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The Southern Coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

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The day after our soul-crushing 20-mile trek out of Hellissandur, we hopped on a bus run by Snæfellsnes Excursions which brought us around the southern coast of the peninsula. Sitting in a bus all day and basking in the awe-inspiring scenery of the Snæfellsnes without any walking involved? That was exactly what our aching bones were hoping for.

Djúpalónssandur Iceland

Our first stop was at a black-stone beach called Djúpalónssandur. Huge, craggy rock formations surround the small inlet, which until recently had been an important fishing port. You can still find the remains of a shipwreck on the shore, and although we didn’t see them, there are four famous lifting stones on the beach, used to measure the strength of new fishermen. Fullsterkur (Strong: 154 kg), Hálfsterkur (Halfstrong: 100 kg), Hálfdrættingur (Half-as-good: 54 kg) and Amlóði (Lightweight: 23 kg).

 Arnastapi Photo Arche

The next stop on our tour was Hellnar, connected to neighboring village Arnastapi by a short trail leading along the peninsula’s most spectacular coastline. We were amazed by the strange rock formations, blowholes, birds and sheer cliffs of lava, along the one hour trail. One of the best formations is found at the trail’s head: Gatklettur, a huge arch through which sea birds are constantly soaring. We enjoyed this easy, mostly downhill walk immensely.

Ytri Tunga Beach

After picking us up in Arnastapi, our bus stopped at Ytri Tunga on the southeastern side of Snæfellsnes. This beach is well-known for its seals, but today they were nowhere to be found, which was a disappointment. Instead, there were just a couple of Icelanders on the beach, playing with their Golden Lab. The dog was happy and cute, chasing sticks into the ocean, but secretly I blamed him for scaring the seals away. Secretly, I hated him.

We ended our day at the crossroads of Vegamot, where we had some coffee in the gas station and waited for the bus to Reykjavík. The day was exactly what we had been hoping for: an easy and inexpensive way to see the highlights of the southern part of the peninsula, without any thought or planning necessary. If you’re looking for something similar, I’d give Snæfellsnes Excursions a ring. We paid about $30 apiece, from Hellissandur to Vegamot. By Icelandic standards, that’s a serious bargain.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Djúpalónssandur | Hellnar | Arnastapi | Ytri Tunga

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August 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm Comments (3)

Hiking around the Western Snæfellsness, Part 2

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Our excursion into the Snæfellsjökull National Park was the first big hike we’d embarked on in Iceland, and was an incredible introduction to the country’s nature. By the early afternoon, we had already seen an old Irish well, an amazing crater and a lava-field. But the second part of our day would prove to be even more action-packed.

Snekkjufoss Waterfall
Snæfellsjökull, always in the distance, led us on

A long walk from the Saxhóll Crater brought us to its sibling, Rauðhóll, which we circled along a nicely-marked path. Circumnavigating the crater took about an hour, and the scenery was stunning. Here, unlike at Saxhóll, the vegetation has largely returned. We were all alone, within sight of both the sea and the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and fell completely under the landscape’s spell. I don’t think we talked at all. It would have been wrong to interrupt the natural, silent harmony by blurting out some idiocy like “Gosh, this sure is pretty!”

We continued up a dirt track in the direction of the glacier until reaching two waterfalls: Klukkufoss and Snekkjufoss. Both were lovely. Smaller Klukkufoss fell over basalt columns, while Snekkjufoss thundered into the valley. The river powering through Snekkjufoss was fed by the Snæfellsjökull Glacier. A shining white beacon always visible on the horizon, the glacier was our companion throughout the day.

After the two waterfalls, we hiked up the third and final crater of the day, Sjónarhóll, and enjoyed an unparalleled view of the valley. A field of lava stretched out in front of us, Hellissandur and the beautiful Ingjaldshóll Church were visible in the distance, while the Atlantic Ocean claimed the horizon beyond.

Now we had the task of getting back to our tent at Hellissandur. It was already late in the day, so we chanced a shortcut along an unmarked trail past Burfell Mountain. Note: when a trail in Iceland is described as “unmarked”, that’s exactly what it means! There was neither track nor stake to lead the way, and so we just kept heading north, up and down huge hills, over agonizingly bumpy terrain, past concerned-looking sheep, and across rivers which started small but were becoming unnervingly larger as we distanced ourselves from the glacier.

