Iceland Interlude, April 2023 (Part 2): Reykjavik & Snaefellsnes Peninsula

We managed to pack quite a lot of fun, food and friends into our 2 day interlude, inserted between our traverse of Iceland’s scenic southern coast and the Silfra continental divide diving adventure around which this trip was organized.  Saturday was our final day of touring with Byron Conroy of Arctic Adventures.  On our return from the south coast, he installed us in the Hotel Skuggi, which was our home for the following week of the dive workshop.  Byron was also the source of great ideas for Sunday, namely a walking food tour of Reykjavik and Whales of Iceland.  We finished out the weekend catching up with our friend and photo guide from our prior trip, Chris Lund.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Our last full day of traveling privately with Byron was devoted to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, about a 2 hour drive from Reykjavik. For Steve and me, this was probably our 4th trip there and the second for Greg.  Some of the highlights from our prior trips to Snaefellsnes can be seen here.  In theory, one can drive around the peninsula in 2 hours, but we’ve managed to take up to 7 hours, frequently stopping for photography.  On this day trip, we focused on the landmark attractions at the far end, namely Kirkjufell, or ‘Church Mountain’, a distinctive peak found on the north shore near the town of Grundarfjörður.  The neighboring falls, Kirkjufellsfoss, provide a nice foreground.  It was striking how different the color of the peak was from our prior summer trip, when all of Iceland was a spring green.

Moss-covered rocks and Kirkjufellsfoss in front of verdant Kirkjufell in July, quite a contrast to the ocher shades of April.

In April, Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell were free of snow, with a between winter and before summer tawny coat of scrubby vegetation.  Byron had commented repeatedly during our travels on the south coast that only 2 weeks before, while scouting for our trip, that there had been ice and/or snow still present at many sites, all largely gone by our April trip.

Steve elected a higher viewpoint of Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell on our return trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland.

On the south coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Arnastapi offers rugged cliffs. Greg flew the drone through this arch!

We returned back to Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell after Arnastapi for sunset.

We lucked into an amazing dinner in nearby Grundarfjörður at a charming restaurant we happened on, Bjargarsteinn Mathús. We had a window seat and were blown away by how much the sunset heated up over Kirkjufell.  As photographers, we should have been chagrined by having left our shooting site before the sunset really exploded with color, but the delicious dinner was a wonderful consolation. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

While traveling with Byron, he had mentioned making arrangements for another of the dive workshop participants to do a food tour in Reykjavik.  Our ears pricked up: “Food tour?  We love food tours!”  Steve and I have enjoyed them in Montreal, Quebec City and Paris and most recently, downtown New York City with Famous Fat Dave.

A true icon of Iceland, the Harpa center, a performing arts complex, on the waterfront of Reykjavik. It was still under construction the first time we saw it.  On this trip, it made a highly visible landmark for the start of the Reykjavik Food Walk with Wake Up Reykjavik.

Detail of the spectacular faceted glass facade of the Harpa center, designed by internationally known Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson.

We had no difficulty finding our meeting point for the 10:30 am start, the contemporary architectural landmark, Harpa.  Our fearless foodie leader was Minty (a nickname).  We met our fellow Silfra workshopper, Kathryn, a physical therapist and experienced cold water diver from Seattle and chatted with two Canadian couples on their final day in Iceland, finishing a heli-skiing trip (they actually left from the final tour stop for the airport). Our group was rounded out by mother and medical student son, Brenda and Adam from Chicago.

First stop on our Reykjavik food tour was in a restaurant around since 1932, Hressingarskálann, for a proper Icelandic breakfast, a trio of Icelandic pancake (thin, like a crepe), smoked lamb and skyr with fruit.

Skyr is a near-ubiquitous feature of Icelandic breakfast buffets.  It looks like yogurt but is actually a fresh sour milk cheese.

Minty, our entertaining and affable Reykavik food walk guide, points out to Steve the local pig landmark (wearing a traditional Iceland sweater) indicates the way to the gastropub Sæta Svínið (The Sweet Pig).

This friendly Icelander we chatted with on the Reykjavik food tour described himself as “a gay man with 6 cats”.

This spectacular block-long mosaic mural dating back to 1973 is near Reykjavik’s harbor on the Tollhúsið or the Customs’ house in Reykjavik. That’s customs as in border controls at the port. It depicts Iceland’s shipping industry. It is the work of a favorite Icelandic artist whose work we came to love on prior trips: Gerður Helgadóttir (1928-1975).  She was a sculptor who also worked in stained glass which adorns several churches in Iceland.  See more of her work from our prior post.

After breakfast, we walked to the harbor to a waterside restaurant, Höfnin. The featured dish is a traditional Icelandic creamed fish dish called plokkfiskur.  It’s cooked with potatoes, onions and bechamel sauce and this version was very savory and delightfully buttery.

