Henry Poon's Blog

A week of summer in Iceland

This post is long overdue. I went on this trip in July 2021, and now posting it over one year later. I guess I got lazy.

At the time we went, Iceland was one of the few countries in the world that allowed vaccinated foreign visitors. All that was needed was proof of vaccination – not even a pre-entry COVID test. The fact that most people were vaccinated meant that most people were not wearing masks in the city, but this was before even the Delta variant – it seems like so long ago now.

I had been itching to go travel somewhere since the pandemic began, and this was a very welcome nudge towards normalcy. Flying with Icelandair was the same as before: the seat and leg room is pretty comfortable, but there’s no food included with the airfare. The only difference is the extra bureacracy related to COVID, which increased how long it took each person to get through immigration, resulting in long lines after the plane. It didn’t help that we arrived so early in the morning that the food places weren’t even open yet and we had to wait in line while hungry. Eventually, we picked up the rental car and drove into Reykjavik for breakfast. We took the day easy by just exploring Reykjavik on foot, and took a nap in the afternoon when the jet lag caught up to us.

That night, we had probably the most memorable meal we’ve ever had at Tapas Barinn. The great thing about tapas is that as tourists, we get to try a little bit of everything as opposed to ordering entrées.

I even got to try some Flóki single malt whiskey. The smokiness from the whiskey actually comes from the barley smoked using sheep dung, a traditional cooking method. I also got to try some more brennivin like my last trip to Iceland – it’s essentially a grain alcohol (40%) and flavoured with caraway seeds, which gives it a sweeter flavour than something like vodka.

I had visited Iceland a couple years ago, but it was in the winter where there was only 4 hours of light per day, and even then the sky looked like dusk.

This time, travelling there in the summer, I didn’t see the night sky the entire time I was there. I could more clearly see and appreciate the nature around me, like the endless fields of moss growing on the rocks, and sheep freely roaming the fields.

It is thought that the Icelandic sheep were introduced to Iceland by the Viking settlers. Farmers allow them to freely roam around in the summer months, and as winter comes, they round them all back up again.

Like my previous trip to Iceland, we travelled along the Ring Road to see the waterfalls, and the volcanic beaches.

This is what the view at Seljalandsfoss looks like in the summer versus the view I saw in the winter. I had no idea Iceland could be so green. In the summer, people can even walk behind the waterfall, between the rock and the falls itself, but in the winter, the trail is closed because of ice.

Skógafoss looks about the same between summer and winter, except the vegetation is greener in summer.

A kitty even came out to hang out with us! As we were walking, the cat just walked up to us and stopped, expecting pets as a payment to pass through. After that, off it went.

Unlike travelling to Iceland in the winter, there were no restrictions (4WD) to drive up to Dyrhólaey in the summer. As we drove up, I could see why. The road was a set of steep switchbacks on gravel roads that were only a little more than two cars width – and there were no guardrails.

From the top, one can see the endless mountains, or watch the waves crash against the beaches of volanic sand.

The next day, we took a Superjeep tour to see ice caves on an active volcano known as Katla. The reason why it’s called Superjeep is because it can deflate its tires (for icy roads), and inflate them back up again depending on the terrain, but otherwise it looks like your typical Ford Excursion but with big tires.

The ice caves were located a ways in from the glacier. In summer, a lot of the ice had melted, revealing the volanic sand and rock underneath.

Only just now as I was writing this, did I realize we were travelling on a literal volcano, but I suppose it’s safe.

As we headed up the volcano, the lush, green vegetation quickly disappeared, revealing a rocky landscape with a mix of ice and black volcanic rock. Grey clouds covered the sky and it began to rain.

Eventually, the tour guide parked the truck, and we began our volcano hike. He brought his ice pick with him and used it several times to cut steps in the ice.

Despite the summer season, the temperature still felt like a mild winter. But it still meant the ice caves would not be as fully developed as in the winter season, and this could clearly be seen when comparing the ice caves from this trip versus the previous one. In fact, the winter ice cave was really more of a tunnel, while the picture of the summer ice cave was taken from the end of the cave with the camera pointing out.

The ice on top of the volcanic rock looked so alien that several movies used this place as a location for another planet. Rogue One was filmed in the area for the opening scene where young Jyn Erso hides from the stormtroopers. The movie doesn’t show the whole cave, but the similiarity is clear. If the movie had shown the whole cave, one would see why people call it the “Yoda Cave”.

It was nice staying in the cave for a bit as a brief respite from the rain. We made the mistake of wearing jeans for a multi-hour hike in the rain, and our wet clothes just made us even colder. We also got the chance to chat a bit with others on the tour. We met an orthodonist who practised in Greece by the name of Thanos (I wonder if he was aware of the MCU), and another who claimed to be a “voodoo priestess”, whatever that means.

The next morning, the plan was whale and puffin watching. It turned out to be an incredibly bad idea because I apparently get seasick, and didn’t get to see a lot. Even those who did see whales could really only see a small fin barely capturable on camera. Only a small percentage of people get to see the whale flying out of the water and crashing back down. Good thing the puffin watching was on a separate tour so I got to recover from the seasickness, but we decided not to go and instead gave the tickets away to another group that we overheard looking for tickets to the same tour.

