Sunday, August 14, 2016

Little Land of Giants

Traveling Iceland's Ring Road

Photos by Caroline Bergeron

Ring Road, Iceland

Cheap flights and a renowned nightlife have transformed the former fishing village of Reykjavik into a growing hipster tourist mecca, capitalizing on "layover" traffic to Europe's more popular destinations. But of the more than one million overnight visitors to Iceland last year, fewer than 50% left the confines of the Golden Circle, and only a third left the south-west coast beyond Jokulsarlon -- meaning that even now the vast windswept wilds and isolated fjords of Iceland remain relatively unknown to foreign travelers.

Roughly the size of Newfoundland, and with just over half its inhabitants, Iceland is Europe's most sparsely populated nation. This makes it a nature lover's dream of lava fields, glacial mountains, tumultuous rivers, slumbering volcanoes, and thunderous waterfalls. Deluxe adventures in a tiny package. And while the interior highlands of this far-flung island remain inhospitable and uninhabited, many of the nation's natural wonders are only a road trip and a stone's throw away.

Encircling the island since 1974, the Ring Road -- or Route 1 -- connects many of the country's national treasures. The road clocks in at 1332km in length, but a true Ring Road trip will take you off the beaten path at various junctures, not the least of which is the Golden Circle, adding to the total distance traveled.

This August, my wife and I trundled over 2027km of highway, paved and otherwise, to complete our own 7-Day Ring Road adventure -- an experience which left us drunk on skyr and supermarket sandwiches, impossible vistas and midnight sun.

 

Day One

We flew to Iceland with the discount carrier WOW Air and picked up our campervan from Go Iceland (Campervan Iceland), conveniently located within walking distance of Keflavik Airport. It was a Renault Kangaroo Camper with two seats up front and a double bed in the rear. Sleeping bags, camp stove and furniture, dishes, and a refrigerator/cooler, were included in the rental. Storage was ample.

There are several camper providers in Iceland, and while we experienced issues on our journey (elaborated elsewhere), the company was ultimately helpful and understanding, and we were very satisfied with the vehicle.

Hallgrimskirkja
We arrived just before 5am local time and were on the road by 6:30.  We began our trip with the forty-five minute jaunt into Reykjavik through the lava fields of Keflavik. Icelanders stay up late and sleep in later. Most stores and shops (outside of gas stations) are not open anywhere in Iceland before 10am. As such we strolled through the Midtown area around Andalstraeti and Hafnarstraeti -- a funky mix of tourist shops and resto-bars, tour providers and wool stores. We ate an expensive breakfast at the Grai Kotturinn (The Gray Cat) -- $60 for two salmon bagels and coffee -- and then headed uphill for a view of the iconic Hallgrimskirkja (church), which is modeled after a volcanic eruption with hexagonal "basalt" columns.

Aside from the newish office buildings fronting the harbour, Reykjavik is a collection of two and three story structures, often colourfully painted, hunkered down stoically on the hillside, cynically awaiting the North Atlantic to batter them with wind and rain. But on this morning, the skies were clear and the air crisp and cool.  

Historic Harbour
As the city slowly awakened, we wandered back down to the Historic Harbour to see the tour boats and the whaling fleet. Many tourists were eagerly booking puffin tours on the busy docks, but we were simply killing time as we awaited the opening of Baejarins Beztu Pylsur.

No Ring Road trip is complete without the consumption of at least one Icelandic hotdog (pylsur), and Baejarins is the most famous. Take one with "the works" -- crispy fried onions, remoulade, ketchup and mustard.

Once we had satisfied this desire, we pointed the camper east toward the Golden Circle. Seven days is not a lot of time to see the entire island; in fact, a visit to the Western Fjords is probably not feasible if you hope to circumnavigate the Ring Road. If you want to enjoy the various stops as more than photo ops, you have to keep moving. Hikes, both short and long, are an essential treat in Iceland -- and necessary to view many of the sites -- but they are time-consuming, as well.

