Friday, January 22, 2016

Chasing the Aurora (Part IV - Western Iceland)

Here are the links to my previous three posts about our trip to Iceland:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Today was our longest driving day of the entire trip. From our guesthouse in Akureyri to our hostel in Grundarfjörður is 372 km which was estimated to take us four hours and thirty-five minutes without stops. We were finally lucky with the weather and spent most of the day under beautiful blue skies.
We stayed on the Ring Road for the first 221 km but then turned off at the farmstead at Brú to start making our way farther west onto the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Before long we were on unpaved track which made for quite a bumpy ride.
While we stopped at various points to stretch our legs or better take in the scenery, our first destination was Stykkishólmur, the largest town on the peninsula (population 1,100). It has an architecturally interesting church as well as a collection of late 19th century buildings in the town center near the harbor. We walked around for a bit, then stopped at the grocery store before continuing westward.
Greg had been talking about trying hákarl (fermented shark meat) for several days. Since we weren’t eating out at restaurants, then ordering some as an appetizer, typically costing at least $10-15, wasn’t really an option. I had spotted some in small tubs at various grocery stores, but didn’t want to pay $7+ for something that we probably wouldn’t be able to eat (and might stink up the car). So the best option was to drop by Bjarnarhöfn, home of the shark museum, where for $10 you can tour the small museum and shark meat-curing sheds as well as taste the local delicacy. I opted to sit this one out while Greg spent about 30 minutes looking around. The verdict - he didn’t gag, but he did stop asking me to buy hákarl.
It wasn’t that much farther to our overnight destination, the town of Grundarfjörður. It was already 5 p.m. by the time we checked into the hostel (we had been on the road since before 9 a.m.) but the sun was still shining so we set out to explore the nearby mountain and waterfall.
We found Kirkjufell and its foss to be quite photogenic, so we hiked around taking pictures before returning to Grundarfjörður to check out the town church, which has an original reprint of the oldest Icelandic bible.
Back at the hostel, I made a delicious meal with some frozen langoustines and an assortment of mushrooms cooked in brown butter and served over pasta. We settled in for the evening but too late discovered that the heat in our room wasn’t working. Even with many layers of clothes on, including hat and gloves, I still found it impossible to stay warm. So much for a good night’s sleep!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

We hit the road pretty early again today as we wanted to have plenty of time to drive a loop around the entire peninsula, with lots of stops for sightseeing, and still get back to Reykjavik and drop off our luggage at the guesthouse before returning the rental car at 5:00 p.m.
The main road (54 and 574) mostly stays within sight of the jagged coastline dotted by tiny fishing villages, while crisscrossing a volcanic landscape of lava fields and formations. Looking inland, we were lucky to get a few glimpses of the Snæfell glacier made famous by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Each of the following stops typically took about 10 minutes to look around, although we did some easy walking/hiking in a few places, so those sites warranted at least 30 minutes each. Here are some of the highlights:

Ólafsvík Church

Ingjaldsholl Church - It is possible that Christopher Columbus visited this location in 1477.

Fishermen's Museum at Hellissandur (closed for the season) but some things were visible from the parking lot.

Skalasnagi Lighthouse

Hiking at Djúpalónssandur where a shipwreck has been left on the beach since 1948.

Malariff Lighthouse

Lóndrangar pinnacles - A birdwatching area, but as usual we saw nothing, possibly because of the strong winds but also due to the time of year.

Snæfellsjökull National Park visitor center at Hellnar and the local church

As we completed the final 188 km drive back east toward Reykjavik, the scenery changed from lava fields to painted hills to farmland.
We decided to pay the 1000 ISK ($7.75) toll for the Hvalfjörður Tunnel. It is 5770 meters long (3.59 miles) and runs 165 meters below sea level (under the fjord) shaving 30 minutes off the trip.
The tunnel is under this water. Reykjavik is barely visible under the sun rays.
After we checked into the guesthouse and dropped off our luggage, we returned the rental car to the wharf area right on time at 5 p.m. Then we had a nice walk back into town, stopping for our last pylsurs. We celebrated the end of the trip by sharing a sampler tray of Icelandic craft beer at Microbar, then walked up colorful Laugavegur one last time.
I had one final task - my 7:00 p.m. appointment to get a tattoo. I have already written a blog post about choosing the design, a vegvísir. You can read about it by clicking here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Time to head home. We got up at 6 a.m. and walked from the guesthouse to the bus terminal. Although overcast, it wasn’t raining as it was on the day of our arrival, so it was a more enjoyable jaunt, even though our suitcases were still heavy and laden with beer.
walking by the Hallgrímskirkja at 7 a.m.
We were at the airport by 8:15, giving us plenty of time to check in, go through security, then browse at the duty free shop before our 10:35 a.m. flight departure. I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of Icelandic vodka and we also picked up a few more specialty beers to bring home.
Within an hour of takeoff, we were flying over Greenland, and from our seats in the exit row we enjoyed awesome views of the snow-capped mountains.
Appropriately, we toasted the end of our vacation with free Icelandic beer (provided by the airline).
We had another long layover at JFK, but this time we used some free Delta Sky Club passes to while away the hours in relative comfort. As we took off again around 7:30 p.m. we were treated to a beautiful New York City sunset.

Parting Thoughts

It was an awesome trip, even if the weather didn’t cooperate a lot of the time. Greg and I both agree that different parts of Iceland conjure memories of Alaska, Hawaii, Ireland, and New Zealand, as well as Yellowstone National Park. It’s definitely worth a trip, even if you only have a few days on a stopover to or from Europe. There’s plenty to see within a few hours drive from Reykjavik - Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, etc. I particularly loved the diversity of the scenery, the lack of people, the remoteness, and the sheep. But I am disappointed that, in spite of my best efforts, I did not get to see the aurora borealis on this trip.

Next up, my final post about how to save money while traveling in Iceland.

Here are the links to all of my photos from these last three days:

Akureyri to Grundafjordur
Snaefellsnes to Reykjavik to PDX

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