Iceland 101

Our travels around Iceland in September 2013–cue up the sandstorm, snowstorm, hurricane winds, shark bites and love balls.

Random Reykjavik: Where to Eat, Drink & Crash

It was a sharp scenery contrast as we moved on from our fishing lodge cum guest house to the urban thickness of Reykjavik.

Ensku Husin (‘old English lodge’) was like stepping into a time machine—70s furnishings, prerequisite wood panelling, beat-up armchairs, trophy fish mounts, vintage pics of men grinning with monster fish and a pot belly stove. It was a fab crash pad with serene views of River Langa. And, like much of the real estate in Iceland, the property came with its own personal waterfalls.

ICELAND 2013 415Fast forward 100km from the idyllic countryside to the end of the Ring Road. From 70s kitsch to the modern spoils of Radisson Blu 1919 in downtown Reykjavik. We happily exhausted our RBC Visa Rewards points account for two nights at the boutique hotel (room rates from 110 euros!). The studio-concept room was a welcomed contrast. Unlike Ensku Husin, we probably wouldn’t hear our neighbour’s snoring. Or, dishes being washed or the ruckus of the innkeepers’ children below.

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In Reykjavik, we had to part ways with our reliable steed, the Jimny 4×4. We were sad to see her being driven away—no doubt re-assigned to a brand new, fresh-faced couple about to tackle our same route. The Jimny must have been thinking, “What? Again? I just did the Ring Road.” However, Kim was now footloose and fancy-free from chief driver responsibilities. We were ready to be pedestrians again, stretch our Ring Road legs and partake in Reykjavik’s happy hour scene.

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To commemorate reaching the end of the Ring Road (sigh), we mixed “Ring Worms” and “Reyk-ed” cocktails in our tony room while watching an old Ellen Burstyn flick. Our duty free Icelandic vodka had to be drank! I’d read about the Nordic love of malt extract and Appelsin (akin to orange soda) as a nourishing winter warmer/yuletide favourite. Adding vodka upped the yuletide and we created variations while waiting for the drizzly skies to take a rain intermission so we could explore.

We eventually did the “Rodeo Drive” stroll—popping in and out of shops along Laugavegur and arty Skolavordustigur. The window shopping extremes ranged from bric-a-brac at Frida Fraenka on Vesturgata (two storeys rammed with peculiar antiques—an inventory nightmare!) to fawning over the flashy outdoor gear of 66 Degrees North. If you are a licorice fan there’s a sugar epicentre on Laugevegur with licorice dipped in every sort of imagined confection. Get your hands on a “Dramur” (‘dream’  in Icelandic)—it’s black licorice whips dunked in chocolate in a bar form.

Happy Hour Chronicles (in no particular order):

Skipbarrin: It’s slick and smartly designed with salvaged wood, industrial flare and cow hide stools. Part of the Icelandic Air Marina hotel, it’s a lively and vibrant pit stop—though the marina view is lacking. Here, outside of happy hour you can expect to pay almost $22 CAD for a mixed drink. We heard rumours of this, and the outrageous price of booze in Iceland—and it’s true. Just a basic rum and Coke or gin and tonic is prohibitively priced. Safer choices are the pints of Viking or Gull which are universally 900isk ($8 CAD). Happy hour deals = 2 for 1 beers.

Dillon Whiskey Bar: Though Lonely Planet described this whiskey hole as a place where you might encounter “beer, beards and the odd flying bottle,” we witnessed only beer during the 4-6 happy hour time frame. It’s a little rougher around the edges, darker, but authentic. Make note of the “Mind Eraser”– Vodka + Kahlua with a lime wedge dipped in coffee and sugar.

kim at whiskey bar

Olsmidjan Bar–Kaffi & Vin: We hadn’t seen Polar Beer on the menu anywhere but here. I imagine it’s a budget lager brewed by the larger conglomerates. But, we were okay with this—for 900isk you could get a pint of Polar and a shot. We decided to upgrade our shot option (licorice schnapps or a gimmicky, syrupy “Northern Lights” shot with floating green and blue liqueurs) to try the premium priced Brennivin. It’s the local hooch derived from fermented potato mash and caraway seeds. We found it rather palatable. Please note: Signs of maturity were witnessed as Kim and I actually purchased a Polar pint glass from the bartender instead of stealing it.

Bunk Bar: Adjacent to the Reykjavik Backpackers Hostel on Laugavegur, the salvaged wood doors of the Bunk Bar easily lured us in. Inside we found a very hip and inviting chill zone with a gently thumping electronic soundtrack. This place oozed cool! Renovated in May of this year, the combo of iron and wood textures, repurposed tractor seat bar stools and black and white photos make the bar a stand-out. Go here! It’s not the scrubby hostel type-bar you remember!

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Post Happy Hour Eats (in no particular order, and not all in one day):

My sister and her fiancee had been in Iceland just weeks before us and we were armed with a list of cafes and fish n’ chip joints that couldn’t be missed.

Cafe Babalu: The decor of this cafe made for one trippy latte. It was like stepping into Quirk Central: pink flamingoes, Smurf figurines, cuckoo clocks, needlepoints, random 60s lighting, vintage board games—with an Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack.  It’s  well-worth the time out—and be sure to head upstairs, to get fully immersed in the rug hooking groove. Don’t miss the Star Wars themed restroom either. It’s part of the Babalu experience.

Prikid:  On Bankastraeti, we found the best burgers since our reindeer burg experience in Hofn. Kim opted for a hefty Blue Moon topped with guacamole and blue cheese. I went for the sweet and savoury twist of the Jam burger loaded with camembert, blue cheese, brie, parmesan and raspberry jam. We’d recommend a table upstairs so you can have a fine perch for people-watching while pint drinking. And, if you’re really ambitious, Prikid is one of the later-closing bars: at 5:30am. Don’t miss the men’s washroom (really, take a peek) and the graffiti in the smoking area on the way upstairs.

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I was nervous we wouldn’t be able to cram in all the lattes, battered cod and hot dogs that we needed to eat before flying home.

