With apologies to the Vikings and The Washington Post travel section’s “Your Vacation in Lights”
The Tour de Iceland -- Riding the Ring Road
One family, three generations Grandmom (me), daughter Emily, son-in-law Kevin, and granddaughter Kelsey, 14
It’s natural that a few months ago, looking forward to July’s Tour de France cycling marathon, Emily suddenly came up with a spectacular idea for the perfect family vacation: we would be Kevin’s volunteer “road crew’ while he biked around Iceland’s entire 900-mile Ring Road, a ride he had only dreamed of in his wildest fantasies. He loved the idea, and Kelsey quickly joined our team to become a crew member and my roommate. The foursome was complete. We were all set. However, at the beginning everything didn’t go exactly as planned.
PLANS GO AWRY
In fact, three potential “disasters” made me feel quite certain our journey was doomed.
First, poised to take off for JFK, we encountered a major stumbling block: Kevin’s hard-sided bike box containing the essential mode of transportation in Iceland—the bicycle—was huge, far too big to fit into the taxi hired to take us from Princeton, where they live, to the airport. Kev and the frustrated driver discussed and debated what to do. Time was fleeting as they struggled unsuccessfully to solve the dilemma. Finally, Kevin came to the obvious conclusion: he was forced to leave the bike home.
We were finally on our way. But almost an hour from the airport we got caught in a massive traffic jam. For a long while we were at a stand-still in total gridlock. Finally, we made it, but with less than one hour remaining before our international flight. The final blow resulted when we successfully, we thought, passed through security. However, all was not as it seemed. In the process of going through security, my brand new digital camera was stolen from my backpack—though I didn’t discover this until we were well on our way. Half of my joy in traveling is taking pictures. I was not a happy camper. These bad omens seemed to foreshadow more problems to come, I found myself thinking. But, seeing my distress, my granddaughter Kelsey volunteered to loan me her year-old digital camera. I was grateful and impressed with her generosity and accepted. All was well with the world again.
With no bike to haul around, our rental car provided ample room. Actually, I hate to admit I was secretly pleased that Kevin couldn’t bring his bike. It was a stroke of luck that worked out well for us all. He was a great driver and didn’t seem unhappy at not being able to ride a bike for the entire time. He maneuvered the two-lane Ring Road and numerous one-lane bridges skillfully, avoiding sheep on the road, slowing down on rough gravel construction sites, and interpreting incomprehensible Icelandic road signs expertly as we made our way counterclockwise around the island.
The Ring Road totals 900 miles but with frequent side trips, we managed to cover some 1500 miles in almost two weeks. On our Ring Road odyssey we took in fantastic views of hundreds of Iceland’s some 10,000 waterfalls and many of its 100 fjords. We enjoyed spectacular rides along the seacoast and at the base of awesome mountains. We viewed countless flocks of sheep and twin baby lambs frolicking on the hillsides, Iceland ponies grazing near enormous fields of brilliant purple lupine, and arctic terns ready to dive bomb an innocent intruder. Best of all, we couldn’t believe our good fortune to drive often 50 miles or more on an empty highway without encountering more than two or three cars.
SIGHTS FOR SORE EYES
Some friends had described Iceland as “extremely bleak, like traveling on the other side of the moon.” I was prepared for this. But they were wrong! This land of active volcanoes, dramatic black lava fields, “hot spots” featuring steaming mineral springs, waterfalls, ancient glaciers and stark mountains topped by snow presents spectacular views from almost every direction in every region.
Our list included too many fascinating sights to explore in just two weeks, but we did our best. Some of the most memorable: ---the aquamarine hues of the mammoth steaming Blue Lagoon; ---Guilfoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, where Kelsey and Kevin hiked; ---Thingvellir, the World Heritage site where the first Vikings created the nation of Iceland and the site of Iceland’s first parliament. This is the vast valley and honeycombed series of ridges where the European and North American tectonic plates meet and continue to split apart inch by inch each day; ---The incredible bubbling mud flats and volcanic craters of Nemafajoll; ---the awesome site at Jokulsarlon in the east fjords where massive icebergs break off from mountain glaciers and flow down into the glacier lagoon of Breidarmerkkurjokull on their way into the Atlantic Ocean.
And as they say on late night TV, that’s not all!
