Monday, July 14, 2014

The Final Chapter, Iceland: July 11-14, 2014

By the time we arrived at our lodging in the geothermal town of Hveragerði in South Iceland, it was late. It was only about 9:00 pm and still light, but most restaurants were closed. The hotel gave us directions to a pizza restaurant that is open until 11:00 pm. That's the second time we have been deceived by the amount of daylight and realize too late that nothing will be open except pizza joints. So, pizza it was. Restaurants close early here (about like where we live in California) and so do grocery stores. It is common for grocery stores to open about 11:00 am and close about 6:00 pm. When do working people have time to buy groceries?

During our stay in Hveragerði, we hiked the "warm" river trail up (3.2k or almost 2 miles) a mountain to an even warmer part of the river. One of the consequences of all the rain is mud everywhere. Dan's already compromised shoes became part of the weather's collateral damage on this hike. They're not returning to California.

It was fascinating to walk along a river that was steaming most of the way. When we got to the warmer part of the river, we took off our hiking clothes and waded into the stream. It was hot! The spot I began in was too hot for me so we went around the bend and found a slightly cooler bath. The back of my legs looked liked I had gotten the worst sunburn ever--they were lobster red. Dan was happy, though.

We ate lunch at a restaurant that uses only geothermal power to bake its cakes and breads. The ovens are located on the outside of the restaurant. Hveragerði is the geothermal capital of the world with its hot springs harnessed to power ovens, heat greenhouses, furnish hot water, and provide swimming pools for the inhabitants.

Leaving Hveragerði behind, we visited Geysir. Geysir is an Icelandic word from the Norse verb meaning "to gush" that we borrowed when we began putting a name to things like "Old Faithful." The first geyser was named Geysir. Sadly, it has been mistreated by visitors and now only gushes when there is an earthquake. The sign in front of it looks like a tombstone.

A few steps away is a geyser that erupts every 5-10 minutes.

We stopped at a powerful waterfall located just off the highway. This one is called "Gullfoss." It means gold falls.

Near the waterfall, a group of Icelandic horses were waiting to be rented. As soon as the wind came up and the rain began, they all made an about face and pointed their ass-ends into the wind.

Lunch was at a restaurant with a view of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, and Hekla (1490 m/4887 ft) Iceland's most active volcano. We only saw clouds and fog but our late lunch was great.

From there, we returned to Reykjavik for our last three nights in Iceland. Our last day with the rental car we drove around  Reykjanes Peninsula. We went to the famous Blue Lagoon, but just walked around the trails on the outside of the spa. The pools of water surrounded by the lava flow are a beautiful pastel blue.

Next we visited one of the spots in Iceland where the North Atlantic plate is separating from the Eurasian plate. The speed at which this rift is occurring is 2 meters (78.8 inches) every 100 years. Dan walked over the bridge to North America, and where I was standing on the Eurasian plate it began to rain.

The peninsula's coastline is doted with picturesque lighthouses, horses, and small villages.  Every village has a church.

To protect the Icelandic breed from disease, no horses can be imported to Iceland. Once an Icelandic horse leaves Iceland, it cannot return. The colts and fillies we saw are born with very curly manes, tails, and even poodle-curly hair in their ears.  They are adorable.

Yesterday, our last full day in Reykjavik, an ogress tried to make Dan her boyfriend; he escaped. It was warmer and in the late afternoon, the sun came out so we had ice cream.

We took in the view from the clock/bell tower in the big Lutheran Church. Every 15 minutes the bells chime. The view of the colorful houses of Reykjavik was stunning.

Yesterday was also Museum Day and the entry to most museums was free. Our favorite museum was the photography museum (always free). The exhibit was photos by journalist/photographer Ragnar Axelsson. His series on disappearing life in the arctic was riveting. There was also a video about his travels to capture these images. I wish I had seen the video before we headed out on our drive around the island then I would have been more flexible regarding our weather experiences.

All in all, the over 3,200 kilometers/1,990 miles of driving around Iceland, the land of ice and fire, was an interesting but challenging experience. Now, we begin our journey back to California the land of drought, forest fires, and more than 38C/100F days--a challenge as well.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Day of Sun, Iceland: July 7-10, 2014

In the 10 days that we have been driving around Iceland in the rain, we have felt like the L'il Abner comic strip character with the perpetual dark cloud over his head. That dark cloud disappeared on July 8, and we saw the sun. We had sun for about a 24-hour period (with clouds) so that is probably it for July--that one day of totally dry, sunny weather. And, for this spectacular weather event, we also happened to be in the warmest spot (15C or 59F) in Iceland. Our drive was through the East Fjords and down to the southeastern portion of Iceland. The scenery was spectacular.

That night we stayed in the village of Höfn in the southeastern part of Iceland. In Icelandic, Höfn means harbor. The wind was quiet and their harbor was beautiful. From our room on the other side of the hotel, we could even see Vatnajökull glacier.