With that as a warm-up, it was on to the famous hotdog stand near the harbor, Bæjarins beztu, said to be “the best” and a favorite snack of Icelanders. Outlets seemed to be in every town and gas station. The downtown Reykjavik stand had a steady line of customers when we were there, as it did on prior trips.

Iconic Icelandic hotdog stand, always a line, popular with tourists and locals, especially after bar-hopping.

Icelandic hotdogs include lamb meat in the dog itself, in addition to the usual beef and pork.  We were encouraged to order ours with everything “ein með öllu“, meaning with mustard, ketchup (with apple), fried onions, raw onions and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish.  Hotdogs are not my favorite food but I’ll grant it was as tasty a version as I’ve ever had.  Per Minty, it is a point of debate among Icelandic hotdog aficionados how many bites are optimal to consume a hotdog: 3 or 4?  Hotdogs are not to be shared, although one can ask, if limping to the gastronomic finish line, can you drag me to land (i.e., finish my hotdog)?

Minty was full of such amusing commentary.  He also reinforced Byron’s description of ice cream to Icelanders as an all year-around “anti-depressant”.

No Icelandic food tour would be complete without lamb soup, which was the feature of our next stop.  On our first trip, I virtually lived on lamb stew while staying in a cabin near Husafell.  At the restaurant, Minty produced small cubes of an infamous Icelandic staple food, fermented shark.  As he pointed out, “food that is already bad cannot go bad”.  Fresh shark is toxic, so to convert it into a consumable requires special processing over up to 6 months, fermentation followed by drying. Offerings like fermented shark come from a tradition of needing to preserve foods over long winters.  We had passed on Byron’s suggestion of a visit to the family-run Shark Museum on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where the process of fermenting shark (Greenland shark, native to Icelandic waters) is demonstrated, but I couldn’t pass on tasting a tiny sample.  I can’t say I would reach for more, as it is rather pungent and sharp tasting due to a high ammonia content (think cleaning products).  But then again, I did not have the benefit of pairing it with the usual accompaniment, Brennivin schnapps.

I can’t say we walked enough to work off these many filling and tasty courses, but we did stretch our legs walking down the rainbow striped painted street leading to Reykjavik’s landmark church, Hallgrimskirkja.  This street was originally painted in conjunction with Pride celebrations, but became permanent in 2019.  Byron had mentioned to us that Iceland is very accepting of LGBTQ communities.

On the final leg of our Reykjavik Food Walk, a gray Sunday was brightened up by heading up colorful Rainbow Street, which commemorates annual Pride celebrations, towards Hallgrimskirkja.

We had an excellent view of the iconic church, Hallgrimskirkja, from our final stop at Cafe Loki, which specializes in Icelandic traditional foods.  This was our dessert course, rye bread ice cream, which sounds strange but was delicious. I think it is basically crumbs of rye bread mixed into a really good vanilla ice cream.

Hallgrimskirkja is one of the tallest buildings in Iceland and an imposing landmark in Reykjavik. Its concrete columns nod to the basalt columns found throughout Iceland.

After 3 hours of intermittent eating, we had options for the afternoon.  Steve and Greg did not bite on visiting several nearby museums, including the Icelandic Phallological Museum (Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn) (Penis Museum) and I wasn’t keen on going to the Icelandic Punk Museum.  Byron had suggested Whales of Iceland, a 20 or so minute walk.  Kathryn joined us.

Whales of Iceland features full-scale models of whales and dolphins, as well as educational commentary and a really disheartening and moving film that brought me to tears, Sonic Sea, about the destructive effects on marine animals of noise pollution from increasing shipping traffic.

Greg (orange jacket), watching a video at Whales of Iceland, is dwarfed by the beluga and orca models hanging overhead.

A highlight of an eventful weekend was reconnecting with our friend and guide, Chris Lund, from our prior Iceland trip, along the south coast, into the interior and to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  Greg, Steve and I had travelled for a week with Chris in his Land Rover and had a great time.  We were evading dodgy July rain, so elected to camp, an adventure in itself.  In the years since 2014, much had happened: Chris had remarried and was now a grandparent.

Chris and his actress wife María Ellingsen live within walking distance of downtown in a charmingly renovated home.  It was wonderful catching up with Chris and getting to know Maria, who studied in NYC and had an early career stent in Hollywood.  Somehow, we didn’t know that Chris had also published his first book in 2019, so we enjoyed reviewing it with him and thrilled when he presented us with signed copies!

THE best possible Icelandic souvenir (besides the many memories): seeing your friend and former photo guide’s vision realized in a beautiful book.

Taking leave of Chris and Maria, we topped off the day at Tapas (another Byron recommendation) to savor a few bites and contemplate a very full and satisfying day, weekend, week and trip to date, with the cold water challenge of Silfra still ahead of us.



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