BootsnAll Travel Network

Iceland: Part One

The Norrona sailed out of Torshavn harbor at 5:00 pm sharp. After checking in, I went to find my cabin on deck 6. I was happy to discover that this time I had a cabin to myself. After plopping down my bags, I went out to the open deck to watch as the ship sailed away from the islands. The ship did a small sightseeing trip before heading out into the open ocean. We sailed up close to and between some of the islands that I hadn’t got to visit. It was very impressive to see the massive cliffs from a different angle. The air was full of seagull which nested amongst the rocks. With the huge cliffs in the background dwarfing the birds, they looked almost like a swarm of bees buzzing around the cliffs. After about 1.5 hours, we left the islands behind and headed out into the open ocean for Iceland. The wind picked up due to the increased boat speed and lack of land so most people went inside. I walked up to the front of the boat to watch the water pass below us. I was alone except for a young Frenchman (Laurent) and women (Marie).  After I stood there for a while watching the waves, the French group waved me over and politely informed me that the Frenchman was going to strip naked and take a picture standing in the cold wind on the front of the boat to fulfill a bet. They hoped I wouldn´t mind. I replied that it didn’t bother me and went back to looking at the waves. (If a man is going to take a naked photo, a cold environment is probably not the wisest place to do so for several reasons.) After the bet was satisfied and clothes put back on, Laurent and Marie went back inside and asked if I wanted to join them in the bar car where they had to finish a bottle of wine. Marie ended up going to bed and I visited with Laurent while he finished the bottle.  Laurent was going to work in Iceland for two months as a tour guide for French groups. His friend Marie just came for a vacation. They were driving to Akureyri. I was offered a ride if their friend didn’t show up when the ship docked.

The next morning the ship neared the east Iceland coast. The day was overcast. The coastline came into view an hour or so before it was time to dock. The coastline was a forbidding wall of steep peaks. Unlike the Faroe Islands with its grass covered hills, these mountains were sharp and jagged and had full loads of snow. The tops were obscured by the low, grey clouds. After watching for a while, I went back inside to finish packing my bags. On the way I passed the gambling room and decided to try my luck again and get rid of my remaining coins. I put 8 krone into a slot machine and quickly got down to two. On my last pull, I won and was given the opportunity to double my money. I did and won. I decided to keep going and kept winning. When I was up to 160 krone ($1=4.8 DKK), I decided not to push my luck and cashed out. With a heavier wallet, I got my bags and headed back to the deck. By this time the Norrona was sailing into the Seyðisfjörður fjiord, which quickly surrounded the boat with high peaks. After docking, I exited the boat through customs. I was the only person pulled out of line and examined more closely. I think in part this had to do with the fact that I was the only non gray haired person. The officers flipped through my passport for a while and then handed it back to me. I then stood outside and waited for Laurent and Marie to come through with the car feeling a little annoyed that I was given special attention in customs. They came out through the car area and after not seeing their friend offered me a lift. I accepted as this would save me about $200 in bus fare.  I was a bit mollified when I learned that their car had been searched by customs and they had their cheese taken away.  My cheese made it through undetected. Iceland protects its dairy industry by banning dairy imports. My smuggled cheese and I got in the car and off we went. After we crossed the coastal mountains, the skies cleared up. Despite all the snow the main roads were clear due to the hot water pipes running under them. (Iceland has lots of geothermal springs and hot water is pumped around as a utility directly to people’s homes.) The ride to Akureyri was stunning. The two lane road passed through glacial valleys with farms. When the the road climbed, the ground would be covered under a blanket of snow with black basaltic mountains peaks rising from it. The snowfields were so bright under the blue sky that sunglasses were required. We stopped at a fissure near Mvatn. The fissure was very deep but contained a hot water stream at the bottom. There were once stairs down to the bottom but they had been removed. Laurent decided to climb down anyway to get to the water. He had been here several times before. Marie and I declined to follow as it was icy and steep. We sat outside and waited for him to finish. The landscape around the fissure was one of gravel covered with lichen. Leaving the fissure, we arrived in Akureyri in the evening. They were going to spend the night there but their place to stay didn’t work out so they decided to go all the way to Reykjavik which is another 400 km or so away. I decided to go with them. The drive between the two towns took place mostly in farming valleys placed between peaks. Most of the farms appeared to be horse or sheep ranches. In Reykjavik, they dropped me off at the hostel. In the hostel, I booked into a four bed dorm and went to bed tired from the 10 hour car ride.

