Monday, June 25, 2001

TR Iceland

6/17 – 6/25/01

Vio vonum ao pessi upplifum veroi per skemmtileg og gagnleg.
(We hope this experience/story will be fun and useful to you.)

If you will recall from my previous trip report from Liechtenstein that was part of this journey, we had just spent a week at my sister’s place in Windsor and are now on our way to Iceland.

Where is Iceland? Good question. Iceland is a volcanic island that lies about 1900 kms northwest of London, England and about 700 kms east of Greenland. The northernmost point of Iceland is just a few miles below the Arctic Circle. The island is 103,000 square miles with an average elevation of 500m above sea level. More than 60% of the island is wasteland that is uninhabitable and 11% of the island is covered by glaciers. Vatnajokull is the largest glacier in Europe covering 8,300 square kms.
Iceland has a population of 280,000 of which 175,000 live in the greater Reykjavik area and the remainder live in small towns and villages spread along the 4,970 kms of coastline. The language is Icelandic (Gooan Daginn – Good Morning; Bae – Bye) but most of the Icelanders speak excellent English and communications was not a problem.
The currency is the Icelandic Krona ( ISK). Fortunately for us the ISK had fallen more than 20% in value in the past six months and the exchange rate was approximately 100 ISK per $US. This made conversion and understanding how expensive everything was real easy but more about that later.

We flew into the international airport at Keflavik, which is located on a small peninsula, about 50 kms west of the capital city of Reykjavik. As we drove into the city my first impressions were: “this reminds me of Hawaii with all the lava flows and volcanic ash and at the same time of the Canadian Arctic because of the desolate and harsh terrain with very little vegetation”. After one week on the island this was still the best and simplest description. And as we approached the Reykjavik, the city reminded me of a larger version of Nanasivik on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic – and I wouldn’t want to live in either place! Unbeknownst to us it was Independence Day (June 17) in Iceland and there were lots of festivities going on in the big city. So after checking into our hotel –a nice 4-star Radisson a few blocks off the city center - we walked over to the city center to check out the action. The first thing that we discovered was that we had not packed properly! The locals were wearing overcoats and ski jackets and all we had were light summer jackets? The second thing we discovered was that we would have to live with it because everything is very, very expensive in Iceland. A few examples: hotels in Reykjavik- $200+ per night; in the smaller villages - only $140+ per night; meals – chicken entrée-$30, lamb -$35, beef - $40; the best bet was fish –from $15 for the fish of the day to $25 for salmon. Fortunately we love fish and they had lots of varieties, it was always fresh and they know how to cook it since it is the staple of the country. We only saw vegetables (except potatoes) once with a meal because they can only be grown in greenhouses and are too expensive. Anything that has to be imported is outrageously expensive. We went to a mall in Reykjavik to look for a light nylon sports jacket because I thought that I might need one for the marathon and had not packed one. I found one on sale for $70! Decided that I would just buy a large green garbage bag instead!
But we did find one small pleasant surprise on prices – beer and wine were cheaper than we had been told to expect. A beer cost $5 to $7 in a pub or restaurant and wine was $6 to $9 per glass. And remember these prices were 20% higher just six months ago!

But let’s get back to the city center and Independence Day. We had missed the parade and most of the festivities but there were still people milling around, playing arcade games and eating at food stalls set up in the square. As I mentioned before it was cold with a light drizzle so we found a pub and enjoyed our first ‘fish of the day’. Later we strolled around the city before heading back to the hotel around 9pm in broad daylight since it was summer in the Arctic. The following morning we planned to do a city tour so I woke early (6am) and set out for a run along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. I was wearing shorts, long-sleeve T-shirt and gloves which brought some strange looks from the locals who were wearing jogging suits or ski jackets. I soon discovered why when the sunshine gave way to rain and then changed to sleet all in the matter of a few minutes. I was starting to worry about what to expect during the marathon that would be run at night?

Reykjavik is situated on a peninsula and the downtown area is small so it doesn’t take long to do a city tour but we did see the following tourist attractions. The Perlan or Pearl, a dome structure built on a hill overlooking the city contains six –one million-gallon tanks to store geothermal hot water to heat the city. Geothermal water averaging 185 degrees F is pumped to all the homes and buildings for heat and hot water. Some homes then use the water to heat their pools and also run it through pipes under their driveway to keep it snow and ice-free. The average home pays $300 per year for all the hot water and heat they need! The only thing in Iceland that is cheap! Then we went to the Laugardalur pool, the largest outdoor swimming pool in the city and country. It is of course heated with geothermal water and is open year round since the hot water is free. The pool is surrounded by hot tubs that the Icelanders use as social meeting places to discuss politics, work, etc. And Californians thought that this was their invention? We drove by the Hofoi House where Reagan and Gorbachev met to end the Cold War on our way to the Asmundur Sveinsson Museum. The museum is set up in the former home and studio of Iceland’s most famous artist and sculpture. There were a few more sites such as city hall and parliament but we easily covered the whole city in two hours.

