Iceland North and West July 2020

Day 1 – Flying the COVID-19 way

We booked this summer trip to Iceland 8 months ago and it did not get cancelled. Suddenly, it was a viable trip again but only if we were prepared to be flexible.  Which we were.  We have both had Covid-19 in May and recovered and knew we had antibodies so the entry requirements did not phase us (much). When our British Airways flight cancelled, we had already booked alternative flights with Iceland Air and were able to adjust dates and times as those flights moved several times but at least were still going. We were able to keep up, or as they say in the Icelandic phrase, “On with the butter !”.

Things went more or less to plan. Heathrow was post-apocalyptically quiet, and the flight provided nothing more than a bottle of water by way of service. We had our fairly brutal arrival swabs and went to Ice Renal Cars to collect our vehicle. Onwards to Skuggi Hotel in the city centre.

 

Four hours later, we had one negative swab result and one positive one. But luckily an appointment at the local hospital to have antibodies done the following morning. We could have done without this start but knew it was a risk as many people who have long since recovered can test swab-positive due to dead virus fragment shedding.  Yet more on with the butter.

Day 2 – Reykjavik in the sunshine

First task this morning was the antibody test at the hospital which was quite straightforward. The nurses had texted the details, we arrived in a deserted car park outside what looked more like a shed than a clinic. Blood taken by a cheery nurse in full PPE and a phone call less than 2 hours later to confirm plenty of antibodies and all well to enjoy our holiday as planned. Very efficient compared to the NHS.

With that out of the way, we turned our attention to the fact that the hired car smelled of diesel and had an inexplicable warning light. This was sorted by going to a city branch of Atak and getting the car switched as it had a diesel pump failure. Was that us done for early set-backs? We hoped so.

We walked around the city centre, David had his hair cut and we had some lunch.

We drove down to see the breast- like Þúfa in the harbour having seen it on one of Rick Stein’s travel programmes.

We followed that by the Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach a short walk down from the Perlan.  It was amazing to paddle in the sea again and to see everyone packed into a heated trough Icelandic-style.

Today’s Icelandic saying : “I will find out you on a beach” . That means that somebody will have their revenge on you, not that they will buy you an ice cream.

Dinner was Izakaya food at the Public House Gastropub. It did our hearts and spirits good to see restaurants and shops operating as per normal times. No masks or heavy rules.

Plenty of hand sanitiser but otherwise life as normal, albeit with very few tourists around.  Young people whizzed along on the rented electric scooters and the outdoor seating areas were full of locals enjoying a sunny weekend evening.

Day 3 – Reykjavik to Stykkisholmur

We had forgotten how late everything starts in Iceland. Even some supermarkets do not open until 11am and they tend to close early too by UK standards. We bought bread from Braud and Co and then spent most of the morning in a ladies’ hairdressing salon before stocking up on supplies for the trip north west. The first part of the day is a reminder for another amusing Icelandic expression:  “to take someone to the bakery”. Which means to beat them competitively.

The journey was meant to be a scenic 3-hour drive but was marred by more car trouble, this time our old friend of other holidays, the tyre pressure light. Was it the loaded car and the hot weather or a slow puncture? We spent a fair bit of journey time stressfully pumping up tyres and seeking garages who could check them for us.  Having been told they were probably Ok we limped on to our Airbnb in Snaefellsnes and hoped for the best. It turned out Ok in the end. þetta reddast, as they say.

The “Nest in the West” log cabin was certainly rustic and charming. Plus isolated, so 3 nights of self-catering and enjoying the views across the nearby lake.

Day 4 – Northern Snaefellsnes

We had booked a 2 hour horse ride at Kverna farm. This was on the holiday to-do list as it looked so scenic and relaxing in the photos. The reality was .. somewhat different. Despite the request for sweet-tempered, placid horses Una got one which was, in the Icelandic expression, totally out driving. A horse nut case. We did not catch the name of this furry psychopath, but Una had many unprintable names for him.

We started off sedately, led by Gretta from the farm and enjoying the views of mountains and waterfall. Until we reached a meadow where Una’s horse decided this was her stop and he knelt, rolled over and off-loaded her. This happened 3 times in total. Much swearing and shouting from Gretta and the rest of the ride was something of a battle of wills. Una’s admiration for the Icelandic horse and their unique 5 gaits was dented substantially by the end of the experience.

Next stop was the famous Kirkjufellsfoss.

