We are now on the south coast of Iceland, the most visited and crowded portion of the island.
We are staying in a hotel outside the town of Hofn, where we can see two glacier tongues, grazing horses and blooming liriope set off against the dramatic mountain landscape. It’s easy to want to just sit here and stare out the windows.
It was a glorious, sunny morning as we drove through beautiful green pastures with grazing horses and sheep, all post-card (or now I guess we say Instagram) perfect. It’s a breathtaking moment to come around a bend in the road and see the stunning sight of the glacial lake and floating icebergs.
But the Diamond Beach was calling. Just over the bridge from Jokulsarlon, the famous iceberg-filled glacial lake, a very short gravel road leads to a black beach on the Atlantic. Bits and pieces of the icebergs wash up here and after getting tossed in the surf, sparkle on the beach like diamonds. Of course, you need sun and ice to make this work and we hit it right this day. I’ve read that often in the summer no ice can be found on the beach. It was very windy and cold, but seeing the ice glinting along the shore warmed us up fast. Even the fine black sand was sparkly in the bright sunlight.
We returned to the Glacier Lagoon where we had a reservation for a Zodiac ride. Where do I start . . . first of all, just getting hiking boots off in order to struggle into the waterproof jumpsuits you put on over your other clothing was exhausting – lol. And then, there were confusing and difficult life jackets to add. Seven other travelers joined us as we trudged on a rocky path about 1/3 of a mile to board. I drew the straw for the last seat in the back and we took off, fast. For the next hour I held on for dear life using all glute muscles and core control I had to not slip off (thanks, Mariana).
I chose the Zodiac tour because it would get us close to the glacial wall and it did. We slowed down to see a small chunk calve and did get very close to lots of the icebergs and recently revealed islands hosting sleepy harbor seals. Our guide shared how fast the glacier was retreating during the five years he had worked there. He estimated in 40 years the glacier will be gone and a fjord in its place. Then we did the entire thing in reverse, holding on for our lives, walking back on the rocks, and getting out of all the gear. Whew.
In retrospect, the normal boat tour would’ve been just fine.
During our boat experience, the wind had picked up even stronger and clouds had begun to roll in. Even so, we did go check out the smaller glacial lake at Fjallsarion, which looked very silty and wasn’t very enticing at that point, probably due to the weather.
As we headed back to our hotel, across the brown, barren landscape that’s near the glacier and back across lush green fields, the sun began to shine again (for real). For dinner we headed into the tidy, modern-looking harbor town of Hofn, and enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Pakkhus, trying out the local specialty, langoustine (humar). Simply delicious.
I believe we may have found where Santa’s reindeer spend the summer months. Iceland’s Eastern Coast.
Today we went on a reindeer safari with Tinna Adventure in Breiddalsvik. We drove to the coastal village to meet owner Helga for a 4-hour trip filled with good humor and so many interesting sights.
First of all, we did see reindeer! Not native to the island (very little wildlife is), the animals were first introduced by Norwegians. It’s only been recently that herds have thrived and they now number somewhere between 5 – 7,000 in number.
Helga is local, having grown up in the area and returned after her advanced education. She showed us her part of the world with great pride and deep knowledge. She loaded us into her Super Jeep and off we went. Helga answered every one of the questions I’d been wondering about on this trip and shared great insider tips that will change the way we view the landscape from here on.
The reindeer are actually a light color, and if you aren’t tuned in, you might mistake them for a herd of sheep grazing in the hills. It’s the males that are visible this time of year since the females have given birth deep in the highlands.
Eastern Iceland is ruggedly beautiful and a more undiscovered place as far as tourism. We visited Djupivogur and saw an outdoor art installation of 34 giant stone bird eggs arranged around the harbor. Known as the “Eggs of Merry Bay,” they represent each breed in the region.
Before heading back to base, we stopped at the beautiful Fossardalur falls for a snack of hot tea and tasty rolled pancakes (a local specialty, more like a crepe). These are the falls I would want in my neighborhood. And I’ll take the reindeer for neighbors any day.
