Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dispatch from the Land of the Midnight Sun

Thanks to Norbert who designed this great interactive map! Click here for a full-screen version with extra features.

Day one (Yellow route) – 104 km
We arrived in Iceland on Friday afternoon and of course our driver was not at the airport to pick us up as planned. Luckily, we were able to take the FlyBus from the airport in Keflavik to the bus station in Reykjavik, a 45 min drive. Our driver was waiting for us there and I was a bit concerned about the legitimacy of the company when we got to their very sparse office to sign the contract for our camper van and found piles of kids’ toys and car seats heaped around, but it turns out that everything was cool and our van was in perfect condition for our journey -- fully equipped with fold out bed/couch, gas stove, sink, fridge, and most importantly, a heater! (Yeah we bougie now!) So great to have our hotel and transportation rolled into one! Since we had no guide book, we asked the driver for travel suggestions and he told us that he was from the West Fjords and we should go there, especially because all the other tourists go south/east; that was enough information for us. We headed north out of Reykjavik, exhilarated for our new adventure.
I did a quick Google search for free hot springs in western Iceland and found one that was less than two hours away. The description read: “Landbrotalaug - The hidden, tiny and romantic one.” We popped the GPS coordinates in and we were on our way!
Driving along the coast, we got a sense for the wildness that awaited us. 

It didn’t take long for us to spot our first flock of Icelandic sheep – with tons of adorable sweet lambs dotting the hills! 
Stopping for a coffee at a gas station on the side of the road, we were also introduced to Icelandic prices: $10 for a cup of coffee and a cup of hot water! The Icelandic Króna is very strong! 100 Króna is equal to $1, and something like a small pizza at Pizza Hut could set you back $35!
As per the directions, we turned off the main highway and headed west on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula I believe at this point the road was unpaved, and remained so for much of our trip. We drove past the Eldborg crater and found the little side road with a sign announcing “Heitt bað,” Icelandic for hot bath. Unfortunately, the parking lot was more occupied than we had imagined and there was a line of people waiting to soak in the “tiny romantic” hot spring. But we did some exploring around the area and found another hot spring/glorified puddle, and that did just the trick—especially in the freezing cold rain! We spent the night at
Landbrotalaug and in the morning we hot the tiny romantic hot spring all to ourselves—and yes, the websites aren’t lying when they say it only fits 2 people!

N enjoys post-dip breakfast in the van!

Day 2  (pink route) – 301 km 
On Saturday, after our dip, we continued westward on Snæfellsnes Peninsula towards the Snæfellsjökull volcano, the setting of Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. We were desperately in need of a bathroom when we passed a parking lot on the side of the road filled with tourists milling about so I insisted that Norbert pull over so we could find out what all the fuss was about. We followed the crowds up a short path that led into a crevice in the mountainside and discovered an awesome cave that is the site of an Icelandic mythical tale about two brothers. We learned about quite a few Icelandic “sagas” along our journey; it seems as if every rock and river has an ancient story behind it, much like with other indigenous peoples.

We entered into the Snæfellsjökull National Park, the first national park established in Iceland, and checked out the great visitor’s center with tons of historical info about the ancient fishing culture in this area. We even tried several different kinds of seaweed from the area! The park ranger gave us lots of good advice and a map of hikes throughout the park. Since the weather was clearing up a bit (the morning had been dreary thus far), we turned off the main road and headed up into the mountains. With the clouds parting, we got great views of the glacier and the surrounding landscape, with the ocean at our feet. We were even so blessed as to be able to take a nap in the sun beside a rushing river on some soft moss. It was splendid!


On the way back down the mountain, we did a few hikes—one around a crater and two to beautiful and powerful waterfalls. 

Back down at sea level, we headed for the tip of the peninsula, Öndverðarnes, an area with interesting lava formations leftover from Snæfellsjökull’s long ago volcanic eruption. On the way there, Norbert spotted several killer whales off the coast so we jumped out of the car and raced towards the cliffs to see them but they were gone by the time we made it to the edge. 

Down the road a bit farther, we parked the car by a funky lighthouse and walked down to the sea. With our beloved ocean as our witness, Norbert got down on both knees and asked me a very important question—and I said yes!


Giddy with love, we ventured onward. Although it was late afternoon by then, we still had enough light to keep on adventuring. This is the land of the midnight sun, after all! Driving along the northern edge of the peninsula, we wove in and out of fjords, each one offering a more spectacular view than the last. A rainbow kept us company for much of the drive. 

