Iceland: Westman Islands and Reykjavik

(See my of my posts about Iceland here)

After spending the night in our favorite Airbnb of the trip on Westman Islands, we decided to spend some time exploring the island.

Westman Islands

The Westman Islands are a group of islands off the southern coast of Iceland. The main island, which is inhabited, is called Hiemaey, and this is the island we were staying on. After breakfast and a nice conversation with a French couple at our Airbnb, we hiked from there up a small hill, which afforded us views of two of the volcanoes as well as the coast. It was a particularly cold, rainy day, but the beginning of our hike up was a bit milder. The island is quite small, so from this vantage point we could see most of it. We walked a bit farther on, and looked across the way to a couple of smaller islands, which each appeared to have a single house or building.

After this short hike, we got in our car and drove to the tip of the island, called Storhofdi. We had been told this was the best place to see the puffins. When we arrived, it was unclear where the paths were and it was also extremely windy and pouring freezing cold rain. My dad, mom, and brother decided to brave the elements in search of the puffins, but I didn’t have any other warm clothes to change into after, so I remained in the car, nice and warm.

After seeing the puffins, everyone was cold and wet so we drove around the downtown area of Heimaey, trying to find something to do (we had purchased return tickets for later in the afternoon). We saw a museum on the map and decided that would be a good activity for a rainy day, though it did take us a while to actually find the location (the signage wasn’t very clear). We spent a couple of hours at the Sagnheimar Folk Museum, which told about the history of the island and several historic events that took place there. Some of the exhibits included the Algerian pirate raid of 1627 during which over 200 islanders were kidnapped and sold into slavery, the volcanic eruption on Heimaey in 1973, the importance of women on the island, The Festival, an annual celebration that has been held nearly every year since 1874, and a large exhibit about the fishing industry. I thought the exhibit about fishing was very interesting as well as informative.

Reykjavik:

After taking the ferry back over from Westman Islands, we headed to Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. While many visitors spend at least a day in Reykjavik, we were more interested in seeing the rest of Iceland, so we only spent a couple of hours in the city. It was dinner time by this point, so we walked along Laugavegur Street, which is full of interesting shops and restaurants. It is a gorgeous street, and there were many places to eat, but we settled on a pizza place since it was one of the less expensive options.

After we ate, we visited Hallgrimskirkja Church, which is visible from nearly everywhere in the city. Its design was inspired by the shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock and it was built from 1945 to 1986. Inside, it has an enormous organ and in front of the church is a large statue of Leifur Eiriksson (970-1020 AD), who was the first European to discover America in the year 1000 AD. We walked around outside and then sat inside for a while. The organist was practicing, so we were able to listen to the organ being played.

Before heading out, we drove by the Sun Voyager sculpture, which is called Solfar in Icelandic. This massive steel sculpture is found along the coast with views of the ocean beyond, and was revealed in 1990. The artist, Jon Gunnar Arnason, said that is both a dream boat and an ode to the sun. It is certainly a gorgeous sculpture.

Where we stayed: Ace B&B (Airbnb)

Costs: The Sagnheimar Museum was 1000 ISK per person (it’s free for anyone under 18). I think our meal in Reykjavik was around $40 USD for two pizzas. All other meals we packed.

Tips:

  • As with anywhere in Icleand, come prepared with warm and water-proof clothes. This was the rainiest part of our trip, but Storhofdi, the tip of Heimaey Island, is also one of the windiest places in the northern hemisphere, so be aware of that.
  • While you can certainly spend a day or two in Reykjavik, we saw most of the things we really wanted to see in a matter of a couple of hours. I would have liked to explore a bit more, but my family wasn’t as interested.
  • Lower costs dramatically when in Iceland by making your own meals and packing simple lunches. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every single lunch of our trip, and while not the most appetizing meal to eat so many times in a row, it helped bring the cost of our trip down significantly. Food, especially at restaurants, is extremely expensive in Iceland!

So that wraps up our time in Iceland! We flew out the following day after a lazy morning and short walk along the coastline. We really enjoyed our trip (though my mom thought it was rather cold and rainy)!

