Whale Watching in Husavik

The first morning in Husavik, we got to sleep in and have skyr and coffee on our porch before gearing up for whale watching. We got to town, booked our 1:30 tour, then found some fish and chips for lunch while we waited. The fish and chips were awesome, super crispy, and a huge serving for the price. After we ate, we grabbed a couple of beers at a harbor café, Café Skull, and watched the boats come in.

 

White-Beaked Dolphins

We had high hopes for whale-watching and I was anxious to see some puffins since their breeding islands are in the bay. Puffins were a success, whales, not as much. We did see some white-beaked dolphins (okay, a LOT of dolphins), and some harbor porpoises, but eventually we became very disappointed in the lack of mega whales. Hot chocolate and cinnamon buns provided on board were only a small condolence. After whale-watching we explored the harbor a bit and grabbed some ice cream, but as soon as we saw that the Americans were playing basketball we were on a single-minded mission for beer and a t.v. Unable to find a t.v. at a bar, we decided to stop at the grocery store in hopes of making some food at our cabin, then drink our own beer and watch the game on our couch.

Sweet jackets for whale watching

 

Pre-whale watching drinks

It was a relaxing break from being tourists, but we soon realized that our rushed grocery trip left much to be desired for dinner. I mean, Paul just can’t eat cheese and chase it with a hamburger bun….have some class! ; )  So we went back to town to have a dinner at Gamil Bakkur and a couple of shots of Brennivin, the Icelandic schnapps. The soup was great, the meal was excellent, and somehow the drinks were free. Win all around. Except the Brennivin, the liquorice flavor and thick liquor just don’t do it for me. Paul  takes it fine, but that’s typical.

 

Midnight sun

Then it was back to our cabin, a bottle of wine, and much needed sleep. We got up the next morning in time to catch the breakfast provided by the cabins in the main house. The meal was the typical yogurt, cereals, meats, cheese, toast, and jams and the setting was sweet but the coffee was terrible. I blame the sulfur water.

 

After making more coffee in our cabin and reading a while on our porch, we were back on the road to head toward the northwest.

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Lake Myvatn and Tiny Horses

We were sad to leave Seydisfjordor, but it was time to continue on the Ring Road and head north. It was a relatively short driving day, so when we got to Lake Myvatn we decided to look around. Lake Myvatn was created, like most things in Iceland, by a volcano and the flooding that follows when a glacier melts. The lake is dotted with craters that were created when the lava cooled over steam vents (or something like that).

The nearby Krafla volcano provides hot springs and blue lagoons, one of which you can swim in like the famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik. Paul and I, however, are terrible tourists when it comes to hot springs and volcanic activity (blame it on Yellowstone), so we stopped at the Reykjahlid visitor center to look around a little and book a horse-back riding tour. The visitor center is conveniently located on the edge of town right by the grocery store. So one stopped gave us the chance to book a horseback riding trip for the afternoon and pick up some groceries for our picnic lunch.

The toxic lagoon

Once we booked the trip we began driving to the farm, but stopped along the way to eat while overlooking the lake. Thankfully, it was a little windy which kept the infamous black bugs away. They’re somewhat like gnats, but bigger, so the bites are more obnoxious. Apparently the bugs are great for the Lake Myvatn ecosystem, but not so much for my jolly tourist attitude.

Lunch

Icelandic horses are smaller than most horses we’re familiar with in America. They’re obviously bigger than a Shetland pony, but significantly smaller than an average quarterhorse. The genetics are kept very pure; once a horse leaves Iceland, it is never allowed back in and no other horses are allowed in the country. They have also developed a 5th gait which is somewhat like a trot but much smoother because they only pick up one foot at a time; the horse answer to race-walking, but with less butt shaking.

Lake Myvatn

We rode for 2 hours around the lake and learned some interesting facts about the area. For example, people used to heard their sheep into the craters to milk them, sheep poo is used for smoking meats in Iceland because they don’t have much wood (yum??), and people in the area used to keep a bag packed and a car parked for quick departure because they feared the volcano so much. But we also got to experience that infamous 5th gait for quite awhile. Apparently trail rides in foreign countries involve less walking and no waiver-signing.

Icelandic horses

After the ride, we headed to the north shore town of Husavik. It is famous for whale-watching because 11 types of whales come to the bay in the summer months. There are two companies that provide whale-watching trips, and for the basic 3 hour tour, there is very little difference between companies. Paul had reserved us a tiny cottage right on the edge of town for the 2 nights we were there. It was by far the cutest place we stayed. Complete with a kitchenette, en suite bathroom, living area, and porch over-looking the bar, we were quite comfortable. We had a couple of drinks and settled in before heading to town for dinner.

