A Long-Awaited Return to Iceland

My first trip to Iceland was in June of 2008, and it was among my most favorite travel destinations. The scenery was other-worldly, the peace and quiet appealed to me, and the food, though expensive, was top-notch. Unfortunately, my travels over the years never seemed to bring me back to Iceland, but as I began to plan a European getaway for this fall, the new Icelandic airline called Play offered fares so low that it made my trip entire trip feasible. Since all of Play’s flights pass through Reykjavik, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to revisit Iceland for a few days after visiting Italy and London.

Of course, Iceland in November would likely to be a bit different from what I experienced during my June visit back in 2008. Instead of the 22 hours of light per day I experienced then, mid-November sunrise is at 10:00 AM and sunset is about 4:15PM, so I’d need to squeeze my sight-seeing into those few hours. I was also a little wary about weather and road conditions at this time of year; even in June, I experienced wild shifts in weather, with spontaneous and violent storms blowing across the glaciers and near-hurricane force winds in some places. I decided to play it safe and rent a large, 4 x 4 vehicle in case winds kicked up or roads turned icy. And while I’d only explored the southern half of Iceland on my first visit, this time I was determined to drive the entire Ring Road, 825 miles in length, to see what I’d missed the last time around.

My flight on Play Airlines from London to Reykjavik was surprisingly comfortable and pleasant. I was able to book myself a window seat in an exit row for a very low upcharge, and the flight departed on schedule and arrived 45 minutes early. How often does that happen on most airlines these days? The airport in Reykjavik is beautiful and after a fairly quick trip through the Customs line, I followed signs to baggage claim and then chuckled at the sight of a large sign with an arrow pointing out the door saying, “Exit to Iceland.”

I had to take a shuttle to the car rental office, which was about 10 minutes from the airport. The driver was a quiet, low-key guy and I tried to strike up a conversation by asking what the strange statue in front of the airport terminal was. It looked like an egg, or perhaps a bird, or perhaps some alien creature. Without cracking a smile, he replied, “I have no idea what it is. I do not know if it is an egg or a bird coming out of an egg or an abstract thing. It makes no sense to me. I have never known what it is.” I have since researched it and learned that it is a sculpture by Magnús Tomasson called “Jet Nest” and represents an airline jet breaking out of an egg, so I guess I was on the right track with my initial assessment! But it amused me that this man who drove past it multiple times every day had never been interested enough to figure out what he was actually looking at.

“Jet Nest” at Keflavik Airport, Iceland

The process of getting my car was a bit stressful. They gave me a Dacia Duster, which I had never heard of before. It it is evidently the product of a Romanian company called Dacia and France’s Renault. The poor beast they’d assigned to me had been through a lot, with over 100,000 miles on it and numerous scratches, dents and pits. I was told to carefully take photos of all the damage to protect myself from unfounded damage claims, which proved difficult because it was raining, I was trying not to get my phone wet, and in the photos I was able to take, the actual scratches and dents barely showed up amidst raindrops and my own reflection on the car’s surface. I finally gave up, put my faith in the fact that the car rental agent had adequately photographed the damage, and hit the road. Within a mile or two of the rental office, as the windshield wipers kicked in, I noticed that there were several big pits in the windshield that I hadn’t seen before, so I madly took pictures of those too.

My destination for the night was a guesthouse called “The Garage”, located about 125 miles from the airport in a hamlet called Varmahlíð. I’d been advised by my hosts to get dinner before arriving, as there were no places to eat close to the guest house. I found a highly rated restaurant on Trip Advisor located along the way to The Garage, and made my way east along the Ring Road. At one point, I stopped to take a couple of photos and when I got back into the car, the tire pressure light had come on! Good lord! I was at least 40 miles from the nearest town of any size. I looked at all four tires and one did look a little low, so I drove a bit more slowly and cautiously until I reached the next town, almost an hour later. I found a gas station, asked a patron who was pumping gas where the air hoses might be, and he pointed me in their direction. Then I wondered what the correct tire pressure should be, so I whipped out the trusty owner’s manual for my Dacia and lo and behold, it was written entirely in Icelandic!  The nerve! Of course, had it been in any of the Romance languages or even German, I might have been able to figure things out, but Icelandic was totally Greek to me. I consulted my phone, google-searched “Icelandic word for tires” and came up with: dekk. I looked up dekk in the table of contents in the owner’s manual, was referred to Page 28 and there it was: PSI = 32. I set the air meter to 32, put some air in the low front tire, and off I went, back out into the total darkness of 5:00 PM, making it without further incident to the Eldsto Art Café and Restaurant in Hvolsvöllur.

