Travel Journal Archives: Iceland and Beyond: Days 3 and 4

I realize I'm going to lose you all if I continue this one-article-per-vacation-day business, so here's my attempt to consolidate. Sort of.

Monday, May 1st, 2017: Arctic Adventures 6 Day Tour

Around 4 am, I woke to the sound of violent winds trying to force their way through the hostel window panes.

My mind told me I should still be sleeping, because no one gets up at 4 am just because, but I wasn't tired anymore. Again, the jet lag thing.

So, I got up and stole one of the bathrooms (not connected to my room but shared by all rooms on my floor) to enjoy one of the best showers of my life. I'm not kidding.

There's no reason to feel guilty for taking your time in the shower in Iceland--hot water flows naturally from the abundant geothermal sources underground, and it is also used to heat 90% of all Icelandic homes and keep pavements snow free in the winter, according to this blog. Click that link to read more about all the cool science and the renewable energy Icelanders have mastered, because I'm not that kind of blogger.

Around the same time I'd purchased airfare, I also received an email from one of the many travel sites I follow, TourRadar, announcing a weekend sale site-wide on select tour packages.

Nothing is ever a coincidence.

Months prior I had mentally bookmarked a couple of tours in Iceland for such a time as this, and after a bit more research, finally narrowed it down to the 6 Day Around Iceland Adventure with Arctic Adventures.

Although I am fairly independent, and not usually an advocate for a tour that shuttles you around like a herd of sheep, sometimes, to save time and money, they make a lot of sense.

Even though I was going to a country known as one of the top 5 best places for solo female travelers, I really wanted to make the most of my time during my week stopover.

After reading about how expensive everything would be on the island, I figured it would be financially smarter and time-efficient, to join a small group tour where all accommodations, transportation, and daily activities would be included, meaning an expected budget and less surprise fees.

But, I do like some elements of surprise on my trips.

For instance, I couldn't remember exactly what was on the itinerary that first day. I just knew I'd be picked up around 8 and that we were headed south along the ring road that circles the island.

I try to keep my mind as untainted by preconceived notions and Google images as possible--I want my own pictures and memories!

The wind was still howling when I returned to my room to reorganize my bag and fold up my now warm and dry clothes that I'd laid on the heater all night.

I was the first person to breakfast when the door to the kitchen was unlocked at 7 am. Anyone who knows me would have wanted to check my temperature at that point.

Mornings are never my thing unless I'm on an adventure.

Icelandic breakfasts are very similar to the European style: They eat sandwiches, essentially. But, I thoroughly enjoyed the granola with the thick yogurty-cream poured over it, with a few slices of deli meat and some fruit.

Variety is everything.

After I downed a cup of coffee I gathered up my purse and backpack and stood in the lobby, ready for pickup.

An hour later, I was still standing in the lobby, anxiously staring out the windows at the relentless rain and the young, British-Asian guy sporting a top hat, trendy trench coat, Looney Tunes scarf, and a cane, for fashion sense of course.

I attempted to sneak a photo of him on my phone but he was onto me. I shouldn't have cared.

Finally, after nervously calling the tour headquarters twice from the lobby phone to confirm I hadn't been forgotten, my ride pulled in the parking lot.

I was the last pickup, and when hopping aboard I just grabbed the first seat available, right behind the bucket seat, instead of trying to maneuver down the aisle of the van.

Ended up being a pretty good spot for silent backseat driving (yes, I'm one of those) and cat-napping when the windows were too blurry to see anything anyway.

Our driver was late. He was also sorry.

He was the likeness of Thor, if Thor wore beanies and flannel. When he introduced himself, though, we all went blank.

"...do you have a nickname?" I asked for all of us.

"You can call me Stone," he said. "It is what my middle name means."

We could manage that.

Stone informed us from the get-go that this tour would not consist of him talking over an intercom every kilometer of the journey.

I was very much OK with that.

Besides the occasional fun fact or history lesson, Stone drove in peaceful solitude to his Spotify playlists, mostly consisting of ethereal Icelandic Indie Pop, that first day at least, and it was pretty fitting for the stormy surroundings.

