Like Mother, Like Daughter – A’s Excursion to Iceland

image

We’re celebrating Memorial Day this weekend with a first for FromSwamptoSummit – a guest blogger who is none other than A, sometimes referred to as Daughter #1. You’ll recall that in early March 2015 J and I travelled with friends from Florida to Iceland for what we thought was a reasonable long weekend trip. Just over a year later, A made the same decision. Except she departed from Boston; it was May; and the days were almost 24 hours long. Her account follows (with a little bit of commentary  from her mother). Compare and contrast to last year’s trip:  Iceland Part 1 – A Day in ReykjavikIceland Part 2 – The Golden Circle, or All Roads Lead to Fludir, Iceland Summits: A Glacier Melts – Part 3, and Iceland, Land of Tomatoes – The Final Chapter. No, you don’t have to write a 250 word essay in response. Just enjoy.

I got in at 5 AM (WOW airlines) so arriving was really disorienting. We did the Golden Circle first, and rented a car (I’d recommend Blue Car Rental if you rent one – they were reasonably priced and very responsive). If you don’t rent a car, there are a bunch of bus tours you can take, but honestly I think it was cheaper to rent a car than pay for individual trips.

First Day: drove from the airport to Vik (where we spent the night) – this was our longest drive and potentially not the best to do without any sleep, but still very beautiful. We stopped at: Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Dyrhólaey sea cliffs / black sand beaches. (Anything that ends with “foss” is a waterfall.) Spent the night at an airbnb – Vik is a really tiny, very pricey town, but it’s super convenient for that end of the golden circle.

Second Day: we realized we had gone to most of the places featured in Justin Bieber’s video “I’ll show you” so we hiked to the airplane (Sólheimasandur) featured in it. It’s a random stop on the highway and you have to walk a total of about 3.5 miles there and back to see it – there’s literally nothing to see but the crashed airplane. Definitely only worth it for the pictures (but the pictures we took were really cool…) – we went early in the morning and were the only ones there, but it could potentially be super crowded in the summer.  Photo at the top of the post.

image
Here’s what A missed on the glacier

We stopped by the glacier, but we didn’t do any tours so we couldn’t walk onto it – this is potentially something worth paying for though! [Note from the Mother – yes, it is worth paying for!]

We went to a bunch of places on this day, all very close to each other and fairly short drives: Kerið crater, Gullfoss, Strokkur geyser, Laugarvatn Fontana Hot pool (bring your swimsuit!), Skálholt (interesting old church – probably not worth going too far out of your way for it), lunch at Friðheimar (tomato green house! really delicious), stayed at a hostel in Selfloss: Austurvegur (fairly clean and pretty cheap). Selfloss is not very exciting, but another useful stop from sites on the Golden Circle.

Third Day: Drove to Reykjavik, on the way there: Geothermal Energy Exhibition at Hellisheiði Power Plant (if you’re interested about how geothermal works, really good overview; if you’re not interested, probably skip), Þingvellir park (Iceland’s national park, give yourself plenty of time here – it takes a while to walk everywhere and I was really hangry by the time we left. [Note from the Mother: I wasn’t sure if “hangry” was a typo or was meant to be a combination of hungry and angry, so I left it.]

We didn’t snorkel while we were there, but I’ve heard (and seen) that the snorkeling in Silfra is amazing – it’s pretty expensive, but potentially worth it.

Third/Fourth/Fifth Day in Reykjavik: We returned the car in the city and explored. We gave ourselves about a day and a half (I had about 2 days with the way my flight worked), and that was ample time to visit museums and see things. It’s a really small city! We bought the Reykjavik city card (gets you free access to most of the museums AND the pools), definitely saved us a lot of money. We basically went to all the museums, hung out in the city center, and went to one fancy restaurant: 3 Frakkar. We went to one of the pools close to our airbnb a bunch of times – you can rent towels there. You don’t need a car (or even a bike) in the city because it’s so small. As long as you get an airbnb near museums and the city area, you’ll be fine.