In the morning, I set out trying to plan my Iceland trip. I checked the bulletin board to see if anyone was looking for someone to share a car rental with but nothing seemed overly promising. I decided to go downtown to get a look at the city and visit the tourist office to check on car rentals. I took the bus downtown ($4 per bus ride. Iceland is very expensive as most people know. I had a bit of luck though. About two weeks before I arrived, their currency devalued by about 20% due to a banking crisis. This brought the Icelandic krona/dollar rate back into its historical range which helped me a lot. It went from 58 IKK/dollar to 75IKK/dollar.) Once downtown, my first stop was the tourist office which sat on a square. They had a book that listed all the different car rental companies and their prices. I quickly discovered that unless I was willing to take a manual car, renting would be extremely expensive, as opposed to just expensive. I left without making any decisions and went to take a look at the city. Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland. The entire city area contains about 250000 of the 313,000 people that live in Iceland. It sits on a flat plain on a harbor with low mountain peaks on the other side. The population of the city is growing quite fast as evidenced by the building cranes everywhere. Most buildings are only a few stories and the city is definitely starting to sprawl, aka Houston or Los Angeles style, though not on that scale. Many of the buildings are brightly painted in Scandanavian style. The city’s name means Smoky Bay due to the steam from all the hot springs. The city was founded after the first settler in Iceland, who came from Norway, threw his chair overboard and promised the gods that he would settle wherever the chair washed up. Well it washed up here. It took his Celtic slaves two years of searching to find it. The state church is Lutheran and the majority of the people officially belong to it, but in reality I don’t think many practice. There is a large modern styled Lutheran church in the middle of the town full of early to mid 20th century modern art. After walking around downtown, I walked back to the hostel and put up a note to see if anyone wanted to rent a car with me (preferably someone who could drive a standard.) I spent the evening trying to decide what I wanted to do.

As I lay awake not sleeping due to my snoring roomate, I finally decided to rent a manual car and just learn as I went, steep snowy roads aside. In the morning, I went back to the tourist office and rented the cheapest car I could find for $53 per day. As luck would have it, that class of car was unavailable but they would upgrade me to the next class for the same price. This was lucky as there was a possibility of an automatic available in this class. I was picked up at the tourist office and taken to the rental company and lo and behold an automatic was available. I was almost tempted to take a manual anyway to force myself to learn. Once I got the car which was a Chevy Kalos hatchback, I returned to the hostel to get my bags. My final stop before heading out of town was to stop at the grocery store to buy provisions for my trip. My destination for the day was the Snaefellsnes Pennisula. It juts off the main body of the island north of Reykjavik. The pennisula has a central spine of mountains ending at its crown and glory, the Snaefellsjokull (a large glacier.) The glacier appeared in Jules Verne’s The Center of the Earth. Here is where they began their journey into the Earth. The weather was partially overcast again. As I neared the glacier that covered the top of the dome shaped mountain, I could just see the bottom of it in the clouds.  There was a gravel road that led up the mountain towards the glacier. Despite the rental car restrictions, I decided to try it to get a better view. The road also could be a shortcut across the mountains. I headed up the steep gravel road through the tundra. As the road neared the glacier, it started to become damp and snowy. I met another car that had turned around. The only other vehicles I met were large trucks hauling snowmobiles. I finally gave up when the snow started encroaching on the roads. The weather on the other side of the pennisula was much better and I stopped for the evening in Grundafjorour which is a small fishing community on the coast.

I filled up for the first time the next day ($7.60/gal) before setting off. My destination this day was Reykjanes in the West Fjiords. The West Fjiords are a sparsely populated area of Iceland that sticks off the northwest corner. It is suffering from population loss. The area as the name implies is made of steep fjiords with a small town sitting below the steep black mountains. Lots of the roads throughout this area are gravel and steep. Many contain roads with 10 and 12% grades. One section was even 16%!!!. When I left in the morning the weather was good but I soon entered an area of deep fog. The traffic on the road was sparse but mostly seemed to contain monster trucks with wheels bigger than my car. I grew greatly annoyed as they  never slowed down when they passed and threw rocks all over the car. When crossing a high section of road, I came across an area that was being regraded. Due to the fog, I didn’t see a large patch of gravel and sand that had been piled up and hit it at about 40 km/hr. This caused my car to go into a spin. Both sides of the road contained deep ditches and I figured I was going off. I kept turning the wheel to try to get out of the skid. I managed to stop the slide after my car turned completely sideways at least three times.

