|A little fairy house we saw on our drive.|
Day 1: Blue Lagoon
We got on a bus from the airport that headed straight to the Blue Lagoon. It was my second visit to the spa, but it was even more relaxing and fun than the first time! There are always a large group of tourists revolving all day through this place, but they do a great job making it enjoyable even with lots of people. We waded through the water and soaked for a while with their silicon face masks before dinner at their Lava Restaurant.
During dinner, my face turned bright red and steaming hot - my super sensitive skin had a reaction to the face mask. The reaction made me unable to really enjoy the good food, sadly. Fortunately, the rash went away during the 45-minute bus ride to our hotel in Reykjavik.
Day 2: Reykjavik to Egilsstadir
The next day we woke up to a bright and shining Reykjavik. We took a fast walk around downtown, where I insisted on eating a hot dog at a famous stand. It was pretty darn good (and cheap), though definitely not gluten-free.
We had an afternoon flight to Egilsstadir, where our road trip would begin. The domestic airport is in the heart of Reykjavik, separately from the international one that is an hour out of the city. We arrived two hours early (as we do for US flights), but, upon reaching the airport and reflecting the small size of Iceland, we realized that we were painfully early. The airport is essentially a simple room with access to the tarmac - it reminded me of the domestic airports in Puerto Rico or Myanmar. Without enough time to go back out and explore, we waited patiently in the quiet airport for our flight.
We picked up our rental truck right after landing in Egilsstadir. Getting to the rental truck, our lungs exploded with fresh air and my ears buzzed with the quietness of the area. There are, after all, only about 2,500 people who live in the area and a light sprinkle of houses contrasted with lots of open space.
This was something we experienced for the first few days of our road trip; we found ourselves in very sparsely populated areas; we would see no one else for miles, and when we did see people there weren't that many. It was wonderful.
Once checked into our guest house, we drove out a ways to visit the coastal town Borgarfjörður Eystri; we wanted to see if the puffin hotspot was still buzzing or if the puffins had left for the season. We drove through lovely countryside dotted with farms until we reached the mountains lining the coast, which is when the road started to wind tightly and become treacherous. To make driving even scarier, a thick fog settled around us, forcing us to drive at a snail's pace so we wouldn't fly off the road suddenly.
When we finally got to our destination, the puffins were long gone. There was a whipping wind in the tiny town, so we got back in the car and drove (slowly again!) back to Egilsstadir. Once we had returned to town, we ate dinner at a small house and I enjoyed one of my first bowls of delicious lobster soup. There wasn't much else to do as the sun disappeared, so we napped a little bit before we went back outside later at night.
Our goal that night was to espy some aurora borealis, clouds permitting. Our host recommended a few vague locations for us to see the aurora well, including a 10-minute drive to some vague location on the top of a hill outside of town. We tried a walkable location first, which was a little too well-lit...which meant we got into the car and got lost for about 30 minutes until we finally figured out where the host's directions were leading us. It was worth it - before the clouds overcame the sky, we got to watch the slow movement of a green swirly band of light caress the stars.
Day 3: Egilsstadir to Hofn
In the morning we started our long drive south to a town called Hofn. The host told us to not trust Google and take a specific route that was safer and prettier than the older road Google indicated in our directions (the "new" Route 1). At first, we were hesitant (we'd be going on verbal directions for hours), but we followed his directions and enjoyed long views of the water and rolling mountains. We were surrounded by natural beauty and barely made any contact with other humans or towns along the way - there weren't even other cars on the road for a long time! The Google-recommended road intersected with ours halfway into the drive and we saw a line of rental cars (with Google-navigating tourists), all muddied and battered from old road gravel. We were so glad we listened.
We started to see the outlines of glaciers on the horizon. The closer we got, the bigger and more daunting (and otherworldly) they appeared. We were going directly to one of those glaciers, actually - we had bought tickets earlier for a kayak tour of a glacial lake.
We checked into the tour in the parking lot of a dairy farm next to the glacial lake, put on our heavy-duty ice-ready gear, and shuttled off to the kayaks. After a few fits and starts (and almost capsizing), CT Lawyer and I decided to kayak in separate kayaks and joined our small tour group (about 14 people...and no other humans in sight) as we waded around calm yet ever-moving icebergs floating in the water. It was stunning. Part of the kayak adventure also included hiking on top of some of the icebergs. We put on ice shoe chains and learned about the lives of glaciers while we walked on the giants. It was an extremely neat tour!
After kayaking, we drove into the town of Hofn for dinner plan - one of the locals had started a business offering traditional, local meals for tourists, and we went to her home to enjoy some fish casserole. Upon arrival, she presented to us a fascinating walk through the history of Icelandic food. We got to try fish leather and fermented shark (which kind of reminded me of very strong brie) and whey (do not recommend). The fish casserole was creamy and comforting in the chilly weather.
Day 4: Hofn to Vestmannaeyjar
We drove towards the Westman Islands, but we had a lot of time between how long it would take to drive to the ferry and when our ferry was scheduled, so we took our time and visited a number of places on the way. We started to see more people (especially tourists).