General notes:
– Look up washing protocol for the pools – they’re very serious about it!
– Food is pretty good, but not amazing and fairly over priced; in some ways I wish we had gone to a grocery store and stocked up on some food to eat for lunch, because we ended up eating a number of subpar pricey meals.
– The days were SO LONG when I was there. It means you can wander around so much longer – we were at one of the waterfalls at like 8 pm and thought it was 5! I saw night one time at 1:30 am.

Advertisements

Iceland, Land of Tomatoes – The Final Chapter

Tomato greenhouse in Iceland
Tomato greenhouse in Iceland

After the adrenalin of our glacier hike and adventures in Vik, and the harrowing drive back to our Farmhotel – so much so that at dinner that night a couple from Sydney, Australia stopped by our table to ask what we had been doing that had engendered such excitement – we decided our last full day needed to be one of stark contrast.

We had seen an advertisement for lunch in a family-owned greenhouse that produced 18% of Iceland’s tomato crop, which seemed bizarre enough to fit well with the overall ethos of our trip. But first we wanted to sample one of Iceland’s famed hot springs, which we thought would be a good balance to the frigid ice of the day before. So we said farewell to the Efstidalur and set back along what was now our favorite snow covered road, heading, of course, in the general director of Fludir.

We had already decided to reject the more famous Blue Lagoon hot springs in favor of the much closer Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths. For a very reasonable price, you are given access to a series of pools situated at the edge of a lake, which is surrounded by snowcapped volcanic mountains in the distance.  The changing room was possibly the most spotless place I have been – two girls were diligently vacuuming the tops of the lockers themselves. The pools ranged in temperature, rising up to 50 degrees Celsius, and were adorned with rocks for resting your head, jets of varying water pressures, and benches to sit on. After steaming ourselves for a while, we started to resemble good New Orleans shrimp that has just started to turn pink. That was our sign to transfer to the Finnish-style, cedar lined sauna to dry ourselves out.  Once our shrimp-like selves had started to take on a slight bacon-like overlay, we felt that was a clue we had had enough. M and I retired to the previously empty women’s changing room only to discover it had been taken over by a bus load of middle aged jovial naked German women for whom this was clearly one of the highlights of their trip. We also realized we had probably violated most of the shower rules (don’t ask) but fortunately no one had been there earlier to observe our general American incompetence.

Keeping the red theme going, we then slipped and slid along more snow covered roads to the tomato greenhouse, Fridheimar.  And what a greenhouse it was! Masses of tomato plants, all growing from small boxes at the ends of the aisles, their vines entangled along string structures spanning the entire width of the greenhouse. Electricity is very cheap in Iceland due to the geothermal energy pulsing under everything, and no one would think twice about the energy costs of greenhouse gardening of this magnitude. Automatic on off light switches don’t even exist.  Tables were set for lunch, which was, of course, all you could eat tomato soup, or if you were a big spender like S, pasta with tomato sauce. There was also a hollowed out tomato filled with birch schnapps – Iceland was covered by birch forests until the Vikings cut them all down.

image image

Having had our fill of tomatoes, we returned to Reykjavik by way of a quick hike around and into the Kerid crater and a stop at two seaside villages.  Very empty in March – the small towns are best summed up by unpronounceable names, giant waves crashing on sand bars out at sea, black sand beaches littered with tiny shards of snail shells, and a solid 50 mph wind that didn’t let up. That wind pursued us the whole way back to Reykjavik, where even on the main road the local drivers had slowed down to a crawl due to the blowing snow. When we finally staggered back into the by then familiar Hotel Natura we were more than ready for a happy hour drink in the bar, together with the car mechanics convention attendees who seemed to have taken over much of the hotel.

Return to Reykjavik
Return to Reykjavik

Demonstrating some travel smarts, we enlisted the aid of the front desk clerk who was able to wangle a reservation for us at one of the city’s trendier restaurants  – the not particularly creatively named Seafood Grill.   All the food was good (although I could have passed on S’s whale and puffin appetizer) but the desserts were outstanding. I had an almond skyr cake infused with thyme….possibly one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.