SOME TOP MOMENTS
A highlight of our trip was an afternoon spent gaining insights into the Viking history, life and culture—and having fun while we did this. Luckily, we came to Iceland just in time for the annual Viking festival at Hafnarfjordur, a small town just a few kilometers from Reykjavik. The first Vikings settled Iceland in AD 874, and the earliest settlers were primarily farmers. You wouldn’t have guessed that from dropping in at this major Viking festival. The festival was in full swing when we arrived there, and we spent several hours wandering through the many colorful outdoor booths and markets, replete with authentic artifacts, clothing, hats, gloves, crafts, swords, and many other well-made reproductions of the life of the Vikings of the 9th and 10th centuries. There were carcasses of boars hanging while waiting to be prepared for banquet by knife wielding butchers, musicians playing ancient instruments, a flame swallower frightening the children, and a serious bow and arrow competition featuring expert marks people, both male and female. Culminating the afternoon’s festivities was a full-scale battle between clans of warring Vikings outfitted in authentic helmet and gear. They swung their battle axes and swords and wrestled the enemy to the sawdust covered ground with great cries of aggression and the crowd cheered the victors. The festival was timely and authentic presentation of life at the height of the Viking age. We enjoyed the afternoon thoroughly.
But on a lighter note, enjoyment of a totally different nature….
Soaking our sore muscles at three geothermal pools also had to rank near the top of our A list. We explored the first one, the famed Blue Lagoon, just after arriving at Keflavik Airport. We headed directly for the geothermal baths just after landing from our all-night flight from JFK. Emily wisely had planned this as our first destination since the huge thermal pool and spa is just 40 minutes from the airport. Soaking languidly in the steaming misty aquamarine waters provided just the right relaxation for us to start to appreciate what would be an incredible Iceland adventure. But the Blue Lagoon just whet our appetite for more of the same.
The next day we searched out another geothermal destination---the mineral bath and heated waters of a cove at the beach overlooking the Reykjavik harbor. Iceland planners had had the foresight to build the convenient geothermal hot spot as a recreational center easily reached from the capital. They had tons of sand hauled in from Morocco to create the public beach with a protected cove of hot water, along with a long thermal pool overlooking the beach. They accomplished this by pumping piping hot water to the location from a nearby pumping station. This method was also employed in other Iceland regions to create geothermal pools as social gathering spots for local people during the long Icelandic winters. When we arrived at the mineral baths at 10 a.m., it was freezing cold and a brisk wind chilled the air further. This didn’t stop Kevin from running down the hill and leaping into the cove’s hot spot. Emily and I were content to soak in the heated pool, until we had to hop out into the 40 degree air and run for the changing room. It was worth every moment in the cold!
One highlight for me was hiking up a steep mountain trail to a view overlooking a huge waterfall and gorge. I was gasping for air after just a few minutes, trying to ignore the pain in my knees as I counted more than a hundred stairs heading straight up the mountain trail. I had to stop to catch my breath every seven or eight steps until I finally met up with Emily. She didn’t make it all the way up to the view of the falls, but stopped half way and missed the spectacular sight of the two massive falls tumbling far down into a gorge hundreds of feet below. (I just had to boast about my one minor accomplishment.)
EATING, DRINKING AND SLEEPING SOUNDLY
We found Iceland to be impressively clean everywhere. In fact, we quickly began to think of its reputation for the highest standard of living in the world in comparison to that of our own country---and reluctantly had to describe our own as “third-world”. We decided this especially after taking advantage of the numerous meticulously maintained public amenities available at regular intervals around the Ring Road. (Coming home to find Virginia is closing down many of its interstate rest stops only reinforced this opinion.) We stayed in comfortable hotels very night. I must confess that this almost didn’t happen.
In researching where we might stay early on, my frugal daughter Emily, thinking to save money, checked the couchsurfing website, and found and made reservations for us as “couch surfers” in a Reykjavik home for two nights. Her justification: the cost would be only $30 a night—and we would only have to share the one bathroom with a family that included three young children. It was only for two nights, she argued. I was unenthusiastic, to say the least. As the aging and often aching matriarch of the family, I insisted we needed our comfort and sleep to start this tour. I turned down the interesting “couch surfing” concept in favor of reservations at a great hotel, the Reykjavik Centrum in the heart of the old town. It was worth every kroner! Unknowingly, we had arrived in Reykjavik on Iceland’s Independence Day. On our first morning we were greeted by festive crowds dressed in traditional black costumes and lace bonnets. We saw marching bands, roads were blocked off for a parade, and the mayor presented a speech in the nearby plaza. This set the tone for all the good times to follow.
