2 – 8 June 2015
Silence. Only the occasion bird call, no mammal in sight. A slight wind brushes my ear. I turn 360° to see miles and miles of rumpled tundra, a table mountain dappled with small snow patches, and in the far distance, tall mountaintops draped with ice caps and clouds. The temperature is comfortable but the cool breeze originates across that snow. Two quacking ducks fly over on their way to a large body of water to the south. Otherwise, silence. But I get ahead of the conclusion to my story.
Sea Spirit, having had to cancel the last port for high winds and seas, arranges an evening tour of Reykjavik. It is strange to be circling the city at midnight. Time and daylight are out of sync here.
Reykjavik appears to be an architecturally beautiful city with stunning vistas of the surrounding mountain ranges and seas. The Vikings may have founded the city in 870, but it was the Ice Age and volcanic activity that gave it the views, the Scandinavians who gave it style, and paint cans that gave it color.
Passing the President’s house, Parliament House and the jail, we climb to the hilltop observatory of Perlan, or “the Pearl.” Perched atop huge hot water storage tanks, views are impressive.
Much more interesting is the President’s summer residence on a peninsula near Bessastaöatjörn south of Reykjavik. A small church sits surrounded by heath, lakes filled with swans and geese, and open water toward Reykjavik. The evening light is exquisite, the calm and serenity wonderful. We are told not to go peaking into the residence windows as it upsets the guards.
The Hallgrímskirkj, a Lutheran parish church, is the tallest church in Iceland at 244 feet. A Leif Erickson statue commands a view out to sea but the church is closed. I need to return to see its interior.
It is a pleasant drive around town. We end at the port where, unfortunately, the fishing fleet obstructs one of the most beautiful sunsets imaginable. Pinks, purples and gold blast the sky with radiance. A fine end to my day.
I debarked the Sea Spirit early on the 2 June. I am not sad to leave, it has been a good voyage to wonderful destinations, and food has been tasty and worthy of five extra pounds. But truthfully, I am sick of the wind, bouncing and rolling, small towns, birds, and mediocre organization. I am glad to leave the ship.
Morning finds me on another bus for what becomes a fantastic tour of a section of “The Golden Circle.” Our Sterna guide makes an informative stop at the lava fields in Reykjavik from where the material was mined for the city airport’s runway (didn’t work well for big planes). Also, we hike to an overlook above a thermal plant, its boreholes, vents, and power plant used for capturing the steam that heats all of Reykjavik. It is a totally eco-friendly source of reusable energy as they recycle the water which flows thru a house to be pumped back into the ground for reuse. Can’t imagine a water shortage in Iceland. Lake Thingvallavein, the largest body of water in Iceland, seems to be an endless source for power. (I will return to a home rationed to 50 gallons of water a day.)
We bus north to Þingvellir National Park where Parliament began. Þingvellir is not a building but a place where the Althing, an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland, was established in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. It is a very important site of early government for Icelanders.
However, for me, it is the geology through which I travel that is most memorable. Stark, treeless vistas spotted with numerous bodies of water both large and small; rumpled tundra and scrubby heath; mountains of all shapes and heights some painted with splotches of snow; steam vents all the more noticeable because of the 30° wind-chilled temperatures – all paint a country with a beauty concentrated within few other countries.
Gusts of wind wail across the tundra, always trying to blow me off my feet. A sudden snow squall reminds me that weather changes in Iceland as rapidly and unpredictably as Hollywood marriages.
And then there are the tectonic plates. Not only does Iceland sit upon countless volcanic episodes ready to happen, the country is split down the middle by the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates, drifting apart at about 2cm a year. Not only volcanic country, earthquake country too!
Weather is ‘Iceland balmy’ as I wake to a sunny 52 degree Reykjavik – T-shirt weather for locals. Terra firma feels good, though I often think I am still at sea, my inner ear playing mind games with me. My first stop is Hallgrímskirkj, Reykjavik’s plainly designed but soaring Lutheran church. Inside is a 5275-pipe organ and lots of comfortable seating for concerts and services. The casket rolled into the church dampens the moment a bit, however.
Reykjavik is not small. It is a good walk from the Hallgrímskirkj down the main shopping street of Laugavegur to the port and beyond to the Saga Museum. The port has an informative maritime display, mostly of the disasters that have befallen the ships around Iceland over the centuries. Glad I am not sailing anywhere soon.
Saga Museum is excellent. It traces the history and sagas of Iceland using life-sized dioramas of historical and life-like wax figures. At times too life-like! I recognize many of the legends and stories told by guides the past two weeks so feel, indeed, I have learned much about Iceland. The museum depicts sagas from the first inhabitants through the Black Death and the Reformation.
Dinner at Sjávargrillið, or Seafood Grill, was outstanding. When in Iceland do as the Icelanders do, so I tasted shreds of smoked puffin accompanied by slices of smoked European shag (a type of cormorant). Shag was tastier than puffin. We also tasted grilled minke whale, bite-sized chunks lightly seared so as to leave the meat red in the center. The minke is hard to cut because of a membrane, but tender to chew. Both meats are common in Iceland, just like those cute lambs and long-necked geese. The presentation at the restaurant was well done and the food excellent. I highly recommend dining here.
