Monthly Archives: August 2012

My Iceland Trip: The First Third

Our trip to Iceland has come and gone and I have struggled with how to write a recap of the trip. This post has been written and re-written. There is no way to describe each day in Iceland without a thousand word post to accompany it, let alone trying to write up two weeks of adventures in an easy to read post size, so I will split up the trip recap into thirds.

Apologies in advance if this is long but Iceland’s beauty can’t be described easily.

Day 1 / May 16
We arrived in Keflavik International Airport shortly after 6:30 AM. A taxi driver holding up a “SEAN GURSKY” sign drove us the forty minutes to Reykjavik and by 8:00 AM we were at the Salvation Army Guesthouse.

After checking in and having a several hour nap we orientated ourselves in the downtown area, walked to the harbor, saw the Harpa Concert and Conference Hall and made our way to Solfar. The downtown area is very walkable and it’s quite easy to spend hours going in the shops, window shopping and enjoying delicious Icelandic hot dogs.

Harpa Sólfar Hot Dog #1

Our first day in Iceland was all about orientating ourselves and preparing for our two weeks on the road. We received plenty of travel information from Iceland Unlimited, our tour company, and before falling asleep in the bright room (Salvation Army didn’t have blackout curtains and the windows did little to block the noise coming from a surprisingly loud downtown region) we began the ritual of researching our next days events and looking for important landmarks.

Salvation Army Guesthouse
Salvation Army GuesthouseA very simple and modest accommodation. The highlight of this building is the close proximity to the harbor, downtown square and shopping. A little bit of comfort is sacrificed for being this close to attractions. The rooms had a sink in them which reduced the number of trips to the shared bathrooms, but there were enough bathrooms and showers on the floor that you never had to wait for one.

The street noise was surprisingly loud for a weekday so ear plugs were definitely appreciated. The noise inside the Salvation Army Guesthouse was very minimal, but that may change during high tourist season.

There is a nice kitchen with a few fridges and a stove, a good thing to keep in mind if you need to have something to eat following the simple offerings of their continental breakfast.

Day 2 / May 17

At 10:00 AM we left Reykjavik in our car rental and were heading to see the tourist trifecta of the Golden Circle. Leaving the city was painless but made easier with a GPS.

The first stop was Þingvellir National Park. There are two areas to view this from, the first lookout gives you a high perspective of the divide and vistas, and the stop below allows you to walk between the Continental Divide and enjoy a nice walk. We preferred the lower lookout because you were able to appreciate the size of the Divide.

Above the Divide Inside the Divide Point of Interest

Near GullfossA short drive up the highway took us to Gullfoss. Our first waterfall on the trip impressed us but it wasn’t our favorite. Being able to walk down closer to where the water drops off was a neat experience but the view from further back made you appreciate the height of the falls and how it was tiered as it dropped down. If this was the only waterfall you see in Iceland it’s still impressive, but when compared to what is located elsewhere in the country this one is more convenient than it is special.

On the recommendation of a friend and our travel books we had the lamb stew at the Gullfoss Cafe (photo link) located at the main parking lot. It felt like an expensive soup at $10 per bowl but it was worth that amount and then some. This was a great way to warm up after the damp walk to the falls and it filled us up for the rest of the afternoon. We had different types of soup on this trip but this lamb stew was the best we had on our whole trip.

The final stop on the Golden Circle was Geyser. The more powerful of the geyser’s is dormant but the smaller one erupts every 10 minutes so it was very easy to walk around the thermal area, see an eruption, and by the time you loop back around another eruption is happening.

Geysir's Dream Big Splash!

The “tourist attraction” symbol on the side of the road pointed us to Kerið crater. This was a nice pit stop on the drive but it was hard to appreciate the size of the crater from the rim.

With the touristy “Golden Circle” behind us we set the GPS (who was affectionately known as “James” later in the trip) to our pitstop in Hvollsvelur.

Food in Hvollsvelur was limited but on the recommendation of our guesthouse owner we went to Gallery Pizza and had a fantastic meal. There were strange pizza toppings on the menu but the one with olives surpassed our expectations (photo link).

