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Southwest to Skaftafell

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On the second-to-last day of our loop around Iceland, we drove along the southeastern coast from the Eastfjords to Hali near Jökulsárlón. Along the way, we saw some amazing mountain scenery and encountered a couple interesting sights near the town of Höfn.

Before 1974 and the completion of the Ring Road, it took over ten hours to reach Höfn from Reykjavík because you were forced to drive clockwise all the way around the west, north and east of the country. So for most of its history, Höfn was practically Iceland’s most remote town. But its profile increased dramatically in 1951, when NATO established a radar station here to monitor Soviet air traffic.

We drove onto the Stokksnes Peninsula just south of Höfn to see the station. NATO moved out in 1992 after the end of the Cold War, and the station is now used for regular, non-covert air traffic control. Unfortunately, the perimeter is still off-limits to the public, meaning we couldn’t get too close, but the giant satellite dish in this desolate location was still impressive.

On the way back to the Ring Road, we came upon another strange construction: a circular cluster of turf-roofed buildings which looked like an abandoned Viking-era fortification. I was confused. Nowhere in my research on the area had I read about such a thing. And we had to get quite close before realizing that these buildings weren’t ancient at all, but quite new. Later, we would learn that the fort had been built for a movie which was never completed.

Distracted by these sights and frequent photo stops along the Ring Road, we didn’t pull into the Hali farm until quite late. Here, we stayed the night at the farm’s large and popular guesthouse and enjoyed an excellent dinner in the restaurant. Located just about an hour from Skaftafell, this was a great spot to relax before our early-morning glacier adventure the next day.

A non-stop drive around Iceland can take as little as sixteen hours, but we needed three full weeks. And it still wasn’t enough! We reached the southeast at the end of our 91 days, and didn’t have nearly enough time to properly explore the region. But the little we did see was just as strange and wonderful as what we’ve come to expect from Iceland.

Locations on our Map: The Radar Station | Hali Farm and Guesthouse
Hali Guesthouse – Website

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October 31, 2013 at 10:43 am Comments (10)

Seyðisfjörður

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One of the larger towns in the Eastfjords, Seyðisfjörður is best known as the port for ferries arriving once a week from Denmark. We didn’t know much else about it when we decided to spend the night here, but were pleasantly surprised. Seyðisfjörður was one of the more charming villages we visited during our entire journey around the country.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see Seyðisfjörður at its best, because of the inclement weather that plagued so much of our trip around Iceland. Heavy fog, intermittent rain and low-hanging clouds obscured most of the landscape from view, including the mountains which surround the town. But what we did see, we liked. Much of Seyðisfjörður was built in the 19th century by fishermen from Norway and many of the wooden, Norwegian-style houses have survived into the present day.

After taking a short stroll around the harbor, we followed a rough track up into the hills to discover a strange art installation. Here, in a spot that looks out over Seyðisfjörður, German artist Lukas Kühne constructed an echo chamber called Tvísöngur. With domes of various sizes, the piece most resembles a miniature Turkish hamam, and inside you can produce weird echo effects. I imagine this being especially fun for kids.

We stayed the night at the Hótel Aldan, which occupies three historical buildings in the heart of the town. Our room was in the “Old Bank”, built by herring entrepreneurs in 1898 as a hotel before being converted into Seyðisfjörður’s bank. Today it’s a hotel again, and one of the nicest we stayed in during our three months in Iceland.

Seyðisfjörður is tiny, and I can’t imagine spending any more than a couple days here, but we really loved it. When the weather allows, there is apparently great hiking to be had in the hills surrounding the town. It isn’t on the Ring Road, but should you drive by, Seyðisfjörður definitely warrants a detour.

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October 28, 2013 at 10:23 pm Comments (3)

Akureyri – Iceland’s Second City

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When we pulled into Akureyri, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This cute little village was supposed to be the second-biggest city in the country? Come on, Iceland, stop kidding. Where’s the real Akureyri? Where is this “Capital of the North” we’d read so much about? Where are you hiding it?

Harbor Akureyri

After days in the tiny hamlets which dot Iceland’s northern coast, we had been eager to visit a big city, so the first couple hours in Akureyri left us completely disillusioned. It didn’t take more than a couple hours to see the extent of the town. The skies were gray. Winter schedules meant all the museums were closed. And we had planned two days here! What in the world were we going to do?