We headed back to the airport the next day. But adventure still wasn’t letting us go. Just when we thought we had already faced some of the worst driving conditions known to man (at least to Florida man), the road to the airport – exposed, flat open – was simply consumed by blowing snow. J could see absolutely nothing – occasionally the yellow stakes at the side of the road made a brief appearance, but much of the time we were simply in whiteout. We arrived at the car rental return place to the spot where supposedly you could refuel – only to find the pumps were closed and we had to drive yet another 10 km  to find gas. We did, eventually, only then to have to turn around and drive along the same terrible road we had barely survived before. And, if anything, it had gotten worse the second time around! To say we were happy to leave the car with the rental people is an understatement. We later learned the road had been closed right after we had driven along it following a six car pileup.

image

But lest you think our happy travelers simply then boarded their plane for a smooth flight back to the land of sunshine and oranges….no, not indeed. We had been unable to book a direct flight back and were returning via Toronto. But our flight was delayed out of Iceland (I’ll leave it to my brilliant readers to guess why) and the airline would not hold the connecting flight from Toronto to Orlando the necessary 15 minutes – despite the fact there were about twelve of us on the plane who were missing that very connection. But this blog doesn’t exist to complain about the incompetence of airlines – by now that’s just part of the condition of human existence – suffice it to say that we ended up with an unexpected night in Toronto and a very early morning flight back to Florida.

I’m now sitting here listening to one of our first Florida wet season rain storms pelting down, and contemplating the next summits facing us in June in Ecuador. Iceland wasn’t really a summit, per se.  But travel takes all forms – and travel with friends is one of the highest.

 

Iceland Summits: A Glacier Melts – Part 3

image

Day 3 of our Travel With Friends Trip was to be the Iceland version of a summit. We had peeled off from the more typical tourist sightseeing regime and made our way to Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, which is Iceland’s fourth-largest glacier. It offered the opportunity to don crampons and climb on ice for a couple of hours. And at least J and I could regard it as some sort of training for our upcoming trip to Cotopaxi and Chimborazo (only three months from now!).  Because of our out of the way location at the Efstidalur Farmhotel, we were a considerable distance away, and had to hit the road bright and early for our 10 am rendezvous with the guide.

The theme of “the weather gets worse” continued. After surviving the narrow snowed over road on which the hotel was located, we ended up on a mountain pass. All we could see was a line of yellow tipped stakes outlining the contours of the road, and it was only on the way back we realized how close we were to the ocean. We finally turned off onto what was described on our map as a 3 km road that could take 20 minutes to travel. It was dirt and lava rocks, pocked with huge ruts. Eventually we reached the end, in howling wind and hail – only to find the long promised cafe where we were to meet the guide was closed and there was no other sign of human existence. In our excitement of getting there and maybe finding a bathroom, we had all jumped out of the car without properly fastening ourselves up against the elements, and accordingly were drenched. There was no bathroom either.

Finally, another car pulled up and out with it our erstwhile guide from Icelandic Mountain Guides. From New Zealand, he bounced between Aconcagua, the Alps, the Cascades – all the best climbing. I’m not quite sure how Iceland fit in, but there he was. He assured us that although conditions were not good now (read “you will be blown off the face of the mountain”), he’d been watching the forecast and the weather should clear by 2 pm.

