30 August, 2023

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula...

Having driven the Golden Circle, we decided to explore a path less travelled and do a loop of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula about an hour north of Reykjavik, in Iceland's Vesturland ('west'). As a base, we picked a hotel in the peninsula's northernmost town of Stykkishólmur. The long drive to Stykkishólmur involves passing through the almost 6km long Hvalfjörður Tunnel on Highway 1 under a fjord of the same name. The tunnel, opened in 1998, took 45km off the journey. For the next fjord, Borgarfjörður, from the map, we anticipated another tunnel, but no, there was a causeway and the Borgarfjarðarbrú bridge, the second largest in Iceland.

Leaving the town of Borganes we entered the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and the first harbinger of a major problem was an ambulance and police car travelling at extremely high speed in the other direction. Now on Highway 54 and half an hour later, we came across a traffic jam which held us up for 3 hours. It was a fatal head-on collision between (we saw later) two tourist campervans. Cleaning up the mess and completing police forensics took that much time, with no traffic allowed through, and no practical alternate route. The queue of held-up cars must have been 10km long, even though traffic was light. Route 54 is a regular two lane road with good visibility, and at the accident site, there was no obvious reason for a head-on collision. Obviously a dampener on our visit to Snæfellsnes, not to mention at least two families distraught.

We arrived in Stykkishólmur just in time for dinner and checked in to the Egilsen Hotel, a very well located and cute stand-alone red-coloured wooden building right at the harbour. There's nothing much the owners could do with the building - it's probably heritage listed - but it was pretty unsatisfactory as a hotel with tiny rooms. The staff were friendly, as everywhere, but the fittings inside were quite run down. No TV even, but there was WiFi. Overpriced too - per square meter, this must be the most expensive hotel we have ever stayed at! A nice continental breakfast was extra. Since we first booked this hotel (before COVID!), a new and modern Foss Hotel has sprung up in Stykkishólmur and would surely have been more comfortable, although it's not in as good a spot as the Egilsen.

The Hotel Egilsen in Stykkishólmur catching the afternoon sun. [2213]

Stykkishólmur itself is a very pleasant fishing town, well equipped with supermarkets, gas stations, a bakery and a large hospital. There were two fine dining restaurants, a bit of a surprise, both of which we patronised, as well as a fish 'n' chips van, and next to it, an ice cream van. These last two were at Stykkishólmur's very pretty harbour which also hosts a daily car-ferry service to the West Fjords with a stopover in Flatey, both of which we had previously visited when on board the NatGeo Explorer. We saw little fishing activity, the main commerce around the harbour seeming to be the ferry operation. The natural harbour has been used since the Middle Ages, being a protected area bewteen the mainland and the island of Súgandisey, according to a sign posted there, and the port was first mentioned as a trading post in 1596 by merchants from Bremen. As a town grew around the harbour, sailboat fishing started around 1830. A causeway connecting Súgandisey to the town opened in 1989, improving the protection offered by the harbour.

From the top of Súgandisey Island this view of Stykkishólmur encompasses everything, the hospital, the Lutheran church, the new Foss Hotel and the old Egilsen Hotel. [2351]

Fishing boats in Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2223]

Fishing boats in Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2217]

The daily ferry to Flatey and Westfjords leaving Stykkishólmur. [2244]

A metallic Viking Ship sculpture catches the wind at Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2243]

Columnar basalt on Súgandisey Island. [2226]

Súgandisey Island navigation light. [2354]

Nice windy spot to dry your washing at this Stykkisholmur house on a ridge. [2366]

A splendid hospital overlooks Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2224]

The unique architecture of the Lutheran Stykkishólmskirkja Church. [2349]

Fish 'n' Chips at Stykkishólmur Harbour. [2357]

