#Iceland: Humpbacks in Husavik

Our lovely full-service hotel, Hotel Kjarnalundur, just outside of Akureyri was a welcome sight after our rafting adventure, and it is here that we launched our next two days of fun in Iceland.  Our family room was big enough for all 6 of us, the breakfast buffet was plentiful, and we had a quiet night’s rest.

A quick drive to Husavik, and we were on our way to hopefully see whales in Skjalfandi Bay, the whale watching capital of Iceland. Our guide at North Sailing told us that we were just 40 miles from the Arctic Circle, and it felt momentous to realize how much work we had done to make it so far.  Aside from the hope of seeing the great whales up close, the scenery was outstanding.


We climbed once again into suits provided by the company that kept us warm, dry and had built-in flotation devices. I could live in one of those.

And we saw them! North Sailing exclusively offers a quiet tour which is much more unobtrusive than a zodiac, and our skilled captain was able to approach the whale area, and then to turn off the motor and drift into their zone. In our 3 hour trip, most of it crossing the bay and back again, we saw at least 3 humpbacks and a minke whale. We even came upon a humpback that was sleeping. When it realized a boat-load of people was staring down at him, it flipped its fluke and was gone.


People ask me, how do you manage to see whales each time you go whale watching? The answer is to do your research, follow migration routes….pay extra for a company that hires scientists and is top-rated in terms of its treatment of the sea life, and you will see them. I’ve never had an unsuccessful whale watching trip. If it’s important to you, then plan your entire trip around seeing these whales, like we did.

Husavik also offers a self-guided whale history museum that covers the industry of whaling and persuades the audience that eco-tourism is the new way to go.  After seeing the historical side and studying the great whale skeletons, we went for a dip ourselves at the Husavik Swimming pool.  It has a play pool, waterslide, a lengths pool, a cold tub, a hot tub and a massage tub.  Really really nice.  The kids were allowed to be rambunctious and they wore themselves out.  The nice woman at the ticket counter instructed us clearly on how to blend with the pre-bathing rituals necessary before entering.  We tried our best to dive like humpbacks with our spine up and then fluke, but it turns out this is really hard to do when your nose isn’t on top of your head.

 

#Iceland: Murder mysteries and rafting on a glacial river

Day 4 Iceland

The day began as the others, dreary drizzle, so waking up with jet lag again was just about right to go around to the front of our guesthouse and order some waffles.  They came covered in a local berry jam and whipped cream, and she had an espresso machine too.  The dining room was surrounded by local handicrafts which were also really cool to see as all the materials like wool, wood and antler are indigenous to the culture here.  So even if you don’t stay at the Guesthouse Langafit, stop by for the waffles!

Our ultimate destination today was Akureyri but we had a couple of stops along the  first.  Our next stop was the village of Blonduos which is known for its safe harbour for seabirds.  The local government has built a public blind for watching the birds in their nesting areas and it’s just such a good idea.  I wish Canada would do this.  I had marked here that the Hotel Blanda had a nice menu and it did.  I had something fishy, of course, but the kids were equally happy with their choices.  Nearby the hotel was a shop specializing in local artisans work and many of the things made by the shop owner, Etta. Although I would have happily brought the store with me, I purchased only a large button made of reindeer antler and a book.  It turns out that Blonduos is also famous for being central to the 1830 trial of local servant girl Agnes Magnusdottir, convicted, tried and executed for the murder of her master and his guest.    Etta showed me a map of each of the locations in this story and the book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent which tells Agnes’s side of the story and casts doubt on her guilt.  You had me at historical murder!

We surprised the kids by planning a family rafting trip with Viking Rafting just south of Varmahlio.  I can’t say enough about this company and the care they had for us to make this extraordinary experience happen.  I booked online through their website the gentler family trip for our nervous tweens and their aging parents (sorry Tim and Fiona, but it’s true.)  We had safety lessons, dry suits that were suited up for each of us and checked individually by the staff, and a comfortable ride to the river.

The best fact of the day was that the river spray we would drink was part of the glacier just 12 hours ago.  I have no idea if that is true, but the idea just enhanced the clean, fresh taste of the Iceland water even more.  At one point we were encouraged to cliff jump, another time to swim behind the boat and we all enjoyed a fresh hot chocolate made from the geothermally hot stream running next to our cold river. We loved the pace of our 90 minute trip, our guides Steve (from the U.S.) and Rajib (from Nepal), who were courteous and just the right combination of humour and kindness.