We also encountered further anti-social animals this day as we got attacked by Arctic Terns when trying to photograph a pretty church. We thought the road signs were warning drivers not to injure birds but soon realised it was more about birds with intentions to injure drivers, or photographers, or people in general.

We continued to see the murals at Hellissandur and then to the bright orange Öndverðarnes lighthouse. It was cold and windy here but there were a few puffins flying between the sea and the cliffs.

After a lot of driving we headed back to base diverting to see Helgafella hill and church. This used to a be a sacred location and has an attached local legend that if you walk up it without looking back or talking, the wish you make will come true.

Day 5 – Southern Snaefellsnes

An aquatic experience to start the day. A trip to the municipal swimming pool in Stykkisholmur.

Unlike the horse-riding, this typical Icelandic experience was everything it was promised to be. It was relatively cheap, spotlessly clean and we had the indoor pool and outdoor tubs more or less to ourselves. It was a blissfully relaxing start to the day. Though it is hard to do anything more than wallow when the water is so warm. Also, such a treat when the pools are still closed in the UK and are not open as normal anytime soon.

Feeling languid, we hit the road for today’s sights and gave two hitchhikers a lift at the start of the trip. They were two Slovenian girls who had hitchhiked, wild camped and couch surfed their way around the entire ring road. Brave!

We then completed our circuit of the peninsula and returned for beers on the terrace at the cottage.

Today’s Icelandic saying is a favourite and is totally random: “to show someone where David bought the ale”. This means to get your revenge on someone. Origins completely obscure but made us laugh.

Day 6 – The West Fjords

Our schedule only gave us time for a taster of the vast West Fjords region. We opted to stay on the east side as this would fit better with our onward journey towards Akureryi and we just did not have time to drive the whole West Fjords circuit. Even the small slice we did took a good 2 hours longer than predicted. A combination of gravel roads, mountain passes and driving around fjords. Plus photo stops.

We had booked one night at the well-known farmhouse, Heydalur for a variety of reasons. These were hot pots, hiking, on-site dinner and if we were lucky, an on-site arctic fox. To incorporate an Icelandic saying, this encounter would be the raisin on the end of the hot dog.

Heydalur delivered on all fronts though the arctic fox was a vixen with cubs, rather shy and hard to photograph. The hotel feeds her on scraps of trout. We saw her on the driveway but she dashed into the bushes on our approach. We tried to squeeze in as much as we could to our short stay and managed a short hike, a wallow in the riverside hot pot and a swim in the greenhouse pool.

Day 7 – West Fjords to Hvammstangi

Sea kayaking on the fjord near Heydalur. Our guide was Andrejz, a Czech geography teacher and Icelandophile working the school holidays. The fjord was almost mirror like in its stillness.

We paddled across to an island where rather nervous seals eyed us and puffins skimmed the water.

The mother seals surrounded us bottling while the furry pups just looked a bit panicked but too fat to move. It was incredibly sedate and beautiful and felt impossibly remote. Andrejz clearly loves it and pointed out local landmarks and told us stories of trolls and elves : “the hidden folk ” .

The aquatic experience of the day was Drangsnes with the hot pots on the edge of the sea. We changed in the little building opposite and joined two German camper van couples for travel chat and a soak.

More car trouble today – the windscreen took a gravel shot right on the edge and cracked right across. One for the additional car insurance. We had started to suspect we had accidentally run over an elf at some point in the journey.

Further intrigue at our lunch stop which turned out to be the execution place of Agnes Magnús­dótt­ir . The novel Burial Rites by Hannah Kent tells the story of this woman and the murders on a remote farm in the 1830s. Here is more about her true story.

We stayed in Hvammstangi Hill Homes which were fine and could have done as a base for a few days in the area.

Day 8 – Hvammstangi to Akureyri

When you look at a map or even Trip Advisor, you get the impression that Hvammstangi is a medium-sized town by northern Icelandic standards and it ought to have some sort of facilities. You would think so. But on a weekend morning at  9am everything was firmly shut.  We have learnt that it is only the petrol stations that will reliably supply coffee and a snack.  It was also noticeable that where there were museums or boat trips to see wildlife; these frequently had signs saying that they would not be operating in 2020. Iceland this year is about making your own trips and discoveries. One of these was the Kidka wool shop which did open for us and was definitely worth a stop.