We dedicated a day to drive the loop around Snæfellsnes, about 200km in total. We chose to go anticlockwise. The hotel offered verbal advice, but didn't have a map of peninsula to even show us, only a full map of Iceland (to sell!), one of which we had anyway. It's another criticism of the Hotel Egilsen, but it seems to us that every tourist hotel ought to be giving away maps of attractions in the local area. In the historical township of Ólafsvík, we found a tourist information office where the lady fell over herself to annotate a peninsula map with highlights. This was one of those tourist maps that are torn off a pad, and is the very least the Egilsen should have offered. Without the Ólafsvík advice, our loop would have been much less rewarding. In the Viking Book of (Iceland) Settlement, it says that Ólafsvík was first settled around 900AD by Ólafur Belgur, thus its name.

Calm seas, black beach, on our approach to Ólafsvík. [2262]

Traversing the northern shore of Snæfellsnes, before we arrived at Ólafsvík, we passed the pretty town of Grundarfjöður (where a large cruise ship was anchored, filling us with some trepidation about crowds we might encounter) and passed the spectacular mountain of Kirkjufell ('church mountain', 463m), one of the most recognisable in the country. Early Danish mariners called the mountain 'the sugar top', maybe inspired by snowy cap. Opposite the mountain are Kirkjufellfoss falls.

A kayak group from the nearby town of Grundarfjöður enjoying the view of one Iceland's iconic mountains, Kirkjufell. [2250]

The Kirkjufellfoss waterfall, beautiful in its own right, is greatly enhanced by its magnificent setting. [2253]

Our rental car perched on the edge of a sheer cliff at the Bulandshöfði lookout, facing north-west over a crystal blue Atlantic. Out there is Greenland! [2257]

The Highway 574 loop around Snæfellsjökul glacier-capped volcano (1446m) passes through a National Park ('Þjóðgarður') at the extreme west of the peninsula, and this is where most of the attractions are. Snæfellsjökul is no recent volcano, being 700,000 years old, but its still active, 2000 years ago being the last time. On a clear day, it is visible from Reykjavik, 120km away. Like almost all other glaciers, Snæfellsjökul is diminishing with climate change. In 2012, for the first time, there was no ice at the summit. The glacier is now about 11km2 in area

The mountain and glacier of Snaefellsjokull (1446m) looking over a lava field. The suffix 'jokull' means glacier, so this particular mountain is named after its glacier.[2346]

We visited all of the attractions recommended for us, plus one or two more. Just before entering the park is Hellissandur, a village dating back to the 16th Century. A 412m longwave radio mast outside the town, the tallest structure in Western Europe, and the tallest longwave radio mast in the world. It is due to be retired due to the obsolescence of longwave broadcasts. In the park is the Saxhóll Crater, quite close to route 574, which erupted 3000 years ago, leaving a collapsed core and a lava field spreading for kilometers around.

The quiet town of Hellissandur is famed for its painted murals of which this is just one example. The tourist centre lady in Ólafsvík referred to the murals as 'graffiti'. [2265]

The Saxhóll crater is about 9km south of Hellissandur. It's from a volcanic eruption 3000 years ago. Visitors can park right at the bottom and climb 385 steps, about 100m, to the rim on steel steps. It's a good workout for a great view! [2269]

The stark landscape at the rim of Saxhóll, its collapsed core, and all around are lava fields cast by the eruption. About 5km behind, is the Atlantic Ocean! [2295]

The lava fields which surround the Saxhóll crater. This characteristic landscape is common around Snæfellsnes and indeed all of Iceland. [2299]

A particular treat was Djúpalónssandur, a black pebble beach, often called the Black Lava Pearl Beach. No black sand in sight here - the entire beach is made up of smooth black stones of various sizes. To get to Djúpalónssandur, we drove about a kilometer down an windy one-lane track through a lava field to a very busy car park, and were amazied to find that tourist coaches and cars towing vans had already made it down this torturous trail! Are these coaches off the cruise ship? The walk to the beach goes down a path called Nautastígur which means 'path of the bull' because of cattle being led down here to water at freshwater lagoons which give the beach its name, Djúpulón meaning 'deep lagoons'. The path traverses large lava formations including one large stack called Gatklettur. People like to take photos of the Snæfellsjökull glacier through a hole in this rock.

