Road trip around Iceland (no flying)
Many of you have been waiting for this post and I hope you will not be too disappointed that it is not about flying but about ice and fire instead. Alex and I have been very busy traveling and visiting family, hence the break since our landing in Reykjavik. We are now in Sainte Suzanne (Mayenne, France), a medieval village close to where Nina and Sophie have been living for the past months (and Tobias also lately due to his very long vacation before the start of the French academic year in September).
In our journey, Alex and I don’t always go or stay where we want but rather where it’s safe or where they let us in. We knew Iceland welcomed vaccinated tourists, so we had planned to enjoy the country for as long as we fancied. After all our intention is to explore the world and two days in Canada and one flying over Greenland felt a little fast, albeit very thrilling.
Neither of us had ever been in Iceland so we didn’t really know what to expect, apart from lots of nature. That turned out to be true, but it was not just any nature: Iceland is a concentrated geology lesson, the history of the formation of the world in a nutshell, a grandiose miniature paradise for earth science and nature lovers.
But we had to wait a little before we could enjoy it. We had arrived at Reykjavik FBO around 10pm on May 14th after 12 hours of travel, of which 9 in the air, and 3 landings. Customs and immigration officials were waiting for us and after checking our passports and vaccination records they explained that we needed to do a PCR test the next day (the center was closed and opened at 11 am) and stay in quarantine until we got the results, which would be about 4 hours after the swab. Considering the emotions we had experienced that day, we had no problem with crashing at the hotel that Reykjavik FBO had spontaneously booked for us. Actually, one of the first things Gudni from the FBO asked us was whether we were a couple because they didn’t know if we needed one or two rooms, they had booked two just in case 😊 They drove us to the "isolation certified"Hilton and we were looking forward to a room-service dinner but the restaurant was closed. Luckily, there was a little kiosk in the lobby with snacks and drinks. Perfect: we had a bag of Doritos with white wine as an appetizer followed by just-add-water thai noodle bowls, delicious! Our improvised meal was such a success that the next morning we didn’t even bother with room service and instead ate left over bread from Chicago and cheese from Kuujjuaq. A few minutes before 11 am, Gudni picked us up to go to the Covid test center. It was so well organized that we were outside 6 minutes later without ever waiting or even sitting down: the swab was taken standing up in what looked like a hallway. Back at the hotel we finished the last of our left-overs -we wanted to build up our appetite for a real restaurant and Icelandic food- and awaited our liberation which promptly came just before 4 pm in the form of a text message stating “You have not been diagnosed with Covid-19”. Off we went to explore the city and the country, after riding the "non quarantine guests" elevator for the first time.
Iceland enjoys daylight well past midnight in May, so we had plenty of time after our liberation to walk around Reykjavik (informed as usual by the GPSmycity app) and enjoy a great dinner in restaurant Apotek. Highlights of this city surrounded by water were the Harpa concert hall, the Hallgrimur church and the Danish licorice ice cream at Valdis on Grandagardur -having Ice cream in Iceland seemed like the right thing to do!-.
Solfar (Sun Voyager)
I had never seen licorice ice cream before so I absolutely had to try it. In order to choose, they also let me taste salted licorice flavor but that was a bit too overwhelming. Danish licorice was just perfect for my Dutch acquired taste for black sweets. Alex opted for more traditional flavors. We enjoyed our ice cream while exploring the city surrounded by beautiful end-of-day light. It seems like the long Nordic days come with an extended sunset, an extended “golden hour” for the delight of photographers and filmmakers, but also for ours and that of many others. Streets and bars were really busy after 10 pm, conjuring up memories of life before Covid-19 and hopefully giving us a glimpse of life after it.
Encouraged by our Reykjavik impressions, we were ready for more so we bought a Lonely Planet Iceland Road Trip Guide and booked a rental car for the next morning. Even though we knew that our first stops would not be in the manual: we absolutely wanted to start with the Fagradalsfjall volcano and the places Gudni and Artur from Reykjavik FBO had recommended for our first day (yes, apparently tourist information is part of their service 😊).
A volcanic eruption began at Fagradalsfjall on 19 March 2021 and it continues to emit lava every 10 minutes or so since then and no one knows exactly when it will stop, hence our hurry. Perfect for tourists who never need to wait very long for the next display of nature’s brute force. The volcano is 40 km from Reykjavik but we did not see it upon arrival because its eruptions create clouds above it. Fagradalsfjall has been dormant for 6,000 years so we felt extremely privileged to be able to witness its energy. From Grindavik in the Reykjanes peninsula, together with dozens of others pilgrims, mostly from Iceland, we walked all the way up a trail that leads close to the top of the volcano. Before actually seeing it, we heard the mountain roaring and saw red lava and smoke rising in the sky promptly every 10 minutes. On the way, we passed a field of recently hardened black stone that was still incandescent in places – a perfect stop to warm our hands. We had chosen to climb at the end of the day to enjoy the best light and it was starting to get quite chilly. The trail ended really close to the volcano, so close that we could feel the heat and see the red-hot lava bursting from the crater and landing in festive sparks on the mountain side -my favorite part!- or flowing through the lowest rim into the river of lava that ran slower and slower as the liquid stone cooled and blackened in the fresh air.
