17 April 2018

2018 Iceland 7 - Unexpected Sights

Mike and I have traveled to mostly every state in the USA, many of them multiple times. Exceptions are: neither of us has been to Vermont and Mike hasn't been to Alaska. We have driven from Michigan over various routes to the West Coast four plus times. We have circumferenced all the Hawaii islands except little Lanai and "forbidden" Niihau. We drove both coasts from north to south. And we have been to a number of countries around the world. So you would think we have seen a sample of most ever landscape.

No way, Jose. Iceland is a place all its own. The Ring Road is 828 miles (1333 km) around and we only traveled about one-third of it. But it felt like every 20 miles or so was a distinct change of topography. Much of it moon-like, with scant inhabitants, although scattered far and wide was a lone abode or small cluster of homes. Makes you wonder what made folks chose that remote spot. Not much else along the way except some basic power lines here and there.

Not only were the fossar (plural for foss) diverse, but the terrain changed often. There were red flora, glaciers and their melting waters, scrub, spiky rock formations, gray rolling lava-scapes, gravelly areas, black sands, brown dusty areas, every size boulder, green "carpeting," mountains, multiple volcanoes (none spewing at this time), golden grasslands, and more.

Here are sample photos just from our first day, but notice all of them as you go along throughout this Iceland blog. So diverse and interesting and unexpected.

Then we saw something REALLY unexpected. Galloping down the Ring Road came a herd of maybe 30 Icelandic horses. Mains and tails were billowing in the breeze. One cowgirl lead the parade and another rounded up the rear. Cars in both directions stopped at the amazing sight. There was hardly time to get out cameras before they were gone in a flash. Whew, what a treat!

Icelandic horses have wide bodies, some with big bellies and sloped backs. They have short legs and heavy coats. They have long hair on their haunches, long tails that often touch the ground, and long mains that cover their eyes. They come in all colors including multi and some even have blue eyes. They may be shorter than horses, but don't ever call them ponies. More at:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_horse.
This hardy breed was introduced by the Norse invaders in the 9th or 10th century. To keep the breed pure, other breeds are not allowed in the country and if these guys are exported, they cannot return. They are used for sheep herding, showing, racing, and leisure riding. We saw a number of riding stables advertised along the way, although we did not have time or inclination for that.

There were two more foss opportunities coming up. We did not learn the name of either. The first was another tall one. It was interesting because it plunged over the cliff like someone pouring a pitcher. It did not cascade or touch the cliff until it hit bottom. How would you like this in your backyard?
The other was shorter, but wider. Top photo shows the "stair steps" of the foss, as well as its width. The next photo shows the main foss area on the right. It was maybe a 20 foot drop. All the fossar, as far as I can tell, come from rivers derived from glacier melt.

By this time we were hungry. The next town was Vik (means bay), Iceland's southernmost village. Its population in 2016 was 316 people. It has a picture perfect church on the hill overlooking the town. Nearby is one of the biggest arctic tern breeding grounds. Puffins nest here, too, but we did not see any today.
As far as we could see there was one choice for food, a roadside diner. It was basic and looked like a place where the locals eat, but as we left a busload of tourists arrived. We made it in and out just before the crowd hit.
I think the guys had burgers, L had melted ham and cheese (one slice of each), and I had a really great veggie burger. All the sandwiches here were about $18 USD each and that was typical for throughout our visit. A bit of a sticker shock, but keep in mind just about everything has to be shipped onto the island...except fish.
Outside the window was a fantastic view. We saw these odd stacks of basalt rock poking out from the sea. This turned out to be Black Sand Beach. We thought this popular site was down the road a bit further and we saw no sign to alert us, so we did not explore further.

Later we learned the cliffs (and caves) here are exceptional. Google "black sand beach Iceland" and then go to images. Unfortunate that we missed this. Oh, and this is also the location for some movie sets and scenes in the TV show "Game of Thrones."

We also browsed the nearby Icewear store. Turns out there was a nicer (but pricier) cafe with just about the same menu, but we were happy with our first choice. The store had "everything Iceland" for sale, but we weren't in a shopping mood. We were anxious to get to our destination for the evening.

Our last stop on this leg was Laufskálavarda farm. We saw people walking around these odd stone structures rising from a mound, so we curiously pulled over, too. The tale is that a large farm on this site was destroyed by the first recorded volcanic eruption (named Katla) in 894.

