11 April 2010

Heaven.




Before we came to Iceland, I read that The Blue Lagoon was for tourists, and the locals go to the municipal pool. I planned to go to the city pool, because, well, I didn't come to Iceland for some canned, theme-park type experience. Then I spoke with several other travelers, including that amazing British "grandmum" from our South Coast tour. When she told us the Blue Lagoon was the highlight of her stay, I arranged our visit.

The Blue Lagoon is like no other pool I've ever seen. It's man-made, but on such a large scale that it feels like a lake. I don't think there's any point in it where you can see the whole thing. It's 5000 square meters, and set in the middle of a remote field of black volcanic rocks covered in arctic moss. The water is salty and very warm, with some spots that are downright hot. The bottom is sandy in some spots, muddy in others, and contains so much white silica that the water has an other-worldly milky blue glow. There are some "hot pots" (jacuzzis) , saunas, and steam rooms nearby for those who want even more heat. On one end of the pool, there's a waterfall that beats against your back for the most amazing massage. And on the edges of the water, there are boxes of purified clay and minerals from the water that you can use as a mask. My face is baby-soft from it. It's free to use there, but it's stupid-expensive to buy. A small tube is something like $70.

The Blue Lagoon is, for the moment, my favorite place on Earth besides home.

We're going back to The Blue Lagoon tomorrow. And then, home.

10 April 2010

A different kind of south beach.

On Saturday morning, we left to see Iceland's south coast. Rain and wind pounded the van while we crossed the mountains, and the windows were so fogged up that we couldn't see a thing. We knew we were at our first stop, Seljalandsfoss waterfall, by its the sound. Warmer temperatures here have accelerated glacial melt, producing a thundering stream of muddy water the likes of which our guide Andre (the same man who guided Steve and me through the Golden Circle in March) had never seen. You can usually walk behind the Seljalandsfoss fall; if you do a Google search, you can see lots of images of tourists walking behind the tall, gentle fall. On our visit, the volume of water made the back route inaccessible. Caroline stayed by the van with the other members of our group to keep dry. I borrowed a waterproof jacket from Andre to wear over my coat and followed him across the narrow river. Where it was shallow, we jumped from rock to rock. Then we reached a footbridge. Ironically, I stayed dry across the rocks, but the spray from the fall was so intense on the bridge that it soaked through my jeans and my base layer in seconds. I spent the rest of the day in cold, sloshy denim, but it was worth it.

video


The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route in Iceland for a reason-- the sites are close to Reykjavik, and the loop is very dense with high-value stops. Every fifteen minutes, you reach something beautiful. The south coast is both more subtle and more extreme. We drove for long, boring stretches between sites, and when we reached them, they were not immediately spectacular.

Reynisfjara Beach is the southernmost point in Iceland, a stark, barren stretch of coastline. At first, the sand is not sand at all-- it's rocks. As you approach the water, the rocks get smaller and smaller, and eventually, you reach a band of fine-grained black sand. I only appreciated the view once I got close to the water, where the violent white waves against the black sand looks like a normal beach in negative exposure. The waves are notoriously unpredictable here, and I've never seen such erratic tides. One moment they'd gently roll to shore far from where we stood; a couple of minutes later, they'd race so much faster and farther in that I grabbed Caroline (who has not yet developed a healthy respect for nature's dangers) and moved to higher ground. We walked along the beach for a while, and then got back in the van to leave for or our wildest destination of the entire trip.

After driving on the highway for half an hour or so, Andre turned on to winding gravel road. The road was bouncy and uneven, and when we eventually reached our destination, the other vehicles there were all 4X4s. We parked in a gravel lot at the edge of a field of black volcanic rocks. They ranged in size from pebbles to boulders, and covered the ground over hills and under streams leading to the snout of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

A tangent: Mýrdalsjökull glacier is redundant; in Icelandic, most places are identified with logical toponyms. A -jökull is a glacier, a -fjörður is a fjord, a -foss is a waterfall, a -hraun is a lava field, a -fell is a mountain, a -vatn is a lake, a -vik is an inlet, and so forth. Once I figured this out, it made it a lot easier to decipher place names here.

The hike to the glacier wasn't far, but there was no obvious route. It was like one of those mazes on childrens' paper place mats: we'd set off in one direction, only to reach a stream that was too wide to cross. Andre took off ahead of us, and found a path that put us directly on the glacier's snout. I followed behind one of our tour-mates-- a spry British grand-mum who left her daughter and granddaughter behind because they were too slow. I pulled out my camera on some of the flat stretches, but the sky and glacier are both so white than my pictures all looked washed-out. We lingered at the glacier for a long time, with everyone hiking off in different directions. Andre encouraged us to stand at the edge of the glacier, but not to venture more than a few feet on to the ice. It was obvious from the edge that the ice in front of us was melting, and there was no way to tell where the weak spots might be.

