Greetings! Last week we left off after arriving in northern Iceland. This week we finish off our incredible trip to this exotic locale, before heading back to America.
DRIVE TO HUSAVIK & LAUFAS
From Akureyri we drove to Husavik. The drive should take an hour, but we stopped at several places. The first was a traditional Icelandic farmhouse called Laufas. The historic settlement looked picturesque, with its Christian church (built in 1865) surrounded by a colonial America-looking graveyard. From the road the old farmhouse looked like four tiny turf buildings, but in actuality it is one gigantic place that housed 20-30 people. It's now a museum containing household items and utensils used at the start of the 20th century. Open May 15-Sept 15. The old farmhouse Laufas; tel.: (354) 463-3196.
There are thousands of waterfalls in Iceland, yet it's hard to get sick of them because they are so beautiful. We stopped briefly at Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) in Eyjafjodur. In 1000 AD Ljósvetningagoði (Lord of Ljósavatn), after given the authority by the other members of parliament to decide which religion would be adopted by the Icelanders, chose Christianity, and dumped the pagan gods he formerly worshipped into this waterfall.
MARIMBA IN ICELAND
A bit further down the road, our tour guides said they had a special treat for us. When we pulled up to the Hafralaekjarskoli School on a Sunday I would've never guessed what we were about to experience. Six Icelandic seventh graders played marimbas and mpiras (thumb pianos) and sang African songs. They performed so magically, I wasn't surprised when I found out they have also played for Iceland's top politicians and visiting royalty. Here's a 30 second video I took of them. Hafralaekjarskoli School
Husavik is a small fishing village of 2,500 people. It was the first place in Iceland ever built (in 870, by Swedish Viking explorer Gardar Svavarsson). The quaint town offers a spectacular view over the bay of Skjáifandi, which leads to the Arctic Ocean. We had lunch in a charming seafood restaurant, and I was so happy to find out they were making me a cheeseburger. That was, until I bit into it and realized the gamy taste could only be from a lamb. Iceland, of course, is a seafood lover's dream -- the seafood is among the freshest in the world, and fishing is Iceland's leading business. Seafood exports account for approximately half of all foreign exchange earnings. Still, less than 10 % of the workforce is involved in fishing. (Tourism is the second-largest industry). Gamli Baukur, Við Höfnina, Húsavík, tel.: 354- 464 2442.
HUSAVIK WHALE MUSEUM
Most people come to Husavik to go whale watching. That's why we were there, but the weather was so bad we had to forgo our 3-hour excursion. Instead we spent more time in town, and at the Husavik Whale Musuem. Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson (Abbi), the creator and manager, started out as an electrician. But when a friend asked him to go on a boat to help translate for the English passengers, he fell in love with whales. Since then he has devoted his life to whales. He has become one of Iceland's most outspoken residents in favor of banning whaling (a touchy subject in Iceland, about which the locals are split). The 2-story museum has everything you want to know about whales and whaling. For example, rubbing whale skin feels like an olive. The museum even has a section dedicated to Keiko, the captive orca who starred in the hit movie "Free Willy." (TRIVIA: Kieko was brought back to his native Iceland before he died in 2003.) Husavik Whale Museum, Hafnarstettinni; tel.: 354-464 2520.
A few feet away is the controversial and surprisingly popular Icelandic Phallological Museum. It houses 99 specimens of -- penises. They range in size from the biggest - the aptly named sperm whale -- to the smallest, a hamster. That one requires a magnifying glass to see it (poor fellow). The museum has been written up in many publications, including Time magazine. After visiting this place, I can pretty much say I have seen it all. Entrance fee is 500 ISK ($7.70). The Icelandic Phallological Museum, Hedinsbraut 3a, 640 Husavik; tel.: 354-566-8668.
Puffins are black and white seabirds that grow to about 10 inches tall and have colorful orange beaks. There are four different species in the world; Iceland is home to the Atlantic one. We pulled up to a spot, and our guide said we had a short walk to find some puffins (it was early in the year for them, so we had to search). A while later I realized Icelanders are much tougher than Americans, because that short walk was actually a long hike. In addition, the air was freezing, the wind was blowing and the snow was blinding. Icelanders are probably so tough because beginning at 6 months, they are placed outside (wrapped in blankets) in the winter for an hour of fresh air.
LOOKING FOR THE PUFFINS
There are more than six million puffins in Iceland, but we couldn't find a damn one. It was starting to tick us off. By the time our noses were numb, we saw only one: a dead puffin on the ground near the bright orange lighthouse we used as shelter. Fortunately, we spotted a couple of live puffins flying back on our way back to the van, so it felt like we accomplished our mission.
DINNER IN HUSAVIK
We had dinner at Salka restaurant in the center of Husavik. They have a diverse a la carte selection and a full pizza menu (yeah, baby -- finally, some comfort food that didn't taste like fish or lamb). I knew they were making us a special seafood meal, so I quietly asked our waitress if I could get a pizza instead. She recommended the Hawaiian; I said aloha! It wasn't all that good compared to New York standards, but at the time it was delicious! You should've seen the look on my colleagues (who had been eating seafood every meal) faces when my pizza came out. I could have sold them a slice for $20 -- but instead I was smart enough to order a large, so we shared. Salka, Gardarsbraut 6, 640 Husavik, Iceland; tel.: 354-464-2551.
We drove 45 minutes to Mývatn (population 400) where we checked into the Hotel Reynihlid. This 41-room hotel in the heart of the Lake Myvatn area (which is really out in the middle of nowhere) offers excellent accommodations. It's rated 4 stars (in the Icelandic Tourist Board classification). The hotel offers a helpful staff, lively restaurant and bar, along with high-speed internet and clean, comfortable rooms with a desk, TV, bathroom and good views. Rates range from 9,867 ISK ($151) to 20,845 ISK ($320). Hótel Reynihlíd, Reynihlid, Lake Mývatn, Iceland; tel.: 354 464 4170.
