13 October 2017

My Scandinavian Adventure: Iceland—The Ring Road

Day 3: Reykholar to Latrabjarg to Dynjandi (pt. 2) — 375km

As I mentioned in my last post, 15 August 2017 was one of the most memorable days in my life. For the record, hiking the dramatic 1500 ft. seacliffs at Latrabjarg, Iceland to view the puffins alone would have qualified it. But that was not the end. This was the day everything about the vacation changed.

Road map of Westfjords, Iceland.
You see, we are a very organized group when we travel. Our itineraries are mapped out to the minute—>"Gotta' be at such and such place at such and such time or else..." We—and when I say "we" I mean Wisdoc—had some trepidation about our—and when I say "our" I mean my—planning (or lack thereof) for the trip around the Ring Road and Ring Road 2. We had our camper van and knew the country had a terrific infrastructure for camping. So we took our maps, guidebooks, and websites (the van had its own WiFi hotspot, btw!) to plan out where we would spend each night. I figured we could improvise our way around. That way, if we found someplace we loved, we could stay longer. No deadlines. Still, Wisdoc was anxious and skeptical.

This day, after hiking to see the puffins, we wound up in a lovely little fjord town called Bildudalur around dinner time. It was ~90 km of rough road from the cliffs. The boys saw hamburgers on the menu and pounced. I said, "Guys, look where you are. You're sitting in a fishing village on a fjord in Iceland. You want to order the fish." There was some collective grumbling until we heard a booming Icelandic voice say, "Order the hamburger! It's the best in the country." The only other patron in the small cafe was a tall, gray haired man sitting in the corner. "The chef is a personal friend of mine. He knows what he's doing." Needless to say, a spirited conversation developed. Turns out the guy was a cod fisherman who was enjoying his last meal before heading out to sea at midnight. Before long, we were all gathered around his table with maps and books as he pointed out the best campsites and attractions in the country—the places the locals liked to camp when they were on holiday. Especially tonight, he said, forget your plans and stay at Dynjandi. It's not technically a campsite, but there are no rangers so you'll be fine.

The boys—who are technically men now—are, I would have to say, pretty much experts when it comes to burgers, and they swore theirs that evening were the best they'd ever had. I ate Creole style Arctic Charr, and the gals had halibut. All agreed: Vegamot Cafe in Bildudalur was the best meal of the trip, and the old cod fisherman's advice put our anxious minds to rest about our lack of pre-planning.

Dynjandi. Lordy. See the pictures and watch the short video below. The old cod fisherman said it wasn't the largest, tallest, or most powerful waterfall in the country, but it was the most beautiful. He gets no argument from me. It pours out of the highlands at the head of an isolated fjord of sublime beauty. We arrived ~9:00 pm and still had time to hike around before dark. There were maybe a half dozen others there that night, hitchhikers or bicyclists who were technically allowed to pitch tents and make use of the super clean flush toilet facilities. No hot showers there, but a historic Viking bathing pool at the foot of the falls! And yes, the air was warm enough to bathe, and the water was cold.

I mean, come on! (Click pics below to embiggen!)

The fjord town of Bildudalur in the Westfjords from the deck at Vegamot Cafe.
The view of Dynjandi Falls from the campsite parking lot. Rainbow and all. I literally leaped from the van and practically ran up the trail to the falls. The others followed.
Dynjandi 
The whole fam milling around the base of Dynjandi Falls.
Dynjandi Falls
Multiple falls. Dynjandi (There were 5 separate falls by my count)
video
Looking down toward the campsite by the fjord from the base of Dynjandi. See the van down there?
Hiking down to the campsite from the base of Dynjandi Falls.
The sublime colors of the fjord at twilight. Dynjandi.
Silly Icelandic troll photobombing my picture of the falls at Dynjandi. 
Approaching midnight. Campsite. Our filthy van. Fjord. Dynjandi. The end of a glorious, memorable day in Iceland's Westfjords.
Gratuitous Seacliff Puffin. Because Puffins, dammit!

