Sunday, March 16, 2014

Land of Ice and Fire? More like land of Ice, Wind, Hot Water and oh, more Ice.

On our second day of tours, our driver -Jon (that's Jon with a y, like yawn, if you were wondering..) picked us up in a totally normal SUV. He explained that Steinir had taken us to most the things in the area that we would need a big jeep for, so no Super Jeep for us today. He was right, our first stop was a famous church. It is a very old Lutheran church, and the sight of the last beheading of a Catholic Bishop by the Lutherans. Because evidently that happened, more than once, this just happened to be the last place. 
The Church at Skahlholt

  In the basement of the church was a passageway underground out to a little hillside. Jon said it was a common thing to find secret escape tunnels in the old buildings. He also said that when he was a boy, this church is where parents would send their children for a week before confirmation. The boys would sleep in one building and girls in another. They were told that if they tried to sneak out at night, there were guard dogs that would get them. He laughed and said it didn't detour them. I have a feeling it was like telling them the grounds were "impassable" - pretty much an invitation to Icelandic boys.

After the church, we had a little time to kill and took a detour to Jon's family friend's mushroom factory.

He proudly gave us a  tour and cut us mushrooms to eat. The were growing mostly white button mushrooms but also grew a few crimini mushrooms. He said they were much harder to grow so they didn't grow very many. The little factory supplies most of the mushrooms for Iceland and business was good, he added, because tourists like mushrooms.

Next we were off to Gulfoss, a famous waterfall. Jon had the forethought to bring us some crampons for our shoes which came in very, very handy!
The path down to the waterfall was a steep sheet of ice and "impassable" with normal footwear. The view from the vista was fine, but we really wanted a better view. 
From the Vista
Dad and Jon on the path down. 
 Jon didn't even bother putting on a coat each time we got out of the car. He (like Steinir) just wore the classic Icelandic sweater and put on a hat if he thought he needed it. Jon practically ran down the path, explaining that the way to walk in crampons was like being a cowboy - like John Wayne he said. Then he did a little impression of a cowboy with a knees out swagger. I must say, the sight of a giant ginger viking looking guy walking like John Wayne is a hilarious sight. Even while you are being pushed and pulled by the wind along a jagged ice slip and slide of death, it's enough to make you "teehehehehee" into your scarf.
We celebrated not dying at Gulfoss by eating lunch at our next stop - the Haukadalur area, specifically - Strokkur geyser. On the drive there you could see steam coming from little crevices beside hills. The area is famous for all it's geysers. Of course in Icelandic it's pronounced "gay sirs" and the 10 year old in me kept thinking of flamboyantly dressed noblemen every time they said it. But Strokkur geyser was pretty neat, kind of like mini old faithful that goes off every 8-10 minutes. 
Before eruption!
By this time we were a little tired and a little cold and what did we happen to drive by? Oh, the Fontana hot springs complete with pools, saunas, and they also bake bread underground there too. Of course we went in, we're not dopes. The facility was on the shore of a large lake called Laugurvatn.
Taken from inside, after we were already done.
I totally forgot to take pics while we were in the facility because Cold! Ice! Hot Water! Run!!!!
The water was great, even if the weather was turning into rain/sleet with bouts of snow. It's hard to care about snow while you are in comfortably hot steamy water... until you try to get out of the water that is. Then it's your utmost concern. The three of us had all the pools and the saunas to ourselves. We tried all of them but eventually came back to the warmest and deepest ones. Dad and Jon talked about yoga and I closed my eyes and floated along. Just as we were done and coming out of the changing area, they were pulling the bread out of the ground. 
 It's a moist, sweet molasses-y tasting bread and very good. Jon kept saying I needed more butter, even though I had already slathered it on. I was starting to really like these Icelanders. 

Warm and with full bellies we headed off to our last stop. Jon asked if we were up for a little hike and I groaned a little on the inside. I wasn't going to say no because I didn't want to miss out on anything but it was raining, mixed with gobs of wet snow and .. and ...hiking?! We had just gotten warm and dry. I was now having mixed feelings about these Icelanders. But when we arrived at the parking lot for Thingvellir I got out of the car anyways. Jon was saying something about trolls and a king hitting one in the hip with an axe or something... something about why the Icelanders decided this would be the sight of the first parliament. It was also area where the North American Plate and Eurasian Plates meet and are drifting apart at a rate of 2 cm a year.

Thingvellir National Park
There isn't much going on in this picture except for the fact that you can see how big Jon is.
My dad is 6"..Jon looks like a sasquatch!
The park has hiking trails and we took the one around the small auditorium and then along the "rift zone". The trail goes between two stone walls - one huge and the other just really tall.

