Friday, July 18, 2014

Iceland Trip Report--In the Water, On the Ice, Up the Mountain

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Because I have several friends and family that do not follow FaceBook and others that want more details about the trip, I am posting a trip report on my recent non-cycling trip to Iceland.  Cycling in Iceland looked to be a real iffy activity.  No shoulders on the few paved roads.  The only cyclists I saw were totally self-supported.  The good news, there doesn't seem to be many restrictions on where you can pitch a tent.  The bad news, you are going to be wet all the time.

Trip Summary.  My daughters, Robin and Ginger, and I spent eight days in Iceland doing as much as we could physically do.  We found Iceland to be an amazing place and very much worth the visit.  The landscape is absolutely fascinating ranging from glaciers to volcanoes.  The people were very friendly.  The guides, excellent.  Our only cautions are that Iceland is very expensive, the hotel rooms small (and expensive), food isn't particularly good (but expensive), the almost continuous sunlight can throw off your sleep, there is not much tourist infrastructure meaning don't expect anything, and it is cloudy and rainy (it rained everyday we were there and the sun was out only a very few minutes the entire week.

Still, if you have your rain gear and a roughing-it mindset this is a terrific place to visit.

Logistics.  We flew Icelandair from Denver.  They have a direct flight every other day.  We flew out on Saturday, 7-5 arriving early on 7-6.  We stayed at the Centerhotel Plaza.  Centerhotel has many properties in downtown Reykjavik all named Centerhotel something.  We booked our tour package through Arctic Adventures (  We were on the South by Southeast package ( ) which is a challenging tour package.  They have several other tours.  I needed to work with them during the tour because of a scheduling conflict and they were super responsive.  We flew back on Sunday 7-13 arriving about 6:30 pm.

The Trip

Saturday and Sunday 7-5/6

We flew out of DIA on Icelandair late Saturday afternoon and arrived in Reykjavik in the early morning.  We had made a hotel reservation for 7-5 to insure we had a place to stay.  We got to the hotel about 9am and took a nap until 1.  Some hotels have an early checkin for an additional fee but you aren't guaranteed that your room will be ready.  Without a reservation or luck we could have been tramping around Reykjavik until 2 or 3 pm.  

We had a single room for me and a double for the girls.  The rooms were small by US standards.  I expected at least a queen size bed for the double room but it was maybe a full size.  My bed was more like a twin against a wall, no tub, and a very leaky shower.
Our hotel.  Notice yellow benches.  Crowd watched World Cup there.

Luxury bath compared to mine

A little too cosy

Our plan was to nap until 1 then get out and walk around, and then have a special dinner.  The special dinner was arranged by the girls for a father's day present.  In the end we decided to skip the special dinner and just get something quick near the hotel.  Little did we know that the menus at most of the restaurants are basically the same.  

Expect to pay $60 for a dinner for three no matter how basic.  Lots of fish and chips or hamburgers at $20 or more and that is as basic as it gets.  We did discover the hotdog stand where prices were about half--so a cheeseburger was about $11--and not a very good one.

Monday July 7

Our plan was to get out on Monday and do something outside to throw off the last jet lag.  I arranged for us to drive ATVs.  
Cute ATV girls

I wore red to tell us apart

For once not taking a selfie

These ATVs are really fun

Ginger did not want to drive

Arctic Adventures arranged for us to go with Safari Quads.  We drove ATV's up Mt. Esja.  A mini-bus picked us up a little after 9 and we and a father/son from the Faroe Islands rode about 30 minutes.  There we got our driving instructions (right thumb makes it go and left hand makes it stop), warning about wrecking the ATV, and dressed in coveralls and helmets.

Then we went ATVing.  What a hoot.  We went through streams, up steep, rocky paths, through muddy chug holes, and climbed this little mountain.  It was cool temperature but nice. 

When we got back we walked around some more.

Huge church
Who knew Chuck Norris had a bar and grill in Iceland?

Of course she would take credit 
The only food bargain we found

We didn't eat here and I don't know why

It worked.  By the end of the day all jet lag was gone.

Tuesday July 8

The super jeep was huge
A great day and what a country! We took the Landmannalauger Super Jeep Safari Tour.  We were picked up at 8 by this monster jeep-like truck and finished the day at 7. The driver, Omar--his company does these super jeep tours, google omar super jeep iceland--was exceptionally knowledgable and fun.
Landmannalaugar, the area, is unbelievable. It has volcanoes, glaciers, blow-out craters, miles and miies of lava fields, mountains of volcanic ash, vast areas of rock and ash where nothing grows, more vast areas that are green but have no bushes, trees, or grass, has waterfalls, mountain rivers, extreme roads with fords that require monster jeeps, and more in this huge, desolate area.

