We had been planning our second trip to Iceland for 3 years, ever since the organizers of the radiology meeting we were attending announced their intention to offer it again in 3 years. We mentally signed up right then. How we came to be at that meeting in the first place was a little haphazard. We were on our way to Iceland for vacation for 2 weeks, and bumped into a radiologist we knew from San Diego, waiting at JFK to board the same Reykjavik bound plane.
Norm: “You must be going to the same meeting.”
Us: “What meeting?”
Checking it out on my Ipad while standing in line and chatting, I concluded that we would have signed up had we known about it.
By the time we landed, we had decided to see if we could register on site. Why not? The venue was less than a 10 minute drive from our exchange house in suburban Reykjavik. It would take up the mornings, but summer day length of 21 hours left plenty of time to explore Reykjavik.
The impetus for that first trip was two-fold. Years before, photos of Iceland taken by Michael Smith and Paula Chamlee had entranced us both. The landscape looked dramatic and unique. The second was an offer for a house exchange, from Harpa and Julius, a couple with young children. It was just luck that had us choose to go the same week as the University of Ottawa radiology continuing education meeting. Signing up for the meeting, in addition to the education itself, would have the benefit of enabling us to partially write off some of the expenses connected with traveling there. The rental car cost induced permanent sticker shock, at $250-300/day, adding up over 2 weeks to more than my first car cost.
With that prior trip in mind, I was determined not to rent a car on our return. My sister had gone more recently, for her 50th birthday, and had found it fairly easy to navigate around Reykjavik by city bus.
Trying to avoid renting a car became an organizing principle in setting up this second trip. The first half, centered around the meeting, wouldn’t be difficult if we stayed in Reykjavik city center or close enough to walk. I sent off an inquiry to our prior exchanger, Harpa, wondering if she had a friend who might like to visit Arizona. To my surprise, Harpa and family were interested in another exchange and had moved into Reykjavik, and now lived about a 20 minute walk from the meeting, itself a 20 minute walk to the center, but doable.
For the second half…we knew from prior experience that Iceland has a lot to offer but takes a while to reveal its secrets. We wanted interesting landscape possibilities for photography. A photo guide who could drive us should be able to demystify Iceland’s treasures faster than we could ourselves. I found Chris Lund through the Internet.
The second half seemed expensive: $4500 US per person for the 2 of us for a camping safari week with a private photo guide, who would drive us in a Land Rover, enabling us to reach more difficult to access terrain, with our accommodations to be camping or guest houses (not luxurious affairs) as available. By not setting the itinerary based on hotel reservations (necessary in summer at the peak of tourist season), we would have the flexibility to go where the weather was best, maximizing our shooting time and avoiding dreary and sometimes prolonged rain. The addition of Greg to our party brought the cost per person down to $3750. Chris provided the tents and other necessary camping gear, except for sleeping bags, which we brought (and made use of even in the guesthouse). This included meals, driving/guiding in a very capable Land Rover by a talented driver, local knowledge of the best locations and times of day for shooting, pick up from our accommodation in Reykjavik and drop off at the airport at the end.
Steve and I hadn’t camped in years (although we had enjoyed it in the past, Steve’s intermittently symptomatic back had discouraged us in more recent years) and Greg hadn’t camped since junior high. Although I had misgivings our first night, setting up tents at midnight in semi-darkness after a long drive in rainy cold, we actually were fairly comfortable once ensconced in our down sleeping bags (albeit fully clothed). By email, Chris had said “ I love when I have clients that are willing to camp since it gives a much richer introduction to Iceland. I look forward to… showing you some of the gems of my country.” 90% of his clients go the hotel route, but we found that camping did enable us to keep the itinerary flexible, as the one weather constant proved to be change.
We found Chris an enjoyable guide and companion, very knowledgeable about the local shooting options, constantly monitoring the ever changing weather situation, as well as being very current on popular culture. After one morning when I paid 1400 Kronor (about $12 US) for a large coffee for Steve and hot water for me (not even a teabag!), we ended up feeling satisfied that this was a good way to go and a reasonable value. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and were literally “happy campers.”
