Sunday, December 27, 2015

Iceland Adventures: Westfjords – Látrabjarg Cliffs & Rauðasandur

Iceland Adventures – Westfjords – Látrabjarg Cliffs & Rauðasandur – 6 km - 8/24/15

“Ferry Baldur sails all year long over Breiðafjörður Bay from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur.”  Which of you can read that aloud correctly?

Fortunately, you don’t have to.  You can just drive your rental car onto the boat.  Which we did.  (If you are planning a trip, the pricing is complicated, depends on the size of your vehicle.  Check here.)

 The 2.5-hour ferry ride saved some time and offered a unique experience crossing the bay.  We grabbed comfortable seats inside the salon area and took turns venturing out into yet another cold, blustery day.  Although we had brought food for lunch, Mike was happy to get pizza from the onboard café.  (Mike is happiest when he can buy a hot meal.) 

Yes, it is daytime and, yes, that is the sun

We passed this small island with its lonely house.  A crew member we were talking with explained that his family owns it.  It’s available as emergency shelter for anyone who needs it in bad weather. 

A midpoint stop crossing the bay is Flatey, the only island with year-round inhabitants.  We didn’t plan a stop, but many people do, taking the first ferry of the day and catching a later one to continue on to the Westfjords.  No cars are allowed on Flatey, but you can send your car ahead and it will be unloaded from the ferry and parked waiting for you on the mainland. (Read more about Flatey here and you will want to see it for yourself.)

When we drove off the ferry at Brjánslækur, we turned left onto Route 62 (the only road), headed to the tip of the Látrabjarg Peninsula to walk on the Látrabjarg Cliffs, the westernmost point of Europe.  The small road skirted along the southern shore and then cut across to join even smaller Route 612, which continued along the northern shore of the peninsula, eventually leaving pavement behind for teeth-rattling hard packed dirt and gravel.  In places the road hugged the steep cliffs so tightly that I felt the urge to lean to the middle of the car to keep us from plunging into the fjord.  We passed an incredibly narrow air strip located between the road and the water. 

The Bjargtangar lighthouse at Látrabjarg Cliffs

Látrabjarg Cliffs is famous for its abundant bird life, cormorants, fulmars, gulls, kittiwakes, razorbills, and what we came to see:  Atlantic puffins, the most populous bird in Iceland.  Sadly, we were a couple of weeks too late for them and saw only their prodigious droppings along the cliff walls.  Paul spotted one black bird with a white belly, perhaps the last one to leave for winter habitat in the waters off the coasts of Greenland and Newfoundland. 

Getting that Cliffs of Moher (Ireland) vibe

Walking along the Látrabjarg Cliffs

Látrabjarg Cliffs

Missing the puffins was anti-climatic, but still here we are in Iceland!  The rawness of the air, the crashing of the waves against the rocks, the complete absence of warning signs and guard rails that plague similar sites in the U.S. were thrilling. 

Mike and me having a look-see at the cliff edge

Walking back toward the lighthouse

Back in the car, we made a brief stop at Breiðavik Guesthouse near Breiðavik’s golden sand beach, considered one of Iceland’s best beaches (photo taken from a moving car).  During our planning we had considered staying here, but opted for the town of Patreksfjördur as a better stopping point to end our day. 
The church at Breiðavik

Backtracking along Route 612 and turning right onto what we decided was Route 614 (no sign, just another rutted dirt road), we felt our way along to Rauðasandur, an exquisite red sand beach highlighted by Lonely Planet.  Parked near a homestead with the obligatory church.

With the requisite cemetery around back.

A field of giant marshmallows (rolled hay bales)

Someone had fun making trail signs across their field toward the beach

Although there were footprints from other travelers, the beach was deserted as we wandered up and down, picking up purple and black seashells.  Walking along any beach draws you further and further along, and here the vastness of the scene, hopeless to capture adequately, the colors of the sand, the smoky clouds obscuring the cliffs, combined to stop time.  Such a spectacular experience.

And then seeing sheep on the beach sent it all over the top. 

We tore ourselves away and headed toward Patreksfjördur and our cute home for the night, one bedroom downstairs, two upstairs, one full bath with a washer/dryer.

A tiny kitchen

And a cozy living room (with wifi!)

Looking out our front door

We enjoyed a late supper of vegetable quiche and more white ale at Stúkuhúsid, a lovely coffeehouse-type restaurant on the waterfront that I found later in the Lonely Planet guidebook too.  (This isn’t because we are geniuses, it’s because towns in the Westfjords are so small that dining options are few, but fortunately are very good.)  Took this photo from the deck of the restaurant.

From Stúkuhúsid I called Jim for the first time on the trip; it felt great to touch base, trying to share some of our experiences.  Afterwards the others dropped me off at our house while they went to restock at the only grocery store and wash our very dirty rental SUV.  I really enjoyed a little down time alone.  Tomorrow it’s the back seat again!