There are few big hotels outside of the two major cities, and those were almost all fully booked when we first started researching possible reservations. But via the internet, we managed to snag some excellent rooms. In just one small fishing village on the northern fjords, we did have to share a bathroom down the hall, but at the price of $133 for two rooms, we didn’t complain. Best of all, the geothermal water that heats most of Iceland buildings provided an unending supply of hot water for showers, a welcomed luxury after a long day of touring.
Though we were warned about the sky high cost of food, we managed very well. All of our breakfasts were included in the room costs. Smoked salmon and even caviar appeared on the buffet plates more than a few times. We became addicted to the two ubiquitous and inexpensive national foods found everywhere: skyr, a dairy product similar to thick yogurt, and pylsur, the inexpensive hot dog available in every roadside gas station and café in Iceland. (We never asked what the pylsur sausages contained but often ordered them with the standard condiment “remoulade” for lunch or snacks.)
One interesting note: Early on, we noticed on many dinner menus “foal” listed as an entrée. We also observed many hundreds of beautiful Icelandic ponies grazing in fields all over the countryside. We put two and two together after many days of wondering what they did with all their horses.
AN UNEXPECTED GUSTATORY EVENT
As we drove along the ocean during our final morning in the bleak north fjords, we came across a sign pointing far down the road to a tiny building perched on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. We recognized the name immediately. Back in the states we had tried unsuccessfully to reserve rooms in the 12-room Budir Hotel but it was fully booked. Here we were in this remote region not far from the Arctic Circle. No buildings could be seen for miles, and suddenly we encountered a sign with the name of the very hotel where we had wanted to stay. Emily reminded me that according to the guide books, this hotel featured the best restaurant in Iceland. “Let’s go take a look,” we agreed.
It was late morning. When we entered the tiny elegant lobby, we could see a beautiful glass enclosed restaurant just off the bar. The view of a quiet meadow where horses grazed among wild flowers contrasted with the constant roar of ocean waves crashing against the black rocks at the base of the cliffs below.
But what was on our minds? Not the scenery!
Our thoughts turned naturally to the hotel’s reputation for having the best food in Iceland! Emily didn’t waste a minute. She inquired if we might have lunch there, although we could see the restaurant was closed. All the patrons were out hiking we were told, and would not be back for lunch. However, seeing our disappointment, the manager said she would check to see if it was possible to serve us, even though the restaurant was not open. In a few minutes, after consulting with the renowned chef, she told us he had consented to prepare lunch just for our party of four and she led us into the dining room. Half an hour later our lunch arrived. It was an unforgettable dining experience, especially since we had no idea what to expect: steaming bowls of wild mushroom soup, exquisite platters of tender lamb and asparagus, a fresh fish for Kevin, and incredible desserts of raspberries, ice cream, and a soufflé to die for.
I hadn’t asked how much the lunch would cost, but when the check arrived, I was astonished, to say the least. We compared the cost of this incredible gourmet meal with the pleasant but hardly memorable dinners we had had on previous nights. The total price at the Budir Hotel was comparable to those meals---about $25 per person.
TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
The Ring Road is Iceland’s major highway. Some narrow unpaved roads go into the interior over the jagged mountains. Only four-wheel drive cars are equipped to maneuver these roads, passable only for a few months in the summer. The guide books warn tourists specifically not to attempt the passes over the mountains without the proper vehicle.
You know what comes next.
Of course, this warning didn’t stop Kevin. Several days into our trip, we were anticipating a long day’s drive as we meandered at too slow a pace around several eastern fjords. Studying the map, Kevin calculated that a nearby pass over the mountainous interior of the island would save us several hours towards our next destination. I protested, quoting the guide books, but Kevin said we could make it easily. He won the debate.