Post 1 from Iceland explored art, architecture and literature of Iceland, while Part 2 was devoted to the culinary scene. This final post is the travelog, dispatches from our travels around Iceland, in search of landscape nirvana.
Sunday, July 19, 2014
Iceland is relatively easy to reach, at least from the East coast, 5 hours or less, not long enough to really sleep. Since most flights from the US arrive in the early morning, it can be problematic in July to stay awake until it becomes semi-dark after midnight.
I had planned to reprise our prior trip’s start with a soak and massage at the close-to-the-airport Blue Lagoon thermal bath and spa complex before heading to Reykjavik, but unlike before, it was quite cool, windy, rainy and not really inviting to being outdoors. So, we boarded the Flybus directly to Reykjavik (< $20 per person, waiting for every arrival, no need to reserve in advance), and by 8 am, were at Harpa’s door scratching at the dirt in the flowerpot out front, looking for the key.
That is, we thought we were at Harpa’s door. We were actually at #9, not #7 next door. The flowerpot at #9 had a small spade resting in the dirt, convenient for rooting around in the dirt. But not immediately turning up our quarry, I rechecked my phone for the address and realized to my horror we were trying to enter the home of a TOTAL STRANGER early on a Sunday morning. Luckily, no one seemed to be alarmed by our presence at the door, trying the lock, so we beat a hasty retreat and found the key wrapped in plastic in the next door flower pot.
Once in, we proceeded to do exactly what you are not supposed to do to foil jetlag; that is, go to sleep. We did rouse ourselves in time to make it to the Grand Hotel, a 20 minute walk away, with an hour to spare prior to the “meet and greet” reception kicking off the meeting. I didn’t dare stop moving or try to read, lest jetlag rear its head, so I headed over to stroll in the sculpture park surrounding the museum next door. Asmundarsafn, is one of three branches of the Reykjavik Art Museum and the former home and studio of 20th century sculptor Asmundur Sveinsonn. The building is interesting, a light filled, concrete, geometric structure which he built himself. It includes a studio, a domed exhibition space, and a semi-circular, skylit gallery space.
At the reception, we met a nice couple from Montreal, Lucie and Renaud, and walked with them to dinner at Austur Indianfjelagid, one of our favorite restaurants from our prior trip. It did not disappoint, combining intense Indian spices with superior lamb and seafood sourced from Iceland, a winning combination. We happily revisited favorites from our prior trip, especially the Haliyari salmon tandoori.
Monday, July 20, 2014
Benadryl must have done the trick to help make up my sleep deficit, as I didn’t flag through the 3.5 hours of morning lectures on musculoskeletal topics. In the afternoon, we walked over to the ferry to Videy Island, a historic site, combining nature, art, solitude and views.
Our feet were beat enough on our return that we decided to try the bus (#14) into town, disembarking when we saw the imposing silhouette of Hallgrimskirkja, our landmark for our dinner destination up the road, Seafood Grill. The service was leisurely, but the food good. We thought they had forgotten our final orders and were on the verge of asking for our check when Steve’s salad and my Gummi’s lobster salad appeared.
Tuesday, July 21
We stayed awake through the entire morning of liver, adrenal and renal lectures and I helped man the winning “Jeopardy” team finale. We were rewarded with a festive Icelandic drink, which is usually served at Christmas time, a mix of Egils’ Appelsín (an orange soda) and malt extract. The net result resembled an apple cider.
Afterwards, we picked up our waiting Hyundai at Procar, near the waterfront en route to town and circled back to pick up our cameras and luggage. We slowly made our way to Hotel Budir on Snaefellsnes Peninsula, in time to shower and make it to dinner by 8:30. We managed to turn a 2 hour direct drive into a 7 hour photography meander, beginning with an unexpectedly good quick lunch en route at Esjustofa Hiking Centre and Bistro, servicing a network of hiking paths at Esja Mountain, including paths leading to the summit of Pverfellshorn. We were surprised to learn this is only 15 minutes from Reykjavik city center, and accessible by public transport . It seemed considerably further away (we did confirm that time estimate on the return, to our astonishment; I guess without all those extra turns on the roundabouts, it is close!).