We pick up a tiny rental car at SadCars and head north to Búrfell where a cozy cabin awaits. It is an easy drive, though we see more of Iceland than planned, having missed a turn. We pay an exorbitant price to use one of Iceland’s under-fjord tunnels, then pay it again for our mistake. After buying groceries and wine in Hveragerdi, we arrive at our cabin overlooking vast tundra, a lake, a distant table mountain and pretty much miles of uninterrupted vistas and open space.
Friday, I drive to Landeyarhöfn to board the Eimskip ferry for the 40-minute trip to the Westman Island of Heimaey. This small island was made larger in 1973 when Eldfell unexpectedly erupted on 23 January. A 2-mile-long fissure opened up, spewing fountains of lava 50’ into the air within spitting distance of downtown. Within 24-hours, several feet of lava covered about a third of the city of Vestmannaeyjar, threatening their vital seaport.
Eldfell is one of the world’s best-known volcanic eruptions for many reasons. Unexpected, massive and destructive, lava in some areas averaged 130’ thick, in others over 300’ thick. The debris (tephra and ash) was up to 16’ deep over much of the town. Severe storms had kept the fishing fleet in port, thus these ships, in 6 hours, were available to evacuate the entire town, 5000 people with just what they could carry. Even though over 400 homes were destroyed, there was no loss of life.
But the amazing, unique aspect of Eldfell is the islanders’ efforts to save their port, critical if Heimaey was to survive. Over 25% of Iceland’s annual fishing catch comes through this harbor. To save it and their fishing industry, courageous men fought the advance of lava with hoses and seawater. Because of the slow moving nature of the lava, the proximity of an endless water source, and the work of determined men, the lava advance was stopped within 300’ of forever closing their harbor.
I walk atop lava fields where once were scores of homes, a fish factory and a swimming pool, now many feet below where I stand. The eruption added over 2/3 of a mile of land to Heimaey. New homes sit atop where old ones lie buried in lava and debris. Optimism runs high.
A must stop is the new Eldheimar Museum, built around one of the homes buried under this mountain of ash. Films, narration and displays tell the story of Vestmannaeyjar and its volcano, now laying claim to being the “Pompeii of the North.”
Iceland has what seems to be a never-ending list of geologic sites to visit. We drive our little rental car north to Gullfoss and Geyser.
Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, is a spectacular staircase of falls that plunges first 33 feet then an additional 65 feet before disappearing into a 105’ deep crevice. There’s lots of mist and rainbows, roaring falls, and dramatic amounts of water falling over the precipices. Ample walking trails allow for various views of the falls and a shower at the same time.
Just 6 miles from roaring Gullfoss is the less impressive Geysir. Its hydrothermal eruptions resulted in the origin of the word “geyser.” However, eruptions of Geysir have ceased and it is the nearby Strokkur that gives the show. Strokkur erupts every 7-10 minutes to heights up to 250 feet. The nearby museum is worth a stop to learn more about this area.
The geology of Iceland is awesome. Volcanoes, ice caps, glaciers, icebergs, mud pots, geysers, lakes, lava fields, cinder cones, and lots more volcanoes. I sometimes think I sit upon an eruption waiting to happen. Iceland has seen plenty of them; the last major one in 2010 when nearby Eyjafjallajökull blew its top and disrupted air traffic around Europe for several days. I imagine most Icelanders took it in stride.
But Iceland is not just geology. It is also:
the wildlife. There just isn’t much of it, except in the Reykjavik pubs. Mammals are restricted to sheep, Icelandic Horses, cows, reindeer, dogs, cats and an elusive fox. Birds are aplenty. The sturdy Icelandic Horse is a highly protected breed with two unique additional gaits. No horse, once off the island, is ever allowed to return. There are lots of them on the tundra. Used for show, racing, farm work, riding and trekking. They are also sold for food.
the language. I have travelled in areas where the language is difficult, such as Russia, Vietnam, and Poland. I think Icelandic takes the prize. If I lived in Iceland, I would choose living in Vik. Their t-shirt says it best: “What part of Eyjafjallajökull don’t you understand”.
the sticker shock. It cannot be denied. I think, pound per pound, item for item, Iceland is the most expensive place I have traveled. This, I feel, is due to an absence of few ‘cheaper’ alternatives. A typical dinner and wine will average $50-70pp. (The exceptions I found were hotdogs from kiosks and the Noodle Station.) Going to the grocery store finds meats, cheeses, breads and vegetables costly. Alcohol can only be purchased at designated liquor stores and there is no such thing as a cheap brand. Iceland produces little and must import everything. A fine selection of wines from around the world can be found but none are made in Iceland.
the Wind. I sit on the cabin’s deck, sheltered from the ever-blowing winds. Never a breeze, always raging wind from blasts to gales howling under the eaves and across the heath. When I think it can get no worse, it does.
It is a sunny, warm day for Iceland, no rain in sight (yet), a snow-dotted table mountain and lake seen in the distance. Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano of 2010, towers across the tundra, ice-capped and ready to do its dirty deed again, disrupting airlines and getting attention. Few birds, certainly no mammals about, but the constant sound of a warbling call, almost like a tundra bug calling for its mate. The scene is like most of the country: desolate, brown, open and vast. A country waiting for the next catastrophic event be it a tectonic plate slipping, a volcano exploding, a massive glacier melt, lava flow or pillars of ash.
There’s something about its silence.