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Random blog-like rambling from Rachel's brain. A mixed up mess of usability posts, fiction, and travel.

On Alien Planets (AKA Icelandic Adventures)

I guess the thing that I am doing with this now is to update it once a year with a post about travel. Go figure. Things change y'all, that's all I'm saying. 

Anyway - last September I went to Iceland with my good friend Shane and it was a fantastic adventure. I took a lot of travel diary style notes, so you can rest assured that while this is almost a year late, it is still a relatively accurate accounting of what we did and how many sheep we saw (answer: many). Enjoy!

Day 1: Mud Facials and Getting Lost

One of the things with international travel: you tend to arrive places at ungodly hours after having slept basically not at all. In this case, we trundled in the Reykjavik airport at 6:30 am and immediately got in a car to drive ourselves around. I'm not sure if that's a wise thing to do generally. In any case, we had a few hours to kill before our 10AM appointment to roll around in mud (more on that in a bit). We drifted about and ended up at a little seaside town. Relevant facts: it was rainy and it was cold and felt very appropriately Icelandic. Gray, but beautiful.

Gray Day

After this bit of side tracking, we realized we had no idea how to get anywhere because, being smart, we had not bought a map. We rounded back to the only place we can locate that is open (the airport) to correct this misstep. Even then, we were still running too early for the mud, so we continued with the meandering (although slightly more directed this time). We met a horse:

Horse Friend

And finally: the mud. AKA: The Blue Lagoon. We sprung for the "exclusive suite" because we fancy ourselves wealthy now that we are adults. It's actually really nice, with a super swanky private shower and free drinks. There is also a valet who you can summon at will to bring you things such as: more drinks, tiny expensive hamburgers, even fancier versions of all the lagoon mud to smear on yourself. The whole thing is, in fact, a great way to relax after a long flight although there is moderate danger of falling asleep with your face in a pile of rejuvenating mud. We totally looked 10 years younger when we leave. (not really).

Where's That Awesome Mud?
I Was Here

My: this mud is flipping amazing! Also I am really tired! face

After this greatness was a really unfortunate attempt at driving to our hotel in Reykjavik. It involved a lot of getting lost and attempting to find free Wi-Fi in order to get directions. It is not the sort of thing you should do on 2 hours of sleep and only rejuvenating mud keeping you alive. It is a miracle we find our temporary home. We forced ourselves to enjoy some sight seeing and a proper fish dinner before crashing out. Day 1: super duper successful with a side of driving nightmare.

Day 2: Horses, Elves, Wax Figurines

After dosing up on coffee it was off for another driving adventure to find the Ishestar Riding Center, our primary day 2 activity being "ride an Icelandic horse". We managed to get there on time just barely, and it was well worth the panicky effort. The ride was as awesome as you'd expect. Lots of great scenery and the unique experience of feeling very far off the ground and like you might fall off at any time. It's actually really cool. My horse was named Tonka and didn't try to murder me even once.

Tonka

Tonka in Close Profile

Shane and Icecube

Shane with his horse, Icecube the Fantastical

Post riding, we found our way to the scenic town of Hafnarfjordur. It was a neat place, but by far the most exciting thing was that they had an elf garden. I am pretty sure this cat is actually a cleverly disguised elf.

Cleverly Disguised Elf?

Elf, for Sures

Hafnarfjordur

Back in the capital city we determined that perhaps the most critical thing to do was solve our directional handicap once and for all. We did this by locating a mall with a Vodafone store and picked up a couple sim cards so we could once more lean on google maps instead of our own sense of left and right. It is by far the smartest thing we did this whole trip. 

After this we for once made it to a destination without making a wrong turn and got ourselves immersed in history and wax creepiness at the Perlan. Also, there were some pretty great city views from up there.

Wax Man
Reykjavik

Later, we headed to that cathedral you see in the above shot. While taking photographs, we got approached by some native youths who proceeded to take pictures of us, taking pictures of the cathedral for some project I don't recall the details of. Also: some people were filming a movie out front that involved someone getting shot. It was a busy night at the cathedral for sure. 

