Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 3

Check out the beginning of our weekend here: Day 1, Day 2

We got up early on our final full day in Iceland, as there was still much to see.  After more instant coffee and granola bars, as well as taking advantage of the bathroom facilities at our campground, we headed off on yet another dreary day to see as much as we could.

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The smoking grounds around Geysir

The first of those stops was the Geysir Hot Spring Area to see the spot of the world’s most famous geyser (and, indeed, where all geysers got their name).  The original Geysir is currently dormant, but also in the park is Stokkur, a geyser that erupts every few minutes and can reach 30 meters in the air.  We saw this go off a few times and walked around the area, carefully noting the signs that warned not to touch the boiling geothermal water bubbling up from the ground.  Due to the overcast morning, as well as the early hour, we almost had the entire park to ourselves.

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Arch Rock: Gatklettur

After plenty more driving around with a few quick stops to see various interesting things along the road, we arrived at the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  A first stop to lunch up at Arnarstapi Guesthouse Restaurant (an overcooked and overpriced burger) gave us the perfect start to a quick walk to Gatklettur, or Arch Rock.  Gatklettur is a natural arch eroded into a cliff. The arch itself is impressive, and the area as a whole was beautiful, even in the overcast day.  Tons of green leading to a rocky shore, with small outcrops of yet-to-be-eroded rock dotting the ocean and steep cliffs leading to them.

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More of Arnastapi.  Photo by Beth Blinebury

A quick drive over to the small fishing village of Hellnar to see more sites—more rocky beaches and cliffs that could have been right out of Middle Earth.  If it weren’t for all the people milling around, one could easily imagine being in a different time, or a different place altogether.  And outside of Reykjavik, Iceland as a whole gave off that impression.

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The coastline near Hellnar
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The tide comes in at Hellnar

One of our last stops of the day was one of the most packed, due to the limited parking area and popularity: Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, and the accompanying waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss. Despite clouds hiding the tip of the mountain, both it and the waterfall were extremely picturesque, especially when captured together, when they become one of the most photographed areas in Iceland.  It’s not hard to see why.

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Kirkjufell towers over Kirkjufellsfoss

For the night, we hit a camping area outside of Borgarnes, a small town about an hour from Reykjavik.  We parked and walked into town, looking for a nicer place for our final dinner.  A local suggested the Borgarnes Settlement Center, and even drove us down the road to get there.  We shared some thick-cut bread with incredibly creamy butter topped with black volcanic salt, and then shared an appetizer of smoked lamb atop rye bread “from Geiri, the local baker” with horseradish, pickled red onion, and arugula. We also shared a traditional Icelandic lamb soup loaded with vegetables.  For my main course I had a burger—I was craving one at this point and the one for lunch hadn’t really done me any favors.  This one was much better, but I keep learning more and more not to order a burger outside of America.

By now it was dark and we made our way back to the camp, stopping briefly at a market in town to see if we could get a few extra beers, but all they had was non-alcoholic.  Back at the van, we set up for bed, getting into our pajamas and letting the evening wind down.  Right before bed, I decided I didn’t feel like walking all the way to the campground bathroom, so I went behind the van to pee.  As LeeAnne admonished me, I looked up—probably rolling my eyes—to find the Northern Lights dancing faintly above us.  It wasn’t the best time of year to see them, and it certainly wasn’t something any of us expected, but it was such a magical way to end our trip.  Even as the lights moved away and grew more and more faint, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

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Yes, it’s blurry, but we were excited as hell.  Who cares, we saw it in real life.  Photo by Beth Blinebury.

In our few short days in Iceland, I saw and did just about everything I had come to do.  Other than a few places that were out of reach for us (I’d love to check out Dimmuborgir) and some things I really didn’t want to do (go to any kind of geothermal spa or eat hákarl), I really couldn’t have asked for much more.  Well, I would have liked to run into Bjork.  But I’ll save that for next time.

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The view from the campground in Borgarnes. Not a bad place to fall asleep or wake up.

Cover image is courtesy of Beth Blinebury.  If you need a website, check her out.

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 2

How did we get on a glacier? Check out the recap of day one here.

On Sunday morning, we awoke in the van to a much better day than it had been a night: the rain had moved out and, while it was a bit chilly at the campground, the overcast clouds were not threatening any more rain. We had some granola bars for breakfast and some G7 instant coffees (which we had discovered in Vietnam and are the best instant coffee I’ve ever had) and walked across the campground to the Mountain Guides HQ.

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Climbing on a glacier. Photo courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

After being fitted for harnesses and helmets and crampons, we drove a few minutes away to the base of Skaftafellsjökull, a glacier tongue coming off of Iceland’s largest icecap, Vatnajökull. It’s also the filming location of the ice planet in Interstellar, which isn’t hard to imagine: once you’ve walked a small ways into the glacier, it’s easy to think you’re on another planet.

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Atop a ridge.

The hike we chose was four hours, and was luckily the best weather we had our entire trip.  The sun was out (somewhat) and there wasn’t even the threat of rain.  I think at one point I even got warm enough to unzip my jacket.  We had an intermediate hike, which included being tied off to ropes on the side of the mountain and walking next to some pretty intense-looking cravasses, and even walking down into one.  Being obsessed with Everest, it was a fun experience to be tied to ropes, all geared up and walking around in crampons.

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Walking next to a large cravasse. Fear of heights: activated.

The glacier hike was definitely the highlight of our trip, and I would suggest it—even this particular one—to anyone visiting Iceland.  Our guide was excellent, the hike was more than just a meandering, easy-going sightseeing jaunt, and we got to walk around on top of (and inside) a fucking glacier.  Incredible.

