Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chilling in Iceland (Part 6): Bless Bless, Iceland

Good-bye in Icelandic is "bless."  Fittingly so, we saw it as a blessing to experience the raw winter energy of March in Iceland.  Sometimes we still can't believe that we got to see so much.  Pretty much one year ago from today, we flew on a red-eye to Reykjavik, with as little insight into the city's pronunciation as its extreme weather conditions.  Right when we exited the airport, the wind barbarically whipped against us and I literally retreated backward through the automatic doors while our car rental papers blew out of sight.  We'd seen so many magnificent pictures from tourism in this country that we were NOT expecting this kind of a welcome.  Iceland taught us how to be humble travelers and to abide by the ways of the land, not to force ourselves upon its offerings.  It wasn't your average vacation, checking things off the bucket list and lining up places to eat.  Even the tours we booked were totally up in the air, dependent on weather conditions.  This taught us patience, flexibility, and deepened our appreciation for everything.

The road conditions were crazy from day one, but we hadn't come all the way out here to chill in the comfort of the city (even though there was no shortage of good Scandinavian food to eat there).  Yeah, we questioned our sanity numerous times while we were on Route 1 (because there is really only 1 route).  It felt like we were just bargaining with the weather the entire time, going in one direction with no turning back.  We'd get a peek at an awesome waterfall, and then we'd be instantly shrouded in the whitest, most opaque snowstorm ever- ponchos flapping ridiculously in the wind.  Nonetheless, we were rewarded for our perseverance and our courage (or stupidity) for going to Iceland in the winter.  The northern lights came out to play, our ice cave tour was not cancelled (but it was postponed), it didn't rain on us when we were snorkeling, and the famous landmarks were mostly deserted and crowd-free.  Like, we could pee in the middle of a picnic area (which we did, because there was nowhere else as everything was closed for the season and there were zero gas stations).  So anyway, here's the last of our photos that I never posted from our unplanned, bonus day in Skaftafell, and some other favorites from the trip, for the sake of reminiscing.

Skaftafell lodging
We decided to veer off our original plan and stay an extra night in Skaftafell.  If there's one thing I learned from this trip, it's that you can't always stick to a plan.  We had just gone into the Vatnajokull ice cave and had a very simple, yet heartwarming lunch at Hali.  We were supposed to drive four and a half hours back to Reykjavik right away, but...the Aurora forecast (yup, it's a thing) was looking pretty good, with minimal cloud coverage that night in Skaftafell (while based on the cloud map, the area over Reykjavik was pretty much obscured).  It was the first time we had seen blue skies this whole trip, and it really felt like we had just arrived, only to leave again so soon.  Plus, this was our last full day.  Wes pulled up on his phone and found a room still available at the place that we had literally just checked out of.  It is funny now thinking back on it why I even hesitated, and why Wes let me hesitate.  The decision should have been a no-brainer!  When else are we going to be in this corner of the world during such ideal conditions?

The Vatnajokull ice cave was otherworldly!  We didn't want to ever leave.  In retrospect, it's kind of scary to be under there, as these things do collapse.  Our helmets wouldn't have done much for us in that event.

Hali - rooms and cafe, designed as a giant bookcase!

This was our lunch at Hali - just your usual bread-forward Scandinavian fare.  We never tired of Icelandic lamb stew, and we still lust after that butter.

Jökulsárlón, the famed glacial lagoon! Its still, blue waters are dotted with icebergs from the surrounding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of the larger Vatnajökull Glacier, where we had just caved.

You could also walk across Ring Road to the other side, to the beach.  Huge ice bergs bob in the waves and tons of ice sits all over the ground, melting in the sun, while more gets pushed down from the glacier.

Jokusarlon looks pretty awesome in the day, but at night, it's just as unique.  As we waited for the Northern Lights in the dark, seals were poking their shiny heads in and out of the water, ice bergs were constantly in motion, bumping into each other and making weird geometric formations on the surface, some flipping over entirely.  You can see the blur of the moving ice in Wes's long exposure shots.   Also, we could hear the glacier creaking - how cool is that?!  We could only notice these subtleties at night when humans are few and quiet.

We moved our stuff back into the hotel room, and felt like for the first time during that trip, we could be a little bit more laidback.  Yes, the sun was going down, but I wanted to squeeze in one more thing while we still had some daylight.

