After Silfra, we headed north to the beautiful Snæfellsnes peninsula. Even though it seemed like a tourist-y thing to do, we decided to travel with Grey Line Tours and take a big bus up to the county. We had considered driving a rental card, but after reading some other blogs and travel advice on sites like Trip Advisor, we figured we’d see more and save a little money at the same time by booking a bundled trip – and man was it great.
The ride to Snæfellsnes from Reykjavík takes about 2 hours, but the scenery on the way is amazing. Maybe its the lack of trees or the sheer mountain sides that rise up within a few hundred yards of the beach, but Iceland has the scenery to make any road trip an adventure unto itself. The bus had WiFi, pretty good air conditioning, and came complete with outlets and USB charges beside each seat, so we never had to worry about phone or camera power issues – it was really like sightseeing mixed with glamping – at the end of the day it’s never terrible to ride in comfort and style.
Anyway, the tour began headed north with our guide, Dagmar, giving us some great insights on Reykjavík that only locals can provide on everything from good food to local happenings – we had no idea the World’s Strongest Man competitions were going on just a short ride from the city! We also passed through a tunnel that the Icelanders built to ease some of the traffic issues associated with the winter weather conditions experienced along the coast, and dude, this tunnel makes the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel here is Virginia look like child’s play.
It took us about 7 minutes to pass through the THREE AND A HALF MILE tunnel that descends to a depth of 540 feet below sea level, but Dagmar told us it shortened the drive around the fjords to the northern parts of the island by almost an hour and by about 30 miles of roads – it was pretty impressive, especially in the places where you could see the hewn bedrock in the sides of the tunnel: very dwarfish/LOTR feeling (but with a car).
Our first stop after the tunnel and a ride through the county was one of the few yellow sand beaches to be found around the island. Seals frequent this area, and although we caught sight of a few from a distance we spent more time exploring the rocky shoreline that was exposed by the low tide.
The rocky beaches are so different from the sand that we are used to here in the States, and the volcanic nature of many of the rock formations made for great photos. As usual, the beach was also fairly well populated with birds, but instead of the familiar (and annoying) seagulls that squawk and carry on, the birds were much more reserved, and a few managed to find their way in front of my camera lens.
After a the walk along the beach we traveled on the small town of Arnarstapi, located between the sea and the foot of Mt. Stapafell. The view was stupendous, and the walking trails that we took along the cliffs by the shore made for great pictures and quite a few pensive moments spent just taking in the sea, the wind, and the magnificent scenery.
The cliffs beside the sea reveal much of Iceland’s volcanic past, and the hexagonal column of basalt are easily discernible amongst the waves and through the mosses and vegetation that cling to the rocks amidst the surf. At the end of the seaside trail stands a huge stone monument to the half-human, half-giant (or maybe half-troll or half-titan – Dagmar told us the legends vary a bit here) Bardur Snaefellsas – the legendary settler of Arnarstapi and defender of the spirit of Snæfellsnes. More than anything else I saw on our trip, it was his stoic gaze and important role in the community that reminded me that in Iceland, the gods are never very far away.
A short ride from Arnarstapi deposited us in the small town known as Hellnar. According to the Guide to Iceland, Hellnar has a year-round population of less than 10 people, and I think they mostly work at Primus Káffi, our (only) choice for lunch in the town. If you travel, you know that sight-seeing can leave you famished, and this place was exactly what the doctor ordered. There were three main meals to choose from, and since there were three of us, we each picked a different one and then sampled the fare all around. The mushroom soup was great, the Icelandic lamb soup was awesome, but the meatballs really took the cake. We got to watch some World Cup with the locals while we ate, and that added to the atmosphere that can best be described by the first sign we saw when we entered the café which read, “Sorry, we don’t have WiFi, we just have each other”. It was a great lunch.
After eating, we walked off our food babies and spent some time admiring the landscape and the one small church located in town, and we also read the story of Jóhannes Helgason. Follow the link to an Icelandic paper is you want to read about the unluckiest guy ever – it should run through google translate so you can read it. Of all the places in Iceland that we were fortunate enough to experience, Hellnar was the one I would most like to call home, and I hope to return at some point, maybe for good.