What do we do now? We had planned to stay two days in Reykjavik and we have seen the city in the first morning? Off to the tourist/information center to determine what else we can see and do. They were very helpful as usual. One question we needed answered was “how long would it take to drive to Lake Myvatn on the southern route”. We wanted to drive to Lake Myvatn along the south coast and return along the north coast. The answer was “two days along the south route and one day along the north”. This fit our plans perfectly and still gave us two more days to explore the city and surrounding area. No problem since one of the most famous tours in Iceland is the ‘Golden Circle’ a 250km circle around Reykjavik that takes in several famous tourist sites. Normally this tour costs about $55 per person but we had rented a car from Hertz and they gave us a CD and map that allowed us to do the tour by ourselves at our own pace with narration and directions on the CD – a great idea. We visited Hverageroi, a ‘flowering’ town of greenhouses heated by geothermal energy where all the vegetables and flowers are grown for the island. Other sites on the tour were: Kerio, a huge volcanic crater with a beautiful lake; Skalholt, a small historic village that was once the religious and cultural center of Iceland; Faxi Falls, a small isolated water falls and Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous and picturesque waterfall; Geysir, a geothermal area with several active geysirs, the two biggest are Strokkur and the Great Geysir; and Pingvellir National Park that contains the site used by Iceland’s Parliament from 930 through 1798. The park also contains Lake Pingvellir, Iceland’s largest lake and the Great Atlantic Rift that runs through Iceland where the North American and European Teutonic Plates collide. There were some interesting canyons that looked just like the earth was being torn apart. On the way back we stopped to see some Icelandic horses. They are descendants of horses imported by the Vikings thousands of years ago and have become indigent to Iceland and unique since it has been illegal to import horses for several hundreds of years.
Upon returning to Reykjavik we decided to visit the ‘Blue Lagoon’, another famous tourist and local attraction. The Blue lagoon is a unique wonder of nature, a pool of pure mineral-rich geothermal seawater in the middle of a lava field in the Reykjanes peninsula. An algae grows and dies in the hot (160 F) seawater that gives it a brilliant blue color and is supposed to be good for healing psoriasis and other skin ailments? For only $8 you can spend all day soaking in this huge hot tub!

After one more night and ‘fish of the day’ dinner in Reykjavik we are ready to depart on our journey around the island. There is only one national highway in Iceland – Hwy # 1 that follows the coastline completely around the country. It is a narrow two-lane road that is paved most of the way although there are several hundred kms that are unpaved. On the south coast it follows the Atlantic coastline on glacial or alluvial plains that range from zero to one mile in width. Since we are heading east the Atlantic Ocean is always on our right and volcanic mountains and Glaciers are on our left. The mountains typically rise sharply and there are hundreds of waterfalls cascading down to the ocean. After stopping and taking pictures of the first dozen or so I became immune to them except to note “there is another spectacular waterfall”! We also noted several old Icelandic houses on the south coast. Up until fifty years ago, the Icelanders lived in houses constructed of stone and sod with only a few pieces of driftwood since trees and wood are very scarce on the island. Now all the homes are built with concrete and there are only a few examples of the old homes left.
The alluvial plains along the south coast are mostly fertile and we did see some dairy cattle, horses and thousands of sheep. We passed through the tiny village of Vik, population 300, that is the southernmost village in Iceland. It is noted for its beautiful black sand beach. Although it was a sunny and balmy 68 F, I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to swim there? Next we skirted for several hundred kms around Vatnajokull Glacier and passed many areas where the glacier almost reached the ocean. At one particular site called Jokulsarlon the glacier is calving into a glacial stream only a few hundred meters from the ocean and the icebergs are spectacular in color and form. Reminded me of Antarctica.
We then continued on to the small village of Hofn that represented the halfway point to Lake Myvatn. Hofn was located on a small peninsula that provided spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and Vatnajokull Glacier. But there were only two B&Bs and two cafes and it was only 4pm so we decided to forge on to Egilsstadir, the largest town in East Iceland. This turned out to be one of those good and bad decisions. The bad was that I had already driven for seven hours and had another three hours to Egilsstadir over some of the worst roads in Iceland. Hwy # 1 became a dirt road as it turned inland at Hofn and climbed up and over two mountain ranges. The roads up the mountains were steep, narrow, wet and had no guardrails. One mistake or slip and you wouldn’t stop for 2,000 feet! I was so concerned that I drove on the wrong side of the road and hugged the mountain all the way up – thankfully there was no traffic on the roads. As we crested the first volcanic mountain we found ourselves in a huge volcanic crater that stretched for over 50 kms. To make the road/highway they had just graded a path through the red volcanic dust. Talk about desolate! Fortunately I had lots of gas because I quickly learned not to let the gas get below half a tank. You could go for 100+ kms easily before finding civilization and gas again! As we descended the second mountain range towards Egilsstadir the terrain started to turn green with sparse vegetation and also lots of sheep. There were no fences in this area and as we would crest the many ‘blind haeds’ (blind hills) we would find sheep grazing on the side of the road or laying in the middle of the road. “Lean on the horn, slam on the breaks, swerve and hope you missed them”! I damn near killed a dozen sheep. Can’t understand why they are so expensive on the menu – there are millions of the damn animals and hundreds must get killed every day? But the good was that at about 7pm we reached Egilsstadir and had that boring and dangerous section of Hwy #1 behind us!