Hallgrímskirkja
Movie Set

If anyone knows what movie this turned out to be. Please let me know...

I believe we had dinner of wine and schnitzel after this, which is about the best way to end a day that I can think of.

Day 3: Road to Vik

This was an odd-numbered day, so it rained. Also, I woke with a sore throat which made for a rough start including the discovery that it is by no means easy to find cough drops in this country (I think it was almost a full day of trying various places before locating a pharmacy and paying 3 times the usual amount for them). While the day is pretty foggy and wet, we still managed to find some cool things to see as we made our way east. The first was in the town of Hveragerði where they have a fun little geothermal area, or rather a park that is full of boiling ponds of water and a lot of steam. It's pretty bad ass. There's even a spot where you can boil eggs!

Steamy!
Boil Your Eggs Here

As we headed further down the road we saw a 60 foot high waterfall basically emerge from nowhere along the skyline. It was still pretty rainy, but we are adventurous folk so we got as close as possible and also got exceedingly wet in the process. I regretted, with all my soul, wearing jeans, but it was still basically amazing.

Rain + Waterfall
Rain + Waterfall
Behind the Falls

The evening was spent at a place called Volcano Hotel. It was a bit removed from the closet town (Vik, where we acquired pizza for dinner), but very nice. I drew this while we were there.

Iceland sketch

My rendering of sheep is very accurate

Day 4: Vik to Skafatell 

Even numbered day, so it was sunny! Which was great, because our first couple of stops featured mountains, glaciers, some amazing rock formations, big crashing waves, and lovely blue skies. Very pretty, as you can see...

Road to Mountains
Snow and Glacier
Shane Courts Danger, Sortof

Here is Shane, risking life and limb for a good shot.

Icelandic Church

And here is one of those red roofed churches you see all over Iceland

Further along the ring road, we found another waterfall. This one was much smaller, but it also had a weird little grass covered shed nearby that I found super charming.

House of Grass

Our next big destination was the National Park at Skafatell where there is a really big glacier that later we will climb. It made itself apparent well before we actually got to the park proper. It rises up from the landscape like some alien thing, white with lines of black ash from the volcanic explosion from a couple years ago. From our hotel, we get a pretty excellent view of the top most portions of the thing.

Snowcapped Mountains

Day 5: Glaciers!

 According to my travel journal we slept until 11am on this day. Just because you're travelin' doesn't mean you aren't occasionally totally lazy. We made up for it in the afternoon. Also, it's an odd-numbered day so naturally: rain, which is the perfect weather for climbing a glacier.

In fact, the rain scared off the other people scheduled to go on our hike with us, so we got a private tour with our hilariously charming Czech tour guide who taught us many things about Mouse Rocks, Moulins, how to drink glacier water from a stream by sticking your head directly in it, and how to warm your hands by violently spinning your arms around. She was pretty great.

Glacier, We Are About to Walk It!
I Has Crampons

Crampons: the spikiest of foot wear choices

Glacier Ice

Glacier Ice is predictably cold

Glacier Mouse

This is a glacier mouse. It is mossy and when squeezed will leak very cold water.

Ice Wall

Wall 'o Ice

After walking up a glacier in the rain you tend to be very wet and very cold. So you can imagine our  surprise when we got back to the hotel to discover that the power was out and there was limited access (ie: no access) to hot water. We did the best we could under the circumstances and with dry clothes drove longer than was reasonable to the closest place with power to get some dinner. That place was Hofn, the lobster capital of Iceland! I had bisque, and it was good. 

Day 6: Driving the Easter Fjords

 A beautiful sunny even-numbered day, which is good because we had to make our way around the eastern side of the country to get to Husavik by evening time. Luckily, driving is more entertaining when there's a lot of beautiful scenery to stop and gape at. Although that does slow down progress.

Stop number one was the Glacier Lagoon. You've probably seen pictures of it before, what with the blue glacier chunks.  It's really neat, especially all the seals. The seals were really cool. 