The blast resulted in these odd shaped structures that appeared on the mound and for miles away on both sides of the road. The smaller ones looked somewhat like crude Chinese coolie hats. These were chunks of hot lava spewed and hardened in place during the eruption.

The legend continues that people traveling by for the first time would add a stone to the lava structures and that would bring them good luck for the rest of their journey. People continue the tradition to this day and, to keep up with the numerous travelers, the road commission brings in truckloads of rock to have on hand. My sis and I dutifully added small pebbles onto one of the piles. From our driving experience so far, we would gladly accept any assistance (real or imaginary) to keep us safe.

Most of the above structures were natural in shape, but those around the mound were enhanced by travelers' rock balancing skills.

13 April 2018

2018 Iceland 6 - On to Skaftafell

I'd say by 10:00 we had refreshed and refueled our bodies, so we hit the road with great enthusiasm. In March, daylight is 08:30 til 19:00-ish. We planned our trip so we would not be driving after dusk. With the unfamiliar road conditions, I would highly recommend that for everyone.

This portion of the trip, our longest driving day, was five hours max if we traveled non-stop. Of course, we found many diversions along the way.

Before our departure, everyone asked why would we go to such a cold country in early March. Well, the morning temp that first day was -1C (30F). Throughout our visit it never got colder than that, at least when we could check the digital thermometer on our car display screen. The highest we saw was 3C (37F). Mike checked the Kalamazoo temp throughout our trip, too, and it was consistently about 5F degrees colder at home than here!!

Luckily, we caught mostly sunny days. A branch of the Gulf Stream (the Irminger current), flows along the southern and west coast of Iceland, greatly moderating the climate there. Weather can be unpredictable though, so layers of clothing and 4-wheel drive vehicles are recommended, especially in winter.

The first town we approached was Sellfoss on the banks of the Ölfusá River, about 30 miles (50 km) outside of Reykjavik. We crossed the river on a suspension bridge. The original bridge here was built in 1891. The current bridge was constructed in 1945 after one of the original suspension cables collapsed. It was the only two-way traffic bridge we crossed on our trip into the hinterlands of Iceland.

The river was our first glance of glacier waters. It was wide and rushing, with a huge bolder in the center...a tall evergreen growing out of it. We didn't test the waters by hand, but you could see icy chunks speedily floating by.

We pulled into a parking area. There was a vintage dinner with old-fashioned Coke signs, a 3-screen theater (showing Paddington 2, The Commuter, and Darkest Hour), and a quaint village church.

There is also a Sellfoss waterfall (foss translates to waterfall), but it is located many miles away in an inland area of northeast Iceland. If you are taking the Ring Road all the way around, I recommended a side trip to see it, although its water comes from the Vatnajokull glacier melt and flow varies depending on the season. See photo at:  https://hiticeland.com/places_and_photos_from_iceland/selfoss-waterfall

Nearby by Sellfoss (the waterfall) is Dettifoss. It is considered the most powerful foss in Europe. See photo at:  https://www.northiceland.is/en/places/nature/dettifoss-waterfall

Sellfoss (the town) was a little further down the road. Population is 6,934. It is the ninth largest city in Iceland by population, but most of the larger cities are part of Greater Reykjavik. Salmon fishing is the industry here.

If any of you are into chess, American chess player Bobby Fischer is buried here. In 1972, he defeated Boris Spassky of the USSR in the World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik. It was advertised as a cold war confrontation and brought untold amounts of interest into the chess world. Many consider Fischer to be the best chess player of all time.

So we are continuing along down the Ring Road and what unexpectedly appears off to our left. This...

It was Seljalandsfoss. The major foss drops 197 feet (60 meters). It is part of the Seljalands River with its origin being the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull. So impressive!
Leading up on each side of the main foss was a stairway. They were iced over and closed this time of year, but in better weather you can climb up to a cave behind the falls. I can't imagine the view from there.
There were smaller falls trailing along the cliff for maybe a quarter mile. This was the next biggest area (far left in pix above).
At the bottom of this was a mound of ice build-up, but also two small geothermal geysers continuously spouting away.