Instead, we went to go get some Icelandic hotdogs for lunch. The key things that set it apart are the condiments, and the sausage. In addition to ketchup, and sweet mustard, they also add “remoulade”, similar to mayo with added herbs. The sausage uses lamb, as opposed to chicken/pork/beef.

Next, we headed to the Reykjanes Peninsula and the Blue Lagoon. We reached the tip of the peninsula and stood on the cliff watching the waves crash against the shore. If there was such a thing as the end of the earth, this was it. Despite strong gusts of wind, thousands of birds nested on the side of the cliff. From far away they look like white specks, but one can see them clearly with a good set of binoculars.

Next, we went for a relaxing soak at the Blue Lagoon, a man-made spa fed by water used by a nearby geothermal plant.

The water forms a milky blue colour from the high silica mud, and is supposedly good for the skin. They even sell super overpriced skincare products at the gift shop.

The area is beautiful with all the steam slowly rising from the hot springs with the light cool breeze. It would have felt like a whipping biting wind if not for the hot spring. You just submerge yourself until you feel not too hot and not too cold, and then relax with their cleansing silica face masks and a drink.

After leaving Blue Lagoon, we’d learned there was an active eruption happening at the nearby Fagradalsfjall volcano, and was happening slow enough such that it was OK to go see it.

A short walk from the parking lot led us to the lava flow. The trail continued upstream of the lava flow to the mouth of the volcano.

There were warnings for people to not walk too close to the lava flow because of risks of toxic fumes, but many did it anyway (as did we). Many curious hikers threw rocks on it just to find out that the lava flow had already hardened, even though there were still visible fumes coming out.

The hike turned out to be really long, and we weren’t really prepared to do a multi-hour hike at 20:00 in the cold, wind, and rain. As we reluctantly turned around, we saw people pointing the other and when we looked, we managed to catch a glimpse of the volcano spewing lava from afar. It makes sense now why people call it the “land of ice and fire”

It was surprising to see how watery the lava looked. I expected molten rock to be more viscous. The lava just spewed out in a splash. I felt super lucky to have seen such a sight.

As we walked back, I noticed these hexagonal patterns in the ground. Maybe this is how basalt columns form? From what I’ve read, under certain conditions, the cooling magma can cool in a way that forms these hexagonal shapes.

By the time we reached the parking lot, we were wet and cold (seemed to be a recurring theme by this point). Luckily there was a food truck at the parking lot selling hot soup.

The next morning before heading out to the Golden Circle, we started the day off with a nice brunch at Sandholt.

The unexpected star of the breakfast was the bread. As an amateur baker myself, this is the bread I aspire to make – it’s soft, light and airy with a crisp crust.

Iceland also has its own type of bread, baked for 24 hours using the geothermal heat in the ground, aptly named lava bread. This one is from Fontana in Laugarvatn. It has a brown colour because of the rye flour and milk used, and the milk gives a finer crumb on the inside with richer flavours from the milk fat. The crust isn’t as crispy due to a longer bake at a lower temperature. When they bury the baking pot in the ground, they mark it with a small rock to remember where its location.

Next step along the Golden Circle was Geysir. The geothermal heat creates pressure underground causing the water to explode upward every few minutes. The entire area is filled with geothermal pools, some of which are so hot they’re bubbling from the heat and pressure.

It’s cool just to just stand in anticipation of the eruption. From looking at it, there’s no indication that it’s going to explode at all, and then it just does. At one point, the wind carried the water toward us and got us all wet, but luckily by the time the water hits the ground, it’s cooled down.

From the Geysir, we drove to Gullfoss. Unlike other waterfalls, this one has a unique feature where the water does a zig zag before hitting the bottom.

There were attempts in the past to build a hydroelectric plant here, but those efforts have not succeeded, and since then, the waterfall is now under government protection.

The last destination of the Golden Circle was Kerið crater. It’s believed that the crater formed through volcanic activity. Once the magma chamber emptied, it collapsed, forming the crater. The accumulation of water is not formed by rainfall, but is actually ground water.

On our last day before we left, we got the chance to try more Icelandic dishes. This time we had some lamb soup, dried fish, fermented shark, and some Einstök white ale, a local craft brew.

It’s not often that I would rave about soup, but I liked it so much I’ve been trying to recreate the flavour at home. It’s savoury soup with vegetables, lamb, and herbs/spices. I can’t say I was a huge fan of the dried fish and fermented shark though. The dried fish is served with butter and its flavour reminds me of super tough beef jerky with a light fish flavour, while the fermented shark has a texture of a ham with a soury tang. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste. The beer was great though.

That’s pretty much it for Iceland. We got the chance to try all sorts of local delicacies, and see a piece of nature we wouldn’t normally see in our part of the world. At the airport duty free, I even got to pick up some Brennivin, and a bottle of the Flóki sheep dung whiskey!

See more pictures of my trip to Iceland here

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