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Baejarins Beztu: Right across from the Radisson Blu we watched the congestion around the Baejarins Beztu hot dog joint. Famous for Bill Clinton’s drop-in and some other Hollywood hot doggers, the stand has been in operation since 1939. For 330isk ($2.50CAD), a hotdog with ‘everything’ is handed to you loaded with remoulade, crunchy fried onions, ketchup and a sweet brown sauce akin to honey mustard. After eating hot dogs around the Ring Road, we nodded that yes, it was one of the best and that we needed to take home some fried dried onions in our cargo.

Icelandic Fish & Chips: Located on Tryggvagata, you gotta go here for the tempting line-up of ‘skyronnaises.’ Skyr is a thick, Balkan-style yogurt and Icelandic staple–flaky plaice and tusk (1,480isk per main) dipped in coriander and lime skyronnaise (280isk), is really the only way fish should be eaten. Add a side of rosemary and Saltverk potatoes (490isk), a pint and you’ll wonder why you didn’t eat here everyday for every meal.

Koffinn: We had our last minute fill of Icelandic fare here before catching the bus to the airport. Known for a riveting list of paninis, the Indian Hut is where it’s at. Fiery red curry and chicken in a Panini with perfect grill lines? This was the best send-off. Deep, jazzy soundtrack and piles of old magazines to flip through.

Of course, we accomplished more than happy houring and filling our faces in Reykjavik. There were tranquil morning runs along the sea wall, keeping pace with seabirds skating along the water’s surface. Glimpses of distant glaciers and boats chugging along towards the futuristic glass Rubik’s cube-looking opera house.

After 800+ miles of driving headlong into a postcard on the Ring Road we were really craving that soul-nourishing stillness that we had become accustomed to. You can find it in Reykjavik! At the Holavallagardur Cemetary (off Ljosvallagata street), this graveyard is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, smack dab in a city centre. Laden with verdant moss, elaborately carved headstones and gnarly trees, its well-worth a wander through.

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Also, be sure to walk around the pond by City Hall. Dotted with grey legs and bossy swans and several unusual sculptures, it’s like an open air gallery and bird sanctuary. There are also several dream homes to be pointed at near the pond. The simplistic and colourful corrugated iron construction set behind dwarf birch trees with leaves begging to turn orange made for a sweet stroll.

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The cosmo city, endless walls of graffiti and top notch pubs and eats instantly put Reykjavik on our return list. The laughing, flush-cheeked, straw blonde kids in babushka buffs are poster children for purity, wool sweaters and fresh air. With few visible minorities, Reykjavik is a non-stop parade of Nordic beauty, furs and a catwalk for 66 North fashions.

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Iceland gets under your skin in a very good way. You’ll see. And be sure to tell me all about it!

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shark Bites, Love Balls and Spelunking in Iceland

Kim has become quite accustomed to my elusive food foraging quests. She has been game for the likes of camel stew, fig moonshine, frog legs, some unfortunate thing in Belize that tasted and looked like cat barf in a pastry shell, tongue on rye and even braved a blizzard for the promise of caribou burgers in Quebec City.

“Will you try the putrid shark though?” I asked as we headed towards the shark museum near Berserkjahraun.

“Of course.”

That’s my girl.

Fermented hakarl (shark) can be found in most grocery stores in Iceland, however, I wasn’t convinced that we’d love it enough to buy a pre-packaged pound’s worth for upwards of $20. A free sample would satisfy, and because the Foss Hotel was shuttered in Dalvik, the shark museum was our only probable tasting station.

For 1,800isk ($8 CAD), our admission to the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum also included a tasting. I had remembered the boys on Departures grimacing and near-hurling hakarl over the experience—though they had Brennivin chasers to cleanse their palates (a local hooch of fermented potato mash and caraway, known better as “Black Death” or by its English translation, “burning wine”).

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The museum itself was a marvel—a hodge podge of massive whale vertebraes, sheep bones, seal skins, old harpoons, ancient navigational equipment (hello GPS!) and the family fishing boat, circa 1870. Before a motor was tacked on the back, the vessel was rowed by six men which must have been a parallel feat to the pyramids being built.

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There were the prerequisite taxidermied birds and decrepit foxes, shark heads and fins. Really, it was the best touch-me, feel-me display of curios. I was especially drawn to the exhibit that displayed things found inside one shark’s gut—polar bear skin and bones!

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The doting curator hovered around us, at the ready for questions and then reeled us in for the real attraction—shark snacks. After drying in a shed for five months, the otherwise toxic Greenland shark becomes edible with the fermentation process. The species has no kidneys which results in an elevated ammonia level–survival adaptations for a shark that lives almost 2km below the surface.

Cocktail party convo starter: Did you know that sharks have no bones and just a ‘spine’ of cartilage? I love these Jeopardy contestant tidbits.

Gearing up for what everyone had said was a revolting mouthful akin to an ammonia-soaked sponge, rancid blue cheese and feet, Kim and I were both pleasantly surprised. Now, I wouldn’t choose to sit down to an entree of putrid shark, but, it was essentially like a cube of raw fish. Roll it in sticky rice, wrap it in nori, add a dot of wasabi and it would be a hit in Toronto’s Koreatown with a Sapporo.

What next? After visiting the farm’s drying rack with shark bits in various stages of aging, finding some warm love balls seemed appropriate.

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Stykkisholmur was the only place I was able to sniff out the traditional love balls—and indeed, they are full of love. Deep fried tennis ball-sized glories for 340isk ($3 CAD) a pop. The Nesbrud Bakery in Stykkisholmur is a pastry wonderland with several varieties of twists and sugared rolls dunked in severe amounts of icing, and, astarpungar. The dense doughnut balls are a sweet and mildly tart hit of lemon and cardamom. Totally worth the pit stop and shark breath. And if you climb to the old lighthouse overlooking the darling little marina, love ball eating can be justified.

