Iceland 2009

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by Christy

This is simple. Iceland was amazing. See the pictures.

Maybe not enough said. A little travel log first to guide you through, but I understand if you are impatient to get to the pictures.

Day 1: Arrive at Keflavik airport around 3:00. Rent a car, and we are off to Valahnúkur. It is featured in the Sigur Rós video, Glósóli. Sigur Rós is from Iceland, and has been my favorite band for a year or more. As a side note, we sat with a young Icelander on the plane to Norway. We happened to start talking about Sigur Rós. He said that he wasn't a fan until the latest album, and liked the single, Gobbledigook. He told us that “gobbledygook” is the sound of horses galloping in Icelandic. The song has a strong regular beat, so it makes sense. Of course in English, the word means "nonsense," which makes sense to us because their lyrics are often made-up syllable, like singing "la la di da," only much more artistic (I don't know if the song is in Icelandic or in their made-up language, which they call "Von", meaning "Hope"). It was cool to learn the real meaning, which is why it's great to travel and talk to people! This conversation happened in the security line after getting off the plane and before entering the airport, where we would get on our flight to Norway. When we were planning our trip to Iceland, Ted kept talking about the "ramp into the sea" in the Glósóli video. By the power of the Google we found its location, within an easy 45 minutes from the airport. We made it our first stop.

I was just giddy to be in Iceland, marveling at everything I saw. The Sigur Rós connection made it fun to be at Valahnúkur, and we had some fun running up toward the edge (you'll understand if you watch the video). But it was just wonderful to be there at that moment, to be alive and experiencing this place. The air smelled so good, it was so other-worldly, so surreal, it took you out of your usual time and place. I loved the details, like the lava rock fence and the long overgrown garden. To imagine people trying to live here, to feed a family and keep animals. To do the work of moving those rocks. The place was so far removed from the human realm to begin with, then the details also told you how far removed from the present. It set the stage for the rest of the trip, but it is also a good thing that we visited here first, because there would be a lot more to come.

On our way we stopped at a grocery store for some snacks. We tried the famous Skyr, Icelandic yogurt that is reputed to be very sour. I really liked it, especially the melon flavor. We tried Icelandic brown cheese, which was good but wasn't up to Norway's standards. We walked out with about 10 varieties of crackers and breads. That's Ted's way of sizing up a country's snacking capabilities. They had some interesting thick, moist rye bread that I liked with sliced gouda, but Ted wouldn't touch.

We stayed in Grindavik, population 240, and had dinner at a local salt fish restaurant, featuring local lobster. It was delicious, but they put a kind of breading on the top. I would have preferred it plain with butter to really savor it. I had a good tomato-based salt fish soup too. Ted had cod and some mashed celeriac (celery root) that he found surprisingly good. We stayed at a bed and breakfast that was comfortable, a little like staying at a grandma's house.

We took our chance to try the Blue Lagoon., a mere 5 minutes away (we didn't take pictures, but the link has pictures that are more realistic than the professional ones used for advertising). It's a major tourist spot, with buses that run from the airport and back again if you just have a long layover in Iceland. It's also heavily used by Icelanders, particularly those with skin problems, and the national health insurance plan allows patients to go to the Blue Lagoon for treatments. It is a geothermal pool, heated by the excess heat from a geothermal plant. The water is rich in minerals like silica and sulfur, and the bathing area is 104 degrees. It didn't smell like sulfur, which is usually what I associate with anything coming from a volcanic source. I suppose a spa wouldn't exist if it did smell like rotten eggs. We only had 1 hour there in the evening, and the sky was overcast but not dark. It was probably around 40 degrees outside, so it was a quick dash from the showers into the outdoor bathing area. We relaxed and soaked and almost had the place to ourselves at the end of the day. It was nice, but expensive. The entrance fee was around $30 per person, then you had to rent towels. You could also rent robes, swimsuits and other things. It's promoted as a luxury spa, so I expected to at least get the basics for my entrance fee and was a little dismayed that I didn't get a towel and robe (although we did rent towels). The water also really took a toll on my hair. The excessive salt content really dried it out, even after several applications of conditioner it was almost impossible to comb out. It took several days to get back to normal. Overall it was a nice experience, but I would spend a little more time and bring more of what I needed.

Day 2: ϸórsmörk, home of the best hike ever.

The pictures really tell the story of our stay in ϸórsmörk (pronounced "Thorsmork," literally meaning "Thor's forest.") The area is a remote national park that can only be reached by a high-clearance 4x4 or by several days hiking (and possibly a ride across a raging glacial river, depending on the season). We drove our rental car to Seljalandsfoss, a magnificent waterfall that is also the last stop on the bus from Reykjavik to Thorsmork. There we boarded the big 4x4 bus, which was packed, although I don't think anyone was turned away (they said we didn't need reservations). The ride was an experience in itself, and we had the best driver ever. On the way, we came upon another bus that was stuck mid-river, the passengers standing on the side. Our bus driver did a perfect 3-point turn, backed up to the stuck bus, was hooked up, and pulled it out, all in about 3 minutes. To us, it seemed to happen seamlessly, without even speaking. In reality, I'm sure he was talking to the other driver on the radio. It was great though. We all cheered, the other passengers waved and cheered, and we were on our way. After that, I had total confidence in our driver.