Gardsuki Guesthouse (Hvollsvelur Area)
A guesthouse located just outside of Hvollsvelur was situated on an actual farm. The check in process was a little awkward here when we couldn’t find the owner and there didn’t seem to be anyone around to help, but after a few minutes we were greeted and shown to our room. The guest house is in the basement of the families’ house, complete with two loud kids above. Any worry about the kids being noisy or keeping us up was eliminated when we slept for 9 hours. The quiet of the farm and mostly dark room was a great recipe to have a sound sleep.

Breakfast was delicious with homemade cheese, farm fresh eggs, bread that just came out of the oven and strong coffee. I indulged and made a breakfast sandwich (meat, cheese, vegetables and bread) to compliment my cereal and coffee.

The owner of the guesthouse does a great job and is working on adding more rooms to the basement. He was one of the more memorable people we met on the trip.

Day 3 / May 18

Of all the sights I wanted to see in Iceland the southcoast was number one. It’s a shame to have driven by here in a single day, but we had two days to explore Skaftafell National Park and Jokarlson lagoon but the drive from Hvollsvoler to the National Park is one I redo and take more time on.

The weather was good for our big sightseeing day, but the sky was bland and gray. As long as it wasn’t raining a bland sky was okay with us. The day started with Sjelinfloss, a waterfall where you can walk behind it. A great experience and worth doing when you are there, because how often do you get to walk behind a waterfall? There were several other waterfalls down from Sjelinfloss so we walked over to them and had a great start to the day.

Behind Seljalandsfoss Jenna and the Falls Getting in Position View of Seljalandsfoss Numerous Falls

The next waterfall was one you could walk to the top of, Skógafoss. From the road the waterfall didn’t look that impressive but when you get to the base, and the top, of it you appreciate how large and forceful these falls are. It was a long walk up the stairs to the top but it offered a great perspective on this wonder.

Leaving Skógafoss Tvöfalda Regnboga Alla Leið Skógafoss From Below

After that it was a detour to see the fuselage of a downed DC-3 plane. I saw photos of this plane and knew I had to see it in person. It’s not really a tourist attraction, you won’t find it in Frommer’s or Lonely Planet, but with GPS (63°27,5477′ & 19°21,8912′) coordinates we were able to navigate our way here. The access to the plane is off of the main Route 1 highway from a tiny dirt path that was fenced off (the fence was opened, otherwise I may have been more hesitant).

DC-3 at Solheimafjara Near VikThe terrain was covered in rocks and very bumpy so we covered 4KM very slowly. With each passing kilometer I doubted we were going in the right direction or that we would even see the fuselage but betweens the subtle peaks and valleys of the black beach a surreal sight emerged with this airplane appearing on the sand with nothing else around it. The sand appeared to get a little loose closer to the plane so we parked a few hundred meters away and walked the rest of the way in.

If the world was suddenly torn away from itself and you stood on the piece that remained, this is what Dyrhólaey felt like. With tall outcroppings, sea stacks, black beaches, jagged rock and birds flying around it really felt like a different world. I would have liked to spend more time here, exploring the rest of the peninsula and see some of the formations but in a day full of sights there just wasn’t time.

Dyrhólaey and the Sea Stacks Reynisfjara Sea Stacks

Basalt column beach
Before reaching the town of Vik we pulled off to Reynisfjara Basalt Columns and saw the sea stacks from up close and were able to look back towards the beautiful Dyrhólaey peninsula.

A gorgeous town, but the black beaches, sea stacks and basalt columns were better seen from before you enter the town.

Driving through the Skafatfall National Park was a beautiful experience. There were long bridges spanning glacial washout plans called “sandur”, to your left was the gigantic Skaftafellsjökull glacier and to your right was the ocean. It felt like you were never making any progress around the coast because the scenery repeats itself over and over but the feeling of isolation on the road was immense.