Leaving the Ring Road, we followed a winding gravel road up the mountain onto a high desolate plateau. Extraordinary vistas of glaciers, giant waterfalls cascading down into fast moving icy streams, black barren lava fields interspersed with green mossy patches of earth presented an environment of total isolation and beauty as we continued to ascend higher and higher. However, my attention was more on the danger lurking ahead as we crept around hair pin turns up the narrow winding road. It became even more nerve racking when I noticed that no guard rails existed to protect us from careening over the edge of the cliff. “Isn’t this road terribly steep? Are you sure this car can make it, even in low gear?” I had the nerve to ask Kevin. By now I was more than slightly nervous, and Kelsey actually had hidden her head in her security blanket to avoid the dizzying view far down into the canyon. She wasn’t looking but I was! I could see that our car seemed to be headed almost straight up, when I spied a tiny sign that said, “17% grade ahead.” I actually began to believe we would start slipping backwards at any minute, the road was so perilous.
As always, my son-in-law was supremely confident. He saw my concern. “Don’t worry, mom,” he said.
So, as a good mother-in-law, I closed my eyes and kept my mouth shut! Of course, we made it. In fact, it was a fabulous ride. I wouldn’t have missed that experience for the world.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME
Arriving at the northern fjords, we realized our good fortune—we’d be there precisely on June 21—the longest day of the year and the day of the summer solstice.
During the entire trip, it never got dark. We had grown accustomed to this phenomenon in the land of the midnight sun. At this time of the year Iceland has daylight almost 24 hours a day. We found it a little gloomy just for an hour or so around midnight. In fact, we had to pull the blackout curtains shut at night in order to fall asleep. We were looking forward to this special solstice event on June 21. If conditions were right, we hoped to view the sun passing over the horizon without ever setting. People said this was an amazing experience. They were so right.
We left Akureyri at midnight June 21. Driving about 30 kilometers, we spotted a tiny fishing village overlooking a small harbor, surrounded by mountains on three sides. Fishing boats were anchored nearby, and no lights were visible in the few tiny houses facing the dock.
The pale blue sky above was clear, except for a string of thin grayish clouds drifting across the horizon. The brilliant orange ball of sun created an almost ruler-straight line of shimmering color across the calm water of the harbor. We sat in the car, watching in silence. Our digital cameras captured picture after picture as the sun moved slowly behind the clouds, reappearing again and again as it traveled slowly across the horizon.
We sat mesmerized for almost an hour, until about 1:30 a.m. The sky gradually began to dissolve from vivid hues of orange and pink to shades of pale periwinkle, but the sun never descended below the horizon as it moved slowly across the sky. Then its journey was complete and the “sunset” was gone. But the memory of this summer solstice in Iceland will linger in our minds forever.
We loved Akureyri, especially since we stayed at one of our best hotels, the Kea, located in the heart of the city. Situated conveniently in the old town, the hotel is near the harbor and more important for our family, it faces a great bookstore where we lingered for many hours. In Akureyri, we had a great time enjoying the interesting restaurants, colorful cafes, and the tiny shops. It was a perfect stopping place to relax for a few days and we did. We lingered at sidewalk cafes, sipping the superb Iceland coffee, drove out from the city, up the ski run and stopped at a horse farm where Kelsey could pet some friendly Icelandic ponies. This led to the others going for the horseback ride they had been looking forward to for a week. I decided not to go along and was sorry about that later.
BUT WAIT THERE’S ONE REAL DOWNER
I have to admit not every destination in Iceland is worth traveling any hours to view. In fact, we would have avoided this destination had we known what was in store. About a week into our journey, we drove several hours out of our way to Lake Myvatn so Kevin could enjoy an afternoon bike ride on a rental bike around the lake. This is reputed to be a very beautiful region. One guide book describes it as a “bright oasis on the edge of Iceland’s desert highlands.” In addition to the lake, we intended to visit some nearby volcanic activity, hotspots, mud pots, cones and caldera, as well as hike on a well-known trail between some lava ridges.
This half mile hike through a rocky lava gorge near the lake turned out to be a miserable experience—one we couldn’t wait to complete. We found out very quickly there was more there than met the eye. Lake Myvatn, actually a lava field, is extremely shallow, only 2-4 meters deep in places. Sunny skies and mineral-rich spring water allow algae to grow plentifully in the lake, and millions of midges live only to eat the algae. In fact, we learned that day the word “myvatn” literally means midge (no-see-ums, or gnats is another name for these tiny bothersome insects in other cultures.) We soon learned that the lake is named as it is for good reason! The guide books only refer fleetingly to this information—but we noticed that other tourists seemed to be more aware of the hazards than we were.
