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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)

Fall Colors in the Eyjafjörður Valley

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When Halldor offered to show us the autumn colors of the Eyjafjörður Valley, south of Akureyri, I was a little amused. Up until this point, we had seen approximately three trees in all Iceland. “Maybe the idea of ‘autumn colors’ means something different here,” I thought. “Like, a pile of red lava rocks on top of wet, yellow hay.” But it turns out that Iceland has some trees after all. There are a lot, in fact, if you know where to look.

Born and raised in the valley, Halldor definitely knew where to look. He’s the son of the founder of FAB (Free as a Bird) Travels, based in Akureyri and Reykjavík, and not only knowledgeable about the Eyjafjörður region, but enthusiastic about it. Throughout the day, he would point out various farms and churches, share some history, and relate funny anecdotes from his childhood. It brought the valley to life in a way we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate alone.

We stopped by a couple beautiful old churches, including the strange Grundarkirkja. Built in 1905 by a local merchant, this large church is unlike any other we’d seen in Iceland, topped with a Russian-like spire. Unfortunately, this being the winter season, we weren’t able to get into either the Grundarkirkja nor the Saurbæjarkirkja, which we visited next. Built in 1858, this is one of Iceland’s last turfed churches.

The churches were nice, but next we drove into the Basilica of Mother Earth. At the end of a long gravel road on the southwestern end of the valley, and through a relatively impressive forest, we found the campsite of Leyningshólar. Gold, orange, yellow, dark red — the September colors on display here wouldn’t have been out of place in New Hampshire. A lovely sight, and one we hadn’t expected to see while in Iceland.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Grundarkirkja | Saurbæjarkirkja | Leyningshólar

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Eyjafjörður Valley
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October 18, 2013 at 7:12 pm Comments (2)

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 Hellisheiði Power Station

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Just outside the hot spring haven of Hveragerði is the Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Station. If you want to visit, don’t worry about accidentally driving past without spotting it. This is the world’s largest geothermal plant, spouting giant columns of steam high into the atmosphere, and it’s unmistakable.

Hellisheiði Power Station Iceland

The plant was completed in 2006, before the financial crash, when Iceland was still filthy rich, so no expense was spared. Hellisheiði is state of the art, and beautiful to behold. As a fan of industrial design, Jürgen was in heaven during our short visit. But even those of us less enthusiastic about power plants will find it worthwhile. Inside, there are interactive exhibits which describe the process of harnessing geothermal energy from the earth, and demonstrate exactly why Iceland has a practically endless supply of it.

We also spent time walking around the grounds outside the plant. With the Hengill Mountain Range in the immediate background and white clouds of pure steam shooting straight up into the air, incredible photo opportunities are not hard to find.

Location of Hellisheiði on our Map

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October 8, 2013 at 7:05 pm Comment (1)

The Hot Spring Town of Hveragerði

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Precariously situated in the middle of an active geothermal area southeast of Reykjavík, Hveragerði makes for an easy excursion from the capital. During our visit, we explored hot springs, ate an geothermally-cooked egg and treated our feet to a therapeutic mud bath.

Hveragerði Mudd Bath

Nowhere else in Iceland is geothermal power so intricately connected to everyday life as in Hveragerði. Here, you can visit geothermal bakeries, eat bread fresh from geothermal ovens, buy vegetables in geothermal greenhouses, play golf with geothermal vents blasting out of the ground around you, tour a nearby geothermal plant, walk around a geothermal park, and take a dip in geothermal waters.

With the Varmá River running through town and the Hengill Mountains providing the backdrop, Hveragerði is stunning. But I must question the sanity of anyone who says, “Yes, this is where we shall settle! Here, where scalding steam bursts forth from the earth. Where muddy pools of boiling water open up below unsuspecting feet. Where the earth quakes regularly. Here, the exact spot that nature is clearly trying to warn me away from, is where I shall make my home.”

Our first order of business in Hveragerði was a visit to the Geothermal Park, where a short trail leads around a number of bubbling, smelly hot springs. We bought an egg to boil in one of the pools and paid a little extra to take a footbath in hot mud. There might not be anything as weirdly pleasurable as the feeling of warm clay squishing between your toes. Afterwards, we stopped into one of the town’s bakeries for coffee and a delicious cinnamon roll fresh out of the oven.

Re-energized, we set out to explore the trails which lead from town into the foothills of Hengill. We saw the golf course and a number of steaming vents that had opened in the ground. These trails eventually lead to the wonderful hot spring rivers that we had visited a few weeks back, but for today we’d had our fill of geothermal-related activities and turned back toward town.

