Here it is, my first post of the new year!
This post is about my 2015 Icelandic roadtrip. I can't believe its been almost a year and a half since this trip! I'm writing this down is as much for me as it is for whoever may be reading this and planning their own trip to Iceland. This is only part one and its already a bit vebrose. If you want to skip the details, a map and pictures from the first day are at the end of the post.
Prior to this trip, I had been to Iceland once before in 2005. That trip was on my way back from a year aboard in England. During that trip I took a bus tour of the Golden Circle, walked all over Reykjavik, and bathed in the Blue Lagoon. This time around I wanted to see more and at my own pace. In July I began planning a five day trip to Iceland for September. I figured the weather would still be decent and there wouldn't be as many tourists. I had originally wanted to drive highway 1, Iceland's ring road the whole way around the country, but I figured with only five days I wouldn't be able to stop much or have any side trips. So I decided to focus on the south and west coasts and skip places I had already been to in 2005. Even though I had been to Iceland once before, I got a lot of good information and ideas from Audur's blog, I heart Reykjavik. I'd recommend that site to anyone planning to visit Iceland.
Day 1: Keflavik to Vik
I left for Iceland on Wednesday, September 10, 2015 after work. I caught a train to Newark and arrived at the airport way too early, even by my standards. That left plenty of time to people watch and get a bite to eat. I overheard a couple about my age from NYC describing their plans in Iceland. One of the spots they mentioned had been on my "B" list of places to see. That was my first inkling that some of the "secret" spots I thought I'd found weren't so secret. The flight to Iceland was an easy 5 hours from the east coast. En route I opted to watch an Icelandic police thriller instead of the second installment of the Hobbit. The film was about violent Icelandic drug smuggling gangs and crooked cops; clearly a work of fiction. We landed in Iceland just before 7 am. Evidently most of my fellow passengers were headed to destinations in mainland Europe and weren't familar with Keflavik airport. They were frantically scrambling to locate extra layers before deplaning. If you fly into Keflavik, have a jacket handy. There is a good chance your flight won't be connected to the terminal via a jet bridge. It was a cold and blustery morning in Keflavik. I got through passport control, picked up my bags, and changed into hiking boots in less than 30 minutes. Finding my rental car agency was another matter. I hadn't researched that enough, it took me a while to connect to the wifi and get my bearings. The agency was in the middle of a construction site about a 1/4 of a mile from the airport. Keflavik airport is undergoing a major growth spurt to keep pace with the uptick in tourists. At the rental agency, I was excited to see that I would be driving a Ford "Kuga" (henceforth to be called the Kuga). The Kuga is essentially a Ford Escape manufactured in Germany. This one was a super fuel efficient turbo diesel (news of VW's clean diesel scandal wouldn't break until the week after my return). Best of all the Kuga was a nice green earthy tone that would blend in with the moss covered lava fields. I hit the road from Keflavik to Reykjavik in search of coffee and a pastry of Icelandic persuasion. I needed to find groceries, but Iceland's most popular grocer, Bónus is easy to spot from almost any where so I put it off. The Bónus logo is a fat pink piggy bank on a field of bright yellow if you need to find one.
Despite most of Iceland's population living in Reykjavik it feels more like a town than a city, and that morning there was no traffic as I looked for parking downtown. The sky was a dreary gray when I hopped out of the Kuga (remember to pay for parking downtown) and walked to Reykjavik Roasters. I had picked out this coffee shop from Audur's blog. There was a short line when I got inside. I decided to try to order my coffee in Icelandic. I hoped to achieve this by leveraging my knowledge of Swedish, and listening carefully to people ordering ahead of me. I'm always surprised that spoken Icelandic doesn't sound like what I expect when I see it written. I got my order out, but the hipster coffee bariste switched from Icelandic to English with an American accent as he repeated my order back to me while rolling his eyes. I was a bit offended and embarrassed. I must have had tourist stamped on my head, but I wasn't ready to drop my charade all together so I conducted the rest of the transaction in English with a Swedish accent. I guess on some childish level I hoped he couldn't figure out where I was from. The coffee was good; the croissant was nothing special. The pastry selection that morning was sub par, as was the hipster service. After finishing my coffee I went for a walk around to see if the downtown Bónus was open. It wasn't, so I took a quick stroll through downtown to use up the parking meter time I had paid for. Jumping back in the Kuga, I made my way to a Bónus on the eastern side of town. I also made an important discovery that saved this lead foot a lot of money. In all of her posts, Audur had failed to mention Iceland's prolific use of speed cameras! I upgraded to a GPS system in my rental. I remember thinking that was dumb since there is only one main road around the whole country and I had memorized most of my route for that day, but one of the handy features of the GPS was identifying speed cameras and giving you and audible warning when you approach them over the speed limit. The first time this happened I only slowed down because I couldn't figure out why the GPS that I hadn't programmed yet was beeping at me. After a while I got the hang of identifying the speed cameras and avoided speeding tickets for during the trip. I ended up waiting another 30 minutes for Bónus to open at 11 am. So much for getting an early start to day 1! I bought yogurt, apples, bread, and canned sardines for lunches. The cashier looked surprised to see a tourist so far from the downtown area (Reykjavik 101).