Rain streams danced and jigged their way across the bus windows all day, painting the outside world like a watercolor.

Our first stop was Thingvelllir National Park, the beginning of the Golden Circle.

Popular for its visible representation of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates pulling apart, this area is where Iceland expands by about 2 cm per year.



This also means earthquakes, though mostly low on the Richter scale, are quite common.

The most memorable fact I took from this place, however, was that the area and the smallish (for Iceland) waterfall once served as execution grounds for witches and whoever else were considered criminals by the Vikings.

I quote (from the picture of the sign below), "men shall be beheaded, and women drowned."

Gotta love a bit of bloody history.

I really do wish the day had been clear.

The snow-capped mountains in the distance and the moss-covered lava rocks on either side of the path we walked would have been so much more photogenic without rain pelting my camera lens.


We moved on to Gullfoss waterfall, and found ourselves in sunny skies.

That didn't mean the wind had let up, though.

I have never experienced hurricane weather, but I imagine the winds at this stop were pretty comparable.

Several times while I was walking the wooden-planked pathways I found myself thrown off track completely in mid-stride.

Between the roar of the cascading waters and the thundering gusts of the wind blowing through the canyon and plateaus, it was pretty difficult to hear anything.

But that was also what made this area spectacular.

Nature sure commands attention here, I thought as I turned away with the wind shoving me quicker toward the minibus.

We all came in the sliding door huffing and puffing from the thrashing the winds gave us.

Still, we all agreed wind was better than rain while you're trying to admire something.

"We have a saying in Iceland," Stone interjected. "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes...and if you do like the weather, just wait five minutes."

We laughed, but he was right.

Although our next stop, at Geysir, was dry, the oncoming storm was quite menacing with its promise, or threat, to meet us later on.

This place was similar to Yellowstone, though dare I say it, a bit better on two accounts.

There were far less tourists, and the single rope fences that were still in close proximity to the geysers and hot springs only merely suggested you keep your distance, so we really could get up close and personal.

Several beautifully-blue hot pools bubbled and sent steam up into the clouds, but the biggest one was where the small crowd was gathered in hopeful anticipation.

This was the Old Faithful of Iceland, apparently.

My stomach was growling by this point, however, and really wasn't feeling too patient.

Still, I'm glad I stayed just that extra minute, with my camera locked and loaded, finger on the trigger.

In an instant, the constant bubbling ceased only for a second, then the warm water sank to the center before creating a glassy dome.

At this point I knew what was coming and didn't want to miss any part of it.

Click, click, click, click.

Everything happens so fast with these explosive geysers.

Since the wind was blowing to the right of me, I knew that spray would be coming quite close.

Getting scalded on the first day didn't sound like a good idea, so thankfully I was in a decent spot, both for safety reasons as well as for these shots.

In fact, as you can tell in the fourth shot, I was almost too close to get a good picture of the entire fountain shooting skyward.

But the experience was thrilling, nonetheless.

I promptly made my way toward the Geysir restaurants and gift shop area to find an affordable lunch.

I ended up spending about $13 (1.300 ISK) for a bowl of spicy Malaysian soup, which had great flavor but not many vegetable chunks so I walked away still a bit hungry.

That's just me, though, I've got quite a large appetite for a girl my size.

I had some time to kill before we had to head back out on the road, so I browsed the gift shop and was most impressed by the exquisite handmade woolen articles.

As a side note, if you ever find yourself traveling where the plugins are different, be sure to buy a converter prior to your trip.

I ended up spending close to $60 for the one I realized I needed, and believe me I was kicking myself pretty hard as I walked out the door.

The next destinations were close to each other, and further into the storm, unfortunately.

In fact, at one point on the highway, the wind got so wild it threw open the sliding door of our minibus, prompting Stone, whose knuckles were clenched white on the steering wheel already, to pull over and jam it shut.

Nothing like a bit of excitement to get us pumped for the stunning waterfalls we were about to admire.

Meet Seljalandsfoss--if it helps, the j is an English y sound.

Reaching 200 feet tall, these waters surge over a cliff, leaving a cozy (not really) pocket behind it for visitors to explore.