The Seljalands River continued on from the bottom of the foss on out to sea.
This foss was a way-point on one of the Amazing Race episodes and was also in the movie CKY2K, which featured Icelandic singer Bjork. This was apparently an outrageous skateboarding daredevil video which lead to the Jackass movie series, but I never heard of it. On the other hand, its $5,000 budget tells you something.

Another foss that we did not see is nearby Gljufrabui or the Hidden Falls. From what I read, you walk into a cave of sorts and the foss cascades down a tube-like area. Apparently you get pretty wet though, as a change of clothes on hand is advised. Maybe best at this time of year that we did not venture into this one.

To see worthwhile photos, go to:  https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g3676471-d10309126-Reviews-Gljufrabui_Waterfalls-South_Region.html. On the photo, click "full view" and then click the right arrow to see a number of fab photos.

08 April 2018

2018 Iceland 5 - Rules of the Road

As we began our drive east out of town, this was one of the first safety warnings we saw. Hard to tell from this pix, but these cars looked like ours and had been in head-on crashes. Billboards on each side begged the notion of safe driving and listed numbers of deaths on the highway. I don't remember the number, but we did not want to increase it.

OK, let's talk about the roads. In the capitol there are a few main thoroughfares up to three lanes wide each way. There are a number of round-a-bouts and some interesting tri-color stoplights. Not only is there a momentary yellow just before red, but also a momentary yellow just before green. So instead of seeing cars continuing on "pink," you'd see cars slightly jumping the green.

In town, side streets were narrow and many were one way. We didn't see any concrete pavement anywhere, mostly basalt stone pavers or asphalt. Street names are often long and unpronounceable to us. One of the main streets was Snorribraut. Remember the saga author? And braut means "runway." My sis had a great time converting street names to goofy English translations. Maybe she'll add an example here later. How to figure street names:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_names_in_Iceland.

Most of our travels were on the Ring Road or Route 1 (the yellow line on this map). We traveled from Reykjavik almost to Hofn, about one-third around the island and backtracked from there. On most of this road trip we could not see the sea or it was way off in the distance. Vik was an exception.

For safety's sake we opted not to continue the Ring Road north into less populated areas. Winter is considered October through April. Weather is particularly unpredictable during that time and often dangerous. Roads can be closed. Expect the unexpected and be flexible are some of the travel tips we read. We had limited travel time, so not so flexible.

I tried to find out how they remove snow and it appears there is a complicated formula of depth, road usage, etc. If I read the chart correctly, it could take up to three days to clean heavy snow in more remote areas of the Ring Road. They use plowing, sand, de-icing chemicals and, more rarely, salt. If you want to torture yourself, you can read all about it here:  http://www.road.is/media/um-vegagerdina/Iceland_Snow-and-Ice-Databook-2013-v01.pdf.

Once out of the city, it was two-lane road all the way. This was our first road view in the countryside along the Ring Road.
Most of the drive was on flat land, but there were some passing lanes on steeper areas. The widest shoulder we encountered was about 12 inches. In other places the shoulder did not exist outside of the dotted white lines. Or the center line was non-existent. Crossing paths with some of the luxury liner tourist buses was near heart-stopping. Thank goodness we had sunshine and dry roads most days.

There were guard rails in some areas but that was not the norm, even on the steeper climbs. Sometimes there were 10-20 foot drop offs with no guard rail protection. For the most part, the only warning of the side of the road was the yellow reflectors. You definitely have to be alert while driving here.

Speed limits ranged from 50 kph (about 31) in the city up to 90 (about 56) on most of the Ring Road. And, honestly, that was fast enough for me. We discovered near the end of the trip, that the speedometer was reading maybe five miles per hour faster than what we were actually driving. We wondered why so many folks passed us and compared the GPS speed to the speedometer speed. We adjusted a little after that.

Besides speed signs there are all kinds of interesting signs. We could figure out most, but looked up online what some of the more obscure signs indicate. Move to bottom to see all the interesting ones in blue. https://www.arctic.is/traffic-signs/

Oh and here is one you probably have not seen before. It was in a public restroom.

Every so often along the road we would also see what looked like a weather station or earthquake monitoring system of sorts. This also had a camera attached at the top.

Bridges outside of towns and villages were all one-way. So you approached gingerly to see who got there first and then waited for the opposite vehicle to pass by, if necessary. We came across only one construction area and that was a bridge improvement.