One of the many churches dotting the Icelandic landscape
One of the many churches dotting the Icelandic landscape

So with several hours to kill, we drove back along the rutted road to the village of Vik. Supposedly a quaint fishing village, on that cold icy day all we located was a collection of warehouses and small homes with barely any commercial establishments.  We did find one hotel with a cafe and a sign stating it opened at 11. We rang the bell and eventually the owner shuffled down. After I inquired if  they were open, he went back upstairs to check with the wife, and following an onslaught of Icelandic argument apparently between the two of them, grudgingly returned and opened the cafe. We ate greasy pizza while another few drenched lost souls staggered in, all of whose plans had also been laid waste by the weather.

image

Eventually we departed Vik to head back to our long gravel road, but on the way we took a detour to Reynisfjara beach. A black sand beach with tremendous cliffs and rock formations – brutally windy and cold but stark and beautiful. It didn’t require much imagination to visualize Vikings landing there in their long boats. There was a cafe there with a huge glass window overlooking the crashing surf – next time we will know where to go.

image

The glacier hike, although not particularly challenging, lived up to our expectations. As you ascend, the ice has become so compacted that in the winter it is a startling shade of clear blue, varying from periwinkle to deep turquoise. It’s set against black lava, some of which is even banded into the ice itself. There’s an ice tunnel just sturdy enough to crawl through – not dark as the light from the tunnel opening is refracted against the clear glass of the surrounding ice. A delicate tall ice arch had formed in one spot – by the time we were descending, it had fallen. Sadly, the glacier, like all glaciers worldwide it seems, is retreating. Where we were standing on rock near the cafe had been glacier just the year before.

It was finally time to bring our day to an end, and we had several hours of snowy driving to get back to our hotel. We had one more day left, and it was time to make plans.

Iceland Part 2 – The Golden Circle, or All Roads Lead to Fludir

image

When last we left our intrepid travelers they had just finished slipping and sliding across a parking lot in Reykjavik, tattered map in hand, hail and wind gusts abounding. But day 2 they woke up bright and early to another Scandinavian/English breakfast to boldly embark on the next part of the great Nordic challenge, also known as the Golden Circle. It has a certain Wagnerian overtone – Ring series and all that.

Speaker of the Law
Speaker of the Law

The Golden Circle has three main stops.  First is  Pingvellir or Thingvellir (I don’t have Icelandic characters on my keyboard),  the seat of Iceland’s Parliament starting in the 900s and, according to the signs, the oldest Parliament in the world. Unbeknownst to the ancients they had picked a valley located on the exact rift between the Euroasian and North American tectonic plates, which are pulling apart at the rate of a tenth of an inch a year – in geologic terms, the equivalent of a Daytona 500. You hike down the valley past such illustrious spots as the Drowning Pool and, my personal favorite, the Speaker of the Law Rock. Now if they would just put one of those in a courtroom….

After exploring the seat of ancient Icelandic government, the next stop was the geyser, Strokkur. Unlike its larger cousin, the Geysir, it erupts every few minutes, so no one leaves disappointed. It wasn’t too crowded in early March, but must be a nightmare in high season. Mind you, through all this, husband J was bringing his Florida driving skills to bear through wind and rain and ice and snow. What friends M and S didn’t know until the last day was that he’d waived the collision damage insurance. Strokkur was dutifully impressive, shooting its 20 meter high spout with the regularity of a factory whistle. I personally found the little steam spouts percolating out of the side gullies and small bubbling puddles just as interesting.

image

Continuing our tour – along with a few hundred people doing the exact same route – in fact, I started to recognize people from stop to stop – we journeyed onto the famous waterfall of Gulfoss. After encountering some quite bad weather on the way there, we didn’t even realize we’d arrived. You’re on a high plain, seemingly with no topography, and then an elaborate visitors center appears out of the middle of nowhere. We actually sent S out on a reconnaissance mission before we all ventured out to confirm there really was a waterfall in sight. It is an amazing confection of spray and rock and mist. Not quite as massive as Niagara Falls, it has two tiers and at that time of year, one side is frozen into sharp stilettos, contrasted with frozen rolls of ice that cascade down the side of the valley.  The falls then flow around a bend and plunge into a narrow ravine that must be enormously deep.

image

Aside from the falls themselves, Gulfoss has quite a remarkable gift shop. We had to convince S that he truly didn’t need to take a seal skin back to the United States. Ethical issues aside, the guide books are full of warnings of the dire consequences such attempts will result in at U.S. Customs.  Of course, it is quite likely said seal skin really was produced in some quaint Icelandic greenhouse specializing in man made fur. More on the greenhouses later.