Iceland: South Coast Part III

(Life has gotten busy so I haven’t posted in a while, but I’m resuming my posts on our trip to Iceland. Check out all the posts about our Iceland trip here.)

After our night sleeping in the tent at Stafafell, we headed back along the South Coast. We were planning to stop at Stokksnes Beach, which is another black sand beach with views of Vestrahorn Mountain, however, we weren’t aware of the cost to enter. It was quite expensive and we ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it. The reason this beach is expensive is because it’s actually on private property. Thankfully, it wasn’t very out of the way, so we just continued on our way to our first stop of the day at Jokulsarlon Lagoon.

Jokulsarlon Lagoon:

Jokulsarlon Lagoon, more commonly known as Iceberg Lagoon, is a small lake filled with glacier water and pieces of icebergs that have fallen off the glacier. It is similar to Fjallsarlon, which we had visited the previous day, but much bigger and with more icebergs. Since we arrived a bit earlier than we had planned, we spent some time walking around and taking pictures of all of the icebergs. They are so incredibly beautiful!

We had purchased tickets in advance for an amphibian boat tour, so after walking around we boarded the boat. There are multiple options for boat tours and while some of the options allow you to get really close to the icebergs (like close enough to touch), the amphibian boat tour still gets quite close and is the less expensive choice. The boat took us around the lagoon and our guide shared information about how the icebergs form. We even got to taste part of an iceberg which was 10,000 years old! Our guide joked he hoped it was the oldest thing we had ever eaten. We enjoyed the boat ride and would definitely recommend it- but dress warmly because it can get quite windy and cold!

Diamond Beach:

Across the road from the lagoon is Jokulsarlon Beach, which is generally known as Diamond Beach. We followed a path from the lagoon parking lot below the bridge and came out at the beach. It’s known as Diamond Beach because when pieces of ice break off the icebergs in the lagoon, they flow down the stream into the ocean, where they are then sometimes pushed up onto the black sand beach by the waves. These pieces of iceberg have begun melting, so they often look like diamonds glittering on the sand. The day we went, there weren’t many larger pieces, but it was still cool to walk along the beach and look at the smaller pieces contrasting with the dark sand.

Vik:

From Jokulsarlon, we drove back along the coast further until we reached the small town of Vik. Along the way, we passed miles and miles of lava fields covered with moss. We had hoped to take the 4:00 ferry over to Westman Islands, but waited too long to book our tickets and therefore the only tickets available were for the tickets at 10:00 in the evening, so we had a lot of time to kill before our ferry ride. We stopped in Vik, which for some reason I thought was a larger town/city but in actuality is very small. We stopped at a gift store and restaurant that was also an information center to find some activities in the area to do. The woman there showed us a map with the main attractions, most of which we had already done before we headed further east along the coast. There was one place we hadn’t been yet, though, and she highly recommended it, so we made plans to go there after we ate dinner (first meal eaten out so far in the trip!) at the attached restaurant.

Dyrholaey:

From Vik, Dyrholaey is a short drive away. Dyrholaey is a small peninsula with fantastic views of the ocean and surrounding area, as well as a popular place for puffins. We drove up to the parking area. The woman at the information center had said it was better to park below and then hike up to the lighthouse above, since the road was quite bad. She made it seem like it was a short walk. Although it was not a particularly short, and certainly not easy, walk up, we enjoyed the hike and the views along the way. We spent some time around the lighthouse, hoping to see a puffin, but it was likely a bit too early in the evening to spot any. We walked back down, and as we were heading to our car, saw a group of tourists taking lots of pictures of something. Hoping it was a puffin, we rushed over there. We got a peek of the puffin before it decided to hide in a location that was completely hidden from our view.

Westman Islands:

After Dyrholaey, we headed to Landeyjhofen, which is where we boarded the ferry that would take us over to Westman Islands. Because we took the 10:00 PM ferry, it was fairly empty and we were able to get a seat at a table in the cafe section. We played a couple of rounds of cards and napped on the way over. Once we arrived, we went to our Airbnb immediately to check in and go straight to bed.

