also not marveling at things like it’s my first trip to the big city.

Put simply: Iceland is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.  Lava fields, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers (and glacial lagoons), beaches, meadows.  The country has a little bit of everything, and that little bit of everything is all exquisitely beautiful.  There were times when Amanda and I quite literally couldn’t talk.  It was enough just to process what we were seeing, because we knew we wouldn’t see anything like it again.

On this first day – and, really, in this first hour – in Iceland, we got our first taste of the lava fields.

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Volcanoes aren’t exactly what leap to mind when I think of Iceland (it’s usually the music of Sigur Rós, which isn’t particularly scenic by itself), but they probably should be.  Much of the southern part of the country is taken up with the oddly beautiful desolation of these rocky, mossy expanses.  It reminded me in some ways of Joshua Tree National Park or Uma Thurman: not conventionally beautiful, but still pretty spectacular.

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The Blue Lagoon itself was much as advertised.  It’s a geothermal spa.  The water is blue.  It’s relaxing.  We had blueberry Skyr (more on that later) smoothies from a swim-up bar.  There were a lot of loud Europeans.  It was fun, but it was also the most underwhelming part of the entire trip.  That’s not a knock against the Blue Lagoon as much as it’s an endorsement of just how unbelievable the rest of the trip was.  Here’s a photo, because I’m all about customer service.

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Suitably relaxed, we ate an overpriced ham sandwich in the café (we learned pretty quickly not to bother doing the conversion from Icelandic kroner to U.S. dollars, because we’d just spend the entire trip in varying states of depression) and headed for the Golden Circle – one of the most scenic driving routes in the southern part of the country.

But more on that in the next installment (because everyone loves a cliffhanger).

Preview!:

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*****

Current listening:

Afghan black

The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (1996)