Saturday, March 20, 2010

Yesterday, I drove from Europe to North America *

I didn't think it was possible either - something about a large ocean in between, but then I behind the wheel of a car and well, just did it! All you've got to do is come to Iceland - the place sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, squarely on top of the continental divide:

In fact, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart at the rate of about 2cm a year, which is gradually creating all these crevasses in the center of Iceland

All of this geological activity makes Iceland a fascinating place to see - it's a very young landmass (geologically speaking), and there are geysers, volcanoes, fjords, mountain peaks, glaciers, hot springs, vikings... Ok, the vikings haven't quite been around for the 65 million years that Iceland's been here. The place is the world leader in geothermal power though... which is a good thing as there aren't any other natural resources up here.

The Strokkur geyser gets ready to send up a plume of vapor. Next to it sits the geyser called just 'Geysir' - kind of like Xerox, it's the original geyser...

Snow-capped mountains ringing the fjord leading to the pretty little spec of a town, Seyðisfjörður (yes, there are some funny-looking characters in the Icelandic language)

They often say Iceland and Greenland are mis-named: Greenland is all covered in ice, while Iceland is quite green. That's not entirely true (as the previous picture might suggest), but there are giant fields of these green rocks in Iceland

As for my adventures in Iceland, I was a little sad to arrive here as it was to be the last stop on my current trip. Getting over myself, I went to wander around Reykjavik. That's the capital, with a population of about 200,000 (which is 2/3 of the entire country's population... Not particularly crowded here), and I've never been to a capital quite like it - the place has this easy and relaxed feel of a small town, punctuated by little stores and boutiques all over downtown selling things to tourists. A tall church steeple rises up in the center of town.

The Hallgrímskirkja church, the largest in Iceland. A statue (donated by the US) of Leif Ericson, who beat Columbus to America by about 500 years, sits out front

Reykjavik has apparently been growing fairly rapidly over the past 15-20 years, and considering the abundance of space in the country, this has led more to urban sprawl, than to skyscrapers - I don't think there's a building taller than 10 stories in this town...

After being in Iceland by myself for a day, I was joined the following day by Lynn - a friend from back in Seattle, who's currently working in Geneva. I still haven't managed to make it over to Switzerland, but she was excited to visit Iceland

Exploring Iceland

The Reykjavik airport is about an hour outside of town, and in between lies the Blue Lagoon, an over-sized hot spring and spa center. Try it some time for that unmatched baby bottom skin effect. Naturally, we decided it would be a perfect place to meet. And it was.

With both of us now here, we set off to explore Iceland in earnest (as in outside of Reykjavik), starting with the Golden Circle tour the following morning. You do make a loop on the tour taking in a number of attractions, including a geo-thermal plant, a volcanic crater, some geysers, a waterfall, and the national park sitting on top of the continental divide. Trivia time: where is Europe's largest National Park located? Iceland!

The Gulfoss, or Golden Falls. A big waterfall, with water coming down with significant force

This is not Europe's biggest national park, but in addition to the continental divide, it also contains the site of Iceland's first parliament - established in the 10th century!

The weather in Iceland in March, by the way, isn't exactly welcoming - it's cold, it's rainy, it's windy. At higher elevations it snowed a good bit. So, we were pretty lucky to get a nice dry day for the trip, with some occasional glimpses of sunshine even... On the way back we took a more circuitous (and picturesque) route through the mountains, which would have apparently been inaccessible due to snow just a week earlier. On a further bright side, we were far enough from December that there was plenty of daylight each day.

Upon getting back to Reykjavik, we decided that the most expedient way to see the country (all of the country) would be to rent a car and do a three day tour circumnavigating the island, so after finding a place that would rent us a car for half the price of what the agency that the hostel recommended, we were all set to go.

The Chevy was no mini, mind you, but crossing Iceland is also agreeably easier than driving across Eurasia!

