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Sjáumst Síðar, Iceland

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The daylight hours were growing shorter, but we took our leave of Iceland before the true onset of winter, when the country would be plunged into a period of almost unbroken darkness. For us, Iceland was all about the light. A light which powered long summer days. Which illuminated vistas of mountains, fjords and waterfalls. Which fought through clouds to reflect off a glacier and momentarily blind us. This light, shining on a country that didn’t need anywhere near 91 days to work its way into our hearts.

Goodbye Iceland

Only 300,000 people live in Iceland. This shocked me at first. An entire country for a population smaller than that of Honolulu? But by the end of our stay, 300,000 felt like a lot. Iceland might be a country in name, but in spirit it’s a big, widely-scattered family. We’d meet people in Akureyri with cousins we’d photographed in Ísafjörður. “Húsavík? Sure! My sister works at the town bar. Stop by and say hi.” Or we’d see a friend from Kópavogur during a visit to the Westman Islands. And he would just wave, like it’s no big deal. Like it’s right around the block!

Considering the small and tightly-knit population, the sheer number of tourists who come to Iceland should be overwhelming. Walking down Laugavegur, the main street of Reykjavík where foreigners far outnumber locals, I always felt a little guilty. After all, I was one of these invaders. But although it would be understandable for Icelanders to turn insular, shunning strangers under the guise of protecting their culture, they are among the most welcoming, friendly people we’ve ever encountered. Whether striking up a conversation at the bar, offering advice, pulling over when we stuck out our thumbs, listening to our stories or sharing theirs, locals were always happy to engage with us. Icelanders are proud of their country, eager to know what we’d seen and what we thought.

And they have reason to be proud. Iceland is home to the most bizarre and beautiful nature we’ve ever seen, bar none. The glaciers, the geothermal areas, the desolate interior, the raging arctic oceans, the black sand beaches. The hiking! During our walk along the Fimmvorðuháls Trail, the moment we crossed between two glaciers and saw the valley of Þórsmörk beneath us, glowing in the evening sun, was one of those transcendent experiences I’ll never forget. How many times in your life does something happen that you immediately know will be etched into your memory forever? It’s rare. But perhaps less so in Iceland.

The nature is unforgettable, but that’s only half of what makes Iceland so special. We were just as amazed by its people. This tenacious little community who brave life on an island which (let’s be honest) is set to explode any day now. Who, despite their small number, have their own language, compelling history and incredibly rich culture. Who have created one of the most liberal, tolerant, environmentally-friendly, pragmatic and down-to-earth countries on the planet. These people who love camping! Who party like maniacs! Who bathe in rivers and climb glaciers for sport! Who knit!

Iceland, you’re fascinating. We left a little sad, but with amazing memories and friendships that I’m sure will stand the test of time. And I have no doubt that we’ll return. It’s your fault. You welcomed us with open arms and now, we’re kind of family.

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Goodbye Iceland
Goodbye Iceland
Goodbye Iceland
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November 3, 2013 at 11:09 pm Comment (1)

And Finally, We Climb a Glacier

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Almost inconceivably, we had lived in Iceland for three months without having been on a glacier. These massive chunks of ice account for over ten percent of the country’s surface area, and exert an enormous influence over life on the island. Had we neglected them, our exploration of Iceland would have been incomplete. And so, on our final excursion, we struck off across the ice.

Skaftafell Glacier Walk

We arrived at Skaftafell bright and early on a Saturday morning. Yes, I said “bright”. In stark contrast to the previous couple weeks, the weather today was outstanding. Iceland had apparently decided to send us out on a high note.

Our trip was organized by Glacier Guides, an operation based in Skaftafell which specializes in glacier tours. After meeting the other members of the group and our guide, Helen, we hopped into an old American school bus. Soon enough we were at the foot of Falljökull, which is a southern outlet glacier of the enormous Vatnajökull. In Iceland, even the glaciers have glaciers.

We affixed crampons to our boots, tightened harnesses around our waists, strapped helmets to our skulls, grabbed ice axes and began our ascent. Right away, I realized how much fun this was going to be. In the abstract, “walking on a big chunk of ice” doesn’t sound like anything special, but the reality is exhilarating. The ice crackled satisfyingly underneath every step of my metal-bladed shoes and the sun made even a light jacket strictly optional. Though a glacial landscape looks smooth and monotone from a distance, it’s amazingly diverse close up. We tramped into ice caves, peered down into glacial crevasses (one of which was 30 meters deep) and drank from streams of ice cold water running down the glacier’s surface.

Throughout our ascent, Helen kept us entertained with glacier facts, figures and stories, and faster than I could believe, we had reached an impenetrable wall of jagged blue and white ice. It looked just like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and marked the end of our trail. Which was fine. We had marched eight kilometers across the ice, and I would suffer for it the next day. But the fact that I hardly noticed the distance is a testament to the beauty of the landscape.