04 October 2017

My Scandinavian Adventure: Iceland—The Ring Road

Day 3: Reykholar to Latrabjarg to Dynjandi (pt. 1)

There are days in your life—and you hope they are good ones—you know you will never forget even as they are happening. This one, 15 August 2017, was one for me. An all-timer. I still shudder and tear up a bit as I pore over the pictures and my notes for this blog post. And that's why it will take two posts. Please forgive.

For orientation, we woke up in a lovely town called Reykholar situated at the base of Iceland's Westfjords. We knew we were in for a longish day so we got an early start. Breakfast of Skyr (Viking yogurt, yo!), local bread, and tea in our van. We drove the fjords on the southern coast of the Westfjords peninsula, in and out of the fingers, up and down the steep mountains sweeping down to the ocean inlets. Fjords Fjor Days. Again, this is off the beaten Ring Road path and is sometimes referred to as Ring Road 2 ('RR2'). At a certain point the road forks (see below), the right turn continuing the RR2, the left, a gravel road, heading out to what's sometimes called the Westernmost point of Europe (ex the Azores): Latrabjarg aka the Puffin Cliffs. Naturally, we took the left.

We bounced and jounced along teeth-rattling, bone-jarring gravel roads for about 40km of spectacular scenery. Fjords, sea cliffs, waterfalls, villages, and magnificent beaches. Then we came to the end of the road at a lighthouse and parking lot perched atop 500+ ft. cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. The hiking trail begins there and travels steeply uphill along the sea cliff edge for miles. Some claim it is the longest stretch of sea cliffs in the world. Some claim it is also the highest. Whatever. It is dramatic. We made sandwiches and headed out.

Oh, and did I mention that there were PUFFINS!!! We had read that the massive colony of puffins that summer on these cliffs usually leave by the 15th of August to migrate to warmer climes. We were worried because we all really wanted to see them. (Daughter-in-law Wisdil is a waterbird biologist, FYI). We got lucky. A few stragglers remained. A nice German couple I spoke with told us that the birds swarm there in mid-summer. BTW: Puffins are amazing creatures. They fly, they nest in these remote sea cliffs, they float on the ocean, and they dive to fish!

It was a nearly perfect day: roughly 60-65º F., light gusty winds, interesting clouds, sunny and bright. I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the tale. (Seriously, you'll want to click pics to embiggen them.)

The fork in the road to Latrabjarg: RR2 goes across the causeway way down there at the head of the fjord, the road to the Westernmost edge of Europe continues on around at the base of the mountain.
The gravel road to the Penguin Cliffs and a double rainbow beach. If this beach were in the tropics, it would be world famous for its beauty. Crowded. Today? Here in Iceland? Empty.
Golden Beaches. We did see local folks sunbathing in bathing suits, however.
Near the beginning of the hike along the cliffs at Latrabjarg. Note all the bird guano on the basaltic cliff face.
I've said it before here: you really want to hike with me.
How's this for drama?! People close by are kneeling to take photos of puffins. Hikers fall off these cliffs and die—it's anywhere from 1000-1500 ft. straight down. But the thing is, you can crawl right out to the edge and lie down in the soft grass and wildflowers and look over at the Puffin nesting spots.
PUFFIN PORN! (h/t Wesdom who won the family Puffin photo contest. My iPhone camera was not up to the task, even though this guy was only about 6-10 ft from us. He just stood there and posed calmly for everybody to snap his pic.)
Wesdom contemplating life.
Heading back to the parking lot which is the Western tip of Iceland. Did not want to leave this spot. The fam had to drag me off this hike. Could've stayed for hours more.
Leaving Latrabjarg, mid-afternoon, after a couple hours of breath-taking hiking and gawking. 
The fjord town of Bildudalur from the deck of Vegamot restaurant where we had the best meal of the trip. More about that tomorrow.

01 October 2017

My Scandinavian Adventure: Iceland—The Ring Road

Day 2: Arnarstapi to Reykholar - 252km


Okay, let's get oriented. If you'll notice on the map above, Reykjavik is in the SouthWest part of the island—roughly the seven o'clock position. (Click it to expand it) The main Ring Road (clockwise) pretty much goes straight north from there and then around the top of the island. At the nine o'clock position, due West, is the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Arnarstapi is on the southern coast of this peninsula. Most travelers don't go here or the Westfjords—the jutting land mass at the ten o'clock position. It's a bit wilder, not as many inns or restaurants—though they are most assuredly there. We were not to be deterred.