Prior to departure, a side note about food: much like everything in Iceland, the food is really expensive - you can expect to pay about double what you'd pay back in the States (apparently it used to be triple before their economy had crashed...), however, the food is really, really good! The local cuisine specializes in lamb and seafood, including both very fresh fish, and crustaceans, like lobster, crab, etc. Unfortunately, seafood also includes whale meat... In the cities (Ok, there's only two of those - Reykjavik, and Akureyri up North, which, with a population of less than 20,000 people, is a city by default only), there's also a pretty good selection of international foods - Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. There's no Starbucks, however, and McDonald's has apparently ceased operations a couple of years ago when the shipping costs became prohibitive. There are some American chains that are still persevering up here though, including Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, and the one I was really excited about - Quizno's! So, after grabbing lunch at Quizno's, we headed out towards Europe (Reykjavik is on the Western side of the island, so it's on the North American plate). The first day, we were still seeing a few tourists, and an occasional tour bus, as we passed a landscape filled with mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and one big lagoon filled with icebergs breaking off from a retreating glacier, and a seal happily swimming around them all.

The Snæfellsjökull glacier - blue ice hiding behind the rocks

Mountains peaking through the fog behind the glacier

Bright yellow grass, contrasted with starkly black dunes

Lynn getting ready to document it all

We finished the day in the town of Höfn, which is a regional center, but has a population that is yet to reach 2,000. It's tiny. Late Sunday night, we found exactly one restaurant that was open... but the food was very good, as usual - lobster is a specialty in this part of Iceland.

The following day, we had a fairly long drive along the fjords on Iceland's eastern seaboard up to Akureyri. By now, this was definitely no man's land - the road was still pretty good (not as good as before though), but we could easily go 30 minutes without passing another car. We also kept stopping to take in the awe-inspiring scenery all around us:

A large rock sits perched on the waterfront along the Eastern shores. Lynn kept talking bravely about at least touching the water with a bare foot... never happened. I remained equally unwilling to experiment with the frigid waters!

The fjords carving up the landscape further up North, as the day starts to actually turn sunny!

We got to the town Seyðisfjörður for lunch, which the guide book described as the can't miss Bohemian town in Eastern Iceland. Well, on a nice clear winter day, it's got an amazing location nestled between the fjord and the mountains, but it's fairly empty and un-Bohemian until the summer tourists arrive

Setting sun lighting up the sky as we approach Akureyri towards the evening.

Akureyri, being so far North, is a perfect spot to see the Aurora Borealis, so that was very much our plan. There was exactly one other group renting a room at the guesthouse where we were staying - to my immense surprise, they turned out to be Russian, so we chatted for a bit. They were apparently from Russia's Northern port town of Murmansk, in Iceland on business to purchase a fishing vessel for their company... They also explained that if I wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, I really needed to come to Murmansk, in the dead of cold Russian winter. Well, or at least Alaska. We headed out of town right there in Akureyri, Iceland instead, found a relatively quiet spot a little ways north of town that seemed sufficiently well shielded from the city's lights, and sat there for an hour staring at the night sky... Unfortunately, the night sky was all that we saw. It wasn't a particularly clear night, and the Northern Lights are a natural, unpredictable occurrence and all that... still a little disappointed, guess I'll have to go Murmansk after all! Well, maybe start with Alaska...

The final day was highlighted by more brilliant fjords along the Northern coast, a 6+ km tunnel under a fjord on the outskirts of Reykjaik, and generally unwelcoming weather - rain in the planes and lots of snow in the passes.

Lynn did duly encourage me to drive relatively slowly though

By now, we were between the two major Icelandic cities of Akureyri and Reykjavik, which meant there were more people around and the facilities in the towns along the way weren't all closed until the summer, so we stopped for lunch at a little town on one of the fjords, and I found my meal of lobster bisque soup and scallops with caviar well worth the money. Like I said, the food was quite good in this country - this was probably my favorite meal.

The final day in Reykjavik gave me just enough time to return the rental car and drop by the National Museum. Then, all of a sudden, it was time to get to the airport one last time and complete the final leg of the trip - Reykjavik to Seattle direct aboard Icelandair... Time to start planning the next adventure, I suppose!

* It's true, I didn't actually do the cross-continental drive yesterday - I've now been back in Seattle for a couple of days and that drive was now almost a week ago, but "Five days ago, I drove from Europe to North America" just didn't have the same ring to it, and this post took a while to put together...

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