On almost any trip to Iceland, you’ll be passing right through Hveragerði on your way to or from Reykjavík. And while the town might not have enough to keep you entertained for days on end, the sheer strangeness of its sights definitely make it worth a stop.

Locations on our Map: Hveragerði Geothermal Park

Great Hotels in Hveragerði

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October 7, 2013 at 9:37 pm Comments (5)

Hafnarfjörður

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By bus, Hafnarfjörður was only fifteen minutes away from our apartment, but it took us over two months to finally get around to visiting. The once proudly independent town is now little more than a suburb of Reykjavík, and though it doesn’t rank high on the tourism radar, Hafnarfjörður has fought to retain a history and identity of its own.

Hafnarfjörður Panorama

Hafnarfjörður’s main claim to fame is an incredible natural harbor; its name, in fact, means “Harbor Fjord”. Since the days of the settlement, this has been among the country’s most important ports, welcoming waves of English, German and Danish traders. Even today, huge fishing vessels are a constant presence in Hafnarfjörður’s docks, and there’s no doubt which industry powers the town’s finances.

But Hafnarfjörður is best known for its connection to the mystical world of færies and dwarves. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d admit to it today, but belief in such things persisted in Iceland for much longer than it probably should have. Chalk it up to the country’s isolation, the sheer weirdness of its landscape, the dark winter days, or the inexplicable natural phenomena, but a belief in “the little people” was common right up into the 1980s, and especially persistent in Hafnarfjörður.

Despite wandering around the Hellisgerði Lava Park where they’re rumored to live (and where there’s an elf-themed cafe), we didn’t see any magical creatures. Although perhaps I shouldn’t say that, because shortly after leaving the park, we did find a magical horse. A magically delicious horse. We had lunch at Gamla Vínhúsið, a restaurant in an old wooden building near the harbor. With affordable lunch specials, great horse steaks, and nice interior decor, this was an excellent find.

After eating, we finished our quick excursion with a hike to the top of the Hamarinn Cliffs where we had a great view of the harbor, the town and the lava fields to the east. Hafnarfjörður isn’t the most lovely place we’ve seen in Iceland, but definitely worth a quick bus ride for a walk along the harbor, a hunt for færies and an excellent lunch.

Location on our Iceland Map

Accommodation in Hafnarfjörður

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October 3, 2013 at 9:33 am Comments (0)

Vestmannæyjar: The Westman Islands

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Just a few miles off the southern coast of Iceland are the Westman Islands (Vestmannæyjar). Though the archipelago consists of over a dozen islands, only Heimaey is large enough to support a community. With beautiful nature, relatively mild weather and an exciting history, the Westmans have long been a popular spot for day-tripping Icelanders.

Westman Islands Panorama

The story of the Westman Islands begins with Iceland’s original settler, Ingólfur Arnarson. After murdering his blood brother, a group of slaves Ingólfur had kidnapped from England stole a boat and fled to Heimaey. Vikings of the day referred to British Isles as the “Western Lands” and their inhabitants as “Westmen”, which explains how the islands got their name. The slaves didn’t enjoy their freedom for long, as they were almost immediately found and executed, but the name stuck.

Ever since the settlement, Heimaey has been home to a decent population of Icelanders lured by the rich fishing and bird-hunting. The islands are home to the largest puffin colonies in the world, and the people here have always been, and still are, expert hunters of the little birds. Alone on their island with abundant eggs and fish, the people of Heimaey enjoyed an idyllic existence for most of their history. Until the fateful year of 1627.

In what has come to be known as the Turkish Abductions, a crew of Algerian pirates landed at Heimaey on July 17th, 1627, and brought havoc to the tiny town. 242 people were kidnapped into slavery and 36 were killed. Catastrophic, considering that Heimaey only had a population of 500. Those who managed to survive did so by hiding in caves around the island’s shore.

The next catastrophe to hit the Westman Islands came in 1973, with the eruption of the Eldfell volcano. What had previously been a flowery meadow on the eastern side of town was suddenly a growing volcano spouting smoke and lava. The town was evacuated within 24 hours. Amazingly, only a single person died during the eruption. Heimaey was radically changed as a result: entire blocks of the town had been buried under lava and the size of the island increased immensely. Today, you can still see remains of some of the houses where the lava flow stops, half-buried under tons of rock.

Heimaey is a great place to spend a day or two. Ferries leave frequently from Landeyjahöfn, and take just a half-hour to make the crossing. The town itself is fun, with interesting sights and good restaurants, and there are any number of rewarding walks one can make around the island, including a climb to the top of the volcano.