The descent to the Black Lava Pearl Beach takes us through a beautiful lava formations including this rock, Gatklettur[2312]

The Black Lava Pearl Beach has debris from the British trawler The Epine GY7 which was wrecked near here in 1948 with the loss of 14. Five crew members were rescued by locals. In the background are the lagoons used to sate thirsty bulls.[2304]

The lava formations and black stones of Djúpalónssandur. [2310]

A farm and church once near this memorial to mother and child dates back to the earliest Viking settlement. The mother is Guðriður þorbjarnardóttir, born here and emigrated westward around 1000 to became the first European to bear a child in America. [2316]

Our helpful guide in Ólafsvík had recommended a restaurant in Hellnar for lunch. We think the fish soup was the not-to-miss specialty, but when we got there, it was too busy. So we moved on to the next town of Arnastapi where we had better luck at an open-air cafe which charged eye-watering prices for two bowls of soup. This town is not far off Highway 574 and is close to a uniquely shaped mountain Stapafell, 525m. Arnastapi has a monument to Jules Verne (who featured the glacier in 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'), a signpost to Sydney saying 10621km, and a spectacular 6m assembled sculpture of local stones featuring the half-giant, half-human Bárður Snæfellsás, the god of Snæfel, an important character in Icelandic saga.

It was too busy at the recommended lunch restaurant at Hellnar, left of this shot, so we had to move on. [2319]

Bardur Snaefellsas, Deity of Mt. Snaefell, constructed in 1985 by sculptor Ragnar Kjartansson. [2343]

At the base of Mt. Stapfell, short term rental cottages. [2345]

Our several days in Vesturland were very pleasant, dampened only by coming too close to a fatal road accident. Thereafter we drove back to Reykjavik and then onto Keflavik where the International Airport is for our rather sad departure from Iceland. On the way, we splurged on another visit to the wonderful geothermal pool at the Sky Lagoon.

24 August, 2023

Iceland's Golden Circle...

Time to pick up a rental car so we can explore wider than Reykjavik! We got a Hyundai Tucson PlugIn which was just big enough to hold us and our copious luggage. Imagine our surprise when (later) we went to fill it up, opened the hatch and found electrical connections! Luckily there was another hatch on the other side with took Benzin! We really don't know how a plugin works, but we did note that during the entire week we had the car, the electric charge gauge never moved from 25% no matter how far we drove. Obviously the petrol engine does not charge the battery. Maybe there are settings on the car we didn't know about. [Looking it up later, this car must have been a PHEV, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.]

Our rental Hyundai Tucson Plugin clinging to the last parking spot at Kerið on the Golden Circle route. [1997]

We set out to follow Iceland's famous Golden Circle anticlockwise, with some trepidation because we feared heavy traffic, but except as noted below, we never encountered it. The Golden Circle is iconic but not signposted: we just had to be guided by our map and an old GPS navigator loaded with Europe maps that we brought from Australia. And it's not a circle either, but a lumpy triangle with whiskers. The distance around is about 250km if you don't take any side trips. Many visitors make a day trip of the whole loop (after all, it's daylight all night), but we spent 4 days on the Golden Circle so as to better appreciate it.

It was way overdue time that we improved our understanding of the 32 character Icelandic alphabet, in the (vain) hope we might improve our pronuciation of placenames that we visited and tried to say. One letter we really got into trouble with was eth ( ð ) which, in its lower case form, looks like an 'o' with an accent, but is more properly transliterated as 'd'. Another was thorn ( þ ) which sounds like 'th' and is often thus represented. There's also letters like æ and ö which contribute to Icelandic's rather big alphabet. According to Wikipedia, eth is also used in Faroese, whereas thorn is unique to Icelandic, although it was used in Old English. We just have no hope of handling this alphabet or Icelandic pronunciation. See how we go in the rest of this blog!