I arrived in Reykjanes in the evening after not having seen much of the country side due to the fog. The hostel here was in an old school. The school had been abandoned when the population of the area dropped too low to maintain it. The school sat on a windblown section of beach with low snow covered rock hills across the fjiord. The kitchen was in the old home ed room and had what looked like 1950’s era stoves. The whole setting was a little on the spooky side as there weren’t many people in this large building. I had to walk through large echoing halls to get to the kitchen. Outside the wind howled around the edges of the building. The school did have one great feature though. There was an outdoor pool into which the hot water from the nearby springs was pumped into. I swam in there for a while with an Icelandic family who was also staying there. As I was now really far north, it didn’t get completely dark until well after 11:00 pm.

In the morning, the weather had turned colder (about -4C) and the sky was gray though the clouds were high.  The roads in the area went nowhere fast. They hugged to the edge of the fjiords so one had to loop in and out of them. This meant that despite driving long distances you didn’t actually cover a lot of physical distance. The mountains here were the most forbidding that I had seen in Iceland especially when seen with the ocean crashing into them. In general, the towns were small and clung to the small areas of flat land on the fjiord edges. After  a while, the road left the fjiords and climbed over a pass. Here snow flurries started to fall. The roads were steep and had patches of snow covering them. The snow tires on my car had no problems even though it struggled up some of the steeper grades. From the top of the passes, there were amazing views along the cliffs and down the fjiords. Every now and then the clouds would clear and the water would turn green under the blue skys. Eventually the road looped its way out of the mountains and fjiords and I headed south to Reykholer my next stop. Surprisingly, the wind and snow really picked up after I descended from the mountains. The snow was blowing sideways due to the wind. The hostel for the night was on a sheep farm. Despite what my hostel book said, they weren’t open but they let me stay anyway. All through the evening the snow continued, but due to the wind it didn’t build up on the ground.

In the morning the weather was greatly improved and the skies only partly cloudy. I first headed down to the beach to see if I could spot any seals which sometimes congregate in the area but none were present. Heading south, I passed back through Reykjavik on my way to the hot springs at Geysir. The name while being somewhat unimaginative is accuarate. The main attraction is a spring which erupts every 8-10 minutes. I parked the car and went to take my place to wait for the eruption. Unlike the geysir that I had seen in New Zealand which had an above ground cone, this one was a hole in the ground. Water was pouring into it from the last eruption when I arrived. Once full the water started to boil. Right on time, the a column of water shot up into the air. At this moment a Korean lady decided to break out in song in front of the geysir and serenaded everyone as the geysir erupted. She also did a litlte dance. After the eruption, I walked to some of the other hot pools in the area. The water temperatures varied greatly in them. Due to the mineral content of the water many of the pools either had a green or blue jewel toned color to them.  My next stop was the waterfall Gulfoss (foss means waterfall in Icelandic). This waterfall is a two tiered waterfall on glacial river. The river descends into a canyon at this point. The canyon walls were still covered in melting ice though which the water fell. The wind here was very cold as it came straight down from the glacier. After the waterfall, I returned to the main road which looped around to the south coast of Iceland. Here the terrain consisted of rolling farmland interspersed with section of old lava fields full of moss covered rocks. I stopped at the town of Vik for the night. Vik was a very picturesque town. It sat below moutains topped with a huge glacier which sat in a dome shape over the peaks. It looked like a large cloud formation over the moutains. The town beach was made up of black gravel. At the hostel that night, I found out that a German guy that I had met on the Norrona was staying there. He was bicycling to to Reykjavik and had made it as far as Vik. 

As I was tired of driving, I decided to take a day off in Vik.  I woke up later in the day and spent the morning reading. That afternoon a German girl that was working in the hostel and I hiked up one of the hills near the hostel. From the top of the hill, we could see over the town and the black pebble beachs. The glacier was also clearly visible. After the hike she and I went to the grocery store and decided to combine food to make a decent supper. I had already bought frozen cordon bleu. She went to look for potates, but had to settle on instant potatoes. (Iceland’s produce selections are sometimes limited.) In the evening we fired up the microwave and stove and made a meal out of my chicken and her potatoes and corn. It was a nice change from the frozen pasta dishes I had been eating to save money.

So ends part one! Stay tuned for part two for stories of glacial lakes, seals, and sandstorms.


Iceland is quite different than the Faroe Islands. The moutains here are much steeper resembling mini Himalayas. The highest point here is about 2800 meters. There was once lots of trees here but over the 1200 year settlement history they have mostly been lost. As a result the island suffers from bad soil erosion. They have made some efforts to stabalize the soil. They have their own unique language. Unfortunately,  I can’t show you the characters as I am typing this entry back in the US from an English keyboard. Needless to say, the names here are quite long and difficult to pronounce.

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