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Whale Watching in Húsavík

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With schools of herring and abundant plankton, the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic have always been prime whale territory. In years past, that meant excellent hunting. And though there’s still a little killing going on, today the most common way to shoot whales in Iceland is with a camera.

Humpback Fin

Whale watching tours are offered in Reykjavík and other towns along the coast, but we held off until arriving in Húsavík, which is considered the best spot in Iceland. It was mid-September, a little late in the season, but the whales hadn’t yet migrated south for the winter.

After days of rain and snow, the weather had cleared up completely, and we were in high spirits while boarding an oak boat operated by North Sailing. We crawled into extra-warm sailing suits, and set off for the mouth of the Skjálfandi Bay, where a group of humpback whales had been seen earlier in the day.

Soon we spotted the first water spouts. The humpbacks weren’t far off, but by the time we came near, they had dived for food and wouldn’t resurface for awhile. Much of our three-hour tour was spent in this frustrating game of chase, but we got lucky twice, when whales resurfaced right next to our boat. The first time, I was taken totally off-guard by the massive beast which had suddenly popped up just meters away. She didn’t seem all that concerned about our boat… perhaps because she was nearly as big as it.

The tour lasted for three hours, and we must have seen at least a dozen separate whales. All humpbacks, but it’s also possible to see sperm whales, blue whales and even killer whales during excursions from Húsavík. This is an essential Iceland experience, and relatively inexpensive, considering the length of the tour and the likelihood of success.

Another essential Húsavík experience is offered by the incredible Whale Museum, found at the harbor. This massive former whaling station has turned its focus from slaughtering whales to educating the public about them, and it does a fantastic job. With skeletons from various species, including an enormous sperm whale, movies and hands-on exhibits, this is the kind of place in which you could spend hours.

Location of Húsavík on our Map
North Sailing – Website

We stayed in this hotel in Húsavík

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October 21, 2013 at 2:18 pm Comment (1)

Ice Cream and Coffee in Eyjafjörður

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A day spent exploring the beautiful Eyjafjörður Valley, south of Akureyri, can be surprisingly exhausting. And the locals seem to know it. Two farms on either side of the valley have expanded their normal operations to offer unique places to recuperate, and we took advantage of both.

Automatic Milking

The Holtssel Farm on the western side of the valley had no experience in the business of ice cream making, but decided on a whim to try it out. After purchasing equipment from a Dutch company, the farmer and his wife started producing fresh ice cream which immediately became a hit with Akureyrians. At first, there were no facilities at the farm and guests had to eat their ice cream outside, or in the barn when it was stormy.

Fast-forward a few years. There’s now a small parlor on-site, the Kaffi Karling, and the family has finessed its ice-cream-making prowess. Holtssel has become known for their strange flavors. Not rotten shark, thank god, but you can order licorice or beer ice cream, alongside classics such as vanilla or chocolate. And the flavors are strong; my beer-flavored scoop tasted like a lager left too long in the freezer. Which is to say, delicious.

Across the valley, we found another interesting place to take a rest: the Kaffi Kú. Here, a cafe with glass walls sits above a barn where about a hundred dairy cows are going about their business. Of course, “cow business” mostly consists of eating hay, but every so often one will queue up to wait her turn for the milking robot.

Cameras stream live footage from the milking robot into the cafe, and we sat at our table transfixed, completely forgetting to drink our coffee. Each cow decides for herself when it’s time to get milked and ambles over to the robot. She’ll walk herself in, and eat treats while a robotic arm extends between her legs. Using lasers and an internal database of detailed nipple-information, the arm detects the position of the udders and suctions itself on, one by one. Schluck, schluck, schluck, schluck.

It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie. We walked down into the barn to get a better look at the machine, and meet the cows. They seemed happy enough, and it was fun to scratch the heads of the little calves, but I was vaguely relieved to leave the barn. One day the Singularity will occur, and when the machines become self-aware, I don’t want to be around in case those nipple-sucking robots decide to turn on their masters.

Locations on our Map: Holtssel Farm | Kaffi Kú

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October 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm Comment (1)

Hey There, Pretty Horse: Prepare For Your Close-Up

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Icelandic Horses

The first time I saw an Icelandic horse, it was laying on the ground, on its side. “Horses don’t lay down,” I thought. “It must be dead!” And then it rolled onto its back, all the way over onto its other side, and stood up in one semi-fluid movement. “It must be insane!”

Laying down and rolling aren’t the only tricks the Icelandic horse has up its sleeve. It has also mastered the art of looking fabulous. With their vast array of colors, incredible manes, and sassy attitudes, Iceland’s horses were born ready for the runway. And they certainly don’t shy away from the camera. We had a blast taking these portraits of some of the island’s most photogenic residents.