-Accommadation On The Westman Islands: Hostels And Guesthouses

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September 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm Comment (1)

Norðurfjörður and the Pool at Krossnelaug

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The Westfjords’ Route 647 ends at Norðurfjörður, a tiny settlement underneath the imposing Krossnesfjall Mountain. After arriving and setting up our tent at the beach-side campsite, we took a short excursion to an amazing pool called Krossnelaug.

Krossnelaug is fed by natural hot springs trickling down off the mountain, positioned right along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. After the long day of driving, it was a pleasure to soak our bones here, with a backdrop provided by the wide open sea and a soundtrack by the lapping waves. And with the departure of the rowdy Icelandic family who had been sharing the pool, the experience got even better.

On the way back to our tent, we stopped at the small fishing harbor and spotted a seal in the water with a herring between its teeth. A growing army of seagulls had designs on its meal, but the seal was too clever. Between bites, it would flee underneath the water, leaving the gulls to squawk in frustration, and then reappear a few meters away. A humorous sequence, like something out of a Pixar flick, and a fun way to end an eventful first day in the Westfjords.

Location on our Iceland Map: Krossnelaug
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August 27, 2013 at 8:09 am Comment (1)

Hengill Death Hike

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The three of us laced up our boots and started off in high spirits, excited for a day-long hike through the Hengill volcano range. A few hours later, I was alone on the top of a mountain, terrified and shouting until my throat was raw. This was supposed to have been an easy day out. Where had it all gone wrong? And where the hell was Brandt?

Death Hike Iceland
See you on the other side, right guys? … Guys?

We had been prepared! I had carefully studied our route and plotted the exact path we’d be taking on my GPS device. We had a map, snacks and plenty of water. Nothing could go wrong. Our goal was the summit called Vörðu-Skeggi, about six hours round-trip. The weather, though not ideal, was supposed to improve as the day went along. No problem, right?

The initial ascent was brutal and almost immediately we were enveloped in a dense fog. Though the path was well-marked with posts, the cloud had reduced visibility to about ten meters, and we couldn’t see any landmarks; nothing with which to orient ourselves. Without GPS to guide us along the way, we’d have been completely lost.

Our friend Brandt was visiting from the States and had joined us on the hike. He’s no fan of heights, and so the fog worked to his advantage, while it lasted. We were inching along a narrow cliff when the cloud suddenly lifted. The effect was phenomenal. Where before had just been white nothingness, we could now see for miles. And Brandt, who had been moving at a steady clip, now stopped completely. For the first time, he could see how high we actually were, and how precarious our cliff-top position was.

Amazing Hike Iceland

So from here on out, our progress would be slower. But that was fine. With clear weather, the hike had become exhilarating, and we were still approaching the summit well ahead of schedule. World-beaters!! Feeling invulnerable, I barely registered the presence of a giant snowdrift blocking our path and trudged across without much thought, easily reaching the trail’s continuation on the other side.

But Brandt and Jürgen hadn’t followed me. I looked back, surprised to find them still on the other side. And when I took a second look at the snow drift, I understood why. Not far from where I had crossed, the snow dropped off at a terrifying angle, and straight down a cliff. A death trap! Had I somehow slipped, or had the snow given way under my feet, I could have slid straight off into the void.

Brandt found a different way around, by going up and over the drift. Higher up, the snow ended and the dirt seemed a safer prospect. We all agreed. “Yes, good idea!” But halfway across, the gravel began slipping under his scrambling feet. He kicked loose stones which bounced down the slope at a sickening velocity. Advancing slowly, he eventually made it to where I was waiting, but was shaken up. His path had been even more dangerous than mine.

Having watched both of us court death, Jürgen wasn’t about to do the same. But neither did Brandt or I want to chance a return over the snow. Reluctantly, we all agreed that the least horrible option would be for the two of us to continue, while Jürgen returned to the car alone. Not good, but he knew the path already, and we all had phones. We would check in with each other every half-hour.

Hiking Buddies

Now down to two, Brandt and I soldiered bravely on. Our path soon looped back around the mountain, and we realized Jürgen might be able to rejoin us. We left the path and ran up the nearest slope, in order to spot him. And this is where we made a rookie hiking mistake: never lose sight of your companion. I ran up ahead on the hill, reached the top and … there! I could see Jürgen off in the distance. He saw me, too! But he’d already made such good progress on his lonely return that, over the phone, we decided he should just continue.

So I turned around to rejoin Brandt… and there was no Brandt.