Glacier Lagoon
Seal Friend

My friend the seal

Glacier Lagoon

Stop 2 was a scenic outlook with some more amazing cliff side views and crashing waves and what not. Beautiful, naturally.

Sun Spots
Shadow Tourists

Sorta proof we were actually here

Stop 3 was a small seaside town which one of our guidebooks claimed was "the most picturesque town on the eastern Fjords. It was, in fact, pretty picturesque.

House on the Water

At this point we made a daring cross up a secondary road through the mountainous fjords. I say daring because our tiny car was clearly not really meant for this type of travel. The road is gravel and dust, narrow, and yet they claim one can go 80kmh down the darn thing. We maybe go half that at the most. It is astonishingly pretty, but I have no photographic proof of this because our focus was mostly on not tipping over a cliff side and dying a tragic death. 

Somehow, we did make it to Husavik in time for a late dinner in town. It's one of the best we had there in my recollection and included both Viking Beer and Bjork Schnapps, and I do not think you can get more Icelandic booze than that. 

Day 7: Husavik, No Whales, Waterfalls and a Lake

We had a grand plan to go whale watching in Husavik, but it's an odd-numbered day so we were basically banned from doing so. High winds shut down all whale-watching tours for the day. It is disappointing, and this is the closest thing to a proper whale I got to see in Iceland.

Some Whale Bones

Hint: it's dead.

Not ones to be deterred, we decided on finding somewhere else to adventure. Our thought was to drive down the coast to some point on our map that claimed there were puffins to be seen. Instead, we mostly found rain. However, a spontaneous decision to turn south rather than north led us down yet another dangerously rocky road to find to our endless delight some really really big waterfalls. They're located in the midst of a rather dramatic canyon that cuts through Northern Iceland. With a drizzle still in the air and temps at around 36 degrees, it is well frigid but also a thing that has to be seen to be believed.

Hafragilsfoss

Hafragilsfoss

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Having acquired waterfalls, we then headed on south toward Lake Myvatn where we were due to spend our evening. We manage to catch some more geothermal activity on the way there as well as some of Myvatn's other-worldly beauty at it's best in the late afternoon light. Is it just me, or does everything look especially pleasing in the late afternoon light?

Steam and Clouds
Late Afternoon in Myvatn

Day 8: Myvatn, Akureyri, and the Northern Fjords

Lake Myvatn is apparently known best for these big crater things that are all over the place. This is how we spent the morning of Day 8: wandering around big cratery type things that make the place look a bit like a moonscape.

Crater

Here is a big ole Crater

The next stop was yet another wildly impressive waterfall. This one is called Godafoss. There is a story about these falls that goes as follows: some dude who was in charge of things decided that all of Iceland should convert to Christianity. As a sign of this massive religious shift, he took their old idols and tossed those suckers right into the falls. Thus, Jesus is welcomed into the hearts of all Icelanders, I guess. In any case, the waterfall is amazing, sure to crush any idol you toss into it. Unlike in the states, they don't really keep you from getting as close to the edge as you dare, so also they are quite likely to crush a few people as well.

I Got Pretty Close

As close as I dared. Which was pretty darn close.

Godafoss

Having tossed our idols away, the next place on our agenda is the town of Akureyri where we had lunch, got confused by parking, and saw a pretty nice little church. 

View of Akureyri
Akureyri Church

Somehow, despite having mastered GPS, we made a wrong turn coming out of town and had a small detour for a bit. The thing I remember most clearly about the detour was driving past the same Santa's Workshop two times. Resituated, we eventually made our way through the Northern Fjords. Driving in this area is pretty intense, what with the extreme drop offs right into the roiling ocean. To add to the fun, there are also a series of very long tunnels through the mountains, some of which are one way. I believe the longest was about 4 km. It was pretty claustrophobic.

Mountain Tunnels

I drove through that! It was scary.

Mountains and Ocean
May Have Stood in the Middle of a Highway for This

Stood in the road to get this one. Totally worth the danger.