Being in the middle of nowhere, we pre-booked our Dinner of the Day with the Viking Rafting people and were served a healthy portion of meatballs, rice, sauce, and veg. I don’t know how to tell you this so I’ll just say it: the main meats of Iceland are based on what they can raise here: lamb and horse.  I’m sure there is a little of both in any minced meat that we had.  Still, the dinner was delicous and we were able to make the final leg of our day’s journey feeling warm again.

This video was shot by on the Go Pro by our friend Ethan.  I turned to our guide Rajib and asked “Can I trust you with our children?” He said, “Of course.”  So all the parents jumped in for swim in the cold glacier water.  Fantastic.

West to Snaefellsjokull #Iceland

First a word or two about renting a car in Iceland: Don’t use Flizzr (booked through WOW air).  Use Economy Rent a Car (I booked it through Expedia and it was effortless).  Take the insurance….dents on the car and broken windshields are the most likely isssues you’ll have.  Take the rest of the insurance….volcanic gravel is very sharp and there are barely any guardrails anywhere.  Now having said that, through my lens as a Canadian who grew up driving standard on a gravel road, the driving in Iceland was very easy.  When you go up a mountain and you get stuck behind a larger, slower vehicle, the slow person puts on their indicator to tell you when the road is clear ahead to pass.  Very civilized.  The gravel roads that are long and straight have a speed limit of 90 km.  We started back at Keflavik and effortlessly picked up our friends from the airport and got our new ride for the trip north: a Citroen Picasso wagon.  Super stylin’ and carries 6 passengers!  We had to add a top box to fit all of our belongings but the Economy staff took only 15 minutes to add it and we were on our way.

First order of the day was breakfast though, which at 11:30 am is hard to find.  Let’s face it, you just need to eat what you forage in Iceland, not what you desire.  I had marked Kaffi Duus at the Keflavik harbour as “a good place to eat” so we headed there.  There were options to order a buffet lunch or a la carte so we were all happy.  After lunch we wandered over to see a ship on display and as we did, a tourist ran past me saying “There it is!  What is it?”  My best guess, without a guide along, that it is a minke whale, grazing in Keflavik harbour.  If he hadn’t told me, I never would have seen it.  We learned later in the trip that the tell tale hovering of a flock of birds, often means that they are after the whale’s leftover krill that get pushed to the surface.

Sated for the moment, we headed out to the western peninsula about 2 hours away by car to the Snaefesllsjokull National Park. Every now and then we realize that there is a crucial sign missing. In general, what would improve the tourism greatly in Iceland is more signs. Things to mark where is the bus stop, what is the soup of the day, what time do the gates close, and in this case, what is this thing ahead, how do I get into it and how much does it cost? Nearing the intersection of a divorce with at least 2 u-turns and many arguments later, we all agreed that this apparent land bridge on the map was indeed a tunnel and we needed to go through it.  It’s called the Hvalfjordur Tunnel It’s almost 6 km long and goes under the fjord that separates Reykjavik from the Ring Road #1 which heads north here. It’s an amazing feat of engineering, and if you dig things like that, it’s not to be missed.  It costs 1000 Krona, by the way.  At the north side of the tunnel, you come to a lovely little town of Borgarnes, which happens to have a lovely little bakari kaffihus and is the site of one of the major scenes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  We didn’t know that at the time, but it was really cool to see their devotion to the experience.

The scenery on this drive to the tip of the peninsula just gets better and better.  There are waterfalls everywhere, different types of igneous and metamorphic rock formations and gazillions of ridiculously fluffy sheep.  The sheep and Icelandic ponies (and in the cattle in the north and interior) all graze and wander at will.  In true ranching style, there are just road grates where the animals shouldn’t wander.  Once a year, the farmers get together and herd everything into sorting pens for the winter.  (All in all, after about 2500 km of driving in Iceland, I can count the number of unnerving incidents of roadside animal interaction on one hand. ~ ed.)  Every volcano leads to a lava field leads to some amazing coastal rock formations and Snaefellsjokull does not disappoint.

