The tiny island nation of Iceland made headlines in 2008 when it effectively went bankrupt. You see, the Icelandic economy went from over a thousand years of nothing but fishing to five years of investment banking, and in October of 2008, back to fishing. As you can imagine, that last transition was a bit painful for Icelanders, having racked up debt equivalent to about 850% of GDP from their fleeting foray into high finance.
Their only hope for restoring the economy was to boost tourism. Iceland Air came up with attractive deals that bundled their trans-Atlantic flights with a free sojourn in Reykjavik. And just when faint glimmers of hope were starting to appear, the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajoekull volcano decided to blow off a little steam in early 2010, disrupting air travel for weeks and planting great seeds of doubt in the minds of any would-be tourists.
I have long wanted to visit the country, ever since reading Eric Weiner's account of Iceland as a leading example of a happy nation. It turns out the country had been on my friend Honza's radar for quite some time as well, so the two of us decided to do our part to help prop up their flailing economy. After all, Iceland's global image was not good. When I told David M. I was headed to Iceland, he jokingly responded: “what's that? You're going to buy Iceland?”
It was my first time flying Iceland Air, and I must say the airline has added some fine touches to their Airbus fleet. The economy seat in front of you comes equipped with an adjustable foot rest as well as a USB port for charging mobile devices. The middle seat even has an adjustable armrest that widens to give those seated in the isle and window more room when there isn't a passenger in-between, which is probably often the case. Despite these perks, the airline has compromised on other necessities that make transatlantic flights slightly more bearable, namely, a meal and free alcohol.
My flight into Reykjavik was due to land at 06:20, just before sunrise. The first thing that struck me about the landscape on approach was the utter dearth of trees. I didn't spot a single one until we reached the outer suburbs of Reykjavik, and needless to say those so-called trees were not indigenous to the island.
Honza was due to arrive from D.C. around the same time, so we had agreed to meet in the arrivals area and take the Flybus together to the hotel. We found each other easily enough, but almost immediately, Honza struck me with a piece of extraordinary news. In a strange and colossal coincidence he had run into two old friends and former coworkers of ours in Washington Dulles whom we hadn't seen in years. Against astronomical odds, they were bound to Reykjavik on the exact same flight. They were in a rush to make it to a bike tour of the capital, so we didn't have time for a proper reunion, but we agreed to meet up later in the day.
For some inexplicable reason, Reykjavik's international airport is not actually in Reykjavik but in Keflavik. Don't let the rhyme fool you — the two are a full 45km apart. And the only barely affordable way to make it to the capital is to buy a roundtrip bus ticket with the monopolistic Flybus, a journey that will set you back ISK 5,000. They run a rather strange relay system. The main airport bus will drop you and your bags off at a bus terminal where you then have to take a shuttle your hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Radisson, which was reasonably comfortable and well-kept. The only complaint, though really more of a complaint of all hotels in Iceland, is that the hot water stunk of sulphur. The cold water from the tap was odorless and tasted like pure spring water, but any mix of hot and cold made one's nose wrinkle.
So, what is there to see in Reykjavik? Well, for starters: a botanical garden. What could one expect from a botanical garden on an island with a frigid sounding name like Iceland? Well, not much, so we were very pleasantly surprised by the extent and diversity of its flora. The city is not large and easily walkable, so we took a self-guided tour. From the botanical garden, we headed north towards the bay, or vik in Icelandic, which, of course, is what the suffix in Reykjavik refers to.
Along the way we passed a multitude of houses with trampolines in the yard. We would find these accessories in the yards of houses in many townships throughout the country, which makes one wonder if trampolining is not some kind of national pastime here. Perhaps it was not the season for it, but we never actually saw anyone, be that child or adult, ever actually use one. Of course, it is also possible the trampoline is just a remnant of the buoyant times of Icelandic investment banking.
One of the most notable landmarks in the city is the Hallgrimskirkja church. Situated on top of Reykjavik's tallest hill and standing 74m (244 ft) closer to Heaven than the immaculate lawn around it, Hallgrimskirkja is visible from pretty much every part of town, making it a very convenient reference point. On our way to the church, we had some interesting encounters with what we first thought were circus performers on LSD or perhaps patients just escaped from the local insane asylum wearing Halloween costumes. In fact, we were witnessing a good old fashioned Reykjavik treasure hunt.
The Golden Triangle
Honza and I had booked a 7-day self-drive tour from IcelandTotal.com that entitled us to a car rental and guide book with a detailed itinerary to help us navigate this unknown land. The itinerary the company had left for us at the hotel, however, was NOT the one we had booked, which prompted a series of awkward (and expensive) calls on Honza's cell phone with IcelandTotal's emergency hotline, which happened to be monitored by a poor old lady who, like most people, seemed to enjoy sleeping in on Saturday mornings and did not appreciate being awakened to deal with disgruntled tourists.
