Saturday, March 3, 2012

short days and a chance of snow

Meg and I just got back from our annual February vacation. We had entertained going to Morocco for a while, but for those of you who follow this blog know, we have a perverse fascination with going to cold places in mid-winter. And so, we went to Iceland. Of course.

I don't mind admitting that I have had an Iceland fixation since reading my father's copy of Desmond Bagley's Running Blind in the late 1970s. I haven't read the book in maybe thirty years, but I can tell you that there might have been all kinds of references in that book to active volcanic activity (like the creation of the island of Surtsey in 1963), but I remember river crossings, Land Rovers, and that the Russian KGB agent drank calvados. In any case, compared to our flights to Mongolia, the Ukraine, and Sweden, a five-hour direct flight from JFK to Iceland looked both easy and, frankly, cheap. And admittedly, while the population of Iceland is only about three-quarters of the population of Staten Island, and so small scale makes things a lot easier to coordinate, Keflavik is one slick airport some 31miles from downtown Reykjavik. Stylistically, it was reminiscent of the Ikea-type experience we had in Stockholm despite its shared history as a big-bomber USAF base. Buses to and from the airport are coordinated with the flight schedule so while there are taxis waiting, there's actually really no point to taking one unless you're going someplace other than Reykjavik.

As with our trip to Sweden, we decided to base ourselves in one place and make short overnight trips elsewhere -- in this case, staying at the Radisson Blu 1919 downtown which was perfect for us. (I just made the mistake of looking at some people's reviews of this hotel and am a little surprised by some people's expectations: it's an urban Radisson, it's not a boutique froux-froux hotel; it's in Scandinavia, what kind of decor do you expect?; it's a downtown hotel on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, would you like cheap with that, too? please don't go out to eat anywhere because that will really wreck your budget; room check-out is 12noon, how is housekeeping going to get your room ready when you arrive four hours before that time?) In short, the location is great to walk to museums, shopping, restaurants, and probably even the bus station if the weather was a little nicer; the staff were unilaterally extremely helpful and imminently more fluent in English that we will ever be in Icelandic. That latter observation goes for Icelanders in general, too, and when you do completely mangle a place name, they all seemed to laugh it off with a lightness that comes from a certain cultural self-confidence. Incidentally, the first picture on the right is taken from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja, the striking Lutheran church in the middle of the city. The dark-grey boxy-looking structure three-quarters of the way up the picture is the Harpa, Iceland's new, premier concert hall. I can only describe it as being like a TARDIS: on the outside, it is certainly innovative with its angled panes of colored glass that mirror and mimic the sea that surrounds it, but once you get inside, it is massive and light at the same time. And I just saw that Buika is playing there in early June -- might be time for another trip!

In addition to a couple of side-trips to the Vestmannaeyjar and then to the peninsula we abominated to 'Snuffaluffagus', and after our equine excursion in Sweden, I was determined to ride an Icelandic horse in Iceland. From what I gather, Eldhestar might be the largest horse-riding outfit in Iceland and, whether cause or effect, actually does offer riding year-round, is close enough to Reykjavik that they'll pick up at your hotel, and has access to enough space that you really do get ample opportunity to get your horse up into a tölt. I wanted to ride and have sat in a cold saddle enough that if I'm going to do it, I'm getting as much saddle time as I can. And my darling wife is a trooper -- and as you might imagine, we were the only two people signed up for a full day-tour. (There were actually a bunch of people who came through for a one- or two-hour ride while we were there which was pleasantly surprising.) Meg was pleasantly relieved that we would come in for lunch after about four hours and that she could then stay inside and stay warm. This was especially relieving after we watched our ridiculously upbeat guide literally break the ice for us on our way back in to the stables: we had to cross a slow-moving, but three-foot deep creek with pretty solid ice shelves on the entry and exit; after coaxing her horse into and across the river, it decided to try to stand up on the ice shelf on the exit, stumbled, and dumped her. But here's the happy picture of us all bundled up in our coveralls. (Incidentally, to protect the indigenous horse population of Iceland, you cannot bring used horse tack or clothing into Iceland without a certificate of sterilization from a vet.)

