The Land of Fire and Ice

The land of Ice and Fire – Iceland, August 2021

Kristen & Julia Busch-Hansen

We are just back from an incredible trip to Iceland, planned by Magsie in 2020 for summer 2021 and boy did it come up with goods… seemingly against all odds, with the global COVID pandemic disrupting all travel, a volcano erupting just up the road from Reykjavik International Airport, and Greenland closing its airports for the few months of summer.

The vehicle hire firms had sold off many of their vehicles during the pandemic and now find that they have too few vehicles to meet demand. Despite all these challenges, Jules managed to pull it off, keeping us up to date with all the changes, being on hand to sort out inconveniences along the way and even getting us a rental vehicle… travellers arriving in Keflavik a week later were not so lucky and some were left without a car!

Road-to-Dettifoss

Road-to-Dettifoss

Our route took us around Iceland on Route 1 – Iceland’s equivalent of the M25…

Except with one lane in each direction, numerous Einbreid Brú or single lane bridges, and on some days only five cars in a day, it could not have been further from London’s orbital. We covered over 2,000 miles in the two 2 weeks ably guided by What3words and Waze.

Apotek restaurant next door to the Borg Hotel in Reykjavik

Apotek restaurant next door to the Borg Hotel in Reykjavik

Volcanoes in Iceland

Over our two weeks in Iceland we climbed up dormant volcanos that had been quiescent for more than 3000 years including the Grábrók craters in Western Iceland. On Reykjanes we were able to witness the Fagradalsfjall shield volcano that started erupting in April 2021 – red-hot lava overflowing from a lava lake and flowing down the hillside until it solidified into black wrinkled mass of cooling rock.

Then 20 miles away on the same line of mountains we allowed ourselves to be lowered into þríhnúkagígur – a volcanic cone from which the lava had withdrawn leaving a chamber taller than the Statue of Liberty, coated in shades of yellow sulphur and red iron oxide.

Thrihnukagigur

Thrihnukagigur

Iceland's Golden Circle

From Reykjanes, our journey took us round the Golden Circle to see the famous sights of Gullfoss and Geysir (although Geysir is no longer active and it is its neighbour, Strokkur, that blasts hot water and steam into the sky). Despite these justifiably famous sites, it was the lesser known waterfalls like Öxarárfoss in þingvellir National Park and Brúarfoss that will stick with us partly because there were fewer visitors.

Bruarfoss

Bruarfoss

Waterfalls of Iceland

Further South and East, we took in the waterfalls of Gluggafoss, Seljalandfoss, Gljúfrabúi, Skógafoss, Kvernufoss and Svartifoss – each one taller, wider, more powerful, or just more beautiful than the last. We had never thought that you cannot get bored of looking at water falling over a cliff!

farm taken near to Gluggafoss

farm taken near to Gluggafoss

The high-point of this part of the journey was the Seljavallalaug open-air baths; a short walk up a curved valley took us to a swimming pool built on the side of a hill in 1927 and heated with geothermal water where you could float in 40C water surrounded by mountains and a small stream with only the ubiquitous Icelandic sheep for company.

One of the five surviving turf roofed churches in Iceland, Hofskirkja

One of the five surviving turf roofed churches in Iceland, Hofskirkja

Northern Iceland

Around Vik, Iceland’s most southerly town, the beaches took over from waterfalls: the black beaches at Víkurfjara and Reynisfjara with the sea stacks surrounded by clouds of sea birds, followed by Fellsfjara, better know as Diamond Beach (below) – where chunks of crystal clear glacial ice are washed ashore.

Icebergs in Iceland!

As the pandemic had curtailed our trip to Greenland, we satisfied ourselves with a Zodiac cruise through the iceberg filled lagoon of Fjallsárlón, and although it is the smaller relation to the more famous Jökulsárlón, it was less busy and you could get closer to the icebergs.

Fjallsarlon

Fjallsarlon

Fjallsarlon

Fjallsarlon

Our next stop was Egilsstaðir, one of the youngest towns in Iceland, it began in 1947 as a cluster of houses around the farm of the same name and where we stayed while we explored Eastern Iceland.

More waterfalls, this time Hengifoss with its bands of red rock between layers of black basalt, Litlanesfoss surrounded by basalt pipes, and the picturesque Rjúkandi. Although it was not a waterfall, the turquoise water of the Jökulsá river as it squeezes through the black basalt columns of the Stuðlagil Canyon was a memorable walk… and climb (after which we eased our muscles with a long soak in the geothermal baths at Vok – sitting is a hot pool that floats on the Lagarfljót ribbon lake as the sun drifts down towards the horizon is just the best way to end a day!)