Volcano: ✓ Hot Springs: ✓ And finally… Glacier: ✓. We had an incredible time on Falljökull, and were only upset that we hadn’t gone on a similar hike earlier during our time in Iceland. It was something I’d have been happy to experience more than once.

Glacier Guides – Website

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Skaftafell Glacier Walk
Skaftafell Glacier Walk
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November 2, 2013 at 8:16 pm Comment (1)

Reykjavík Street Art

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Street Art Reykjavik

One of our favorite parts of moving to a new place is checking out the street art scene. We’ve come to learn that aspects of a city’s personality will often be reflected in its graffiti and public art, so the work we saw in Reykjavík wasn’t a total surprise. Extremely artistic, modern, intelligent and well-coordinated, Reykjavík’s street art is clearly done with the property owner’s permission. Perhaps a bit too nice for such an anarchic art form, but very Icelandic.

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November 1, 2013 at 8:46 pm Comments (2)

The Eastfjords

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We had a wonderful time in Seyðisfjörður and the next day continued our clockwise loop around Iceland. The meandering road south took us around the magnificent natural vistas of the Eastfjords and into a few tranquil coastal villages.

Egg Sculptures Djúpivógur

Not many people spend a lot of time in the Eastfjords, a region which boasts none of Iceland’s most famous sights. No geysers, geothermal parks or volcanoes. But the fjords, carved out thousands of years ago by glaciers retreating into the interior, are lovely. The land here is older, more stable and greener, and the quiet roads which wind around along the ocean offer up some extraordinary scenery.

After leaving Seyðisfjörður, our first stop was in the minuscule hamlet of Stöðvarfjörður. We hadn’t planned on pausing here, but were attracted by the bizarre murals decorating the fishing plant near the harbor. This factory had employed a large percentage of the town’s inhabitants and its closing in 2005 devastated the local economy. But a group of artists endeavored to turn the old factory into a Creative Center, hoping to lure tourists to the remote town.

Further south, we took a break in Djúpivógur, where we saw an art installation of giant eggs set on pedestals near the harbor. After the collapse of fishing, many towns in the Eastfjords seem to be placing their chips on art. An uncertain bet, to say the least, but it worked on us. After being attracted into the town by the stone eggs, we went straight to the nearest restaurant for lunch.

This gorgeous corner of the country doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and we feel awful for spending so little time here. 91 days in Iceland, and only two of them in the Eastfjords! We probably could have planned that better. There’s some great hiking which we didn’t get to experience at all and we completely missed the towns of Borgarfjörður Eystri, Eskifjörður and Mjóifjörður, along with many others. But one day, we’ll be back. And we’ll know better.

Locations on our Map: Stöðvarfjörður | Djúpivógur

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October 30, 2013 at 1:07 pm Comments (2)

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)

Dettifoss – Europe’s Most Powerful Waterfall

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During our three months in Iceland, we saw a lot of waterfalls. Gullfoss, Dynjandi, Hraunfoss, Goðafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Svartifoss, Glymur and many more. But we couldn’t claim to have adequately covered the waterfalls of Iceland until visiting Dettifoss, the largest and most powerful in Europe.

Dettifoss Waterfall

It was raining when we parked our car and set out across a well-worn trail through the snow. After about ten minutes of hiking, the roar of the waterfall could be heard, but it took another ten minutes before the Jökulsá River came into view. Soon, we were standing speechless before Dettifoss. Crashing down a cliff 45 meters wide, the churning gray water is breathtaking, its sheer power and volume almost unbelievable. The glaciers of Iceland are huge, but still, it’s inconceivable that they can generate this much water.

You can approach Dettifoss from either side of the river. The views are supposed to be better from the east, but since that road was closed by snow, we were forced to take the western route. About a kilometer further upstream, there’s another waterfall called Selfoss. Far less powerful than Dettifoss, but even more picturesque.

Dettifoss is perhaps most famous for its appearance at the end of 2012’s hit film Prometheus. Ridley Scott used the waterfall and its otherworldly landscape to represent a nascent planet still being formed. Excellent location scouting. The unbridled, transformative power of Dettifoss is something to behold.

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October 28, 2013 at 6:27 pm Comment (1)

Höfði and Skútustaðir

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Mývatn is not a very big lake. You could easily drive around its perimeter in about 45 minutes and so it was a little surprising when our loop turned into an all-day adventure. But we weren’t about to speed past sights as amazing as the Höfði Nature Park or the psedudocraters of Skútustaðir.

Höfði

Found on the southeastern corner of Mývatn, the Höfði Nature Park is a private reserve with paths that wind through a forest thick with birch and end at the lake shore. Along with Ásbyrgi, Höfði is one of the few places in Iceland where you can actually walk through the woods, and we really enjoyed the novelty of being around big trees. It almost felt as though we had been teleported to a different country… until we arrived at the lake shore and found a group of bizarre volcanic rock formations. Yep, still in Iceland.