Here’s one of those places where a nice sign with a map would have been handy.  We made the decision to continue around the peninsula following the north side back to the Ring Road and north to our guesthouse in Laugarbakki.  The GPS kept wanting to send us back the way we came and we thought we knew better.  The roads became narrower, but not slower, and we ended up driving in and out of every darn fjord until the sun was near setting (= very very late).  There were no settlements with cute cafes, there were no grocery stores. But it was beautiful.   And long after everyone else in the car had dozed off, I saw a charcoal grey arctic fox.  No I don’t have a picture.  I was driving, silly. Here are a few more pics of our unexpected road trip adventure.

Lastly we checked into our Gueshouse Langafit and the 2 nice female owners took pity on us and let me buy groceries out of their fridge to feed the children: slices of processed cheese, a half loaf of bread, pop and strawberries from the greenhouse up the road.  I made cheese sandwiches  in the kitchenette and we were ready for our bath.  The community has a large hot tub fed by geothermal waters and it is just next door. It was just what we needed.  The rooms were pretty and clean, and when we woke in the morning, we ate waffles covered in jam and whipped cream.  She’s even got a gas pump and a car wash. Amazing hospitality.

Are we Icelandic teletubbies? #Iceland!

That’s Max looking like Kenny on the left and the rest of us are either Barbapapas or Teletubbies.  About to go whale watching in the Skjalfandi Bay at Husavik.

Ready to watch whales in Husavik #Iceland!

In Husavik whale watching with North Sailing.  Why am I the one who is the most covered and I still look cold?  Oh yeah!  Less than 80 km from the Arctic Circle.

#Iceland: Seljalandsfoss,Vik, and prawns

…and we slept for 14 hours our first night (but that’s jet lag).  As usually happens, my hours of pre-planning went awry but I convinced the fellas to push towards Vik, which I had heard was a geological phenomenon that can’t be missed.


On our way from Sacred Seed to Vik, I learned that red curtains on a gas station window do not indicate that a lady of the night is working inside, but instead that gas stations are made to feel cozy,and thankfully contain freshly baked goods and bottomless cups of coffee. Who knew?

Without my Google Map and wifi, I was feeling unsure about how to proceed but from a great distance we were able to suss out that there was a waterfall ahead and soon found Seljalandsfoss. It was big and it was powerful. On a beautiful 22 degree day in July we were able to wear shorts and t-shirts but these were not enough for the journey behind the falls for me. With the sudden shift to hurricane force winds, darkness, and a wet rocky ground, I retreated. The fellas went on without me and toured behind for all of 10 minutes. There were also souvenir shops and a stand with coffee and sandwiches, so we indulged. All in all, a must-see stop for an hour when in the south Iceland region.

Pushing onto Vik, the landscape once again took a dramatic turn. We swooped down into this seaside turn after climbing a large hill. The drives have been taking longer than we thought and we’re generally underestimating how long it will take to get anywhere. The speed limit is 90 on the big 2-lane highway that circles the whole island, but towns range from 40 – 70. There are only 300 000 people in the whole of Iceland so paving roads, building bridges across fjords and more than 2 lanes, are not a priority. Gas is about the same as in other parts of Europe…double the price of Canadian gas prices.
As soon as we could we got out of the car in Vik. The black sand, the colonies of a variety of sea birds, the majesty of the contrasting cliffs and ocean, I wept openly for a few moments not believing that I was actually here. I would have to say that Vik is my favourite place…out of the 2 days we’ve been travelling. It’s like seeing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for the first time. Seeing it with my family and hanging out doing what we do best, foraging for beach treasures, wallowing in the beauty and science of the flora and fauna, it was just awesome.

We stopped for something to eat at a restaurant near the beach called Halldorskaffi and they produced a pizza for the kid, a mozzarella salad for me and fish and chips too. It was all well-made and the staff were friendly too.

I am using this book a lot for prioritizing so much to see in our short time in Iceland, and in it, I found our next stop: Fjorubordid in Stokkseyri.  Have you ever been to one of those chain restaurants where the menu is so big with so many choices that you can hardly decide but everything is really average-tasting?  This was nothing like that.  Fjorubordid only does one thing a few ways: prawns.  They take online reservations so we drove straight from Vik to Stokkseyri to make our reservation at 6:30 pm.  We ordered the meal size magical prawn soup which came with limitless bread options and splurged on a glass of wine.  They even had a kids menu.  After a satisfying meal we raced back to Keflavik, near the airport and checked into our lovely triple room (that’s a queen and a single…so civilized and so perfect for us) at the Ace Guesthouse.  Our host was efficient and the rooms were well laid out and there was a kitchen with a fridge for drinks and tea and cookies.  He upgraded us to a room with a private WC but a shared shower.  We were very happy there.

