Monday, September 05, 2016

Reflections, Tips and Recommendations

Reflections:
1. Iceland is beautiful. We enjoyed the landscape of the south, east and north best of all
2. Rain is a fact of life. Accept that it will rain at least 60% of the time even in the summer. 
3. Eating in restaurants is Very expensive.  Hotels are also on the high end. Camper vans are the most economical and comfortable way to travel.
4. Roads can be questionable in places
5. To really experience Iceland, get out of Reykjavik and out into the small villages and hinterlands
6. You will have some of the best seafood you have ever tasted
7. In many areas, food and bathrooms are a rare commodity. Be prepared
8. Everyone speaks English well
9. Be flexible and go without a lot of schedules 
10. It is a place to slow down, relax and enjoy nature

Tips:
1. Grey Line takes you from the airport to hotels in the Reykjavik area; tickets can be purchased at the airport. 
2. Go Camper was great. Terrific customer service and their vans were a good size and well maintained. Hotel Vellir was terrific; Go Camper picked us up there
3. Bathrooms are few and far between. Be prepared
4. US chip and signature cards do not work at unmanned service stations. Buy gas cards ahead of time
5. A travel wifi modem is a great help in finding hotels, campgrounds, food, etc a Trawire worked well for us; it was about $10 a day, well worth it. There are no McDonalds to stop and get wifi!
6. Buy a good map. 
7. Roads have no shoulder and few pull outs; pull off into farm driveways often to check out views
8. Bring rain gear, ponchos, rain pants and hiking boots. Have a winter hat, gloves, scarf, buff and other wind proof clothing
9. Eat local seafood
10.  The weather report for the next few hours is pretty accurate, beyond that not so much so
11. Take a guidebook. Nothing is well marked and you need to know where you are going. 
12. Get off the beaten track, go where tourists do not
13. Twilight is great for photography, and it lasts for hours
14. Take the gravel and windshield insurance. We had a pebble hit the middle of our windshield a few hours out of Reykjavik right on the Ring Riad. Thank goodness we had taken the insurance!

Recommendations:
1. Hotel Vellir in Hafnarfjordur
2. Go Camper
3. Pakkhus a Restaurant in Hofn
4. Rub Restaurant in Akureyi
5. Hotel Kea in Akureyi
6. The Fish Store in Siglufjordur
7. Herring Museum in Siglufjordur 
8. Kaffi Klara in Olafsfjordur for cake and coffee
9. Trawire wifi rental
10. GreyLine airport service

Journey's End

As always at the end of a journey, leaving is bittersweet. I wish our adventures could continue indefinitely and I have so enjoyed this beautiful country and it's simpler lifestyle. At the same time, all vacations must come to an end. 

Today we leave the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and head to Reykjavik. Our route takes us through a 4-5 mi tunnel under the bay from Akranes to Reykjavik, a much shorter drive than circling the peninsulas. We visit, not soak at the Blue Lagoon, finding it to be too much like Disneyland for our taste. Hundreds of tourists come on tour buses and descend on the place. I take a quick look  inside and think the hot spring pool at Lake Myvatn is much more beautiful. 

In retrospect, staying in Keflavik near the airport the night before our early morning flight proves to be a poor choice. We have to return our campervan to Hafnarfjordur outside of Reykjavik. There is no transportation to our hotel in Keflavik other than Bus 55 and a mile walk. Seeing rain in the forecast, we drive to the hotel to drop off our luggage, drive back to return the camper, then take the bus back to Keflavik. 