Where we stayed: Gabriel’s Place (Airbnb)- this was one of our favorites of the trip, as well as one of the cheapest!

Costs: We ate breakfast at the campsite and packed a lunch. The Amphibian boat tour was 5700 ISK/person (about $52 USD/person). We also had hot chocolate at Jokulsarlon for about $5 per person. Our meal out in Vik was about $25/person for burgers. The ferry cost about $25USD/person round-trip.

Tips:

  • If you can afford it and have the time, we would recommend the amphibian boat tour. It’s a fun way to see more of the icebergs and lagoon, as well as learn a bit about how the iceberg lagoon was formed. Be sure to dress warmly, as it is windy out on the water and likely cold as well!
  • Dyrholaey was not on our original list of things to see, but we really enjoyed it and the views were truly spectacular! If you choose to hike up to the lighthouse from the parking area below, be aware that it’s a pretty steep hike and be sure to wear sneakers or hiking boots so you don’t slip.
  • Book both the amphibian boat tour and ferry tickets well in advance. We had booked the boat tour and therefore didn’t have any problems, but we neglected to get our ferry tickets in advance and were stuck with the 10:00 PM ferry over.

Iceland: South Coast Part II

(See my of my posts about Iceland here)

After an evening spent exploring waterfalls and a good nights’ sleep, we continued on the South Coast. When planning our trip, we absolutely wanted to go to the “iceberg lagoons” at the farther end of the South Coast, but had trouble finding a place to stay along the way. Therefore, we had a lot of distance to cover on this day since the only available lodging we were able to find was about an hour and a half past the Iceberg Lagoon. Despite the long drive, we visited several really cool places along the way!

Reynisfjara Beach:

Our first stop of the day was at Reynisfjara Beach, which is one of the more famous black sand beaches. We got there fairly early, so it wasn’t very crowded yet. The beach is quite large, but it is especially known for its basalt columns that cover the side of a small hill and the view of several large rock formations in the ocean. We walked along the beach and climbed over some rock piles. As we returned, the beach had gotten very crowded with people. We were glad we got there early and had some time there before it got so busy.

Fjadrargljufur Canyon:

From Reynisfjara, it was about an hour drive to our next destination. Fjadrargljufur Canyon is a less-visited spot but is easily accessible from the main road. It is a canyon largely covered in green grass and moss and the views were amazing! I thought there was an hour-long hike here, but we either missed the hiking trail or my information was flawed. Instead, we followed the path that led along the top of the canyon. It was a really pretty walk, though it was very windy! This was one of the few sunny days of our trip, so we really enjoyed the gorgeous weather despite the wind.

Fjallsarlon Lagoon:

After an hour or so at the canyon, we drove about two hours to Fjallsarlon Lagoon. This is a smaller version of the more famous Iceberg Lagoon. We walked along the water edge looking at the various icebergs that stick out of the water. It was still sunny and somewhat warm out, so we laid on the warm rocks on the beach for a while soaking up the sun. While definitely smaller than the Iceberg Lagoon (named Jokulsarlon), we really enjoyed our time there. The icebergs are so incredibly gorgeous, and it wasn’t crowded at all!

We drove on another hour and a half to our Airbnb at Stafafell, where we stayed in a tent at a campsite. It was a really windy night, so we didn’t get the best sleep, but the campsite was well equipped and even had a small camp kitchen where we met and talked to a few other campers for a bit.

Notes:

Where we stayed: Stafafell (Airbnb)

Costs: We made all of our meals at our Airbnbs or in the car. I don’t think there were any parking fees this day.

Tips:

  • Get to Reynisfjara Beach early if possible! When we arrived there, there were only a handful of people walking around, but within an hour it was very crowded.
  • If road conditions are decent, I definitely recommend spending some time at Fjadrargljufur Canyon. Note that there is a steep hill at the beginning of the walk, but it was otherwise fairly flat.
  • Don’t skip Fjallsarlon Lagoon! I’d recommend going to this before you go to Jokulsarlon, since it would probably seem underwhelming after going there. Based on other reviews online, Fjallsarlon can be a bit of a hit or miss in terms of how many icebergs are there. When we went, there were quite a few, but at other times there are fewer icebergs. Either way, there is a nice view of the glacier.