I remembered from my prior trip that Iceland has some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted, and though that was what I wanted to have for my dinner, I did notice a very appealing lamb stew on the menu too, but the stew was also a main course, and I knew it would be too much food and too expensive to order both. Then I noticed that on the children’s menu there was a small helping of lamb stew for a much lower price. I hesitantly asked the waitress if I could order that as an appetizer so I could at least try it, and she assured me that was no problem at all and was actually a good idea. And so, I had a hearty and delicious turf and surf dinner of lamb stew and deliciously crunchy fish and chips.

I got to my guest house, which is actually located on a sheep farm, around 7:30 PM and met Anna my hostess. She got me checked into my room, which was very cozy, and then invited me to come back to the lobby and have some of the cakes and cookies she bakes every day for her guests. She also mentioned that there was a hot tub up on a nearby hillside that I was welcome to use. It was about 40 degrees and it had started to rain, but after collecting a few slices of cake and cookies to have later, I made a beeline for the hot tub. I sat in the hot water, the cool rain running down my face, listening to the sound of a waterfall that tumbles down the mountain directly behind the farm. It was perfect, and I fell asleep quite early that night, feeling well fed and extremely relaxed.

Iceland in the winter is a great place for those of us who would love to see a sunrise but are not morning people. I woke up in pitch darkness around 8:30, had a breakfast of cereal, strawberries and milk that I’d picked up at a store the night before, and ventured out to have a look at my surroundings in the gray light of dawn around 9:30. The farm consisted of a few white buildings that are completely dwarfed by the magnificent cliffs that loom behind it. Several waterfalls can be seen coming down the cliff face, and in the opposite direction, the Atlantic Ocean was just across the road. One of the farm’s sheep dogs immediately ran up to me and after an extended petting session, faithfully followed me as I walked down the long driveway down to the ocean and sat patiently when I’d pause to take a photo. As the sun began to rise, strange cloud formations in the southeast created the illusion of what looked like the shadow of an ominous giant towering in the sky. It was beautiful, but almost a nit unnerving.

Back on the road again, I continued east along the Ring Road, but took a detour down to the coastline to visit a black sand beach called Reynisfjara, just west of the town of Vik. From high above the shore, I could see huge black stacks of basalt rock jutting up out of the ocean, remnants of past volcanic eruptions. My car was being buffeted by powerful wind gusts, and I recalled that the rental car agent back at the airport had warned me that the number one way rental cars are damaged in Iceland is from someone opening the door without holding on to it, resulting in doors being bent completely backward! I parked in a rather crowded parking lot and saw many people wandering the beach as huge waves, perhaps 15 feet high, crashed to the shore. Warning signs cautioned about “sneaker waves”, which do not wear the most fashionable Adidas, but rather, are named because they tend to sneak up on careless people who turn their backs to the ocean without warning. Evidently this beach has a history of people being the victim of these sneaker waves and washed quickly out into the Atlantic. Yikes.

Unfortunately, as I started walking toward the water, it began to rain heavily, and the wind began to howl. I went back to the car and with great difficulty, got the door open without it blowing off. I waited to see if the storm might pass, and after a few minutes, it did seem to subside, so I went back down to the shore to try and get a few photos. The pictures I got are not my best work, because as soon as I got back to the beach, the rain began again, harder than before, and the winds honestly felt like they were going to pick up my 260 pound body and dash me against the rocks. The rain hitting my face stung and felt like bullets or shrapnel. With great difficulty, I made it back to the car, carefully pried open the door and hung onto it for dear life until I finally fell into the driver’s seat, feeling as though I’d just been mugged. I was soaked to the skin and cold but impressed by nature’s unbelievable fury.

In nearby Vik I decided to stop for lunch at The Soup Company, a popular eatery offering a selection of several homemade soups and delicious bread. I put in my order for a curried seafood soup, and when the friendly young woman who waited on me asked if I needed anything else, I said, “You don’t happen to have a towel back there, do you?”  My hair was soaked by the rain, and water was running in droplets down my face. She laughed and said, “Believe it or not, I heard that today was actually a calm day at the black sand beach!” It took me some time to try and imagine how it could be any wilder out there than what I experienced.

