Sunday, September 02, 2007
1. Jarðböðin Nature Baths: A large geothermal pool in the northeast that uses the area's hot water for bathing. The pool is similar to the Blue Lagoon (which we didn't have time to visit) but far less touristy. After a short morning hike through lava fields, we eagerly handed over the 1100 Krona admission price (about $15) and made our way to the locker room where we were instructed to leave our shoes on a shelf outside, shower without a suit per the instructions (photo below) and then enter the pools. This was our second time through this protocol and with an empty locker room we didn't mind the open, naked shower as much. Holding our thin towels as shields against the rush of bitterly cold air that greeted us as we exited the building, we opted to dash into the sauna a few cold steps away from the door to warm up before walking down a few steps to the lagoon. Instead of steps into the pool, the entry was a gentle slope that I quickly slid into up to my neck, flat on my back. The blue of the water is like nothing else - an aquamarine, ethereal color with clouds of steam skimming off the surface of the water and pushed north by the wind, occasionally engulfing us completely. We were all alone much of the time or shared the large outdoor pool with four people tops. It was sublime . . . we roamed the pool for over an hour, testing the constantly changing temperatures from the cooler spots we swam away from to the extra warm patches we gravitated towards and quickly jumping away when an overheated spurt rushed by. We entertained ourselves by exploring each corner of the pool, Erin enjoyed throwing the lava pebbles from the floor of the pool at me and I practiced a few handstands and tried to coax Erin into trying one too - she wouldn't. Erin decided we should have a stamina contest in the most exposed section of the lagoon where we stood up (the water was never much more than waist deep so we basically crawled around or crouched down leaving only our faces exposed to the wind) facing the brisk wind that dropped the temperature below the already cold 40 something degrees. Erin won after the cold destroyed my competitive spirit but the water felt even better once we sank back into it. With the beautiful blue water, lava rocks along the perimeter, an amazing view of Myvatn lake and the perfectly conical shaped Hverfjall volcano, we did not want to leave this place, even with the sulfur smell. It was sublime.2. Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon: As we were driving along the southeastern portion of the Ring Road I kept catching brief glimpses of the massive edge of the glaciers getting closer to the road but obscured by fog and sand mounds standing between us. I was frustrated that there wasn't a road cutting back toward the mountain where we could get a closer look. Then Erin spotted these large white sails up in the distance. At first we couldn't figure out what they were - tents, homes? Then we realized - they were icebergs! We were so excited and eagerly turned off with all of the other cars to get a closer look. The Jokulsarlon was created in the 1940s when the Breidamerkurjokul glacier began shrinking, creating a large pool of powder-blue icebergs that break away from the glacier and float around the lagoon before melting and flowing out to sea. We spent about an hour walking around the lagoon taking in the amazing scenery and watching the seals we happily discovered swimming around with just their noses poking out and sunning themselves on the smaller, flat icebergs. We extended our stay here by making a lunch of pb&j with paprika potato chips in our car on a cliff overlooking the lagoon.3. Dettifoss: Possibly the worst road we encountered in Iceland was Route 864 in the northeast on our way to Dettifoss - the most powerful exhibit of nature I have ever witnessed. This was one of my most anticipated sites. All of the photos I had seen made me a bit afraid of it, with good reason. Both of our guidebooks advised that the 864 running up the east side of the Jokulsa a Fjollum river in the Jokulsargljufur National Park was the better road and offered the best views of the waterfall. If we were on the good road, I have no idea what the other road must have been like. The entire drive in was forty minutes of bone jarring maneuvering over, around and through lumps and rocks and pot hole after pot hole full of muddy brown water that sprayed up and over our miniature SUV. We quickly discovered that the Suzuki Jimny does not offer much in the way of shocks. As we were tossed around by the road, a thick layer of fog settled in making it impossible for me to see more than a few feet beyond the hood making the final approach to the cascade a bit ominous and foreboding. Just before reaching the parking lot, I had a small panic that there wouldn't be anything marking the end of the road and instead we would topple off a cliff into