Sunday, September 14, 2014
I still think about that lamb stew.
Two summers ago, Aaron, my now fiancé and I hiked, treacherously drove, feasted, bird watched, swam, and found secret waterfalls in the alien land known as Iceland. The people were friendly, the scenery was magical and the sheep were super cute.
Instead of traveling the circumference of the ring road, the loop of highway that encircles the country, Aaron and I chose a different route. This was partially due to the event that we traveled to Iceland for: a Wedding! My dear friends David and Hrönn (who is Icelandic) were married on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Before reporting for wedding duties we had some adventuring to do. Using Reykjavik as our base for the first few days we explored the city from above by climbing to the top of the Hallgrímskirja, the immense church that towers over the rest of the picturesque city with its smaller buildings, bursting with pops of color. We made sure to give our regards to the statue of Leifur Eiríksson, a gift from the U.S.A. to Iceland. While we enjoyed the beautiful and exciting city of Reykjavik, when it came time to get on the road, that was when Iceland truly revealed its amazing landscape.
Our first excursion outside of the city was the Golden Circle. As soon as we left the city, (in our trusty mini SUV, which I am still thankful for that we had) we immediately encountered sheep, wild horses and cairns — man-made piles of stones that traditionally served as trail-markers, which were haunting and ethereal at first but we soon became accustomed to their presence. Winding down roads – where we were sometimes the only car for miles – Aaron and I did not talk much. There was too much beauty to digest. Driving slowly, and stopping often, we encountered flora and fauna that not only had we never seen, but simply looked otherworldly. While it may seem odd, an unexpected highlight of this drive was a rest stop along the way. Huge windows behind the restroom’s hand-washing stations provided a spectacular panoramic of this landscape.
After entering into the Þingvellir national park with multiple pull offs and sights of its own, we soon arrived at one of my all time favorite sites from a trip ever. Gullfoss, or “golden falls” is where the Hvíta River tumbles over the highland shelf into a spectacular double-decker waterfall. Yes, one can get to the falls and simply peer off the overlook and then call it a day, but we were not going to do that. There is a “wet trail” that connects the eager and adventurous all the way down to the falls themselves. I remember reading a guide book that notes that one will feel very small when encountering these massive, extremely noisy falls and I can’t argue with that observation. Additionally, I felt a rush of fear and excitement, standing on the actual rock that is the edge of the falls, planning each step with care so as not to fall and a face a certain negative outcome. Peeling ourselves away from the waterfall was tough, however there was stew to be eaten. Seriously, this delicious lamb stew was the perfect re-energizer after hiking up and down the fairly demanding path that led to and from the falls. And the best part, they offered free refills! We sat and feasted with a sense of accomplishment before venturing off to our next stop.
The last stop on the Golden Circle is the site known at “Geysir.” That’s not just a generic name.These geysirs are the very first in recorded history, and as such coined the word. Due to geothermal temperament, the main geysir is now dormant. However, we were still treated to quite the spectacle of water bursting from the ground at regular intervals. The colors of some of the standing geysirs were deep turquoise hues that I had never encountered in nature before.
The next day we left our base in Reykjavik and headed for regions even less traveled. Taking a super scenic, not super direct route, we headed for the tiny fishing village of Stykkishólmur, which is located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, in western Iceland. On the way we had quite the adventure. First there was Barnafoss, a stunning series of waterfalls that emerged over time from a lava field. Aaron found this in an obscure guidebook that was in our apartment in Reykjavik. In the three guidebooks that I lugged with us the entire trip, Barnafoss nowhere to be found. Upon arriving at the falls we were relieved to see few tourists and none of them were American—a small victory in my opinion. Here we had a completely different experience from that of the glorious Gullfoss. Barnafoss, while not as steep, is impressive in its own way. Instead of the height and magnitude that one grapples with at Gullfoss, Barnafoss is all about the width and the breath of one waterfall after another in a row along the Hvíta River.
