Return to Iceland, Pt. 3

Reykjanes and Hvalfjörður

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I could hardly believe it, but we had another clear morning with sunshine to enjoy. We had breakfast at the hotel before loading up the car and checking out. My plan was to roll around the south coast through the Reykjanes peninsula, then cut north to Reykjavík, drive around Hvalfjörður and perhaps explore the trailhead at Botnsdalur, then proceed to the Borgarnes area and our next hotel. This would be one of my longer driving days at 276km (171mi). Luckily I had managed to sleep fairly well!

Urriðafoss was on the way, so I thought, let’s check it out while we can – the power utilities keep making noise about building a dam upstream. It was much more crowded than when we visited in September 2015, having apparently been added to the itinerary of at least one tour bus service. My first reaction was to view this as a negative, but then I wondered if an increase in popularity might actually help the locals stave off the development. For now, the river Þjórsá was running strong.

urridafoss autumn morning

From there we took a peaceful drive through the Eyrarbakki countryside to Strandarkirkja. We explored the church grounds, finding some elf houses – miniature handmade cottages for the Huldufólk to rest in – and a monument commemorating the story of the church’s founding. The story goes that sailors caught in a storm prayed to God for a safe return and vowed to build a church wherever they landed. An angel appeared and guided them through rough seas into a bay (Selvogur) for safe landing. The sailors made good on their promise by building a wooden church at the site, naming it Strandarkirkja.

Huldufólk live among the rocks in Iceland’s strange landscapes. They sometimes appear in dreams, and are given tribute during Christmas.

A short walk from the church, some steps led over a rise and then down onto a tidal shelf of sorts. The outgoing tide allowed us to step safely on to rocks near the stairs. We spent some time enjoying the sun and listening to the ocean.

huldufolk houses

Back on the road, we drove through extensive lava fields until we reached our turn to the north. I was tempted to stop a few times to take in the scenery – and I probably should have – but we still had a lot of distance to cover. Over the next few days I’d get more accustomed to the roads and to spotting appropriate places to pull over. I did take an opportunity to stop the car at Eldborg next to Geitahlíð – an extinct volcano with a nice silhouette – not long after the turn.

Next we checked out Grænavatn, so named for its color, which it owes to algal growth. The wind and sunlight were not cooperating with me at this location, making the water look choppier and muddier than I’d hoped. Given that the wind wasn’t letting up, we moved on to nearby Seltún geothermal area, which reminded us of Lassen National Park’s Sulphur Works with its bubbling mudpots and colorful mineral deposits. We took about thirty minutes to follow the path all around. One of the signs described a folk tale about two feuding witches in the area who used magic to curse each other’s lands, causing the ruptures at Seltún as well as its acidic waters.

Later, I was a little perturbed by a photo I’d taken at Seltún which I thought had an interesting foreground texture. On closer inspection I realized it was footprints. There were well-maintained paths and boardwalks everywhere and yet people couldn’t resist leaving them. The evidence of their transgressions was now baked into the earth.

The road took us along the shore of Kleifarvatn – the largest lake in this part of Iceland – and up the hill to a nicely positioned overlook with views all around. In 2000, the lake lost up to 20% of its surface area after a series of earthquakes. Presumably the water disappeared through a newly-opened fissure. Everything appeared stable now; and we saw no sign of the lake’s resident serpent monster. Maybe it got sucked out through the fissure too!

matt at kleifarvatn
kleifarvatn rocks

We contined on Route 42 to Hafnarfjörður through impressive, craggy lava fields. There was some momentary confusion at a traffic circle where we had to detour, but we were soon passing through Reykjavík and Mosfellsbær. The hills and fall colors reminded us of Pennsylvania in autumn – surprisingly familiar, as Katelyn put it. We finally got our first pylsur – Icelandic hot dogs – in Mosfellsbær (but not before I got confused at yet another double-laned traffic circle). The hot dog itself is made of pork, beef and lamb and rests upon a bed of raw onions, crispy fried onions, brown mustard and remoulade. Truly a national treasure. We left with full bellies and a full tank of gas.

