June 21, 2014

The Land of Fire and Ice, Puffins and... Hotdogs?

Iceland has always been on my list of countries to visit. Those who know my husband and I know we are avid travellers.  When I was diagnosed with lung cancer, I wasn't sure whether I could travel abroad again. Am I healthy enough? What do we do in an emergency? What about health care insurance abroad? More importantly, how is my stomach going to cope?? But with the help of modern medicine (Iressa!), a more laid back travel pace, a good health plan, a bottle of Imodium and some determination, we just returned from a fabulous trip to Iceland!  
For those of you who want the details of the trip, please read on. Especially if you are interested in visiting Iceland yourself, which I highly recommend. But if you are short on time and are a picture-oriented reader, scroll down to enjoy the photos :). 

Iceland is a country full of not just "ice", as many people seem to believe, but volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, hillside green pastures, fjords and picturesque Scandinavian villages.  Iceland has a total population of 320,000 with two-thirds living in its capital, Reykjavik.  The currency is the Icelandic Kronur (ISK); 100 ISK is equivalent to $1 CAD. The official language is Icelandic but everyone speaks fluent English, fortunately. I can usually pick up languages fairly easily but I couldn't even pronounce the names of most towns here!  In early June, we enjoyed about 22 hours of daylight and temperatures varied around 12-20 degrees Celsius, depending on what part of the country we were in. I even came back with a slight tan! Glacial water comes out of the faucets and water is heated geothermally. How awesome is that?! The livestock (an overabundance of sheep) were seen grazing grass all day along the countryside. Restaurants proudly serve locally raised meats, and locally caught wild fish and seafood. I actually felt safe trying a little meat here. We explored the country by driving along the Ring Road. The interior highlands require off road vehicles, especially for glaciers and river crossings. Our little Chevy Spark had a hard enough time maneuvering through "safe", narrow gravel roads on some excursions so we didn't venture off into the "F Roads".

The Capital:
Reykjavik is about 45 minutes drive from Keflavik Airport. Hallgrimskirkja, the landmark Lutheran church in the centre of downtown Reykjavik, gave us a panoramic view of this quaint, colourful city as seen from the church tower. The streets fanning from Hallgrimskirkja has many restaurants, cafes, shops and tourist centres. Notable food stops (I am still a foodie despite my drastic diet change) include: Cafe Loki (authentic light Icelandic dishes but quite pricey, although that was the norm in Iceland), The Noodle Station (the best pho noodle soup ever!!), and Babalu Cafe (desserts and beverages, a sunny back patio to enjoy it, and a funky Star Wars themed bathroom). There are quite a few authentic Icelandic restaurants on the main strip but we never had a chance to try them. Cured shark, reindeer, lamb, whale, horse and various local birds and fish were often seen on the menus. Interestingly enough, the Icelandics love their hotdogs!  Apparently they make the best in all of Europe, must be the garnishes. Yes, we tried it and it was actually good! There's a seawall along the harbour that goes for miles but be prepared to be blown away, literally.

Enjoying the Icelandic Hotdog!

Downtown Reykjavik

The biggest attraction, about 45 minutes southeast of Reykjavik, is the Golden Circle, a circular drive that takes you into Thingvellir National Park, including Pingvellir (a 7km stretch of land that separates the North American and European tectonic plates and also where the world's first parliament was established in 930 AD), Geysir (one of many geysers to see) and Gulfoss (a beautiful, massive waterfall).  No notable food stops here though :(. 


North Iceland:
Along the way to Akureyri, we took a gravel road detour, 1/2h drive on Road #711, to find Hvitserkur, a coastal rock formation that looked like a grazing buffalo, in my opinion.  It was worth a look and a refreshing way to break up the journey. We spent 2 days in Akureyri in the north which is Iceland's second largest city, population 18000. It also has a good number of great restaurants all within walking distance (Rub 23, Noa, Bautinn and Peng's). Interestingly enough, we had the warmest and sunniest weather here. From Akureyri, it was an hour's drive to the Mynvatn region or what I like to call the Hot Zone.  We visited Dimmuborgir (lava rock pillars, but beware of swarming flies and trolls! And they only come out in December, the trolls that is), Viti Crater (lake filled volcanic crater), Namafjall Hverir (bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles), and the Nature Baths of Jardbodin (so relaxing after a long day!). 


