Read Part I first!
Sunday was the midpoint of our Icelandic vacation, and we kicked off the day by heading into Reykjavík for the COVID tests we needed in order to fly back to the U.S. The Primary Health Care of the Capital Area proved to be very efficient, and after our swabs, we went into the city center to shop and poke around. It was cool and gray, but there was only an occasional slight drizzle. Parking was free on Sundays, and there may have been fewer tourists on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street, because many of the stores were closed.
Street art on Laugavegur in Reykjavík
I didn’t buy any souvenirs (Icelandic sweaters and wool blankets feature prominently in the gift shops), but I did buy several postcards, as well as Icelandic stamps. The stamp for Europe was Christmas-themed, for some reason, but the stamp for outside of Europe featured an Icelandic gyrfalcon. I later dropped my postcards in fire engine red Pósturinn boxes, one in a Krónan grocery store in Selfoss and one at the Skaftafell visitor center.
A house in Reykjavík
I liked the Reykjavík city center. There was street art painted on the asphalt of Laugavegur (a big maroon bird, a yellow eel), there were murals, there were corrugated metal houses in bright colors with wooden window frames and trim. There were a couple of excellent-looking bakeries with lines out the door, at times; we bought sandwiches and pastries from Sandholt, on Laugavegur, which had fantastic French-style viennoiseries, among other goodies. Also on Laugavegur, we saw a Bengal cat that might belong to one of the shops.
Before leaving Reykjavík, we went up to Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church and the largest church in Iceland. Its architecture was inspired by the basalt lava columns we later saw in several places. In the square in front of the church is a statue of Leifr Eiricsson (as spelled on the pedestal) given to Iceland by the U.S. in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the Alþingi (which according to Wikipedia is the oldest surviving parliament in the world!). After the service let out, we could venture inside the church. The soaring nave is unadorned but full of light, and there’s a huge pipe organ at the back.
In the afternoon, we drove southeast on the Ring Road (Route 1, which follows the country’s perimeter) to Seljalandsfoss, another of Iceland’s big waterfalls. The water falls from a cliff in sheets and thunders into the pool below. There’s a path that climbs up to a hollow behind the waterfall, allowing you to walk all the way around the falls. Behind the water the rock face is mossy. There’s a somewhat rocky climb out again.
Walking beyond Seljalandsfoss, there are a couple of other small waterfalls coming down the cliffside, and then there’s Gljúfrabúi, the hidden waterfall, which is tucked away inside a rock chamber a bit like the Baðstofa sea cave in Hellnar (see Part I). We walked alongside the stream that came out of the cleft in the rock, against the current, and into the chamber, where the waterfall came pouring down. Again, there was an opening onto the sky above.
On Monday, we left the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse for the last time and drove toward Seljalandsfoss again, but we turned off at the town of Hvolsvöllur to join up with our Midgard Adventure tour at Midgard Base Camp, the company’s headquarters. Our group consisted of fifteen people led by two guides. We were with a father and son from Scarsdale in a 10-person van driven by our guide Vala. The rest of the group, including a couple of French families, was in a super jeep. Both vehicles were suited for the unpaved mountain roads in Iceland’s interior, as well as fording streams.
Brief digression about Icelandic: when I visit a new country, I often make some effort to learn something of the language (e.g. Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese) before I go, even if that effort isn’t terribly successful. This time around, I did way less advance study than in the past. I tried to learn how to pronounce Icelandic words and was a bit daunted (apparently these days <ð> is mostly lenited…?). The only time during our vacation when I actually felt like I made some progress was during our tour with Vala because I could listen to her pronounce Icelandic words, like Landmannalaugur, our destination, or hraun, which means lava field (and is also the name of a rough-exteriored Icelandic chocolate bar). I realized that <au> is not pronounced [au] (but <á>, which means river, really is) and that <hv> is indeed [kv]. I could also hear pre-aspiration in Vala’s English! And later that evening, someone else at Midgard Base Camp said Eyjafjallajökull slowly for my mother, and I noted that <ll> really is [tl]. So, my Icelandic sounding out is a little better now!
