Thanks for following us

We’re home now. The flight was uneventful, although someone picked up Sally’s bag from the carousel at JFK by mistake. He figured it out before leaving the airport on his next flight, so it just cost us some time and a bit of energy. The Delta staff were very helpful.

On behalf of Sally & Me, I’d like to thank you all for following this trip. Putting together the blog was a bit of work each day, but it also helped me to organize my thoughts about the trip as we went along and will act as a journal when I want to refer back later. Sally’s proof reading and editorial suggestions were critical to getting it to the level you saw.

Did I enjoy the trip? Absolutely.

Is the scenery in Iceland all it’s cracked up to be? Yes, and No.

If you’re looking to compare the waterfalls, or geysers, or mountain ranges, or coastline rock formations, or volcanos with the most dramatic in the world, or even in the US, then Iceland loses. In my opinion, none of the falls in Iceland are as dramatic as Niagra Falls, or as beautiful as any of several in Yosemite. The coastline in Iceland competes with, but doesn’t beat, the coastline in Acadia National Park, Hawaii, California, … . The mountains are awesome, but can’t compare with the Sierra Nevada, the Grand Tetons or the Rockies. You can climb up to the volcanos, but none as big as those in Hawaii, which you can practically drive right up to. Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier is the biggest in Europe, but not the biggest in the world, by a long stretch. Yellowstone has far more geysers than Iceland, although only Iceland has Geysir.

But … They all exist in a country 3/4 the area of New York State. And they are everywhere you go (outside of Reykjavik). You just drive along any road, and you’ll see something amazing, shortly. The waterfalls visible from the main roads are countless. You can see three of the largest glaciers in Iceland from a main road, without exiting your car. Parts of the terrain are so bizarre that NASA sent astronauts there to train for lunar missions.

For such a small country, Iceland is amazingly empty. Often, we would drive for miles and see no other cars, no other people,(but always sheep and goats). At 332,000 people and 40,000 square miles, it has the population of Rockland County spread out across 3/4 of New York State. And 200,000 of them live in the Reykjavik area, making the rest of the country very, very sparse. So while it’s small, the emptiness makes it feel bigger.

We had mostly pleasant stays in our hotels (and Sally managed some complimentary upgrades; I don’t know how she does that). Some of the rooms were tiny, and some were very comfortable; all but one were very clean and very well maintained. One room was weird: Japanese-themed decorations, including a wooden soaking tub. No shower.

The Icelanders were uniformly friendly and as helpful as they could be to us ignorant American travelers. They smiled and laughed with us as we struggled to pronounce place names and even their names. They tried hard to accommodate our strange eating habits.

So … I’d recommend this as a worthwhile trip. But I’d see the USA (in your Chevrolet or otherwise) first.

Thanks for reading. Hope you found it interesting and enjoyable.

Bassman

 

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Fun facts about Iceland

  • The only limited-access highway in the country runs from the Reykjavik suburbs to the airport.
  • Most of the main roads outside of Reykjavik, including the Ring Road, are narrow double-lane roads with many single lane river crossings. Some of the Ring Road is gravel, as are many other main roads.
  • I’ve been on narrow roads around the world where one car has to pull over to let the oncoming car pass. I’ve never been in a 4 mile tunnel that’s a single lane, and has cutouts dug in the rock so you can pull over to let an oncoming car (or bus or truck) pass.
  • Until 30 or 40 years ago, all of the roads outside of Reykjavik were gravel. I drove maybe 80 miles on gravel roads, which probably doubles my lifetime experience. I fully expected Thrifty, our car rental company, to ding me for dings (ha ha) from the gravel, but the agent smiled and said “no problems, have a nice day”.
  • The national speed limit is 90 kph (55 mph) on paved roads and 80 kph (49 mph) on gravel roads. There’s relatively little speeding. I put the cruise control a couple over the limit and wasn’t passed, and didn’t pass anyone else, hardly at all.
  • We drove about 1,300 miles in the 9 days we had the car, about 1/3 more than I had guessed we would.
  • I’ve driven all over the US, Canada, the Caribbean, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe. This was the hardest driving I’ve done. It is because the roads are so narrow, with no shoulder at all. Guardrails are also rare. You try passing an oncoming tour bus on a narrow curve on the side of a cliff and see how you feel.
The Ring Road, June 2016