As Stone warned, however, it is very slippery along the path, especially on the kind of day we were there.

Within 5 minutes, thanks to the wind sending the spray backwards, I was soaked, besides where my waterproof jacket covered me.

That's not the kind of experience you turn aside, though.

Both powerful yet graceful, calming and yet exhilarating, I could probably spend my life chasing waterfalls and never get enough of them.

The formidable skies set the perfect mystical, melancholic tone for these beauties; they were amazing no matter what the weather.

But I think I'd like to return to these falls someday at golden hour to capture the glittering light on every drop and possibly even witness a rainbow form across the mist.

Next was Skogafoss, and I think it ended up being my personal favorite between the two.


There was hardly a soul in sight.

Maybe 10 other visitors, besides our small group of 12, were hanging around while we were there.

Granted, the rain didn't exactly make it the most welcoming, but I was drawn to it anyway.

One can get as close as he or she dares to this plummeting falls, as the ground is very flat.

The only barrier, for me at least, was the mist that came out in waves on the high winds and proceeded to fog up my camera and viewfinder, again.
Less people & uninviting weather meant more waterfall for me

But, I still made it to the water's edge, just to say I did.

By now I'd made acquaintance with at least a few people from my tour, and thankfully was able to get a few pictures of me on the other side of the camera.

Of course, I had to take a few selfies, too. I'm not the most confident, nor the most skilled selfie-taker compared to others in my generation, but I manage.


Also, my face may or may not have actually been frozen, but I promise this is a genuine smile.

By this point I'd decided that I liked both wind and rain, separately, but together, they weren't my friends.

The temperature was only about 50 degrees, Fahrenheit, but with the wind chill, I'd say it felt more like the 30s.

My extremities are always the first to wimp out. My fingers were stiff and my thumbs were unable to bend as normal.

I was a cold, sopping mess when I got back on the bus, but I was a happy one nonetheless.

Our last stop of the day was near Vik's black sand beach, complete with basalt columns and large volcanic rock formations off the coast.

By that time, however, the chill had seeped to my core. My bones were shivering and I couldn't make them stop.

I grabbed a spare green, way-too-big coat Stone had brought along, tightened the hood, shoved my frozen phalanges in the pocket, and shuffled my way to the famous landmark.

I looked ridiculous and I didn't care.

Since my fingers couldn't work either camera very well, I asked Stone to take one of me, as proof that I in fact did make it onto the beach. Just in case I literally froze and became an additional tourist landmark right then and there.

"You know..." he said. "When denim and jean are wet, they do not keep you warm like wool. Right now, the heat is being extracted from your body. I do not recommend getting anymore wet."

Thanks, Stone. Because I was totally considering going for a dip in those stormy waves.

No regrets, though.

OK, I take that back. I DO wish I'd been a bit more prepared that day.

However, I learned my lesson that first day, even though it was the only day that mattered, due to the weather changing in our favor as the week went on.

We backtracked a little to our hotel for the evening, which was very similar to Hotel Katla Hofdabrekka I just looked up on Booking.com, and from what I see by the pictures it could even be the very one.

That night, I decided to base my dinner option based on the size of my hunger pains and not the size of the price, and ordered the rich, buttery cod, served with steamed vegetables and a side salad.

Muy delicioso.

This, added with the great conversation with my new roommate and Stone, and followed by the hottest shower I could stand (which, admittedly, isn't all that hot), was the best end to a full first day.

Maybe it goes without saying, but I'm not the type who goes on vacation to stay in 5 star hotels.

The tour representatives had told me at the time of booking that they would try to pair me up with another female close to my age, since I didn't want to pay the supplemental single fee.

Well, go figure that the only other female traveling alone and close to my age was the only other American.

Janice and I were roommates for the rest of the trip, without issue. Some nights we talked about all of the day's activities and even more serious subjects, while other nights we barely spoke besides "the shower's yours" due to exhaustion.

This first night we shared some good laughs while getting to know each other. But we were both happy to turn off the lights (which took us a while to figure out, we shamefully admit) and get some shut-eye, despite the wind and rain that howled and pelted outside all night.


Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017: Day 2, Vatnajökull Glacier & Jökulsárlón


I woke up around 3 am in a dead sweat, realizing we had never turned down the heater after we'd cranked it to dry all of our wet clothing items overnight.

Oops.

It was still stormy when we got up and ate a great buffet breakfast. Fruit and smoked fish and granola and more of that "skyr" aka creamy-milky-yoghurty goodness.

Different, but good.

As Stone promised, the rain actually did let up the further east we drove. The clouds stuck around, but I never mind them.

For a disclaimer: Sorry, not sorry, for the picture overload to come. I'd never had so many unique experiences packed in one day in all my life.

Upon leaving Vik, we passed this church on the hill, and also a gift shop for people to meander around.

I didn't do any shopping, but I was glad to access the free Wi-Fi. That was quite possibly one of the best things about Iceland, just about every stop had free Wi-Fi.

We stopped briefly for a short walk up a hill to view a waterfall. Not sure I ever found out its name.

Moss delicately decorated large boulders, morning mist was beginning to clear out, and the sound of rushing water pulsing down the cliff wall made for the most enchanting scene for all the senses.

I rock-hopped my way down to wedge between two boulders, with one very giant one (left, but on the other side of it) as my shield from the rest of the elements.

From this angle, I was right in line with the falls and the rapids ran right beneath me (right).

Believe it or not, it was a cozy little nook, and I would have been happy to sit there a while longer.

But, onward we went to the highlights of the day, stopping only at a convenience store for snacks and refreshments.


Oh, and lava field, hiker-made rock piles.

We stopped for a few minutes to brave the hectic wind that had picked up again to snap some interesting angles of these lava rock piles, and build our own.



Soon, after driving about another hour, these white peaks came into view, awaiting our arrival to Skaftafell National Park.

In no time we were sizing our feet for crampons to use later, saying a temporary farewell to Stone, and loading up on a different bus that took us further up a mountain road, closer to a glacier outlet of Vatnajokull.


When we tumbled out, another guide, named Luke, who was with Glacier Guides, was there to greet us and lead us up an easy 3 mile hike right to the glacier wall.

Luke had a British accent, in my opinion, and when we alluded to it, he told us he was from Jersey, not to be confused with USA's New Jersey.

I pretended to know where that was and made a mental note to look it up later (click the name Jersey above to get the gist).

Besides a minor tumble from poor Marina, an older lady from Hong Kong who lives in London, who is also quite witty and energetic for her age, we all made the journey to the glacier base safely.

Luke explained some of the facts about the glacier and the lagoon along the way.

Basically all glaciers on earth are in retreat mode at this time, and a large cause of it is global warming.

However, as this was the beginning of May, much of the lake was recent runoff from the melting snow and ice and the sediment it carried with it from the glacier.

While Luke was fastening all the crampons--spikes that strap to the bottom of your shoes--and giving us the safety first speech, I was watching another group about to descend from the glacier.

Ironically enough, those colorful-coated hikers up there ended up being some of the same people I'd met at the Blue Lagoon just two days prior.

They recognized me, too, and we exchanged silent, surprised faces and waves so as not to disrupt our guides.

Goes to show just how many tourists there really aren't in Iceland after all, compared to many other places anyway.

Now, time for the fun stuff.

1. Walking uphill on 2,500 year old glacier ice really wasn't difficult, especially with our spiked feet and our exaggerated stomping.

2. We didn't really need the ice-picks, and Luke had even told us so. But, they were nice photo props.

3. For reasons included in the picture on the right, featuring the ice-crevice (that word is weird no matter how it's used, am I right?), we did have to watch our steps and stay in a single-file line.

4. Surprisingly, it was warmer on top of the glacier than it was on our way in. Seriously, there was a warm breeze, if there was one at all. I wanted to peel off a few layers. My theory is the glacier was acting as a shelter of sorts. But it was also true that the weather was turning in our favor, bringing a balmy temperature over from Europe.

5. We shamelessly sang and whistled "Hi, Ho" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with our ice picks over our shoulders as we single-file-shuffled the glacier face.