Vala drove us back northwest on Route 1 and then turned inland. On the way, she told us a bit about the ongoing Fagradalsfjall eruptions near the airport, immigration in Iceland, and the catastrophic eruptions of Lakagígar in 1783, which caused huge loss of human and animal life, wreaked havoc globally, and may have helped spark the French Revolution. We made a pit stop at the Hrauneyjar lodge and then drove on to Sigöldugljúfur, an out-of-the-way canyon mostly drained by a hydroelectric dam project. Vala said it was known as the Canyon of Tears or the Crying Canyon, and it was one of the most striking and beautiful sights of our trip. Turquoise water ran through the canyon bottom while numerous waterfalls dotted its rock walls. It was a highlight for me, and we couldn’t have seen it on our own.
Hiking around Landmannalaugar
From Sigöldugljúfur, we headed through the mountains to our ultimate destination, Landmannalaugur, in the Highlands. There’s a camp there with huts and a tent area, near the hot spring pool (laugar = pools) and below the colorful rhyolite mountains. We first set off on a loop hike which took us along a mountain stream, past some greenish rock faces, and through a lava field (with shiny obsidian!) formed in 1477. We reached the windy scree slope of a mountain (which people were climbing), where there was a big and extremely sulfurous fumarole belching steam. The smell was almost corrosive. On some greener, craggier adjacent slopes there were more plumes of steam, as well as some intrepid sheep.
The mountains at Landmannalaugar
The hike led downwards after that point, towards a meadow in a valley surrounded by the painted mountains. We circled back to the camp, where we ate the bagged lunches provided by Midgard Adventure. Then we had a short window in which to bathe in the hot spring pool. A boardwalk led through the marshy grasses to a platform where you could stash your stuff. A wooden staircase descended into the water, which was quite shallow and, of course, warm. There was some algae floating around. As I walked on the sharp stony bottom towards these little steaming falls, the heat of the water intensified. It was a fun experience; I hadn’t been in any hot springs since a trip to Switzerland years ago. There was a trio of cute black sheep (a ewe and two lambs, judging by their relative sizes) grazing near the hot spring pool.
Black sheep near the hot spring pool
We drove back a different way, through a lot of fairly barren landscapes. Apparently a lot of the Highlands are considered volcanic desert, and it does look like a desert, or maybe the surface of Mars or the moon. Practically everyone in our van started dozing off, but we did make one more stop at Fossbrekkur, a pretty waterfall in a sort of canyon below the snow-capped volcano Hekla, which is overdue for an eruption. Vala told us that legend has it that witches meet on Hekla on Easter.
After our tour, we decided to eat dinner in the Midgard Base Camp restaurant, which had excellent food. I had more Arctic char, served with rich mashed potatoes, and we shared the rhubarb dessert with basil ice cream. Then we had to drive around the southern belly of Iceland to our new lodgings at the Hörgsland Guesthouse, just beyond Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Luckily, since the sun still sets quite late in Iceland in August and it’s still light out at 10:00pm, we arrived before dark.
My Arctic char at the Midgard Base Camp restaurant
On Tuesday, our last full day in Iceland, we kept driving east on the Ring Road. Our plan was to go all the way to the glacial lagoon called Jökulsárlón and then stop at some other sights on the way back. Most of our route was in the metaphorical shadow of the massive glacier Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland, which has many offshoot glaciers whose tendrils we glimpsed from the highway. It was quite a spectacular drive, both the way there and the way back. We drove through the glacial outwash plain called Skeiðarársandur (which looks kind of like a dark gravel wasteland shot through with brown rivers) and around the tip of a glacier to reach Jökulsárlón.
This glacial lagoon was formed by the receding of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull. A short river leads from the lagoon under a suspension bridge to the ocean. Jökulsárlón has glacial blue water and is dotted with miniature icebergs with blue undertones, some streaked with black. Close to the parking lot, there were a lot of gulls flying around or perched on the ice chunks, and there were big seals (probably harbor seals?) swimming in the lagoon! During our visit, it was overcast, and the clouds were very low, obscuring the mountains and glacier that were presumably at the back of the lagoon. But we walked along the water as Zodiacs, amphibious tour boats, and a group of kayaks moved among the icebergs.
Seabirds and seals!