Built on F150 frame with custom suspension
Hekla volcano in background
Hialparfoss Falls
The first stop was Hekla volcano.  The super jeep powered its way up this barely-a-road to a point facing Hekla.  Interestingly, once we left the pavement Omar reduced the air pressure in the tires to about 9 psi.  When we returned to the pavement he pumped it up to about 30.  By the way, off roading is illegal in Iceland.  We did see several tourist driving their cars up these one-lane, VERY rough roads.  Most of the tourist looked distressed.

Landmannalauger is a huge park and it is also a camp site.  

Lots of campers.  

Nothing but rock to camp on

We spend a couple of hours here hiking.  We did not get into the hot springs although we did bring swimsuits and towels.
Old shelter in background 

We tried trail just visible on left incline.  Too steep.

At base of that path.  Soft volcanic ash.
There is a trail in that snow.  Couldn't tell whether someone had skied or hiked it.

The water was nice and warm.  Decking is RARE in Iceland
Explosion crater Liótipollur
Last stop was the explosion crater Ljótipollur.  Our pictures don't do justice to how big this hole is and what must have been one heck of an explosion.

Wednesday July 9

A physical day and one outside my comfort zone.  We took the Snorkeling and Lava Tube Tour.  

I was expecting the lava tube, Giábakkahellir, to be a smooth tube through the rock like a big worm has pushed through the rock.  And, to a limited sense, it was.  But mostly it was a cave filled with large, broken rock that was hard for me to walk on in the dark with only a helmet light.  At times it was a tight squeeze to crawl through to the next chamber.

Ready to go down

In cave with Robin

Climbing down into cave.  Very rocky
Notice smooth walls
This is the smooth part
Cave entrance

Three of us near end of cave
Next we went snorkeling at the Silfra fissure.  The water temperature is 34-36 degrees so we had to wear an insulated body suit with a dry suit over it.  I learned the difference between a dry suit and a wet suit (which we would wear later in the week).  A dry suit keeps you dry.  A wet suit; well you know.

Snorkeling is not one of my strong skills and you can't wear glasses.  So I had a hard time seeing.  Robin took my camera and got some excellent shots.  I almost drifted into the lake because I couldn't see well and had to be pulled back by one of the guides.  Makes for an entertaining story at my expense.

The Silfa fissure is caused by the teutonic plates (North American and EurAsian) moving apart. 

Ginger ready to go
We dressed outside--typical--wearing base layer

I can't see!

Me, in lead, and Ginger going in
A first, Robin takes an underwater selfie

Me.  I could see some 

That's me just before being rescued.
Thursday, July 10

A physical day in the rain.  We did a six mile loop up the Reykjadalur valley seeing hot springs, gurgling holes of hot mud, and steaming and boiling holes of water.  We stopped and climbed in a hot spring for a while.  Here the lack of infrastructure for tourists was at its worst.  A lot of the trail is just a path and often through mud.  It is uneven, muddy, and hikers have developed multiple paths in places.  
One of many thermal vents
So much steam at times my glasses steamed up
A lot of the hikers are unprepared.  The trail begins with a good rock path but once over a small hill the prepared trail ends and it is just a path in the vegetation.  We saw hikers in Keds.  Saw a man fall off one path down, face first, onto a lower path about 3 feet down.  Bloodied but otherwise unhurt.  Some were carry bags that made their balance even more iffy.

Path starts out good then quickly deteriorates

View along trail was spectacular. Ginger wouldn't go out on this overlook. 

Waterproof shoes are necessary.

Sheep everywhere.  Allowed to wander in summer.
The water was hot, air cool and rain cold.  Our cloths got wet.  
At end of trail was this cool waterfall.
In the afternoon we rode horses at a ranch near the trailhead.  For Ginger and me, this wasn't that much fun.  Our horses quickly and accurately assessed we were complete novices.  Ginger's horse just poked along--which was fine with her.  Mine, no matter what I did, would only walk except when the guide circled back then he would trot to catch up.
Ginger and horse take a selfie

Robin is the master of selfies

We had dinner at the American Cafe.  It was horrible.  American's do not put cucumbers on cheeseburgers.  There was more wrong than that.  Part of Iceland's food problem is all the vegetables have to be grown in hot houses so vegetables are very expensive.  You don't get a plate of veggies.  So their tend to put a little vegetables in their sandwiches.  We joked that Charlotte should open a real American Cafe (and as a special for college tourists have Kraft Mac and Cheese on the menu).

Friday, July 11

A super long day.  We were picked up at 7am and dropped back at the hotel at midnight.

A word about hotels and breakfast.  One of the reasons I picked this hotel was that it had a breakfast included starting at 7.  I did not want to try and find a restaurant for breakfast and that turned out to be critically important.  There just wasn't time.  This hotel would even arrange for an extra early breakfast to be ready if you were going out.  But, the breakfast was always the same and after a week we were tired of it.