Iceland: South Coast Part I

After spending a couple of days exploring the sights along the Golden Circle, we headed out towards the South Coast. Before leaving the Golden Circle route, however, we made a stop at Reykjadalur, an increasingly popular spot.

Reykjadalur Hike and Hot Springs:

Photo Credit (all photos of Reykjadalur): Todd Ogden

At Reykjadalur, which was a bit greener than much of what we had seen so far and also quite hilly, there are several hiking trails that lead up and through the mountains. The most popular hike is the one that leads to a hot spring-fed river. Cold river water combines with steaming hot spring water to create several small pools that are the perfect warm or hot temperature to relax in. The hike is about an hour to hour and a half long, and is moderate. For experienced hikers, it’s not particularly challenging, but for non-hikers or even occasional hikers, I would say it’s a pretty decently difficult hike. It’s quite hilly and most of the hike is either steep uphill or steep downhill as you traverse the hills and valleys. Finally, you come to the swimming spot, which is well-labeled.

We hiked this on a windy, cold, and overcast day with some light rain. When we got to the swimming part of the river, we were excited to dip into the warm water, but the first spot we tried was only lukewarm. Given the cold temperatures and less than ideal weather, my mom and I weren’t quite satisfied and got cold quickly in the water. We decided to try a spot a bit farther upstream, right before the water becomes too dangerous, and were pleased to find nice hot water. There are a few “changing” structures, but they’re open, so it was a bit of a challenge to change out of wet bathing suits after we had finished, but with the help of some towels being held up, we figured it out. We then hiked back out, which seemed to go much quicker than hiking in.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall:

Photo Credit (last photo): Todd Ogden

Following our hike at Reykjadalur we headed to the South Coast and our first destination. After checking in to our Airbnb, which was nearby, and making dinner (it was early evening by that point) we headed to the first waterfall of the day, Seljalandsfoss. This is perhaps the most famous waterfall along the South Coast, primarily because it’s the only waterfall you can walk behind. I had read online that there was another waterfall just a short walk along the path, so when we arrived, we actually walked to that one first (see next section). Once we had checked out the other waterfall, we came back and walked around Seljalandsfoss in a clockwise direction. Most people do it the opposite direction, but since we were on that side it made more sense. Seljalandsfoss isn’t a particularly massive waterfall, but it was really interesting to go behind the waterfall and see it from every angle. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of mist and you get pretty wet, so dress appropriately!

Gljufrabui Waterfall:

Photo Credit (2nd and 3rd photos): Todd Ogden

As I mentioned, there is another waterfall just a 3-minute walk down the path from Seljalandsfoss. If you do Seljalandsfoss first (going around it counter-clockwise) you can just continue on the path that branches to the right. If you want to do Gljufrabui first, then walk along the path to the left of Seljalandsfoss (as you are looking at the waterfall from the front). Either way, I highly recommend you go and check out Gljufrabui. It was actually one of our favorite parts of the trip! This waterfall is really unique because it is behind a rock “wall”. There is a small gap in the rock where you can see the waterfall peeking out. You can actually go through that gap and up the small stream and get really close to the waterfall. There are small step stones along the stream so depending on how high the water is, you can actually go through the gap without getting your feet soaking wet. My mom and I chose that option (both of us were wearing fairly waterproof hiking boots), but my dad and brother walked in the stream barefoot (brrr!!!). Once you get through the gap there is a small chasm through which the waterfall plunges down directly in front of you. It is so, so cool! We actually got less wet here than we did walking around Seljalandsfoss. I originally abstained from entering the gap, but then a British family walked out and the mom exclaimed loudly, “That was SO AWESOME!!”, so I decided I had to do it, and had absolutely no regrets!