“I often think of that rare fulfilling joy when you are in the presence of some wonderful alignment of events. Where the light, the colour, the shapes, and the balance all interlock so perfectly that I feel truly overwhelmed by the wonder of it.”  ~Charlie Waite

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Iceland Adventures: Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Iceland Adventures: Exploring Snæfellsnes Peninsula – 9 km - 8/23/15

When friends go on a road trip, your seat in the car for the first hour becomes your seat for the duration of the trip.  No thinking that you’re going to rotate or take turns switching around – the cushion gets molded in the shape of your own butt and there you are.  Paul in the driver’s seat, Mike as navigator front passenger, Kim left rear, me right rear and Cathy in the middle rear because her legs are the shortest and she volunteered.  (Well, we did take pity on Cathy a couple of times so she could have a side view.) 

Who controls the GPS?  Who knows the address to program in? Voice on or voice off?  Too loud or too soft?  Who only trusts a paper map?  Who can pronounce even one place name in Icelandic? Here we go!

Our 6-day trip concentrated on the far northwestern edges of Iceland.  We used the Lonely Planet’s Iceland guidebook and highly recommend it.  Planning to visit an entire country requires a lot of homework, narrowing down what appeals to everyone’s wish list, balancing driving time and sight-seeing, maximizing daylight (not a problem in Iceland in August).  With our active group, we wanted to spend time outside, hike at least a little each day, explore the natural features including hot springs, volcanoes and waterfalls.  It was easy to choose the Westfjords. 

From Reykjavik we drove north and then clockwise around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, then north some more and clockwise in and out of the Westfjords, eastward to Holmavik and then back south to Reykjavik.

Leaving Reykjavik, the skies foretold our weather for the trip. 

The view was obstructed only by clouds.  I never got used to the absence of trees.

When the island was first settled it was extensively forested, but centuries of heavy exploitation by humans for firewood and timber, followed by overgrazing by imported sheep, left the thin volcanic soil vulnerable to erosion. There are more trees in urban areas than in the remote reaches of the country, mostly birches planted in a national initiative of reforestation. A percentage of fossil fuel taxes are directed to reforestation.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula!  Jules Verne fans will recognize the glacier-topped mountain of Snæfells, as the entry passage leading to the center of the earth.  The mountain is the real center of Snæfellsjökul National Park.  Climbing on the glacier requires a guiding service, so we contented ourselves with several shorter independent treks.  And we never saw the glacier through the fog.

First stop along Route 574:  the Park’s Visitor Center in Hellnar, where we picked up a simple trail map that proved unnecessary for our 5km round trip hike between the tiny villages of Hellnar and Arnarstapi (a cliff walk with no intersecting trails).  The spitting rain and chill temperatures did not deter us – we were finally setting our feet on Icelandic volcanic rock! 

Back near the Visitor Center, we took a lunch break at this little church with an adjacent small cemetery.  Remote houses with a few outbuildings and a tiny church are scattered throughout Iceland.

Our next venture was a 2K loop hike along the rim of Rauðhóll, a volcanic crater. Glad I wore a red rain jacket.

The smooth, steeply sloped walls are covered in mosses. 

Diversity of plant life up close

Don’t know what they are called, but they look like cotton

Closing the loop

Walking along Móðulækur stream on the way back to the road
A short hop further along Route 574 and we took a little walk to Klukkofoss, a basalt column waterfall tucked away.

By now we had accepted that Iceland was misty, damp, chilly, beautiful, ethereal and enchanting. 

Connecting back to Route 54, we stopped to fuel up near Grundarfjördur.

If you have seen the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” you will recognize the mountain called Kirkjufell that Ben Stiller skateboards past, said to be one of the most photographed icons in Iceland.

In full view right across the road is Kurkjufellsfoss, a spectacular waterfall, easy to walk to. 

Put them both together and you have an Iceland postcard.

We rolled into Stykkishólmur and located our Airbnb home for the night, a stylish modern apartment with a comfortable living room, kitchen and small den with a futon bed on the first floor and a spiral staircase leading down to two bedrooms and a full bath.  The owner stopped by to welcome us, a nice touch. 
After dumping our gear and changing into drier clothes, we walked down the main street to the harbor to determine where to meet our ferry for tomorrow’s adventure – and find some supper.

The tiny town had just a couple of restaurants.  The first one we tried turned us away because we didn’t have reservations (who knew this would be necessary on a Sunday night?)  Much better luck on our second try at Narfeyrarstofa, a charming restaurant where we scored a round doily-covered table for 5 in that alcove with the big window on the second story. 

We were introduced to Einstöck White Ale served in frosted pewter mugs.  We toasted our good fortune at finding this lovely place to end our day. 

The special of the day: cod with mashed sweet potato and pickled onions in a fancy presentation.  (Later we learned that Lonely Planet called Narfeyrarstofa “the Snæfellsnes’ darling fine-dining destination”.) 

The sun was below the horizon but the sky was still light as we walked back to our apartment, where silence settled in as we all logged onto the Wifi to check Facebook, check email and text the folks back home.  Having a great time, wish you were here!  What will tomorrow bring?

"Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the seam, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books."  ~John Lubbock