Thursday, March 16, 2017

Iceland ~ The Land of Fire and Ice

The world is a book...
each new place another chapter to be read.
Who knew that there was such spectacular beauty in this small country?  There is so much more to Iceland than I had ever imagined. It is home to Europe's largest glaciers and also one of the world's most active volcanoes, and is often called 'The Land of Fire and Ice'.

We made the most of our six-day stay...visiting many of the attractions of south-west Iceland.  We had pre-booked tours for the first few days, with intentions of renting a car and doing our own thing after that.  In the end, we decided that organized tours were pretty stress-free, so we stuck with Reykjavik Excursions.

The 'Golden Circle' tour is a must for all visitors!

Gullfoss is one of the most popular attractions in Iceland...where water plunges 32 meters into a rugged canyon.  It was quite spectacular to see.

Another stop along the Golden Circle is the highly active Geysir Hot Spring Area with boiling mud pits and exploding geysers. The Strokkur spouts water 30 meters (100 ft) into the air every 5-10 minutes. We lined up with the others at a safe distance to wait for the eruption...and then it totally caught us by surprise. By the time I had my gloves off and the camera ready, the geyser was long gone.  So we waited again, sans gloves and camera poised this time.  The area has been active for more than 1000 years and has over a dozen hot water blow holes.

We checked out  Europe's most powerful hot spring...Deildartunguhver....and walked about in the steam.  It provides enough hot water to heat all the homes in the entire well as hot mineral water for the bathing/showering pleasure of the locals.

Our last stop on the Golden Circle tour was Thingvellur National Park where we walked along the path between two continents.  The park lies in a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plate, the source of much earthquake activity. This location also plays a key role in Icelandic history as the spot where the oldest existing parliament in the world first assembled back in 930 AD. Because of this, it has  been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Right next to the national park is Iceland's largest and most historic lake, Thingvallavatn, which also straddles the American and European continental plates.

We paid a visit to the lava caves, wearing the mandatory helmets with headlights...

...and took a tour into the depths of Iceland's largest lava cave.  The entry to the cave is through a huge hole in the ground, some 75 meters long.

Once inside, we followed our guide down boardwalks deep into the cave.  Though there were a few narrow spots, most of the cave is rather like a big hall.  There was definitely much to see deep inside the cave, including spectacular ice formations.  We were quite happy for our headlights!  The guide had us turn them off at one point, just to experience real darkness.

Iceland has amazing waterfalls quite near Reykavjik. 

The waterfalls of Hraunfossar are actually a collection of countless creeks and cascades streaming out of the lava over a distance of about a kilometer.  Quite beautiful, actually...even on a drizzly day.

Right nearby is Barnafoss, which means 'children´s waterfall'...named after two children that fell in while trying to cross the river on a natural stone bridge.

On the south coast is Skogafoss...where the water tumbles some 60m/200 feet over the cliff, producing rainbows in the sunshine.

A stairway up the side led to a viewing platform on top...but we were content with our bottom view as we had more places to go and things to see.

Our next stop was the Mýrdalsjökull glacier....which covers an active volcano called Katla. It last erupted in 1918, and is 'overdue' for another eruption.

Since everything was blanketed in snow, it was a little hard to see where the glacier actually started, but our glacial hike was a most memorable experience!

And then there was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall...unique as the only known waterfall you can walk behind. There is a footpath that goes behind the waterfall and into a small cave.  In the interest of staying dry...we never checked that out!

Our drive along the south coast took us to the charming village of Vik...

...and the black volcanic sand beaches nearby.

The basalt columns surrounded by the churning waters of the Atlantic made for a dramatic scene.

Our tour guide, driver and hubby watched as a group of tourists tried to escape a monster wave. They succeeded, but not without getting wet. 

Those are powerful waves! We were warned many times over to keep our distance. Just a month before our visit, a German tourist was swept out to sea at this very spot.  It was the second such drowning at this beach within a year.

I loved the contrast of the fresh snow on the lava racks along the beach.  Black and white!

Every village seemed to have a picturesque white church with a red roof.  All were Lutheran, which is the Church of Iceland. 

Small farms dotted the countryside. Some sat right on the ocean shore...

...others were perched up on the hillside.

Icelandic horses could be seen out on the fields wherever we traveled...quite accustomed to snow.  They are a beautiful and unique horse with five gaits and the only breed of horse in Iceland. We discovered that horses are a big deal in this country...with a population of  320,000 people there are about 80,000 horses.  And they are also a big deal for tourists, with one in four visitors going riding during their stay.  We chose not to.