Highway 1 out of Reykjavik took us through a geothermal park called Hveragerði (pronounce that second last letter as a 'd'), and then to the town of Sellfoss. Expert Icelanders that we are thought that any suffix 'foss' would mean a waterfall, but when we asked about it at the tourist information centre, they laughed and repeated what we had heard before about Iceland not being icy and Greenland not being green! Foss does not guarantee a waterfall, although the river through town, the Ölfusá did sport some nice cascades. Sellfoss is where we encountered the heaviest traffic we had seen so far, with a long queue of cars coming from Reykjavik or Gullfoss (where there is a genuine waterfall) all being held up at an unavoidable roundabout in town. (Australians familiar with Byron Bay will recognise this layout.)

1891 saw the first bridge over Ölfusá, but this suspension bridge at Selfoss dates from 1945. [1959]

Cascades in the Ölfusá River at Sellfoss. [1962]

Disappointed with no waterfall in Sellfoss, but now equipped with a half decent Golden Circle area map, we headed away from the Circle and south to the Atlantic coast for a quick look at part of the South Coast Lighthouse Trail. The biggest of the lighthouses is Knarraros (26m, 1939) near the town of Stokkseyri so that's the one we visited. We were almost on our own out here. The town looked like a mid-week beach village, i.e. deserted, there was the odd horse in a field, and the only two people we saw were riding bicycles along a coastal trail. The lighthouse itself has a sqaure cross-section so it looks more like a tall, skinny concrete building downtown than a lighthouse.

The Knarros lighthouse near Stokkseyri helps keep Iceland's south coast safe for shipping. [1973]

Iceland horses near the Knarraros light. [1975]

Then back through Sellfoss (the traffic coming from Reykjavik was now even worse) and north-east on Highway 35. The highway is a good, sealed two lane road which would not like too much traffic, but we found it realtively quiet. We arrived at Kerið, a 55m deep volcanic explosion crater, half-full of water, about 3000 years old. This was the only 'attraction' on the Golden Circle that we had to pay to visit. It's apparently on private land. The entrance fee did not discourage visitors because the carpark was full and the path around the crater rim and down to the lake was quite busy. Kerið is just one of a group of craters called Tjarnarholar.

The volcanic explosion crater Kerið, an unexpected feature in the midst of rolling farmland. [1986]

Next highlight was Geysir (Icelandic verb: to gush), the gusher after which all the world's geysers ( periodically spouting hot springs ) are named, being the first known to Europeans. The actual Geysir geyser, active for 10,000 years, since 1916 no longer spouts. Earthquake activity changes geyser behaviour. Only 50m away, the Strokkur geyser goes off every 10 minutes or so (not as regular or predictable os Old Faithful in Yellowstone), and it's certainly pretty spectacular with spouts up to 30m high. In the immediate vicinity there are around thirty much smaller geysers and hot pools bubbling away. Gift shops and accommodation are over the road at Geysir, and barely enough parking for the crowds.

Geysir, the geyser after which all the world's geysers are named, has hardly ever erupted since 1916. [2089]

Stokkur, which erupts every several minutes, but not to a regular timetable, attracts a good crowd. [2100]

Strokkur gives almost no warning of an eruption. Then, in a fraction of a second, a huge bubble forms which bursts into a tall spout. [2019]

Focussed on capturing the next Strokkur eruption. [2016]

We enjoyed dinner one evening at the Geysir Restaurant which is attached to the modern Geysir Hotel. [2031]

Still on Highway 35, only 10km from Geysir is Gullfoss ('golden falls'), a magnificent three-step cascading waterfall on the Hvítá river which runs into the Ölfusá near Sellfoss. The total fall is about 60m. The falls are now in public ownership, although they were once considered for a hydro-electric power station. These awesome falls were very popular with visitors - the quietest we saw them was during an early morning walk.