Many restaurants in Iceland that serve soup allow you to get free refills, so I had two big bowls of the soup, which was packed with winter vegetables, fish, and shellfish. Though I was still wet, I at least started to feel warm inside. The waitress and I chatted a bit more and she shared that she is already feeling depressed by the shorter days and lack of light that winter brings. It really must be something that one has to get used to, and it’s probably not surprising that in places where there are prolonged hours of winter darkness, suicides and alcoholism are more common. I gazed out the plate glass windows as the storm raged and wondered whether I could live in such an environment.

It was almost sunset when I reached Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon, which had been a highlight of my first visit to Iceland. Basically, an enormous glacier is slowly melting and as chunks fall off its face, they become enormous icebergs that slowly float down the Lagoon toward the open ocean. It was already getting dark and the skies were completely grey, so the icebergs were not quite as brightly colored as I remembered them, but nonetheless, they were impressive. Smaller, sparkling chunks of glacial ice litter the beach near the Lagoon, earning it the moniker “Diamond Beach” as the silvery ice cubes sparkle like jewels against the black sand.

As I left Jökulsárlón, a bright orange engine light appeared on my dashboard and then the message, “Check Anti-Pollution System” flashed across the screen. Great. Of course, I was miles from any town and it was almost 7:00 PM, so although I was unnerved, the car seemed to run just fine, so I proceeded to my guest house for the night, a sheep farm outside the town of Höfn in eastern Iceland. Compared to the prior night’s lodgings, this place was much less impressive and to say the room was Spartanly furnished would be an understatement. There was not so much as a convenience store or gas station for about 20 miles in any direction, so I opted to dine at the restaurant on the premises, which I’d heard served wonderful lamb. Perhaps I caught them on a bad night; the lamb I was served was tough and sinewy, though the bread, soup and vegetables were all pretty good. I also had some delicious skyr, a Scandinavian dairy product that is similar to yogurt, but sweeter, thicker and creamier.

The next morning I’d intended to search for a garage in Höfn to have someone look at the car, but when I started it up, no warning lights came on at all. Hmmm. I drove the 20 miles or so into Höfn without a problem, stopped there to fill up with gas, and since the warning lights remained off, I decided to press on, knowing I had a six-hour drive to get to my next stop. By the way, when I filled up, the gas tank was on empty, and a total fill-up cost a cool $108. Gas is the equivalent of $9.25 a gallon. Ouch. If the eternal darkness of winter didn’t get you down, these gas prices would!

The coastline of eastern Iceland is carved up by numerous fjords, and so the Ring Road in this area seems to wind back and forth aimlessly and it took a couple hours before the road finally turned inland and headed toward the northwest. This was now a part of Iceland that I had not seen before, and I was really surprised by how devoid of any civilization it is. The southern coast actually had a lot more traffic than I remembered from my prior trip, but on this section of highway I saw almost no other cars. Along the stretches of open ocean here, waves crashed violently against the shore, but then along the sheltered fjords just a mile or so away, the water was placid and still.

It was a long day of driving, but just before dark I arrived at the Vogafjós Farm Resort located on the shores of Lake Myvatn in the north-central part of Iceland. This area has several geothermal hot springs, but I read in recent reviews that visitors found the springs to be barely luke-warm rather than hot, and given that the temperature had dropped to near freezing, I decided to forgo that experience. I had a memorable dinner at the farm restaurant on the premises. The dining room, which also houses breakfast service for the hotel, is unique in that one entire wall is glass, giving diners a view of the milking cows. Those who went to breakfast by 7:30 AM could actually watch the cows being milked while they ate their cereal.

For dinner I had a three course meal that was the most expensive of the trip, but it was absolutely delicious. I had an appetizer of lamb carpaccio, seasoned with horseradish, beets, and rhubarb jam that was both a work of art visually, and incredibly delicious. The main course was arctic char, a salmon-esque fish, served with veggies and potatoes and most importantly, geysir bread (Geysir is the Icelandic spelling of geyser and is pronounced like GAY-Sir). Geysir bread is a dark rye bread that is steamed in a pot in geothermal areas, and the cooking process seems to make the bread almost sweet and caramelized. I wish I had a geyser in my back yard, because I’d get a recipe and make this stuff every day! For dessert I had homemade geyser bread ice cream.  Yes, they took toasted crumbs of geysir bread and added them to the ice cream. Rye bread ice cream? What will they think of next?