Skogafoss:

From Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui we drove a few minutes to Skogafoss, one of the other well-known waterfalls. This waterfall is really pretty and you can walk up a set of steep stairs to the top to get a view from there as well. Though tired and a bit sore from our hike earlier in the day, my dad convinced me to walk up to the top which affords for gorgeous vies of both the waterfall and the valley below. We spent less time here as we were pretty cold and wet at this point, but it was definitely worth the visit. We tucked into bed as soon as we returned to our Airbnb after a long and fun day.

Notes:

Where we stayed: Eyvindarmuli near Seljalandsfoss (Airbnb, no longer available- this was our least favorite place throughout the trip as there were a lot of people staying there and just one dated and somewhat dirty bathroom shared by all)

Costs: We prepared food bought previously at a grocery store for all of our meals. There is a fee of 700 ISK (about $7 USD) to park at Seljalandsfoss. As with Thingvellir, this is payable only by credit or debit card.

Tips:

  • If you do the Reykjadalur hike, dress appropriately! When we went, it was a cold and windy day with little to no sunshine. We were very glad to have hats/earwarmers while hiking as a result. Make sure to bring your bathing suit (we hiked in wearing them) and a towel to dry off and change behind. We found that the water was cooler farther downstream and warmer upstream, so try a few spots until you find one that’s the right temperature.
  • Don’t forget to visit Gljufrabui if you go to Seljalandsfoss! It is such a cool waterfall, and if weather/conditions allow, go up the little stream and through the gap to see the waterfall up close.
  • Book places to stay along the South Coast well in advance. We didn’t and as a result ended up with somewhat questionable places to stay.
  • Make sure you have a full tank of gas and pick up any groceries before the South Coast- the gas stations and grocery stores are few and far between.

Iceland: Golden Circle Part II

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Golden Circle can be done in a just a day, but we chose to spend two full days exploring the sights since we stayed three nights along the route. Our first day we covered Fridheimar Greenhouse, Geysir, Gullfoss, Efsti-dalur, and the Secret Lagoon. On our second day, which was pretty cold and rainy, we headed to the place many people start their tour of the Golden Circle at: Thingvellir National Park.

Thingvellir National Park:

Oxararfoss
Oxararfoss

Thingvellir is a really large park not too far from Reykjavik. There are a number of cool things to see and do there. Many people choose to do special excursions or experiences there, such as snorkeling between the continental divide, but we just walked around. Thingvellir is an important site not only because of it’s natural beauty, but also for its history. It is here that the first Icelandic parliament met for centuries, beginning around 930 AD until the 1700s. Not only is it where the first Icelandic parliament met, but it is also considered the first and longest-lasting parliament in the world.

Logberg (Law Rock)
In Thingvellir Park

We started off at the parking location near Oxararfoss Waterfall. From there, we walked up to the waterfall. Though much smaller than Gullfoss, it was in an interesting location and quite beautiful. The walking trails from this parking lot wind between two ridges that are the divide between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe, called the Almannagja Fault.

Thingvellir Church
Thingvellir Church

From there we walked on to the Hakid viewpoint and Logberg (Law Rock), where the first laws of Iceland were discussed and announced. We also walked down to and around Thingvellir Church, which was built in the mid-1800s on the site of the church that was built shortly after Christianity was adopted in Iceland in 1000 AD.  The church is surrounded by water and is very small but cute.

We enjoyed our visit to Thingvellir National Park, despite the light rain that fell all day.

Notes:

Where we stayed: Duo Bungalow in Selfoss (Airbnb)

Costs: Parking at Thingvellir was 750 ISK (about $7.50 USD). We ate/made all of our meals at home on this day, saving a lot of money.

Tips:

  • Thingvellir Park is gorgeous! We really enjoyed just walking along the paths and taking in the views. There are special excursions we decided not to do, as well as additional sights to those we checked out.
  • We had to pay for the parking using a website and credit card on my brother’s phone. I’m not sure if there is a way to bypass having a phone/data in order to pay for parking.