There was a serene beauty about Arnarstapi that charmed my soul. It sits on a promontory of ~200ft cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. It is isolated, yes, but people live there year round. And even though it is in the shadow of the Snaefellsjokul—the Snaefells Glacier—they get very little snow in the winter. The west coast benefits from the warming waters of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, plus Arnarstapi is in a bit of a microclimatic snow shadow nestled as it is in the crease of high mountains.

From Arnarstapi we "took the long way" around the tip of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, traced the fjords on the north shore, rejoined the main part of the island for a few miles, then detoured up into the Westfjords. We found a great campsite in the small town of Reykholar at the base of the Westfjords. The drive was astounding though some of the roads were bumpy and gravelly. "Fjords fjor days" was my tweet. The roads wound around the edge of the mountainsides, went along the inlet fingers of sea, rounded the fjord head, then went back out along the opposite fjord edge. Magnificent. Usually in each fjord, at the head, there would be one settlement—a large farm or a small village.

The campsite in the town of Reykholar is next to the town swimming pool. It is an outdoor pool, and it has great showers. Their swim team competes with other teams around the country, and the manager of the pool can tell you where the best pools are all around the island. You need to know this if you go. Most towns in Iceland have swimming pools. Icelanders love to swim, and one of their chief forms of socializing is sitting around in 'hot pots'. Another thing to know: you can drink the water everywhere in Iceland. It is not treated with flouride or chlorine. It originates either in ancient glaciers or bubbles up through miles of lava filtration. The swimming pools mix surface water with geothermally heated water so you can swim outdoors all year long. But they make you take a shower before you enter their pools. Fair enough.

We swam in Reykholar's 25 meter pool. I did a short 300 meters. It felt amazing and so surprising! Here I was within shouting distance of the Arctic Circle swimming in a naturally heated outdoor pool! Such a feeling! Take your bathing suits when you go. Seriously. Just do it. You'll thank me. We all crammed into the hot tub next to the pool and chatted with a local couple for an hour or so after dinner. Delightful! Also to note: Everyone here speaks English. They begin learning it in like the second grade. And they are proud of their country so they love to tell you about it.

Londrangar and basaltic sea cliffs heading to the tip of Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We saw this formation from the road and had to stop. We didn't have time to hike and explore—and that was my biggest disappointment of Iceland. There is so much to do and so much to see, you simply don't have time to do all the things you want. This was a constant feeling!
For scale, there's a lighthouse in the distance and people hiking on the path up to Londrangar—another roadside attraction. I could have spent several hours here, but we had to move on.
View from pit stop for lunch, Grundarfjordur
Fishing boat, Grundarfjordur
The town of Reykholar (note the friendly ponies and marshmallow shaped hay bales)
Fishing boats, Reykholar
Geothermally heated steam rising from holes in the ground near Reykholar. Signs read "HOT! Over 130º" I wasn't so concerned until I realized that was in Celsius!
Turf roof building and Disc Golf hole in Reykholar.

27 September 2017

My Scandinavian Adventure: Iceland—The Ring Road

Day 1: Reykjavik to Arnarstapi (Snaefellsnes Peninsula) 185km

Okay. Time to get serious. This is the meat and potatoes of the Iceland experience. We chose to drive the Ring Road—a mostly paved highway that, as its name implies, circles the entire perimeter of the island—in a clockwise direction. YMMV.

In January, I began calling and emailing rental agencies. We wanted to rent a mobile home, an RV, with a shower and toilet and small kitchen. They were already all booked for our August trip so I scooped up a camper van that supposedly sleeps five people. It had a small cooler, a sink connected to a refillable water tank, and two small propane rings. We were anxious about "facilities" but were pleasantly surprised to discover that Iceland has a terrific camping infrastructure: close to 200 campgrounds, most of which have hot showers and very clean toilets! Practically every night we had a choice of places to stay, and every one we chose was terrific. Because we are not small people, the sleeping arrangements were tight, but fortunately Wesdom brought his Eno hammock, and we were able to string it up diagonally on the van's support posts. Otherwise, it would have been uncomfortably tight.