the river 120 meters below. To my relief, the fog parted just as we pulled into a small lot with a handful of cars. Relieved to be off the choppy road for a bit we layered on our rain gear and hoped we would be able to see through the fog and mist to make the challenging ride worth the effort. As a small side note, I have to explain a small difference between U.S. National Parks and national parks in Iceland. Growing up visiting Yellowstone, Zion and Bryce, we became accustomed to the rules and regulations of national parks. There are signs advising where to go and where not to go, well-maintained paths with strict warnings to stay on the wooden or cement pathways and park rangers to answer questions and enforce the rules. There are also garbage cans, visitors centers and other amenities. I wasn't exactly expecting this but Iceland was nonetheless a shock. There are almost always signs pointing out the various points of interest and often there are signs explaining a bit of history of what you are viewing, but not always. Every once and a while there is a sign warning of danger, but only the extreme variety. There are paths, usually just dirt paths beaten down by a lot of foot traffic, sometimes lined with rocks to add some formality, very rarely a wooden boardwalk covers the path. Infrequently, like at the hot pots and geysir, there are ropes (and sometimes signs) warning onlookers away from the dangerous areas. The ropes are always significantly closer than where I imagine they would be placed if they were in the U.S. I believe I only saw a fence or safety rail once. I never saw park rangers anywhere in the country. The rest of the time, tourists are left to their own common sense. Dettifoss had none of these amenities - no signs, no real path to speak of and definitely no ropes or safety rails. A primitive rock staircase pointed the direction out of the parking lot and toward the increasing spray that was indistinguishable from the rain. At the bottom of the switchback "stairs", we were left to pick our way over rocks and boulders to the spectacular force of nature that was bursting over the cliff right in front of us - completely unobstructed. Dettifoss is Europe's most powerful waterfall at 100 meters wide and a 44 meter drop. Everything was gray - the water, the rocks, the sky, the mist, the fog - creating a desolate and awe-inspiring scene and imposing reverence for the power of nature. Without the national park amenities we are accustomed to, it was far easier to imagine how an explorer might feel when first encountering such a scene without protective railings and signs warning of slick rocks and steep cliffs. Stunning.4. Grettislaug Pool: While eating lunch in Saudarkrokur at a small cafe called Kaffi Krokur, I read about the Grettislaug hot pool in my guidebook. We had to back track along a terrible abandoned road along the edge of a fjord and were surprised to see a couple of other cars parked at the end, including the familiar blue station wagon of two older couples we deemed to be Swedes (although they could have been Icelanders, Norwegians or Finns for all we knew!) who we seemed to shadow most of Wednesday. Grettislaug is located on an abandoned farm at the end of the 20 kilometer road from the Saudarkrokur harbor. Unlike Jarðböðin, this pool didn't have a locker room, or showering stipulations, just a couple of pools with a nearly translucent white-haired old man in a speedo with mittens on his feet cleaning the pools. We were left to awkwardly change in our car, trying to avoid the curious looks of the Swedes and some youngish travelers finishing up their soak in the pool. When we dashed over to the warmish pool, the Swedes were already there having an uproaringly good time laughing and talking and pointing at things on the cliffs behind us. Unfortunately for us the warmer pool was being emptied by the old man (sitting in the pool behind Erin below) as he cleaned it. He tried to chat with us but we could barely understand him. We had to change again in our car and this time we were a bit more cavalier, opening doors to pull on our jeans. 5. Whale Watching in Reykjavik: I went whale watching once before off the coast of Oregon and we didn't see so much as a hint of a whale. Erin claimed I am bad luck and during the early phase of the trek when the whales were scarce she blamed me. Happily, this trip we saw whale - a couple of minke whale. It was amazing. The weather was perfect - blue skies, calm, flat water and about 55 degrees. The whale was amazing and spent a considerable amount of time swimming under and around our boat which the guide claimed was quite rare and exciting. We quickly learned how the minke got his nick-name of "stinky minke" - a pungently foul fish odor wafted by whenever he was near. We were also lucky enough to see a few stray puffins bobbing along in the water despite the fact that they leave in mid-August. So much fun!