Pilgrimage up the hill
a convenient hand warming pause
The volcano does not sleep: view from our hotel window at 2 am
The regular outbursts of Fagradalsfjall contrast nicely with those of Geysir where we stopped before reaching Grindavik. Nowadays, this original geyser, who gave its name to all others, has very infrequent eruptions, sometimes stopping altogether for years at a time and waking up only after Earthquakes or other major geological events. The Stokkur geyser right next to it is more reliable: it hurls boiling water into the air every 8 minutes or so, but compared to what we saw in Yellowstone just a few weeks earlier, it was somewhat underwhelming… so if you ever want to visit both, my recommendation would be to start with Iceland…
Our road trip went clockwise from Grindavik to Akranes, Arnarstapi, Stykkishólmur, Myvatn, Djupivogur and Dyrholaey and we were amazed by almost everything we saw:
- The Mid-Atlantic Ridge: fault between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates which still continue to drift apart (2 cm per year) in the Reykjanes peninsula, connected by a bridge near Grindavik
- The coastline walk from Arnarstapi to Helnar through lava fields and giant rocks with a permanent view of the Snaefelsnesjokull glacier
- The delightfully warm, milkish blue water of the Myvatn natural pools where we were alone
- The furious geyser chimneys at Hverir and the crater and pseudo-craters right next to them
On the rim of a crater: Alex wearing his new Icelandic "Enjoy life" hat (found on the volcano path)
- The incredible basalt columns in the Skutustadahreppur gorge, still covered in ice
- The scary, super steep and slippery Oxi pass between Egilsstaðir and Djúpivogur (listed in www.dangerousroads.com and described as “be careful: this road is not for sissies…not recommended without a vehicle with a little extra ground clearance and nerves of steel”!) that finishes with stunning views of snow covered mountains and a bright blue fjord.
- Jokulsarlon lagoon where the Vatnajokull glacier calves icebergs that make their way floating to the sea where they continue to melt, causing small pieces of trans-lucid ice to finish their life on the black lava sand beach.
And I could go on and on because every bend in the ring road uncovers a new lunar landscape, glacier tongue or fjord, the latter to be either bordered or crossed via all kinds of bridges and tunnels (both under and over water).
More basalt columns!
and lava rocks and sand
And more glaciers
In order to discover it all, we spent one night in most places which made Alex state at some point that the definition of “settling down” for us had become “staying somewhere for more than one night”. In most hotels, there were signs that explained that Icelandic tap water was natural and therefore more pure and environment friendly than bottled water. We discovered that this only applies to cold water because the hot water, although also clearly natural, comes from hot springs and you immediately notice its origin by the distinct sulfur smell when you take a shower. Don’t worry: it does not linger on your skin.
Iceland turned out smaller than we expected based on how it looks on a planisphere: driving non-stop around the main ring road (Road #1, speed limit 90 km/hour) would take only 16 hours but it is so full of surprises -one continuous National Park- that we could have stayed longer than the 8 days it took us to complete our road trip without ever being bored. We ventured outside of route 1 from time to time for a sightseeing detour and saw that most of the roads were very good. Probably due to the harsh winter conditions (lots of snow and very high winds), there was a lot of repair work going on to keep them that way. At some point, we even got stuck on road 54, in one of the repair areas where the asphalt had been removed and were saved by two machines that pulled us out. As we had already regretted in the Oxi pass, our rental car was not a 4x4.
Our road 54 saviors
The two only things we did not get to see, despite our efforts, were the aurora borealis and puffins. We went to various spots where these Icelandic penguins were supposed to be but they were not there, and the boat tours to islands where they nest had not started their activities yet since tourist demand is not strong enough before June ☹ We did spot lots of other beautiful birds, Icelandic horses -so cute and sturdy-, seals (far in the water), a white fox and a few reindeer. Regarding the Nordic lights, we really tried: we got a tip about a good date and spot and were prepared to stay up all night. The problem was that it never got really dark and since sunrise was at 4 am, we decided to stop hoping at 3 am and get some sleep. We’ll need to go back for the puffins and the lights, and maybe also for the remote Northern fjords which we did not cover.
After spending some time in his country, I now better understand Nobel prize author Haldor Laxness’ descriptions and characters. Conditions are harsh, people are tough, down to earth and completely no-nonsense. Why care about the superficial and frivolous if you can be swept away any day by a sneaker wave or a winter storm, be buried in a stream of lava or fall off a basalt cliff and end in an ice-cold glacier river? However, and maybe for that very reason, we also found that they seemed to be very happy people who enjoy life and like to laugh. But then of course, our observations are vast generalizations: we have not met them all! All the more reason to go back.
Below some more "what is there not to like" pics:
Heart traffic light at Akureyri and happy ones in Reykjavik
Lobster soup and Icelandic menu card