On Saturday, 12 August (my birthday—best ever? No, but very close.), I picked up the van in the morning, we stocked up on groceries and supplies, and we drove the three or so hours out of Reykjavik to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This and the Westfjords are technically not on the traditional Ring Road circuit, somewhat off the beaten path but are highly recommended if you have the extra days—you'll see why. We drove at a leisurely pace and stopped when we wanted for pit stops and picture-taking.

We found a small village called Arnarstapi with a lovely, expansive campground nestled into a long finger of mountains that come right down to the sea. It was one of the few which didn't have hot showers. Next to the campground was a roped off field populated with nesting Arctic Terns—hundreds of them. They were noisy and busy coming and going, and if you got too close they would swarm and dive at your head. They have sharp beaks! The terns lay their eggs in the field—no nests, no predators—and each tern looks after every nest. It's a collective!

Our home for eleven days! Appropriate Led Zepp motto to boot!
Pit stop on the road to Arnarstapi. The light is amazing! Oh, and the views!
View from the campground at Arnarstapi across the Arctic Tern nesting grounds.
Arnarstapi. See that cone? We climbed 1/3 (Wisdoc and I) and 2/3 (Wesdom) up it on a whim. Because it was there and because we could! This sort of late afternoon, early evening adventure walk became a pattern. Glacier in the distant background.
Our lonely camper van in the shadow of the mountain we climbed.
Hiking up the rubbley hillside before dinner ~7:30 pm overlooking the Arnarstapi village and the North Atlantic. Campground is in on the left there.
Arnarstapi
Sea arch Hellnar seen from after dinner hike along the sea cliffs at Arnarstapi—approx. 10:00 pm.

17 September 2017

My Scandinavian Adventure: Iceland—The Golden Circle

I learned this summer that if you fly IcelandAir to Europe (and it's one of the least expensive carriers), you can opt to lay over up to seven days in Reykjavik at no additional charge. The country of Iceland is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Ohio. It would be difficult to drive the around the entire place in five or six days and see everything you want to see (Heck, we were there 14 days and absolutely NEED to go back). However, a stay in Reykjavik for a couple of days could be a lot of fun.

One of the things—no, THE thing—to do if you only have a few days is the so-called Golden Circle. It's a full day trip—roughly 300 km. There are tons of tours, guided and no, that make the trip daily. We rented a car for our three and a half days in Reykjavik, and I made the trip twice due to the family's staggered arrivals. And just WOW! Would/Will do it again. (As always, click pics to embiggen.)

First Stop: Þingvellir National Park, home of the Viking legislature ca. 930 CE
Þingvellir National Park, Largest lake in Iceland
Þingvellir National Park: Did I mention that the light here is incredible and changeable?
Þingvellir National Park: Still a vital part of Icelandic culture. When the country declared independence in 1944, the largest ever national gathering took place here
Þingvellir National Park: Plan to spend several hours here walking, exploring, absorbing, gaping!
Þingvellir National Park: There's also a waterfall!
Þingvellir National Park: The tectonic plates meet! European plate on the left, North American on the right! Rift runs the length of the North Atlantic Ocean. Wisdomie and Wisdil scuba dived here last year. You can actually touch the two continental plates in places.
Next stop: Geysir and Strokkur! the geysers at Haukadalur. Underground geothermal activity heats the surface water and it explodes irregularly, but frequently. Watch for the blue bubble. (And yes, I'm aware of the 'no vertical videos' rule, but you'll see why I had to make an exception here.)

video

Did someone say 'waterfall'? Gullfoss. The only point of reference I have is Niagara Falls.
Gullfoss: The largest waterfall in Europe. And yes, you get wet from the water vapor.
Gullfoss surrounded by basaltic rock cliffs.
Gullfoss: The Golden Falls at the top. 
Rainbows whenever the sun shines and the angle is right.
Grinning troll photobombing Gullfoss.
Geothermal activity in the highlands on the way back to Reykjavik. (We chose to go the clockwise route). You see a lot of this in Iceland. There is enough geothermal energy to power the entire country several times over. (Not to mention the hydro...)
Misty mountain top, moss and lichen covered lava fields beside the highway back to town.