A Travellerspoint blog

August 2011

Holy Hornbjarg

A day on the Horrnstrandir Nature Reserve

sunny 60 °F

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Driving from Glymur to the West Fjords (named one of Lonely Planet's top 10 travel destinations in the world for 2011) took about 6 challenging hours--you feel like you're driving in circles as you enter a fjord and drive the entire length, only to loop at the bottom and continue back up the opposite side. We're not sure why they don't build bridges (it would turn a 6 hour trip into 4 or less) but I'm sure there's a good reason with cold temps, high winds and rough waters. If the region was more accessible, it probably wouldn't be as special--plus, the roads that are currently in use just recently got paved, which turned a previously 12 hour trip into today's 6 hours.

There is only one way to get to Hornstrandir and that's via a 2.5 hour boat trip, which we took on Saturday morning. The entire finger of fjords is a nature reserve and there are no roads whatsoever. Even hikers tackling the great trails in the region have to take this boat to get started. We planned our entire trip around this trip--which only runs one time per week in the summer--and is the most spectacular one in the country (or so we'd previously read and now wholeheartedly believe!). It's called the "King and Queen of Cliffs" and run by West Tours out of Isafjordur.

We're taken into a calm fjord in the 30-passenger boat we'd used to make the 2.5 hour journey, and then hop into a rubber dingy to head to shore. One family and other people/workers used to live in the area until the 1950's, but they were completely snowed in during winters. They earned their livings collecting bird eggs from the extreme cliffs by dropping down on ropes to the narrow ledges. The practice still exists today, though currently done by the Icelandic search and rescue teams--they earn their yearly budget from the sale of the eggs--but the one family still has rights to collect and sell the eggs, too. The grandchildren in the family who grew up there all live in Isafjordur and get the house for one week each summer. One of the grandkids is actually the ferry boat captain and never misses a trip out to the area once a week in the summer.

The hike itself was challenging, great hiking shoes are very important (ours were only so-so), and after about an hour of climbing we stopped for lunch at the edge of one of the cliffs. We'd thought the most challenging and scenic part was behind us, and then the guide pointed up. We were going to climb the highest cliff that looked like it was a straight vertical rock.

The path was amazingly narrow (one shoe-length wide) and was indeed straight up! Every step was semi-terrifying, especially with a light rain making the path even more slippery, but there was nowhere to go or look, except "up". Even a slight lean could have sent you tumbling down the hill. The top was spectacular--360 degrees of absolute beauty--but then came "down" which was more terrifying and even more beautiful.

Once back on the other side--and on more even ground--the rest of the hike ended with spectacular vistas, warm sunlight, extremely rare arctic foxes, and a rainbow across the North Atlantic Ocean. Was truly the highlight of the trip and one of the best experiences of my life.

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Posted by Maltags 14:51 Archived in Iceland Tagged isafjordur hornstrandir hornbjarg bird_cliffs bird_watching Comments (0)

The Golden Circle

Driving from The Westman Islands to Glymur

sunny 55 °F

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After breakfast and the morning ferry back to the mainland, we hit the Golden Circle, a very popular day-trip from Reykjavik composed of the Gulfoss waterfall, original "Geysir" and historic seat of the Icelandic government at Thingviller.

Gulfoss was breathtaking, including the views of the 2 nearby mountain-top glaciers that looked like clouds from a distance.

Next was the original Geysir (all geysers in the world get their name from this first spot ever listed in recorded history; it's believed to have been active for more than 10,000 years). It doesn't erupt frequently, although it's also been recorded as the largest eruption at 122m high. The nearby Strokkur geyser does go off every 8-10 minutes and is still quite a site to see.

Although we'd anticipated the last stop at Thingviller to be a low point on the tour, it was the highlight--being one of the most profound displays of in the world of two tectonic plates coming together--all a backdrop to the first meeting of Icelandic tribes in 970--the first organized government in the country (first settled in 870). The place remained an important political gathering place for Icelanders even through 1944 when Icelanders declared their independence from Denmark.

Then we drove past Reykjavik to the Hotel Glymur, beautifully perched on the Whale Fjord. Full of Dali-esque art and super friendly staff, the 2-level room had views over the fjord, and so did the hot tubs outside.

Posted by Maltags 14:49 Archived in Iceland Tagged hottub golden_circle hotel_glymur Comments (0)

That 70's Volcano

A Day on Heimaey Island

sunny 55 °F

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After a 2-hour drive from the Blue Lagoon, we boarded a 30 minute ferry to the largest of The Westman Islands--Heimaey Island (which translated from Icelandic literally means "home island"). The island may be best known for a 1973 eruption that lasted 5 months and added 2 kilometers to the island--much of that a blood-red or black lava rock still scarring the landscape today. The town of 5,000 people was evacuated within hours (the entire fleet of fishing boats was in the harbor that day) and only one person died--a man who suffocated while trying to loot the pharmacy.

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The town is small and can be easily navigated in a day. We took a 3 hour "circle tour" boat trip around the island to see the most remote bird cliffs (including a puffin colony) and volcanic caves, then hiked to the top of the volcanic mountain Eldfell to survey the vast destruction of this natural disaster.

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After a great lobster soup dinner at 900 Grillhaus, it was off to sleep at the Hotel Porshamir, a very basic but comfortable 2-star (and only) hotel on the island.

