Iceland – Part 2

 

Borgarnes was our home for two days as we explored the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Despite the clouds and soft rain and wind, we walked along the harbor and cliffs of Arnarstapi, a tiny hamlet nestled among
spectacular scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

Our perseverance was rewarded with a lunch of hearty meat soup and bread, freshly baked that morning. During a comfort stop at the Malariff Information Center, I wandered along a path and came upon a zip line! It was low to the ground, so we had to use those core muscles to keep our lower bodies up and off the ground. But what a fun discovery!

Just the drive along the coast of the peninsula is like watching a movie of pretty scenery – fishing villages, rocky cliffs, Arctic terns. In many places you find large fields of lava rock now covered in green moss and lichen, giving them an otherworldly cast.

 

 

 

At Kirkjufell Mountain we stood in awe of its beauty. It’s not a tall mountain, but uniquely shaped and set among coastal water, greenery, and nearby waterfalls.

 

Thus far Iceland has been a testament to sight, but our taste would be tested as we chewed the delicacy known as fermented shark. Admittedly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected, but we gratefully washed it down with Icelandic Brenniven, a drink made from potatoes and caraway and affectionately referred to as Black Death by Icelanders.

 

We departed Borgarnes and drove north, crossing over Holtavorouheidi moor, and took a short detour to Kolugljufur, home of the trolless Kola. More on trolls and fairies later. Her home is enhanced by a magnificent gorge and waterfall, but alas, she did not come out to greet us.

 

 

 

For those of us who have read the book, Burial Rites, you will understand why we were interested in the sight of the last execution in Iceland. The novel is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fredrick Suguorsson, who were beheaded for murder in 1830. The last execution in Iceland. But was Agnes really guilty? Hmmm.

View from my room on the farm

We stopped for the night at the Hofstadir Country Hotel, which is a small lodging on a farm with incredible views. Toti, the owner, is not only a great chef, but he also served as tour guide to a neighboring horse ranch where we learned about the breeding and training of the unique Icelandic horses. Toti’s in-laws own the nearby cattle ranch where we were lucky enough to meet a new born calf. While the rancher brought the calf outside her pen to meet us, her mama was not happy and bellowed and stomped until her calf was returned to her. I didn’t blame her!

Linda pouring us shots of something good!

We set off the next morning for Akureyri, Iceland’s 4th largest city. Large is a relative term here as the population of Akureyri is just over 18,000 and it boasts a police force of five, yes….five. It’s red traffic lights are heart shaped! Needless to say crime is not a big concern in Iceland. But first, along the way we stopped in Siglufjordur, a picturesque village known for its herring production. It celebrates its past and present with small museums that tell the story of fishing and folk music in the north of Iceland.

On arrival in Akureyri on a sunny day, we walked the small but beautiful botanic gardens and then headed to Happy Hour. Linda, our trip leader, arranged happy hours at every place we stayed and almost every traveler in our group participated just about every day. It was a great way for a group of strangers to get comfortable with each other, especially those of us who were solo travelers.

Also arriving that day in Akureyri was a very large cruise ship. Unfortunately, one passenger on the ship tested positive for COVID, so the ship was ordered to leave. Now that’s a bummer.

 

 

 

The Lake Myvatn area has much to appreciate, not the least of which was Freddi the Baker’s delicious rye bread, baked underground in his little section of a vast geothermal field. Freddi lifted his large metal container by rope out of the ground and handed us each a spoon. The bread had a more cake like consistency and we each scooped out a big lump of bread and an equally big dip of fresh Icelandic butter. Mmmm.

After we walked the geothermal field with its boiling mud pits and steam spouts, we visited a geothermal power plant. Geothermal energy is Iceland’s most precious resource and it provides inexpensive, reliable, and safe renewable energy. Heat and hot water are practically free in Iceland!

 

 

 

Our last stop was the incredible Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) where we walked along the river Skjálfandafljót. That evening we were hosted for dinner at the home of two different local families. It was nice to have a home cooked meal after so many hotel and restaurant meals.

 

 

 

It wouldn’t be the perfect trip to Iceland without whale watching of course. While the whales were very shy on this lovely sunny day, our captain persevered until we were finally rewarded with a few tips of the tails.

 

 

 

Once we were back in Akureyri, Linda wanted to stop and visit her friend Hreinn and invited us to join her. A handful of us accepted and we were glad we did. Hreinn has created a garden full of trees and flowers and fairy tale personalities. He uses found and collected objects and materials and builds the people and animals we have all read about in fairytales. This was an unexpected magical visit.

 

 

 

 

The next day a short flight landed us in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city in Iceland, population 123,000. Another 90,000 plus live in the surrounding area. But as capital cities go, Reykjavik is small, which makes it an easy city to navigate.