There was an Icelandic precedent for our frequent stops, shooting along the way. On our first trip, after dallying in the Blue Lagoon for some hours, we were finally back in the car and en route to Reykjavik, when Steve suddenly pulled over (on the main road!) and began running across a lava field to shoot a motel sign that turned into one of my favorite of his shots from that trip.
This time, Steve was in a post-prandial slump and I was driving when I saw a pack of Icelandic horses close to a fence on an accessible stretch of road, the first of many stops for shooting. They were very friendly, almost too cooperative, coming up to the fence so close it was difficult to frame them without the fence.
Many landscape shots later, we made it to the hotel, only to find our brand new 64 mB cards were not being properly read by the computer. Eventually we figured out these cards were overwhelming the computer, forcing us to a camera store for a card reader. A sampling of the scenes prolonging our journey:
Wednesday, July 22
The best laid plans…Steve awoke with a start at 9:30 am, so we had to hustle down in order not to miss the substantial Hotel Budir breakfast, which closed at 10 am. The weather wasn’t inviting, windy, raining intermittently, quite a transformation from the prior day’s sun and fabulous clouds. The upside was a magnificent rainbow stretched over the ocean. We took the northern coast road to Stykkisholmur, arriving a few minutes before the purported 1 pm opening of Roni Horn’s Library of Water. People came and went, expecting it to open, and we waited until 1:20 or so before heading down to the harbor to climb the lighthouse trail. Waiting until after 2 pm, we finally were admitted and I was glad we hadn’t given up. I loved this contemporary art installation gem on our prior trip and again.
It occupies a promontory with panoramic views of the picturesque fishing village. These views are refracted through water-filled floor-to-ceiling columns, each filled with water from one of Iceland’s glaciers.
As before, I found the light play and distortions of viewers and slices of the village through the columns visually fascinating.
Stykkisholmur is also noteworthy for a contemporary church with a very distinctive profile, allowing one to recognize it as the locale being used as a stand-in for Greenland in the Ben Stiller comedy, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which we watched on our return flight home.
Stykkisholmur also has the distinction of being one of the few place names in Iceland we could pronounce. On our first trip, we resorted to making up names, resulting in us referring to the Snaefellsnes peninsula (roughly sny-fells-nes) as the Snuffalumpus peninsula. Our local grocery store, Hagkaup, became known as Hack-em-up, possibly a Viking reference?
Stykkisholmur is also the only place in Iceland where we have had any sightings of that signature Icelandic bird, the puffin. On our prior trip, we took a Seatours boat excursion into Breidafjordur, a marine conservation area, which is dotted with innumerable islets. In search of puffins, we came armed with our longest lenses (80-400 mm) and hope. Overall, we weren’t disappointed. With a calm sea, the boat was able to pause beside steep-sided islets in clear view of puffins coming and going, to and from the sea, popping in and out of their burrows.
I misread Greg’s itinerary and thought we had to hustle back to Reykjavik to be at the house for Greg’s arrival, not realizing until we returned he wasn’t due in until the following morning! This did enable us to get in a second meal at Astur Indiafjelagid!
Thursday, July 23, 2014
Steve awoke with a start at 8:20 am, 5 minutes before we were due at the meeting. As we hurtled around the house trying to get ourselves presentable and out the door, Steve saw a backpack in the driveway. Greg, arriving without his luggage, wasn’t sure which door to knock on (Harpa had never specified which floor or which door on the 2cd floor was the apartment, but we at least had the key to narrow it down). I didn’t get his texts until later: “I’m outside, not sure which door it is”.
We hustled off to the meeting, only missing one session, and Greg sacked out until our return. In the afternoon, we walked him around Reykjavik until time for dinner at Dill, including lunch at the Laundromat Café (great mango and mint drink, orange-ginger soup), admiring the dazzling Harpa concert hall,
and up the tower at Hallgrimskirja church, now embellished with an artistic intervention to the tower clocks. Harpa is a design by Danish architectural firm Henning Larsen. Its vibrant faceted glass façade is by contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson (raised in Denmark, son of Icelandic parents).
