Our journey around the Ring Road continued as we headed north on the eastern shore of the island towards North Iceland. (I’ve again chosen to describe our experiences here in sequential fashion). During this relatively short stretch we encountered the worst weather of our trip, with exceedingly strong gusts of wind and intermittent rain. By our estimate the gusts were up to 40 mph and at times we had to fight to keep the car on the road (thank God we weren’t driving an RV or cargo truck!). We did see wild reindeer running across the grasslands — probably seeking shelter from the elements. The scenery remained beautiful and in a few hours we had entered the Eastern Fjordlands. The fjords are lovely though it does slow your progress as you have to drive all the way around each one. We briefly stopped at Djupivogur, a small pretty fishing village typical of settlements on the eastern coast.
The Ring Road then took us inland through a mountain pass where we encountered a dramatic heavy rainstorm — combined with the gusting winds this made for interesting driving. But a benefit of the downpour is that it brought out many waterfalls. I remember looking at one side of a mountain pass and within a single field of view there were 12 waterfalls!! During the drive we saw serious efforts at reforestation with thousands of acres planted mostly with pine trees. We spent a night in Egilsstadir at the comfortable comfortable Hotel Herad which I mention because we had our best meal of the trip here; we enjoyed an extremely tender and tasty reindeer steak in a wonderful blueberry sauce that I’d recommend to everyone!
The next day began our exploration of North Iceland. We left the Ring Road and proceeded up a rough gravel side road to the mightiest waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss. There’s a short hike down from the parking area to the plateau where one observes the falls. Besides dealing with the wind and driving rain, the plateau was flooded and without a good pair of hiking boots (which fortunately I was wearing) it was impossible to keep your feet dry. The falls were powerful but the weather made observing them for more than a few minutes at a time impossible. The landscape surrounding the fall is stark and rugged and part of Vatnajokull National Park, a newly created National Park, the largest in Europe.
By the time we reached our next stop, the Lake Myvatn region, the weather had moderated to only showers with some gusts of wind — a significant improvement. Here we visited Hverir, a fascinating geothermal hot-spot with bubbling mud pots, hot pools, hissing steam vents, and foul sulfurous fumes. Much of the ground in the region had usual other-worldly colors reflecting the leaching of minerals into the ground. In many regions the ground is so hot you can burn yourself if you touch it so you need to stay on the elevated trails. There are a number of nearby craters many of which you can explore if you want, like a climb to the rim of Hverfell, a tephra explosion crater, or the Skutustadagigar pseudo-craters. Lake Myvatn is rich in insect life and, as such, also bird life because of warming by geothermal springs (though the water at the shore was my no means warm where we visited it). The lake provides great bird-watching opportunities and is the largest bird sanctuary in Europe.
We next visited Iceland’s whale watching capitol in Husavik, a charming small harbor town which we really enjoyed. Our intent was to go on a whale watching trip the morning after we arrived but unfortunately the weather was too stormy for this to be enjoyable. Instead, we spent a pleasant morning exploring the Whale Museum, a fine display of the life history of whales including many assembled skeletons (giving you a true impression of the size of these leviathans). It’s a common misconception that Iceland still hunts whales; only Norway and Japan do. Icelanders do eat whales which are caught and killed in fishing nets which seems pragmatic to me, but they don’t actively hunt them even though this is part of their heritage. Another unusual stop in Husavik, which might be of interest to some, is the Icelandic Phallological Museum. We had seen one such specimen in the whale museum which satisfied what little curiosity we may have had in this regard, but it is a unique museum with unusual exhibits that you might want to visit if in town.
The next morning we stopped at the beautiful Godafoss waterfall before heading to the capitol city of North Iceland, Akureyri. It is also the second largest city in Iceland, with 17,000 people. It’s a very pretty small city dominated by an interesting church (Akureyrarkirkja) which sits on a prominent hill; it was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, the architect of the famous Halgrimskirkja in Reykjavik. The town is still mostly a fishing and shipping port but does have a college and is a developing center of tourism. There are many museums and art galleries and one of the best Botanical Gardens in the country in Akureyri. It would have been good to spend at least a full day in Akureyri as it has lots to see and do.
We concluded our drive of the North country, the landscape containing progressively more farms the further west we headed. That evening the skies cleared and we walked to a beach on the edge of the Artic Ocean to see it we could see the northern lights. While they were a little faint we could see their glow to the north and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness we picked out some faintly moving strands of the Aurora Borealis weaving their way to the south. It was a nice way to end this leg of the trip.
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