Nevertheless, what had to be done had to be done, and we managed to get her to email the hotel a copy of the correct itinerary. First on the list was picking up our rental car from Hertz, which turned out to be a tiny VW Polo sans A/C., not that that would be a problem. Anything over 69 Fahrenheit is a heat wave in Iceland, so if you get hot while driving, you just roll down your window, the old fashioned way.
For those who can only afford a short visit to Iceland, three landmarks are advertised as must-see: Gullfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir, which combined define the Golden Triangle. The guide promised us all three and then some, all in one day.
The first stop was Þingvellir. A “Þ” in Icelandic is pronounced “th”, which did not sit well with Honza. “They can call it ‘Thingvellir’ if they want, but I shall call it ‘Pingvellir,’ and that's that,” he said. Þingvellir lies 50km north east of Reykjavik and served as the site for Iceland's first parliament, formed in 930 (no, not 1930, 930!). Today it is a UNESCO world heritage site and the area around it is a national park. It is here that one can easily see the great continental rift, where the North American and European plates drift away from one another at the great geological pace of 7mm a year, slowly adding valuable real estate to the small country.
The continental divide is blatantly conspicuous, and it is fun to hop between North America and Europe along the convenient boardwalk. There is also a nice waterfall flowing out of the American side and into a large pool on the European side that was sadly used as a drowning tool for unfortunate adulteresses as recently as 1838.
Next up was the famous and surprisingly regular geyser, creatively named: Geysir. The high frequency of eruptions was a good thing because this area was particularly cold and windy, and waiting for a show too long would not have been fun. Those tourists willing to pay a little extra could witness the eruptions overhead in the warm but noisy comforts of a helicopter.
Not far from Geysir, along the golden triangle lies Iceland's Niagara Falls — Gullfoss. It is a massive waterfall that is oriented at an extremely awkward angle that looks plain wrong. It is about as natural as ocean waves hitting the beach at a 45 degree angle.
From Gulfoss we continued south along the ring road and quickly experienced our first traffic jam on the great highway. Rush hour, you think? Accident? No, the sheep were simply coming home. A great big flock of them, guided by horse mounted farmers with no compunction for the long line of five cars behind them that were held up for a good twenty minutes. The holdup did give Honza an opportunity to walk outside, stretch his legs, and try to feed the horses, who seemed to be remarkably picky with their grasses.
Once the jam uncorked we continued along towards Vik, where the guide had us spend the second night. Not far from Vik is another famous waterfall — Seljalandsfoss. This one was to Gulfoss like tap is to a firehose, making it much more palatable. It also featured numerous rainbows and a ledge to explore it from behind, which comes highly recommended. See below for a stitched vertical panorama. For a sense of scale, note the bridge and farmhouse in the distance. Seljalandsfoss may be way smaller than Gulfoss, but it is huge nonetheless.
The waterfall is also very close to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that caused insurmountable difficulties for news reporters trying to pronounce it correctly while covering the 2010 eruption. When I asked Honza: “hey, is that Eyjafjallajokull?” his response was: "I'm sorry, were you trying to clear your throat?”
By early dusk we had arrived at Vik, checked into our hotel and had just enough time to catch the spectacular sunset over the otherworldly rock formations for which the tiny village is famous.
South and East
Day three took us eastwards along the southern coast toward Höfn by way of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, which we simply called “K19” on account of the unpronounceable gobbledegook of 19 letters starting with ‘K.’ The village itself is unremarkable except for the fact that it is the only service point between Vik and Höfn, a journey of about 300km.
The landscape in this part of the country features the spewed guts of Katla from countless eruptions over the millennia. However, what once were pestilential streams of lava flow are now undulating mounds of green moss, the only vegetation that can survive on the soilless surface. In fact, it doesn't just survive. With no competition for resources, it thrives here, completely engulfing the porous, pyroclastic rocks. The effect is magical. These fields are like something out of a fairy tale, stretching for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see.
Eventually, the fairy tale ends, just like the pavement does on occasion (Malbik Endar, meaning “paved road ends” was the road sign we feared most), and one reaches the bridge crossings over raging rivers born from the many melting tongues of Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Iceland that eats up 8% of the country's landmass. The road here often narrows down to a single lane over the bridge crossings. The Icelandic government's motto seems to be: “why build a full structure when you can build half a one for half the price?”