Taking local transportation is always an experience! We had absolutely no idea where to get off and neither did the bus driver. A young lady told us to follow her as her boyfriend lives across from the hotel. We chatted the entire way- she is from Germany studying at the U. of Iceland where her boyfriend is. They travel between Germany and Iceland. She finds the landscape and weather in Iceland somewhat melancholic but doesn't admit it to her boyfriend. She says Icelandic students are never on time. She tells me they are renting an apt that is 800 sq ft and costs $1,600 a month. I told her that is like Silicon Valley. Her boyfriend was in NY and Florida and didn't like it; I told her he was probably aghast at the density of cars and people! It surprised me to hear her say Icelanders are too much into consumer goods as I see their lives much less so than ours! She tells me the town right before Keflavik used to be a NATO base and the barracks and concrete block buildings is now affordable housing. Keflavik is a small town with a smattering of hotels and Hotel Keilir is a very bare minimum place. The town has very limited food options- the pizza place is closed tonight, the pub only serves liquor, the hamburger place has closed permanently, leaving only a Thai restaurant where everyone is eating tonight. It feels like a town that has seen better days. An evening in Reykjavik would have been more lively. 

Outside the wind is gusty. We are told to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours ahead of time as the check in process can be long. We will plan to leave on the 6am shuttle. 



Sunday, September 04, 2016

On Foot

We did quite a bit of exploring on foot today, walking around the harbor and up to a viewpoint overlooking the bay and all its islands. Sunday in the harbor is quiet with most of the sailboats, ferries and fishing boats moored. We are enjoying this lazy morning.

Driving a bit along the northern coast of the peninsula, we stopped to admire a triple waterfall, dodging drizzle and spotty blue skies. I walk up to the top of the falls and back again several times... To get a new battery, raining again, raining again... getting lots of exercise. 

At Grundarfjörður, the next town over, we are surprised to see a cruise ship anchored in the bay. I guess this side of the country has been discovered. So that is where all the tour buses are coming from! 

We return to our twilight spot from last night and watch the bay and rivelets in the marshland fill gradually as the tide moves in. The clouds at sunset reflect in the shallow waters and create a rainbow of colors. We stay until dusk, our last evening out in the hinterlands. 

Last night in the campervan. I am going to miss this van. It is a perfect size with all the basic necessities, and gives us the flexibility to go anywhere and stay as long as we please. Having cooking facilities and a place to hang out in bad weather makes traveling in Iceland much easier. The only drawback is the need for 4wd in order to explore the highlands and the inner part of the country. 

Ray is outside looking for green streaks in the dark sky. We see a couple of signs of aurora borealis but the cloud cover is too heavy tonight. I think he was hoping for one more light show before we head into the city. 











 


Saturday, September 03, 2016

Beauty at the End

The campground at Varmahilð is a greasy field in an elderly couple's yard. All the campers are older adults in campers and Rvs. I have to say Icelanders are clean and neat people. Every bathroom has been immaculate!

Today we leave the north and make our way down the northwest section of Iceland, skipping the large western fjord area. Though supposedly very beautiful, it has the worst roads in the country, and circumnavigating that area requires a 4WD and another weeks time. 

The lower section of the Skagi peninsula divides the Hunafloi and Skagafjörður fjords. At the west side of the peninsula is Blönduos where we take a walk to the the Svarta River, a great salmon stream. The water is turquoise and rushes over boulders before reaching the ocean at a narrow isthmus. 

Heading south through Hvanmmstangi and to Borgarnes, the land is vast between the coast and the mountains and we pass several lagoons and channels, and Ray explores several of the rivers looking for fish. Hop is a very large saltwater lagoon cut in half by a long black sand dune spit. 

We pass a lot of flat grassland divided into farms and sheep grazing pastures. In the distance is Langjökull glacier, a much more touristy area given its close proximity to Reykjavik. We find the landscape to be much less dramatic than the eastern side of Iceland. 

At Borgarnes, we head northwest to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. If you look at the palm of your left hand, this is your thumb and the western fjords your index finger. At the tip of your thumb is a small glacier, Snæfellsjökull. Our destination is Stykkisholmur, a small fishing village on the north side, about midway on the upper edge of your thumb. The guidebook says the southern coast is very wet but the chain of mountains blocks bad weather from reaching this town- sounds good to us!