We rode a small passenger van with some very hard seats five hours to Vatnajökul national park and the Virkisjökull glacier.  We were fortunate that we went to this glacier.  A closer one was closed because of sulfur gases and volcanic actions.

We were fitted with crampons and went hiking on the glacier.  We have seen glaciers before and have even walked on them, a little.  But this was different.  We hiked a long way up the glacier.  This glacier is unusual because it has a lot of "dead ice".  That is ice that has broken off from the glacier but is covered with volcanic ash and not melting.  The glacier can't move and is backing up higher and higher in the mountain.
A view of the glacier backing up.  Glacier are dirty.  Who knew?

Exploring a crevasse

After the glacier hike we drove about an hour further to Jöklulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.  We rode around the ice field in these amphibious trucks.  The ice pools in this lagoon after breaking off from the glacier.  The ride around in the ice is really fun and given all our activities a nice break.

We could not return immediately because the bus driver had to take a mandatory rest break because of the length of the day.   When we did arrive at our hotel the question was where to eat since we really hadn't eaten anything solid since breakfast.  Where else, the Hotdog Stand.

 Saturday, July 12

Our last full day.  Hvítá River Rafting, Geysir and Gulfoss waterfalls
Spectacular day but I approached it with some nervousness. The rafting was going to be COLD. We got our wetsuits on and rode an old school bus to the launch site. We were freezing in the rain and wind. But once we got on the river and started paddling we warmed up. I expected the river to be wilder than it was. The first few rapids were big fun but then it was pretty tame. Poudre River in Colorado is wilder and warmer.
Bouncing along in an old school bus

The wind was cold making us sure we would freeze in the water

Ready to go but not very confident

Ginger is really cold.  She wasn't the only one.

Another Robin selfie special

Once paddling we got warm.  Ride was fun but not especially rough

In the afternoon we did the Golden Circle Tour.  We started with a short drive to Geysir which is Iceland's answer to Old Faithful. It is actually better because it erupts a lot more often. Every 5-10 minutes.

Then we went to Gulfoss waterfalls. AMAZING! It is huge, loud, and very powerful.  We would have to be a professional outdoor photographer to do this waterfall justice.  
No way we could capture the power of this waterfall

Finally we went to Þingvellir National park. It is historically significant but I was more fascinated with the Game of Thrones scenes--especially the wall. The wall is actually the North Atlantic teutonic plate as the ground between it and Eurasian plate sinks.

North Atlantic teutonic plate and Game of Thrones Wall

When we got back to the hotel we decided to have a decent dinner and tromped over to a top restaurant, the one we originally planned to go on Sunday. It was bumpin' and we had to wait but finally a good meal.

Sunday, July 13

Having had our last breakfast at the hotel, packed and left our bags in bag room, and printed our boarding passes, we walked a few blocks the the harbor to go whale watching.  Whale watching is always a chancy tour.  We have had tours where we saw no whales at all.  On this tour we did see some small whales, some porpoises, and one large whale.  It is a good tour for kids.  The ship has protected viewing so you can get out of the rain.   

Our Last Iceland Tour and another Robin selfie
We were scheduled to go to the Blue Lagoon on our way to the airport but luckily everyone agreed that the the timing was too tight.  If we had it to do again, we would skip the whale watching and go to the Blue Lagoon.  

At the airport it was a crowded mess.  Several North American-bound flights all left from the same area with takeoff times every 15 minutes.  It was hot, crowded, and there was no where to sit.  One advantage, however, is that most flights have to take a bus and there is no boarding by seat or class.  Since we were standing near the door, we got on the plane early and had plenty of room for our carry-ons.  

The flight back was uneventful.  The crew was much more attentive--I had coffee the entire trip--and I watched 1.5 bad movies before I gave up and played games on my iPhone.


Would I do it again?  Absolutely.  Will I do it again?  No.  There are too many things and places in the world to do Iceland again.  My advice if you are going is to study the tours and book as many as your situation permits.  Get a hotel with free breakfast.  It will be adequate and save you a lot of time.  Expect everything to be really expensive and just get over it.  And carry several sets of rain gear.  One set of mine died when the seam came loose (it was old).  And my best hiking boots--from 2002--ripped open.  I had a second set.  Use your ski base layer.  And take a fleece or two.  Don't bother to pack sun block or worry that the sun won't set.

Basically you need to find a way to get in the cold water (snorkel or rafting), hot water (Blue Lagoon or thermal streams), on the ice (glacier hike, Glacier Lagoon), and up the mountain (super jeep, hiking).  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a great time bonding with your girls. What a treat. Loved your documentary and the pictures.
Pauline and Svein