We overnighted in Egilsstadir, the largest town in East Iceland; population 1600. But it had three hotels and five cafes/restaurants. We ate at the hotel and enjoyed a fine ‘meal of the day’ – a three course dinner that included roast pork for only $22! The following morning we continued on towards Lake Myvatn. Since it was only a three-hour drive we detoured into Jokulsargljufur National Park to view Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, which measures 45m high and 100m across. Then we backtracked to Hwy #1 and continued on towards Lake Myvatn. The Lake Myvatn (pronounced mee –va) region offers a wide spectrum of geological formations since it lies on an active volcanic belt where eruptions are frequent, most recently in 1984. We stopped at Viti, a huge explosion crater with a lake near the volcano Mt. Krafla and again at Namafjall that has hot springs, boiling mud pools and hissing steam vents. I was going to throw Nicole into a boiling mud pool as a sacrifice to the lava gods but she promised to actually support me on the upcoming marathon so I decided to keep her around for a few days. We could always drive back after the marathon if she didn’t keep her promise.

Finally we arrived in Lake Myvatn. Lake Myvatn is the 4th largest lake in Iceland and frequent lava flows have left the lake very irregular in shape, with many islets and rock formations in it. There are only two small villages on the lake and the marathon host hotel was located in Reykjahlio. We checked into the hotel and then made our way to the tourist office that was located in the school for the summer. The lake region is a tourist attraction only for the summer months and offers some of the warmest weather in the country. My concerns about cold weather for the marathon were needless as the weather was sunny and a pleasant 68 F. At the tourist center we learned more details about the race and also that my buddy from London (the same one who ran Liechtenstein with me) had already arrived and was looking for us. When I discovered that the nearest government liquor/beer store was 100kms away, they helped me by asking a local hotel manager (who was also a sponsor of the marathon) to sell me a few bottles of beer. He agreed to do so even though it was illegal. Of course he charged me bar prices so it cost me $20 for four beer! But I state this as an example of how friendly the Icelandic people are. We also asked the information office if there was any place to access the Internet. There was not but they offered us access to their own computer and refused to accept any payment – nice people!

Next we hunted down our friend from London and then decided that the three of us should do some more sightseeing in the region. We visited the Grenjadarstadur Folk Museum in Laufas, an old stone and turf homestead that was built in 1876 and lived in until 1949. Boy those early Icelanders must have been tough because the only source of heat in the huge home was the kitchen that was located in a separate wing. The following morning the three of us drove to North Iceland to the small fishing village of Husavik, which is a picturesque village on the Denmark Strait/ Arctic Ocean. From there we headed east looking for Puffin nesting grounds in the cliffs on our way back to Jokulsargljufur National Park. We wanted to visit Asbyrgi, a natural horseshoe-shaped rock canyon with walls up to 100m high. We decided to take a shortcut back to Lake Myvatn via Detifoss and Namafjall over a road that was better suited to a 4X4 and made for an exciting ride for about 50kms. But we finally returned to Lake Myvatn in the mid-afternoon to allow us time to rest up for the marathon that evening/night. First we needed to pick up our race package and get any last minute details. And some interesting details they were! Such as: Lake Myvatn means ‘water of the midges’ because of the zillions of midges that infest the area in the summer. Midges are somewhat like a fly or mosquito. Some bite but mostly they just bother the hell out of you by buzzing around and flying into any open orifice. They get really bad in warm weather like we were enjoying and were worse around the lake. And the marathon course was a loop around the lake! We were advised to buy head nets to keep them away from our face during the race. I bought one but was not looking forward to running 26 miles with that thing on my head! Secondly the weather would still be sunny and warm at the 9pm start but it would cool off by the finish. Great –what the hell do we wear? Let’s wait till the start to make that decision. One other little wrinkle. Since the loop around the lake was only 36kms we would be bussed back 6kms from the finish line to the start line which meant waiting along the lake with all the midges. We also learned that there were only 42 runners and two foreigners not from Iceland. Yes, you guessed it. Tad and I were the token outsiders!
But now it was time for a short nap as I was going to be running at a time when I am normally sleeping.