6. After a few pictures, I quietly admitted to myself, "this is probably the most unique thing I've ever done." And then, I had to quickly take it back and put it in 2nd place, because we then entered an ice cave. Yes, I just said ICE CAVE.
















7. Though it sounds cold and apathetic, the incessant dripping and rushing stream cutting through it convinced me it was pretty lively at the heart, and probably enjoyed visitors admiring it for its true inner beauty and tasteful artwork.

8. Glaciers are quite hospitable. I drank straight from the water running down the inside of the cave walls (left); it was sweet and refreshing.

9. Fact: I could live here. OK, maybe just camp for a few nights, but gosh, how cool, literally and aesthetically.

10. Keep in mind, this was a cloud day. Brighter light would have made those blue-hued, curvy cave walls pop even more.
















11. Glaciers like change, apparently. Luke informed us that just a few weeks prior to our tour, the cave room had been large enough for an entire tour group of our size to walk around comfortably. At this time, we had to split our group in half and there was only enough room for a couple of people to take pictures at the bottom, but that was as far as we could go in. Thus, new caves would have to be discovered come fall or winter, according to Luke.

12. I promise, none of these pictures have been edited beyond the watermark and a little bit of brightening, due to the cave being so dark.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

We ascended the steep, crunchy ice back out of the cave and out onto the glacier face to climb even higher into the more rugged part.

"Amazing." "Wow!" "This is incredible..."

Such were the many exclamations that could be heard echoing off the ice from all of us.



By this point, we were a small tribe.

We took pictures for each other, laughed with, and at, each other.

Maybe we didn't know everyone's names or personal details, yet.

But there's just something about experiencing world wonders and adventuring together that brings people close.

Stone was patiently waiting for us at the end of the hike, ready to drive us to our next adventure.















This is where my "not following the itinerary closely" became a blessing, I think.

I was riding on the right side of the bus, as had become the routine by then, but happened to look out through the left window at the perfect moment to get a glimpse that made me actually gasp aloud.

Yeah, I don't normally do that, for anything.

But, Icebergs!?!?

They are so unexpectedly beautiful, in person.

There were two sides to this area, however, and we pulled off the road to the right first just before the bridge.

Just like children let out at recess, we ran across more black sand to explore the many natural ice sculptures that had set out from their homeland on the other side of the lagoon, only to find themselves beached.

Ice, ice, baby.

We found different shapes from every angle we looked.

Some were crystal clear and smooth, others were milky-white and chunky. But I loved them all.

I couldn't help but think they all appeared as gorgeous, though gaudy, jewel stones that had escaped from a giant sunken treasure chest.

Evidently, I found out afterward, this place was called Diamond Beach. The name fit perfectly.

We spotted some seals out playing in the bay, just a few yards from the shore.


I assume they were used to visitors and were looking for some foreign snacks.

And by snacks I don't mean us, I mean actual snacks.




















On the other side of the bridge, the glacial lagoon stood perfectly still.

No waves disturbed these glassy waters.

I almost felt like I had to take shallow breaths, so that I didn't disrupt the serenity.

I know they look small in my pictures, but these iceberg tops were immaculate and impressive, jutting out in confidence, yet floating contently.

Like their smaller children that had stowed away to the shore on the other side, they were beautiful from every angle.
















I warned you all...I took a ton of pictures this day.

These ones I'm sharing are just the "tip of the iceberg" (couldn't resist).

But, better to have too many than to wish you'd taken more, right?



In short, this lagoon was absolutely breathtaking, and not just because of the cold.

As the chill in the air began to seep into my finger joints once again, we all began to reluctantly pull ourselves away from the dramatic scene.

I stopped along the shore and asked Clive from Australia who carried a more massive DSLR than I, if he could take a few photos of me.

"I don't know how to pose!" I exclaimed while fidgeting.

"Yes, that's quite obvious," he replied with a sarcastic chuckle.

I guess we'd all reached this level of comfort with each other already.

Sarcasm is a whole new, wonderful kind of comfort level. And it was only the second day.

In turn, I took some for he and his wife, Fiona, who announced they would be happy to take me along with them on all of their adventures from then on, just to be their personal photographer.

That sounded just fine by me.


To be continued...

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