ICELAND 2013 458Now well-fuelled we were ready to climb into Iceland’s underbelly at the Vatnshellir (‘Water Cave’) Caverns in Snaefellsjokull National Park. Who doesn’t want to poke around lava tubes 12 storeys below?

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The spiral staircase painstakingly erected by volunteers and cave enthusiasts takes spelunky-types 130 feet deep. The cave had been closed for several years due to geological ransacking by visitors. In May of 2013, it was privately contracted out to a former mountain rescue guide with 25 years experience. I smiled at his transition—all those years at such elevations, and now, his pursuit in the opposite direction!

At six degrees, you’ll be glad to zip on a fleece and pull on a toque, however, there’s no need to worry about getting slimy, stalactitey, soaked or shat upon by bats. There are no bats in Iceland, and the terrain is solidified lava (which makes for some wobbly ankle terrain en route to Jules Verne’s Centre of the Earth).

The tour is a little bit schmaltzy—Kim was hoping for some fox hole belly slithering routes  or a fear-factor-esue squeeze like our Belize experience, but, it’s rather tame. Regardless, even if you’ve been in dozens of caves, there is no getting used to the unsettling feeling of 100% darkness. Our natural desire ‘to see’ causes such strain and mild panic in that minute of headlamps being turned off.

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Above ground an hour later, we returned to our now-familiar inundation of natural phenomena. Rounding the coast, the Malariff sea stacks instill another 3D postcard. And Anarstapi? Step aside love balls, this 2.5km cliff walk from Hellnar along the stone arches and basalt escarpment is visual balm after being in the dark and damp Vatnshellir caves.

The turbulent coastal waters and frozen lava flows is a surreal sight. Next to the sea stacks of Dyrholaey and the black sand beaches of the south, I really swooned over Anarstapi.

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Rounding out the day of sharks, caves and love balls, we shared a cauldron (really) of lamb soup at The Settlement Centre in Bogarnes after we found accommodations at Ensku Husin, an old fishing lodge.

Iceland was getting seriously deep into our bones. Could we somehow rewind the Ring Road?

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Dalvik, Iceland. Population: 1,400

Destination Dalvik. Population: 1,400 (Sheep population? Double that figure.)

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I’m almost disappointed to report that our northwesterly loop of Iceland (after leaving Lake Myvatn) was void of obsessive-compulsive road closure checks, manic meteorological banter with fellow travelers, snowstorms or impromptu sandstorms for that matter. By the time we reached sleepy Dalvik, the wind speed was nearly zero and the sun bathed Eyjafjordur and Svarfadardalur in buttery, hopeful light.

After being immersed in the serenity of Lake Myvatn’s isolation we couldn’t bring ourselves to find a hotel in Akureyi (pop. 17,500 by contrast).  Though, had we been drifting through during the summer, I’m certain Kim would have been keen on a round at Jadarsvollur. With the solstice you can play golf around the clock in perpetual daylight—and, golfer or not—there has to be a thrill in booking a midnight tee-off and playing in broad daylight. (In late June the 36-hole Arctic Open is played here).

There was also the Lonely Planet promise of curry huts and Thai noodles and a trendy joint called Rub 23 that my sister was seduced by. Diners get to create their own custom rubs (marinades) for their fish or lamb. As tempting as a fiery feed of butter chicken was, or spice-massaging some mutton, we pressed on to Dalvik. I had been convinced by a thumbnail photo of the Vegamot cottages in my glossy brochure stash that we should stay there. The Lithuanian kit houses looked like cutesy red Lego cabins at the foot of the mountains.

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When we arrived, a note on the door of Vegamot suggested crossing the road and asking one of the gas station attendants where the innkeepers might be at. They would know, and/or, phone Heida. Which they did. Our other option, the Foss Hotel, had simply closed up shop altogether due to the predictable plummet in tourists, so, we were really putting all our chips on Vegamot.

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GisuEirikurhelgi Kaffihaus

Heida was an Icelandic Meryl Streep doppelganger. It was her 49th birthday that day, and, she insisted that we pop in to her cafe at the end of the street (in pointing distance) for happy hour—which would be hours long, until close. We concluded later that Heida was the Trump of Dalvik with a cafe, Vegamot cabins and the downtown hostel under her reign.

There was room at the inn. Did we want to go whale-watching? Her husband led tours—we could go that very afternoon.

Kim and I skipped the whale watching offer. I’m not saying every whale tour is the same, but, I had seen them in Kennebunkport and Kim had been whaling in Provincetown. Also, we had both been whale watching in classic summer temps. The rough sea and cheek-chilling single-digit forecast was not putting whales at the forefront.

We also skipped the Byggdasafnid Hvoll museum—though I was naturally fascinated by the lure of visiting the Johan Petursson room. Petursson was a local giant (7’7), and the museum housed artifacts from his days as a circus act and (drum roll here) taxidermy. Every museum, bar and restaurant in Iceland has some mangy sinister-looking stuffed thing. Arctic foxes that look rabid. Wilting ptarmigans. Fish with globby eyes and stiff fins.

Kim thought the hike around the Svarfadardalsa lake across from our cabin would be more rewarding in the end. And after circling the mirror-surface of the lake with binoculars trained on whooper swans and godwits, she was right. We didn’t see a single person—we had the lake and most of Dalvik to ourselves.

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After the 8K slog we exhausted our cracker and cheese supply and heated up tomato soup in our kitchenette (that was not built for the likes of Johan Petursson). Our ‘en suite’ was very functional in that you could sit on the toilet and brush your teeth at the same time as the sink was within spitting distance.

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And, from the toilet, the hot plate and boiling soup was also within sight.

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The shower, in the adjacent rental loft (Heida’s great-grandmother’s home), was an instant lesson in human origami. At a generous one metre squared, if you dropped the bar of soap while showering, there was no bend-over space to retrieve it.