Some towns immediately win our hearts, like Ísafjörður and Húsavík, but Akureyri needed time to work its magic. The downtown is small, but it’s also tightly packed with a lot of neat stores and good restaurants. Akureyri is home to a university and once the evening settled in, we discovered a young and energetic vibe. Away from the central square, there are a number of worthwhile sights. The weather is milder here and, when the sun does eventually shine on them, the town’s colorful houses and buildings are hard to dislike.

We walked through the famous Botanic Garden, which contains samples of almost every plant found in Iceland, and many from around the world. We climbed the stairs to the big church, very reminiscent of the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík. We had great meals at Bautinn and Hamborgarafabrikkan (Hamburger Factory), and spent hours in various cafes and bars. We toured the old part of town, where houses from the 19th century are still standing, and scaled a hill to arrive at the cemetery. We browsed a quaint second-hand bookstore near the church, and spent some time at the harbor, looking at the ships and the mountains across the bay.

Our two days in Akureyri flew by, and I would have been happy to stay a little longer. It’s the kind of town… alright fine… the kind of city which only gets better the more you get to know it.

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October 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm Comments (3)

Ólafsfjörður

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A village of just 800 inhabitants built around a natural bay of the same name, Ólafsfjörður was our base during the three days we spent exploring the eastern half of the Tröllaskagi Peninsula. The town itself doesn’t have a lot to distract tourists, but the surrounding landscape picks up the slack.

Ólafsfjörður

In Northern Iceland, September is “winter” and a lot of touristy sights close up shop. So we weren’t surprised to find Ólafsfjörður’s lone attraction, the Natural History Museum (Nátúrrugripsafnið), closed. And it didn’t really upset us; we were much more interested in driving around the fjord than spending a day in a museum. During our slow, leisurely tour, we saw quiet farms, geese and a lot of snow. We also cruised around the town and its harbor. Fishing remains integral to life here, despite the end of the herring boom which brought Ólafsfjörður into being in 1945.

We slept in a cabin operated by the Brimnes Hotel, right on top of the fjord and with a beautiful view of the mountains. On checking in, we were thrilled to discover a hot tub on the balcony. We ended each of our three Ólafsfjörður nights with an extended soak, watching dusk settle in and listening to ducks splash around in the water just below us.

Location on our Iceland Map
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October 16, 2013 at 2:06 pm Comments (3)

A Drive Around Tröllaskagi

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Although the great majority of it is completely inaccessible to all but the most adventurous hikers, the peninsula of Tröllaskagi is one of Iceland’s more heavily-populated regions. It’s book-ended by Sauðárkrókúr to the west and Akureyri to the east, with the towns of Hofsós, Sigluförður, Dalvík and Ólafsfjörður strung out along the coast. We drove along the coastal road just after the year’s first snowfall.

Tröllaskagi

After a couple months in the country, we started to become more Icelandic. On the morning we were leaving Sauðárkrókúr, we awoke to a fresh layer of snow covering the ground… and were excited! Not filled with dread. Not anxious about dangerous driving conditions. But invigorated by the prospect of an extra challenge. That day, I also found myself saying “Yaow” a lot, just like an Icelander. Excited for the drive? “Yaow!” Isn’t snow pretty? “Yaow!” More dried cod? “Yaow yaow yaow!”

Weather changes everything in Iceland. Roads are closed. Towns are completely stranded. Hikers die. It’s just something you have to constantly be aware of. Before embarking anywhere, we made it a habit to consult the website of The Icelandic Road Administration, where current road conditions are updated. Green is good, red is bad. Today, there was a lot of yellow. (Yaow, looks fine, yaow yaow.)

The drive was great, in part because of the inclement weather. The sky was absolutely white, and it blended in perfectly with the snow white mountains. You couldn’t tell where the land ended and the heavens began, and the effect was dizzying.

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We made a few stops during our drive, first in the village of Hólar í Hjaltadal, which was once one of the most important religious centers in Iceland. There’s an old cathedral here, but it was closed. Not a surprise. Once September sets in, and especially in the north, most things close. We were in and out of Hólar in minutes, but pulled over again in the nearby village of Hofsós.

As home to the Icelandic Emigration Center, Hofsós is a top destination for North Americans of Icelandic descent, looking to research their family history. Despite my newly discovered love of snow and propensity for exclaiming “Yaow!”, I’m certain no Icelandic blood runs through my veins, so we took a pass. Instead, we went to the town’s wonderful pool which overlooks the Atlantic… naturally enough, it was closed.