We splurged for a little cottage at the campground to get some privacy, and the $90 price tag seemed quite reasonable. We had to walk to the bathroom, and the showers cost $3 for a 4-minute shower, the sauna cost $4. I was a little annoyed at the extra fees, seemed a little silly. After our day of hiking, we ate the dinner served to the staff and any guests that requested it, for about $25 each. It was a little buffet of mashed potatoes, mystery-meatballs (light colored? though I didn't come across poultry on any other menus), cabbage, boiled potatoes, sweet-and-sour stir-fry, rice, salad, cheese soup and bread. Ted pretty much ate mashed potatoes, rice, bread and soup, while I gave it all a try. It was a down-home kind of meal that filled the belly after many hours of hiking.

The hike was amazing. This is called "Thor's forest" because there is so little forested land in Iceland, that it truly is a place of the gods. The hike started through the forest, rose up to the peak of Valahnúkur (same name, same ramp-like shape) where we were surrounded by 3 glaciers and many peaks, twisted back down near the glacial river plains, then back through the forest. I can't think of a nicer way to spend a day, and it was so amazingly beautiful. Just what we were looking for.

Day 3: Stunning glacial lagoons, puffins

We took the bus back out to our car around 8 am and headed east along the Ring Road. Our goal was Jökulsárlón, the stunning glacial lagoon. Chunks of glacier break off, becoming icebergs and make their way to the ocean. It was a 5-hour drive, and we had a hotel reservation back near Seljalandsfoss where we would start driving that day, so we had a lot of driving in one day. The drive itself provided many interesting diversions, as you can see in the pictures.

There were only 2 towns on the drive. We stopped in Vik (population 290) to get some souvenirs at the wool factory. We stopped again in Kirkjubæjarklaustur (try pronouncing that! population 140). There were farms all along the route and signs pointing to them, but they couldn't have housed more than a few families each and had no services. Lunch consisted of the fast food place in the gas station at Kirkjubæjarklaustur: fish and chips with an assortment from the bulk candy bins for fun. As in Norway, licorice is really salty.

The drive on the Ring Road, the main highway around the perimeter of the country, consists of a few one-lane bridges as you go further west. There was a car in front of us on one short bridge, and a policeman on the other side stopping cars. He talked to the car in front of us, then let them go and waved us ahead. As we pulled up, I noticed a man with a big backpack standing on the side of the road as well. He was pretty scrubbily dressed and looked beat up, or like he had been badly burned at one time. Before the policeman spoke to us, I thought maybe they were looking for the person who beat this guy up. The policeman said hello and asked if we would like to take this Icelandic hitchhiker to Höfn (past our destination), but added "of course, you do not have to take him; it's up to you." We just weren't comfortable so we declined, but thought it was so interesting. Iceland has almost no crime, so it seems the police are there to help everyone out, so they try to hook up hitchhikers with rides. Afterward, I had this awful feeling that we had refused hospitality to Odin, the head Norse god, and would now pay the consequences (he is depicted as dark grizzled one-eyed man). I'm happy to say that no major calamities befell us, so I guess Odin got a ride.

The travel guide says of Jökulsárlón: "even when you're expecting this surreal scene, it's still a mighty surprise--just count how many shocked drivers slam on the brakes and skid across the road, and make sure you don't do the same thing yourself." We knew we were getting close, and the sky opened up to a beautiful blue as we approached. I caught a glimpse of the bridge over the lagoon up ahead, but Ted noticed some cars pulled off the road before the bridge and stopped there first. We walked up over the hill the lagoon was laid out before us. I was stunned by the beauty of it, magnificent. Look at the pictures, because my words cannot do it justice. We spent hours admiring the natural ice sculptures before us, knowing that they only look this way at this moment. A melting shelf could crash into the water (which we heard once, but weren't quick enough to see), The sun and water re-form each iceberg constantly. Of course, we are painfully aware that as we have warmed the climate, this amazing place was created and ultimately results in the melting of glaciers and rising sea levels. This place didn’t exist 75 years ago, and it is growing rapidly as the glacier melts ever more quickly. Even so, it can’t be denied that the sight itself was glorious, and even more so in the barely-populated pull-off that we found. Later we would drive over to the main viewing area across the bridge and mingle with a thousand other tourists, enjoy some seafood soup, and take even more pictures. But the little-populated turn off was the treasure.