Next we drove to the Skógafoss waterfall, which is usually larger than Seljalandsfoss. You would never know that from our visit! Skógafoss was impressive, but seemed gentle compared to Seljalandsfoss. I'd read that there's almost always a rainbow at Skógafoss, but the sky was a solid sheet of white while we were there.

Our final stop was Skógar, a tiny village just south of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. If "Eyjafjallajökull" looks strangely familiar, it's because the volcano that erupted last month was under this glacier. We visited Skógasafn, an Icelandic folk museum, and toured their tiny, century-old farmhouse to get a rare glimpse of a truly old Icelandic building.

We got back to Reykjavik at about 6PM, damp and exhausted. We warmed up at Indian Mango-- a highly regarded restaurant downtown where Caroline had her first taste of local lamb and I had the "vegetarian dish". I asked the waitress what was in it, and she just shrugged and said "whatever he feels like putting in it each day, but it's always good". And it was.

09 April 2010

Volcano's-a-no-go

We made up for this week's dearth of sleep with twelve uninterrupted hours of shut-eye for me, and thirteen for Caroline. As Caroline got ready for our trip to the volcano, the hotel's concierge gave me the bad news: a storm rolled in overnight, and our guide was forced to cancel our trip. The conditions weren't dangerous, per se, but views of the volcano were completely obstructed by the cloud cover.

We decided to take a walk up to The Pearl, a large dome that sits atop six enormous water towers on a hill high above Reykjavik. It's a ten minute walk from our hotel thanks to a fully paved path, and the fresh air felt great. The path had several small gravel trails leading off through the trees in different directions. It's the sort of place that would be thoroughly creepy in any other city. Not here. Reykjavik, even in its park-like crevices, feels perfectly safe.

We stopped at The Pearl's fourth floor cafeteria for skyr (MUCH better here than the one we tried in Portland!) and coffee, and then went back down to the lobby to visit the Saga Museum. It's a small wax museum, but it's worth a visit. The figures are incredibly realistic, and since this is Iceland, many of them are downright frightening. The audio tour takes about thirty minutes, and guides you through the most important events in Iceland's early history.

From The Pearl, we went downtown to hunt for a pair of "cute" fingerless wool gloves. Caroline saw some in the gift shop at Geysir, but we ran out of time and couldn't buy them there. They cover your wrist and wrap around your thumb only, but they leave your fingers completely exposed. Since fingers and toes get cold so quickly, I asked the shopkeeper, while Caroline tried them on, why someone other than my daughter might want such gloves.

"They're helpful for hunting, fishing, smoking..."

Caroline doesn't hunt, fish, or smoke, but she loves her cute fingerless gloves so much that I had to remind her to take them off at dinner (edit: and again at bedtime).

For dinner, we went back to The Pearl. We had a reservation at Perlan, the rotating restaurant at the top of the dome. Like all such restaurants, the food was secondary to the view. The view was spectacular! You can see the city from the fourth floor cafeteria, but it's not panoramic, and of course, it doesn't rotate. Let me back up. The food was secondary for me. For Caroline, it was more memorable: her crispy duck was served with her very first taste of pan-seared foie gras. She was tentative at first, but then she metered it out and spread a little on each bite of duck. She really amazes me, my daughter. I felt out of sorts if I traveled as far as Staten Island at her age. Caroline is always open to new experiences. No, that's an understatement. She's eager for new experiences.

Tomorrow, black sand beaches and waterfalls along Iceland's south coast.

Icelanders scare their children to sleep

The Hotel Loftleiðir is a strange mix of awful and awesome. At the top of the "awesome" list is a unique concept. At 9PM on Thursday nights, guests are invited to pick up a cup of complimentary hot chocolate on the way into the hotel's small theater, where a professional actor reads a selection of bedtime stories.

The actor warned the children, who were mostly British, that Icelandic bedtime stories are a little different than the ones they read at home. One story was about a giantess and her eight beautiful baby giants who turned to stone in the sun. Then there was the reading from Egil's Saga, in which Egil, age 7, murders someone with an axe.

They wouldn't be Vikings if they raised their kids on Goodnight Moon.

08 April 2010

All that glitters.

An hour after we got to bed last night-- and a mere four hours before our wake-up call, I heard Caroline whimper and retch. I don't know how she did it, but with only four hours of sleep in the last forty-eight hours and no ability to keep down a sip of water, she worked up the enthusiasm to get out of bed and see the Golden Circle. It was a gamble, but it paid off. She took things slowly in the beginning, and felt perfectly normal within a couple of hours.