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October 14, 2013 at 7:44 pm Comments (2)

The Annual Horse Roundup at Sauðárkrókúr

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Most of Iceland’s horses spend their time free in the highlands, instead of on farms. Like sheep, they roam at their whim, with neither supervision nor control, able to graze wherever they choose. But once a year, toward the end of summer, they’re brought down from the mountains.

Wild Icelandic Horses

We happened to be in Sauðárkrókúr during this year’s roundup, which sees a group of farmers recruit their friends, neighbors, and even some courageous tourists to hop into the saddle and gallop off into the vast highlands. Their mission: locate and herd every horse in the area to a corral set up outside town.

Jürgen and I didn’t participate in the round-up, which was fortunate for everyone involved. The farmers, we’d have slowed down; the horses, we’d have lost; and ourselves, we’d probably have crippled. But we got into position near the corral to watch the team come down off the mountain, with a huge herd of horses running ahead of them.

Watching the descent was exciting, but the action in the corral was even better. Here, about 80 horses in a large central pen were separated into stalls, one by one. It was pure chaos. The horses moved in a herring-like swarm from one end of the pen to the other, while a few brave souls were tasked with identifying certain horses by their brand, then isolating and directing them into the appropriate stall.

We saw people tumbling, horses stampeding, liquor disappearing, dogs flying, and all manner of high-spirited foolery. The team had started the round-up at dawn and by 5pm, when the corralling got underway, a definite party atmosphere had settled in. Whoever wasn’t in the pen directing horses was drinking beer or passing around flasks full of whiskey.

The flying dog, by the way, had thought it a good idea to enter the stables and “help out” with the horses. Before he got trampled, someone picked him up by the scruff and hurled him up and over the wall.

Even for those of us who weren’t actively participating, the corral was great fun to experience. It only happens once a year, so you have to be in the right place at the right time. If you’re visiting Iceland in September, make sure to ask around. Round-ups such as the one we saw at Sauðárkrókúr take place all across the country.

Location of the Corral on our Map

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October 14, 2013 at 7:06 pm Comments (8)

Me and Mósa, My Icelandic Horse

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Our time together was short, but Mósa didn’t need long to work her way into my heart. I loved her soft coat, her short stature, her rich color, and how she farted with every other step. I loved her mane, and her mild countenance when I accidentally pulled some of it out. I loved how determined she was to speed past others when it came time to gallop. I loved her stubbornness. And most of all, I loved that she didn’t buck me off, although it would have been so very easy.

Me And My Horse

We were invited on a morning ride with Hestasport, based in Varmahlíð’s beautiful Skagafjörður Valley. Hestasport is among the oldest horse recreation companies in Iceland, with roots that go back to 1974. They offer tours to fit any level of interest or skill, ranging from an hour to a week.

After meeting our guides for the day, we were introduced to our horses. Perhaps because they’ve evolved to cope with the country’s rough nature, Icelandic horses are known for their lively characters. They’re wilder than their cousins on the continent, a bit more spirited. They’re also smaller (technically ponies), and come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Mósa was charcoal gray with a black stripe running down her spine. She was, I assured her while stroking her mane, by far the prettiest horse in our group. “Even if you are a little farty”.

Another unique trait of Icelandic horses is their number of natural gaits. Other horses are born knowing how to walk, trot an gallop, but Icelandic horses can also tölt and skeið. This ability and their friendly demeanor have made them popular around the world. There are, in fact, more Icelandic horses in Germany than Iceland. But once a horse has left the island, they are never allowed to return. Strict laws on importation have kept Iceland’s stock exceptionally pure.

Our tour with Hestasport lasted for a couple hours. Mósa was well-behaved and only once disobeyed my command to continue moving. Because they’re smaller, Icelandic horses are more comfortable to ride than other breeds, and I was only partially incapacitated after two hours in the saddle. Riding an Icelandic horse is one of the country’s quintessential experiences, and Hestasport is a great place to do it.

We also had a wonderful night. In addition to the riding, Hestasport rents excellent cabins that have access to a large hot tub. Exactly what an aching body needs after a day atop a horse. The cabins themselves are nicely outfitted, with heating, good showers and fully-equipped kitchens. Very comfortable.

Location of the Hestasport Office
Hestasport – Website

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October 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm Comments (5)

The Icelandic Goat

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Head aloft, it casts a wizened gaze across the smokey valley. Noble creature! With its shaggy coat, crooked horns, tortured cry and filthy rear-end, has creation ever seen an animal as majestic as the goat? Imagine our euphoria on discovering that Iceland has its very own indigenous breed!

One Happy Goatt

Near Reykholt is the Háafell Farm, home to the Geitfjársetur Íslands (the Goat Center of Iceland). This is one of the few places on the island which breeds Icelandic goats, and almost certainly your best chance to get up close and personal with them.