The weather was ugly as I climbed into the hills east of the capital. I was starting to think the whole day was going to be overcast until I began my descent into Hveragerði. I stopped for a bathroom break and to make sure I hadn't missed any attractions between Selfoss and Hella. Finally I sighted my first waterfall of the day, Seljalandsfoss in the distance around 1:30 pm.
Seljalandfoss has a small parking lot relative to the number of tourists it attracts. Even in September as tourism begins to ebb it was quite full. Its also an overnight parking lot. I've read that they plan to start charging for parking there which makes sense. Seljalandsfoss is neat because you can walk the whole way behind it. Expect to get wet if you do. There is another set of smaller falls just a short walk up the road, tucked away in a ravine. I recommend checking it out if you're good at hopping across rocks. That short walk, any walking really, is enough to reduce the number of fellow tourists you'll encounter. There was a noisy octocopter drone buzzing over the ravine filming though. I hopped back in the Kuga and made my way to Skogafoss. The drive was pretty. The highlands plateau was dotted from Seljalandsfoss to Vik with a myriad of tiny waterfalls cascading to the plain below. Farmhouses and barns backed up against the shelf as if it were a wind break while sheep grazed in the hay fields on both sides of the road.
Skogafoss was impressive. It was also packed with tourists. There are steps built into the hill allowing you to watch the water pour over the rock shelf. I followed the trail a little bit further up to another set of smaller falls. You could follow this trail all the way over the glacier and into Thórsmörk, but I hopped into my car and drove a bit further down the road to see the Sólheimajökull glacier and have a sardine sandwich.
After lunch I drove further towards Vik with my eyes pealed for a small gap in the fence along the right-hand side of the road. This gap would mark the trail down onto the beach to the Solheimasandur plane wreck. In the 1970s an old US Navy DC-3 made a forced landing on the beach. Much of the wreck was salvaged, but the fuselage was left. Over the decades the paint has worn off, and the bare aluminum stands in stark contrast to the black lava pebbles all around. I first saw the wreck in a video years ago, and ever since I've wanted to see it myself. I had always pictured standing there with it in solitude. I thought it was far enough off the road to discourage most other tourists, and that is why I was surprised to see almost 20 cars pulled off the road at the gap in the fence. I was even more surprised to see that there was road worn into the gravel and cars were driving all the way down to the beach and parking about 100 yards from the wreck. I decided to stretch my legs, so I grabbed my camera bag and began to walk the 2.3 miles from the road to the wreck. It was now late afternoon and the weather was beautiful. There were lots of other photographers at the wreck and people were exploring its cargo bay. It was not how I had imagined it, and it was strange because everyone seemed silently annoyed that people kept getting into each others pictures.
It was getting late, I was sweaty, tired, and hungry so I made my way back to the Kuga. I nearly bottomed out getting back onto the road, thankfully I didn't damage my rental car. Vik was just a short drive from here, situated on the beach at the bottom of a steep sided valley probably carved out by a glacier long ago. I dropped my bags off in my room at the Puffin hostel and walked next door to the Hallsdorkaffi for dinner. It was pretty busy, but not full. I am guessing that they put me at the worst table in the corner, under the staircase since I was alone. I had the Hallsdor burger which was good, and an Einstök pale ale which was decent. There was still a little light when I left the cafe after 8 pm, but I was tried so I only explored the street I was on before calling it a night.