June - July 2004
Revised 04 August 2004,
Photos & Text © 2004 by Len Schwer
Ms. Becky & I traveled with her parents, Ray & Norma, to Iceland 27 June - 8 July 2004.
The descriptions and pictures for this trip make for a fairly large download, so they are split it into two URLs:
- Days 1 - 6 Reykjavik to Akureyri in the present file
- Days 7 - 10 Akureyri to Reykjavik in another file
As this was the Fourth of July, the group sang a few patriotic and standard American songs before boarding the bus. I thought it a bit ironic that on This day we shared the Country Inn with a group of French tourists, and we all did our best not to mention our nations’ differences over the recent war in Iraq.
This was another long day on the bus starting at 8:30 AM, venturing out onto the highlands and arriving in Egilsstadir at 6:30 PM.
Our first stop was the fishing village of Husavik. This is a hidden jewel of Iceland, located nearly as far north as you can travel on the mainland, this very picturesque village has lots to offer the tourist. There are two museums in the village, a whale museum and a natural history museum. We visited the whale museum for about 20 minutes, but could have easily spent about two hours looking at the interesting exhibits and watching several videos. All the exhibits included English explanations and the videos were in English. We had several favorable reports about the natural history museum, which include a personalized tour, as the museum’s explanatory text did not include English.
Our next stop was the horse-shoe shaped canyon of Asbyrgi. This shear walled canyon was formed by a huge river that found a weakness in the rock and carved out the canyon via a very large horse-shoe shaped ancient waterfall.
Next was Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, and maybe its least attractive. The glacial flow of the river contains a large amount of sediment which make the water a deep grey color. When the water rushes over the falls into Jokulsargljufur canyon, the usually effect of white water cascades is replaced by something more like a muddy torrent.
Our last stop of the day was one of the two remaining sheep ranches in the eastern highlands, a placed call Modrudalsoraefi. There was a nice little church on the ranch, and a newly built rest stop they called the “Mountain Café.”
Our lodging for the evening in Egilsstadir was yet another Edda Hotel. Apparently the Edda Hotel chain in Iceland utilizes school buildings during the summer months to house travelers and tourists. The Edda Hotel in Egilsstadir is a college dormitory with quite Spartan rooms, e.g. they lacked a TV or room phone, but to mention only two of what have now become standard amenities in most hotels. Apparently Vantage saves a lot of money on hotel costs by using these two star facilities rather than the four star hotels mentioned in their glossy literature; I think this practice is called bait-and-switch. However, the dinner we had at the Edda Hotel was quite good, especially since no one in our tour group had eaten a nice piece of beef since arriving in Iceland.
This was our latest start of the day with a 10:15 AM departure from the Edda Hotel for a short drive to the Egilsstadir Airport. We boarded an Air Iceland plane for the 40 minute flight to Reykjvik. We landed at the in-town airport, which is adjacent to our first hotel, Hotel Loftleidir. We boarded a bus with a new driver and headed toward the town of Hveragerdi. Our original bus, and driver, was motoring our luggage from Egilsstadir to our next hotel in Selfoss. Apparently to cover the sights of the south coast of Iceland, we needed to get to the south without spending the whole day on the road.
Our first stop was for lunch in Hveragerdi at a nice stop called the “Garden of Eden.” This is a greenhouse operation that grows vegetables, using geothermal heating, and appears to have evolved into a tourist stop with a grill and sandwich shop, and of course the mandatory souvenir shop. Our lunch stop was followed by a brief bus tour of the city where we viewed some of the geothermal thermal activity in and around the city. At this point in the trip, viewing hot water bubbling from the ground, and fields with wispy jets of steam, have become almost common place.
The major stops of the day were “Gullfoss Waterfall” (Golden Fall) and the famous geyser area that surrounds the “Great Geysir.” It was interesting to learn that geysir is an Icelandic word which is used world wide to describe a geyser. The geyser that erupts about every 3-to-8 minutes, named Strokkur, was the only geyser activity in the area, as the other geysers are erratic in their eruptions. It was humorous to look at the large group of people with cameras at the ready just to see some water jet from the ground. Gullfoss was an interesting waterfall as the water cascades across a broad stretch of the river, flows for a short distance, and then plunges again into a chasm that looks bottomless from the obscured view of the river bank.