Strangely enough, Lake Myvatn was almost the only place in Iceland that we found to be actually crowded with tourists. Many came prepared with hats with nets attached to cover their entire head and face. Kevin had actually brought such a hat too, even though he didn’t bring it for this reason. Luckily for Kelsey, he gave it to her to wear. We proceeded to hike down the trail through the lava ridges but immediately were attacked by black clouds of invading hordes of midges. They didn’t disappear since there was no breeze, and it was very hot, the only time in Iceland that this sultry climate condition occurred for us. Hiking silently, I kept my mouth shut and dark glasses protected my eyes. A floppy hat covered my hair, but I had to fan and brush at my face continuously to keep the nasty little creatures away. It was not a pleasant hike to say the least. We high tailed it back to the comfort of the car as quickly as we could.
FROM MIDGES TO MUD HOLES
From this unfortunate encounter we moved on to a more interesting destination—the mud holes of Nemafjoll. There we strolled over an enormous desolate field of dried cracked orange-tinged dusty earth. Huge molten lava pools, hissing fumaroles, and gigantic boiling mud pots bubbled up from the cracked earth, causing smelly steam to shoot up high into the air. The sulfurous fumes stung the eyes and filled the nostrils with a bitter rotten-egg smell. Never mind. It was well worth hiking around the huge field to examine this impressive natural wonder that resembles some sights at Yellowstone National Park.
As we left, we were anxious to get rid of the grit and volcanic fumes clinging to our bodies. We headed toward Krafla where another huge thermal pool, the Myvatn Nature Baths is located. This is a giant milky-blue geothermal runoff of water from a nearby power plant. Reminiscent of our first soak at the Blue Lagoon, this was well worth an hour’s stop. We washed away the smelly sulfurous smell of the mud pots, floated in soothing mineral water and totally relaxed before continuing on our journey. We were headed toward the northwest fjords and the only other real city in Iceland, Olafsvik, a lovely little town situated along the long narrow fjord of Eyjafordur.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Just a few words about the Icelandic language.
Actually few words were comprehensible in this very difficult and obscure language of Old Norse that the people proudly continue to speak. We had many fascinating experiences exploring facets of the Viking culture and learned much about the history of this Nordic land. But learning more than a few words in the language was not part of our experience. I must say Em and Kev did much better at it than I did, much to my chagrin. The words seemed impossible to pronounce—or remember. Amazingly, we never had much difficulty finding our way around because the signs were so well designed they could be deciphered easily. We were especially impressed with the easy-to-use signs appearing frequently around the Ring Road. They were clear and easy to interpret even in Icelandic, pointing out the tiniest villages and even minor roads leading to local farm houses, often stating even the names of the farm’s occupants. The excellent graphics on signs and maps make it easy for travelers to navigate despite lack of understanding Old Norse.
SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW
The gains for our family on this trip are too varied to recount. However, two thoughts come to my mind. The four of us—three generations of one family—got along spectacularly well, with never a moment of difficulty, tension or dissent. Kelsey was especially enthusiastic and cooperative. In fact, one day, well into the trip, my 14-year-old granddaughter said something that made the entire trip worth every kroner spent on it.
We had just commented on the simple life Icelandic people seem to lead. We had noticed in particular that so many teenagers and even small children could be seen everywhere outdoors, walking, biking or hiking rather than hanging out in malls. That’s when Kelsey made a remark I was delighted to hear.
She said, “Malls and makeup really aren’t the most important thing, are they? It’s more fun to be outside and see mountains and oceans and save the environment.”
That one remark made my trip to Iceland absolutely worthwhile. Just one more personal experience. I have an intense interest in music of almost every kind, and the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” has always had special meaning for me. "
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue.
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true."
On this trip on two special occasions we were privileged to view a rare sight when an enormous perfect rainbow suddenly appeared and hung in the sky for many minutes. Each one appeared out of the mist unexpectedly filling the sky with a huge arc containing all the brilliant colors of the spectrum. We watched these spectacular sights from a vantage point high on an empty hillside road where we could stop as long as we wished. I almost felt that these jewels of nature appeared especially for me alone, as a personal gift or sign.
Each rainbow was a memorable moment on a memorable trip that was meant to be.