We went on to view the rock stack at Hvítserkur which was not as impressive as it seemed to be from the arty photographs we had seen. There is a parking area and then a short walk to a viewpoint. Signs around stating that it is not safe to try and climb down to the beach though of course some people were doing so. Better angles from the beach for pictures with low tide.

Then the Kolugljúfur canyon which was probably the best waterfall so far, again with few crowds and various access paths for different views.

The final part of the drive today was the spectacular mountain pass leading to Akureyri itself – just like an alpine meadow. We stayed at the Hotel Kea by Keahotels near the centre of town. Not a great choice and if we stayed again we would probably opt to self-cater in town.

First impressions of Akureyri.  The fjord and the mountains, the low-hanging clouds. Shops with ski gear and outdoor clothes. The bijoux Botanical Gardens and overall it felt like Switzerland or perhaps Banff. Plenty of open cafes around here.

Random phrase for the day “You are such a latte drinking wool scarf” which seems to be an insult of the hipster variety. We saw more of that type around Akureyri compared to Reykjavik, but this may have been because it was more wool scarf wearing weather up here.

Dinner at Strikið,  one of the best restaurants in town. This was one reason why we wanted 2 nights in Akureyri – proper cocktails, more sophisticated and varied food than on offer in the rural parts of Iceland.  We also had the luxury of Netflix and managed to watch Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Which we really enjoyed. Respect to the Elves.

Day 9 – Akureyri and around

Today we planned less driving and more walking/seeing/soaking.

The first stop was Goðafoss, a reasonably large waterfall on the way to Myvatn lake area.

We had a look in the Reykjahlíð lakeside information centre. There’s a lot to see here and we really needed 3-4 days to do it justice. It must be spectacular in winter as there were leaflets for dog sledding, snowmobiles, pictures of local scenery and northern lights.

We did the 3km walk around the false craters at Skútustaðagígar.  Not as many birds as we expected and it rained much of the time though was warm. We learnt that the slopes of the volcanos has grass growing on them because of the fertilising effect of all the dead midges over a long time. And there were a large numbers of them. Myvatn = midge, apparently. We put our new midge net headgear to good use.

Then the Hverir geothermal area which was very active with steam and mud vents. There’s a big hydro plant based here.

We also checked out Vita/Krafla crater, full of a luminous turquoise water.

More of that colour of water at Mývatn Nature Baths. Similar to the Blue Lagoon but lower key.  Popular with local mummies who could balance a toddler on one arm and a generous plastic glass of white wine in the other.

We would have struggled to keep ourselves upright with that combination of wine and hot swimming pool. Interesting how Icelandic folk say “to lay your head on water” meaning  to have a good think about it. All the wallowing in warm water tends to empty our heads.

Dinner at Rub23, another of the top picks of Akureyri.

Day 10 – Akureyri to Budardalur

We left Akureyri and went via the Bonus supermarket to stock up. Following a local tip, the branch at Kjarnagata has an adjacent fish shop (Fiske Kompanie) with a great selection of fish in various sauces or plain.

The aquatic quest for the day was a waterfall and natural hot pot just off our route cross country called Reykjafoss and Fosslaug respectively.

The waterfall was mid-size and the hot pot much larger than we expected and very warm. We luckily had it for ourselves and it was worth seeking out. There are several travel blogs with details on the location. We stayed in as long as we could before getting out smelling slightly sulphurous.

The rest of the day was spent driving to Budardalur with the weather being a bit mixed. Window weather, as they say in Iceland. Nicer to look out at than to be out in.

The Asubud Apartment was lovely and spacious and we had our gourmet fish dinner to enjoy. We then went for short walk around the very small town (~200 people). Una bought a lopapeysa (Icelandic jumper) and some other hand-knitted items in the local handicraft shop next to the petrol station called Bolli Icelandic Craft. The lady knitting at the desk explained that some items were made by residents (one purchase was by a 90 year old) at a local home for the elderly. They had labels signed by the makers and it is a lovely shop, very different to the mass produced merchandise in tourist- central Reykjavik.

Day 11 – Budardalur to Hveragerdi

A day to travel across to Hveragerdi in the heavy rain. We wanted to visit Thingvellir, the old parliament seat of Iceland and where the earth is splitting apart at 2cm per year. We went cross country rather than via Reykjavik and came in from the north.

 

We decided to walk along from Hakid parking area to the Oxarafoss water fall then back the other side of the river via Silfra and the Prime Minister’s summer Residence. No security like Chequers in the UK! We were glad we’d bought midge head nets as they were very keen to land on us and have a free ride around. We did get asked where we had bought them as Thingvillir was more midge-plagued than so-called Midge (Myvatn) Lake had been.

