Iceland: Driving the South Coast

After a hard rain all night we woke up in Hofn to a beautiful rainbow – but clouds and rain hung around for much of the day. Our drive along the south coast was a mixed bag – mostly rain – but occasional flashes of bright sunshine. Along the route, we managed to get to all our intended sights.

We stopped back by the Glacier Lagoon to see how the icebergs had moved. The sky was dark with the wind whipping, and we could see the bergs floating and the blue ice seemed brighter than ever. Seals and birds were active.

We drove through the 218 sq mile Eldhraun Lava Field, a result of an eruption in 1783-84 that wiped out crops, and half the region’s livestock, resulting in the starvation of 25% of the population. There were fields of lupine (now considered a harmful invasive species here) and beautiful Icelandic horses. We had a nice lunch in the southernmost town of Vik before heading out to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, the last of my Game of Thrones sites on this trip. It was the site of Season 7’s Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.

Signs everywhere warn of danger, the “sneaker waves” can appear without warning and have claimed victims.  Most people heeded the warnings since it was a particularly nasty part of the day and the Atlantic looked fierce. The wind was so strong I thought it was going to blow the phone out of my hand. You could see the basalt columns, cave, and enough coastline to get the idea. We didn’t stay long.

Suddenly the weather was better and well timed for our visit to 180’ high Skogafoss Falls and the slightly taller 210’ Seljalandsfoss Falls. Seljalandfoss is famous because you can walk behind it. If you do, you get soaked and it’s slippery, not something I needed to do.  

We ended the day at the lovely Umi Hotel, sitting off by itself with a distant view of the sea. Here is a sample of a few more scenes along the way.

This post is late and out of order . . . I don’t even know where to start – we saw so much during a very long day spent driving around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. They say you can see all of Iceland’s various typographies with a visit here, and while I can’t make that claim, I can say we had a real variety of experiences.

The landscape en route from Reykjavik was quite varied, and we experienced a misty intermittent rain.  Colors changed from brown to a soft yellow and you can see every shade of green painting the surrounding mountain slopes.

Water is everywhere, snow caps, the peaks, and fills the crevices. I can’t even begin to guess how many waterfalls there are. The two-lane road is outlined with yellow (snow) markers on both sides and provides a good visual, particularly when there is no other traffic.

Rauofeldsgja Gorge

We passed Borganes and continued to our first stop at Ytri-Tunga beach where seals are known to hang out. It was cold and windy. There were a few seals way off in the distance. Sightseers several decades younger than us were headed out on the slippery rocks to get a closer view. We stayed beach-side and just took in the whole scene. The skeletal remains of a whale (or very large seal) was laid out like a work of art.

I had to snap a pic at Budir of their famous black church. Nothing else is there except a hotel and the church – but it has become one of Iceland’s iconic visuals. We grabbed lunch at Arnarstapi and saw some basalt formations and nesting terns. The more hardy would hike along the coast towards Hollmar for even better views of the seaside rock formations.

Snaefellsjokull National Park is known for its imposing glacier, which dominates the entire center of the park. On this day the cloud-covered peak must’ve made tough conditions for the glacier hikers. At the entrance to the park, the Malarrif Lighthouse serves as a visitor Information Center with maps and displays. We did not plan to visit Vatnshellir Cave which goes 115’ slippery feet underground (only with a guide). It was enough for me to know it inspired Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

The glacier-in-hiding.

Coming around the western tip of the peninsula we saw the tallest structure in Iceland, a communications tower key to offshore shipping and quaint fishing villages. All a lead-up to a highlight of the day, Kirkufell and Kirkjufellsfoss.

Kirkufell and Kirkjufellsfoss.

Kirkufell is the famous arrowhead-shaped mountain seen in almost every photo display of Iceland. It graces the cover of tour books and website home pages. One of the most famous shots shows the waterfall with the mountain in the background. My attempt is not quite as dramatic, but you get the idea, and may even recognize the pic. The mountain, with a cover of snow, is also famous for its starring role in The Game of Thrones. Although seen in season 6, it is center stage in season 7, when Jon Snow and his army are looking for the Army of the Dead north of The Wall. Since photos don’t do any of these sites justice, readers should watch (or re-watch) Game of Thrones to at least see the spectacular scenery.

Continuing east, the coastal drive was beautiful, with passage through the Berserkjahraum Lava Fields and a swing through the colorful Stykkisholmur fishing village before we headed to Husafell for some much-deserved sleep.

Ytri-Tunga beach

Iceland’s Jewels

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).

The burg had flipped over a couple of hours prior and in another few hours in the sun will be completely white.

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.

Iceland’s Reindeer

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.    

Reindeer coats are changing from their winter wear to summer.

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.

This area of falls runs 20 kilometers long until this final cascade.

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.

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