Iceland stopover

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The diverse landscape of Iceland is a photographer’s dream come true.

Just south of the Arctic Circle, in the middle of the north Atlantic lays Iceland, an old country filled with vikings, volcanoes, and sheep. This northern land is most recently famous for the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 that caused air traffic chaos, but it has other claims of fame like singer Björk, and the Blue Lagoon, a massive hot pool and spa. They also infamously jailed many bankers after the economic collapse of 2008.

When booking cross Atlantic flights through Icelandair there is an option to stopover without any added fees. I was headed to Toronto for a wedding in late August, so I decided to take advantage of this and see a bit of this country. Having only a three day stopover, I wouldn’t have sufficient time to make my way around the Ring Road the way I would like. The popular 1,335 km route winds around the entire island. I would have to miss seeing some things, but I was in Iceland, and I was prepared for any weather condition.

After weighing the costs of renting a car by myself, I decided it would be more cost efficient to take tours, something I rarely do. There are plenty of tour companies, but some trips become unavailable as autumn and inclement weather approaches. I booked my journeys with Sterna Travel.

The international airport is Keflavik and it’s at least a one hour bus ride from Reykjavik, so be prepared for this. There are plenty of shuttle buses for a nominal fee, but many hotels and hostels provide free shuttle service, so be sure to check the perks of your accommodation. I didn’t check into my hostel until 12:30 am.

The Beautiful South Coast (year around – 10hrs)
[note: bring warm clothes and water]

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The beautiful Skógafoss waterfall

Waterfalls, black sand beaches, glaciers, rolling volcanic landscapes and oceanic views. The bus driver picked me up from my hostel after 8:00 a.m. After a quick switch at a terminal we began our 10-hour journey out of town towards Selfoss. We did another quick stop at a cafe and headed out to our first site, the Skógafoss waterfall. This beautiful 60m attraction offers plenty of viewing levels, but parts of the climb to the top are steps cut into the hillside and reinforced with wood, so climb at your own risk. It’s a popular area with a campground at the base and pay toilets. Toilets aren’t very common along the lengthy empty roads of Iceland, so use them when you can. And don’t worry, the bus driver stops at various points along the tour for photo ops.

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Our second stop, after a few hours, brought us to the black sand beach of Reynisfjara, a truly remarkable place. There were plenty of tourists there already, but it was no problem getting a private photo on the basalt columns (called the Gardar.) Rogue waves have occurred here so visitors are cautioned to be vigilant when close to the water. After a quick lunch at the cafe, we made our way to Cape Dyrhólaey and the nearby hill and seaside cliffs on a search for puffins. After a few stops and no puffin sitings, we made our way to our next site.

Getting the ultimate tourist shot on the basalt columns.

The diverse terrain of Iceland from the seaside cliffs.

The diverse terrain of Iceland from the seaside cliffs.

Rivers of ancient water from the melting glacier.

Rivers of ancient water from the melting glacier.

The walk to the edge of the Sólheimajökull glacier is fairly easy, but the path is made of small pebbles, the kind of which most of us slip on, especially on downward slopes. About 100 m from the glacier there is a sign warning of the risks and dangers for approaching the ancient ice mass, but if you’re with a guide, follow their lead. This is also the entryway to go on glacier walk tours. It is not recommended to venture onto the glacier without a guide as it is melting and parts of it can buckle and give way without notice.

The walk behind the water fall can get a little wet.

The walk behind the water fall can get a little wet.

Our last stop (sort of) was the very popular and stunning Seljalandsfoss waterfall, a 63m rarity because people can actually walk behind the cascade. While there were a few sketchy steps along this path, it was fairly easy to navigate even for the most nimble of walkers. And depending on which way the wind is blowing you’ll either stay dry or get a bit misted. Not far from here is Gljúfrabúi waterfall, a 40m chute that falls into a gorge. There is a small path through its outlet that you can use to enter the gorge and go to the plunge pool for a great photo op.

The cavern into the waterfall.

The cavern into the waterfall.

I arrived back at my hostel before 7 p.m., a little late, but in enough time for me to get some food and get plenty of sleep for my next tour.