  • The Icelanders we met were uniformly friendly, and spoke good to excellent English. The biggest language problems we had were with guest workers from Eastern Europe or Asia, who supplement the labor shortage in the booming tourist business.
  • It you don’t like lamb or fish, your protein options will be limited. There is beef, but it’s expensive and not always good. There are often vegetarian dishes. Chicken and pork are rare.
  • Fruit in the hotel restaurants is hit-and-miss. They will usually have a limited selection which changes daily, depending on what they can get. Food markets seem to have a good choice, however.
  • We noticed a number of Made in USA products. Ford cars, Chiquitta Bananas, Cheerios, Oreos (we saw a lot of food 🙂 ).
  • Unlike Europe, but like the USA, water in restaurants is free and plentiful. We would usually get a pitcher on the table. And the water tastes great. Despite this, bottled water is sold in the markets. Go figure.
  • All of the hotels were warm to the point of being stuffy, despite the heat being off for the summer. There is no A/C.
  • With the notable exception of Myvatn (“the lake of midges”), there are remarkably few insects in the country. Perhaps all the insects just moved to Myvatn. There are no window screens anywhere.
  • There are Subways all areound the country (although not really that many), and a few Quiznos. We saw one Dunkin Donuts in Reykjavik. No other US fast food chains.
  • It rains often, but not always a lot. We only had a few days out of twelve with no rain. I don’t think we had any days without significant cloud cover, even when it was “sunny”. On the other hand, it’s been raining for the last 16 hours as we sit on the plane waiting to depart. For the most part, people don’t let it interrupt their lives.
  • Every house and farm outside of the city has a name. It’s not the name of the family that lives there, or anyone who ever lived there. The names are apparently permanent. There are street signs that point down the side road or driveway to the house. That’s how you find things, not by a house number on the road: “Olaf? He lives at Stafafell east of Hofn”.
Not the same as a street address, June 2016

  • The description of menu items is often just an approximation, although it never says that. The menu might offer a shrimp sandwich. What you get is a egg salad with a couple of shrimp on top.
  • The French fries are usually very good.
  • Some of the local beers are very good: Viking Classic is a deep golden ale, and any of the Einstocks would make a good choice. The beers run $8-$10 in a restaurant.
  • All of the wine is imported, usually from the US, Chile or Australia. That makes sense, as no fruits are grown in the country. Most of the wine we sampled was nothing special.
  • The coffee comes in both American style and Euro style, e.g. Espresso. The American style coffee tastes just as good as the coffee in America: in other words, highly variable. We saw no Starbucks, and one DD.
  • There are pretty much no trees. There are shrubs in some areas, which are only a couple of feet high. The local joke goes “if you find yourself lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up”. I found this to be true on a hike into the hills, where I never lost sight of where I started down by the Ring Road.
  • We drove past endless numbers of farms. The only crop we saw that we recognized was hay. But it is spring, and the crops wouldn’t have grown yet.
  • There are some amazing sights to see: the major waterfalls, cliffs facing the ocean, the glaciers. But then you’re just driving along and some farmer has a beautiful waterfall or other natural wonder in his backyard. And this is everywhere.
  • If you read the description of the Blue Lagoon and think that it sounds very commercial and touristy, you’re right. Though our Icelandic friend said she’d been there several times and enjoyed it.
  • Everywhere you drive outside of the city, there are sheep and goats wandering around. Sometimes right on the side of the road. Sometimes (not often) crossing the road. They seem to treat the fences that define each farm as suggestions. You can be crossing the remotest, most barren lunarscape in the mountains on a dirt road and there will be three sheep grazing in the moss growing on the lava.

 

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Snaefellsjokull National Park

Occupying the western tip of the Snaefellsnes Penninsula, the Snaefellsjokull National Park is centered around the volcano and glacier of the same name. Sadly, the mountain was still socked in and not visible when we awoke this morning. And it was still raining and breezy. Not the best of days to visit a national park, which is all about the great outdoors.

Last night’s dinner at the Hellner was a bit frustrating. There were only three dinner entrees, one had garlic, and the other two didn’t appeal to Sally. So she had some tasty fish soup for dinner. I had chicken for the first time this trip, and it was also tasty. There was a local wedding reception going on in the restaurant, with about half the tables occupied by guests. They seemed to be enjoying themselves despite the rain and all. But I guess they’re used to it, as they live in Iceland.

After breakfast, I went for a walk along the coast that started right behind the hotel. The rain let up shortly after I left, although everything was very muddy and wet. The scenery was awesome and I had a good time.

