Iceland: The Return

June 29, 2018

I made a trip back to Iceland after finishing off my research in Amsterdam, Budapest, and Istanbul. All in all, my travels in May and June lasted for about seven weeks. Most of the time was spent researching, but I also spent about 10 days in various places in Iceland at the beginning and end of the trip. Shots from my first visit to Iceland, which took place in the first half of May, can be found here and here

On the ferry from Heimaey back to the "mainland"
June is apparently high season in Iceland, and my guidebook had advised me to arrange accommodation ahead of time. I'd therefore decided back in Turkey where I was going to stay--I booked a night's stay in Hveragerði, followed by two nights in Heimaey, on the Western Islands. Last I'd spend one night in Vik, on the southern coast, before driving back to the airport outside Reykjavik to drop off the car and fly back to the US. Ultimately, my trip would take me as far east as Jökulsárlón before I turned back. 
Hveragerði is known mainly for the thermal gasses that seep out all over the place from below ground. Driving out there from the airport--it took about 90 minutes--I was reminded of parts of Yellowstone, where you see occasional clouds of steam rising apparently out of nowhere. From the moment I picked up my car at the airport and all the way out to Hveragerði I encountered nothing but steady, pounding rain. Originally I'd planned to go on a hike to unwind after a long trip that had begun in the early morning in Budapest, but the rain put me off the idea. Instead I decided to go to a spa in town which had thermal pools, a sauna, and a steam room. 


That's where I spent the late afternoon and early evening--it was nice to unwind. Budapest had been hot and busy, and Istanbul even more so. I was feeling elated to have finished the research portion of my trip, and excited to be taking a little vacation. But the driving rain and low temperatures--it never got above 50 degrees Fahrenheit--had kind of bummed me out a little bit. I left the spa that evening feeling better about my current place in the world. 
Driving to Hveragerði
Iceland is very popular with Americans, many of whom appeared to have decided to go to Iceland for reasons similar to mine. There are a lot of really cheap tickets between the US and Reykjavik, and then people decide that it might be nice to see a little bit more of the country before heading on to Europe. Moreover, Iceland is the sort of place that I think would appeal to a lot of Americans--it's pretty easy to get around, the automobile is the primary mode of transportation, everybody speaks English, and the country is heavy on sites that emphasize landscape and natural beauty. It's the sort of place that I could see someone with no particular interest in learning much about foreign cultures or history happily spending a week or two climbing rocks and ice or going on long hikes. It's a country where people go to commune with nature, rather than learn much about other people or societies. Hence, the widespread presence of largish groups (seemingly always traveling in packs of 6-8) of Americans roaming around, talking to one another in booming voices about the quotidian details of their lives back in the US. 


Anyway, one nice thing about the spa was that it appeared to be somewhat off the tourist circuit. It had been written up in my guidebook--it's not like I discovered it or anything--but it was one of the few places in Iceland where someone had to go get someone else to speak to me in English. The staff seemed genuinely surprised that I'd turned up. They also chatted me up, asking me where I was from and what I was doing in Iceland--questions I never got anywhere else in the country, where I was usually the fiftieth American tourist they'd encountered that day. 


After spending the night in Hveragerði I drove on to Landeyjahöfn, a port on the southern coast of Iceland from which I would take a ferry to the Westman Islands. It was a cool little drive. Normally it would last only an hour or so, but I took a detour north to drive along the border of the North American and European tectonic plates first. There was nothing particularly noticeable about it, but I still thought it was cool. There was a lot of traffic, though, because the road I was taking was part of the "Golden Circle," a heavily touristed area that I had chosen to avoid. Not that I was against the Golden Circle, but--living as I do in a landlocked state--my interest in Iceland lay more in the coastline. So, after taking my tectonic excursion I headed back down to the water. 