Lake Myvatn is Iceland's fourth largest lake (22 square miles). It lies inland, in the northeastern part of the country -- one of the most volcanically and geothermally active parts of Iceland. The smell of sulfur is heavy in both the air and the tap water. (Icelandic water is good for your skin, making it nice and smooth). The shallow lake includes 50 small islands. The name means Midge Lake, in honor of all the pesky gnats, but fortunately it was too cold for us to experience them. We did see plenty of birds, which was not surprising. This place is world-famous for its 2,000 types of birds. The 15 species of ducks are the most in all of Europe.
Driving to mount Námafjall looked like a scene out of Mad Max. The stacks of smoke in the distance, combined that with the utter desolation of the area, made it feel like the world had been nuked. It was so eerie. The stacks of smoke were actually steam coming from Hverfell, a huge crater where the colors are vividly light, and the mud flats are so hot they bubble.
We were in the same area that the Apollo 11 crew practiced moonwalking in the late 1960s. The astronauts later said this place looked more like the moon than the moon itself! Then we hopped back in the van and drove a short distance off the main road to Krafla Landsvirkjun, the world's first geothermal electrical power plant. Visitors can get a free first-hand look at Iceland's natural power. Landsvirkjun, Haaleitisbraut 68 201 Reykjavik; tel 515-9000.
BREAD FROM THE GROUND
One of the neatest things we witnessed was seeing café owner Ólöf bake her hverabraud (sweet rye bread) using nothing but geothermal heat from the lava fields. She had put her loaf in the earth oven for 19 hours, then pulled it out, brought it to her café and served it to us warm with sweet butter and jam. It was delicious, as were Ólöf's homemade mozzarella and feta cheeses, and skyr (Iceland's version of yogurt). Ólöf's café is on her farm, and through the windows in her café visitors can watch cows being milked (twice a day, at 7 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.). Customers can even milk a cow if they like, and taste the super-fresh milk. Milking a cow is quite disturbing for a man. I struggled as I tried to pull on one of the cow's udders to get milk. Ólöf came over to help, and after I pulled in the direction she showed me, she said, See, it's coming. I immediately let go and said I've had enough. We then checked out her sheep, which was more comfortable for me. Here's a video of Ólöf making bread, and our visit to her café/farm. Vogafjós Café, 425 Vogafjós, 660 Mývatn; tel.: 354-464-4303.
I read that over 50% of the Icelanders either believe in or do not deny in the existence of trolls and hidden people (huldufolk). I'm an open-minded person, but I didn't really buying into it until we visited Dimmuborgir ("Dark Citadels"). Our guide, Thoran, told us that the area we were walking around in is believed to have once been a troll party. He knew this because the trolls forgot about the time, and when the sun came up they all turned into stone. Looking at these strange rock formations that definitely appeared to be petrified trolls rising above lava plains, and hearing the stories, gave me goose bumps. Maybe it's true...
NATURAL GEOTHERMAL BATHS
We visited the coolest thing on earth: natural geothermal baths, which people of the Mývatn region have enjoyed ever since Iceland was settled by the Vikings. The healthy water contains a unique blend of minerals, silicates and geothermal microorganisms (including sulfur, so be sure to remove your silver jewelry so it doesn't get tarnished). Sulfur itself, however, is considered beneficial for patients with asthma and other respiratory diseases; many trace elements in the water are helpful for skin conditions.
MYVATN NATURE BATHS
The Mývatn Nature Baths are an oasis. They opened in June of 2004, and are even nicer than what I imagined. The tastefully designed complex offers bathers a completely natural experience. The temperature outside was 31 degrees, and it was snowing. After my mandatory shower I donned my wool hat in case my head got cold (I didn't need it). I walked as fast as I could to the edge of the sliver blue water, where clouds of steam rose from a fissure deep in the Earth's surface. I slowly waded to the middle of the bath and tried to relax. But I couldn't; I was too excited. To think it was snowing, I was surrounded by snow-capped mountains and chilling (I mean boiling) in 36-40°C [96-104°F] soothing water in Iceland. That was something I'll never forget. We didn't even shower afterward, because the minerals are so good for the body. (TIP: To beat the crowds, show up either very early or real late). Price: adults 1,100 ISK ($17.25), children 8-16 550 ISK ($8.60), handicapped people, patients with psoriasis and other skin diseases, and senior citizens 67 and older: 880 ISK ($13.80). Hours: summer 9 a.m. to midnight; winter: Mondays - Fridays 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 10 p.m. Myvatn Nature Baths, Jardbadsholar, Myvatn; tel: (354)-464-4411.
HOTEL KEA IN AKUREYRI
After our amazing bath we drove 75 minutes back to Akureyri. There we visitied the world's most northerly 18-hole golf course, the site of the annual Artic Open. (TRIVIA: There are 62 golf courses in Iceland). Then we walked around the really cute small town. We had dinner at an okay but expensive ($25 for a bowl of pasta) Italian restaurant near our hotel. We spent the night in the 4-star Hotel Kea. Located in the heart of Akureyri, it is not only elegant but very comfortable. I had a nice room with a view of the fjord, and caught up on some work using free wireless high-speed in the bar area. Summer rates start at 14,640 ISK ($220). Hotel Kea Akureyri, Hafnarstræti 87-89, 600 Akureyri; tel:. 354-464-4455.
... continued in Iceland, part 4