Dinner at Dill was superb. We had loved this restaurant on our prior stay, when it was housed in an Alvar Aalto designed Nordic cultural center. We opted for the 5 course dinner (vs. 3 or 7 courses, with or without wine pairings). The courses started after a series of superb bites. The wine pairings included one course with a beer, and were unusual and inventive. It was a fabulous kickoff to our trip and finish to our Reykjavik stay. For more about Dill and other Reykjavik restaurants, see prior post, Part 2.
Friday, July 24
Our photo tour had a frustrating start. While I was struggling to stay awake on the final morning of the meeting, Greg was told his bags were located and en route and would be delivered in 2 hours. After we returned at noon and the bags were 3, then 4, hours overdue, I suggested he call. Although he had been there the entire morning, the post office apparently had made a delivery attempt, but “no one answered.” Perhaps the same confusion (which apartment?) which ensued on our arrival struck again. After trying unsuccessfully to get it redelivered, I finally engaged Chris to pick us up, and take us to the post office (near Ruby Tuesday) to get Greg’s bags. After a false start at the wrong Ruby Tuesday, and a stop chez Chris to store our extra luggage and let Greg rearrange his, we were finally off in Chris’ Land Rover on a 4 hour drive along the southern coast east to Guesthouse Gerdi. At midnight, we were finally there, setting up tents in a meadow with an expansive ocean view, outside the guesthouse.
Saturday, July 25
Although we talked about a 3 am sunrise shoot, non-stop rain overnight let us sleep until a normal hour (7 am). When we were setting up our tents in the lawn outside the packed guesthouse the night before, I wondered if we were going to regret camping. But we slept well. The Chris provided Thermarests were quite a bit thicker than ours, and definitely more comfortable.
We had stopped for a preview of the glacier lagoon edging Vatnajökull National Park, Jökulsárlón (literally glacial river lagoon), the night before .
Unique in Iceland and the world, the huge glacier Breiðamerkurjökull sheds iceberglets, which are swept out to sea via a black sand lagoon, with the incoming and outgoing tides rearranging the sculptural bergies on black volcanic sand.
Interestingly, the lagoon hasn’t always existed, I learned on my return home, but dates from 1934-35, and is attributed to glacial retreat due to rising temperatures. It is a spectacular site and I wasn’t surprised to learn later it is ranked # 1 of 305 Icelandic attractions on Trip Advisor. I can’t disagree with this universal admiration. In an inadequate word, it is SPECTACULAR!
We spent the entire day in and around Jökulsárlón, shooting and scouting for the evening.
We were hoping for a colorful sunset and were not disappointed, with orange and fiery tones setting off the increasingly intense blues of the icebergs.
Sunday, July 26
Pink and orange tones in the sky helped to speed us into the Land Rover soon after Chris’ 3 am wakeup. Racing down to the beach, the population of icebergs and bergie bits had completely changed. Shooting was difficult, with the tide coming in. No sooner did I set up a shot, than I had to snatch the tripod and camera out of the reach of the incoming waves, intent on grabbing the rig.
After breakfast, we caught up on sleep for a few hours before a most welcome “luxury,” namely a shower. Chris had arranged with the guesthouse owner to let us shower after the guests checked out.
We hiked up to two falls, one framed by basalt columns.
Greg survived a daring leap across the creek to shoot on the other side, aided by the “Chris equipment delivery service.” The meadows in this park were lovely, a velvety green carpet of flowers, including abundant stands of angelica, which had been featured on the menu at Dill.
After our hike took us past a pair of restored turf-roofed traditional houses, we slipped under an electrified fence to pet a bunch of extremely friendly Icelandic horses.
Greg and Steve were “rushed” by a lively group of ponies. Greg’s expression reminded me of his first encounter with an eager wolf eel in British Columbia.
Dinner was arranged with the guesthouse and was the local lobster, langostines, small, sweet and delicious.