The rest of drive to Siglufjörður was quiet and beautiful. There were few other cars, and the pristine landscape was only interrupted by occasional tunnels. We were blasting our favorite new artist, Ásgeir Trausti, and not letting the fact that he sings in Icelandic hold us back from howling along at the top of our lungs. In all, it was one of the most fun days we’d had since renting our car and setting forth from Reykjavík. All we had to do was embrace our inner Icelanders.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Hólar | Hofsós

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October 15, 2013 at 7:49 pm Comments (0)

Ósar and Borgarvirki

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Stretching into the arctic waters of the Atlantic on Iceland’s northeastern coast, the Vatnsnes Peninsula is usually over-looked, but has a couple worthwhile places at which to stop. At Ósar, there’s a seal colony which lives on a sandbank just across a narrow stretch of water. And the Viking-era fort at Borgarvirki offers interesting history and a fantastic view of the region.

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Borgarvirki

It was an extremely windy afternoon, and we feared that Ósar’s seal colony wouldn’t be home. At first, these fears were borne out. We hiked about fifteen minutes down to the shore, but didn’t see a single seal. Eventually, though, one raised his head out of the water. He was watching us closely, taking our measure, and only disappearing when Jürgen started making kissy-noises at him.

The flirting must have worked, however, because seals now started popping up all over the place. We saw at least ten, diving around, playing, and always keeping a careful eye on us. We had hoped to see them basking on the shore, but it wasn’t exactly a day for basking. Still, if you want to see seals, Ósar seems a pretty safe bet.

Next up was the ancient fort called Borgarvirki, just south of Ósar. It’s built atop an immense volcanic plug and dates from the settlement era, but not much else is known about Borgarvirki. It doesn’t appear in the literature or accounts of the time, so nobody knows for sure who built it or for what purpose. I assume it was a defensive lookout, because from the top you can see for miles.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Ósar | Borgarvirki

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October 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm Comments (4)

Hveravellir: Halfway through the Highlands

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At the midway point of our journey along the Klöjur Road, we stayed overnight at Hveravellir. After hours of desolate lava fields and no signs of life (apart from the occasional shrub), we greeted this lonesome outpost like Bedouins stumbling upon an oasis in the desert.

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Hveravellir is a lodge with the most basic of services: some food, a room to relax, beds, and most importantly, people to talk to. The Klöjur Road gets lonely! So, although I felt bad for the two girls working in the lodge, nothing was going to stop Jürgen and I from blabbing their ears off. I’m sure the tale of our harrowing journey through the highlands was fascinating to them. I’m sure they hadn’t heard the exact same story a million times before.

Once we got our fill of human companionship, we explored the area. Hveravellir is built around an active geothermal area, and a short path leads past a number of bubbling, sulfur-spewing holes in the earth, each with its own name and personality. Öskurhóll is a white volcano-shaped mound spitting out constant clouds of steam at high-pressure. Fagrihver is a beautiful light-blue pool with crystallized sulfur covering half its surface. Eyvindarhver is an evil, yellowish spring; in the infrequent moments when it isn’t belching smoke, you can see a horrific, moaning face in its depths.

Eyvindarhver was named after Eyvindar the Outlaw, a famous figure from Icelandic history who lived in exile with his wife, Hella. One of the harshest punishments in 17th-century Iceland was banishment to the country’s highlands. It was basically a death sentence, but in the unlikely event that the criminal should survive twenty years, he or she would be pardoned. Eyvindar and Hella were among the few to withstand the elements for so long, and they managed it by living part-time in Hveravellir. Here, they could stay warm, and even boil sheep in the hot springs.

Not all of the hot springs at Hveravellir clock in at a deadly, sheep-cooking temperature. In fact, the best thing about staying here is the perfectly-heated tub just outside the sleeping quarters. After a long day on the road, nothing could be better.

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October 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm Comments (0)

The Kjölur Interior Road

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After our successful completion of the Introduction to Highland Driving course provided by the Kaldidalur Road between Húsafell and Þingvellir, we felt confident enough on the very next day to tackle level two: Kjölur. The 200-kilometer route F35 cuts through the interior, connecting Gullfoss to the northern town of Blönduós.

Kjölur Road Trip

The drive started out without any major drama. “If anything, this is easier than Kaldidalur,” I semi-shouted at Jürgen over the music we had blasting from the stereo. Björk grunting something about being a hunter. “Maybe I’ve just become a better driver since yesterday!”

