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"Look honey, another waterfall!": an Iceland trip report

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In late May / early June, my husband and I went to Iceland for nine days. We rented a car and drove up to Snaefellsnes for a night, then headed for the south coast via Geysir. We went as far east as Jokulsarlon before heading back.

Some background on me and DH: we are 36 and live in NYC. We are both really into photography and we like to be active when we have a chance. Iceland was unlike any place I've ever visited because of the utter isolation out in the country – and we mainly stuck to the Ring Road! We had several mishaps at the beginning of the trip and it took us a few days to adjust and settle in to the trip. That had never happened to me before. More to come on that in a bit.

My photos of the trip are here: http://sunny16.zenfolio.com/p434647948

My husband's photos are here. Start with May 26 and go up from there; there are several different sections.
http://www.nycarcana.com/

My video of driving through a dust storm is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWRyWXz4CYg

The first thing I have to say is that we had an outstanding travel agent, Jón Kristinn of Nature Explorer http://www.natureexplorer.is/ I am a pretty experienced traveler, and I'd never used a travel agent before. Someone on this board who was also a seasoned traveler said that she enjoyed using a travel agent for her trip to Iceland. The place names were so intimidating and we wanted to make so many stops that I decided to give it a shot. Nature Explorer seemed different from other travel agencies because they seemed more interested in creating custom itineraries for people. Jón was incredibly patient and helpful in planning my trip. He listened to my interests and suggestions and offered ideas. The agency booked all our lodging, our car and our Superjeep tour, and they lent us a cell phone for the week. We stayed in hotels and a couple of farm stays, which were a lot of fun.

Itinerary
May 26: arrived in Reykjavik on Icelandair; spent day in Reykjavik
May 27: drove to Snaefellsnes peninsula, did Briedafjodur bay bird boat tour
May 28: drove to Geysir via Thingvellir; stopped at Barnafoss and Hraunfossar, Reykholt, and Akranes-Borgarnes hot springs
May 29: spent day in Geysir region
May 30: went horseback riding in Geysir; drove to Hotel Gierland outside Kirjubaejarklaustur, saw Seljalandsfoss and Skogarfoss along the way
May 31: drove to Hotel Skaftafell; hiked to a couple of glaciers and toured the Jokulsarlon ice lagoon
June 1: hiked to Svartifoss; drove to Hvolsvöllur
June 2: superjeep tour of Thorsmork; drove to Reykjavik
June 3: toured Reykjanes peninsula a little before our flight

Costs
Our total cost for the trip was roughly $6266. We paid about $500 per person round trip from JFK with one of Icelandair's airfare sales. The rest went to food, lodging, and the car rental.

Weather & Camera Gear
I had heard that Iceland could get very rainy, so I bought a pair of Gore-Tex hiking boots, the Vasque Axis GTX. They turned out to be waterproof enough except for when I waded through streams. :) I also brought a good windbreaker, rain pants, and a fleece jacket. I protected my camera with something called a Storm Jacket, which is basically a piece of waterproof fabric with a bungee cord at each end.

For those who care, my full camera kit was a D200, a Nikon 18-200mm VR, a Sigma 10-20mm, a Nikon 70-300mm VR, and a 60mm macro. I also brought a lightweight tripod and some filters. I'm glad I had the tripod with me, but I only used it once; I kept leaving it in the car and such. The 18-200mm and the 10-20mm saw the most use. I only used the 70-300mm when shooting birds. The rest of the time, the 18-200mm gave me enough reach. My bag was a Lowepro Mini Trekker AW backpack. It was water-resistant enough to withstand standing under waterfalls. I never did get caught a rainstorm for the entire week we were there.


The Highlights
Wow, where to start?? The scenery, the scenery, the scenery! A lot of times, it looked like we were on another planet. At other times, we'd see gorgeous vistas of snowcapped mountains and waterfalls. It was almost always interesting.

The constant light – at the time of year we were there, I suppose there was a sunset, but we never saw it. I would wake up at 2 am and still have enough light to see by in the room. One of my photos shows a scene at 10:30 pm. That's about as dark as it gets. We'd gotten used to it by the end of the week and were a little weirded out when we got home at 8pm and it was actually dark out.

Of the four famous waterfalls we saw, my favorite was Skogarfoss. Skogarfoss was cool because you could stand very close to it and feel how powerful it was. It was an incredible feeling. I got soaked standing there. :) You could also climb steps to the top of it and walk through the countryside.

Geysir was fun. We spent a lot of time shooting the Strokkur geyser. I don't know if I'd spend two nights there again, but I'm glad we got to see it.