It is illegal and there is no tolerance for drunk driving. Max blood alcohol level is .05%. If you are under suspicion you get a breathalyzer test. If positive, you get a blood test which you cannot refuse and can be taken forcefully. Heavy fines or imprisonment can follow. Minimum first offense is 70,000 ISK.

If marijuana is your thing...possession, cultivation, and sale are heavily penalized. Bringing it into the country can get you a month in jail. Although, we did meet an American visitor who said he used an MJ vape kit and pulled it out of his inside pocket for a moment to show us. Medicinal MJ is allowed on a VERY limited basis.

Other laws:  Everyone must wear a seat belt at all times. No talking on cell phones, unless hands-free. Headlights should be on at all times.

Insurance clauses say no off-road driving, even with all the insurances. But parking lots and driveways outside of town are pretty much crushed rock. We did have one hard stone hit the windshield while driving. It seemed to make a little mark, but we passed mustard during the car return and did not have to pay any deductible.

04 April 2018

2018 Iceland 4 - Grand Hotel Reykjavik

Our room was more than adequate in size, but not spacious. We had a bed, two side tables, a desk, a fridge, and a large closet area.

On top of the fridge was a glass box with a door. We had no idea what that was for. T&L did not have that in their room. Hmmm?
And I love the ecological mindset of the Icelanders. In our room was a three part trash bin, indicating trash, bottles, or paper. It was a great reminder to recycle and saved a lot of sorting by the staff.
Lights are always a mystery. Are switches on the wall or on the lamps? Are the switches toggle or flip? On the base or under the shade? Which switches work on which lights, especially the bed lights? This time you put your room card in a slot by the door to activate the switches. After some experimenting, we figure it all out.

In Iceland you have the option of two twin beds or a "king bed." Basically it means your twin beds are separated or snugged up next to each other. This was our experience in some hotels in mainland Europe as well. Today we had the king set up. Linens were white (except the coverlet) and wonderful. We each had our own duvet. Mike hit the hay immediately.

It had been cold in the lobby and I had a chill I could not shake. I opted for a hot bath first. The bathroom was large with tub and shower and heated floor. I hopped in the long and narrow bath. That did the trick and also brought my swollen knee back to near normal size.

The shower set-up was something we had not seen before. It had an curved swinging glass door to contain the spray. I thought it was clever, but Mike didn't like it so much. Only one kind of soap for body and hair and no conditioner. Not particularly good on my hair.
After my bath I crashed and slept soundly until 20:00. I woke and couldn't sleep, so I jotted some blog notes. I was still antsy, so got dressed and took some photos in the lobby. It was lit in a purple and pink theme, including some areas of the floor.

If you understood Icelandic, you could read the saga stories depicted on the huge (2 or 3 story high) stained-glass windows.
Clocks by the front desk revealed that we were on the same time zone as London.
It was still chilly in the lobby, but the fireplace (above in first purple pix) was lit and candles were scattered about. That gave the illusion of warmth. Back in the room, I was finally able to shut my eyes again.
Breakfast was included in the room rate. I have to say the spread was impressive. There were four main selection areas--beverage bar; fruit, breads and pastries; cold cuts and salad; and hot items and soups. Each area had a wide selection, to appeal to all palates from Western, European, Asian, and beyond. Impressive!

Never saw a serving tray of fried eggs before and they were cooked to perfection.

A "bonus" item at all the breakfast bars on this trip was a bottle of cod liver oil, shot glasses, and lemon. Appropriate, I guess, for a land that eats a lot of cod. Brought back memories for Mike from when he was a kid. His grandparents always had a bottle on hand for a breakfast nip. None of us tried it.

After breakfast we were anxious to get on the road.

An aside: My opinion may be influenced by our rough start, but I would not rate this hotel above average. Customer service skills need to be honed. If the receptionist had indicated our room would not be ready til 14:00, we would have made a different plan. But stringing us along from 09:00 til 14:00 wasted our time and put us in a negative frame of mind to enjoy our stay there.

The room was nice and clean (especially the bathroom), but not what we are used to in a 4-star hotel. The location, from what we saw, did not lend itself to shopping or sight-seeing. The breakfast was fantastic, but that is not a reason to give a top rating.