Jardbodin Nature Baths

East Fjords:
It was a long drive from Akureyri to our accommodation in the east fjords, Stodvarfjordur, although the scenery was amazingly diverse.  Godafoss waterfalls is about 45 minutes from Akureyri and worth a short hike to see, even if we had already seen over a dozen roadside waterfalls by this time. Egilsstadir was a perfect stopover for a late lunch. In fact, this is where we should have based ourselves since Egilsstadir was a hub for many touristy places like Seydisfjordur and Skalanes, and Borgafjordur Eystri, and it had a number of great restaurants, like Guesthouse Egilsstadir, Cafe Nielsen and Salt.  The east fjords were all about finding puffins! At least it was for me. Poor S was just tagging along. Borgafjordur Eystri is a small green peninsula, a breeding ground for many seabirds including puffins, but the route there was a long narrow gravel road through a winding mountain pass. At times it was scary! But was totally worth the effort once we saw how beautiful the area is.  There were magnificent views of the harbour and dozens of puffins, kitiwakes and other seabirds and waterfowl (binoculars essential). Skalanes, a 1/2 h bumpy drive plus a 1.5h hike from Seydisfjordur, is also a good place to find puffins, although in smaller numbers. One caveat: As you approach Skalanes (a house and cafe), you trespass through a colony of arctic terns that will not hesitate to attack you (just like in The Birds!! NOT fun). Poor S got pecked in the head several times, which eventually resulted in a few cuts. One of the girls residing in Skalanes advised us to carry a stick above our heads to deter the birds. Happy to report that it does work! After that traumatic experience, we celebrated our survival with dinner at Hotel Aldan (minke whale sashimi, chickpea pattie and locally raised lamb... Yum! But I couldn't try the lamb... Saw too many of those cute little guys playing in the countryside. S enjoyed it though). 


The drive to Borgafjordur

The many sheep along the roadside.  Nice of the farmers to let them keep their pants :)

The panoramic view from Borgafjordur Eystri

The hike to Skalanes, BEFORE the arctic terns

Cute little puffin at Skalanes

South Iceland:
The southern east fjords was foggy and extremely windy but, again, so scenic!  The small town of Hofn is well known for its langoustine (or Norwegian lobster, which is a smaller version of Atlantic lobster). Here, we devoured delicious grilled langoustine and tasty skyr cake (Iceland's version of cheesecake but much lighter and less sweet) at Pakkus. Only an hour's drive away from Hofn is Jokulsarlon (Iceberg Lagoon), a definite stopover for easy photo masterpieces of icebergs and glaciers. By the time we arrived at our guesthouse near Vik, we were exhausted. We decided to take it easy for the last two days of our trip.  We slept in, had lunch in Vik and took a slow but challenging hike in Dyrholaey where you can see multiple coastal rock formations, and more puffins!  A short drive away from here is Skogafoss, a tall waterfall that was the trailhead to one of South Iceland's many glaciers, but it takes more than 20km to get there; otherwise, we would have hiked it (maybe next time).  Our final Icelandic supper was at Hotel Skogar Restaurant, 1 minute away from Skogafoss; they make a great apple pie!

Our last day in Iceland was spent driving 3 hours to Keflavik airport with a stopover at Kaffi Krus, known for their burgers and pizza, in Selfoss for one final delicious meal in Iceland (sigh). 

It was a fantastic trip of great scenery, new experiences (I also learned how to drive a manual transmission car finally), good health, and, of course, awesome food! S and I were able to forget about cancer and simply enjoy our time together :). Iceland is one of the most beautiful, friendly and clean countries I have ever visited.  We would not hesitate to go back. I am so grateful that I was physically able to enjoy another great trip with S and add one more country to my list of places I have been.

Langoustine lunch at Pakkus in Hofn