In fact, the lynchpin of a seven-day Ring Road experience is the incredibly long summer day. In August, the sun does not set until after midnight, and it is up again before 3am. This allows RingRoaders hours of extra travel time at day's end. If you elect to rent a car and use guesthouses instead, you may sleep in greater comfort, but you will lose the advantage of mobility.

Thingvellir National Park was our first destination, approximately an hour northwest of Reykjavik. It was threatening rain as we entered the park -- stark banks of bruised clouds, scudding low over desolate plains and the bright spark of Lake Thingvallavatn. Backing onto these plains are the distant peaks of the Langjokull Glacier -- all of which contribute to the sort of dramatic landscape that would come to characterize Iceland for us. 

There are several short hikes here that are musts. The shorter is the walk through the Almannagja, a steep cliff-lined scar that is evidence of the continental plates which are slowly tearing Iceland apart, to the Logberg -- a rock outcrop where the Vikings held biannual gatherings to pass laws and settle disputes. The second is a hike to Oxararfoss, a waterfalls where executions took place during the Middle Ages. The combination of historical significance and geological wonder is typical of Iceland's sights.

Almannagja
Expect a lot of tourists here, and at all stops in the Golden Circle. Bus tours leave nearby Reykjavik several times a day for the layover crowd.

Strokkur
Further west are the Geysir Hotsprings. More than a dozen blowholes percolate on the surface here. Strokkur, though smaller than Geysir, is the most active and impressive. It explodes from the earth every 8-10 minutes, sending a belch of steaming water 30 metres into the air. You can attain a better sense of the hot-springs by hiking the small nearby peak. Be sure to take in the far side of the mountain as well. Its bucolic green valley is dotted with ubiquitous Icelandic sheep and horses.

It was nearing supper hour when we pulled off Route 35 to visit Gullfoss. We were sensing the lack of sleep, but the sun was still high in the Icelandic sky, urging us on. Gullfoss is a two-tier waterfalls that booms out of a glacial river into a steep canyon.  The sheer power of the falls can be experienced from several vantage points, but you will need rain gear when exploring close to the racket. The strength and height of the falls are reminiscent of Niagara, if not as large; but the landscape is far more awe-inspiring than its North American counterpart.

Gullfoss


There is a nearby cafe which sells a delicious lamb soup for about $20 a bowl (which is decent in Iceland), but allows you a "free" refill. It comes with homemade bread.

Kerith Crater
As we crept south toward Selfoss, our intended camping spot for the night, we passed the Kerith Crater, which is actually a deep volcanic lake lined with steep red and black rock walls, and made a nice quick pic before turning in for the night.

 

 

Day Two

Use Selfoss as a provisions stop. There is a Bonus (see Tips and Advice) on the edge of town. It doesn't open until 10am, so it would be best to stock up on sandwiches and skyr (see Tips and Advice) the night before. I find RingRoaders tend to sleep in, but we were always on the road before 9am, around the time most others were taking their showers.

The Hvolsvollur Saga Centre was our first stop on day two, and it was the only museum we visited in Iceland. It is a classic museum with a lot of text to read, but it will give you a strong understanding of the Viking culture from which modern Iceland has emerged. I read Njall's Saga when I was in university, and the Saga Centre essentially rehashes this same Medieval Period in Iceland's history, when the island converted to Christianity.

Seljalandsfoss
This stretch of the Ring Road will take you past both Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull -- two small ice caps that provide for several dramatic waterfalls along the route. Seljalandsfoss is the first of these. You can see it from the road several kilometres away before you arrive, a white ribbon against glowing verdant cliffs. It pours over a rock ledge and plunges into the meadow below. Here you can walk in behind the falls, if you don't mind getting wet.
But as impressive as it is, a short walk upstream will lead you to a more intimate site -- a hidden cave where a smaller falls drops into its dark belly. Fewer tourists venture this far away from the main attraction, and if you are lucky, you can even find yourself alone here. 

Hidden Cave
A few kilometres later, right off the Ring Road is an opportunity to pull off for a picture of Eyjafjallajokull, which in addition to being a snow capped glacier, is also a volcano.  The vent erupted in 2010 sending smoke and ash so far into the atmosphere that it disrupted air travel in Continental Europe and North America.