Cove, June 2016

 

Cairns on the beach, June 2016
A flower grows in rock-land, June 2016

We checked out and headed into the park. Our plan was to take the road around the park, and stop where it looked interesting. Then head to Reykjavik and find lunch along the way. The estimated driving time for the whole thing was 4.5 hours, plus any stops we took.

Still no sign of a glacier, June 2016

We made a couple of quick stops, where we both got out and walked to a viewpoint, or just I got out.

At the extreme west end of the park (and the penninsula) a small road headed off the main road towards the sea. I had remembered reading about this, and one travel writer said it was a bumpy ride but worth it. So we started down a paved road. A few miles in there was a small parking area and a few signs, so we stopped (of course). Turns out that the buried body of a Viking from the early settlement days was found there, along with a sword and other tools and artifacts. In addition, there was a very pretty white sand beach with some nice rock formations.

We continued down the road, which immediately turned to dirt. Or I should say, rocks. Actually, rutted dirt and rocks. By far the worst road I ever drove on. Walking would be rough on this road. But we stuck it out and got to the end, where there was a terrific lighthouse.

Orange Lighthouse, June 2016

And more rocks, of course.

Hraun Restaurant – good food, June 2016

And that was about it for the park. After picking our way back on the dirt and rock road to the main road, we continued on out of the park. After passing a few towns which had nothing to offer, we found the Hraun Restaurant in Olafsvik. Sally had a burger and fries; I had a pizza. It might have been the best lunch we had on the trip (although the pizza at Daddi’s in Myvatn could tie it). Huge menu, friendly service, and very reasonable: we got out for $32, which is great in this country.

We’re now back in Reykjavik, at the Alda Hotel, for our last night. We have a 7:45 am pickup to go to the airport and home. After walking a bit in either direction from the hotel, we settled on eating in the hotel restaurant. The owner/chef was there, and insisted Sally could eat almost anything on the menu – so she had barbecue ribs, which is a very rare treat. And they were delicious, despite the absence of garlic.

Before we came, we found out that you can charge anything here, and cash is really not necessary. Being a bit cautious, I bought 10,000 krona (about $80) at the airport when we arrived. Today we used 1,000 kr. for a tunnel toll, and the other 9,000 kr. for dinner. Dinner was actually 9,060 kr., so I charged the extra 60 kr. – about 48 cents. If you’re ever here, rest assured that you really don’t need any cash anywhere(1).

 

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(1) While we didn’t find anything that you couldn’t charge, there are a number of places that don’t accept American Express, most notably gas stations. We always travel with at least one AmEx and one Visa, just to be sure.

 

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It’s a network problem

We’re in Hellner, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The Internet service both thru the hotel and my wifi hotspot stink, so I can’t post any pictures. But here’s what we did today:

– we drove a lot

– we had really good home made ice cream at a farm

– we saw some small towns

– we drove a lot on dirt roads

– we couldn’t find a place to eat lunch so we had bread, nuts, and some fruit in the car

– we drove a lot more

– we saw sheep, goats, horses, and a few cows

– we checked into the hotel, where we can’t see the glacier from our room due to the weather

– it’s been raining and windy for the last four hours

I’ll try and post a more detailed write up, with pictures, tomorrow.

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Snaefellsnes!

(Gesundheit! You sneezed, didn’t you?)

As I wrote yesterday, we were surprised by and really liked the Hofsstadir Guesthouse. Here are a few exterior shots and the view out the back. The food for both dinner and breakfast was very fresh and tasty.

Hofsstadir Guesthouse, June 2016

Today we had another new driving experience on our way to the Fosshotel Hellnar on the Snaefellsnes peninsula: 60 miles on dirt and gravel roads. The speed limit on the main roads (as small as they are) is 90 kph (55 mph); on the dirt roads, it was slowed down a bit to 80 kph (49 mph). Not much of a difference. But a much less pleasant drive. Of course, all of the bridges on the dirt highways were single lane; surprisingly, we saw a fair amount of traffic. Probably because this is the main highway into the north shore of the Snaefellsnes peninsula (Gesundheit!)

Bridge over no water, June 2016

We also came across these kookie karacters along the road. I have no idea what they are. They do look like they are attracted to each other.

Sweethearts., June 2016

And more horses. There are tons of sheep and goats, but a fair number of horses. Not too many cows. We saw no pigs or chickens at all. Most restaurants have lamb on the menu, many have beef, few have chicken, and only the hot dogs have pork. Several restaurants have horse(1).