At about the halfway point between Vik and Höfn lies Skaftafell, a national park with access to two of Vatnajokull's tongues. The tourist center sells glacial walk tickets and even rents out bikes, but for whatever reason, bikes are not allowed on the nice, flat trail to our tongue of interest (TOI). So, we were forced to slog over to the TOI on foot. The trail did feature a self-guided botanical tour, which we explored without guidance, feeling the accompanying guide sheet was not worth the 150 ISK, and honestly I don't think we missed much. The TOI itself was unimpressive too, looking utterly filthy from the heavy moraine.
Further east along the Ring Road lies Jokulsarlon, which literally means Glacier Lagoon. The Ring Road here crosses a tiny sliver of land with the lagoon on one side and the open ocean on the other. The lagoon has provided the backdrop for several James Bond movies, namely A View to Kill (1985) and Die Another Day (2002), among other Hollywood blockbusters. With rain in full swing, however, we didn't recognize the scenery from the movies, but the glacial icebergs were cool to see nonetheless.
From the glacial lagoon, it was another 80 short kilometers to Höfn, our next night's accommodations. Höfn is a tiny fishing town of about 1600 and features one pub and two restaurants, one of which happened to serve as our hotel too: Hotel Höfn. The hotel can accommodate up to 140 guests, which is nearly 10% of the town's population. Unsurprisingly, it was nearly empty when we arrived early in the afternoon. With no cars in the parking lot, it resembled an abandoned building causing us to drive past it several times before realizing it was a hotel.
After checking in, we explored the town's only cultural attraction – the Glacier Museum. It is a neat little house museum on two floors and features many glacier exploring trinkets, facts, and displays. For instance, did you know Icelandic has 56 different words for snow and ice? Probably the most striking exhibit was of the "Glacial mice," which are mice-sized balls of moss that are sometimes found in the ice. Their life begins on a grain of sand or a small pebble that rolls slowly with the ice, whereby the moss slowly covers the exposed surface, eventually covering the whole surface area.
All the science on display made us realize how hungry we were, so by 6pm we decided to get an early dinner. Our first stop was the pub, which looked very low-key, a truly modest man's tavern serving what we thought would be affordable food. Upon sitting down and glancing over the menu, we realized this was far from the case. The average, non-pizza plate was 3,700ISK (about USD35). Honza and I excused ourselves as politely as we could and went in search for a more budget friendly establishment. We didn't find one. The seafood restaurant by the harbor served 5,500ISK dishes. Snubbing its menu too, we walked back to the hotel defeated and seriously hungry. Hotel Hofn's lobster pizza at 2,500ISK was a steal, which after our embarrassing ordeal was the really the best we could do.
One does have to wonder though, how restaurants in small towns like Hofn can survive with such high prices and so few customers. I think the answer is the restaurants probably prey on the tourists. The locals likely don't go out to eat much and have friends over for dinner rather than meet up at a restaurant. Food prices at grocery stores seemed a lot more reasonable.
The next morning we continued along Hwy-1 in a generally northerly direction. Our first stop came quickly after leaving Hofn for a visit to Stokksnes lighthouse, almost, reachable by a rather uncomfortable, pockmarked gravel road. The last stretch was just more than our little VW Polo, so we parked it, and I let Honza explore on foot. See what he saw.
Further along the coast lies an impressive range of cliffs that reminds me a lot of the area around Hwy-1 in Northern California between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, except, the beach here is pitch black from all the volcanism.
By noon we had reached the small fishing village of Djupivogur, in which our guide advertised a bird watching field equipped with full-blown bird watching stations that has to be a dream-come-true for any ornithologist. However, finding the field, and interesting birds for that matter, proved difficult. We followed confusing signs and icons, and before we knew it, we somehow found ourselves on a gravel runway that serves the local non-avian air traffic. The moment we saw the wind sleeve, we quickly jetted out of there and eventually made it to the bird watching area.
Our hope was to spot the Atlantic puffin, but we had chosen completely the wrong season to come looking for it. Mid-summer, they migrate down to the warmer grounds of Morocco. The visitor log books at the bird watching stations showed similarly disappointed sentiments.
We pressed on and chose to observe the more earthbound creatures of the landscape. The farm animal population in Iceland seems to consist almost exclusively of sheep, horses, and cows, in that order of representation. There are absurdly many horses in this country – more than cows. What use could farmers possibly have for these graceful creatures other than riding them while herding the aforementioned sheep? And not all that many are required for that task. Their prevalence gave us many great photo ops, but as Honza said, they were so self-centered and utterly absorbed in mowing the endless fields of grass that catching their gaze was a rare sight.