Snaefellsjokull National Park #Iceland

That’s me in the bottom right of this photo trying desperately to show you the scale of this place.  Look left you’ll see vocanic coastlines and rock formations.  Look right and there’s a massive dormant volcano and glacier.  Look around and there are these beautiful moss-covered lava fields.  We didn’t give ourselves enough time to get here get out again and also visit the local towns….and we gave ourselves 9 hours.  No kidding.

#Iceland: Getting our bearings

Icelandic words of the day: kaffi (coffee), bakari (bakery), vatn (water) and foss (waterfall)

One of my favourite things about travelling is how disorienting it can be.  After a quick 5+ hour red-eye flight from Toronto, we staggered out of Keflavik airport in search of our rental car and caffeine.  It felt like standing on Mars surrounded by vast fields of dried lava (I’m sure there’s a technical geological term for that but I’m not there yet).  The buildings are all functional and new but very boxy and lacking in any sort of ornamentation.

The shuttle from the airport to our car rental outlet was easy to navigate but the signage for the car rental is seriously lacking. Still we were on our way in our lousy Opel Corsa in 90 minutes from landing to driving out.  My big first understanding is that  wifi is usually not free in Iceland.  This is going to be tricky as I made that beautiful Google map to lead us everywhere.  We heard about this international SIM card  which would transform my Nexus 6P into our European communication device, but it has proven elusive so I’m operating on wifi and very limited data.  Luckily my Dad was a geography teacher and I not only have a finely tuned navigation sense, but also an iron core which feeds directly off of magnetic north (it gets a little wonky in shopping malls and Las Vegas but generally it’s reliable).

Once we were off we found the driving very easy, like almost as comparably easy as driving in Canada.  We have been interested to find out what the small rodent roadkill is that we keep seeing, but other than dodging free-roaming sheep, it’s smooth and effortless.  The road signs are intuitive, the gas is twice as expensive as in Canada, but we haven’t found anything we can’t handle in the Corsa yet.  We found a coffee shop/bakery open at 7 am and got our fill.

As soon as we were out of the city, we felt that we had to commune with nature right away so we stopped the car and started looking at the miniature worlds of flowers that cover the ground here.  I stepped towards the edge of a cool glacier river to dip a hand and a beautiful white bird started flying towards us…not right at me and I was dive-bombed.  Turns out I had disturbed a nesting area and this little guy, as big as a chicken I swear, was not impressed with me.  After shouting, running away, and having a really good laugh at myself, we progresed up to the highland area.  Here he is.  He’s a mean one.

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The first thing we wanted to see was Thingvellir, the site of ancient Viking parliament set in the fissure of the two techtonic plates between the Eurasian plate and the North American plate.  It really set the tone for the first 2 days because it feels alive here, like energy is coursing all around.  It’s easy to see why the Icelandic people have developed many beliefs and customs around the energy of the earth.

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Next onto Geysir, the birthplace of the word. which was pretty interesting, but here the magic of the earth has been replaced by tourists.  We liked the restaurant so much…free refills of their soup of the day.  By this time it is early afternoon and the tour buses were swarming so we pushed to stay ahead of them.  Yet we had to check out Gulfoss, a spectacular waterfall, first.

We checked into our guest house midafternoon and fell asleep in the serene sunlight of Iceland’s mid-summer.  The Sacred Seed guesthouse has a beautiful geothermal pool and feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere.  We were very still and very quiet.  We swam in the warm water.  We slept.  It was heavenly and just what we needed.  I’m not going to lie, at 45, doing the red-eye and bouncing back is not so easy anymore.  Sacred Seed was just what we needed to recuperate.  The owner said that our triple room was where his grandmother slept.  It was up a steep ladder/staircase but like a sanctuary once we got there.  It was very basic and the bathroom was downstairs, but we had the quiet we craved.

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