Don’t look at me that way, I had the fish, June 2016

As usual, we drove through a few small towns. None were unique enough to warrant getting out and walking around. But we made a small detour for ice cream (very good!), and to visit the Eriksstadir, a recreation of the house that Eric the Red, and his son Lief Erikson, lived in 1,000 years ago. The short story is that Erik was kicked out of Iceland for being a bad guy, discovered and settled in Greenland and lived there. Lief made it to Newfoundland, but the weather was too harsh compared to either Iceland or Greenland at the time, so he returned to Greenland. Both died in Greenland. The sod hut was interesting, and had much in common with other primitive peoples: small & smoky, and family, children and slaves all in one room.

Although the house is a recreation built in 2000, it is built as the Vikings in Iceland would have: made from driftwood (there’s little wood in Iceland), no nails, covered with sod for insulation. The loom is significant, as according to the sagas, it played a role in Erik’s troubles with the law and his wife.

Late in the afternoon we got to our penultimate destination, the Fosshotel Hellner right outside the Snaefellsnes National Park in western Island. I’d show you some pictures, but it started raining and blowing about when we got here late in the afternoon and hasn’t stopped yet. The desk clerk says there’s a glacier right outside our room, but we haven’t seen anything but fog and rain. We haven’t had any sustained and heavy rains yet, just frequent short ones. With any luck, it will clear up shortly.

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(1) Wrote one on the menu chalkboard: “Eat like a Viking: Horse!”

 

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Another sunset

I couldn’t resist. June 18, 12:36am, 23 minutes before sunset and 58 minutes before sunrise. The view from our rear deck.

 

Sunset over the fjord, June 2016

 

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Scenic views

We were out of Myvatn at 9:05 this morning. Packed, breakfast, car loaded, and wheels rolling. As we drove away from the Hotel Laxa, we heard the tap-tap-tap of insects smashing into our windshield. I would say we were both happy to leave. The strange thing is that Myvatn is a big outdoors destination for both Icelanders and foreign visitors. The area is loaded with hiking trails, nature walks, and other outdoor activities. Many of the people we saw in our hotel and in town were dressed for hiking and carrying packs. I just don’t get how you deal with the midges.

Our first stop was the last of the “name” waterfalls, Godafoss (God’s Waterfall). It’s not extremely high, but is quite broad and throws a lot of water. It’s also handicapped accessible for viewing, as it’s only a few steps from the car.

Godafoss, Sally & Bassman, June 2016

We had another 2 1/2 or 3 hours of driving ahead, and no major sights to see. Or, I should say, 2 1/2 or 3 hours of spectacular scenery as we drove around Trollaskagi, the peninsula of the Trolls. Spoiler alert: we saw no trolls.

The beginning of the penninsular circumnavigation was Akureyi, which is the largest town in the country outside of the Reykjavik region. Population 18,191. We expected to walk around, look at shops, maybe eat lunch. As it turns out, today is National Day and most of the shops except the tacky souvineer ones were closed. So we walked around a bit, got some ice cream and kept going.

Akureyi is mostly closed today, June 2016

Our next target as we swept up the east side of Troll-land was Silglufjordur, which was the herring capital of Iceland back in the day. We drove through town (which took about a minute), then circled back to find a lunch spot. We ate in a cute little shack right on the harbor. What we got was not what we expected, but was okay. The beers were very good. We started to talk to a character sitting and having a coffee, until he started telling us that we had to vote for Trump to save our country. Then we walked away.

Pretty harbor, pretty lady, and a weird duck, June 2016

As I mentioned in an earlier post, capturing the majesty of the landscape is really hard. There’s no place to safely stop on the road; when you can stop your viewpoint is limited; and it takes a lot of time to make these pictures work. So here’s just a tease.

Scenes from the fjords, June 2016

We finally found the Hofsstader Guesthouse, our accommodation for the night, after going 15 minutes too far and using Google maps to reorient ourselves. It’s really a motel; you drive up to your simple room. But it’s clean, functional, has enough room to open both of our suitcases at the same time, and two chairs. And no midges to speak of.

After we unloaded I went out for a little walk before dinner and found the Hofsstadakirkja, yet another cute church in a spectacular setting.

Hofsstadakirkja, June 2016

We had a unique driving experience today. I mentioned earlier that most of the small river crossings on the Ring Road (and other roads) are single lane, and it hasn’t been a problem with traffic. Today we went through a 3 mile tunnel under a mountain that was single lane! There are cut-outs on one side, and you pull in when you see headlights coming at you. We had to pull over twice. Quite an experience, and I have no pictures for the obvious reasons.

 

 

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