Monday, July 27
As predicted, Monday dawned cold and rainy. Our plan was to pack up camp, head back west, shooting along the way if possible, ending up at cabins (on the farm Smáratún, Hotel Fljótshlio in Fljótshlio) for the night. We stopped at the glacier beach, where only Steve braved the elements to shoot macro patterns in the beached icebergs. It was foggy and windy and featureless, but the new population of icebergs was even bigger and better than the prior day’s.
There was a little break in the non-stop rain en route, long enough to hike up alongside a large glacier, where tiny glacier walkers in hardhats and crampons could be seen as tiny moving dots on the blue-grey crenelated surface.
Lunch was a return to the near-empty (it was 3 pm) scene of our first night’s dinner, the Iceland Air Hotel Klauster at Kirkjubaejarklaustur. Only the snack offerings were available, with Steve, Greg and Chris all partaking of the pizza topped with unlikely but surprisingly tasty mix of Arctic char, olives, and banana. I had the langostine soup, and a handful of tiny brown seedy rolls.
Seastacks at Reynisdrangar seemed an unlikely subject when we arrived, with dense fog and clouds and a vanilla sky. But shaking off our car and lunch-induced drowziness, we roused ourselves out into the elements.
Another let-up in the rain coincided with passing the waterfall, Skógafoss. It was tinged brown from the rain, with a lush carpet of verdant grass and flowers on either side. The climb up and down was secure from the mud, with a sturdy steel staircase.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Into the interior: After passing the night in snug, knotty pine cabins in Fljótshli∂, featuring a breakfast with home-made rhubard jam, breads and muesli, we headed off toward Landmannalauger. The scenery varied tremendously along the way, from barren moonscapes of scoured earth, to jaggedly punctuated gnarled volcanic intrusions.
There were smoothly rounded hills, some glowing green with a moss covering, others brown and apparently void of life.
Before heading out on the graded dirt road, Chris let air out of the tires, a process he reversed after our dinner stop at Leirubakki, an old manor farm.
The sunset on the way home was so vibrant , with orange rimmed pink clouds, that we all had a tiny tinge of regret that we opted not to join another photography group we had run into en route (Chris knew the organizer) who were going to hike above the camp at Landmannalauger to shoot the sunset. That would have meant missing a real dinner and returning in the wee hours and we were all a little cold and tired already.
Steve and I spent the night in the last cabin at Fljótshli∂, with Greg choosing to spend the night in a tent, favoring its effect on his back to the bed in the cabin.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Today would have been Steve’s mother Mary’s 83rd birthday. Steve and I sadly remembered how on our last trip to Iceland, we stopped off on the East coast on our return to celebrate her “real” 80th birthday.
Day 2 into “interior” Iceland was planned to incorporate shooting through the sunset, so we picked up provisions to serve as dinner after a stop at a communal pool for a shower and soak. The scenery was again otherworldly, spectacular and varied, from waterfalls to a huge canyon to thermal vents, quite amazing.
The driving required by Chris was equally impressive, as the road required fording multiple streams, as well as steep descents, ruts, rocks, narrow, loose gravel. We were all thoroughly cowed by the idea of driving ourselves. Amazingly, there actually is a bus tour option for seeing some of this rugged country. We were so late arriving into camp (which turned out next morning to be Leirubakki, where we had enjoyed dinner the night before) that we tumbled into bed without eating.
Thursday and Friday, July 31 and August 1, 2014
Return to Snaefellsnes peninsula-both of the times we’ve been to what has been called “Iceland in miniature,” we’ve had the same reaction, that we need to allot more time on a return trip. The weather granted us our wish, with Snaefellsnes being the driest and sunniest option within a reasonable distance. Our campsite for these 2 nights was at Arnastapi, in a field near the beach and next to a turf-roofed café where we had a buffet breakfast each morning. There was a bathroom with toilets, but no showers, so on Friday, Chris took us to a local bathhouse, with a community pool and algea-lined natural hot springs, cooled to a bearable temperature by cold water from a hose. The ritual at these bathhouses is similar to an onsen in Japan: after doffing one’s shoes in the entryway, there are sex-segregated facilities, where one must shower and scrub without a bathing suit, prior to entering any of the pools.
