Saturday, January 23, 2016

Iceland Adventures: Westfjords - Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

Iceland Adventures – Westfjords –Hornstrandir Nature Preserve– 8/26/15 - 3 km

No early wake-up, no packing, no driving today.  What does one do on a Wednesday in the upper reaches of the Westfjords of Iceland? 

First, Cathy and I walked a whopping two blocks to a bakery for coffee and pastry as school kids whizzed past on their bikes.

Online Mike found an intriguing boat excursion to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve departing at 2:00 p.m.  A few hours to kill until then, so as Mike and Cathy walked to the harbor to pick up the tickets, and Kim and Paul went exploring…  welcome to Sharon’s “town day” in Ísafjörður!  I wandered through the retail sector and a couple of neighborhoods, past churches, a day care center, museums and apartment buildings.  Covered from end to end in about an hour.


Around town – clouds on the mountaintops

The harbor

Ísafjörður Culture House, Gamla Sjúkrahúsið (formerly a hospital) houses a museum, library and photo archives.  Sorry, only open from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m.  Retail stores also have abbreviated hours.

Seaman’s Monument

Life = bikes, baby pram and a front yard rock garden
Front door tableau
Ísafjarðarkirkja (church)

Grave marker in the adjoining cemetery.  Icelanders do not have family surnames that pass from generation to generation. Instead, last names follow a formula:  the father’s name plus, for a male, the suffix “son” and for a female, the suffix “döttír”.  In addition, there is a limited legal list of male and female names from which to choose a child’s first name.  How do they keep track of each other?  Read more about Icelandic names here.

Icelandic poppies in the cemetery

Woman walking with a guide dog

Postal carrier

An apartment building – and blue sky!

Mike and I had a quick pizza lunch at Hamraborg, then our gang joined up at the grocery store and made our way to the harbor for our afternoon adventure.  Once again the skies were predominantly cloudy with sketchy glimpses of blue. 
The wind was brisk and the boat ride across open water was bumpy and exciting! 

Hornstrandir in a nutshell:  The peninsula was once sparsely populated by fishermen and some farmers. Much of the land is still privately owned, but is now a strictly protected nature preserve.  Some owners spend summers there.  Landowners are not allowed to sell their property or houses and can only pass them down to family members. 

Our destination was Hesteyri, once an active fishing village when the area thrived on whaling and then on processing herring.  When the herring population diminished significantly in the 1940s, the people of Hesteyri made a joint decision to move away, and in 1952 the village stood totally abandoned.  Hesteyri’s church was disassembled and moved to another village.  A terrific blog post with lots more info about Hesteyri is here.  

Hikers and backpackers are welcome on Hornstradir, but there are no services for resupply so self-sufficiency is paramount. There are a few hostels.  There are also emergency huts in some locations with radios and heaters, but they are not meant for planned accommodations.  Trails are unmarked and fog is common, thus map and compass skills are necessary. Because of limited days in our itinerary, we chose the tourist option of a guided walk rather than the hardcore experience, a good decision given the blustery weather and predictions of an incoming storm.

As I said, the wind was strong and we couldn’t pull up to the dock.  Looks like we’re going to need a smaller boat!

Riding the Zodiac to the dock

An Arctic fox greeted us upon arrival

Arctic fox

Our Icelandic guide, even more adorable than the Arctic fox

Our walk took us a short distance along the shoreline and through a meadow

To the cemetery
River flowing down to Hesteyri
The white house in the center is the Doctor’s House for Hesteyri’s resident physician now serving as a hostel.  Under the category of “next visit” I will be sure to stay here. 

Coffee and cake at the Doctor’s House

 Wildflowers in abundance

The return boat ride was crowded because we had picked up half a dozen backpackers who were bailing out.  Scheduled pickups are easily canceled by the weather forecast and there would be no more boats for the next couple of days.  We met two charming young women from the Czech Republic who had been on Hornstrandir for two rainy days and had planned another three, but they were glad for the opportunity to escape.  [Our paths crossed again later in another part of Iceland.]

Back safe and dry in Ísafjörður, we found another incredible dining experience at Tjöruhúsið, an unassuming barn type building on a back street near the harbor.

Reservations are important but we showed up clueless and squeezed in.  Family style, all you can eat, sitting cheek to cheek on benches, the most incredible assortment of fresh seafood dishes I have ever eaten, beginning with fish soup and ending with regret at not being able to consume it all. 

