After our magical show of the Northern Lights the night before, Jeff and I had no idea how Iceland was going to top itself. We woke late the next morning, but still in complete darkness. In November, the sun doesn’t rise until about 10am. But we quickly got our act together so we could take as much advantage of the sun as possible.
Our mission was the black sands beaches of Vik about 180km east of Reykjavik. On a Saturday morning, there was very little traffic on the roads. In this country, there is little traffic anyway, but it was pretty isolating to see no one in front of you or behind you on white roads surrounded by lava rocks and mountains covered in powder. Jeff was snapping pictures left and right because there wasn’t a moment that wasn’t picture-perfect.
As we drove along, in the distance I spotted a waterfall. I know spotting waterfalls in Iceland is incredibly common, but to a couple of kids from Texas living in London, we are still in awe of falling water. We turned off and stared at the wonder. It was the Seljalandsfoss. At about 60 meters tall, we walked over to the base.
You can actually walk behind the falls, but with the spray icing the sidewalk completely over, we decided against falling. I gripped the icy rope tightly as I got as close as my frozen face would allow. But what I loved most was watching a dad drag his child along the iced over bridge. The kid would skid around laughing and tumbling. This is entertainment.
The waterfall goes through Troll Woman’s gorge, and according to legend, an old troll woman was trying to cross the gorge but had to retreat when she heard the bells of the nearby church. Next week, I’ll explore the legends and tales that come out of Iceland, but I’ll start by saying elves and trolls are a common-place story on this island. And everyone is in on it.
The next waterfall along the Ring Road was what we were racing the sun to: Skogafoss. About 30 km further down Route 1, this massive waterfall is one of the most photographed in the country. It’s about 25 meters in width and drops 60 meters. Because of the spray, you can often catch a rainbow, which we were lucky enough to do.
There is a tall staircase over to the right of the falls that you can climb for a view of the river leading to the drop point, and I believe that was more astounding to see than the falls itself. The bending river reflected metallic blue as the sun continued to drop in the sky. Shadows were creating different landscapes and the sheep grazing across the way made this incredibly picturesque.
After admiring the rushing water, we calculated about 2 hours left of sun, and we still had another 30 km to go to Vik and the Black Sands Beaches. We hopped in the car and managed to take a couple of wrong turns. Our GPS wasn’t the most accurate and the signs were not in English, but we managed to catch some beautiful horses being herded by a farmer and saw mist covered cliffs. Getting lost never looked so incredible.
But luck was on our side. We found the right turn in for Reynishverfi Beach and managed to park just as the sun was beginning to fall. The pink and purple reflections on the water made the whole space look like a 1980s fever dream. The white surf crashing on the black sands looks surreal, and the crests of the waves were the tallest I have ever seen. They weren’t quite surfable, but they were high enough to create a tunnel of water.
We made footprints in the sand and took copious photos. There weren’t a ton of tourists on the beach giving us the chance to have some solitude in this piece of paradise.
The other big attraction to the beach are the Basalt Rock Formations or Columns. These columns are created by the cooling of lava flow. “The cooling causes a contraction of the lava and creates fractures, perpendicular to the surface of the lava flow, with hexagonal forms. And the slower the lava cooled the more regular the columns are, hence the stair-like resemblance.” (Something About Iceland)
The air was incredibly cold and was getting colder as the sun continued to fall, but we had such a hard time tearing ourselves away from the beach. I was terrified that if I turned my face for just a second, we would miss some other gorgeous color combination or angle of the water. But eventually, we tore ourselves away just as the sun disappeared completely from the horizon.
We drove toward Vik city center for dinner, hoping we could find something that could cater to gluten-free. The best option we found was Halldorskaffi just off the main drag. It was the only place that didn’t double as a truck stop, so we huddled in and had a wonderful meal of grilled fish and lamb tartar. It was actually quite tasty and the staff were really nice and accommodating.
In planning our trip several weeks prior, we decided against the Blue Lagoon. I know it’s one of the things to do in the country, but we found something called the Secret Lagoon in Fludir that seemed a little more private and away from tourists. And that night promised a good Northern Lights show. We found this “Northern Lights Experience Package” online and signed up for it. What we didn’t know was we could have gone in the evening for a much cheaper price. You may want to call ahead before booking one of these package deals and save. But we still had a wonderful time.
In this package, you are given a chance to boil an egg in a hot spring, eat fermented shark, try a shot of the local schnapps, and swim to your hearts content under the stars. Fermented shark and caraway seed schnapps aside, it was quite an evening. Music played under the water as we swam around with only about seven other people, and we got to see the Lights dance in the sky. The pool was naturally heated, and our hosts were perfectly lovely. They had no timetable and just went “with the flow.” But when we asked our guide if he ate fermented shark himself…on purpose, he said, “Of course!” and took a bite for himself. It took a glass of wine and the spice-laded schnapps to get the taste out of my mouth. It’s something you must do, but only for the bragging rights. It was quite putrid.
We drove back to Reykjavik in complete darkness just as a snow storm was descending on the country. It was like driving in a snow globe as we carefully drove the 100 km back to our flat.
The next day was our last full day in the country, so we took full advantage of the car and drove north. Most of the country is still pretty sleepy on Sunday mornings, so we were left alone again for our country drive. The road was narrow and windy, but we followed rivers, valleys, hidden bays as we made our way toward Glymur Foss. When we finally arrived to the hidden, barely noticeable turn, we realized to see this waterfall would have been a three mile hike, which we were ill-equipped for in only trainer shoes and inappropriate gloves.
Only mildly disappointed because of all the beauty we saw along the way, we continued on our drive toward Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Two different waterfalls in one location, one calm and flowing and the other rushing and turbulent. It was out of this world to see such dangerous beauty.
The water was icy blue and the snow was soft and powdery. Only one other family was there enjoying the surroundings, but we were absolutely frozen. It was negative 6 degrees Celsius, and my fingers were numb. We stayed just long enough to really take as many photos as possible before running back to the car with our heated seats, which we now understand why it’s as common as automatic windows.
We continued to race the sun as we got to the small fishing village of Borgarnes for a perfect lunch at The Settlement Centre. But other than more beachfront views, the small city didn’t have much else going on. But we made it just in time to Akranes to see the sunset over two lighthouses. The cotton candy sky against the lava rocks and tall towers were astounding. I really can’t explain how amazing everything was.
We drove back to Reyjkavik via a 4.4km long underwater tunnel. It was a little unnerving to be so far underwater and for so long, but just a word to the wise, there was a toll of about £5 or 1000kr for this roller coaster ride.
Stay tuned next week for the history, legends and elves of Iceland. Meanwhile, here is a song that summed up our day in the mountains: Can’t Feel My Face.