The drive wasn’t just easier, but more beautiful than the previous day’s journey. Glaciers everywhere. To the left, the Langjökull; to the right, the Hofsjökull; in front of us, the Hvitárvatn glacial lake. The sun is shining! And then we spot a rainbow. Björk is purring in joy… it’s oh so quiet. And it’s all so lovely!

Of course, the road eventually degraded into a mess of potholes and puddles so deep they might qualify as ponds. Eventually, I started to question my driving abilities. Eventually, Björk’s voice started to grate on my nerves. Eventually, the landscape looked less lovely than desolate. We weren’t surprised; this is Iceland, where the only constant is constant change. Earlier on this same day, we had experienced hail in Reykjavík, a thunderstorm around Selfoss and sunshine at Gullfoss. Everything shifts rapidly in this country: landscapes, weather, moods, road conditions.

By the time we reached the halfway point, at Hveravellir, we were finished both mentally and emotionally. Our car was filthy, our nerves were frayed, and we had played straight through Björk’s entire discography. On the upside, we could stop driving for the night, knowing that an evening of wine and hot springs awaited us. The downside? The second half of Kjölur loomed the very next day.

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October 9, 2013 at 6:58 pm Comment (1)

The Kaldidalur Interior Route

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For 60 kilometers between the Hvitá valley resort of Húsafell and the Þingvellir National Park, the bumpy Kaldidalur (Cold Road) cuts between glaciers and across lava fields. It takes about two hours to traverse and acts as a kind of beginner’s course to the country’s highlands.

Kaldidalur River

We tackled Kaldidalur after having visited the Glymur Waterfall at Hvalfjörður. The weather had been pleasant enough by Icelandic standards, but took a turn for the worse almost as soon as we started the journey to Þingvellir.

Although the low clouds and pounding rain obscured from view the glaciers surrounding us on all sides, it also added something to the experience: the sense of hopeless desolation which should be a part of a journey into the highlands. As we bumped along southward, hopping from one pothole to the next at speeds barely eclipsing 20 miles per hour, I surveyed the lifeless landscape through the rain-battered windshield and a cold dread enveloped my soul. “This is perfect,” I said to Jürgen. “What do you feel right now?”

“Despair.”

We didn’t have much of a view, but Kaldidalur skirts right between two glaciers by the names of Ok and Þórisjökull. The landscape was otherworldly, almost completely lifeless until we neared Þingvellir. And though the road presented some tricky driving, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. Actually, it made me eager for our next challenge in the highlands, which would be coming up very soon.

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October 9, 2013 at 6:27 pm Comments (3)

Glymur – Iceland’s Highest Waterfall

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For a rewarding day trip out of Reykjavík, it’s hard to do better than Iceland’s highest waterfall, Glymur. Found at the end of Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), Glymur is hidden within a canyon, and an hour’s hike is required before it comes into view. But the walk is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself completely worth the effort.

Glymur Waterfall

We hadn’t heard a lot about Glymur during our time in Iceland, so I was surprised to learn that it was once one of the country’s most popular sights. But that was before 1998, and the construction of the Hvalfjörður Tunnel. By allowing drivers to cut directly underneath and across the fjord rather than having to go around it, the tunnel reduces driving time from an hour to seven minutes. Quite a boon for industrious Iceland, but a disaster for the popularity of poor Glymur. Used to be right off the ring road! Used to be a practical stop halfway around the neverending fjord. Used to be, Glymur got some love.

Aww, we still love you Glymur! We had an excellent time hiking to this amazing waterfall. There’s a lot packed into the three kilometer track, and it was a far more exciting walk than I had been anticipating. You’ll climb a horribly steep hill, edge along a dizzying cliff, and even crawl straight through a cave. But the best part is where the path leads to a thin log balanced over a river. As in: “this is how you’ll be crossing”.

We made it across the log, up the hill, along the cliff and through the cave, and had Glymur as our reward. 196 meters high (643 feet), this is an incredible waterfall. We had ascended quite high, and behind us was a landscape almost as impressive as the waterfall itself. If you’re looking for a fun half-day excursion out of Reykjavík, definitely keep Glymur in mind. It may be past its prime in terms of popularity, but the relative lack of other people only improves the experience.

Location on our Map of the Glymur Trailhead
The Trail We Followed: Wikiloc

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October 8, 2013 at 8:53 pm Comments (7)

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Southwest to Skaftafell On the second-to-last day of our loop around Iceland, we drove along the southeastern coast from the Eastfjords to Hali near Jökulsárlón. Along the way, we saw some amazing mountain scenery and encountered a couple interesting sights near the town of Höfn.
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