Salka restaurant was in an old wooden building on the harbor and had smoked puffin on the menu, which Paul had been anxious to try. So, the hour-long wait didn’t deter us, we simply headed next door for a couple of beers while we waited. The smoked puffin was actually really good. Tasted a little like chicken dark meat, but not as juicy. But it came with some chicken liver that the restaurant must have been trying to get rid of because it was disgusting. Then we split the fish of the day plate and a beef sandwich. It was well worth the wait.

Sunset at the cabin…close too 11 pm

Our cabins had a few hot tubs, but again, not like the hot tubs we would expect to find in America. Considering that even the hot water in the shower smelled like sulfur because it was fresh from a hot spring, I was less than inclined to let the sulfur seep in.  And after a day of driving, ocean kayaking, and horseback riding, we didn’t have much energy left.

The Empty East

Sleeping in can be difficult to do in a country with very little dark, but we managed to sleep a few extra hours, probably because we were exhausted. We managed to grab a little of the breakfast was leftover at the guest house, then were back on the road. Hofn had a decent supermarket where we grabbed more lunch/snack food, liquor/wine, and an auxiliary cord for our rental car because the country’s radio station apparently lost strength out east.

We headed out toward Seydesfjordor in the eastern part of the country. Finally, we felt like we were off of the tourist carosel and in an area much less travelled. Gone were the mega tour busses and the tiny rental cars were significantly fewer and farther between. Rather than sticking to route 1, the Ring Road and main road around Iceland, we opted for a more winding, scenic road through the fjords. There was no shortage of places to stop for photographs, flocks for birds, or wind. We ate lunch in our car over a scenic overlook at a fjord, in an effort to avoid the gusts of wind outside.

View along the coast

At some point, we had to cut in to the main road in Egilstaddir, which was a more industrial town off of the fjords. From there, we went out to Seydisfjordor on a road reminiscent of the Beartooth pass in Montana. We followed the highway up into the snow-capped mountains and looked down on a major river and small town from the top. When we found a scenic look into Seydisfjordor with a river and waterfall right by the road, we stopped to explore, enjoy, and have a glass of wine (it is our honeymoon!).

Great spot for a wine break
Improv wine glasses

Once we made it down the mountain to the fjord town of Seydisfjordor, it was quite simple to find our hotel. The population of the town is a mere 700 (big for the east) and we were staying in a branch of the only hotel in town; the road led directly to the main hotel, Hotel Aldan. We checked in there, then went to settle in at Hotel Snaefell, an old wooden building which has been used as the post office, shoe repair shop, and various other odd jobs through the years. The rooms were small, but had a bathroom en suite which had become a treat by that point. Sadly, however, it had the thinnest curtains of any hotel or guesthouse we had stayed in yet, and when there are only a few hours of darkness per day, curtains become a necessity for a good night’s sleep.

Hotel Snaefell

The room also had a small television and internet, so we checked in on life in the States and the Olympics while we freshened up for dinner, and had a drink. For dinner, we headed to one of my favorite local cafes of the trip, Skaftell Cultural Center. Here, Icelandic hipster-types poured beer and sat you at family-style table with other travelers and locals. We shared a seafood pizza for dinner and a few drinks before heading back to relax for an early evening.

Church across the lagoon

Paul had scheduled us for an 8:00 am sea-kayaking trip around the fjord. Lonely-Planet described the guide as “Robert Redford-esque” and I can think of now better description, except that he is an obviously Icelandic version. We paddled for 2 hours and stopped to drink water from a clear mountain stream. The fjord was quiet and peaceful and I would have loved to have been there for sunrise, but there was not a chance I was waking up at 4:00 am. This is one of of my favorite stops of the trip. I was in love with the small town and the kayak trip was reasonably priced and Paul and I mostly got to hang out together without being on an overly guided tour.

Kayaking

After kayaking, we went back for breakfast at Hotel Aldan, probably our favorite breakfast buffet of the trip, complete with fresh fruit and waffles. Then, it was just a few minutes to change clothes, see the town (including an Icelandic boy version of a young Paul singing loudly while swimming in the lagoon), and wander through a few of the more artsy gift shops we’ve seen before jumping back in the car to head toward Husavik.

Under Vatnajökull’s Shadow

We headed east out of Vik after a lazy day.  It had rained all night, so naturally when we filled up with gas with also filled the Micra with two soggy hitch-hikers.  We drove through the lava fields towards Skaftafell and Vatnajökull.  The lava fields went on for miles.  Sometimes they were simply lifeless.  Other times a think layer of moss would cover them.  Regardless, they were hostile places.  Other than the cars we past on the ring road and a couple gas stations, we saw nothing for 100 miles.  It was raining so weren’t able to get an appreciation for the full extent of the lava fields.  But we stopped a couple times to take in the void.