Further along the road circling Mývatn is a collection of psuedocraters at Skútustaðir. These formations occur when superheated water covered by molten lava explodes violently to the surface. At Skútustaðir, this happened over and over, and the result is a rolling landscape of colorful craters. A path leads around them, and from the top of the craters, there’s a wonderful view over Mývatn.

Locations on our Map: Höfði | Skútustaðir

Cabins right at Lake Myvatn

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October 28, 2013 at 12:58 pm Comment (1)

The Jarðböðin Nature Baths

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While we enjoyed our visit to the Blue Lagoon, we did have a few complaints. It was too expensive, too crowded and although the landscape of black lava was striking, it could have benefited from more variety. Iceland was apparently listening to us and taking notes, because we found all our complaints improved upon at the “Blue Lagoon of the North”: the Jarðböðin Nature Baths.

The Jarðböðin Lagoon

Situated just a couple miles from Mývatn, the baths at Jarðböðin are the perfect way to end a day packed with activity. We visited after touring Viti, Leirhnjúkur, Hverir and Grjótagjá, and our bodies were in desperate need of rejuvenation. The water in the pool was at a perfect temperature, hot enough to be slightly alarming at first, and we soaked our tired bones for well over an hour.

In addition to the main pool, there’s a hot tub, steam rooms and a pool of refreshingly cool water. The Jarðböðin lagoon is artificial, with water provided from a nearby borehole owned by the National Power Company. Rich in minerals beneficial to the skin, the water also deters bacteria without the need for artificial cleaning agents.

Jarðböðin does suffer from the same problems as the Blue Lagoon, but to a lesser degree. At $20 per person, it’s still expensive to visit, but not outrageously so, and the pool is well-known enough to be crowded, but not to an unpleasant degree. We really enjoyed ourselves here and nearly returned the very next day.

Location on our Map

(Jarðböðin Protip: There are two sets of dressing rooms; one inside and the other just outside the main building. Almost everybody goes to the first room, so if you head to the back, you’ll usually find yourself alone.)

Cabins Right At Lake Myvatn

The Jarðböðin Lagoon
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October 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm Comments (0)

A Surreal Visit to the Viti Crater

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The Viti Crater is part of the Krafla volcano range just to the northeast of Mývatn. Viti is Icelandic for “Hell”, and we experienced some unreal weather on the morning we chose to visit.

Morning Viti

The crater is best known for the astonishing turquoise water that pools in the base of its bowl, but although we walked all around Viti’s entire circumference, we didn’t see the water even once. A ridiculously heavy fog had blanketed the region, obscuring everything. With the recently-fallen snow, the whiteness was especially impenetrable, visibility down to mere meters.

Before we returned to the car, the fog lifted slightly, creating a perfectly straight line of clouds which we were standing just above. We still couldn’t see into the crater, but the panorama was bizarre. Clear blue skies above us, and white fog below. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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October 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm Comments (3)

Ásbyrgi

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It was an early Monday morning when we visited the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi. We were all alone in the park and during the two hours we spent there, we hardly spoke a word. It’s the kind of place which robs your voice.

Ásbrygi

Iceland is a country full of bizarre natural wonders, and Ásbyrgi is yet another. The canyon defies logic. You’re walking through a forest, when suddenly there’s this massive cliff wall towering 100 meters into the air, encircling you on three sides. There’s a pond at its foot, into which a small waterfall is trickling. And, while you should be concentrating on the sheer magnificence of the scene, you can’t stop wondering … how did something like this form in the first place?

Modern-day geologists have an answer for us. Something about catastrophic glacial flooding swiftly carving a chunk out of a relatively warm lava bed. But I prefer the origin story from Norse mythology. Ásbyrgi is believed to be the place where the horse of Óðinn, Thor’s father, stamped one of his eight hooves down onto the earth. It would explain the shape, and the pool at the base of the cliff looks just like a rain puddle collected in the hoof-print.

There’s a network of trails around Ásbyrgi, and a few excellent lookouts from which you can take in the scene. We only had a couple hours, and so stuck to those which were easiest to reach. With more time, we’d have been able to climb to the top of the cliff, or even scale Eyja, a giant rock island which sits in front of the horseshoe. There’s also a popular multi-day hike leading from Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss.

Regardless of how much time you have, it’s worth going out of your way to see Ásbyrgi. It’s an area of sublime beauty, especially in autumn when a thick forest of birch and fir trees have turned colors, and was one of the surprise highlights of our trip around Iceland.

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October 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm Comments (4)

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Sjumst Sar, Iceland The daylight hours were growing shorter, but we took our leave of Iceland before the true onset of winter, when the country would be plunged into a period of almost unbroken darkness. For us, Iceland was all about the light. A light which powered long summer days. Which illuminated vistas of mountains, fjords and waterfalls. Which fought through clouds to reflect off a glacier and momentarily blind us. This light, shining on a country that didn't need anywhere near 91 days to work its way into our hearts.
For 91 Days