As I drove around the bulk of Mt. Esja, I took a moment to appreciate that we were in totally new territory (for us). No familiar roads, no sights that we’d already seen. It felt exciting! Instead of taking the tunnel under the fjord, we detoured east. We followed the Hvalfjörður coastline until we reached a bend in the road at Laxá í Kjós. There was a good place to stop at the bridge crossing where we enjoyed dramatic clouds, sun-dappled hills, and low falls which I found out later are reputable salmon runs.

laxa i kjos river
hvalfjordur vista

We chased a rainbow around the Reynivallaháls peninsula and I found another spot to pull over. A sign informed us about a depot and naval base – now abandoned – built by the British and American navies during World War II. Indeed, we could see the bright white, round fuel tanks on the other side of the fjord. In 1941, the Icelandic government had invited United States forces to occupy Iceland, as a deterrent to any threats against shipping in the North Atlantic; and construction on the Hvalfjörður site began the same year (the workers encountered typically Icelandic weather conditions, hampering progress).

The U.S. military maintained a presence in Iceland until 2006.

A light rain began to fall, but it didn’t last long. We reached Botnsdalur at about 2:30pm. Normally, hikers embark on a challenging 4-mile loop – which includes two river crossings – to view Iceland’s second-tallest waterfall, Glymur. I knew we wouldn’t have the time or the energy to do that, and couldn’t be sure that the crossings would be safe this time of year anyhow. We were perfectly content walking about a half mile up the trail, taking our time, and snapping photos of the beautiful autumnal surroundings. There was a fantastic view looking back toward Hvalfjörður.

hikers on botnsdalur trail
botnsdalur autumn hike

I was glad we were able to do a short hike, and that we hadn’t exhausted ourselves on a longer one – now I was able to focus on the country drive along the other side of the fjord and into Borgarfjörður. I planned to get us to the hotel before sundown. We encountered a number of sheep in the road (defiant holdouts of the yearly round-up – Réttir – a few weeks prior). As the sheep seemed to prefer traveling in threes, we had to be vigilant when we only saw two, in case the third was planning a mad dash across the road to join its friends.

When we reached Borgarnes, I decided to keep going to the hotel, thinking we could come back later for dinner and to check out the Settlement Center (a museum focused on the settlement era); but by the time we were situated at Fossatún, I really didn’t feel like doing any more driving.

There were a number of accommodation options on the premises, including tiny charming camping pods. We had opted for a private room (and our own bathroom – such luxury!). I was stunned by the waterfall just steps away. The property had walking trails and paths along the river Grimsá; once we’d rested a little, we took the “Troll Hike” just in time for sunset.

The owner of the hotel, Steinar Berg, is a musician, record collector, and children’s book author. When he first arrived here, he found a rock with the shape of a troll’s face by the waterfalls, and the inspiration for his books was born. He has since written two books of folk tales. The Troll Hike had a series of signs walking visitors through one of the stories and its characters. There were even some themed installations – I hopped into a troll’s pot and habitually took off my glasses as if I was getting into a hot tub!

The sunset was a vibrant orange breaking out from beneath dramatic blue-purple clouds. It had to have been one of the more beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen. I almost wished we had more than one night in this place, but I was eager go farther north.

river at sunset

We cleaned up and headed over to the dining room. I laughed at the t-shirts available that had a “Rock & Troll” design. It looked like we were the first ones to show up for dinner, but an employee had put on music from Steinar’s record collection, and people began to filter in as we ordered. I was in the mood for a nourishing meal and ordered the chicken curry soup. I actually preferred it to the soup I had at Hotel Rangá. Katelyn had the appropriately-named-and-sized Elf Burger. We both enjoyed the exclusive beer Grýla, named for the troll woman from Steinar’s tales – the very same whose pot we had climbed in on the trail (she loves to eat misbehaving children).

Back at the hotel room, we found we had access to more channels than at the previous hotel. We watched – with great fascination – a British reality show in which contestants judged potential mates based on their nude bodies, revealed in, say, thirds, starting with the feet and moving up from there, before finally revealing their faces. At first we thought it was so much fluff, probably shallow and cruel, but after watching for a while, it actually didn’t seem that way. It wasn’t a mean-spirited show at all and it emphasized that people come in all shapes and sizes; and what’s more, people have all sorts of different preferences as well. The show ignored taboo and stigma related to nude bodies that we felt accustomed to from the U.S. – which of course would probably disqualify it from going on air back home.

As we settled in for the night, I had to admit that the first few days had felt a little tough. The jetlag made it seem like I was in a waking dream, and I was never quite sure I actually had the energy to do what we were doing. I was also very surprised to feel a touch of homesickness or perhaps just general disorientation. It seemed to have to do with the disruption of my normal routines, moving from place to place, and having very full days – it was a challenge to adjust and process everything. The feeling would pass quickly, but I think I was learning that on future trips, I should try to conserve more energy and focus early on, rather than front-loading so much activity.