 

 

A visit to Arbaejarsafn was a step back in time with its turf houses and guides dressed in period garb.

 

 

 

Back to the present. This is, after all, travel in the time of COVID. In order to return home in two days, we would need negative COVID tests. Overseas Adventure Travel organized our testing and we went as a group and were back to the hotel in time for happy hour. We were told to expect an email with our results. As we were sipping our cocktails, phones started pinging…our results were coming in. With each negative result a cheer went up, glasses were raised, and we all gave a sigh of relief. No one tested positive!

Our parting experience was a visit to the famous blue lagoon. Its geothermally heated waters were warm and soothing. We were treated to a special facial mask…and it wasn’t the kind you loop over your ears…and a green smoothie, which we used to toast each other on our last day in the land of fire and ice.

 

 

 

A word about trolls and fairies. I doubt that the majority of Icelanders really believe in trolls and fairies. But…they are loathe to admit it because… what if the fairy overhears them! So concessions are made and plans are changed. The path of a new road is curved around a troll’s rock. I mean people circulated petitions to change the direction of the road…just in case. The parking lot of an apartment building has a giant fairy rock in it. Because…you know…just in case! Amazing! But, back to reality.

Fairy’s rock home in the parking lot!

 

At the airport we were asked to show our passports and negative COVID tests and the entire process went smoothly. Upon landing at Newark International, I went straight to the Global Entry kiosks and was through in less than 45 seconds. The regular customs lines were very long, so I was glad to have Global Entry. No one asked me for my test results.

My first international trip during the pandemic went surprisingly well. I’m glad I went. Any lover of the outdoors will find Iceland a spectacular experience.

I should add that a few days after I returned in late July, Iceland experienced an uptick in COVID cases, so masks became a requirement indoors and on public transport. For those of us who cannot imagine life without travel, it seems a small price to pay. But we must care for others at the same time and not leave our home countries unless we are fully vaccinated. Safe travels has a new meaning in this time of COVID.

Skál

 

 

Iceland – My First International Travel Since the Pandemic

Honestly, Iceland had never been on my bucket list for international travel. Yes…There are the waterfalls, mountains, lagoons, and geothermal fields. But they were never enough to put Iceland on the travel map for me….until COVID. I freely admit to my travel addiction, and so after 14 months of stateside lockdown, I was desperate. Iceland opened up to vaccinated Americans this spring, and without a second thought, I booked a tour with a small travel company for June. Another plus for Iceland was their handling of the COVID situation and their high rate of vaccination (87%). So it really seemed to be the least risky international destination, and that moved it right up to the top of my travel list. And then it cancelled. Apparently not many people were as enthusiastic about international travel in May as I was and so the little tour company didn’t have enough travelers to fill the trip.

Two weeks later, however, I managed to book a 12 day trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), a company I have travelled with and trusted. OAT requires that all travelers, guides, drivers, hosts, and local providers be vaccinated, adding another level of safety.  I managed to score the last spot in this group of 15 intrepid travelers and I booked direct flights between Newark International and Reykjavik. So while this blog will cover the things we saw and did in Iceland, I’ll also focus on what it was like to leave the country during a time of COVID.

On July 9, I boarded an Amtrak train in Philadelphia for the one hour ride into Newark International Airport (EWR). I’ve done this many times in the past and find it very convenient, but this was my first time wearing a mask. The train was 30 minutes late, but I had plenty of extra time built into my commute, and we arrived at EWR just under 3 hours before my scheduled flight. At check-in I presented my vaccination card and passport and headed to the security line. Even without a TSA Precheck line, this process went smoothly. I had purchased a business class ticket with IcelandAir which allowed me to use the Lufthansa Lounge at the airport. Business class on IcelandAir is not fancy, and the cost reflects this. The lounge, however, was a big disappointment. Where previously there had been a bar and hot food, the lounge now served bottled water and bags of goldfish. Oh well.

My short overnight flight to Reykjavik left on time and my trip leader, Linda from OAT, was waiting for me in the arrivals hall. It was 6:15am Iceland time. By my calculations, I had been wearing my mask for just over 11 hours, removing it only while eating. I slept 2 hours while wearing it on the plane. Conclusion: wearing a mask for that length of time wasn’t terrible.
Because of the high vaccination rate in Iceland, their early handling of the pandemic, the requirement that anyone entering Iceland must be vaccinated, my 12 days in this country would be mask free, indoors and out.

Our first few days of exploration would take us along the coast and inland in the south of Iceland.

Our base hotel was in Selfoss, a small town (population 6800) near the banks of the Olfusá River. From here we traveled to Seljalandsfoss, a small but iconic waterfall. The “foss” ending on Icelandic names and words usually refers to a waterfall.