Driving through a dust storm in the desert – I know I shouldn't be happy that we drove through a dust storm because it was a dangerous situation, but this was another new and unique experience! The desert one was in southeast Iceland. It was dangerous because there are no shoulders on the roads in Iceland, so there is no place to pull over in such a situation. We had to keep moving because we didn't know who was behind us, and visibility at one point was only about 10 feet. DH did a terrific job driving carefully through the storm. I have video of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWRyWXz4CYg

Snaefellsnes - The whole peninsula was beautiful, with very dramatic mountain scenery, and I wish we'd gotten to see more of it. The birdwatching boat tour in Briedafjodur bay was fun. And the black sand beach of Djupalonssandur was truly beautiful and worth looking for if you are ever out that way.

Superjeep tour of Thorsmork - this was far and away the best thing we did in Iceland. Someone on this board had recommended splurging on a Superjeep tour, and I became very interested in Thorsmork, so that was a natural choice. Thorsmork is a valley between three glaciers. There are no true roads in Thorsmork because it is full of glacial rivers that always shift routes.

Nature Explorer, our travel agent, provides these kinds of tours, so we had them do it. As it turned out, Jón Kristinn, the guy who helped us plan the trip, was our tour guide for the day. No one else was booked on our tour. Jón was incredibly nice and very knowledgeable. This was our first time trying a private tour of this type, and I can see the value in it now. We never would have done the things we did without a tour of this kind. It was a blast driving through all those rivers.

The Thorsmork tour challenged me in ways I hadn't anticipated. First, Jón took us on a hike through Stakkholtsgjá canyon to a cave with a waterfall in it. I had never been on a hike through a canyon before, and I loved it! The hike required crossing a stream multiple times. Once we were inside the cave, we had to climb a few giant tumbled volcanic rocks to get to the ledge where you could see the waterfall. I am not fond of heights, and even though we only climbed maybe 10 feet, I almost chickened out, but I made it up with help. :) It was well worth it! The cave was beautiful: moss-covered walls, volcanic rock, indents in the walls made by the waterfall over time. I was a little worried about how I would climb out of there, but I slid down on my butt most of the way and that worked just fine. :)

Anyway, the Superjeep tour was definitely the biggest highlight of the trip in a trip full of highlights. I would recommend it to anyone.

The Mishaps
We made several missteps in our Iceland trip. I am telling you guys about this in hopes that no one will repeat our mistakes!

1.Getting to the beach at Djupalonssandur on Snaefellesness peninsula – I had read about the rocks the fishermen used to lift in the old days to prove they were strong enough to go on fishing expeditions. I thought it would be fun to see these rocks. We were coming from the north end of the peninsula, headed around the tip, when we saw a sign for a trail to the beach. The trail was a hike of four kilometers. We decided to give it a shot. We ended up hiking for an hour over very rough terrain before we realized that there was a road leading in the same direction. It turned out that if we had just driven another couple hundred feet, we would have seen the sign for the side road that led straight to the beach! So when we finally got there, we were exhausted, but I did see my rocks! I only regret that I wasn't more rested; I was in a pretty bad mood and of course I took the wrong path to the beach from the parking lot (I took the path to the left instead of the one right by the picnic benches) and didn't see the rocks right away. :) It is a shame, because it was a beautiful black sand beach. I would like to return someday and enjoy its beauty.

2.Getting lost between Bogarfjodur and Thingvellir – this one was awful because we were trying to meet up with someone I knew from online. He was going to take us on a private tour of Thingvellir. I had two maps with me, but we had no GPS in the car, and the roads we were on up in the hills below Langjokull glacier weren't well-marked. We figured out later that we had been on the correct road, but it had looked like we were on the Kaldidalur road, which was supposed to be closed. We drove around in circles for a while and we finally called our travel agency for help. They got us pointed on a different route around Hvalfjordur, the Whale Fjord. Around this time, I ran out of money on the cell phone. I didn't want to take the time to stop at a gas station to buy a card to put money on the phone, so we just kept driving. We assumed we'd find my friend at the visitor's center in Thingvellir. We finally got there and pulled into the visitor's center. I didn't know what my friend looked like, so I started asking random guys if there were him. :) We spent 45 minutes looking for my friend, trying different parking lots, and had no luck. We figured that he must have gone home and we gave up and made for Hotel Geysir. To make matters worse, at 8pm he called my cell phone saying he was getting worried – he was still there! And we were supposed to meet him at 3pm. I felt just awful about it! I still have no idea where he was. I regret that I didn't get to fully soak in the experience of being at the most important historical site in all of Iceland. So, the moral of the story is, if you have a cell phone, always try to be able to make calls on it! And always try to rent a car with a GPS system. :)

3.I didn't book my horseback ride in advance and I had to take it a day later than I had planned. It turned out to be not such a big deal, but at the time I was pretty upset with myself for not having booked it beforehand. I just didn't want to waste any time in Iceland, but the delay only ended up setting us back by an hour.