We arrived in Egilsstadir early in the afternoon. A thick cloud formation had persistently followed us all day, but in one direction, away from Egilsstadir, the skies looked to be clearing up. So, after checking into the Icelandair hotel, we went in search of the last remaining hopes of sunshine, no matter where, no matter how (Malbik Endar be damned!) The escapade revealed that even the plainest parts of the Icelandic countryside when lit by the sun can be transformed into a magical, golden green paradise.
Just when I was thinking the grandiosity of hotel rooms and hotel breakfasts was inversely proportional to the distance from Reykjavik, Icelandair saved the day. It served a hearty breakfast the next morning, preparing us for the short (175km) journey to Lake Myvatn, "an area of immense beauty" according to our guide. Lake Myvatn is pretty enough, but the 175km in between it and Egilsstadir are featureless barrenness. For 50-100km, all we saw were stones, rocks, and boulders. If you want to experience a lunar landscape, this is where you should go.
The only saving grace was a short detour we took to Dettifoss on a paved road off the Ring Road that, fortunately for us, was paved earlier in the year. Dettifoss carries the proud title of Europe's most powerful waterfall. Its power is reflected in the silt rich water that gushes down the rocky landscape. The waterfall is disappointingly filthy. Its sister waterfall, Selfoss, a short walk away from Dettifoss is slightly better and a bit more scenic but still rather dirty.
Lake Myvatn was formed 2,300 years ago after a major eruption from nearby Krafla. The lake is not all that terribly interesting and rather shallow, quite literally (the average depth is only 2.5m). Compared to the rocky sprawl that separates it from Egilsstadir, the lake is a gem, but both Honza and I agreed it deserved no more than a drive through. Yet, our guide had us spend the night in a tiny, rundown, fly-infested hotel here, while Akureyri, the next night's accommodations, was just 90km away.
Myvatn's so called attractions include the Hverfjall volcano (which you can actually climb and whose crater you can peer down), the Krafla Power Station (stinky and boring), Dimmuborgir (trails around some odd volcanic rock formations), and some outdoor hot springs, naturally heated to a balmy 38C (98F). With the outside temperature at a nippy 5C (41F), Honza and I readily took advantage of the latter despite the pungent odors from the hydrogen sulfide and the unexpected invasion of German retirees.
There's not much around Lake Myvatn in the way of restaurants either, so for dinner we had, you guessed it, another pizza. The next morning we set off for Akureyri, affectionately known as Iceland's capital of the north. Given Akureyri's proximity to Myvatn and the fact that it was raining cats and dogs, we made a small detour, going further north still, to the small fishing town of Husavik, which at 66°N was the farthest north either of us had gone — just 117km shy of the Arctic Circle. The small town prides itself with two museums: one to whales and the other to penises. We didn't visit the latter, but the former provided a good, science rich, diversion from the rain. Here I learned, for instance, that a baby blue whale consumes 240 liters of milk a day and that blue whales mate with the help of a third party that props the female against the male, a sort of whale's version of a ménage à trois.
Around noon we left the sexually comfortable Husavik for Akureyri. The rain never really let up the rest of the day, so we were bound to Akureyri's museums, but not before a strange encounter at the hotel. After checking us in, the friendly receptionist paid an unexpected visit to our room to “check on the radiator.” We suspected we had made a very good impression on this beautiful lady of the north.
After Reykjavik proper, Akureyri is Iceland's second largest city, and it did have a lot of soul. The locals get positively giddy asking tourists what they think of the lovely weather. They will happily point out that no local would ever be caught wearing an umbrella, given that it rains sideways more often than not.
Since leaving Reykjavik, Akureyri also happened to be the first place we did NOT have pizza for dinner. Akureyri actually had a whole selection of cuisines to sample, and thus Krua Siam became the most northern Thai restaurant we had sampled. After an ungodly number of pizzas, the curries were an absolute delight.
The next day's journey back to Reykjavik from Akureyri was over 420km, and I think we experienced all four seasons along the way. It started with rain in Akureyri, which turned into snow over the mountains, followed by sun and wind near Barnafoss, and, finally, just very windy just outside of Reykjavik.
Honza, being the more adventurous one, took most of the photos here, adding often to his special series on Icelandic churches while I sat nice and warm in the car, trying to find music to listen to on the local airwaves. Surprisingly, there is not much in the way of music on the radio; most FM stations are littered with talk shows. One little ditty I discovered by an Icelandic band is sadly not available to purchase this side of the pond.
Other than the churches, the biggest highlight of this, our longest driving day, was Barnafoss, a shimmering blue cascade of waterfalls over a great big lava plain, about 100km from Reykjavik.
And with that, a journey of over 1,300 miles came to an end. Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country with a surprising amount of green. I have often heard that it should swap names with Greenland, and after seeing the rolling hills and lush pastures, I can attest to the validity of that proposal.