Eventually, it had to happen. At the foot of Burfell, we found ourselves ringed in by uncrossable rivers. The summer’s glacial run-off was in full swing and these rivers, which on the map looked like tiny streams, were raging. We followed the tamest river east, downstream, searching for a fordable spot, only to encounter another river joining in from the south. And now we were completely hemmed in, and had to move south, 180° opposite of our goal.

Crossing Rivers Iceland

After an hour of hiking in the wrong direction, we found a relatively shallow spot, and stripped down to our undies. At this point, we had been going for thirteen hours, so the freezing water was actually a helpful way to revive. It took another hour before reaching the coastal road. We weren’t anywhere close to our campsite, but a road means cars, means transportation, means hitchhiking. Luckily, hitchhiking in Iceland isn’t just safe and convenient, but can be a real life-saver. We were picked up by the very first car which passed.

In all, we had walked over twenty miles. Way more than planned. We managed to get our tent erected, then collapsed into our sleeping bags. The next morning, we awoke in utter agony, but the experience was worth the pain. Snæfellsnes is home to some seriously amazing nature, and this hike introduced us to a lot of it.

Locations on our map: Rauðhóll | Klukkufoss | Snekkjufoss | Snæfellsjökull

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August 9, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comment (1)

Hiking around the Western Snæfellsness, Part 1

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We set out early from Hellissandur for a big day of hiking around the western end of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This was our first extended hike in Iceland, and we had planned a promising route through lava fields, to the rims of craters, past waterfalls and across glacial rivers. Well, “crossing glacial rivers” wasn’t actually on the itinerary; it was more like a last-minute surprise at the day’s end.

Saxhóll Volcano Vulkan Iceland
Saxhóll Crater

We had stayed the night at the Hotel Hellissandur, which was large and comfortable, with a helpful staff happy to provide tips on our upcoming hike. We gorged ourselves on the hotel’s excellent breakfast buffet before setting out, providing us extra energy that turned out to be vital. Our hike was a lot longer and more difficult than we expected.

But the path started easy, following the coast southwest of Hellissandur past the remains of Viking-era fishing huts and to the Írskrabrunnur (Irish Well), a dried-up underground cistern guarded by a massive whale bone. Very cool. You can descend the stairs into the well, though there isn’t much reason unless you’re an aficionado of puddles and dirt walls.

Next we crossed the Neshraun Lava Field on our way to the Saxhóll Crater. Marked by red-tipped stakes, the trail was easy to follow, though not so easy to traverse. The dried lava was craggy and sharp, keeping our pace slow and clumsy until we reached the foot of the crater. Saxhóll erupted around 3000 years ago, forming the amazing landscape we’d just crossed. The climb to the crater’s rim was surprisingly easy, and the view down into the bowl was spectacular.

Saxhóll was just the first crater we saw on our long day out. As our journey continued, we would come ever nearer the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and encounter waterfalls, snow, sheep, and absolutely no other people. Oh, and we would run into some rivers. Plenty of rivers.

Locations on our map: Hellissandur | Írskrabrunnur | Saxhóll
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August 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm Comments (2)

Sushi, Viking Style

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If you hear the same suggestion from a variety of different locals, it’s smart to listen. And it seemed that everyone we talked with in Stykkishólmur recommended a boat trip of the islands around the bay. So we bought tickets, and discovered that the locals were right. The Viking Sushi Tour was one of the most entertaining excursions we had in Iceland.

sea urchin roe
Sea Urchin Roe in a Scallop Shell

A company called SeaTours runs the “Viking Sushi Tour” out of Stykkishólmur. The 90-minute boat ride promises bird-spotting, island-viewing and fine Viking-style dining.

As our boat neared the first island, Þórishólmur, I felt my stomach crawling up into my throat. Our vessel was huge, and we were approaching land way too quickly. I looked up at the captain to make sure that he was neither sleeping nor drunk, but he seemed in control. Turns out, Þórishólmur is a volcanic plug which sinks straight into the sea, so even large boats like ours are able to get very close. And we were near enough that I could have almost reached out and touched the rock.

Had I tried, my fingers might have been pecked off. The island’s cliffs were packed with sea birds: guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins. We saw more puffins on this trip, and were closer to them, than on our tour out of Reykjavík.