The really big wall was actually used in the filming of Game of Thrones. The used it for "The Wall", which in the show is 700 ft tall. In real like it was more like 50, but it was instantly recognizable.
Walking along "The Wall"

There is also a waterfall flowing over the wall. This time of year it is almost completely frozen.

We were pretty soaked by the time we got back to the car but it was a great day. 
We ate dinner at the main house again that night and had a snowball fight on our walk back to our house. It was snowing huge flakes and there was just enough wind to stir them up. 

It didn't stop us from enjoying the hot tub on our last night though!
Next stop - Reykjavik!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sign says "Impassable"? We'll take that as a challenge.

It turns out that if you take the effects of a long afternoon nap and combine it with being 8 hours ahead of your normal time and an outdoor hot tub, you have the perfect recipe for staying up super late waiting for the northern lights. It also ends up being the perfect recipe for a very hard morning the next day. But alas, we managed trek back to the main house for breakfast the next morning. The walk alternated between leisurely walk in the countryside and unexpected ice skating.

We had booked a "Super Jeep Tour" to see some of the natural sights out in the southern part of Iceland, but we weren't really sure what made a jeep "super", or what you would use it for. The streets seemed to be pretty paved and well maintained. We hadn't really even seen a car that would qualify as a truck so far. But it sounded like a good time, right?

Our driver picked us up and we went out to the....crazy big? let's call it "out of a jeep commercial, very large" jeep. To be fair, our driver Steinir was also crazy big... living proof that Icelanders are direct descendants from Vikings and Celts. With our authentic guide and our giant steed, we were ready for whatever the day had in mind.
On our way out to Thorsmork we took a little detour out to the beach. It was about this time that we started to recognize some of the differences between driving in the states and Iceland. In the states, you drive to the beach, find a parking spot, climb out of the car and walk along the beach. Oh, and there are probably a least a few other people around. Here, you drive to the beach, then you just keep driving, right onto the beach. It was surprising to me how forbidden it felt. I guess it wouldn't really have mattered if it was against the rules, there was no one, absolutely no one to see us.
The beach sand is black volcanic sand and offshore in the distance we could see the Westman Islands.
A shipwreck from the 1950s
Our own personal Jeep commercial
The Westman Islands are famous because in 1963 the fisherman that work out there noticed a volcanic eruption starting under the ocean surface, south from the islands. It lasted for a couple years and made a completely new island. People aren't allowed on the island because scientists are using it to study ecology and evolution. On the main island (the only one inhabited) here was also a huge eruption in the 1970s which caused the whole island to be evacuated by fishing boats in a matter of hours. So you know, just your usual quiet island life out there.

Our next stop was the caldera of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Can't pronounce that name? Welcome to the Icelandic lauguage. My best description of the language is someone doing an imitation of the Swedish Chef with a scottish accent. It's entertaining to listen to, but filled with a lot of sounds that english doesn't use. For example the double l at the end of that name doesn't sound like an l at all.. it's pronounced like something between a k and a th sound. So good luck trying to pronounce it, you know you're just going to sit here for like 5 minutes trying to get it. Go ahead.
Anyways, on the way to the volcano we should have known something was up when we had to stop to let most of the air out of the tires before attempting to drive up. And I literally mean driving up the giant ice covered mountain without any roads. The volcano is 5500ft high, and I definitely didn't think we were going to make it over parts of the climb. We made it about 2/3 before the weather came in and we had to turn around. But the view was great!

Another jeep commercial?
That pic kinda makes it look like the climb was pretty flat and just snow. This was a small flat plane that we stopped on, but the rest was more like stacking 3 ft lava rocks on top of each other and then covering them in ice and a dusting of snow. Let's just say that Steinor is a very, very good driver and was able to make it more fun and less white knuckle than it could have been.

The weather interuppting trips up the volcano is a pretty common thing, so Steinir had a "plan B", which was going to the glacier on the other side of the volcano. We would have cross an ice plane, which was way less flat and way more exciting than it sounds.
First circled back to see a couple of waterfalls that we had passed before.

Now, you might be thinking "That doesn't look very cold, there is barely any snow". You would be right about there not always being snow. But a closer look at the ground is telling.

Yep, all that stuff that looks like brown grass is brown grass encased in ice.
Some farm buildings near the waterfalls
Our guide Steinor walking through the passageway to the waterfall
We made it to!
The waterfall right next door!

Dad and I had different responses to having a little walking time to ourselves.
Me: Enjoying the quiet
Dad: Probably pretending that
he is Conan.