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Regardless of bending design glitches, Heida’s strong design chops were a nice change from the somewhat sterile Scandinavian-take many Icelandic hotels adopt. Poking around great-grandma’s (a space available for 4-6 people) was like snooping, even though it is a rental unit. Grandma’s vintage hair rollers are above the sink, her dressing gown hangs on the door. The stacks of mid-1800 books, bibles, tin cups, iron crosses, reindeer hides and milking stools were a far cry from any Ikea showroom.

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Heida’s Great Grandma’s House

Showered, souped and crackered we walked down the main drag to Heida’s kaffihus (slowed only by head-butting cat traffic on the sidewalk).

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Happy hour was happy indeed. We met Heida’s football-mad husband, Bjarni, whose mop of hair deserved a museum of its own. The cafe was the kind of space I wish we had in Galt. The ambitious couple (though Bjarni would say it’s all Heida’s insistence) plan to re-open the abandoned live theatre that is part of the building. We pulled up vintage tractor seats and slugged the local craft brew—Kaldi. Adding to the small town embrace—the Kaldi brewmaster arrived to much fanfare and found a stool at the bar next to us.

Bjarni  gave us a crash course on whales (many of the whale watchers had barfed the day before due to the choppy waters confirming our wise decision to opt out), hot dogs and Icelandic real estate.  We were staying at “Vegamot” which translates to ‘crossroads.’ All houses in Iceland have a family ‘house name.’ If we were to send a letter to Bjarni, there would be no house number or street name. The letter would be posted to Heida and Bjarni at Vegamot, Dalvik, Iceland. Which means the letter carrier would have to be the town’s nosey parker or a real Rainman with names.

Our happy hour performance wasn’t at its optimum. After one Kaldi we felt like we needed toothpicks to keep our eyelids pried open. We were sacked and back home to our red lego hut by nine.

Besides, we had shark to eat the next day and caves to climb into the dark belly of!

*Additional tidbit: Every August Dalvik hosts The Great Fish Day. Locals and travelers alike are invited to rub elbows and gills with the fisherman and fishmongers that make the daily catch a reality. Tables and grills down at the marina groan with the FREE all-you-can-eat buffet of catfish, herring, redfish, salmon and shrimp.



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Partying Until the Cows Came Home in Lake Myvatn, Iceland

“Party until the cows come home” is not just an expression—you can actually do it in Lake Myvatn, in northern Iceland. In fact, you can have breakfast with the cows too.

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But first, Kim and I had to grind our molars through a sandstorm warning in the east fjords. A cheery cherub of a woman at the Hofn tourist info centre suggested, “If you see the sandstorm coming, just stop and wait before you continue driving.” Right, because sandstorms conveniently give you that kind of head’s up. This particular section of the Ring Road had been closed the day before, due to “sandfoki.” We were reassured that the worst stretch was only 0.2 to 1.4km long.

A few other windstorm-haggard travellers found their way into the tourist centre while we were there. Collectively, talk was about turning around and heading back along the south coast to Reykjavik. Our eavesdropping tourist info lady piped up: “The roads are closed in that direction as well. Oh, and if you are heading to Egilstaddir, the shortcut on 92 is closed as well…due to snowstorms.”

Fast forward through sheer cliffs, falling rock warning signs and HOT PRICKLES from a sudden blast of gravel as we entered the sandfoki zone (but managed to roar through, unscathed–muttering a few fokis en route). Enter BLINDING snowstorm, complete white-out conditions and fish-tailing with tractor-trailers.

The only blizzard shot I took. Mostly because I spent the next two hours holding on to the  passenger door so it didn't blow off.

The only blizzard shot I took. Mostly because I spent the next two hours holding on to the passenger door so it didn’t blow off.

By the time we reached Egilstaddir with hot dog and vodka gut rot, the Vinland Guesthouse in Fellabaer was like an oasis: non-stop hot water and a respite from shallow breathing for four hours. Though the shower was heavy on the sulphur (I swear all of Iceland was built upon a giant egg salad sandwich), the good and starchy towels and highly efficient thermostat in our room were welcome. It was still spitting snow outside when our guesthouse host, coincidentally an air traffic controller at Egilstaddir, informed us that the road ahead of us was closed and impassable due to snow.

While mixing numbing vodka concoctions to quell our nerves, we heard a tentative knock on our door. Two ‘representatives’ from the girl pack staying next to us had come to ask for help. From Mekong, Hong Kong, nobody in the group had ever driven in snow—did we have any tips? Kim gave a spontaneous and colourful lesson half in charades to the reps—and to the rest of the women who poked curious heads out of the door adjacent to us. It was a SNL sketch—questions coming at all angles in rapid Chinese, Kim driving an imaginary 4×4 to demo, pumping an equally imaginary brake pedal.

On our left, we had two jovial Brits—accustomed to Iceland’s unpredictable weather as they had been to the area over a dozen times. Every hour or so, with a ciggie in hand, the Brit wife would pad over with her iPad and a weather report that we would extend to the Hong Kong girls. They had already been storm-stayed two nights, and we resigned ourselves to the same fate. We tried deciphering the local news on TV—we could only guess whether the Icelandic words were indicating Mon-Tues-Wed or wind-temp-snow.  What we were able to translate regarded the sheep. They were already being herded down from the mountains to avoid last year’s disaster when an early blizzard left 12,000 sheep trapped.

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We slept like the dead after a very fancy dinner of canned tuna, butter crackers and a wheel of gouda in bed. By the time I had come back from a crisp suburban run through Egilstaddir in the morning, the Hong Kong convoy had left. Our air traffic controller and the smoking Brit meteorologist said the roads west of us would be clear by noon. Besides, Kim grew up driving up and down the Hamilton mountain—surely this northern pass would be a cinch!