Our last stop was at Skalholt, the seat of the first Bishop in Iceland. Although the present church is very modern, it marks the site of the original church, and several others that have been on this spot since about 1000 AD.
We then bused to Hotel Selfoss in the town of Selfoss. This is a very nice hotel and a most welcomed change from the rather rustic hotels of the past few days.
This was a day of waterfalls and glaciers. Our first stop of the day was at Seljarlandfoss which is perhaps the most scenic waterfall we viewed in Iceland. The long straight plunge from the high cliff above is an icon of waterfall images. At the end of the day we stopped at the Skogarfoss waterfall which is famous because you can walk behind the waterfall. We visited this spot late in the day, and were rushing to return to the hotel for our dinner, after a delay due to minor medical emergency with one of our group members.
Perhaps the most memorable sight for many in the group was the ice wall at the Solheimajokull glacier. While it is always an awe inspiring sight to see, and especially to touch this marvel of nature, the ice at this location is covered with ash from old volcanic eruptions. As the ice at this edge of the glacier melts, the layers of ash from old eruptions tends to collect near the surface of the ice.
On the way to the small village of Vik, the eastern end of our southern tour, we stopped at the Folk Museum near Skogar. This musem, started as a personal collection, focuses on early life on the south coast of Iceland.
The museum consists of an interesting exhibit of tools, furnishings, and fishing gear used in this area of Iceland. There are also several examples of lodging structures, and a very nice church where we were given a tour by the museum curator who enjoys talking with tourists and playing the church organ while leading us in singing a hymn.
If viewing the glacial ice was the highlight of the trip, or day, most likely seeing the Puffin's on the shear cliffs of the Dyrholaey headland, in their natural environment, was a close second. This part of Iceland is the center of the Puffin’s reproduction cycle. The birds stay at sea most of the year and return to the cliffs of southern Iceland for a few months in summer. The birds mate for life, although they travel separately during the year. Puffins dig burrows into the typically thin soil on the cliffs, rather than building nests. When the young leave the nest they are not yet able to fly very well, and for the most part just glide to the sea below and start feeding in the ocean by diving for fish. A number of the fledglings get confused by the lights of nearby towns and glide into the villages. Here the children of the villages gather up the birds and take them to the ocean and launch them onto the route nature intended.
This was a half day tour as we headed to the airport for our late afternoon departure for the States.
Our first stop of the day was Thingvellir National Park the ancient site of the Icelandic Parliament. The Icelanders are very proud of their early adoption of this representative form of government. They say that while the British Parliament is the Mother of representative government, the Icelandic Parliament is the Grandmother. Icelanders met at this spot in June of every year starting in the early 900’s. In additional to adopting new laws, the President of the Parliament would recite, from memory, one third of all the existing laws. This recitation was necessary as there was no written record of the laws at the time.
This annual meeting place of the Icelandic Parliament is also a significant geological location. The meeting site is on the edges of the rift zone between the North American and Euro-Asian plates. The Parliament's amphitheater setting uses the edge of the North American plate as a very impressive backdrop that adds to the impression of importance of this location.
Our final stop before the airport is the famous Blue Lagoon of Iceland. This bathing area is an unintended by-product of constructing a geothermal power station in the midst of the surrounding lava field. After the hot water and steam have passed through the power plant, the residual water is pumped onto the lava fields. Eventually the porosity of the lava field was reduced by the concentration of minerals in the effluent. The clever Icelanders were quick to take advantage of this ‘natural’ bath water and started using the lagoon for bathing. As the popularity of the spot increased, it was eventually converted into a spa area with a restaurant and other facilities. The waters here are reported to relive the symptoms of psoriasis, and people with this affliction come from all over the world to spend a few days bathing in the water.
Finally it was on to the airport for our Icelandair flight to Boston, where we stayed over night before flying back to San Francisco.