While we were checking out the waterfalls, Steinir called one of the other guides who came and switched us Jeeps. We got a bigger one. I wish I had taken pics of it, it was sooo big. Every time we got in I would have to climb up on my hands and knees, then stand on the ledge, then open the door and get in. The wheels were 48" wide...
Which brings me to crossing the ice the entrance to the this valley we passed a sign. Steinir told us that the sign said that the valley was impassable, as he proceeded to drive right past it. He told us that when Icelanders see signs like that they pretty much just take it as a challenge.
It's hard to capture in pictures, but the height difference between the top of the ice bumps and the water flowing between them is about four feet. That is why you need a "Super Jeep".

Crossing some small streams.
While driving across the valley, we actually had to rescue another vehicle! A van carrying some Australians had tried to get over one of the ice banks we were so easily (and slowly!) climbing over, and had fallen back in. Good thing Steinir had packed that 2 inch thick rope for pulling other cars out.

This is the only pic I have that shows how big our jeep was.
That is my 6' dad with his hand on the wheel well of the jeep.
This was after we pulled the van out, but before it fell in the second stream minutes later. 

We finally made it to the glacier and where (surprisingly to me..) totally alone again. It's weird to me to be at a well known landmark in the middle of a pleasant day and still be alone. Like standing in front of Half Dome with no one in sight.
Driving up to the glacier
The wall to the right of the glacier
We ate our lunch and coffee in the car. Steinir shared some "twisted doughnuts" - a coffee cake flavored twisted piece of sweet bread that is an icelandic staple. With the food and the view it reminded me lot of a drive in movie.... a drive in glacier? Eventually we got the nerve to get out and walk around. We didn't last long, it was very windy and pretty cold.

On the way back we had to cross a river. I took a video....

We also got to stop at one more waterfall, the one Steinir said was his favorite. It's called the "Window Waterfall"

We didn't arrive home until well after dark. We had such a great time and we gave Steinir one of the bottles of wine we had brought with us to say thanks. He seemed genuinely excited about it. It's easy to forget how coveted California wines are everywhere else!
After a long day seeing the natural beauty we ate dinner and then settled down into the hot tub. We learned our lesson the night before though. This time we brought the slippers, pot of hot tea, cookies, and bottle of wine out with us the first time. There is nothing quite as mood breaking as having to step out of the hot tub and into snow to get yourself more wine. Geez! First world problems - even if the first world is Iceland.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

So cold we went to Iceland to get warm

Having had it with the Cold (yes, I'm capitalizing it now), we got on our plane to Iceland. The flight landed almost an hour early and we were lucky that our driver was waiting for us. It was pitch black and cold, but not New York Cold, so we were moving up in the world.
We were told that the drive west was a beautiful one but we only caught a glimpse as the sun started to come up around 8am. The sun coming up was like a normal sunrise, all pink and orange, but at a tenth the rate.

We were driving along the southern countryside, to a small hotel built on the outskirts of the Thingvellir National Park. The hotel,  Grimsbogir, is basically a grouping of villas and hotel rooms built on a circular road with a main house used as a restaurant. We were shown to a couple of rooms in a row style building next to the main house. We had booked a room to share, but our host told us that all the holiday travelers had checked out the day before so the hotel had plenty of room and we could each have a room. Yay for us! When he came back from getting the keys, he had changed his mind. He told us that there was a suite that was bigger and maybe we would prefer to share that instead. 
`Why not?
Who are we to turn down a suite at no extra charge? 
So we packed the bags up again and drove over to the "suite", one more building over. 
Now here is where the language barrier comes into play.
By "suite" he meant one of the hotel's "villas", and by "villa" they mean house. 
Like a house bigger than either of our houses back home. 
Four bedrooms, living room, family room, kitchen....for us two. 
Us two who were expecting to share a single room. 
Oh... did I mention the hot tub? Yeah. 
We have one of those to ourselves too.
And you can get wifi out at the tub, you know, for hot tub internet emergencies*. 
(*the only hot tub related emergency we had was looking up pictures of monkeys in the hot springs in Japan)
So, we found ourselves in our "villa" with heated floors, having to yell at each other because the place was so big. 
Of course we broke out the wine and took a bunch of pics.
Living room
From one end of the house

From the other end

My of four, all with views.
This is pic of our villa in the summertime. It's the one used in the brochure for Grimsborgir.
Our villa in the winter!
After picture taking we settled down for a nap in the sun, saving up our energy for the adventure we planned the next day! (hint: it involves a "Super Jeep" and a glacier)