Scene: ochre dirt, bleached grasses, neon green and scarlet lichens

Scene 2: Ansel Adams territory, reindeer tracks in virgin snow, snow-saddled summits reminiscent of our mighty Rockies

Scene 3: snaking gorges, cantering  peg-legged sheep, an impossibly blue sky, Icelandic horses en  masse

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It was my birthday. 39. I’ve been privy to some exceptional far-flung birthdays (Galapagos–Uganda–Alexandria, Egypt)…but spending it in Lake Myvatn? I couldn’t design a better birthday—we found a top-notch bird museum (where you can rent duck blinds for serious duck observation), tromped through the spooky lava fields at Dimmuborgir, poked around bubbling mud pots and smokin’ fumaroles in Hverir (scratch and sniff scent here: egg salad sandwiches), had a solid feed of smoked arctic char on dense rye bread and pints of Kaldi at cozy Gaemil Baernin (the loaves of rye are baked in the geothermal ovens of the ground!), hiked a crater rim that made us both pant from the elevation and capped it off with a geothermal soak just 100km south of the Arctic circle. Oh, and throw in some Northern Lights for good measure.

The lava fields of Dimmuborgir ('the Dark Castles')

The lava fields of Dimmuborgir (‘the Dark Castles’)

Hverfell tephra ring--463m from the ground, 1040m across

Hverfell tephra ring–463m from the ground, 1040m across

Hverir mud cauldrons and steaming geothermals

Hverir mud cauldrons and steaming geothermals

Kim and I made an executive decision to skip the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik—the epicentre of most travellers’ Iceland itineraries. But, take away the obnoxious crowds, visualize a killer sunset and an infinity hot pool overlooking Lake Myvatn and the Hverfjall crater– and you can nod in agreement as to why.

Steam billowed off the surface of the 104 degree waters at Myvatn Nature Baths (geothermal water is pumped from 2,500m below). The steam clouds were so thick that we felt alone—despite the hushed German, Spanish and Chinese conversations surrounding us. We retraced our day with laughter and watched the dropping sun catch the sky on fire.

Home base was with the cows at Vogafjos Guesthouse. Owned by the same family since 1890, the manure-heady air reminded me of childhood. The guesthouse opened in 2005, after the new ‘Cowshed Cafe’ and its picture-window dairy shed received unexpected fanfare in 1999. With over a hundred sheep and 40 cattle, we were truly partying until the cows came home.

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Inside our swank guesthouse I unfolded and highlighted maps. I read bits about the whale museum in Husavik and lake trails in Dalvik aloud to Kim while she rinsed and hung our wet swimsuits. As the sky grew darker I continued to hop up and peer out our window, feeling certain that we’d witness the aurora borealis that night. Amongst the lava on the Vogar farm, there was a desert-like stillness at night. Cue up a solitary loon on Myvatn and that was the only noise pollution to be had.

“COME! LOOK!” I unexpectedly hollered.

Kim followed my lead, both of us stuffing shoes on and running out the door. We had seats to the best drive-in theater going. Milky bands and waves of white and soft emerald rolled across the sky. For fifteen solid minutes we refused to leave our post. Shivering and thrilled, we held strong to watch the Northern Lights as we knew the show would soon be washed out by the rising moon.

But of course, it’s like finding money on the sidewalk. You get obsessive! I couldn’t stop looking out the window, waiting for an encore.

The rest of the night was spent with window-checks. Both of us agreeing that if another show took to the sky during the night that we’d wake the other.

Happy birthday indeed. Round that out with breakfast with the cows. Watching them be milked as we shared plates of skyr (like a thick Balkan yogurt), figs, dates, cashews, big hunks of edam, brie and gouda, smoked lamb and char, split hard-boiled eggs and rye bread studded with dried fruit.

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Oh yeah, a bespoke kick-off to 39.

*Extra tidbit: The bird museum in Lake Myvatn is a lovely tribute to Sigurgeir Stefansson who drowned in the lake at the age of 37. The museum (housed in a traditional turf home with a modern uptake) is Stefannson’s private taxidermy and outstanding egg collection.

Wanna sleep with the cows? Check out Vogafjos ($130/night includes breakfast and sometimes, the Northern Lights)



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Being Swept Off Our Feet in Iceland. Literally.

“Cover your head!”

Kim’s voice was swallowed by the wind as I had a momentary glimpse of what was coming. It appeared like a fast-moving cloud of dust. Much like the “dirt devils” I’d seen in Africa– a tornado-like funnel of dirt debris was whipping towards us.

The “dust” cloud was full of fine bits of gravel—and then progressively larger rocks, pelting us like shrapnel. I think Kim said to get on the ground, or, maybe that’s just where we ended up. The wind blasted with a fierce intensity off the Vatnajokull glacier—so powerfully that we were blown off our feet and actually dragged along the path.

My jacket rode up on my back as I skidded along and I could feel the raw rash inching higher the further we were dragged. My mouth was full of grainy dirt—and my muddy teeth suggested I greeted the eye of the storm smiling.


In a momentary lapse from being stuck in the wind tunnel (I thought we’d been witness to a volcanic blast with all the crap that pelted us), we ran like fools from the face of the glacier to the safety of our vehicle.

It all seemed so innocent. We figured that it was a good opportunity to see the glacier tongue up close and personal before moving on from Skaftafell National Park to the glacier lagoon. Interest was completely lost though after the angry cloud of high-speed stones came raining down on us.

Back in the Jimny, we found laughter after inspecting our war wounds. Kim had an instant goose egg climbing out of her shin, Fred Flinstone-style. My teeth were still coated with glacier guts.

“Jesus C*****.” We were panting. Kim shook gravel out of her head (and it takes a lot for anything to penetrate her wall of hair product!). I had stones in my pockets and a dent in my ribs from falling directly on my camera.

“I’m so glad we did the glacier walk.”

The trip was becoming akin to a gong show.  “Remember the time we almost blew off the Svartifoss waterfall edge but were saved by the Russian? Remember the night we slept in our 4×4 while everyone else was evacuated by a tank? Oh, and remember the time we wanted to go take a picture of the glacier and were blown down the path on our backs?”

I thought about the scar on my tailbone from riding a camel to the pyramids in the soupy humidity of Cairo. Who else has camel riding and glacier wind gust injuries?