We did a lot of driving around the National Park but this was a part of the highway we never repeated. The southern coast from Vik up to the National Park was beautiful. The scenery changes were drastic and we had everything from moss covered lava deposits, to black beaches to gigantic mountain ranges.

Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse
The drive here was longer than expected, but due to the National Park being so large the options for reasonable accommodation are limited. However, this place was fantastic and worth the extra travel time once we arrived. The view of the coast from our window, the blackout curtains and private wash room made it more like a hotel than a guest house but it had the simple pleasures of being on a farm and having lambs and goats right outside your window.

Our love affair with the sheep started at this moment, from here on out we couldn’t see a sheep on the side of the road without laughing.

Between the Vik and Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse there are few options to eat. The sandwiches at the N1 gas station became tiresome and planning for more portable car-friendly meal is something we would do different on these long drives between stays. Supper this evening was at Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse and was priced a little high. However, with no other nearby options we were grateful that their kitchen was still open when we checked in at 7:30PM so it beat the alternative of not eating anything. This was also the first time we noticed how fresh the water tasted in Iceland. Cold water straight from the tap tastes as though you were drinking bottled water.

Beds at Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse Supper at Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse Breakfast at Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse

Day 4 / May 19

This was our first of two mornings at Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse. Today was spent at the Skaftafall National Park. We back tracked down Highway 1 and explored the Park.

The main reason to hike here is to see the beautiful basalt waterfall called Svartifoss but it’s also a National Park that offers a lot of trails. On the easy 1.5 km hike up to the basalt waterfall Svartifoss we enjoyed the scenery and beautiful weather. The hike was easy but we were over dressed. It may have been cold in the parking lot but on the mountain with the sun beating down we got warm quickly.

Trail Information Svartifoss Out of Nowhere The Family at Svartifoss Svartifoss Blur

Following our stop at Svartifoss we followed our Lonely Planet guide book up a trail that would take us around behind the Svartifoss and then down by the glacier. We took a wrong turn or were misinformed because we spent a few hours hiking aimlessly up the mountain. We don’t know how long or how far we hiked for but after an hour we sensed something was wrong and turned around.

We had been outside in the sun all day and were getting a little run down so we had a quick snack in the car and walked to the tongue of the nearby Skaftafellsjokull. The last 10 minutes of the walk were so uncomfortable from the wind that every step was painful. We left back for the car almost as soon as we arrived just because there was no way to escape the wind coming off the glacier.

Knowing that food was limited between the Park and the guest house we bought some food from the National Park cafeteria and nearby gas station and returned home.

When we got back to the Guesthouse we noticed that I had sunburn on my nose. Only in a country of snow and ice could I get a sunburn. We were exhausted from the day of hiking so our activities in the evening were light. We researched for the next day of travel and got a good night’s rest.

Day 5 / May 20

Behind seeing the downed DC-3 plane going to Jökulsárlón Lagoon was number two on my things to see in Iceland. We went back down Highway 1 to the Lagoon area and bought a ticket for the first boat ride of the morning.

The boat ride was good but I was disappointed that it didn’t get closer to the icebergs or do anything more than go around the perimeter. There was an option to ride a Zodiak through the icebergs which would have been amazing, but at the time I didn’t think the cost was worth it but now I could see the appeal of it. If we were to return I could explore the south side (opposite of where the ticket booth is) of the Lagoon as well as the mouth of the Lagoon that feeds into the ocean. The Lagoon covers 18km2 so you can’t see it all but I now wish I could have seen more than what was visible from the main parking lot.

Jökulsárlón Lagoon On Land and In Water In the Lagoon

Our time in Skaftafell National Park has come to a close so we drove north on Highway 1 towards Hofn and, according to our guide books, the promise of a nice meal at a local restaurant. After freezing at the Lagoon the warmth of the car was welcomed. We drove north and arrived in Hofn for lunch.

The restaurant we ate at was Hafnarbudin and you definitely got the sense it was a restaurant locals went too. Everyone who came in knew everyone else, conversations among tables took place and the staff were mingling with people at the drive through window or those in the dining room. With a population of 1,600 it’s quite possible that everyone does know everyone else.