But the real destination -- also frequented by tour buses from Reykjavik -- is just a little farther east. Skogafoss is one of Iceland's most popular waterfalls. Its waters leap over the cliff edge and tumble 60m to the gravel plain and then out to sea. You can climb the cliff face for a better vantage point, but even more beautiful -- and less frequented -- is the hike along the river and above the falls. Eyjafjallajokull is visible over the sheep dappled hills here, and among the cataracts of the river you can see rock islands shaped and carved away by the steady flow.

Skogafoss

Hike Above Skogafoss
A half hour down the road will lead you to Vik. But just before arriving, there are a series of side roads which will take you to amazing coastal views. Dyrholaey is one of the best.  Here you will come face to face with puffin colonies and also catch stunning views of an enormous stone sea arch. Vik's Troll Rocks are also visible from here, as is the Myrdallsandur black lava desert. 

Puffin Colony
Dyrholaey
It is possible to sleep in or around Vik at the end of the day. There is a supermarket and a campground. Many guidebooks will suggest you do just that. But I would suggest that you picnic and then strike out for Skaftafell and Vatnajokull National Park. This is a long drive at the end of a day, but it will take you through some of the most desolate and strikingly beautiful stretches of the Ring Road, and it will allow you to enjoy all Skaftafell has to offer the next morning without rush. The camp ground at the base of Skaftafell is also surrounded by glorious mountains and is well appointed. Make sure, however, that you have a full tank of diesel and plenty of food before you leave Vik.
Lava Fields
 You will be compelled to pull over and take pictures of the bizarre lava formations all along the way.  There are also examples of turf houses at Nupsstadur if you are not too late in passing.

Day Three

Although I am hard-pressed to choose, if pushed on the subject, I might say day three of the Ring Road is my favourite, even though day five is also spectacular.

The Black Falls
Waking up at Skaftafell means that you have the time to hike two different loops, which, when combined, make for a 10km trek to two very different but rewarding sites. The first is a hike to the Svartifoss, the Black Falls. This is a steep hike up behind the Visitor Centre and then back down into a valley where Svartifoss cascades over dark hexagonal basalt columns. The Vatnajokull Glacier -- the largest in all of Europe -- follows you the entire way over your shoulder to the east. The second is a trek to Skaftafell itself -- one of the glacier's tongues which protrudes onto a gravel plain amid kettle lakes, moraines and glacial runoff. There are very few places in the world where you can so easily access a glacier. And it is awesome.
Skaftafell Glacier Tongue
 About an hour away is another awesome sight  -- the Iceberg Lagoon of Jokulsarlon. I spent several summers in Newfoundland as a child, and I remember watching icebergs float by in the distance. But at Jokulsarlon the icebergs drop off the snout of the glacier and are packed into a 5km stretch of bay, jostling each other in the crystal blue waters as they make their way to the ocean. Some are washed up on the black volcanic sand and left to melt into twisted sculptures. The presence of herring in the bay also draws seals, who fight their way up the significant current in search of food. The whole scene is magical.
Iceberg Lagoon

Jokulsarlon
Seal in Jokulsarlon Bay

Marine Exhibit, Hofn
West of Jokulsarlon by another hour and a half is the seaside town of Hofn, and a good place to bed down for the night. If you intend to splurge at any point on your travels, this is the place. Icelandic lobster -- langoustine -- is fresh off the boat here, as is trout and a number of seafish. A dinner for two at Hofn's Pakkus, a converted warehouse, will easily set you back $200CAN. But it is a welcome change from sandwiches and hotdogs.


Here we experienced incredible winds throughout the night and into the morning. Unfortunately, our on board heater also ceased to function. The south is normally warmer and wetter than the north, but it can experience gale-force winds, although normally these do not occur until October. In spite of Go Iceland's efforts to help us, the heater was lost for the duration of the trip. I will say, however, that the company quickly agreed to a 15% discount on the rental, and that otherwise our little Renault was a trooper. The only night our sleeping bags were truly put to the test anyway was in Grimsstadir when temperatures plunged to -5 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, they did not skimp on sleeping bags. Sometimes you really can tell the difference quality makes.