As the sun was dimming, on a very deserted part of the road, an arctic fox darted across the road. We stopped and watched it scamper up the hillside. It then stopped to glare at us and give several warning sounds (hoots? Screeches?) to scare us off, but wow, what an amazing encounter! 

Around midnight, we pulled off on a spit of land surrounded by the sea to rest for the night.
Our only company was two rusty abandoned fishing boats leftover from another time.


Day 3 (lime green) – 444 km
We reached our destination around 10 in the morning, another hot spring—this one beside the ocean in the Vatnsfjörður fjord. But the day was turning out to be very rainy so we continued westward towards Latrabjarg, where we had been told we could see puffins! It is also the westernmost point of Europe, not counting the Azores. Well, let me tell you. We were certainly off the beaten track. We drove through tiny villages with a few deserted farmhouses scattered on the hillsides and an old fishing trawler parked on the beach, looking like it was ready to go. As always, the ocean was our constant companion as we went alongside the edge of the fjord, often with beaches that looked like they were straight out of the Caribbean! (Although we weren’t foolish enough to jump into the freezing cold north Atlantic!) We rose up into the mountains and back down again on winding, windy, foggy, heart-stoppingly treacherous gravel roads that nearly gave me (Carmella) a heart attack!


After what felt like Forever (I couldn’t stop singing this song to ease my mind), we finally arrived at Latrabjarg! Off we went up the enormous, grassy cliffs to check out the flocks of busy seabirds. We hiked up and up and up and it seems like every time we thought we had reached the top, we’d find another peak. We kept at it for a while, checking out the seabirds nesting on the sides of the cliffs along the way (again, Carmella nearly had several more heart attacks when Norbert stood so damn close to the edge!). 

The hike back down seemed even longer and never ending than the hike up and we wondered if maybe we’d missed a turn. But finally, we were back in our warm car, and boy am I super glad Norbert splurged on the heater—and remembered to turn it on every time we left on a hike so the van was always nice and toasty when we returned soggy and cold!

The drive back down:

Back at Hellulaug, the hot spring next to the sea, we had a good time jumping into the freezing cold ocean and back into the spring for the thrill. After a while, the hot spring filled up with tourists from a nearby inn—all of them North Americans—and we realized it was our first encounter with tourists all trip. We’d seen some on the roads and at the sights but hadn’t spoken to anyone yet. We’d barely spoken/seen anyone but each other in 2 delightful days!

right before sleep, this is Iceland after midnight!
Back on the road, we retraced our steps part of the way and chose a resting place on a mountain top with an amazing view of the fjords beneath our feet. For dinner, delicious ramen and red wine—our first hot meal in 3 days!


Day 4 (purple route) – 257 km
Monday, we crossed over the mountains on more scary gravel roads with more epic scenery. There is water everywhere in this country– rain, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, ocean. 

Our last stop of the trip was Glymur falls, a great tip from the Denver folks we’d met the day before. The hike to the falls was very rugged, complete with an intense river crossing and steep uphill climbs with steel cables for support. SO worth it.


We were on a bit of a tight schedule to return our camper to the rental company in Reykjavik but we did so without a hitch. (Iceland is so much better organized than our last vacation destination…. I won’t name any names ;)) It was sad to say goodbye to our dear friend, the love bus!  Total Mileage: 1106 km!


For our last night together, we stayed at an airbnb in the same town as the airport, Keflavik. Upon arriving, we rushed over to the local pool to soak in their hot baths and enjoy the steam room and the ice plunge as well. It was right before they closed and the place was still packed with locals getting in a last soak of the day. We really loved this aspect of Icelandic culture. Every town has a bath house/pool complex and every schoolchild learns to swim as part of their curriculum!


After the “hot pot”, as they call it here in Iceland, we headed over to Keflavik’s harbor and enjoyed dinner at Kaffi Duus, a restaurant overlooking the floating docks at the old small-craft harbor. We shared two Icelandic delicacies: lamb and minke whale – both delicious – as well as micro brewed beer from Einstök and a traditional Icelandic dessert, Skyr, which is a bit like yogurt/cheese.

Norbert left to the airport very early on Tuesday morning while I caught up on some beauty sleep. Now he’s back at work in Germany and I’m hanging out in Reykjavik, waiting for my conference to kick off on Thursday. I love this town, and I’ll be sure to post pictures of the colorful houses and amazing street art very soon! Meanwhile, I still can’t get used to the never-ending sunlight!

View from my window at 12:30 AM - or Sunset, you could say!

For more videos of our time, click here or watch below!

Have a comment for Norbert and Carmella? Please send it to carmella dot guiol at gmail dot com