Hengifoss

Hengifoss

Eastern Iceland to Lake Myvatn

From Eastern Iceland, our journey took us to Lake Myvatn, infamous for its ‘mys’ – tiny midge-like insects – not that they troubled us much, except in the immediate vicinity of the Lake.

Myvatn spa

Myvatn spa

A detour of 20 miles on dirt roads off the main Route 1 took us to three more spectacular waterfalls, including the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, Dettifoss, the longest waterfall, Selfoss, and the spectacular Hafragilsfoss, where, in the middle of a rock-strewn lava field, we had to wait to use the public WC… because the already spotless facilities were being cleaned!

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Leaving Lake Myvatn we took in another waterfall – because, well, FOMO! But Goðafoss was well worth seeing especially as the sun was shining and the sky a brilliant blue… again.

Godafoss

Godafoss

Game of Thrones in Iceland

Our trip also took in Grjótagjá cave, familiar to any fan of Game of Thrones as the spot where Ygritt and Jon Snow, erm, had a bath. Unfortunately the geothermal hotspot under Grjótagjá has moved and any attempt to recreate Jon and Ygritt’s tryst would end up with you being gently poached so we had to make do with the nature baths next to Námafjall Hverir – a sulphurous smelling hillside complete with bubbling mud and clouds of steam – also worth a visit.

Akureyri - Northern Iceland 

In Akureyri, the capital of Northern Iceland, we let Elding Tours show us the humpback whales and white-beaked dolphins that inhabit the fjord – on a beautiful clear sunny day we saw several pods of dolphins and two whales well known to the Elding guides.

Humpback whale

Humpback whale

Cafe Akureyri

Cafe Akureyri

White beaked dolphin

White beaked dolphin

Ice cream parlour Akureyri

Ice cream parlour Akureyri

Icelandic Horses

The next few days spent in the farthest North of Iceland were some of the very best – no named waterfalls, no volcanos, no boiling mud, just an incredibly beautiful and peaceful landscape of mountains and tiny fishing villages.

Siglufjörður fishing village in far north

Siglufjörður fishing village in far north

This area is famous within Iceland for the Icelandic horse, a robust creature able to live out through the Arctic winters, with two paces unique to its breed that allow it to move fast over the rough rock of the lava fields.

Icelandic horse

Icelandic horse

We finished our stay in the North by riding those tough horses along the black sand beach and through the Arctic Ocean – and eased those riding aches in the Bjórböðin beer spa. Apparently it is very good for your skin to sit in a tub of hot beer while sipping from a glass of cold beer – at least it makes a change from sulphurous smelling water!

 

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Down to the last few days of our holiday and the last few miles of Route 1, we visited Snæfellsnes: the black church, Búðakirkja, built by an Icelandic woman who wouldn’t accept no for an answer when she asked to be allowed to build a church. From the church, a walk along the cliffs from Arnarstapi to Lóngdrangar and then to Djúpalónssandur taking in the basalt columns of the cliffs, each one with a seagull nest on top; the horseshoe sea-arch, Gatklettur; the trolls frozen into sea stacks at Djúpalónssandur with the sea raging around them.

Finishing the day at Kirkjufell – the most photographed mountain in Iceland. Not that we did not see more waterfalls… our days on the West of Iceland included visits to Hraunfossar where the water bursts out from under the lava field, to Barnafoss with its rock bridges, and to Glymurfoss… the tallest waterfall in Iceland at 198m (until 2011 when the remote Morsárfoss was deemed to be 30m taller).

Kirkjufjell

Kirkjufjell (just before it poured with rain!).

All the way around Iceland, our hotels were well selected by Travel With Jules from the ultra-modern Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon with its panoramic windows looking across the rocky fields to the sea, or the Lake Hotel in Egilsstaðir, the original farm that became the town and still got its ingredients from ‘next door’. Or the Sigló Hótel, in the tiny fishing port of Siglufjörður at the Northern tip of Iceland with a chandelier in the bedroom. Each and every hotel was unique and truly hospitable; at each one we were surprised by the care taken by the staff to minimise the risk from Covid.

Managing to pull off such a fantastic trip during a global pandemic is really quite some feat for TWJ. Our intense good memory bank has well and truly been topped up! Thank you Jules & Mags.