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Exploring an ice cave in the glacier. We assumed it was one of Bjork’s homes.

Afterwards, we stopped by the incredibly conveniently-placed Glacier Goodies food truck right between the campgrounds and the Mountain Guides offices.  Starving from our expedition, I got a cup of lobster bisque (delicious) and an order of fish and chips (pretty good).  I did, however, miscalculate the exchange rate and what I thought was $5 US was actually closer to $50.  Oops.

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After lunch, we took some surprisingly warm showers at the campground (which were added to our camping fee for just a few dollars) and moved on to make our way through more of Iceland.  We stopped at Drangshlíð, a massive rock in the middle of a field with small houses erected around and, it seems, inside part of the rock.  The houses were worn down and covered in moss, and have elven folklore attached to them.  Once again, walking around in the area, with no one else around, seeing this quiet landscape during an overcast day, it was easy to imagine being part of some other world.  Much of Iceland can give you that impression.

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We made a few more random stops to get out, stretch our legs, and take in the endless landscape of overcast green—Andy had become particularly enamored with the local moss—and then found the Skjol Campgrounds.  As we were setting up our van for the night, it began to rain pretty heavily, but the inside of the van stayed dry.  We ended up eating dinner in the small bar/restaurant at the campgrounds, having some overpriced pizza and Gull beers, but they both hit the spot.  We all fell asleep to the sound of rain on the van.

Can we top a glacier? Possibly, since day 3 has a surprise ending…

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 1

We arrived at Keflavik early on Saturday morning, tired from a shitty, overly warm flight from Boston that had no air.  After we made our way through the maze that was the airport—mistakenly ending up in a departure area where we couldn’t even buy a coffee—we found our way out and stopped for “breakfast” in what amounted to an airport 7-11, and then we waited around until it was time to pick up our van.

We had decided to rent a van to camp around Iceland for the long Labor Day weekend, taking advantage of some flight deals and also going during a bit of an off-season.  This was also the first time LeeAnne and I had traveled with others, as our friends Beth and Andy were able to join us for the long weekend—somewhat of a feat, as convincing Beth to spend three nights in a camper van wasn’t the easiest thing to do.

When it was finally time, we hauled our stuff across the Keflavik parking lot to Go Iceland, the van rental company.  This included not only our bags, but also the case of beer and bottle of Laphroaig we’d picked up in Duty Free.  Since alcohol is so heavily taxed, it makes sense to stock up in the airport rather than buy it along the route (although we ended up doing both, because beer).

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Lunch of champions

Our first stop was a local grocery store Bonus to pick up food for the trip (everything is expensive in Iceland), and also to stop at an adjoining restaurant for sandwiches, pastries, and more coffee. After loading up, we headed out, admiring the constant countryside despite every minute being overcast and threatening rain (and often delivering).

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The group at Saljandsfoss

Other than needing to camp at Skaftafell campground, we had no plans for the day.  After some driving, we happened upon Seljandsfoss waterfall, which looked nice, so we hopped out to stretch our legs and take some pictures.  The weather was cool and cloudy—but still bright—which is ideal for me.  After a quick trip to the waterfall, we hopped back on the road until we came to the next one: Skogafoss.

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Climbing to the top of Skogafoss

As far as famous waterfalls in Iceland go, Skogafoss is right up there near the top of the list, thought the waterfall itself isn’t nearly as impressive as what’s behind it.  Even though it started to rain, we climbed the metal staircase next to the falls to get to the top.  What I expected to only be a view from the top turned out to be so much more: behind the falls, winding for what seemed like forever, was a beautiful path next to cliffs surrounding the river that lead to the falls.  Even with the rain, the area was magical: it felt like you could walk all day and around every bend would be a different view of something incredible to look at.  Being in the rain, not liking heights; none of it seemed to matter back there.

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Behind Skogafoss

We eventually made our way down, soaked, as the rain let up.  We decided to stop into the adjacent restaurant at Hotel Skogafoss for some drinks and snacks as we waited to dry out.  I started with an Icelandic beer I loved, Lava, a smoked imperial stout from Olvisholt brewery.  Despite being able to get it in Philly (and for less money than in Iceland), I had to drink it in its home.  I also tried a Snorri No. 10 from Borg Brewery based solely on the fact that a friend has a cat named Snorri.

We continued on and happened upon Laufskálavarða, which was incredibly creepy at first glance.  Hundreds of small rock stacks line the field, looking a bit like something out of the Blair Witch Project.  A sign nearby says the area used to be a farm, but was wiped out in the first recorded eruption of the volcano Katla in 849. Now, travelers add a rock to a pile for good luck—and from the looks of things, there had been plenty of people with good luck.  The rock stacks went on in all directions.

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Laufskálavarða – silent, cloudy, a little creepy
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Amongst the rock piles

We finally pulled into Skaftafell campground as it was getting dark, converting the middle of the van to a small kitchen area with a table to have our dinner: bread with peanut butter, grapes, Gull beer, and Laphroaig.  The back end of the van then converted to a bed, with the top popping out to make a top bunk as well, so all four of us could sleep.  We tucked in for the night, exhausted from a full day, with more to come tomorrow.

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Cheers to a first day and a hearty van dinner

Note: The van from Go Iceland was really incredible, and included everything you could imagine.  Pillows, sleeping bags, a small electric stovetop, a refrigerator, cups and silverware and other camping gear, and 5 GB of wifi (which the four of us weren’t able to use up on our trip).  It made the trip so much more comfortable and enjoyable than I would have expected.

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Our two-bedroom home away from home (in the rain)

The featured image is courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

See how we fare on day two.