As we drive in toward town, in front of us is a large archipelago tinted pink and blue from the evening light. We gasp and stop to enjoy the scene until the light fades. This alone was worth the drive here. 

It is Saturday evening and our journey is almost complete. We will stay here until Monday and drive the 2 hours in the afternoon to Reykjavik to return the campervan. We plan out our last few meals, tonight cooking, and very much enjoying our fresh cod and haddock. 
Eating our cod reminds us of McDonalds; this is a far cry from a filet o fish! Did you know Iceland has no McDonalds? The only one in the country was sold during the 2009 economic downturn. Matter of fact, we have seen no fast food joints, no billboards, no roadside food-so refreshing. 

As this town's harbor has car ferries to the western fjords, the campground has several camper vans. There are a few restaurants and a large hospital, the only one we have seen thus far. It is cloudy tonight and so there is no reason to stay up to watch the night sky. 
Rounding up the horses by car



4wd campervan - the right way to travel in Iceland!




Friday, September 02, 2016

Light Show

It is cold in the van and we wait for hours in the dark, letting our eyes get adjusted. I have spent the evening on the internet learning how to take aurora photos. I've got my cable release, camera set on all manual, manual focus to infinity, bulb setting, ISO 800 and f4 and we wait. Whoa, it is 11 and the light show begins!!! What a spectacle, swirling, twisting columns of light, not due north but south and above us, above the mountain ridges. Our eyes see them as green and light but the camera picks up green, purple and blue neon. I promise to share photos. I am ecstatic and Ray is so excitedly oohing and aahing; you know he is excited as he isn't much of a fireworks person! The show lasts about an hour then dwindles away. What a night! 

Sometimes all the stars align,(haha) to make things work out. A guest at the hotel goes out for a smoke and sees the aurora; he tells the hotel clerk. I am on the phone with him figuring out Ray's Wifi  connection. The clerk knows we are up and calls to tell us the lights are visible. Without this chain of events, we wouldn't even know to watch for them. Hallelujah! 

We drive back down to the campground in the middle of town and celebrate at midnight over tea and Icelandic tart in our comfy home on wheels. 

The campground in Siglufjörður and has 5 bathrooms, and they are heated! In the morning, we eat our granola with fresh bilberries, yum. We spend a lazy morning walking around the little town, spy a small fish store and are amazed at how inexpensive the fresh fish is, considering how much they charge in restaurants. We buy cod, haddock, salmon and Arctic char, all for $20!  Walking by a coffee shop, we stop for a quick lunch along with the town's workers and have great mushroom soup, and fresh bread with pesto. 

The Herring Museum is now open and we learn that this was "the good time town" back in the 30's when up to 1,000 people would be in the harbor bringing in their catch. It was much like cannery row, with herring salted into barrels and shipped out, or made into meal for feed. 
Herring girls worked alongside fishermen and life was good. Today it is a sleepy but nice town with a few fishing boats trawling the bay, and tourists passing through.

Siglufjörður sits at the northernmost tip of the peninsula. We exit through another one lane tunnel; this one with a harrowing blind curve! A car approaches and we are face to face! He ends up backing up until we both reach a bay, geez! We drive the rest of the way down the peninsula and continue to be awed by the expansiveness of the land, cliffs jutting out into the ocean and the next fjord, Skagafjörður. Before reaching the town of Sauðarkrokur, at the end of the fjord is a massive river valley and being twilight and low tide, is a visual feast. I spend quite a bit of time photographing this area. 

We pass Glaumbær, a well maintained row of 17th century turf houses and end our drive at Varmahlíð. We cook our fresh Arctic char which is tender and juicy. 

Ray has positioned us in a town facing south for another night show. The night starts out with the sky looking like high clouds but as it gets toward midnight, green swirls appear and soon the lights look like fireworks falling down from the sky. It is a nippy 30 degrees; our fingers and toes are frozen but we consider ourselves very lucky to have seen the northern lights for three nights. 
Northern tip of peninsula




Turf houses

Arctic Char