No Brandt! I returned to the spot where we had left the trail. No Brandt. I walked up ahead on the trail. No Brandt. I re-climbed to the viewpoint from which I had spotted Jürgen, to see if I could spot Brandt. No Brandt. I shouted. No answer. I screamed. No answer. He had been right behind me as I ran up that hill. And now he was gone.

Panic set in quickly. There was nowhere for him to have gone! He had been right behind me! I shouted until my throat was raw. Images of Brandt laying unconscious at the bottom of a ditch. Images of worse. “Calm down,” I admonished myself. “Think rationally.” Rationally? Rationally, a person does not simply disappear. Rationally, Brandt is almost certainly… no. I pulled out my phone to call the emergency number (112), but decided to give it another couple minutes. I shouted again, with all the power I could muster. Where could he be? I was absolutely sick.

And then… there was Brandt, coming up over the hill. He had momentarily lost sight of me when I sprinted ahead. Thought I went right, when I’d really gone left. And figuring that I had found some path which led back to Jürgen, he continued going right. Luckily, he heard one of my final frenzied screams, and realized the mistake.

I’ve never known such relief as when he came into view. Dropping to my knees, I could feel the panic, this heavy sickness which had clutched my soul, rise off and fade away. I doubt I’ll ever forget that feeling.

The rest of our hike was happily uneventful. The path led downhill off the mountain, past some geothermal vents, and through a wide valley back to the car where Jürgen was waiting for us.

Iceland’s nature is beautiful, but not without its dangers. The experience taught me a few big lessons, chief among them: impulsiveness is not necessarily an admirable quality. But despite the drama, we had fun. This area of Iceland, just east of Reykjavík, lays claim to some amazing land. Definitely worth checking out… just don’t forget to keep your wits about you.

Locations: Our Hike’s Start | Vörðu-Skeggi

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August 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm Comments (11)

Three Waterfalls of Southern Iceland

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“Don’t go chasing waterfalls”. Words of advice from TLC, the greatest American girl group of the 1990s. No doubt it’s a catchy refrain, but what a terrible message! Why should three women who achieved their own dreams dissuade their fans from “chasing waterfalls”? To stick to the rivers that they’re used to? I suspect T-Boz and co. were trying to nip future competition in the bud. And it’s not just bad advice on a metaphorical level. As we’ve discovered in Iceland, waterfall-chasing can be very rewarding indeed.

Svartifoss Travel
Svartifoss

We read that the Hallgrímskirkja had been inspired by Iceland’s geography, but until gazing upon Svartifoss, we didn’t understand how literal the inspiration had been. The church’s architect reversed the color scheme from black to white, but otherwise Mother Nature has a solid case for copyright infringement.

The “Black Falls” are found in the Skaftafell National Park. The park itself is one of these massive Icelandic places where you could hike for days through valleys and across glaciers without seeing another soul. So it’s merciful that the park’s best waterfall is just a couple kilometers from the entrance. Svartifoss isn’t especially powerful but, with a backdrop of pitch-black basalt columns arranged behind the water like a curtain, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

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Skógarfoss

A rectangular sheet of water which falls straight down for 60 meters and produces an awe-inspiring splash, Skógarfoss might be the most classic “waterfall” we’ve ever seen. Most waterfalls are like, you tell a group of five-year-olds to draw a circle, and their sketches are basically correct, definitely “circles” in the general sense of the word. But then little Julie turns in this absolutely perfect circle, and you’re vaguely unsettled. Skógarfoss is like that. Almost creepy in its perfection, just like that weird little Julie.

Waterfall Panorama
Seljalandsfoss

Even more impressive than Skógarfoss or Svartifoss, is Seljalandsfoss, found just twenty minutes west of Skógar. This massive cascade is visible from the ring road, not far off from Reykjavík, so it’s a sure bet that every single tour bus will be making a stop. The first time we visited was at the end of a very long day tour, when our guide gave us all of fifteen minutes to fight past the other groups and briefly bask in the waterfall’s glory.

The second time was a lot more fun. We had our own transport, were with friends, and arrived at around 10pm. The hour was late, but the Icelandic summer sun was still out, and we had the entire waterfall to ourselves. Seljalandsfoss is incredibly loud and drops directly into a deep pool, producing a thick sheet of spray. But the best part is the path which loops around behind the waterfall, allowing you to view it from every angle.

Locations on Our Map: Svartifoss | Skógarfoss | Seljalandsfoss

We visited these waterfalls as part of the Glacier Lagoon Tour and one by renting a car from SADcars

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August 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm Comments (6)

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Ice Cream and Coffee in Eyjafjrur 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.
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