Landmannalaugar – Pearl Of The Highlands (June 20 – Sept. 2 – 14hrs)
[note: bring a packed lunch and snacks, warm clothes, togs and towel, and water]

The bus picked me up shortly before 7 a.m. and brought us to the terminal where I switched into a bigger bus. This bus took us to the terminal in Hella where I had time to grab a coffee before we got on our all-terrain bus (about 9 of us) and began the long journey to Landmannalaugar.

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I must’ve taken a hundred photos out the bus window. Farms lay interspersed with near barren rock fields filled with skimpy tundra grasses. Small mountains rose in the distance, their tops hidden in low clouds, slim waterfalls dripping off them. Layers of colours filled the hillsides in strata that I’d only seen in photos before. Miniature Iceland horses ran along the roadsides. We were in another world. We even had a pee break with Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanos, looming in the distance. The bus crossed more lava fields, drove through rivers and left civilisation behind. Hardly any vehicles passed us on our way, which was surprising, because there were hundreds of people, cars and buses at the base camping site when we got there.

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The Landmannalaugar highlands are at the base of an old lava field and are part of a nature preserve, which is clearly understandable from the moment you first glimpse this enchanting place.  It is also the northern end of the Laugavegur trail, Iceland’s most popular hiking trail. A day pass costs about $7, and allows access to the toilets, coin-operated showers and surrounding hiking trails. For an extra $3, you can also buy a trail map. There is also a natural hot spring swimming hole here. Despite signs warning that it is off limits, the long wooden walkway to it, and the wooden viewing deck where bathers leave their towels and clothes, suggests otherwise.

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There’s plenty of day hikes to do, but someone recommended I do the Ljótipollur hike, a not so popular trek to a lake. I’m so glad a I did. It took me three hours (I’m a fast walker.) Along the the way I ate my lunch sitting on a piece of basalt while staring at a vast lava field covered in flowers. The views were stunning, the solitude incredible, and the diverse terrain unbelievable. I passed a tiny volcano, crater lakes, grass lands, lava fields and livestock. Being virtually alone on this trail was the most magical part, and possibly the most dangerous part, but nothing extraordinary happens in front of the TV.

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When I returned my feet were aching, so I thought a dip in the hot pool would be perfect. I slipped on my togs and made my way over. The thing with this natural hot spring is it’s the merging of two water sources, one semi cool and the other boiling hot. Finding a bearable position with the right mix is essential. Once you find it someone moves and you’re either freezing or burning. Mind you, I would go back in a heartbeat.

The tour company gave us about six hours to kill at Landmannalaugar, so after my dip I still had some time. I bought a coffee and hot soup from the tiny shop that was still operating on site. Then I bought a pair of mittens made of Icelandic wool by the owner’s grandma. Winter was coming.

The bus had some issues on the way back to Reykjavic, but being that I was the only one headed back there, the bus driver, guide, and I stopped and got some dinner, switched the bus with a car, and I arrived back at my hostel around 10 p.m.

Reykjavik

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I reserved my last day in Iceland to wander around the downtown. I knew I’d be tired after two long days of tours and buses, so I wanted to take it easy. Reykjavik is spread out, but I had no plans to go to any major attractions, even though my hostel was right across the street from a phallological museum (seriously.) The Blue Lagoon wasn’t on my list as I’d been to plenty of hot springs in my life. My desire to use the public transit system was also minimal. I admit, I was really tired, but I allowed myself to sleep in a whole hour and then off I went plodding down this capital’s streets.

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Reykjavik has a charm to it. There are plenty of souvenir shops where one can buy sweaters made of Icelandic wool, syrups and jams made from northern berries, and hotdogs! The coffee was pretty good too, and we coffee drinkers know this is an important thing. I spent about three hours wandering around downtown and milling through the shops before returning back to my hostel for a highly desired nap and happy hour.

Iceland is a beautiful country and I look forward to returning one day to drive the Ring Road.

 

2 Responses to Iceland stopover

  1. great read Sheri, may have to take that second tour you did the next time we go!

    Leslie November 22, 2016 at 1:47 am Reply
  2. Loved your adventure! Iceland is by far the most memorably beautiful country to travel and trek to. New Zealand a close second. I went bout 27 years ago. Before the days of digital cameras. I can’t imagine how many photos I would take if I’d go back now. Such an incredible country! Thanks for sharing.

    Sky November 23, 2016 at 1:16 am Reply

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