Thursday, August 3, 2017

Around Iceland in Three days - A Summer Reunion in Iceland

A bunch of my college friends and I decided to go to Iceland for a 3 day reunion. We lovingly called this reunion trip,  "Gerua" after a popular Bollywood song that was filmed in Iceland. We could not have picked a better destination nor a better time. Visiting Iceland in the summer month of June, a magical time when it never gets dark, with a bunch of college friends getting together after a span of 30 years.. need I say more?

We chose to stay outside of Reykjavik, and booked accommodations in the town of Hella using a site called Hella turned out to be a great location to consider for accommodations. It was convenient for almost all attractions along the Southern Iceland route. Our house was a cozy and beautiful 2 bedroom house with vast open space as the backyard. We could see mountains in the distance and perhaps the glacier too on a clear day. However, this house was a couple of kilometers inland from Route 1 within the Hella Township. So, for all the future travelers who are looking into Hella for accommodations, make sure your lodgings are right off Route 1 (or as close as possible) as opposed to something where the house can be a few Km inland and the only access to and from Route 1 is over a gravelly road.

We chose to rent a car instead of using tours or taxis for getting out and about. The rental car gave us all the flexibility and convenience we needed. Driving in Iceland was very easy and convenient. We were not planning on any off-roading. so a 4 door sedan was more than sufficient for our needs.  We did buy the extra insurance for gravel damage and pay for additional drivers.

In this itinerary, there were a few attractions that were off the beaten path and a few attractions that were the typical tourist destinations. Regardless, even during the peak travel month of June, we never felt crowded at any attraction.

Day 1 – Arrive Iceland

We landed very early in the morning which gave us a whole day to explore. After picking up the car from the airport we drove around in Reykjanes peninsula towards Lake Kleifarvatn, Krýsuvík, Grindavik & Reykjanesbaer.

The Viking museum at Reykjanesbaer is a great place for a buffet breakfast. If you buy the breakfast, the ticket includes entry fee for the museum as well. Our next stop was the fishing town of Grindavik and the surrounding area. We drove and walked around the gorgeous shoreline. This coast is rugged and you can see the many ships that must have run aground. Along the way we found the cutest orange lighthouse (Hopsnes Lighthouse). This is definitely off the beaten path and not sure I can ever find my way back to the area again. But it is a gorgeous landscape with many shipwrecks strewn about, roaming wild horses, yellow flowered meadows and grazing mountain sheep.

Drive to Krýsuvík felt like driving on an alien landscape.. perhaps that's what driving on Mars would feel like, through miles of lava fields. After a short drive, you arrive at Lake Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on Reykjanes.

Southwest of Kleifarvatn is a geothermal area called Seltún. This is where you can see the billowing steam holes and bubbling mud pots at close range. The mud pots cover the whole gamut of colors in the middle of primarily grey landscape. You have to climb to the top of the hill to an amazing vista of the lakes.

From here we drove to Thingvillir National park. Grabbed a quick lunch/snack at the park cafeteria. Walked a bit to see the tectonic divide (“The Wall” from the Game Of Thrones) and then drove on to Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths. We spent  rest of our time at the baths, perhaps 3-4 hours. From sauna to steam bath to swimming pools to jumping into the icy cold lake. We hung around at the hot spring bath until its closing time and grabbed dinner of fresh baked bread at the bath itself. The drive to Hella took a couple of hours but since there was sufficient daylight outside, and all of us were energized by our get together, tiredness was miles away. We had enough energy and enthusiasm left to spend the next couple of hours after we got home playing drinking games and an evening full of laughter. Don’t remember if we ever really went to sleep this first night. Before we knew it, we were all watching the sunrise together and performing the sun salutations on grass freshly covered by dew.

Day 2

After an easy breakfast of parathas and theplas with eggs and tea and juice, we got ready for our day two. We had planned a hike to Hveragerdi River. We wore our swim wear and layered warm clothing on top. Packed with a bottle of wine, water, snacks, and the camera, we hiked from the Hveragerdi River Hike parking lot to the hot spring river. We took our time hiking, pausing to take many a photographs, sing Gerua along with many old Bollywood songs, struck friendships with fellow hikers and petted the many dogs hiking the trail. We were in no rush to get anywhere and the time seemed to be going in slo-mo. The day was gorgeous, the treeless green mountains beautiful, the company of college friends – absolutely priceless! 

We spent a couple of hours lounging in the hot river water and catching up on the times gone by. Drinking wine and eating mathri never felt so good together. One tip, do not take glass bottles (of any beverage) as the river bed is slippery and the chances of the bottle breaking pretty high. There are no changing rooms nor bathrooms. Clothes need to be changed out in the open (or hidden behind a towel). You carry your trash with you. This is a must do hike for all travelers to Iceland.

After the leisurely river hike, we stopped at Kjot & Kunst restaurant in the town of Hveragerdi for lunch. The restaurant is known for using geothermal heat for cooking. We picked up some fresh bread for breakfast the next day.

After lunch we drove to Selfoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. Both are tourist (and Gerua) destinations but well worth the visit. In summer you can go behind the falls.

We had planned to stop at Dyrholaey, but we skipped this stop and chose to spend our time at the black sand beach. While 30 mins is sufficient for visiting the black sand beach, but if your travelling companions are friends you have not seen in 30 some years, every stop takes hours and nothing takes few minutes.
By the time we got to the black sands beach at Vik, it was late but not dark and the tide was low. We had the whole expanse of the beach to ourselves and were sharing the beach with a modeling crew. The low tide exposed the many caves/inlets along the shoreline. Strolling on the beach at midnight that almost felt like dusk was simply magical. The black pebbles smooth and shiny and glinting in the remaining sunlight and your crazy friends being ..well crazy.. was simply memorable. Day 2 ended up as yet another late late night. By the time we got home, ate dinner, spent time drinking and singing and laughing, it was sunrise again. After being awake for non stop 48 hours, I think we did manage to catch 2-3 hours of sleep before starting our day 3.

Day 3

After a quick breakfast of fresh bread, eggs and tea, we headed out to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon & the Diamond beach. This was about a 3:30 hour hour drive from Hella through a very dramatic landscape. There are many places to stop along the way such as Skaftafell (Skaftafellsjökull glacier), and Kirkjubæjarklaustur (Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon). Despite our well laid out plans to stop at both these places, we pretty much drove straight through to Jökulsárlón. We did stop briefly to get petrol, some fruit and some food. We also stopped at a small but beautiful waterfall that we saw by the roadside. After spending an hour or two at Jökulsárlón, we headed back. We stopped at Fosshotel for a nice dinner and a 50th birthday celebration. This route has very few hotels. Fosshotel looked to be a fairly large hotel very conveniently located to visit the attractions along this route. The items on the menu were limited but the food preparations were all very fresh and very good. On the way back, we stopped to admire the countryside that was blanketed with the most beautiful blue purple flowers with wild horses running through them. The horses were gorgeous and studly, and as we stood admiring them canter we find out that they were being led to a slaughterhouse. Oh well.. horse meat along with lamb is a staple food in Iceland.

Day 4 – Late afternoon Departure

The last day in Iceland was somewhat sober and sentimental. Our first reunion was coming to an end, the emotions were running high. There was loads of laughter and many tears as we got ready to depart. The lifetime lasting memory of this day will be dressing together in colorful sarees to the song of Gerua playing in the background for a photo shoot. No words can ever describe the photo shoot, except to say that while we may forget the places we saw, we will never forget Gerua and the dressing up and the warm memories it will bring. After checking out of the house, we stopped for a goodbye lunch at the famous Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. Au revoir my dear friends. Au revoir!