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We pressed on to the glacier lagoon after sitting idle at the nearest gas station watching for cars. Kim was hoping for a convoy but the Ring Road was still impassable from Skaftafell to Vik. There was no traffic, just a group of anxious men trying to secure the blades of a helicopter in front of the Foss Hotel. Wind speeds were still clocking at 23 metres per second according to the road conditions sign.

Is this where I mention that we were now driving with our arms covering our heads? Kim was driving one-handed, wincing as we roared across the open stretches of black desert. We pulled over once for a wind time-out, tucking our 4×4 in front of a boulder, hoping to find a brave pace car to tag along with, but, everyone was travelling in the opposite direction. Icelandic radio stations were of little aid. The only Icelandic I had learned so far was bjor (beer), pylsur (hot dog) and tak (thank you). Not useful on the meteorological front.

We found a half dozen harried travelers at the Jokulsarlon lagoon. (Tamer, hurricane-windless views of the lagoon can be seen in the James Bond flick Die Another Day and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).

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Part of Vatnajokul National Park, the lake is evidence of glacier recession. Lonely Planet had warned “Even when you’re expecting this surreal scene, it’s still a mighty surprise—just count how many shocked drivers slam on the brakes and skid across the road and make sure you don’t do the same thing yourself.”

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No kidding. The lagoon is just over 75 years old. Drifting, calved icebergs from Breidamerkurjokull cruise along the 17-square-km lagoon, sometimes spending five years in transit before bobbing along out to the ocean.

Some of the icebergs are impossibly blue with black stripes. Others are like refined translucent sculptures. If this was your backyard view, I’d hazard that you wouldn’t accomplish a thing, ever. Staring at the stunning lagoon is mandatory.  Jaw-drops are encouraged.

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Taking refuge inside the Jokulsarlon Cafe (next pit stop 100km), we found the best lattes on earth. Perched by the cafe window with the serene glacier backdrop, it killed any memory of a better latte for me.

There was active chatter among Germans, a rosy-cheeked Swiss couple and a gay couple running on a near-empty tank of gas. Everyone was obsessed over the weather reports and affixed to various iPads and iPhones. We all paused when the lone Austrian on a supped-up motocross bike strode into the cafe, stiff from exertion. We’d seen him in Dyrholaey and admired his ambition to throw caution (and a motorbike) to the wind.

Still desperate for a convoy Kim sought out our German buds who had arrived from Skaftafell. The boys had already slept in their vehicle for three nights, after being storm-stayed in the highlands by blizzard conditions. They were happy to have us follow them to Hofn (another two hour haul). There was safety in numbers as hours could pass on the Ring Road without passing a soul.


Hofn (‘harbour’ in Icelandic, population 1,640) was our safe harbour. We found cutesy cabins for $80 and made use of our sleeping bags again. (‘Sleeping bag accommodations’ are an economical option when visiting Iceland. Many guesthouses and farmhouses offer rooms with private or shared bath for a discount if you have a sleeping bag. This means no towels, linens or pillows are provided—but you can save upwards of $25 per person which can be blown on $25 reindeer burgers instead!)

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Reindeer and refuge at Kaffi Hornid was welcome. The hip resto-cafe is housed inside an impressive log cabin, better suited for the alps versus ‘downtown’ Hofn. An adjoining room was vibrating with locals watching European football. Though the specialty in these parts is langoustine, I had to do the burger. Kim chose the paprika soup, desperate to take the chill out of her core.

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Topped with a record amount of blue cheese, the reindeer burg took my coveted burger of the year prize. (That is, until I had the Jam and Camembert burger in Reykjavik at Prikid, but, that’s another story.)

Satiated with a thick soup and a fat burger, we nursed glasses of wine back in our cabin bunk bed recounting the day and mapping our upcoming travels across the east fjords. And yes, the winds were still howling across the tundra and giving our tiny one-bedroom cabin a good shake.

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What next? A mountain pass blizzard? But of course!

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Kim & Jules: Iceland Storm Chasers