Our Golden Circle experience was quite different than my tour with Steve last month. There's snow on the ground now, and some of the water at Gullfoss, Þingvellir, and Kerið is frozen. The snow in Reykjavik and at Þingvellir is powdery dry and crunchy when you walk across it, and it sparkles in the sunshine. It's lovely. Although it must have been colder for Caroline and me, there was virtually no wind. This time around, we were able to really explore each site. We started our Gullfoss visit way up high by the visitor center this time, walked down to the main viewing area, and then went down as close to the water as we could. At the bottom of the trail, atop a series of volcanic rocks near the edge of a cliff, Caroline learned a fundamental climbing rule the hard way: when you climb up, you need to be able to get down. Fortunately for Caroline, she only weighs seventy pounds and her mom was there to grab her.

Steve and I were hammered by the wind at Geysir so hard that we took a couple of quick (but lucky) pictures and ran back to the bus. Caroline and I were able to linger here long enough to watch Strokkur erupt several times. Strokkur erupts (on average) every four minutes. Some of the eruptions are very small; others are massive. Sometimes there are two or three in quick succession, and other times, it seems quiet for a long time. We stayed in the field for about twenty minutes, and sure enough, we saw Strokkur erupt five times. Here's a small eruption, but the only one I was able to capture from start to finish:

video

We got back to our hotel at about 5PM, had a quick dinner in the hotel's restaurant, and tried to decide what to do tomorrow. We really wanted to sign up for The Mountaineers of Iceland's 4X4 drive across the "Myrdalsjokull Glacier to the erupting volcano on Fimmvörðuháls which is situated near the Glacier Eyjafjallajökull". We tossed it back and forth, and decided that the 4PM-4AM itinerary was too ambitious, and the $400+ price tag was too expensive.

And then we booked it anyway.

07 April 2010

The Northern Lights

We had a perfectly clear sky tonight, and unexpectedly high auroral activity. We took a bus to a remote, dark field near a river-- a river we could hear but could not see. There were glowing fingers across the sky in every direction... but there was no color. None. Well, that's not true. If you closed your eyes for a solid minute, twirled around, and aimed just right, you might catch faint green streaks in your peripheral vision. Head on, the light was fuzzy beige. Our tour guide could spot aurora streams forming long before we could, and she was always right about where they appeared, but her hopes for a vivid show died shortly after midnight when the fuzzy beige lights shut down almost completely.

The forecast is similar for tomorrow night, so we'll probably skip the icy cold field in favor of a soothing geothermal pool.

I actually know my way around Reykjavik.

Two weeks ago, I visited Iceland as a tourist. Now I'm back as a guide. It sounds crazy, and I don't pretend to know a fraction of what there is to know about this place, but I know enough to walk my daughter to every tourist site in old downtown Reykjavik with minimal assistance from a map. I still can't find my way around Southeast Portland without GPS, so I'm pretty pleased with myself.

Our plane took off on time, and there were no volcanic eruptions to waylay us. We checked into our hotel, raided the breakfast buffet for hard boiled eggs, skyr, and fresh quince, and then set out on foot to see the city. That's exactly what Steve and I did two weeks ago, only our hotel was downtown, right on the water. Caroline and I are staying at a slightly nicer hotel, but it's far from the action. After some of the wild weather Steve and I encountered, I was nervous when I saw snow on the ground. It may indeed be colder, but it was so sunny and wind-free that our three mile loop felt perfectly refreshing after all those hours in the car, at the airport, and on the plane. We visited Hallsgrimska, the Sun Voyager, and Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main shopping street. We popped into Isey, where I had the unique opportunity to report back to the shopkeeper about all the compliments I've received back home on one of her designs.

To my complete delight, Caroline was more focused on the little things than the landmarks--
the crazy drivers, the nerve-wracking sound that alerts pedestrians that their time in the crosswalk is running out, the streets named for historical figures from the Sagas, and the oddities on grocery store shelves. We agreed that hardfiskur is not an appealing snack food, but that Muu is a fabulous name for milk.

After lunch, we returned to the hotel for a much-needed nap. Now we're waiting with bated breath and crossed fingers to find out if the clouds and ions will cooperate long enough for us to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

06 April 2010

Iceland II

In nine hours, my baby girl will get her very first passport stamp. To prepare for our trip, she's studied Icelandic culture, literature, tourist attractions, and a little bit about volcanoes.

She learned about patronyms and matronyms, and rechristened our puppy as Jasper Carolinesdoggie.

She read 700 pages of The Sagas of the Icelanders, and declared that it takes effort to follow at times "because everyone's name starts with Thor and they all want to kill each other".

She hopes Katla doesn't blow up while we're there.

Location:SeaTac Airport, United States