On our way back to our hotel, about 5 hours away, we decided that we had time for one more stop of about 1 hour. I came across a paragraph about Reynisfjara, a little beach that has a cliff with huge basalt columns, black sand, views of sea stacks and a sea arch, and usually has nesting puffins. Seemed like a winner, even if it didn't get much ink in the travel guide. The description didn't have detailed directions, but by combining the description with our map we found the road. What a little gem to cap off a great day. It was everything that was promised. Puffins were the stars--they are such silly birds! It's a miracle that they can fly at all. They get their little wings going and stand on their tippy toes, jump off the cliff and flap for dear life. They made a circle out over the ocean and back to the cliff, sticking their bright orange legs out in front of them as far as possible while still flapping furiously to make it back. They were pretty far up the cliff, so thanks to the power of the zoom we were able to get some pictures. There were thousands of birds there, not just puffins but other sea birds as well. Nice way to end the day.

We stayed at the Country Hotel Anna, a lovely tiny hotel that has won an "environmental goodness" award. We had a lovely dinner there, all local food. I had trout, Ted tried the famous Icelandic lamb and Brennevin, the Icelandic schnapps. We had a great meal and a good night sleep in a big comfortable bed with a poofy comforter, and a bathroom all to ourselves.

Day 4: Reykjavik and home

Again, we headed out bright and early after the Icelandic breakfast at the hotel. Similar to a Norwegian breakfast at a hotel, there was yogurt and muesli, bread, jam, cheese, coffee and tea. Ted met with an Icelandic professor that morning at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, and I walked 10 minutes from the university to downtown to buy gifts for our family. Downtown was compact and neat, busy, and thrived on tourist business. Throughout our travels I made a point of using "takk fyrir" to say thank you, but no one seemed to think much of it until I used it in the capital, where I got smiles and "takk fyrir" back. Maybe the day-in-day-out tourists that just mob the capital don't make the effort very often. I had a fine morning, but not much to take pictures of or report. I would spend more time in Reykjavik next time, but my main interests in a vacation usually lie outside of the city setting.

It was a long trip, 12 days away from the kids in all. At about day 8 I was feeling like I wanted to be home with Anders and Nora, while simultaneously being so happy to be in Iceland with Ted. Of course, we talked about them a lot, so they were really with us always. We also talked a lot about parenting. In the end, we concluded that it was ok to feel like parenting is both an incredibly rewarding experience, and incredibly hard. It’s possible to both love your kids more than anything you could have ever imagined, and to really want to spend a week away from them. It’s healthy to acknowledge all of those feelings to be a better parent.

We had a pretty rough re-entry into family life, with clingy kids and tired parents. I guess it’s the price we paid. After being back for a few weeks, and being a full-time mama this summer, I feel like I’ve hit my stride, at least for today. I’ve been a more creative and patient parent, and have really enjoyed my time with Anders and Nora. They won’t remember that we were gone for 12 days, but they will remember having a happy mama and papa.

by Ted

Excellent overview by Christy. Iceland was amazing, truly amazing, and I certainly would love to go back again some time. There is something about the language, alphabet, culture, climate, and landscape that feels natural to me. It resonates at some deep level and puts me at ease. In a way I feel awkward about this feeling because I cannot claim any heritage, any ancient ties to family or land. But it feels right to me. It feels like this is where my personality is from, if that makes sense.

At one point during our travels through Iceland I was struck by the thought that we were visiting Nature's workshop. All around us were assorted projects in various states of construction or disassembly. Over there a valley being cut by a river, and over there a mountain being torn down, and next to it one under construction. Iceland is very geologically young, which provides structures and landscapes that you don't see anywhere else. The land is still moving.

Apart from the awesome natural excursions, I also had a very good meeting with a faculty member at the University of Iceland. There are only two electrical engineering energy systems faculty for the entire country. Iceland has a total population of about 300,000 and gets almost all of their electrical power from hydroelectric and geothermal. The cheap and plentiful energy has made Iceland a popular location for aluminum smelters. Aluminum is extremely abundant in the earth's crust, but requires massive amounts of energy to separate out from bauxite ore. Aluminum smelters make up approximately 70% of Iceland's electrical load, which is just amazing.

All in all, the entire trip including Norway and Iceland was fantastic. I saw two things, Preikestolen and ϸórsmörk, that are likely in the top 3 natural wonders I have seen, and countless other surreal and beautiful scenes. I made several excellent contacts with other like-minded faculty at Universities in three countries. Flights were on time, no major travel hassles, everyone was healthy. I think traveling again with Christy for the first time after the kids have been born was definitely different. I feel that I was more relaxed over all, more willing to go with flow should something not go according to plan. I think there was a stronger sense of how unique these opportunities are, and that really, whatever happens, we would be fine. My only true criteria for success was to eventually be reunited with our two lovely children, and in the meantime, just enjoy our trip. Many, many thanks to our parents and others who helped take care of Nora and Anders while we were away. Thank you. Also, of course, many thanks to my traveling partner Christy. She did a tremendous amount of leg work (calling, emailing, researching) to book the very complicated itinerary for the whole family, as well as all of our travel (plans, buses, ferries) and rooming in Norway and Iceland. Her effort and amazing planning skills allowed us to truly make the most of our time, and to see and do so much. Thank you.