But by then it was mid afternoon, and we felt it wise to get somewhere within striking distance of the Farmhotel where we were to spend the next two nights. As three of us are lawyers (well, M has relinquished the profession in favor of a more divine calling), we followed the “detailed itinerary” provided to the tee, arriving in the bustling metropolis of Fludir in late afternoon – but only after driving through a pounding snow storm on what became our new best friend of a road, I think numbered 341. Little did we know that Fludir would become our navigational tool for the remainder of our stay in the Iceland countryside.

On the way to Fludir
On the way to Fludir

As a point of interest, Fludir has a population of 394. It is located in the unpronounceable municipality of Hrunamannahreppur in the Southern Region, Iceland.  And the way we navigated, we ended up going toward, through and around Fludir for the next couple of days, since all roads seemed to lead to it.

After quickly passing all of its few commercial establishments – including yet another of the  ubiquitous Icelandair hotels, S finally broke down and went into the Fludir equivalent of a convenience store to ask where the Efstidalur Farmhotel was located. It was at that precise moment that J and I both had the same realization. We had noticed some weeks before that the hotel we were booked at was not the hotel featured on the self drive tour company’s website, but was actually located in an even more remote spot, further east and away from Reykjavik. Oh. And the itinerary from the tour company, of course, presumed we were staying at the hotel people were normally booked at. Oh.

So, J and I were not overwhelmingly surprised when S tromped out to announce that the hotel was not here but there and we had another half hour of fun driving in the snow before arrival. But the convenience store lady had given him a very detailed map which became our Bible for the next couple of days.

Through more snow and sleet we went, eventually driving up a steep hill to an actual dairy farm. Cows all around, out buildings, and a small low building of ten rooms, five of which overlooked the wide white valley of fields below.

We were home for the night.

Main building at the Efstidalur Farmhotel
Main building at the Efstidalur Farmhotel

 

 

 

Iceland Part 1 – A Day in Reykjavik

An unusual combination of destinations
An unusual combination of destinations

Husband J, friends M and S, and I arrived at Sanford-Orlando International Airport on a Tuesday afternoon still not quite believing that one could board a plane there and step off in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yet that’s exactly what happened. After a fairly smooth flight on budget airline Icelandair we arrived in Reykjavik just after 6 am.

For some reason both sunrise and sunsets are late this time of year in Iceland, so we made our way in near total darkness to the Icelandair Hotel Natura. Icelandair seems to be as much a hotel and tour operator as an airline and Icelandair hotels are scattered throughout the country.

Although the Hotel Natura is one of those blue paneled, five-story 1970s style buildings, the inside is warm and wood and dotted with sculptures of people made out of wooden boards who sit at various points throughout the lobby. We arrived just in time for an incredible buffet breakfast. One side was English (eggs, bacon, baked beans [except they were chickpeas]); the other Scandinavian (two sorts of herring, salmon, fish salads, and dense, grainy breads). We had arrived in Iceland expecting nothing but fermented shark or its ilk. The food we encountered almost everywhere turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was also a pleasant surprise that we could check into our rooms at 9 a.m.

View from Hotel Natura
View from Hotel Natura

After we crashed for an hour or so, we decided it was time to explore the city. We took the number 5 bus from right outside the hotel to the Hlemmer bus station, braving sleet and rain. Apparently this has been one of the worst winters in Iceland in recent memory. The bus station was like all bus stations – but I loved the table in the center with books available just to be picked up, read, returned or donated. We started off down the main drag, Laugarvegur. Even touristy souvenir shops were filled with interesting, tasteful items. Marvelous design in Iceland, clean and bold and modern, both jewelry and clothes.