Fish and Chips at Hofn Hofn View

Hofn has wonderful views along the cost, especially of the five glacier tongues from the National Park. To unwind after the drive and lunch we took a walk by the ocean before getting in the car and pointing James in the direction of Djúpivogur.

I feel like I am repeating myself but the drive to Djúpivogur was another one of my highlights. Driving along the coast with Búlandstindur Mountain Range in distance was breathtaking. This was our first true experience at life in a fjord and we were amazed. The road was windy but never steep or dangerous and driving up the coast continued to amaze us with the ever changing landscape.

Búlandstindur Mountain Range Búlandstindur Coast Road Eggin í Gleðivík

The weather had become drizzly when we arrived but we didn’t let that affect our urge to explore. After checking in to Hotel Framtid we walked to Eggin í Gleðivík, a sculpture of 34 large eggs, each one representing a different species of bird.

For supper we ate at the Hotel Framtid restaurant and were excited to try the seafood soup. Perhaps our expectations were unrealistic, what with the hotel being on the harbour, but the soup didn’t satisfy us.

View From Hotel Framtid Seafood Soup at Hotel Framtid

Hotel Framtid at Djúpivogur
Due to the low season we got upgraded to a room with a private bathroom. The main part of the Hotel is set in a 100 year old building that used to be a church and it gives the building a certain charm. The room and bathroom were very clean, everything looked tended to. The beds were incredibly soft and the blinds did a decent job of blocking the light out. One of the highlights at this stop was a nearby washing facility so we could clean clothes that needed it and replenish our sock and underwear count.

Hotel Framtid was a very nice place to stay at, perhaps one of our favorites. It was in a great location by the harbor and the town itself had a very quaint vibe to it. The weather wasn’t great when we checked in so that affected our sightseeing but we would have liked to see more of this town because there was more to see than just the Eggin í Gleðivík.

Hotel Framtid at Djúpivogur Bed at Hotel Framtid

My Streaming Media Solution

For the last few years I have been happily streaming content from my server to the TV’s at home. Finding Playstation Media Server was amazing. It handled HD .mkv files, transcoded files on the fly and worked like a champ with numerous customizations and features. When we moved from the condo to the house the distance between the upstairs TV/PS3 was fairly far from the router and it had a weak connection.

I set up a Wireless Bridge on the main floor in an attempt to boost the signal and reduce buffering issues. This worked well enough, but streaming HD content wirelessly was no longer feasible and even SD content needed a few seconds to buffer before streaming began.

Recently Cinavia has become more and more prominent on content I watch. This has forced me to hook the laptop up to the TV and resume where we left off. It was just annoying enough that I finally considered the numerous posts about “just get a WD TV Live box” to be valid. I spent a few minutes researching the device and thought for $100 it could be worth it. I ordered the device from Best Buy and within minutes of its arrival I was amazed at what it could do.

To test the capabilities of the device I started it off on the wireless connection upstairs. It played HD content quickly and looked great. As a special surprise I was able to jump to a specific time (something that would cause an error if I tried to do this on HD content, either wired or wireless). The interace is nice, allows for plenty of customization and it simply works.

With the Playstation we watched a lot of Netflix so I was pleased to see that the WD TV Live box had a Netflix application as well, plus it has a great YouTube interface and connects to other video sources. Now we aren’t subjected to painfully trying to load YouTube on the Playstation browser.

One thing that bothered me about the Playstation I have upstairs is that the fans turn on after a few minutes of use. It’s not a distraction unless the second level of fans turn on, but it’s definitely noticeable. I never did use the upstairs machine for gaming or watching DVD’s or BD’s, that is reserved for downstairs, so this machine was doing a mediocre job of streaming and I found an amazing replacement for $100 that does everything I expected the Playstation to do and more.

After successfully selling the upstairs Playstation I purchased a second HD TV Live box and I couldn’t be happier. As I am going for a smaller and cheaper media device the next logical step would be a Raspberry Pi XBMC machine, but I’m sure the WD TV Live box will keep me satisfied for a few years at least.