The next morning we woke to sun, but our itinerary led us south and into the clouds. The ancient basalt lava flows are covered over with a beautiful, spongy moss called wooly fringe moss in which small wildflowers grow. When it is raining, it turns almost fluorescent green.

At the Jökulsárlón lagoon and the mouth of Vatnajökull glacier, there were clouds, but no wind or rain.

Once the icebergs calve from the glacier, they float the short distance to the Atlantic Ocean. The grassland surrounding the lagoon is populated by some very aggressive Arctic Terns. They took a disliking to Dan

As we left the lagoon, rain returned, and because we stayed so long at the lagoon, it was also getting late--not dark--just late in the day and we had a lot of kilometers to cover before we arrived at our next lodging in Hveragerði.

Along the way we stopped at Fjaðrárglúfur a 100m-deep gorge formed during the Ice Age two million years ago. The scenery was other worldly, and the walk along the gorge, even in the rain, was spectacular.

The day before the sun came out, we took a drive to Borgarfjörður Eystri, the northernmost fjord on the East Fjords mountain range. On the way we passed "stunning" scenery that sadly we could not see because the drive was into the heavy clouds. Sometimes, it was even hard to see the road over the mountain pass, but at the end of the road and past the village of Bakkagerði we saw puffins. At the harbor, there are about 10-15,000 mating pairs of puffins. Puffins burrow into dirt side of the hill for their nests.

On the other side of the rock, fulmars nest in the rocky niches.

On the way back to our hotel in Egilsstaðir (July 7), through the clouds we could just barely see some of the surrounding mountains beyond Lake Lögurinn. To see mountains at all was a good omen for the next day.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Still raining, Iceland: July 3- 6, 2014

Someone (not Twain) said "The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I was in San Francisco." Twain did say of New England, "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes." That is what Icelanders say, too.  It is even written on T-shirts and in their travel information.

For me, the coldest and wettest July I've ever spent was the birthday I was in Iceland, and if we wait five minutes, the weather does change--usually for the worst.

Yesterday morning I was awakened by gusts of wind and rain hitting the outer wall of our hotel room. My first thought was I'm sure glad we parked into the wind so the car doors wouldn't be ripped off when we opened them. That is one of the warnings the rental car gives you when you rent a vehicle here. It is also on a large sticker on the dashboard.

Our first stop was at the Tourist Information office to check road conditions. The office was crowded with backpackers and tent campers in search of heat, a dry space, and a roof over their heads. We've noticed that while the day may begin with terrible weather, by late afternoon, it is drier and less windy. That's when we hike. So far, so good.

We've been watching how others adapt to all this rain. Horses seem to stand quietly with their ass-ends toward the wind. Sheep look for cover.  Sometimes they hunker down in the low bush that covers most of the land and sometimes they just stand upwind using a rock for shelter.

On one very wet hike, we saw a french couple with their own weather adaptation--very chic. They told us that they had resorted to fashioning garbage bags for cover after being soaked to the skin the prior day.

After not being able to see the stunning coast near Húsavík, we drove to the National Park in Jökulsárgljúfur. Along the gravel, pot-holed road, a backpacker stuck his thumb out, and we gave him a ride to the park. He is Belgian and walking Iceland from north to south.  He told us that this is his fourth trip to Iceland and he has never had such constant rain. He told us that he has walked the entire Pacific Crest Trail (Canada to Mexico) in 100 days.  The northern California portion was his all-time favorite hike.

In the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, we hiked at Hljóðaklettar with its amazing basalt formations and glacier-carved valley.

One columnar basalt formation, called "Church" does resemble the modern church we saw in Reykjavik.

Much farther down the road, but also part of the same river valley, we saw the east side of Dettifoss. These falls are the most powerful in Europe.

The next day, we drove to the west side of Dettifoss. While the power of the water is more apparent, the view isn't as good. Dettifoss is the middle waterfall of a series of three separate falls. The first fall is Selfoss.

We visited the hot springs at Hverir near Mývatn.

And, then decided to make use of all that geothermal power and take a soak at the Mývatn Nature Baths.

On a prior day, we hiked Hrísey Island, a small island off the north coast of Iceland, situated in Eyjafjörður fjord. The clouds were quite heavy as we took the ferry to the island, but the hike was fabulous. We even saw Icelandic Poppies planted in one yard and had a few glimpses of sun. The island is a favorite summer spot for birds; we saw Arctic Terns, Ptarmigan, Snipes, Godwit, Curlew, Gulls, and more.

And, there was another waterfall about a 45 minutes drive from Akureyri. Goðafoss, the "waterfall of the Gods" is a horseshoe-shaped waterfall. "It derives its name from the momentous occasion in the year 1000, when the Chieftain, Þorgeir of Ljósavatn, threw his Pagan Idols into the falls as a demonstration of his conversion to the Christian faith. Other Icelanders took his lead and adopted the new religion...."

The weather has made this vacation a struggle for us. A couple of days ago, Dan remarked that it would be good to be home." It will be.