Day Four

Hot Pots of Hoffel
Because our vehicle came equipped with WiFi, I was able to do a little last minute digging around when we awakened to the same sustained winds we had experienced the night before. An Australian blogger clued me in to a "wild hot pot" no more than fifteen minutes from Hofn in a little place called Hoffel. Most people are aware of Iceland's geothermal baths. The Blue Lagoon and Jardbodin are two popular examples of these. But there are also wild hot pots speckled across the country, which are little frequented by tourists. Hoffel was one such place, and we were glad to come across it in a farmer's field, shielded from the wind by a cliff face. We were alone there, soaking in the outdoor tubs for almost an hour. A good way to start the day.

Wild Hot Pots
Rejuvenated, by mid-morning we reached Djupivogur, a small picturesque town in the eastern fjords. Aside from its pretty harbour, offering boat trips to Papey Island, there is a wonderful property next to the ferry landing, where a former fisherman has opened a gallery featuring entire whale skeletons, rock sculptures and jewelry designed from reindeer antler and bone. The owner is a character, and his home is worth a stop, even if only to sneak a peak.

Djupivogur
From here you can follow the Ring Road farther east around Breithdalsvik, and then cut inland toward Egilsstadir. Or...you can take the more dramatic direct route over the mountains by way of a road that doesn't even appear on Google Maps. Honestly, I took this route by mistake. Now it's a story. The side road at the end of the fjord careens up from sea level to dizzying heights in only a few short kilometres. The road becomes gravel and drops off hundreds of feet without barriers. I drove white-knuckled the entire way. The views: incredible. The risk in a Renault Kangaroo: limitless. Would I do it again? No. But I'm glad I did it once and lived to tell the tale.

Gunnar Gunnarsson's Villa
Cloister Ruins
 Egilsstadir is a good service centre to refuel and restock your refrigerator, but it is the drive around Lake Logurinn that draws visitors. At its south end, there is a beautiful villa once owned by the Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson, and on the plain below it are the interesting ruins of a Catholic Cloister from the 15th century. From here you can also see the country's tallest peak, Snaefell. As you begin your drive up the west bank of Logurinn, you will also pass the multi-leveled Helgifoss as it spills through a split in the hillside. Egilsstadir is also a jumping off spot for the northern fjord towns like Seydisfjodur, perhaps even more charming than Djupivogur, with a small collection of artisan shops and restaurants around a placid bay.

Seydisfjordur
Once again, guidebooks will suggest that you bunk down here, but it would be much more worth your while to drive on to Grimsstadir. Again, while far to travel at the end of the day, it is essential to set you up nicely for Dettifoss and Lake Myvatn in the morning.  And the scenery here in the evening with the sun slanting in over the hills is stunning. This high valley is a much gentler landscape than the heart-stopping hills of the fjords. It is green and lush and dappled with farms and sheep and horses, before rising to a plateau of lava fields and distant views of the Arctic Ocean.
Grimsstadir

Icelandic Horse

Day Five

So. Day five. Incredible.  Leave the campground at Grimsstadir early.  The road to Dettifoss is bad. Really bad. Drive fast if you don't want the corduroy gravel to shake you senseless. It is also farther than you think. The falls is among the country's most spectacular. If you arrive before 10am, you can catch rainbows in the ample mist. Dettifoss is the third highest of the waterfalls in Iceland, and it also rivals Gullfoss in power and flow. The canyon into which it spills is simply awesome. And when you approach it from the east, you can practically sit next to it as it roars past.