At Jökulsárlón, we bought one Icelandic hotdog to share (Icelanders are apparently into hotdogs). The sausage is supposed to be made from lamb, beef, and pork, but it tasted like any other hotdog to me. It came with mustard, mayonnaise, and raw and crispy fried onions. It wasn’t bad!
The Icelandic hotdog
After more seal watching (I saw as many as six at a time), we crossed over to the other side of the Ring Road to see the black sand beach studded with chunks of ice. I think the ice washes ashore after exiting Jökulsárlón via the river. We could see small icebergs floating out of the lagoon, down river, and out to sea. The wet black sand makes a striking contrast with the white or transparent ice chunks as well as the foam of the crashing waves. We spotted a seal swimming a little ways offshore. As we were leaving, some larger icebergs were floating out of the mouth of the river.
The black sand beach adjacent to Jökulsárlón
From Jökulsárlón, we backtracked on Route 1. First we went back 10km to another glacial lagoon (or lake, since it doesn’t connect to the sea) called Fjallsárlón. It was less crowded than Jökulsárlón, and though it was just a few kilometers to the west, the clouds had lifted somewhat and there was a bit of sunlight. This meant that we could see the cliff face and ridged surface of the glacier behind the water, and in fact it and the snowy peaks beyond were partially illuminated by the sun. Occasionally we heard the glacier cracking, but we never glimpsed any movement. I loved seeing the blue cast of some of the glaciers. Fjallsárlón was in some ways more picturesque than Jökulsárlón because there was a collection of sculpted mini icebergs quite close to shore, but I agree with the Lonely Planet guidebook that it’s worth visiting both.
We could have taken a 5km (one-way) hike from Fjallsárlón to a third glacial lake called Breiðárlón, even less frequented by tourists, but we opted not to. Instead, we backtracked further along the Ring Road to Skaftafell, a popular area that’s part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park. We took the 1.8km path toward Svartifoss (Black Waterfall), which was almost entirely uphill and in full sun. At Jökulsárlón, I’d had four layers on; during this hike, I shed all but one. We trekked up through scrub and grassy meadows dotted with angelica, with views of mountains and glaciers in the distance.
Hiking in Skaftafell
There was a last descent to approach Svartifoss from the bottom. The waterfall is narrow and fork-tongued but with a fairly high drop. The big attraction is the hexagonal basalt lava columns that frame it. It creates a sort of solid, layered stone honeycomb effect.
After the hike back, we ate the salmon or lamb sandwiches we’d bought at the Skaftafell cafeteria, as well as the creamy lobster soup from the Glacier Goodies food truck next to the campground. We’d also gotten some passionfruit skyr cake and berry tart from the cafeteria, which we shared back at the Hörgsland Guesthouse.
Wednesday was the day of our departure, and we had a fairly long drive back to Reykjavík. We did make one stop, just past the town of Vík, driving around the mountain Reynisfjall to the black sand beach called Reynisfjara. There were many warning signs, as the beach is considered the most dangerous in Iceland due to the sneaker waves. The tip of the mountain had more basalt columns, shallow caves, and flocks of seabirds, including many puffins perched on grassy clifftops! Puffins look kind of comical when they fly. It was the flying puffins that first caught my notice, actually, since they move very differently than seagulls, and then I realized there were puffins lining the cliff far above us.
The cliffs at Reynisfjara
From Reynisfjara, we could see some of the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, and looking east, we could see the promontory of Dyrhólaey, with its rock arch.
Sea stacks at Reynisfjara
We drove the rest of the way to Reykjavík, where we had a delicious lunch at the home of Valur and Guðrún, the former proprietors of the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse and the current proprietors of the car we’d been driving. We learned a bit about the September sheep roundup (Valur showed us some videos on YouTube, complete with sheep roundup singing–one of the songs had the same tune as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). Apparently there are now opportunities for tourists to take part in rounding up the sheep. Then we headed to the airport.
On the flight back to Minneapolis, we flew over the fjords of southeastern Greenland while there were broad openings in the clouds. Sitting by the window, I had spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains, the deep blue water dotted with icebergs, and the sweeping glaciers.
Mountains and glaciers of Greenland