Guide – I cannot say enough good and nice things about Arni. His knowledge about Iceland was rich in detail and he conveyed it in a manner befitting a former teacher, i.e. in small digestible units that were always laced with interesting tidbits. Arni is the kind of man that you could be stuck with in an elevator with for hours and never really care too much about when your rescue would occur. A gentleman and a true scholar. His knowledge about the geology, of Iceland, is on a par with the few professional geologist I have met in the course of my business pursuits. If there were things I did not like about this tour (read on), they were easily mitigated by the positive contributions of Arni. I think the highest tribute was paid to Arni by our excellent bus driver, Ingvi, who said this was the first such tour he had driven with Arni, but compared to all the other guides he had met, Arni was far superior. My thanks to Arni for making Iceland not only interesting, but making me interested in Iceland.
Weather – We had the very best luck with the weather. It rains frequently in Iceland, but we had only one day when it drizzled a little, but it did not interfere with our tour in the least. Our guide, Arni, said this group had the best weather he had ever experienced with such a tour. I even joked at one point about closing the drapes in a room where the group was gathered as there was too much sun on this trip.
Medical – While this group was very luck with the weather, they were particularly unlucky with accidents and health related problems. At the beginning of our out-of-Reykjavik bus adventure one lady (Clara) sprained her ankle with a miss-step while exiting the bus, and required an ankle support for most of the remainder of the trip. In Egilsstadir a very nice man (Bob) was walking with another couple from the tour along the same sidewalk I had traversed earlier. I noted a large (2 foot diameter) rock on the sidewalk as apparently the person that cut the grass alongside the walkway rolled the rock onto the sidewalk to mow the lawn, and forgot to roll it back later. Apparently poor Bob was engaged in conversation while walking and tripped over the rock. He went to the hospital for some first aid and lost a front tooth in the process. While in Selfoss a very nice lady (Betty) became ill and was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was transferred from the hospital in Selfoss to a hospital in Reykjavik, an indication of the seriousness of her condition. Our departing day report on Betty was she had been transferred from intensive care to a standard care floor awaiting approval from the doctors to fly back to the States. The last incident occurred while the bus was climbing the very steep and narrow road to the Dyrholaey headlands to see the Puffins. Yet another very nice lady (Donna), who I befriended early on the trip, had a diabetic coma. When Ms Becky became aware of the situation she took over from the two ladies who had diagnosed the problem and were helping as best they could. Ms Becky had Donna about 80% back to normal by the time the ambulance arrived to take Donna to the hospital in Selfoss. The quality of Ms Becky’s care was made evident about 20 minutes later, as the bus drove towards Selfoss we were greeted by the returning ambulance, and doctor, who released Donna back onto the tour bus.
Icelandair - My low opinion of Icelandair started with their policy of not allowing the majority of seat assignments prior to airport check-in. I could come up with no rationale for this system, but noted it worked against us as we had a short connection time between our United flight arrival and the Icelandair departure. We did get pairs of seats together, but they were at the back of the plane. I was thrilled with my middle seat, it does a 100K mile flier good to sit for nearly 5 hours in a middle seat every now and then. During our wait to get through airport security, the crew of our flight showed up and was given priority in the queue waiting to move through the gauntlet. I was very surprised when 2 of the 5 flight attendants tripped the security system and had to take of their shoes or jewelry; I wondered aloud if they had every been through airport security before.
The Icelandair onboard service was as poor as the pre-boarding experience. The movies were shown on just a few small TV screens hanging from the ceiling, so there was no individual choice. Some choice would have been welcomed since the two movies shown were from the 1970’s: “Cactus Flower” with Goldie Han and “The Candidate” with Robert Redford. Not only was the entertainment from the 70’s but so too the dinner meal served shortly after the 9:30 PM take off. It was some kind of tomato and cheese dish that perhaps had a few flakes of pasta. It was not spaghetti, it was not lasagna, yet it was strangely familiar. When I asked Ms Becky what she thought it was, the high school girl sitting next to me volunteered “It tasted like Chef Boyardee” and indeed that was the ancient taste memory that I would best associate with this dish. After the meal service the flight attendants were essentially never seen again until the pilot announced we were landing.
Vantage – I have only traveled with Grand Circle and Overseas Adventure Travels (OAT) in the past, so I have limited experience (3 trips) with tour groups. Several members of our group were on their 4th to 7th Vantage Tour, so they obviously liked Vantage Deluxe Tours. I take exception with the word “Deluxe” in Vantage Deluxe Tours. I think Vantage cut several corners (expenses) on this trip, that were unnecessary and in at least one case idiotic.
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