Another interesting stop on our last day of touring was the Skogar museum on the south coast, with its historic turf houses.  The original homes were built of wood or stone (birch was the only wood available) and then covered in turf to stand up against the harsh climate. They were tiny homes, with doorways meant for hobbits.

Our time in Iceland began and ended in Reykjavik. It may have been only six short days, but the memories are many!

No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home 
and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.'  
~Lin Yutang

Monday, March 6, 2017

Iceland ~ Our Reykjavik Adventure

Reykjavik is the world's most northerly capital city (just 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle) and the largest city in Iceland. The name means 'smoky bay'... due to the natural geysers and thermal springs found there. It was not on our bucket list and not really even on our radar until a few months ago. But we are always up for an adventure and when we saw an incredible deal on a 6-day trip to Iceland, we signed did our good friends who have traveled with us many times in the past.  Let me take you to Reykjavik today. 

A city of 215,000, it is home to sixty percent of the population of Iceland. 

 And most of them prefer bright colours, it seems! The brightly painted houses that line the streets reminded me those in St. John's, Newfoundland.

We came well-prepared for the bitterly cold weather of Iceland.  What a surprise to arrive to rain and milder temperatures than those we left back home.  They were experiencing the mildest winter on record and had not had any snow in the city before we came.  Once we had deposited our luggage at the hotel, we got out the umbrellas and started walking.  The locals are very friendly and are mostly able to speak English.

Hallgrímskirkja is one of the cities most well known landmarks.   This Lutheran church is not only the largest church in Iceland, it is also the tallest structure. And at the very top, there is an observation deck with a fabulous view of the city.

Next stop...the Blue Lagoon, possibly Reykjavik's most popular tourist attraction.

The lagoon is actually man-made...fed by the water output of the geothermal plant nearby. Hot water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. Once the water has passed through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for the municipal water heating system. Then the water is fed into the lagoon for the tourists to enjoy!

The lagoon's warm, mineral-rich waters make it the perfect place to soak for an hour or two. Or more.

We stayed at the Foss Hotel Reykjavik and from our 12th floor window, we looked down on this charming white house situated along the shoreline below us. We learned that it is best known as the location of the summit meeting of presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that marked the end of the Cold War.  This historical building, called Hofdi, is owned by the city of Reykjavik is used for official receptions and meetings.

Situated on top of a hill, Perlan's sparkly glass dome can be seen from all over the city. This amazing glass building is supported by by six massive hot-water tanks, each with a capacity of four million litres.  The dome houses an exhibition area, several shops and an observation platform with fabulous panoramic views of the city and its surroundings....a great place to take photos.

Our travel mates...Dave and Janet. 

Two days into our stay...the snow arrived in Reykjavik.  Not a huge dump like we became accustomed to back home this winter...

...but just enough to make it look like Iceland. 

Is this not how Iceland should look in the winter?

We noticed that the snow never stuck to any of the main streets...and many of the city sidewalks and parking lots were also free of snow.  We discovered that they use thermal water to heat the streets, the sidewalks and also their homes.

We did a 'hop-on ~ hop-off' tour of the city one day...stopping to spend time wherever we wanted.

The old harbour area was one of my favorite stops that day.

What fun to watch the children feed the birds!

Evenings found us strolling up Laugevegur in search of a good place to have dinner.  We were always good and hungry come evening, since we usually just had a snack at noon. We found food to be very expensive in Iceland, and decided soon after our arrival that we could do without lunch!

One night we ate at Old Iceland Restaurant...where we all tried a different Icelandic specialty.  The food was was the service. 

And when we were done dinner...we had coffee and dessert just down the street at the Sandholt Bakeri.  So good! 

Someone near and dear to me who was born in Iceland, said we must try the Icelandic donuts while we were there.  We did.  And when we got home, I made some.  Just for fun!  They are called Kleinur...a slightly-sweet and spicy cake donut.

So ends our tour of Reykjavik for today. I'll be sharing a few of our other favorite Icelandic adventures shortly.  But for now...let me tell you how our time in Reykjavik ended.

We were due to fly out late Friday afternoon and had arranged for transportation to the airport early in the afternoon.  We had a leisurely breakfast that morning and then heard that all roads in and out of the city would be closed by noon due to a huge storm.  We packed in a very big hurry and left for the airport at 10:30 in the morning. We weren't the only ones!

This is what Reykjavik airport looked like when we arrived...and all day long!  Most afternoon flights were cancelled and passengers had nowhere to go, so they hunkered down for the duration.  Our flight was delayed by an hour or two...

...and once we were in the air, we breathed a sigh of relief.  We had a wonderful time in Iceland, but we really didn't want to stay there!

And so the sun set on our Icelandic adventure.