On my last full day in Iceland, I had a geysir bread-laden breakfast and hit the road around 9:30 AM, still in the dark at this seemingly late hour. Once the sun came up, it simply hung on the southern horizon at a very low angle, even at noon. The drive westward from Lake Myvatn along the Ring Road is really dramatic and skirts around and over various snowcapped mountains, then down along the shores of the Eyjafjörður Fjord near the city of Akureyri. I passed many ranches where adorable Icelandic horses grazed amidst idyllic backdrops of mountains and lakes. It was a beautiful drive.

I checked in at my hotel near the town of Saurbaer in western Iceland around 3:30, and then rushed a half an hour south to Hvammsvik Hot Springs, where I’d made a reservation for 4:00. Hvammsvik is a relatively new spa built along the shores of a fjord; it’s a collection of eight geothermally heated pools, a sauna, changing rooms, and a restaurant and to cut down on overcrowding, patrons make a reservation for a certain time. You can stay as long as you like, but at least there’s a limited number of people arriving at any one time. I think there were perhaps 15 people there when I arrived, and for much of the time I had an entire pool to myself. The air was a cool 42 degrees, but I sat contentedly in the hot water watching the sun go down and the stars gradually come out. It was the first night without clouds and rain and I thought how wonderful it might be if the Northern Lights would make an appearance. Hunger finally drove me to shower and put my clothes back on and visit the restaurant, where I dined on a bowl of seafood soup, and an absolutely scrumptious open-faced sandwich of warm smoked salmon, rye bread, and an apple salad which was just amazing.

I left around 9:00 PM to drive back to my hotel. There was literally nothing for the 20 miles or so between the hot springs and the hotel, and the sky was dark and twinkling with stars. I parked high up on the side of the cliffs above the fjord, cut the lights and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and then I saw them: the aurora! I had seen them once a few years ago in Finland, where they appeared as vivid green curtains flashing across the sky. The ones I saw on my last night in Iceland were much fainter and subtler, more like whitish bands across the sky that could almost be mistaken for clouds reflecting the lights below them… except there were no lights anywhere. They changed shape and I watched them arch across the sky for a half an hour or so before clouds started to block them and rain started, so I knew the show was over. Still, I was so grateful that I did at least get a glimpse of them during this trip.

My last morning, I made the 90 minute drive into Reykjavik, parked on a downtown street and had a rather forgettable lunch – the only bad meal I had in Iceland. I was not in a good frame of mind and was feeling tense because the previous night, another engine light had come on, warning me that the Fuel Injectors should be checked. That light went out, and again I was confronted by the Anti-Pollution System warning. Good Lord! I seriously wondered if I would be able to get this car back to the airport without it giving up the ghost, and I had visions of the rental company giving me a hard time about all this. However, the car held on and got me to the airport, and though the rental car agent momentarily questioned some damage on the vehicle, he quickly found that he had a photo of it taken before I left, so I was home free. I told him about the various warning lights and he dismissed it saying, “These cars have too many electrical problems!”

And so, after an easy check in with Play Airlines, my time in Iceland came to a close. The flight arrived in Boston a full hour early, and I’d fly with Play again in a heartbeat. As for Iceland, I was glad to have the chance to return, even though my visit seemed too brief. Although it’s a place that I really enjoyed, it’s probably not a place that would have universal appeal for every traveler. It is cold and rugged, very expensive and a bit intimidating. However, the people are very friendly, the food is wholesome and delicious, and the scenery often defies description. It’s a place that feels isolated from the rest of the world, and I suppose that depending on one’s perspective, that could be a good or a bad thing. For me, it was exactly what I needed right now and I’m left with great memories of hearty soup and fresh bread on a stormy day, a cool wind on my face as my body was immersed in warm thermal waters, otherworldly vistas and untamed wilderness. Thank you, Iceland for the adventure!

3 thoughts on “A Long-Awaited Return to Iceland

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