Arriving in Iceland was seamless. We had a tailwind that pushed us into duty free an hour early. Our car rental dude was waiting with a “Kenny” sign in the wings and handed over the keys to our mighty Suzuki Jimny 4×4 as promised. The air had that crisp clarity that shakes the jet lag out of your brains. The Ring Road and its 800-plus miles of unknown opened up before us. We found palatable coffee at the first gas station and settled in to the immediate sensory assault of South Iceland. Our itinerary was loose but semi-rigid. The Ring Road circumnavigates Iceland—and, at some point, in two weeks time, we would also have to circumnavigate back towards Reykjavik for our September 25th return flight to Toronto. We decided to be semi-footloose and not book any hotels prior to leaving. We tried this in Egypt, and sometimes the elements have other ideas for you. The barometer was hovering around a fresh eight degrees—we were ready in our rain repellant wear and attitude. There was relief in travelling to Iceland versus a sunny hot spot. When you book a beach vacation, your mood becomes inherently attached to the temperature and high expectations of the sun. For me, Iceland was like visiting Costa Rica or Ireland. I fully expected rain and battleship grey skies—it would make the experience even more authentic. What we didn’t expect were the gale force winds that blew out the windows of over a dozen cars. But first— ICELAND 2013 933 It’s difficult to condition your eyes to such immediate hyper stimulation. Iceland is a land of severe contrasts—it’s like driving head-long into 800 miles of postcard. Stretches of desolate black sand beaches give way to glaciers and sheer basalt cliffs. Waterfalls pummel into snaking rivers, sea stacks tower out of white-capped oceans. ICELAND 2013 787 Our jet-lag jitters were soothed by a rejuvenating huff of a climb up the stairs to view Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. We were like bobbleheads back in the Jimny trying to take in the whirling terns riding thermals and the lunar landscape. Geothermals spewed out of steam vents in the verdant hills, Icelandic horses ambled about—yes, cue up a non-stop pastoral scene of chubby sheep and darling horses. Our saving grace came in the form of pizza from Halldorskaffe in Vik. The tall boys of Viking and Gull beer were well-chilled just from being in the back of the Jimny. Not feeling brave enough for the neglected pastel quarters of the Puffin Hostel or the equally frightening 70s throwback with panelling that smelled like last week’s composting fish and chips, we bargained with Hotel Edda. The cute cabins I had spied on for $140 were fully booked and a double room in the hotel was $175. A special off-season price, just for us. ICELAND 2013 868 ICELAND 2013 832 The former Hotel Vik I Myrdal had been recently snapped up by the Hotel Edda chain. The lower, original level was sterile and pastel. Even at $75 we weren’t interested. However, the new addition—which was available at the same price tag was full-on modern, masculine and Scandinavian stylish. I sweet-talked us into a room for $140 because we had really (originally) wanted to sleep in the private cabins. We had a view of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks and were minutes from the black sand beaches that put Vik on the map. ICELAND 2013 867 But, after being wired from 24 hours of non-stop (moving my parents that morning, cutting grass, painting the front door, anxiously sitting in stopped traffic on the 401 and an overnight flight with zero sleep), we could barely stay awake in our posh room. We swallowed the salami pizza slices whole and chugged Viking, bleary-eyed as we struggled to enjoy our sea stack view. ICELAND 2013 810 By 8:30pm Kim and I were both cross-eyed with elation and exhaustion. Tomorrow we’d get an early start and tackle the trails at Skaftafell National Park—a solid two hour drive from Vik. I hadn’t driven standard in a few years and offered to take the helm. I felt like I was leaning left the entire time, fighting off the wind. After maybe 45 minutes I asked Kim if she wanted to take over—maybe it was just me, but, I felt like I was being pushed off the road by the wind. Kim is hands-down the more experienced driver out of the two of us-she’s been driving since I was six. I wimped out early—the wind had upped its ante as soon as we switched hot seats. The Jimny felt like it was travelling on two wheels—it was the kind of cartoon tin can vehicle that would be prone to being blown over completely. Sheep hunkered down in the ditches, their wool looked teased-up and back-combed with the wind. We passed Foss a Siou—the waterfall chute was being carried away by the wind before it could even reach the ground. Arriving at Skaftafell still eager to do a glacier walk with a guide we were told the tours had been cancelled due to the weather. We watched a group of women take pictures of the car in front of us—a Suzuki as well. We later realized that the Suzuki no longer had a passenger door—a victim to the wind! We sat in our Jimny silently eating the unusual sandwiches we’d bought at the gas station. I had a curious blend of smoked lamb with peas, carrots and mayo. Kim wasn’t even sure what was inside hers, but the mayo quotient made her happy. Mine tasted like swallowing campfire—the lamb was that smoky. It looked atrocious—like a barf after Thanksgiving dinner. Finishing our beers and remarking how much we lived up to the Bob and Doug stereotype, drinkin’ beer in our toques, we decided to brave the wilds and hike up to the Svartifoss falls. Lonely Planet said it was an hour and a half, return. And, Lonely Planet is gospel! Okay, add 160km wind gusts to that hour and a half. (*According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, this wind speed is indicative of a Category 2 hurricane. By the time we reached the east fjords, the winds were at 180km/hour–or, Category 3.) And by gusts, I mean like a huge slap from Mother Nature across your body that pulls your feet from underneath you. I couldn’t even see the falls because my eyes were tearing so much from the wind. Sand whipped off the rocks as well, and, add some dodgy footing, a massive basalt cliff, and a good gust in there. It was harrowing at the top—the gales pushed Kim and I along the path towards the edge so unexpectedly that we grabbed on to a human anchor to save ourselves from going over the edge. Really, if it weren’t for that Russian climber acting as a blockade… We had deadly grips on his mighty windbreaker-clad arms and legs—all of us crouched low to ride out the gust. Yes, Jesus! Kim and I praised the lord and the Russian and decided to get the hell off the postcard-famous cliff to the safety of flat ground. When we blew into the visitor’s centre to use the washroom facilities and look at postcards of the falls that we could barely see with our own eyes at that elevation we learned that the Ring Road had been closed. Impassable due to the winds.The Skaftafell Parks employee told us the winds were at 40 meters per second—which we had to have translated from European-speak. 160km/hour indeed! A motley crew of European travellers had banded together and refused to leave the visitor’s centre which closed at 7. The staff called the rescue team and the group was notified that a TANK would evacuate and transport them to a local school for the night. ICELAND 2013 945 We were not part of the motley crew. It wasn’t that bad out, right? Two Suzuki Jimny’s sat in the parking lot with windows blown-out from the wind and ensuing sandstorm. Hmmm, maybe. ICELAND 2013 959 Eager to get on with our travels in the south the next morning, Kim and I decided we would ride it out and sleep in the Jimny—surely the winds would die in the night and we’d take off at first light. We had sleeping bags, hot cocoa, Kahula, Icelandic vodka, four bottles of wine, trail mix, starry-eyed love and hearty Canadiana coursing through our veins! Steely nerves or stubbornness, call it as you will. We joked about the money we were saving by bunking in our 4×4—money that we had already spent on parking at the Toronto airport instead! (Please refer to previous post: Iceland–Against All Odds). The tank rolled up and half the disgruntled group disappeared—I had a rush of goosebumps. Had we made the right decision? Should we be overreacting too? We bought extra sandwiches from the cafe and banded together with two German pals and a brazen Mexican who called his car rental company to add on extra insurance. They were going to sleep in their vehicles too. We had our United Nations coalition. But, did we have coverage for weather-induced blown-out windows? The tank had to make two trips—which allowed us to stay holed up and warm in the center for another hour while it went to and fro. The centre itself seemed like it was ready to pick up and fly off into the horizon like Dorothy and Toto. Kim parked the Jimny behind a weenie treeline (dwarf birch trees are as tall as it gets in these parts) in the campground area of the park. We filled our mugs with hot water before the centre was locked for the night. And what a night it was. We slept with our hands covering our heads in case the windows suddenly shattered. There was not enough Kahlua to put us in a boozy coma to sleep through the howling—and our vehicle actually lifting with the gusts. I nervously wrote postcards to those at home by the ambient light of a trusty headlamp—spinning out the thin humour in our predicament. From our posh sleep at Hotel Edda to being folded up in sleeping bags nursing Kahlua in the wind storm of the century. I found sleep eventually, but Kim was wide-eyed all night. The trailer parked behind us had flipped over at some point, but the winds were so deafening we didn’t even notice. ICELAND 2013 958 Obviously we survived the night and carried on only to face bigger winds. Oh, and a “sandfoki” (sandstorm) on the east fjords. And how ‘bout that blizzard that shut down the #92 shortcut to Egilstaddir after we fish-tailed through it? Again, stay tuned. Also, please note that Kim and I are not professional or interested storm-chasers. Do not try this at home, or abroad. ICELAND 2013 819