Food comes out to the buffet table as it’s ready, and those in the know wait patiently for the cod cheeks.  This restaurant alone is reason enough to go to Iceland.  Another unforgettable day.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”  ~Ray Bradbury

Monday, January 11, 2016

Iceland Adventures: Westfjords – Dynjandi Waterfall & Ísafjörður

Iceland Adventures – Westfjords – Dynjandi Waterfall & Ísafjörður – 8/25/15

I overslept and was a little frazzled packing up this morning.  I stood on the front stoop – breathe in - and watched a couple of young moms walking alongside their bike-riding children heading for school.  Breathe out:  life can be simple.  You just have to choose it.  Let’s go carpe this diem.
The skies were a little kinder today but the winds were formidable.  Alternately crossing over fingers of land and hugging the coastline, we worked our way from Patreksfjörður to Ísafjörður. [Note:  We were hopeless at pronunciation and abbreviated every place name to the first one or two syllables, aka Pat and Isa, etc.]

Driving north from Patreksfjörður, Route 63 climbed up, up, up as it traversed a moonscape to the next fjord.  Certainly there were no trees.  Lots of rocks.  A stark and forbidding scene.

But out of the car we stepped onto soft, bouncy vegetation, an abundance of lichen and mosses and ground-hugging flowers growing between the rocks.    Mindful of the brisk wind, we were cautious near the cliff edges – but who could resist this view? We repeated this scenario many times: drive, stop, get out, gasp, exclaim, take photos, get back in the car.  Paul (as our driver) had the patience of Job.
 Random roadside waterfall
Descending to  Arnarfjörður, we paused to explore this unassuming cemetery set at the shoreline. The gold mountain, the white and red barn – what a peaceful place to rest. 

Standing at the cemetery and rotating 90 degrees, the town of Bíldudalur.  We didn’t stop here but next time (!) we will be sure to visit the Skrímslasetur Icelandic Sea Monster Museum.  From here we turned right to continue on Route 63, now gravel, hugging the edge and following the contours of the fjords.

High on our wish list was finding a natural geothermal pool to plunge into.  Well, we learned a little something at Reykjarfjarðarlaug:  hot means REALLY HOT.  This little spot can be easily missed even though it sits right by the road.  There is a small concrete pool, about 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 F), a tiny bathhouse, and a hundred yards further is the real deal, a natural stone lined pool.  We rolled up our pants legs, stepped in the water about a foot deep, and our skin immediately turned bright red.  I hopped out as soon as the photo was taken, very glad that I hadn’t gone for the full immersion.  The guidebooks says the natural pool temp is 45 C (113 F)!

Driving on Route 60 up and across Dynjandisheiði heath, we saw another random roadside waterfall – or is this part of the Dynjandisá River that flows to Dynjandi Waterfall?

Dynjandi (Fjallfoss) is the largest of a series of waterfalls; each of the six subtiers has its own name.  The cumulative height of all the tiers is 100 meters.  The breadth of the main waterfall is 30 meters at the top, 60 meters at the bottom, and is often described as a “bridal veil.” It is the jewel of the Westfjords.  The awesome factor is off the charts.  Just look.

Looking out at Dynjandivogur Bay

We wandered up and down the path between the tiers, reluctant to tear ourselves away from the power of Dynjandi (will we ever see it again?).  How do you see something like that and then go to lunch?  But we did.

After all, the road winds on. 

At the town of Þingeyri (“Þ” is pronounced as “th”) we stopped to refuel our car and our stomachs with our homemade lunches.  A nice cup of tea, a bowl of soup and a huge chunk of blueberry crumb cake sitting outside Simbahöllin coffee shop rounded it out nicely. 

I repeat:  life can be simple.  You just have to choose it.

I confess, I may have nodded off postprandial and missed a bit of scenery in the remaining kilometers to Ísafjörður.  I do remember driving through the 9 km Vestfjarðagöng tunnel, which is one lane in some sections with pullouts and signal lights, and a three-way intersection in the middle!  Yikes!

We arrived in the town of Ísafjörður at about 2:00 p.m. and found our home for the next two nights, a second- floor apartment with a sweet balcony via Airbnb on Hafnarstræti , the main street.  This funky little place was delightful. 

Sharing one bathroom was tricky
Going up the super-narrow steps inside the apartment.  The easiest way to go down was to step backwards.
Paul and Kim’s room

Mike dragged his bed from Cathy’s and my room to this alcove

With lots of daylight left, we went for a walk west of town on an unused road called Aflagðurvegur around the mountain Óshlíð.  This was once the only route to the tiny villages west of Ísafjörður…

… but the road kept washing away.  It was finally abandoned (Aflagðurvegur means “abandoned way”) and a newer route developed via tunneling through the mountains. 

The road is still used by walkers and commuting cyclists.

Lupines along the way

Back in Ísafjörður, we took a wander through town, found a vínbúð (government run alcohol store) and purchased much-needed wine.  Before dinner we paused on our balcony to toast another surreal day in this wonderful country. 


P.S.  Dinner was delicious at Húsíð, seafood soup with chunks of fish in a rich creamy tomato broth and Einstök ale.  Tomorrow is not a road trip day - what shall we do? 

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”  ~Mary Ritter Beard