After lunch, Dagmar took us caving in a lava tube, though thankfully the lava had retreated quite some time ago – lucky us. We donned helmets and slung flashlights across our shoulders and ventured down a cold spiral staircase into the dark. Our guide into the unknown had a name, but told us he just picked random names when guiding, so he went by Jeff for our tour, though apparently he went by Dave to the group before us, so who know what it really was. My money is on something Icelandic that is hard to pronounce, which is literally 99% of their language, so your guess is as good as mine.
Despite the air of mystery surrounding his name, Jeff was a great guide into the cave and included as much folklore in his guiding as he did geology and science. After a short walk through the tube we came to another spiral staircase that seemed to go down forever into the abyss, and at the bottom we gathered into a great underground hall that quickly brought to mind the stories of trolls and dwarves that we had been hearing all along the tour. Another group joined us and the guides sang a traditional Icelandic song and then had us kill the lights. I have been in the dark of a cave before, but Americans are hung up on emergency lighting and such so there was always a bit of illumination around, but there was none of that here. We stood in silence, simply breathing, for a solid minute just enjoying the pitch black. I moved my hand in front of my face – and I couldn’t see it at all. If it were not for the steady breathing of the folks around me there would not have been any stimuli taking place whatsoever. No sound, no light, and no movement – awesome stuff at Vatnshellir Cave, 115 feet below the surface.
A few hundred meter walk brought us back to the surface and into the sunlight, and then onto our next stop at one of the famous black sand beaches that dot Iceland: Djúpalónssandur. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe this beach, and I am not sure that any words I write will do it justice, but I’ll do my best. It is nestled amidst a lava field that would be nigh impassable were you to stray from the one road that leads to the beach itself. Parking is limited at this remote location, but there was plenty when we arrived, probably due to the remote nature of the beach in the first place. The beach itself simply pops into existence amidst sheer cliffs, and the walk from the parking lot to the beach is almost as enjoyable as the beach itself.
Two lagoons, one of which supposedly has healing properties thanks to a bishop’s blessing, greet you as you walk down the path to the beach. With a massive glacier and razor-sharp lava rocks as a scenic backdrop, these two small bodies of water are worthy of a moment’s pause. In addition to all of the beautiful nature in this place, there is also a traditional test of strength used by local fishermen for those that were bound to sea. Some rocks (read that as oddly shaped small boulders) of various weights greet you step onto the beach, and a plaque explains that villagers would test their strength by lifting the stones to hip height in order to qualify for fishing expeditions. I managed to get three stones up, but the forth was simply too difficult to grip, and I barely moved it out of the sand. Dagmar told us that it weighted well over 300 lbs., so I didn’t feel terrible about not being able to deadlift that egg-shaped stone, but apparently enough Icelandic guys got it because they did manage to get people on the row boats. After exploring our qualifications to embark on fishing adventures, we strolled off to the beach and took in the view. The dark water of the North Atlantic and the black stones made for an eerie surf that I won’t soon forget. Signs warned of dangerous waves and strong rip tides while forbidding swimming – though if you show me the guy that wants to swim in that cold water I might be convinced that the tides and the waves would let him be.
We saw the many stacked stone cairns that littered the sandy beach as well as the rusted remnants of an English fishing vessel that was lost at sea along this treacherous coast, and between these two sights we noticed that this beach also carries an air of solemnness that is uncommon at many of the beaches we have visited before. Before heading to our next stop, we had to see the Singing Rock, a huge volcanic formation and allegedly a church for elves that live all over the island. Djúpalónssandur was definitely one of the better stops along the tour.
After the black sand beach, we rounded the peninsula and headed towards our last stop of the day at Kirkjufell Mountain, allegedly the most photographed mountain in Iceland. It juts up out of the sea 1520 feet into the sky, dwarfing the surroundings while making
us feel pretty small as well. The lack of trees on the mountains and sparse grasses that help hold the mountain in place are truly a geologist’s dream, but even those with simply a basic understanding of earth science can appreciate the beautiful layers of rock and sediment that are exposed on the sides of the mountain. I wish we could have caught the mountain at sunset or sunrise, but as we stood there in the afternoon light it still held our attention and was worth a good long look. It was a great last stop on our tour of the peninsula, and although the ride home continued to provide us with magnificent scenery speckled with sheep and horses, Kirkjufell was not a sight soon to be topped.
I could write about this trip for page after page, but since pictures are worth thousands of words, I’ll let this slideshow tell you the rest!