This was the waterfall that we hadn't seen yet that I really wanted to see.  It was pitch black when we had arrived in Skaftafell the night before and if we were going to drive back to Reykjavik, there definitely wouldn't have been enough time to hike to this beauty.  Those columnar rock formations surrounding the falls are awesome.  We actually didn't have time to get down closer because the sun was setting and we didn't want to be lost up here on our own.  The days are so short in the winter.

We were really high up at this point!  It was super muddy and we could see the glacial run-off traveling for miles into the distance in glowing streams. Pretty nice vantage point to watch the sun set.

So there was another waterfall before we reached Svartifoss - we almost were fooled.  But this one didn't have the iconic rectangular rock formations surrounding it, so I knew that we weren't there yet (much to Wes's chagrin).  Still a super impressive "foss" though!

And that night, we finally FEASTED.  It was so worth staying an extra night just for this buffet, which was kind of the best buffet of my life!!!!  Sorry, the photos do not do it justice.  No fancy pictures here - just a few old phone photos of maybe a third of what they had there.

2 kinds of salmon (so flaky and tender), smoked lamb, lamb loin with gravy, roasted vegetable casserole, pasta, squash, rice pilaf...

Loved the array of fresh vegetables!  Such a heavenly sight after a night of skyr, tuna sandwiches, and old rye.

When a buffet comes with 3 kinds of lamb (smoked, jerky, etc.) and whale... we game.  No pun intended, haha.  To think that we would have missed out on this... I'd pay the fifty bucks to eat here again in a heartbeat.

We went back out after dinner (there was way more stuff that I didn't get photos of), driving back to the Jokusarlon glacial lagoon.

Wes says, "It's not the cold that kills you, it's the wind."

This was the moment we were waiting for!!  I remember standing in the snow with the tripod set up, staring into the sky and just holding our breaths.  Out of sleep deprivation and hypothermia, many people who also had tripods out had turned back and left, including these three funny Italian guys.  We left the tripod out and hid in the car until nature gave us further notice.  Just as I was starting to doze off (it was around 2 AM), Wes shook me awake and I have never roused so easily and excitedly.  Sure enough, the lights were there, streaking horizontally across the tops of the snowy mountains!  We jetted out of the car and there was a huge commotion outside from those who stayed.  So. Worth. It.  The three Italian guys came back in a hurry too, I guess they had seen the lights while they were driving away!

Woke up to check out of Skaftafell the next day.  I freaking miss these Scandinavian breakfasts!! Good thing I'm able to buy some jarred herring and crispbreads at Ikea.  But no Smjor butter to be found anywhere :(

On our long drive back to the Western part of Iceland, we stopped by the Icewear wool factory in Vik.  They sell this brand throughout Reykjavik, but here was the place where everything is made. We purchased a few things, including a green woolen blanket that is still on our couch, and some other woolen gifts for friends and family.

We stopped at a gas station for a quick and easy lunch.  There were other places that I saw on Tripadvisor, but alas, all were closed for the winter.  But we couldn't complain about their gas station fare whatsoever!

Smoked salmon and asparagus soup with unlimited bread and butter!

We headed straight for the Blue Lagoon, which was a 5-hour drive back from Skaftafell.  We reserved ahead of time for entry, towel, and 1 free drink.  Neither of us are that into hot springs, but when it's like two degrees out, sinking into a hot spring was a welcoming experience.  It was all steamy.  Supposedly the naturally-occurring silica in the geothermic water is quite potent and can ruin contact lenses, glasses, hair, jewelry... they recommend you slather conditioner all over your hair and wear it into the lagoon. By the way, these little smoothies were actually really good, and we got them from a floating bar in the middle of the lagoon.  There were also three types of saunas, that felt like safehouses in a wind-torn warzone.  Hopping from sauna to sauna was fun but so cold!  Overall, we liked the experience and felt sort of spoiled, but we agree that we would have rather been shivering in our jackets admiring a more natural geographical wonder, or somewhere on the long road.

And then, dinner consisted of local fish skewers, lobster bisque, two hotdogs, and two gelatos.

Baejarins Beztu - round 2.  Best hot dog of my life.
Valdis gelato - got in right as they were closing.  Two locals got turned away, but we were able to order simply because we were tourists!  It was embarrassing though because we walked out with our ice cream while they stared...
 And that ends our trip!  An epic 6-day adventure that took an entire year for me to cover, though most things are very fresh in our memories.  We talk about Iceland all the time still.

Just ending with a little video to some Coldplay, which we listened to on repeat throughout the trip.  Iceland gave us perspective on our existence that we couldn't have gained going somewhere more saturated with human beings.  We did our best to document it, but nothing beats actually being there.

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