Saga Stone

The boat brought us by two other islands, one of which had a huge crevasse almost splitting it in two. A large rock was somehow wedged into the crevasse which, according to legend, was thrown by a troll woman from the mainland. Annoyed by the bells of the town church, she hurled a rock at it, but missed and hit the island instead. In an example of science following folklore, the rock has been studied, and did in fact come from the mountain on which the troll is said to have lived. Not just that, but the church would have been directly in the stone’s path.

The stories and island-hopping were a lot of fun, but the best part of the tour came at the end, when the crew dropped a giant trawler into the ocean. Considering our proximity to shore, the water’s depth was astounding; the trawler just kept sinking and sinking. Soon, it was raised and its contents dumped onto a large cleaning table. Greedily, we looked upon our bounty: an amazing number of scallops, crabs, starfish and sea urchins. And now, we would feast in a manner worthy of Vikings! (Well… effete Vikings who eat with chopsticks, sip on white wine and let the boat staff do all the work of cleaning and schucking.)

I had expected to feel revulsion while munching down raw scallops and (especially) sea urchin roe, but it was all surprisingly good! I suppose it really doesn’t get any fresher, than straight from the freezing depths of the Northern Atlantic.

Stykkishólmur is an extremely picturesque town, with plenty to do and see, and the Viking Sushi Tour is a real highlight. Not to be missed.

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August 8, 2013 at 1:20 pm Comment (1)

Stykkishólmur and its Museums

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With its quaint multi-colored houses and outstanding location in the Breiðafjörður Bay, Stykkishólmur was the best town during our three-day trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Though its population is only around 1000, there’s plenty to occupy visitors, including three excellent museums.

Stykkishólmur Photos

After setting up our tent near the golf course on the outskirts of town, we set off into the mean streets of Stykkishólmur. This is not a place which requires a lot of time to explore. There’s the modern church on a bluff overlooking the city, the harbor from where ferries depart to the island of Flatey, a couple of decent restaurants, and a lot of cute houses. From a high enough viewpoint, you can see the entire city at once.

We completed our circuit of downtown in about twenty minutes, and had a lot of time to waste until the Viking Sushi Adventure Tour we’d booked, so we decided to check out the town’s museums, one right after the other.

Andy Warhol painting of Vesuvius

First up: the Eldfjallasafn. Stykkishólmur might seem a strange place for a museum dedicated to volcanoes, but it happens to be the birthplace of Haraldur Sigurðsson, one of the world’s leading volcanologists. After spending most of his life abroad, including a stint teaching at the University of Rhode Island, Haraldur returned home to open a museum. He has climbed Vesuvius, visited the volcanoes of the Caribbean and investigated the catastrophic 1815 Tambora explosion in Indonesia. The Eldfjallasafn is full of relics from these experiences. The displays, organized by region, are comprised of rocks, paintings, photographs and video. There’s even an original Andy Warhol painting of Vesuvius.

Modern Art Photography Iceland

Next, we went to the Vatnasafn (the Library of Water). The name is beyond cryptic, and we weren’t at all sure what to expect, but this turned out to be an installation by American artist Roni Horn. She collected samples from 24 glaciers around Iceland and placed the water in large columns, inside one of the best houses in Stykkishólmur. The result is… odd. The water in each of the columns is crystal clear, and so the various glaciers are indistinguishable. It looks neat, lots of huge water-filled columns, but you might be left wondering what the point was. “There is no point, man, it’s art!”

Norska Húsið Stykkishólmur

The final stop on our cultural tour of Stykkishólmur was the Norska Húsið (Norse House), dating from 1832 and built from imported Norwegian timber. Directly across from the harbor, it’s one of the most impressive dwellings in town, and home to a fantastic museum. The bottom floor is reserved for rotating exhibits, while the top floor recreates the family’s living arrangements with period furniture and anecdotes about life in 19th century Stykkishólmur. It was all very well done, surprisingly interesting, and was our favorite museum of the day.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Eldfjallasafn | Vatnasafn | Norska Húsið

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At the harbor, we saw this group of acrobatic kids.
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August 5, 2013 at 2:58 pm Comments (6)
The Southern Coast of the Snfellsnes Peninsula The day after our soul-crushing 20-mile trek out of Hellissandur, we hopped on a bus run by Snæfellsnes Excursions which brought us around the southern coast of the peninsula. Sitting in a bus all day and basking in the awe-inspiring scenery of the Snæfellsnes without any walking involved? That was exactly what our aching bones were hoping for.
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