Welcome to Iceland, There is no sunlight, You are on fire, A demon takes your face… Come to Iceland, And give us your eyes.
I sang that song a lot during my week in Iceland, much to the bemusement of my two road trip companions. Iceland was everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be- which is to say slightly strange and strikingly beautiful. I had extended my layover in Iceland months before, but aside from Google-imaging ‘Iceland’ and ‘northern lights’, had done very little actual travel planning up until a few days before I was set to leave. Luckily through Couchsurfing I connected with a Norwegian gal who was about my age and a travel baby from France, and we decided to split the cost of a rental car to road trip north along the Ring Road for a week. I will try my best throughout the rest of this post to remember/ not butcher the names of places we visited, but a few months have already passed and one of the hostels we stayed at was called Grund í Grundarfirdi,Grundarfjordur, so no promises.
I can’t talk about Iceland without first talking about the legendary Icelandic people (Icelanders? Icelandites?) I met along the way- exceptionally warm, funny and offbeat, I hold a special place in my heart for every person I crossed paths with. While waiting for my luggage at the airport carousel a woman from the northern part of the country leaned over conspiratorially, and with no preamble told me all about the polar bear that floated over on an iceberg from Greenland and terrorized her town before he was eventually shot, stuffed and displayed at the post office. Before I had a chance to respond she then invited me to come see said bear, gave me a hug, and walked briskly away. After this initial impression, from here on out the two questions I was asked whenever meeting someone new were, in sequence and verbatim: ‘Why the hell would you want to come all the way to Iceland?’ and ‘Have you seen any elves yet?’ This is how I learned that allegedly 50% of the population still believes in elves, and although I didn’t find any, I heard many stories about personal encounters with these mysterious and fickle creatures- I still can’t decide whether or not this is a national joke.
Other things I learned while in Iceland: 95% of the energy is renewable- heat comes from natural hot springs, making for some pretty stinky showers, and produce is grown in geothermal greenhouses. There are more sheep than people. And, true to its reputation, everything is expensive (although carpooling, staying in hostels and not drinking helped a lot.) Iceland was also more beautiful than I thought possible, the only place I’ve ever been where I wanted to stop the car every five minutes and step out in wonder: epic waterfalls, creeks carving through yellow and purple fields, magnificent fjords, dramatic cliffs, beautiful beaches… The landscape was as varied as it was majestic, in just six days I took over 250 pictures. While I’ve always had an affinity for trees, a local woman I met told me how she recently visited Norway and hated all the ugly trees ruining the view, so I guess you get used to their absence.
We began the trip through west Iceland exploring the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, known as a mini-Iceland since it packs in all the natural wonders found throughout the country. After a day of wild horses, fjords, glaciers and waterfalls, we arrived on icy roads in the dark of night to our little guesthouse. We checked in, and while Marte and Jeremy were in town eating dinner I saw my first glimpse of the northern lights, which caused me to do a strange little celebratory dance and then to cry, overwhelmed by their indescribable beauty.
One of my favorite experiences was taking the ferry from Stykkishólmur to spend the night on the tiny island of Flatey. The island is only 2 km long and actually too small for cars, so we handed over our keys to the ferry operator, hoping it would be on the other side waiting for us 12 hours later. The entire island had no more than 40 houses, including the church, the elf’s house (!) and the smoke houses that belonged to our host family. Since only two families live there year round and it was off-season, the island was basically deserted.
As the ferry sailed away, leaving us stranded until the next day, a man walked up to us, his hands and clothes completely covered in blood. This ominous first impression is how Flatey became lovingly dubbed ‘Slaughter Island’, since we had arrived just in time for the annual sheep slaughter, accounting for the man’s appearance and the rivers of blood we soon noticed running into the ocean. He showed us to our small summer house right on the water with a space heater to counter the poor insulation, as the smell of smoked lamb wafted through the cracks in the windows. The Westfjords made for a beautiful backdrop, and walking around the island provided excellent exploring and an incredibly relaxing visit. Olina, wife of the sheep butcher, was a gentle spirit, and that night we enjoyed her stories alongside tea and her homemade ‘lucky marriage cake’, a sort of rhubarb pie.
The next day on schedule the ferry arrived to take us to Brjánslækur, where we cruised through the Westfjords. You can see a silly video I took here, on our way to see the Samuel Jonsson hermit house in Selidalur for some great outsider art in the true middle of nowhere. We ate lunch in Bildadudalur at the only cafe in town, and I tried a traditional meal of lamb, green beans, roasted potatoes and gravy. Our dining companions were all from the town, and we were lucky enough to be sitting at the table next to the operator of the Sea Monster Museum, who offered us a tour. After developing a fear of the fjörulalli (look them up!), we continued on to visit with the adorable artic seals taking shelter from the rough sea in the Hunafloi peninsula before stopping for the night along the narrow Hrutafjordur, officially in northern Iceland.
In the north we drove through the Vatsnes Peninsula, stopping along the way to hop in a natural hot spring sheltered from the wind by the mountains. This was one of our longer driving days, and we ended with a late arrival in Myvatn, where a friendly Australian traveler drove us for a night dip in the very hot Grjótagjá Cave, ALLEGEDLY where they filmed that one Game of Throne scene with John Snow and Ygritte. My last day roadtripping was spent in the winter wonderland that is Myvatn, where we climbed the Hverfell crater. I tried my best not to sing the soundtrack to Frozen, as I was in a true ice world that my southern-Californian eyes could hardly believe. There is a video from Marte here, to give you a little glimpse of the magic.
I parted ways with Marte and Jeremy in Akureyri to hitch a ride back to the capitol with two Icelandic men and a Polish gal. I spent most of the drive with my eyes fixated on the sky hoping for one last glimpse of the Northern Lights while trying not to smell their favorite snack of dried salted cod smeared with butter. We got back late, only leaving me with a morning in Reykjavík to enjoy before my afternoon flight back to New York. I spent the day relaxing in a cafe to sample some of the coffee I’d heard so much about, and then walked around admiring everyone’s style despite the cold on the way to visit 12 Tonar, the best music shop with the friendliest staff. I’m already planning my road trip around the southern part of the country, and next time I just know I’ll find some elves.