But the weather was getting progressively worse, which turned out to be a theme of the whole trip. We staggered our way to the end of the street toward the harbor in the belief there was a Viking Saga museum that had looked interesting. Eventually, soaked and with a disintegrating wet map we found it – only to discover it was some sort of Disney-esque Viking wax museum. Being from Florida, we felt very little need to pay the equivalent of $15 each to go in. But there was a very nice cafe where I ordered mead – which seemed like a sufficiently Viking thing to do, and the young waiter who looked like a red-haired Viking himself, told us how to get to the National Museum, which was the one we’d really been aiming for.

Mead in Reykjavik
Mead in Reykjavik

After another half hour of fighting our way through wind gusts and snow, some which were strong enough to lift me off my feet, and with our poor map literally in tatters, we arrived.  I have no photos to speak of because the weather was such I didn’t want to take my gloves off nor did I think my phone would survive the elements. I think we walked through a very nice residential area – the houses are sided with corrugated metal, painted as though it were wood, with gingerbread moldings. The museum was worth the snow and sleet – the history of Iceland from its first inhabitants on, and it gave us a good background for what we would see on the rest of the trip. Not only were there Vikings on this previously uninhabited land, but Irish monks paid a visit. I am convinced Irish monks were the international tour guides of their time as they seem to pop up everywhere.

By then we realized we had practically walked back to the hotel, which was just on the other side of the municipal airport – but which was also a long and exposed walk around the tarmac. After debating a bit, we rejected M’s suggestion we walk and brave more pelting snow – and by then hail – and slid our way across a parking lot to get a taxi. That walk across the icy parking lot ranks as one of the more treacherous aspects of the trip.

That evening we had scheduled a boat tour to try to see the Northern Lights from the Reykjavik harbor. Needless to say, the trip was cancelled, but as a substitute we were able to opt for a nine course sharing menu at the Kopar Restaurant on the waterfront. The weather, which truly does change every 15 minutes (but sometimes only to get snowier), cleared just enough to see the moon against deep blue sky.

Moon Over the Reykjavik Harbor
Moon Over the Reykjavik Harbor

Next up – exploring the Golden Circle and the valley between two worlds: Pingvellir – the meeting place for Iceland’s ancient Parliament, on the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. More summits to come.

Iceland Cometh – Travel With Friends

 

Powder paint at Gentlemen of the Road - Travel With Friends
Powder paint at Gentlemen of the Road – Travel With Friends

Many years ago, when daughter #1 was still being carted around in the plastic contraption we called the rocket seat, we would go out to dinner with our then childless friends, M and S, and drool over all the places we could explore once our parental responsibilities had lessened. But then daughter #2 came along, and M and S had their own equally charming off spring and those days seemed to get further and further away.

Oh, there was the moment when we thought there was a possibility of a two family trip on a Russian icebreaker to see an eclipse in the Arctic Circle. S, who is an amateur astronomer, had seen an ad in one of his magazines that suggested such an adventure could be had for the sum of $1500 a person. Unfortunately, in the cold light of Monday, he realized he had ignored the extra zero in the price.

A couple of years ago we did all make it to St. Augustine for a long weekend to see The Gentlemen of the Road tour (Mumford and Sons etc). A great time, but aside from the paint powder extravaganza shown above, it wasn’t what you would call a particularly adventurous weekend.

Althugh we have yet to convince the Friends that they too can reach summits we have all decided to spend several days in early March in Iceland. The plan started because at that point – for some unknown reason – there was a straight through flight from Sanford, Florida to Reykjavik on Icelandair. We were also all under the impression that Iceland was located closer to where Greenland is and there would be a minimal time difference, making it a good long weekend destination. We’ve now determined there is no direct flight and it is a five hour time difference but we are going just the same. I also bought husband J a globe for Christmas.

I have little idea about Iceland except for an early episode of Anthony Bourdain’s first series, No Reservations, but trips with no expectations are sometimes the best. And I am confident that we can get M and S onto a glacier – at least for a little bit.

So now when I’m training for the June trip to climb Cotopaxi and Chimborazo at least I have something else to occupy myself with – the 7 mile run yesterday was a lot more fun when I thought of volcanoes, hot springs and ice. I decided to ignore the dried cod.