Dettifoss

Canyon North of Dettifoss

Yours Truly with Caroline (aka The Photographer)
Not far away is Lake Myvatn which is just as packed with sites as the Golden Circle outside Reykjavik. Some of the most marvelous are the sulfurous mud pots of Namaskard. These bubbling vents do not erupt like the geysers, but they are hotter and are rumoured to be 1000m deep. You have to be careful here and stick to marked paths. The colours of the runoff are fantastic, but the smell...not so much.
Namaskard, Sulfurous Mud Pots
Just five minutes to the north are a series of volcanic craters. The Krafla eruption site of Viti is the most stunning with its blue waters and high red banks, but to the west there are further and larger sulfur blisters that still let off steam. Leave yourself enough time to hike a few kilometres here.
Viti Crater
Krafla Sulfur Blister
Grjotagja
Just over the mountains, on the shores of Lake Myvatn, you can also see the subterranean hot springs of Grjotagja -- a collection of caves into which you can descend for a view of the eerie warm blue waters. And not far away are the Dimmuborgir -- an extensive field of contorted lava formations that look like wet sand castle droppings, or the construction efforts of trolls. Paths have been hewn through the park, allowing you to pick a loop that suits your itinerary, from twenty minutes to half a day. 

Dimmuborgir
Save the Nature Baths at Jardbodin for last. Unlike the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Jardbodin's baths are naturally occurring. They are also half the price to enter with commanding views over Lake Myvatn and the volcanic hills to the east.  We spent two glorious hours in the baths and steam room, sipping local beer, which you can order in advance when you buy your bracelet upon entry. Even better, the beer is delivered by staff. You don't even have to leave the baths.

Guides will direct you north to Husavik when you are through with Lake Myvatn. Whale-watching is the big draw. But if you stay the night there and take a three hour tour in the morning, your last day on the Ring Road will be a five and a half hour marathon back to Reykjavik without stops. I would suggest that you continue on to Akureyri instead. You can whale watch from there should you desire, and the town has a much more developed city centre with shops and restaurants at much better economy than elsewhere. Akureyri was our favourite town, and there is an excellent campground just outside the city, called Hamrar -- a perfect place for families with creative water playgrounds on site and horses nearby.

On the way, be sure to stop at Godafoss. You may think that you have seen enough waterfalls by this point...but you would be wrong. 

Godafoss
Spillwaters of Godafoss
Arriving in Akureyri, Sunset Over Fjord

Day Six

We booked a whale-watching tour in Akureyri with Ambassador Tours. It was about $130CAN/person. This is more expensive than Husavik, but the experience was tremendous. During our three hours in the north end of the fjord, at the mouth of the Arctic Ocean, we had more than thirty whale sightings -- at least a dozen of which were within 10m of our boat. All of the sightings were of humpbacks feeding in the bay.
Humpback feeding in the fjord
Deep Dive Lasting 5 to 6 Minutes
We ate a rare restaurant lunch at Kaffi Ilmur which was located on a hill above the downtown area. For only $25CAN/person you could have a buffet-style traditional Icelandic meal of lamb stew, potatoes, salad, and homemade bread. This was a steal by Icelandic standards.

After a pleasant afternoon in the shops, we drove 300km south to a campground just outside Reykjavik, stopping at will for photos, especially of the farmers who were rounding up there Icelandic horse herds, arriving around 9:30pm.
Herding Horses
Caro with Horses

 Day Seven

Viking Sculpture on Reykjavik Harbour
The Blue Lagoon is only twenty minutes from the airport in Keflavik, but almost an hour outside Reykjavik. We returned to the capital for some last minute shopping in the morning. Geysir, the Icelandic clothing company, has an outlet store in Midtown, selling wool sweaters and the like for a fraction of the price elsewhere. We had booked our entrance to the Blue Lagoon at 1pm. Prebooking is a must. We arrived early to ensure we passed through the long lines in advance of our booking.


Runoff outside the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is a wonderful luxury. It costs almost $100CAN to get in, but it is beautiful in a spooky way. The standard package includes a silica mask that you can apply yourself at a station once in the bath. Your bracelet also acts as a credit card should you wish to purchase drinks at the swim up bar. It was overcast and rainy on the day we were there, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. The lagoon looked otherworldly with its blue silica water and black lava walls -- steam rising into the mist. But actually, although it is the most popular attraction in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is not a naturally occurring hot-spring. Its mineral waters are heated by the runoff from the nearby geothermal plant. This fact does not taint the experience, but you might argue that it is the only thing about Iceland which is not entirely genuine.

Iceland is a little island of vast spaces. A landscape of extremes. A juxtaposition of hot and cold. A tiny country of superlatives. One of nature's true wonders.