The ominous sounding lava fields

When we pulled in to Skaftafell, we let off our hitch-hikers, who were very quiet Germans, and wen to the visitor center to plan our trip through the park.  We had a very ambitious day planned, but the rain made the 9 mile hike we had wanted to do a bit less appealing.  We settled on a 2 mile walk to the glacier.  Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap outside of the poles.  If you look at a map of Iceland, it takes up most of the Southeast corner.  The rain made it hard to take in the full scale of it, but we walked as close as we could.  Even from a distance, the 60 feet of ice towering over the glacial lake was imposing.  The top of the glacier swept up towards the peak.

We hiked back and drove the car a little bit up the road to do the 4 mile hike to the Svartifoss waterfall.  It’s one of the more iconic waterfalls in Iceland, a category for which there is a decent amount of competition.   The waterfall is flanked by basalt columns.  Through the rain and mist, the location appeared almost more unreal.  We also hiked up to an overlook, or at least what was normally an overlook in clear conditions.  A little disappointed with the weather during our stay at Skaftafell, we headed back to the car and continued east.

Rain and waterfall

The more we drove east, the more clear it got.  Only then did the scale of Vatnajökull begin to come into perspective.  Once it cleared up we pulled off and got this shot.

Ice lagoon

Then came Jokulsarlon.  This is one of the better known sights in Iceland and for good reason.  Massive chunks of the glacier fall off and float in a lagoon on their long trip to the ocean.  The arctic sun and the clear water give the icebergs an almost electric blue coloring.  We wandered around the shore in the biting wind and took pictures of the quiet, wing-sculpted towers.

Sea and ice

After wandering around the lagoon and driving to see the ice after it had made it to the sea, we were both cold and in need of a beer.   We stopped in the café, which according to Lonely Planet had the best seafood soup in southern Iceland, and got two bowls of soup and two beers.  It wasn’t a cheap snack, even by Icelandic standards, but it was definitely worth it.  The soup was delicious, the café was warm, and the beers were the best ones we’d had in Iceland.  We got back and drove the last hour to Hofn.

View from the guesthouse

Our bed and breakfast sat underneath on of Vatnajökull.  We had an amazing dinner in Hofn.  As part of our guesthouse, there was a set of hot tubs. And by hot tub I mean a plastic lining set in rocks filled with water form a hot spring.  We soaked and drank a bottle of wine until they closed at 11.  We got back to our room and went to bed before dusk.  This is the land of the midnight sun.

The Golden Circle and Vik

After a nice couple of days in Reykjavik and attempting to catch up on sleep, Paul and I rented a little-bitty car (a Nissan Micra) and hit the road. One of Iceland’s main scenic drives is the Golden Circle. The narrow roads are frequented by tour busses and rental cars like ours this time of year.

First on the drive was Þingvellir National Park. Here, the Eurasian and American tectonic plates are moving away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm per year, leaving large fissures in their wake. Vikings also established the world’s first parliament here called the Apthing. After taking a few pictures of the lake and walking around the park a little, seeing the waterfalls, and throwing a coin in one fissure filled with deep blue water, we were off for our next stop.

Fissure for throwing a coin and making a wish.

Geysers (pronounced GAY-zeer here) were found in Iceland. The name is Icelandic and is used to identify all geysers today. So Old Faithful is a geysers because the Icelanders named them such. After working and spending lots of time in Yellowstone, however, Paul and I were less than enthused about seeing more spouting water and hot springs. Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone is still our favorite thermal pool by far. But there is a geyser in Geysir which rarely takes more than 6 minutes to go off. And when it does erupt, it splashes all of the people standing nearby with water. Since you’re required to stand back in Yellowstone and the water is quite hot, we were surprised to be close enough to get splashed by relatively cool water. Apparently things are colder in Iceland.

At Geysir

Next on the Golden Circle was my favorite of the trip: Gulfoss, which translates to Golden Falls. It is a magnificent two-tiered waterfall. From the top, it looks as though it falls into an abyss, but you can see the river below from closer to the second fall. As you walk the trail to the brink of the falls, the spray is enough to leave you pretty wet, but the view is well worth it.

Awesome Gullfoss.

With the three main stops on the Golden Circle complete, we continued on to the southern Iceland town of Vik. We had reserved guest house in the town, which is like a hostel and bed and breakfast mixed. We had our own room, shared a bathroom with the other guests, and had a phenomenal breakfast of freshly baked bread, lamb pate, cereals, yogurt, juice, cheeses, lemon cake, and strong coffee.