After the splendor that was Barnafoss, we thought we were in for smooth sailing with a peaceful drive to Stykkishólmur. We were wrong. Our route took us down a steep, winding, barely-travelled gravel road over a small mountain. Aaron and I looked at each other and decided to go for it. It would be an overstatement to call this a road. There were rocks, steep climbs followed by sharp drops, and I was completely convinced that the Icelandic version of AAA was going to have to come rescue us when we inevitably became stuck in some horrible trench or mud-pit. A good few miles and heart palpitations later we made it through the pass and I am not sure if I have ever been so relieved to encounter a paved road. Eventually, we did make it to Stykkishólmur by about 9pm that evening. It was not a big deal because since it was Iceland, there was plenty of sunlight for us to settle into our B&B, have an amazing meal of Lamb and Fish at a restaurant, Fimm Fiskar, and get into bed with daylight to spare. I still miss those Icelandic nights, dusk teasing us as we attempted to get to bed.
The next morning, we were up at dawn and at the Seatours car ferry to make our way even further off the beaten path. Our next stop was a tiny island called Flatey, with 50 permanent residents, that was all ours to explore for 5 hours while our car went on ahead and was waiting for us when we reached the Westfjords later that evening. Flatey was perfect. It was a tiny village with multi colored houses and expanses of hiking for us to explore. It seemed like all other living people on this tiny island were at away at a conference or just simply not in sight. We had the place, and more importantly, the hike to ourselves. With this isolation, we had quiet, which was key to the best part of the day: the Puffins. I had prepared myself for these little creatures, their goofy/clumsy flight and sheer bird-brained manner but nothing beat seeing these creatures in person, totally isolated. We caught them on cliffs on one edge of the island. Aaron and I immediately ceased all communication – so as not to scare them off – and watched these lovely, adorable birds play, fly, swim and hunt. My favorite part of this experience was that we didn’t just sign up for a puffin watching tour along the way, we went solo, took a chance and it payed off big time, goofy beaks and all! Later on after our hike we treated ourselves to a tiny bit of civilization by eating in the one hotel/restaurant on the island. Never-ending carrot soup followed by huge fluffy, scrumptious lamb meatballs. We were tired, full, a little little windburned and happy. By the time we made it to the mainland of the Westfjords, we found our hotel and passed out.
The next day that we spent adventuring in the Westfjords was – if one can believe it – somehow even more otherworldly than the mainland of Iceland. The roads were steeper, less paved and there were even fewer people. We climbed a mountain in search for a secret seal hiding place (no seals to be found!), drove along steep cliffs with no guardrail and found a U.S. military plane from WWII in the middle of this beautiful countryside. There were more waterfalls and hiking and by the end of the day we were satisfied to be back on the ferry to the mainland.
The next few days were dedicated to an exploration of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and our friends’ wedding. We had a lovely time celebrating with their friends and family at the Hotel Búðir.
After the wedding we still had one major event left: the Blue Lagoon. Lonely Planet Iceland describes the Blue Lagoon so well: “set in a tortured black lava field, the milky-blue spa is fed by water from the futuristic Svartsengi geothermal plant.” OK so this place might be considered touristy, but there is a reason for that. IT IS AMAZING. It is other-worldly, it’s weird, it is at times awkward but overall it is incredibly relaxing and the geothermal water feels wonderful. We made sure to leave a good part of the day for this activity, and I am certainly glad that we did. Upon entering the lagoon I was super impressed with the technology and organization of the place. After paying, one is issued a wristband with an RFID chip inside. With this bracelet, one can lock and unlock their locker, pay for drinks and food while in the lagoon and basically be hands free. After completing the pre-lagoon requirements (a very strict showering regiment) we were ready! Armed with only a towel and a bathing suit (it was really cold the entire trip… like 60s on a hot day) we carefully eased ourselves into the hot geothermal water. From there it was pure relaxation. We floated, we people watched, we carefully made our way from one part of the complex to another and overall relaxed. Looking back on the time of the Blue Lagoon, I am so glad that we chose to experience this last. It was so nice to float, relax and reflect on the past week and a half that we had spent in this amazing alien land.
Making our way back to the city that evening, I could not believe all the amazing sites that we had encountered in one trip. Aaron and I saw such beauty, and ate amazing fresh food, celebrated with friends and came back to the states refreshed and eager to travel again soon.