At the tip of what is called "The Mitten" there's an amazing view of the Artic Ocean stretching out into forever. On the day we saw it it was remarkably blue in the early evening with the sun hanging low, the reflections in the water are just breath taking. It makes a person feel very small in the grand scheme of things.

Islands off the Coast

The other amazing thing that happened at this juncture was that while trying to find a place for dinner we got waylaid by a sheep round up in action. Dozens and dozens of baaahing sheep filled up the road while a few folks on horseback trotted around clicking at them trying to get the unreasonable things off the road. It is basically my favorite thing that happened to me in Iceland. You may enjoy it vicariously through this delightful video.

When we finally managed to get around the herd of sheep and to a town with actual restaurants we found ourselves at a place called "Olaf's Hus". Perfect. In addition to the great lamb and fish dishes, we also met some interesting people. At the table next to us an Indian man and his hired driver ended up talking to us for quite awhile about things to see and do in Iceland. Turns out the guy was there scoping out locations for the Sierra Club tour he was planning. We talked about Route 66, Icelandic Myths (one of which involved a particular hotel with a glacier view that is apparently an excellent aphrodiasiac), and the Gallpogus Islands. 

By the time we made it to our hotel it was very late and very dark, but it was a rich full day. 

Day 9: Back to Reykjavik via the Western Fjords

Odd-numbered day: so it starts with the rain that has been chasing us around Iceland the whole time. Still, we managed to take a few shots at our little hotel before setting out for the drive back to Reykjavik. Our friends from dinner the previous evening had suggested that on the way we ought to stop by the peninsula so we could see what is supposedly the inspiration for Tolkien's Mordor. Despite all the rain, we can't resist the call of Mordor. 

Along the way we found some more craters and took a hike up along the rim of one. I suspect that this is not entirely unsimilar to what it feels like being on the moon, only with, you know, more gravity. Indulge me please.

People On Top of Grabrokargigum
It's Kinda a Big Crater Thing

Later on in the town of Borness we found a great place for lunch that had not only an excellent buffet but also locally brewed beer. We split a lager and a stout and it was great. 

On towards Mordor, but as you might expect, the closer we got the worse the weather became. In fact, it got so very dark and windy that eventually we had to make a rather un-Frodoy decision and turn back towards more civilized parts. 

Ominous

We made our way back to Reykjavik by way of another very long tunnel which also cost 10,000 KR to pass through. 10,000 KR! 

Back at the capital, after checking into our final hotel for this trip, we figured we had earned a nice night out at some appropriately cool pub. Our first attempt was to check out an Irish Pub we found online, but they were not really serving anything in the form of food. So we stumbled around looking for something more our speed when we found quite be accident "The Lebowski Bar", themed on the classic Coen Bros movie of which I am a hard core fan. They feature a robust menu of themed burgers and a wide variety of White Russians - all tailored after characters in the film. In honor of the dude, we enjoyed a couple in addition to some burgers. A pretty great way to spend the last night in Iceland.

Day 10: A Stop by the Cathedral Before Flying Home

We made one last stop before heading to the airport to get back to America and that was a trip up to the top of the Cathedral. A few notes on that: it was appallingly windy and I felt for a moment like I might just get swept out one of those narrow windows and fall to my death. Also, it was great.

View of Reykjavik
Organ Pipes

The flight back was pretty uneventful with the exception of getting to see how awesome Greenland looks from the air. Seriously, look at it!

IcelandAir Over Greenland

Some Final Thoughts

I think everyone should check out Iceland. It's such a unique place, particularly if you are the type of person who gets excited by geothermal action, volcanoes, and rock formations. And who doesn't? I put together a couple of videos which I think are pretty good summations of the experience overall. The first is a collection of what amounts to different variations on water and steam during our trip. The second is a collection of driving footage I took with my mini-camcorder which was clipped to one of the visors in our rental car during the whole trip. I think they both came out pretty great. You can check 'em out below.