After these three incidents, DH and I sort of surrendered to the reality of Iceland, and things went much better after that. It was frustrating after all the planning and research I'd done to realize I'd forgotten some things, but it all worked out in the end, and we are better travelers for it now.

Food
We knew going in that the food probably wouldn't be that great and/or that it would be expensive. We prepared for this by packing about six boxes of granola bars. We ate most of them during the trip. They were our dinner a couple of nights, mainly because we were too tired to appreciate an expensive meal.

When we were out in the country, it seemed like our main choices for food were either gas stations or the hotel restaurants. The hotel restaurants' food was supposed to be fancy, but we paid a ridiculous amount of money (maybe $100 for two, no drinks, desserts or appetizers) for a meal that would cost maybe $15 a plate in NY. That was the part that hurt. DH wasn't really into the gas station meals, which were perfectly fine – fast-food-grade burgers, fried fish, french fries, etc. It was a little frustrating to have such limited food choices. Even in the middle of nowhere in the British Isles, you can usually find a pub to eat in. The parts of Iceland we were in were so isolated that there was nothing like that. I have no regrets about going there, and I want to go back, but that part took some getting used to.

Our best meals:

Reykjavik: Tiu Dropar – a cozy cafe wonderful grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. The address is Laugarvegur 27 .

Vik: A restaurant to the left of Hotel Lundi if you're facing the buildings with your back to the sea. It's in a corrugated metal building with no sign. We ate a late lunch/early dinner there. You could spoon up your own cream soup and cut yourself a piece of warm bread while waiting for your meal to be served. I had a stuffed chicken breast.

Believe it or not, the pizza place in Hvolsvöllur, near Thorsmork, was very good. The sauce was nice and spicy. We ordered one personal pepperoni pie and breadsticks, which turned out to be a round of pizza dough with cheese on it, cut into sticks, and tomato sauce for dipping. It was delicious. The pepperoni turned out to be more meaty and less junky than the stuff we get here.

The reindeer meat we had at Hotel Geysir was excellent. It was fun to try it. That's probably the most exotic thing we ate, although DH has eaten his share of venison in the past. We never did try head cheese or rotten shark.

Hotels
Reykjavik: We stayed in two places in Reykjavik: Guesthouse Aurora on our first night and Hotel Icelandica on the last night. Though we didn't have any expectations for Guesthouse Aurora, it turned out to be a big disappointment because there was one bathroom per floor. It was more like a hostel; it even had bunk beds. I'm not sure exactly how much we were paying in there, but it was a real headache not to be able to just casually jump into the shower after our flight. Also, I forgot my towel when I finally did get to shower, so I had to call out to someone I heard in the hallway and get the person to get my husband, LOL! The location was pretty decent. It was right near Hallgrimur church, and since Reykjavik is such a small city, it was close enough to everything else.

DH and I spent days trying to figure out if we should get our travel agent to book us in someplace else for the last night. Because we'd never used an agent before, I didn't know if we were locked into our plans for the price we'd paid (although we hadn't paid the balance yet). I finally called the agent on Friday to talk to him about it. Turns out I should have called him earlier because he could have gotten all our money back with 48 hours notice. Anyway, he got back to me with a few options. We paid an insane amount of money for a room in Hotel Icelandica, a romantic suite hotel not far from the Roman Catholic cathedral. It was in a converted house and there was no real front desk. I'm not sure I'd stay there again, but it was nice enough and we were just happy to not have to go back to Aurora for another night.

All the hotels we stayed in were a little quirky but they all had their charms. Hotel Hellnar on Snaefellsnes was one of the newest ones we stayed in. It was in a beautiful setting overlooking the ocean. Hotel Geirland was a holiday farm we stayed in near Kirkjubæjarklaustur. They had cottages there, but we stayed in a new-looking guesthouse. The main building where breakfast was served was brand-new and overlooked the pastures. Geirland had two very friendly border collies – a mom and her 6-month-old, very eager pup. :) The other holiday farm we stayed in was Smaratun near Thorsmork and Hvolsvöllur. The guesthouse there was older and the furnishings showed it, but they had a litter of little puppies, so we forgave them. One of them tried to eat my hair. :)

Hotel Geysir and Hotel Skaftafell are two hotels that look somewhat ritzy on their websites, but are somewhat shabby when you see them in person. The dining room at Geysir was very nice and had a view of Strokkur geyser across the road. Our cottage made me think of those wood-paneled lodges back home. It was kind of tacky, but fun. The dining room at Skaftafell was a little shabby and had a view of the parking lot. Also, our room at Skaftafell was the only one we had that didn't have blackout curtains, so I wore my blindfold that night. Aside from that, the hotel was comfortable.

I hope someone finds this trip report helpful. I have tried to be as detailed as possible. Let me know if you have any questions!

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