On the rocks in Vik
When I got to Landeyjahöfn I hung out for half an hour or so on the beach, looking at the jagged islands that were my destination. The beach was black, and powerful waves pounded the shoreline. I was somewhat regretting my decision to take my car with me on the islands--I'd purchased the ferry tickets online a week earlier--because I could see there were plenty of places I could just leave the car by the ferry station in Landeyjahöfn. Later, however, I'd be glad I took the car with me. 
Taking the ferry back from Heimaey
Only one of the Western Islands, Heimaey, is inhabited. This is where the dude I stayed with in Stykkishólmur back in May was from. He'd recommended I visit Heimaey, and while at the time I'd kind of discounted his suggestion as a form of homerism, after reading up on the south coast while I was in Turkey I'd decided that Heimaey seemed like one of the more interesting places to visit in the region. In particular, this is one of the best places to see exotic birds in Iceland. Ever since deciding in April to visit Iceland this summer I'd been very puffin-curious. I hoped to see some while on the island and, if possible, perhaps even eat one
Would you like fries with your Puffin McMuffin? 
I arrived in Heimaey during halftime of the Iceland-Nigeria World Cup match. I'd watched some of the first half on board the ship, then drove up the steep hill from the harbor to my AirBnB, where I parked the car and headed back into town on foot. I found a pub where people were watching--a random place just down the street--and came in right before the second half began. The crowd was pretty pumped--pretty much everyone, aside from myself and a Dutch couple, appeared to be from town (the coach of Iceland's national team is from Heimaey). While the mood became a bit more somber once Nigeria scored its first, and then its second, goal, I was touched by the round of applause offered up at the pub once the match was over. 


I was glad I'd come to Heimaey with my car, as there's a lot of the island to explore beyond the town. In particular, the only puffins I saw outdoors were in Stórhöfði, on the southern tip of the island. I wasn't able to get close to them--I was at the top of the cliff, and the puffins were flying in and out of their burrows below. It took me a while to figure out which ones were the puffins, in fact--at first I had to look carefully at the ones that flew by more closely to recognize their features. But then I learned to identify them by the nonstop manner in which they had to flap their wings, unlike most of the other birds in the area who could glide. Later, when I was leaving the island to return to the mainland I saw a lot more puffins on the cliffs just off the harbor, but again these were far away--I could recognize them their color--black on top, white on the bottom--and the frantic nature of their flapping. 


Jökulsárlón
Up-close, the only puffins I saw were at a small aquarium/natural history museum in town, where they kept a couple of puffins to show to tourists. It was fun to see them waddle around--I'm referring to the puffins, not the tourists--but I didn't feel like joining the hordes in snapping photos of the two birds as they walked across the linoleum floor of the museum. It seemed a little sad, in fact--while the other puffins were out flapping their wings on the cliffs, these two were stuck in captivity, performing tricks for the camera-phone wielding masses. I left as the female puffin was picking away at a French woman's dreadlocks. 

In the end, I decided against eating puffin. It seemed like there were already too few of them around. 


I first saw the puffins on the cliff at the beginning of my first full day on the island. I'd arrived mid-afternoon the day before amid a heavy downpour so hadn't seen much outside of the town and the harbor. The next morning, however, I woke up at 5 and, feeling a bit energized, I decided to go for a drive. I was glad that I did. But the time I got home a few hours later, the rain had started again and didn't let up until the evening. Once the rain did stop, however, I managed to do some small hikes around the site of the part of town that was destroyed in the 1973 eruption.  

My last couple of days in Iceland were pretty busy. I woke up one morning on Heimaey and caught the 8:30 am ferry back to the "mainland" of Iceland. From there I drove east for an hour or so until I came to Vik, where I had a hotel reservation for the night. I couldn't check into my room until 5 pm, so I went down to the beach to hand our for a while, climbing out onto the rocks that led into the ocean. Then I kept driving for a while until I got tKirkjubæjarklaustur, which I kind of figured would be the end of the line for me. It had already taken me a couple of hours, giving the fact that I was stopping a lot and walking around, to travel to Kirkjubæjarklaustur from Vik. 


There was a gas station in Kirkjubæjarklaustur with a little cafe. As I ate my ham-and-cheese sandwich, I started looking through my guidebook at what was up the road. I knew there was a national park about an hour further east, but it was already 2 o'clock in the afternoon and I was already mentally prepared to just head back to Vik. But then I saw photos of a place called Jökulsárlón and I decided to go check it out. 


It's a lake created by icebergs falling off of glaciers. From the lake there is a little river that carries the water from the melted icebergs into the Atlantic. All in all, pretty cool stuff, and unlike anything I'd seen thus far in Iceland. 

This ended up being the furthest east I got in Iceland. From Jökulsárlón I began the drive east back to Vik for the night, and from there the next day to a flight in Reykjavik. Soon I'd be back in the US and the MT. 

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More shots from this visit can be found here.  

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More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.   

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