Hundreds of people looking for close vantage points at Gullfoss on the Hvítá river. [2080]

The bottom falls at Gullfoss where the river makes an abrupt left hand turn and heads towards our hotel. [2046]

Highway 35 sort of bisects the nation, running from Highway 1 on the south side of the island, to Highway 1 on the north. Past Gullfoss, 35 turns to dirt and a sign advising that the next petrol is 205km away reminds careless navigators that they have well and truly left the Golden Circle! We retreated from 35 back to follow the rest of the Circle, with our next major stop being Þingvellir National Park, or Thingvellir if you don't have a fancy keyboard. We weren't sure what to expect here, and to tell the truth, we didn't expect to spend any time here. But we were at first stunned by the hundreds if not thousands of other people we found here, and it took us an hour to find a parking space. In the end, we spent several hours at this fascinating place.

Þingvellir's attraction is multi-faceted. Firstly, and most obviously, it's a place where Iceland's stark geological processes are there before your eyes. As we have said before, Iceland is neatly divided by the Mid-Atlantic Rift. In continental drift theory, the west of the country (where Reykjavik and the Westfjords are) is on the North American tectonic plate, and the east (where Vatnajökull glacier and the East Fjords are) is on the Eurasian plate. To quote a guide, 'Iceland is the only place in the world where this rift is above sea-level, and nowhere can you see the edges of both plates as clearly as in Þingvellir'. In our case, we drove down the steep walls of a valley on the edge of Eurasia, across the rift, then up the other side into North America.

The ridge of the North American plate overlooks visitors to Þingvellir National Park. [2179]

The Mid-Atlantic Rift at Þingvellir, the volatile intersection of two continental plates. [2144]

In Þingvellir is Þingvallatn, Iceland's largest lake (84km2) fed mostly by underground channels from the Langjökull glacier. It takes 20-30 years for melt from the glacier to reach the lake. [2149]

It's very important to look your best when visiting Iceland's scenic attractions. [2143]

Pink-footed geese seem to like the marshy areas around Þingvellir. [2194]

Crystal clear runoff from the Langjökull glacier arrives at Þingvallatn. [2200]

For 60 years from 874AD, the early Norse settlers in Iceland, fed up with fighting each other, chose Þingvellir as a suitable neutral territory to iron out their differences. In 930AD, over 30 chiefs from all over the island met for the first time to standardise law and create a crude version of what would now be considered a representative parliament, the first in the world and about 800 years before such concepts arrived in North America and Europe. The chiefs liked their work and started to meet each year. They called their gatherings Alþingi and the word Þingvellir means 'fields of parliament'. The Alþingi has operated continuously since, even throughout the Icelandic Civil War in the 13th Century. The only interruptions was between 1799 to 1844 due to Danish colonialism. When it returned, it was the same institution under the same name, but they moved the meeting place to Reykjavík, where it continues today. This makes Þingvellir the original site of the world’s longest running, still ongoing parliament. Unlike the Mid-Atlantic Rift, there is very little evidence of the Alþingi at Þingvellir. Temporary shelters were built for the meetings, and there are almost no remains, but thanks to that history, this site is of tremendous significance to Icelanders.

Remnants of temporary shelters from ancient Alþingi have been found in the flat valley between the two continental plates. [2152]

As a base for our exploration of the Golden Circle, we stayed at the Gullfoss Hotel, a low slung 30 room establishment with a good restaurant located on a farm land about 3km down the valley from Gullfoss falls. It was a pleasant (although rough underfoot) walk along a bridle trail to the falls before breakfast one morning.

The Gullfoss Hotel was our home whilst exploring the Golden Circle. We were in the new wing to the left. [2132]

Our room at the Gullfoss Hotel with a splendic picture of the Strokkur geyser in the first split second of an eruption. [1999]

The Golden Circle route, from Reykjavik to Reykjavik.