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Iceland: Against All Odds

Do you ever feel like the gods are working against you? Not in a “I’m supposed to make guacamole for the party but the avocadoes at Sobey’s are like grenades” kinda way. More like in a series of cataclysmic events that leave you slightly unsettled. What could possibly happen next?

A week before leaving for Iceland it started. I dropped my beloved Canon SX120 PowerShot from waist-level. It was still plugged in to my laptop—and subsequently dropped and smashed as I absently picked up said laptop to show Kim a goofball picture I had downloaded of myself wearing my Vanilla Ice concert t-shirt from grade 9 era. The sickening thud was followed by a panicked turning-on of the camera. The sound of the lens opening was like that of a cat being sat on. It made the same guttural sound as it closed. Uh-oh.

At least it wasn’t the laptop. Replacing a camera would be cheaper. But, a week before the trip? All for a stupid candid Vanilla Ice throwback photo? Ugh to Ice Ice Baby.

The next morning our state-of-the-art stainless steel Cuisinart coffee maker showed no signs of life. Nothing. Coffee grounds sat unfiltered, nestled in their paper basket. There were no last throes of life, no indication that this was the end. Just me, standing, staring, slightly exasperated, contemplating the wrath of the instant coffee granules that we had left over from camping versus a dumpy cup of Earl Grey tea.

The morning after that, somewhere around 5am, Kim ran smack into a westbound raccoon en route to work. This was no ordinary collision—normally a run-in with a raccoon would simply result in a lot of guilt for killing such an innocent creature making its way to greener pastures. No, this raccoon was a linebacker—its hefty body was like smacking into a mini Smart car. The Saab needed immediate repair—the oil pan guard thingie and side light panel took the brunt—to the tune of $350.

Then, Friday the 13th, happy to have an evening flight to Reykjavik, Kim and I were anticipating an indulgent sleep-in, lazy coffee in bed from the new Cuisinart, maybe pancakes somewhere around noon. Except…those gods that were against us had a plan B. For anyone following my Facebook feed, you’ll know that my parents were moving to Walkerton. We helped them load two trucks on the Monday and on Wednesday, they had pro movers taking the last of the heavy stuff. I think this was truck load #7 for them. (And I’m not talking pick-up loads—these are 24-footers). Thursday I received a sheepish call from my folks. “Well, looks like we need to get one more truck—there was stuff that didn’t fit. Do you think you guys could help us out Friday morning around 8:30?”

Scratch sleep-in, pancakes and an idle day before flying to Iceland. However, score immense points as daughter of the year for helping with four of the truckloads. And, my mom sent us home with a care package: Montreal smoked meat piled high in croissants.

We spent the dwindling hours before our flight cutting the grass one last time. Kim put another coat of paint on the front door—we were ahead of schedule and leaving four hours before our flight.

But, this would be all too simple. Even though we live a casual 45-minute drive from the airport, on Friday the 13th it would take over three hours. A 4pm collision in the eastbound lanes of the 401, east of Mavis brought traffic to a dead stop.

After a lot of preliminary swearing our minds went in two different directions. I could see planes descending into the airport. Surely we could just ditch the car and run across the sun-bleached fields to the airstrip. If we missed our flight we could be spontaneous and crazy and jump on a flight to Alaska or the Yukon. Maybe Portland, Oregon—I’ve always wanted to go. Our bags were full of fleece, Gore-tex, binoculars, hiking gear and Clif Bars. A sunny, beachy locale would entail a lot of duty free shopping.

Kim was convinced we were going to miss the flight entirely. We’d just get ourselves on the next flight, hopefully the following day, and just drive back home. She resigned herself to the worst case scenario as I balanced our yin and yang with the best case scenario.

As a painful optimist with equal parts realist, I knew we couldn’t miss the flight. It was not how our story was supposed to go—we had booked the flights on March 22nd. We had been dog-earing our Iceland Lonely Planet since August of 2012 when we were first looking at flights (but when Iceland Air fares jumped from $550 to $1,200 each, we decided to buy a house instead).

As we inched past the twisted vehicle and jackknifed tractor trailer, our shallow thoughts of missing out on our flights were surpassed by gratefulness to be alive—and not part of the wreckage. (We later learned that the driver of the truck was airlifted from the collision site).

However, now that we were in the clear and resuming normal highway speeds after traveling just 8km in an hour, we didn’t have the time or guts to try and park at our usual cheapie Park n’ Fly. Waiting for a shuttle would have left us behind closed gates, for sure.

So, Kim pulled into a tight spot on P2 at the Toronto Airport parking lot. What’s another $297.00? My optimistic arithmetic resolved that, really, if we just divided the $297 by two, and added that to the $600 flights we nabbed in March, we were still flying to Iceland for $750—which was way cheaper than what we considered spending the previous fall.

We made the flight—with enough time to chug two airport pints (add another $20 to that $750 arithmetic). As I bit into a stiff airline baguette with ham and cheese I felt the bonding on my retainer lift and the wire jump out of alignment. Did this not already happen to me in Egypt?

Little did we know our greatest drama was about to unfold once we arrived in Iceland.

Stay tuned…
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