Iceland’s goat is a highly specialized breed which, like the Icelandic horse, has remained pure since the time of the settlement. Unlike the horse, however, the country’s goats have not thrived. Until recently, in fact, they were near extinction. Goats just never caught on as viable domestic animals in Iceland; sheep were favored for wool, and cows for milk. Despite the fine cashmere coat which is a highlight of the Icelandic goat, they’ve never been seriously bred.

At Háafell, we were able to enter the stable where a huge group was feeding. Immediately, one ran over to us, overjoyed to see humans. This was “Little Man”, the runt of the litter, who would follow us around during the rest of our visit. The other goats were almost as friendly, and really seemed to enjoy human contact. Not like stupid, bleating sheep. And goats are clever things. It took me about fifteen minutes to realize that Little Man wasn’t trying to cuddle, so much as looking for an excuse to get his mouth close to my delicious jacket.

The farm produces a wide range of goat-related products, such as cheeses and soaps enhanced with assorted, locally-grown Icelandic herbs. Sadly, like the goat itself, Háafell is struggling to stay afloat. If you’re in the area, make sure to stop by. Talk to the owner, taste some cheese, and meet some of the cutest little creatures on the island.

Location on our Map – Geitfjársetur Íslands
Geitfjársetur Íslands – Website

-Not Far: Fosshotel In Reykholt

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September 30, 2013 at 10:17 am Comments (4)

The Reykjavík City Zoo

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Not all that many animals are native to Iceland, and those that do exist can be notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. So if you want to see creatures like reindeer, seals and foxes, and don’t have time to scour the coasts and countrysides, head to the tiny Reykjavík City Zoo.

Goats Iceland

The zoo is part of the immense Laugardalur park just outside the city center. We needed a really long time to locate it, and were exhausted by the time we entered. So I was happy to discover that the zoo isn’t all that big. At just 750 krona, it’s among the cheaper things you can do in Reykjavík and won’t take more than an hour of your time. Unless you have a kid who just loves pigs or chickens. In that case, good luck, because there are a ton of them. Your little chicken-lover will never want to leave.

We found the seals right away, swimming endless loops around their small pool. They made me a little sad. Even the pups had clearly gone insane from the boredom… all there is to do is swim the same loop over and over, all day today, tomorrow and every day thereafter for the rest of your life. From the seal pool, we wandered through stables where some truly massive pigs were feeding and a cow was hooked up to a milking machine. We saw a few rabbits and Icelandic goats, but paid them short shrift. Apologies all around, but we only really cared about the foxes.

The zoo has well over a dozen arctic foxes kept in a huge pen, and they were great fun to watch. Very playful, they were wrestling around with each other, hopping in and out of their burrows and keeping a watchful eye on our movements outside the cage. Unlike the seals, they had plenty of room and seemed to be truly happy.

The foxes aren’t the only ones having fun, because toward the back of the zoo is a theme park with carnival rides for children. We possess neither kids nor any kind of tolerance for their maddening darling squeals of delight, so we skipped out on this. But it’s another reason the zoo is such a popular activity for Icelandic families.

Location of the Reykjavík Zoo on Our Map

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September 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm Comments (2)

Suðavík’s Arctic Fox Center

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The arctic fox is the only terrestrial mammal native to Iceland. Without any natural predators, the little furballs thrive in the harsh climate of the country’s interior, but are skittish and difficult to spot. Luckily for those of us without the inclination or patience to find one in the wild, there’s the Arctic Fox Center in Suðavík, near Ísafjörður.

Arctic Fox Cubs

Aside from being a great resource for learning about the animals, the Arctic Fox Center doubles as a recovery home for orphaned or injured foxes before they’re re-released. During our visit, there were two orphaned pups residing in the cage.

With round, compact bodies, bushy tails and thick fur that keeps them warm during the harsh northern winters, Arctic foxes are incredibly cute. Especially the young ones. The two which we saw in Suðavík were wary of humans, darting back inside their burrow at our slightest movement. But as long as we kept still, they’d sneak out and inspect their food dish, hoping it had magically replenished itself.

Even when the center doesn’t have any residents, it’s worth stopping by for the exhibits. The foxes are fascinating creatures, which change color with the season and form monogamous pairs. The center explains all this, and goes into Iceland’s rocky history with the fox. Despite overzealous hunting in the 19th century, their numbers have recovered and there’s no longer any reason to fear for the species’ survival.

This was an unexpected highlight of our time in the Westfjords. The center even has a cafe and small restaurant with good Wi-Fi, and we ended up staying in Suðavík a lot longer than planned.

Location on our Iceland Map
Arctic Fox Center – Website

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Arctic Fox Center
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August 28, 2013 at 11:41 am Comments (2)
Whale Watching in Hsavk With schools of herring and abundant plankton, the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic have always been prime whale territory. In years past, that meant excellent hunting. And though there's still a little killing going on, today the most common way to shoot whales in Iceland is with a camera.
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