Of note: back in Breiddalsvik, Helga took us by the Factory Car Museum she and her husband co-own with three other couples. Cars are a passion with Helga’s family, and they repurposed the old fish factory into this museum. It’s a beautiful, fun collection and so surprising to find a rare and luxury European and American car museum here. Just proves you have to get out and meet people to find out what is really going on.
Preparing for this trip I read books, articles, news stories, blogs and followed some social media sites. One good site was a Facebook Group called “Iceland – tips for travelers.” I got a lot of insight about driving, places to eat, and general impressions from the site. One other benefit was seeing other participants’ pics. One visual really struck home with me – it was from Studlagil (Basalt Columns) Canyon and even with all my reading, I had never heard of it. It has only become more widely known in the last few years.
What a hidden gem.
We were on our way from the Diamond Circle to Egilsstadir in eastern Iceland, a fairly unexciting drive with no services (gas, food, restrooms) along the 100-kilometer route. We had the time and thought we’d give it a try, not really knowing what we would find when we arrived. It was an offshoot from the Ring Road, on 923. We drove about 12 miles on a mostly good, but unpaved road. Farms were widely scattered and sheep roamed freely next to and on the road. The relatively colorless drive became more and more green as we drove. It was beautiful.
Eventually, we arrived at Grund’s tree farm and found a parking lot and unexpected facilities. Good clean bathrooms (scan your credit card for a small charge), well-stocked vending machines, and very surprisingly, a food truck. And then there were the stairs – 239 to be exact (well we may be off by 1, but we’re pretty sure). Wow – it was worth the effort.
The canyon is 500 meters long with hexagonal basalt columns on both sides. Designs that look like some alien sculptor put them in place and formations like jewels spilling down the cliff face into the bright blue-green river. There is a dam that has re-directed much of the river’s flow and made it both visible and accessible.
We could tell people could access the area and get a closer look from the other side but were not quite sure how to get over there. My husband thought he’d figured it out and he was correct; it was a long 5-kilometer walk towards the canyon on the other side. We also did not want to risk climbing around more rocks, so we settled for our absolutely stunning overview.
The Diamond Circle is another fairly new region that Iceland has been preparing for more visitor access. A key part of this route is now part of the Vatnajokull National Park (previously the Jokulsargjufur National Park). Husavik is also on the Diamond route and it continues north around the peninsula to Tjornes and then comes SE towards Asbyrgi Canyon. We were turned on to this site by the hotel staff in Husavik and it was an unusual sight to see. We really needed a drone to get an ariel shot to see the humongous horseshoe-shaped “hoofprint” left by Odin’s giant 8-legged horse. The more mundane explanation for the cliffs would be an ancient glacial flood but doesn’t Odin’s story sound more interesting?
In any case, no mere mortal photos do this justice or can capture the scope of the site. Hikers head up and walk a trail in the middle or around the perimeter.
Next up and high on our list of must-sees – Dettifoss Falls. This is Europe’s most powerful waterfall at 150’ in height and 340’ wide, it puts out in excess of 130,000 gallons of water every minute. It’s massive, loud, wet, and I thought intimidating.
A trail runs from the parking area about half a kilometer to the first viewpoint. The lower viewpoint was closed for safety reasons. To get to the higher viewing areas visitors have to navigate rocks and uneven footing, and an entire portion had no guard rail of any kind. Other “guard rails” consisted of a rope strung between poles. It was cloudy (so no rainbows today) and at the upper view, we were soaked with the mist. Seeing Dettifoss was fabulous but I will confess my heart was pounding and it was not from the exertion of the hike!
Let me not forget to mention the midges. They were out in full force and we were the only people I saw with head nets (thankfully I still had them in my possession from the day before). Several people we passed commented on what a good idea this was. People were using scarves and face masks to try and keep them out of their mouths and noses. It would’ve been intolerable without our nets (3 for $12.99 at Amazon).
Of note, Selfoss Falls is reached from the same site and there are good, free bathrooms by the parking area.