8pm – Friday, June 22nd! Tad and I drive to the finish line to catch the bus back to the start line. The sun is still shining brightly and the temperature is in the low 50s and fortunately a strong wind has come up that keeps the midges at bay. We decide to wear shorts and T-shirt and carry gloves and our head net with us in case they are needed later in the race. At 9:05pm a gun goes off and we are away. With the strong head wind I decide to tuck in behind a young local runner and draft off him. He’s running faster than I want to run but I feel that I will save energy by drafting. By the time we cross the finish line for the first time the pecking order of the race has already been established! I continue to draft off the youngster until the course changes direction at 10kms and then I let him go. I run alone from that point although I can see at least 3 runners about ½ mile ahead of me. As I approach our hotel at the 27km mark at 11:15 pm I notice Nicole running out of the hotel to clap and cheer me on. Damn, that boiling mud pool is a really good incentive –but then again maybe not? Tad later informs me that when he went by twenty minutes later Nicole was nowhere to be seen – must have had her PJs on under her clothes? At 27kms I noticed that I was running close to an 8 minute pace and the gap between me and the three runners in front was narrowing. So I decided to try to draw them in. By 30km I had passed one runner and was drawing close to the other two. But they had noticed and decided to make it a difficult challenge. We ran our butts off for the next 10km and although we were all slowing everyone refused to give ground. Finally at 40km my legs started to hurt and I knew that I had not had enough hard training coming into the race to keep up the challenge and pace so I backed off and coasted the last 2km to cross the finish line in 3:34:12. I was quite pleased with my effort and time.
I waited at the finish line (in my head net) for Tad to finish. He crossed the line about twenty minutes later which was a great time for him. While I was waiting the sun set at 00:45am and rose again twenty-six minutes later as we were returning to our hotel. You have to experience this Arctic phenomenon to understand what this does to your body clock!

Back at the hotel I treated myself to my normal hot bath – no problem here with hot water- for about thirty minutes and then went to bed to try to sleep. I’m not sure what it is but I have experienced this reaction before – the sun set/sun rise trick, the bright daylight at 2am, or my body and mind being all-juiced up from the race- but I could not sleep! I counted Icelandic sheep crossing Hwy #1 for about two hours, then wrote this trip report in my mind for another two hours and finally at 6am I gave up and decided that we might as well have breakfast and leave early for the trip back to Reykjavik.

We departed about 8am on the infamous Hwy#1 that skirted around some fjords on the North Coast before turning inland to follow some glacial valleys. We stopped at Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) for a Kodak moment before traveling on and through Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland – population 15,000! After Akureyri the trip was boring except for our encounters on the blind haeds with the sheep until we reached Borgarnes (population 1700), a small seaside village with some spectacular views. I probably would have fallen asleep in this stretch of the trip if it had not been for the challenging game of ‘miss the sheep’! Finally we arrived back at Reykjavik about 4pm which was much earlier than we had planned. We drove to Keflavik airport to see if we could get catch a flight back to London that evening instead of waiting for our morning flight the next day but no luck – no more flights that day. So we checked into our hotel near the airport and enjoyed our last ‘fish of the day’ dinner. Really, the fish in Iceland is excellent.

Sunday morning we flew back to Heathrow to be picked up by Mary Lou and Tim again to spend our last night in Windsor. I think Mary Lou and Tim were happy o learn that we just wanted to relax and repack for our journey home on Monday. The weather was unbelievably hot in England that day – mid 80s so we just sat out on their deck and enjoyed a few drinks and chatted about the trip.

So now we are back and enjoying God’s Country. Sorry this report is so long but I thought that I should either pique your interest in visiting Iceland or provide enough detail to save you a trip. Iceland is truly an interesting place to visit and as they advertise “It is a land of contrasts”!

Bae, Sjaumst seinna!

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