The evening we arrived, we went to one of the 4 local restaurants, Halldorskaffi, (you can’t expect more in a town of 300) and had an awesome seafood pizza and some potato soup. When we found our guesthouse, Nordur-Hvammur, we popped open a bottle of wine and visited with some other guests in the common room before we went to bed. The nest day we slept in, but our hostess had breakfast waiting and we ate with a group of German girls staying at our place before heading out to explore. First was Reynisdrangar to see our first puffins and walk a portion of the black sand beach. We were lucky to have a bit of sun while we were there, but it disappeared all too quickly.

Our beach honeymoon.
Paul imitating his favorite music video

Next was a visit to town, in hopes that the weather would clear up, to take care of some business and buy Icelandic sweaters. The weather never got any better but we were happy with our sweater purchases here. They were made in Vik and were a just about $15 cheaper than in Reykjavik. Next, we stopped at Dyrholaey but only took a few pictures before wanting to get out of the cold and rain. So we went back to the guesthouse, to get ready for dinner, which was a cheaper town option for lamb soup, a burger and a veggie pita while watching the Olympics. Not the best food ever, but nothing to complain about and good for the price. Plus, I just really wanted to watch the Olympics. Later, we opened a bottle of wine, and had a wonderful, relaxing evening. It was a great day to recharge before hitting the road early for our next destinations with a couple of hitchhikers on board.

Reykjavik

Paul and I got married Saturday in Gardiner, Montana, where we met last summer. We were there for a week before the wedding, but were obviously quite busy visiting with family and friends who had come to town and taking in our former home, so we didn’t get to write much about our trip, but we hope to share it soon.

The day after the wedding, we woke up, cleaned a little, said our good-byes, and, after a few miss-haps, made it to the Bozeman airport to catch our flight to Denver, then on to Reykjavik. After our flight attendant realized that we were on our honeymoon, he moved us to first class and treated us to champagne, truffles, and all the other drinks, food, and treats we could ask for. Not a bad way to start the trip. But after only a few hours of sleep the past couple of nights, and a little too much turbulence to get a great nap in on the plane, we were exhausted. We landed in Reykjavik at 6 a.m. Iceland time, got on a bus to our hotel, set down our things (since we couldn’t check in that early), and went to get food and coffee before exploring a little and taking a bike tour around the city.

Iceland is a small country whose population is only a little over 300,000, most of whom live in Reykjavik. So even the country’s largest city isn’t massive. The bike tour was the perfect, quick, way to see the major highlights including, Bjork’s house, the Opera House, the coastal shoreline, the country’s most popular restaurant (a hot dog stand), the 2 main squares, parliament, President’s office, an elf home, and both the Lutheran and Catholic cathedrals. Most sites were surprisingly small and quaint given their importance to the country. We did get some of the famous hotdogs on the tour; they honestly didn’t taste too different than the typical American hot dog, but they were topped with raw onions, fried onions, remolade sauce, mustard, and ketchup. Paul and I are pretty confident that it’s the fried onions and remoulade that make them famous.

 By the time the tour was over, we could check into our hotel and were spent. We slept for 2 hours before forcing ourselves to wake up so as not to waste too much time. It was a national bank holiday (like the American Labor Day), so the major flea market, which is usually open only on weekends, was open for the day. After exploring a little, having a snack, and not buying anything, we headed out to get a better look at the opera house. It is covered in glass and, inspired by the Sydney opera house, overlooks the harbor. However, when the economy crashed here in 2008, the opera house was not completed and it sat as an empty, glass-less building before it was taken over by the city, taxes were raised, and the glass was purchased.

Our hotel is on the main square in town and everyday the Olympics are displayed on a big screen outside the hotel, beer is sold, and people lay out in the square to watch. Apparently handball is huge because it was Iceland’s first team to earn an Olympic medal, one of the country’s 4 in total (ever!).

After a couple of drinks, we headed to a guidebook recommendation for dinner: Icelandic Fish and Chips. This place was awesome. The place served a few types of fish, plenty of different dips, potato chunks (not the typical chips), and salad. Delicious and perfect for our travel-weary spirit. We found a sports bar to watch more Olympics and have a few more drinks, but by about nine, we couldn’t hold our eyes open.  We hit the sack and slept for 10 hours. Perfection.

 

The next morning was an awesome free hotel breakfast, extra coffee, then wandering around town before getting our rental car to hit the Golden Circle which is a drive with three of Iceland’s main tourist attractions.