The first place we visited was the famous "James Bond Lake" - Jökulsárlón Glacial Lake. It was busy with tourists on inflatable rafts. After ogling the lake, we soon went back into the car and kept our drive going. We were trying to run away from a storm that was traveling in our direction.
As we kept speeding down the road, we happened upon a beautiful, picturesque glacial area (Hvannadalshnúkur) with wildflowers hiding at a swampy marsh. We stopped to admire the background...and then we kept going.
We also took a quick stop to hike up a mountain and peek at the Svartifoss waterfall (where, again, we saw more tourists), but neither of us was feeling particularly dazzled and we went back to the car. We took other pit stops at waterfalls like Ásólfsskáli and a few others I can't remember (there are many waterfalls all over the place). We finally had put a few hours between us and the storm.
We also stopped at an outside turf house site. There's a little museum for the special houses in Keldur, but it was closed for the winter. Fortunately, the gate was still open (not sure if that was intentional...) and we quietly walked through the small row of sweet turf houses and circled the adjacent small, steepled church. In the back was a small graveyard that overlooked a swiftly-traveling river. The panorama was breathtaking.
We still had an hour or two to kill before the ferry, so we drove to a museum we had seen advertised on a billboard - the Saga Center. Essentially, it is an indoor exhibit that retells the famous Icelandic story called Njal's Saga. We, apparently, were the only people who thought this was a good idea - no one else was around! We walked through the exhibit (which had background noise of people fighting with swords) and read the storyboards throughout summarized the tale. The exhibit ends in a restaurant that was modeled after an old Nordic longhouse. In there, we found two guys manning the bar (in metal shirts) who were very eager to sell some ribs. I'm not sure why ribs were on the menu, but we humored them and ordered some. They tasted fine, the guys asked us a lot of questions about their cooking tactics (I doubt they had been serving many people lately). It was a strange place but an entertaining experience.
Finally, we got to to the ferry that would take us to the Westman Island. We were visiting the island specifically because it has one of the largest puffin colonies in the world, and we were hoping for a little puffin viewing action before we left the country. So we got on a very large freight ferry with a bunch of local families and semi-trucks that were bringing merchandise to the community.
The wind was strong and the seas were very angry; while the travel time was only 45 minutes, it was a harrowing ride and the ferry tipped every which way. I saw the locals running to puke in the toilets during the ride. There was a TV room in the ship that played continuous episodes of Friends, which I made Mr. CT Lawyer watch while being sure we were going to die in the waves.
But we made it to the island alive!
And the island was super duper windy - I mean, windy doesn't even describe the severity of the wind...gale-ish is more like it. This was slightly problematic for us because we were staying in a barrle cabin at a campsite and the toilets were only accessible by walking outside. But that made it fun, right?! And kind of nerve-wracking.
Upon checking in, the campsite manager let us know that there were pufflings (BABY puffins) out and about the island still and the Islanders were running around at night with cardboard boxes to catch them! She lent us her puffling box and we ran out to the port to go puffling hunting.
Let me explain.
Adult puffins leave the island in late August, but they leave pufflings behind to learn how to fend for themselves. Think of it as the teenagers being kicked out of the nest to figure out life. The pufflings now struggle with the island's urbanization; they get confused and lost at night because of the streetlights, which makes them susceptible to moving cars and hunting cats.
So we, along with local children and parents, were running around the port with our cardboard boxes, trying to catch pufflings and turn them into the local aquarium for tagging and release the next morning. The atmosphere was a lot like Halloween because people ran around the streets with flashlights and containers.
We honestly didn't think we were going to actually find pufflings. But we did.
We stalked the harbor for places pufflings could hide. I thought of how our little pup likes to find comfort by huddling next to walls, so I looked around the corners of buildings. Pretty quickly I found a little puffling cuddling the wall of a generator building by the water, trying hard to look invisible. I slowly approached the little guy and he ran under a nearby car...where a cat was waiting. CT Lawyer joined me and shooed the cat away. We then spent the next 10 minutes coaxing a reluctant puffling from under a car. He wasn't happy about being captured (CT Lawyer was holding him) and he pecked away at CT Lawyer's gloved hands while I grabbed the cardboard box from the car. Meanwhile, a local man slowed his car with the lights shining on what looked like a tiny black ball (aka terrified puffling). He got out of his car and professionally snatched the puffling before it could run away, but he started to look around his car thinking, “Well, what am I going to do with this puffling now??” I ran up to him to offer to care for the puffling if he didn’t have time. He shrugged nonchalantly and handed the puffing over to me. And then there were two.
There was a small challenge we hadn’t thought of; the pufflings were apt at escaping their box in the back of the car. We spent another 15 minutes digging around for two pissed off pufflings hiding in the nooks of the truck. At last, we got them in the box and kept them in the blustery campsite overnight until the aquarium opened up.
And our lives are now complete. We have unlocked all of our achievements and could go home right then and there. Well, we still had to bring the pufflings to the aquarium in the morning.