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The sun sets here at 9pm and it's not fully dark until 11pm (even in August). Visit in June for the midnight sun and golf games that begin at 8pm!

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Posted by Maltags 02:00 Archived in Iceland Tagged heimaey_island Comments (0)

The Blue Lagoon

Can you spell psoriasis?

overcast 50 °F

The best cure for jet lag (and two layovers) is a trip to the Blue Lagoon directly from Keflavik airport--a 20 minute drive to a world of soothing waters and relaxation.

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We opted to stay at the Blue Lagoon Clinic, which is a beautiful hotel with its own private lagoon for guests, connected to the main facility. The clinic is a major treatment center for people with psoriasis, a skin condition that leaves red, blotchy, scabby spots on the body. A two to three week treatment, is a cure for most patients--and I couldn't imagine a more beautiful and relaxing place to do it.

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The Blue Lagoon itself is a tourist mecca but the facility is very well planned and run, and with such a large natural hot spring, filled with healing blue algae and silica mud, you leave feeling baby soft and completely rejuvenated.

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Posted by Maltags 02:00 Archived in Iceland Tagged airport iceland blue_lagoon keflavik psoriasis Comments (0)

Iceland: Overview

The land of fish, dwarves, mother nature and hot dogs.

semi-overcast 50 °F

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Here are a few tidbits I've learned after only a few days in Iceland:

1) Iceland is big; I am very, very small.
This must be how Jack felt in "Jack and the Beanstalk" -- trespassing in a land of giants. Whether it's the geothermal "hot pots" of boiling mud and water, newly created volcanic islands, prehistoric bird cliffs rising out of arctic waters, or roads (often gravel) that seem like temporary scars on a vast landscape--you are constantly reminded that this land is permanent and we are the ones just passing through. In big cities like Los Angeles, we aren't humbled by nature very often, driving on twenty-lane freeways, always running late, losing time we never felt we had to begin with. In Iceland, the pace is beautifully measured--probably because people here realize exactly where they sit in the pecking order. Waaaay at the bottom.

2) Dwarves are real; even if they are just horses.
The Icelandic sagas, written from oral traditions and dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries, have tales of dwarves, elves, trolls and creatures of all shapes and sizes--fended off by dragon skulls, the sign of the cross, and Icelandic toughness. The "hidden people" are taken very seriously in Iceland still, with a majority of people here believing in mischief-makers, child-stealers, and small doors in the mountainsides, accessible only by the correct password, leading to tiny hidden homes. Although I haven't seen one yet, the ever-present Icelandic ponies, seen across the countryside dotting the hills like the sheep (which there are more of then people in Iceland), are odd enough--with their thick lion-like manes and stubby, dwarf-sized legs--that I can imagine the hidden people in all their various shapes and sizes would feel right at home.

3) All you can eat fish, skyr...and hot dogs.
The entire country of Iceland feels, smells and is remarkably clean--and the food is too. Whether it's the countless varieties of fresh (and I mean 24 hours out of the ocean fresh) fish like cod, char, halibut, mussels, and salmon; the crystal clear water coming out of every tap that's cleaner than the stuff I buy in bottles at home; or the fresh blueberries picked from road or trail-side bushes--everything is tasty, plentiful well seasoned and superbly prepared. Although I've steered clear of a few local delacacies like putrefied shark, minke whale and puffin, there is one ubiquitous staple in the Icelandic diet that can't be overlooked (and it's not cod liver oil--although that's a close second). Hot dogs are everywhere! Made of finer stuffs than their scrap-meat counterparts in the states, Icelandic dogs come with crispy onions and a variety of sauces and, although I've opted for fish more often than not, the dog I tried was quite a few steps above Oscar Meyer. And last but not least, I may be leading the campaign to bring one Icelandic delicacy state-side. Icelandic "skyr" is a thick, cream-cheese style yogurt that's filled with protein, is non-fat, and amazingly delicious when mixed with a variety of fruit flavors. Be careful Dannon and Yoplait, if Americans ever find out about this stuff, it's all over.

4) If you step off a cliff with no lawyers around...what happens?
The most startling realization about this odd spot on the planet is that the people here trust you--no questions asked. I don't know if that comes from it still being a relatively remote and expensive place to travel or if it's just in their small-town nature (the population of the entire country is a little over 300,000) but the number of times I've noticed this phenomenon made me realize how much people in the states don't trust you (at all). From hotels not requiring identification or a credit card at check in (not kidding--they just ask for your name and you pay when you check out) to "honor bars" (the hotel bar has a book where you write down the drinks you have after the bartender goes home for the night) to the countless trails and roads without any guardrails, and organized adventure trips without insurance waivers, the general feeling is--you're a responsible, intelligent person who can make his/her own choices. But if you make the wrong choice, you face the consequences. We're not your momma...just deal with it. And I'm sure it comes as no surprise that 85% of all Iceland search and rescue missions are to rescue tourists. P.S. Rest of the world--take a clue from Icelanders. Don't let the bad apples ruin the bunch.

Now on to the more interesting details of the trip so far...

Posted by Maltags 01:56 Archived in Iceland Tagged birds fish nature lava iceland skyr hot_dog dwarves icelancic_ponies Comments (0)

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