Later we drove along the Eyjafjlla Mountains to the Dyrholaey Cliffs where we spotted puffins! These unique and adorable seabirds build burrows into the cliffs and then dive for food in the ocean.

On the menu for lunch…arctic charr like I’ve never tasted before. Framurskarandi! (Outstanding!) Fishing is Iceland’s biggest industry and we would enjoy numerous and delicious meals of fish over our 12 days here.

Later we met Ingo Matthiasson, who drove us to the Myrdalsjokull glacier and Katla volcano in his super truck. But first a word about Icelandic names. Ingo’s last name is derived from his father’s given name- Matthias. Icelandic surnames are different from most other naming systems in the modern western world. Generally, a person’s last name indicates the first name of their father, or in some cases mother, followed by “-son” or “-dottir.” So John Petersson’s children might be Sam Johnsson and Linda Johnsdottir. Can you imagine what an Icelandic phone book looks like?

Ingo’s super truck is designed for traveling over ice and volcanic stone and easily fit our entire group. The Myrdalsjokull glacier has been blackened by volcanic ash from nearby volcanos, but more disturbing is it’s shrinking size. Global warming is taking its toll on Iceland despite efforts to combat it. The arched ice formation you can see in my photos was once an entire ice cave, and before that, solid ice. Climate change has caused melting to the point that by the time a friend of mine visited Iceland a month after me….the arch was gone, melted!

 

 

 

It’s a tradition to raise a toast at the glacier with a shot of Katla vodka, chilled over glacier ice…and that we did!

As we road back to Selfoss, our Trip Leader, Linda, presented us with her home baked Happy Marriage Cake! It was delicious and perfect for soaking up that vodka! You can find the recipe below.

 

 

 

 

On Day 4, we began our journey toward Borgarnes and Iceland’s Golden Circle. After breakfast, we visited a yarn studio where the artist showed us the natural way she dyes yarns and what goes into the making of the famous Icelandic sweaters. The sweaters are handmade, tagged with the knitters signature, expensive but worth every penny considering the time and quality. Next up….the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland…Gullfoss! On the day we visited there was 5000 cubic feet of water per second flowing into the crevice. The viewing area closest to the falls is uneven stone, slippery with spray from the falls, and requires some climbing. As usual, the ascent was easier than the descent!

 

 

 

Just minutes away from Gullfoss is Geysir, where, as you might guess, you can observes geysers, among other geothermal activity. While we walked the area the geyser known as Strokkur was erupting every 3-4 minutes. At both the waterfall and the geyser area, we encountered lots of tourists and locals, but not nearly the numbers normally seen during the very busy month of July in Iceland. During the 12 days we were in Iceland we experienced no big temperature swings. Most days temps were in the 50s and we had 3 or 4 days in the 60s….heat wave! While it rains frequently in Iceland, the precipitation was never enough to limit our outdoor activities.

 

 

 

 

Our afternoon was spent in Thingvellir National Park which was the location of the Alþing (Althing), the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. I found this so interesting….two continents that appear so far apart on a map are really not so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ended our afternoon at Drekkingarhylur, better known as the Drowning Pool. There were 70 – 80 executions in Thingvellir National Park during the 17th and 18th centuries. Of those there are recorded 15 hangings, 30 beheadings and 18 women were drowned in the “Drowning Pool”. It is the only place of execution which is marked by a memorial plaque but there are also places at Thingvellir with self-explanatory names such as Gallows Rock (Gálgaklettur), Scaffold beach (Gálgaeyri) and Burning gap (Brennugjá). The treatment of the innocent and often abused women executed at the drowning pool is considered a stain on Icelandic history.

Next time….On a more pleasant note, will be the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

 


HAPPY MARRIAGE CAKE

Ingredients:

150g (1 3/4 cups) oatmeal – uncooked
280g (2 ¼ cups) all-purpose (plain) flour
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar
1 tsp baking (bicarb) soda
240g (1 cup +1 tblsp)  butter or margarine, room temperature softened
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Filling:
Rhubarb jam

Directions:

Preheat oven to  375°F and butter a  (12″)  square pan. Blend together the oatmeal, flour, sugar, baking soda in a large bowl. Add the butter bit by bit and use your fingers to mix or kneed it into the flour until well combined.
Mix in the egg and vanilla extract. It’s easiest to just keep using your fingers.
Press 2/3 of the dough firmly into the pie dish.
Spread the jam over the dough in the pan.
Take the remaining 1/3 of the dough and crumble all over the jam.
Bake in centre of oven for about 30 – 40  minutes, until golden.

Serve on its own or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.