Day 5: Vestmannaeyjar to Kjarnholdt (aka middle of nowhere)
When we got to the aquarium, the floor was covered with boxes with live, mad pufflings. The aquarium was great with them, though – they measured the pufflings, weighed them despite being pecked, and asked if we’d like to release our two little guys off the cliffs. And we did, off the windy cliffs off Vestmanaeyjar, and boy did they fly!
Also, there was an adorable adult puffin at the aquarium named Hetti who waddled around the exhibit (with an aquatic pitter-patter) and greeted the humans and pufflings upon entering.
Also, there was an adorable adult puffin at the aquarium named Hetti who waddled around the exhibit (with an aquatic pitter-patter) and greeted the humans and pufflings upon entering.
Oh, and if you were wondering, puffins smell like fish.
Otherwise, Vestmanaeyjar was gorgeous but terribly windy, and we drove around the entire island in about 20 minutes. The other attraction there was a museum and buried outdoor village that memorialized a local volcanic eruption from a few decades ago, called the Pompeii of Iceland (it buried so much of the island, but I think only one or two people died in the eruption). The museum centered on an excavated home and was fun and engaging with games, videos, and music – if you’re ever on the island, you really should hit it up.
Before we ferried back to the main island, we stopped by a little fish shop for lunch. Everything was exceptionally fresh. I had a fish curry that almost made time stop for a few minutes for me.
After a less terrifying ferry ride, we drove west and headed more inland for a night, because why not?
We drove to the Gulfoss Waterfall and went to a camping restaurant to have some pizza (it,,,was not good). We eventually drove to our guesthouse that was so incredibly remote and off the main roads that we worried that we would be kidnapped and imprisoned in the guesthouse's basement.
But that’s not what happened; instead, we slept in a quiet ranch for a night.
Day 6: Kjarnholdt to Reykjavik
In the morning we drove to the Geysir for a hot bit and took a stroll through the Þingvellir National Park to see the tectonic rift under crystal clear water. There were hordes of tourists now wherever we drove, which was jarring and made us itch to escape the humans. In any case, we were in a rush – we had a scheduled event in Reykjavik.
The drive wasn’t very long, fortunately, and we had time to kill. We enjoyed the Perlan (which is a big, fancy Icelandic nature museum slash observatory). They had a simulated glacier walk in the basement (with real glacial ice) and a stellar view of the city.
The event we were running to was a four-hour class at elfschool. Yes, it was a class about elves - Icelanders have strong, fascinating mythology around elves still. It was fun…and mighty quirky (just how we like it). The elf expert was extremely knowledgeable about elf stories while keeping his class tongue-in-cheek. And he served us tea and pancakes, which was very nice.
After we earned our diplomas in elf studies, we went to our final dinner at an upscale restaurant, fishmrkt. I was tired of eating fished by then and ordered lamb (which is also popular in Iceland), and it was good despite their specialty in marine life.
Day 7: Reykjavik to Back Home
Our flight back home was later in the day, which means we had time to for one more walk around Reykjavik. We got another hotdog and visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum (aka penis museum), which is essentially a room filled with preserved penises from all kinds of animals, including humans.
A lot of the tourists, like ourselves, visited the museum for the novelty of it…but most didn’t get the full experience. We saw a lot of tourists walking around the room, chuckling and pointing at the jarred penises…but they didn’t experience the best part of the museum, which was the audio tour. The audio tour was so good because the guy who founded the museum was the orator…and he was a dry, academic older Icelandic man. He said things that were hilarious about his phallological studies without trying to be funny (favorite point of the audio tour: when the professor discussed how the penis collection used to be at his home until his wife ordered him to get rid of them). A perfect way to end our Nordic holiday.
Our trip was magical. There were some really great overarching things from our road trip I want to reflect on:
- Nature is the Best: While we were far east, we were completely immersed in nature, and it was magical. The landscapes were beautiful and humbling to see. It was a balm for our souls to be in nature the way we could, and it was really nice to slow down.
- Hot Dogs and Lobster Soup: There were two things in Iceland of which I ate a ton - hotdogs and lobster soup. The hotdogs were crunchy and delightful, and I would have injected the soup in my veins if I could have. Everyone made both dishes very well.
- Radio Stations are Great: The radio station we had listened to on our road trip (don’t ask me which one, I have no idea) was hilarious. The station played whatever records were available; one song would be some very modern rock song, the next one an Icelandic polka! We were confused and not at all sure what songs were on the queue while we drove, which made it more interesting for us.
- Tourists are Dumb: It's a shame how often we observed tourists being really stupid there. We saw many rental cars sinking in swamps or buried in the gravel on the side of the road. We saw tons of tourists stepping on the areas where signs explicitly requested them not to. And other things (see bullet below). There are 10 tourists per Icelander in the country now; the tourism boom has supported Iceland out of their recession, but the consequence has included making a tiny population of citizens clean up after a large group of strangers. We can be better than that, people.
- Outside Poo: Iceland suffers an unfortunate issue close to my heart because of the tourist boom – tourists poo out in the open in nature all of the time. There are apparently “No Pooping” signs all over the place. CT Lawyer was adamant to find a sign for me to enjoy, but when we asked locals where the signs were, instead they would just point to me where the tourists pooed. Often they included areas where locals traditionally foraged for wild berries.