Heading west, we lunched at Esjustofa Hiking Centre and Bistro en route, where I again enjoyed the bracingly gingery carrot soup and the men opted for the ubiquitous Icelandic lamb stew. Arriving in the afternoon, Steve, Greg and I headed to the beach, this time heading east to a fantastic arch formation we hadn’t managed to see on our prior trip, when we hiked from Arnastapi toward Hellnar. There were many Arctic terns nesting in the fields nearby, and we gingerly made our way down the slippery, sliding slope to the beach level, negotiating boulders and beach stones, to where there was a raucous aggregation of nesting birds. If we had known Chris would be taking us to a much better shooting situation with far greater numbers of nesting birds studding another rocky cliff further west the next morning for sunrise, we might not have risked limb (if not life) to climb down to shoot these bird colonies in shadow.
But climb down we did and all made it back intact, with tripods and camera backpacks in tow, and to dinner further west we headed.
Despite our plans to rise at 3:30 am to shoot the sunrise, we huddled in the truck before heading into our tents to watch just one more episode of the painfully funny “Life’s Too Short,” a Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant series about a film “star” dwarf named Warwick Davis.
The sunrise shoot site was spectacular, further west along the southern coast, also new to us. Aligned along a narrow ridge, we moved deliberately, setting up our tripods and trying not to trip or slip. The site was vertigo-inducing, and the noise of the nesting seagulls, wheeling through the air, was splendid. Our sunrise was somewhat blunted by clouds but there was some color to work with, brought out using split neutral density filters.
Snaefellsjokull, the volcano used by Jules Verne as the locus of his “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” was a new sight for us as well, previously being virtually concealed by clouds. Chris marveled at how much its glacier cap has receded over the years, and speculated it would disappear in his lifetime. On the flight home, I enjoyed a contemporary film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, a Raiders-of the Lost-Arc-type romp.
Our last afternoon of shooting was at a postcard iconic site, per Chris, with Mount Kirkjufell behind a waterfall, on the north shore, with the village of Grundarfjörður in the background. Using a polarizing filter darkened the sky and heightened the cloud’s conspicuity, and slowed the shutter speed enough to smooth the water in the falls. I had to hand hold a 2 stop soft edge neutral density filter to even out the exposure between the darker rocks surrounding the falls and bright Mount Kirkjufell and sky in the background, but it resulted in one of my favorite images from the trip.
Another favorite image technically is a mistake, or a happy accident, a panoramic, stop action version of Jokulsarlon:
Our final night’s dinner was a thank you to Chris and send off for us at the Hotel Budir. The men elected the lamb shank, while I had the monkfish, accompanied by barley, which appears as a side with some regularity in Icelandic dining rooms. The langostine appetizer was set off well by the Trapiche Argentine chardonney we had previously enjoyed, with their Malbec accompanying the lamb well.
Somehow, I managed to leave my new favorite cold weather shooting accessory, a fleece neck “buff” at the hotel, but managed to find it the next morning after returning to search myself (the dark grey apparently blended well into lobby upholstery, as it took me two searches to find it). This garment proved its worth as a permanent fixture in my camera bag, keeping face and neck warm and sun screened, while simultaneously hiding camping hair.
At the airport, we solicited input from our check-in agent at Iceland Air on her favorite restaurant in the airport, Nord. She endorsed the langostine and pesto pizza, which Greg enjoyed, while I went with the recommendation of the Nord employee taking our orders and his recommendation of the fish pie, which was delicious. Like virtually everything in Iceland, it was high quality, but expensive (over $100 US for 3 people).
Although we had had our doubts about camping again after so many years, we ended up being happy we had gone with Chris’ advice. It really did maximize our flexibility, putting us at scenic shooting spots in good weather, evading the rainy conditions shrouding Iceland this entire summer. We did learn an enticing fact while we were there: on Iceland Air, you can stop off in Iceland for up to 7 days without penalty coming or going from Europe! Ice caves and aurora borealis, here we come!