We arrived at the Frost and Fire Boutique Hotel in the rain but after unpacking decided to have a walk over the smouldering hill side opposite. Lots of boiling mud pools and steam vents which drives a power station that supplies 30% of Iceland’s electricity.

We sat in the riverside hotpot and supped some wine like the locals do for as long as we could stand it. Which was not very long at all. Dinner in the hotel restaurant. Modern Nordic cooking and popular though we think it has changed hands since it was previously called Varma.

Day 12 – Hveragerdi and the South

 

 

 

A wet day to try and spot some more puffins and revisit the big ticket waterfalls of the southern ring road. We revisted Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss but the heavy rain made taking pictures difficult. David was glad to see the red spotty fish and chip van was still there although understandably they were not having a good season. The Gljufrabui waterfall adjacent to Seljalandsfoss is fun as you can walk into the cave cut by the fall if you have suitable gear.

Our phone pinged with weather warnings from the Vedur app. Even in mid-July, there are days like this when campers have to pack up and some areas such as the north and west become out of bounds. We were grateful to now be in the south and to have a hotel to stay in.

We drove on to the black beach of Reynisfjara.  It’s impressive and the tide was right up with huge grey waves … and heavy rain. We saw a few puffins but couldn’t go far down the beach due to the waves. Went to the Dyrhólaey viewpoint but couldn’t get up to the lighthouse as the road was closed due to the high winds. Even at the viewpoint it was incredibly windy. A few nesting puffins and lots of seabirds and terns.

A two hour drive took us to the restaurant Rick Stein visited on his Icelandic weekend away programme. Fjorubordid in Stokkseyri. Justifiably famous for its langoustines.

Day 13 – Hveragerdi to Selfoss

With sunny weather restored, we did a circular walk around the hills next to the hotel to see the hot springs and some old ruins along the riverside and surrounding fields. A pleasant walk with lots of alpine flowers and at one point an amazing rainbow along the valley.

On the way to Selfoss we saw the Kerid Crater and had a short walk around that despite 15m/s winds.

Our next stop was the Secret Lagoon Hot Spring at Hvammsvegur in Flúðir. This is claimed to be the oldest Icelandic public swimming pool dating from 1891. Very laidback atmosphere and probably the most relaxing of the bigger pools we have sampled. During this holiday we have experienced rustic rural hot pots, hotel (man-made) hot pots, hotel swimming pools, a municipal swimming pool and two of the larger hot spring pools. A water baby’s dream of a trip.

Hotel 360 is just off Highway 1 down a gravel track. It is relatively new and was a project for the owners which showcases the local scenery with modern architecture.

Day 14 – Selfoss to Reykjanesbær

Out final day and our last chance to try and spot more puffins. The guidebook said the Krisuvikurberg cliffs were a possibility. However on a windy but sunny day no puffins were around. Not really worth the long drive out to a desolate car park. By now, Una had decided that puffins were over-rated and whimbrels were the bird of choice.

We opted for a late lunch at Rok in central Reykjavik as we knew pickings would be slim around our Keflavik hotel later.

We dropped  our luggage at the Hotel Duus a short hop from the airport and then returned the hire car. Luckily, the gravel insurance covered the broken windscreen though our insurance4car would have covered this. Also they checked there were no parking or speeding fines which was a new check since last time.

Day 15 – Homeward bound – back to quarantine

4am start for our early morning return to the world of face masks and social distancing. More signs of precautions at the hotel and car hire yesterday (people wearing masks as they arrived) and the hotel breakfast was a wrapped individual plate.

Sad to be leaving Iceland with so much more to do. We quite fancy a winter trip with snow mobiles, dog sledding and possibly a 4 week trip to be able to do the entire ring road properly. Travel slow, travel well. There is so much to see and do and experience and the longer you stay still and really look, the more you can appreciate it. We liked to read the little snippets in the Lonely Planet, check the witty reports in the Reykjavik Grapevine and generally try and immerse in the country and take it in. As always, great advice from the Trip Advisor community and especially so in the anxious weeks leading up to the trip when we tried to stay on top of what was happening. We were so glad we had a chance to do this after such a difficult few months and it was a break for us in every sense of the word.  There are so many wonders in Iceland. As many, as they say, as there are wonders in a cow’s head.