I don't know if it was anything other than the remarkable pictures in the various Rough Guides and Lonely Planets that made us decide to go to the Vestmannaeyjar, but we're sure glad we did. Truly an an archipelago, only the largest island, Heimaey, is inhabited and dominated by its safe harbor and fish processing factory. But the northern end of the island, and which provides such a safe harbor for its fleet, is surrounded by high cliffs that seem somehow more Pacific than Atlantic. This picture is looking northeast from the edge of the lava field from the 1973 eruption of the Eldfell volcano towards Elliðaey and the massive Eyjafjallajökull glacier, also infamous in recent history for being the site of the 2010 eruption that disrupted plane travel across Europe for over a week. Being on Vestmannaeyjar in February was a little like being in Mongolia the first time: while no-one (understandably) asked to touch my beard admiringly, we were the two tourists. There was a Japanese guy there, too, but he was there to buy 'caviar' (which I took to be roe) from the fish plant. We were nevertheless treated with the utmost hospitality, almost apologetically in fact, by the brand new owners of the hotel we were staying at -- apologetically because they had literally just taken ownership of the hotel, were in the midst of renaming it and literally tore out the old dining room while we were there. But their kindness and introduction earned us a free car tour of the island from another friend of theirs (which was appreciated because it was raining when we first arrived) and a ride to the far end of the island the next morning. But it was something of a Central Asia experience: we wanted to go into the Folk Museum but being winter, it was only available by appointment. It was in the public library so Meg, with her usual aplomb, just asked if we could get in. The curator was off-island, but a trusting surrogate took us up, turned on the lights, and then left us alone to wander through (and in that regard, it was not like the Aimag museum in Choibalsan where we were shadowed by a Mongol grandma who turned lights on and off as we entered and exited each room). And so we learned about the history of the fishing industry, the Turkish pirate raid in 1627, the 1973 eruption (which had a great video collage of survivor's reminiscences, and the surprising percentage of Vestmannaeyjar residents who made their exodus to Utah to join the Mormon Church. While it took even the very helpful receptionist at the Radisson four phone calls to figure out the details (it being winter even website updates get delayed), the Vestmannaeyjar were easy to get to by bus and ferry from Reykjavik to Þorlákshöfn. Like any small island destination, I probably wouldn't want to go there in summer to avoid the extra people -- but having the place to ourselves albeit with a fair amount of drizzle was just fine.

After another brief stop-over in the big city, I got to fulfill my Desmond Bagley fantasies and we rented a Land Rover Defender to drive up to the Snaefellsnes peninsula to stay at the Hotel Budir. All hype aside and the fact that from the exterior the hotel looks a little boxy and otherwise not too distinctive, this was a fabulous place. Cosy, exemplary customer service, and the food fantastic. And the location, on a river estuary, with a view of the waves breaking on the beach from the lounge, and a backdrop of steep-sided mountains topped by Snæfellsjökull, the mountain and adjoining glacier. The picture on the right is of the old Lutheran church and graveyard a few hundred yards from the hotel, the walls of the yard made from lava boulders topped with sod.

Leaving aside my boyhood memories, we had rented a Land Rover because it was winter, after all, and the weather unpredictable. Happily, too, I have driven in snow in Maine, Michigan, and Oregon -- otherwise, even with studded snow tires and 4WD, I might have soiled myself coming over the mountain road to Ólafsvík on the northern side of the peninsula. It wasn't that it was snowing as much as it was a winding road with no guard rail covered with ice that you could see was at least an inch thick in places -- oh, and it was gusting about 40mph. And then the road went from hardpack to gravel about three-quarters of the way down. Time for third gear all the way down. I had forgotten that Snæfellsjökul is the origin point for Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), but I am not surprised; nor were we surprised to find The Hobbit Inn in Ólafsvík. The whole vacation was a little bit like being in a Peter Jackson film. However, in another Mongolian moment, reminiscent of the ginormous long-wave antenna in Bayan Olgii, we also saw the massive radio mast at Hellissandur, the tallest structure in Iceland. The picture on the right was taken on the beach below the radio mast and illustrates the wind speed pretty clearly -- but it was really neat to walk on a black lava pebble beach despite the gale-force gusts.

Incidentally, the best town-name-for-a-death-metal-band was also on Snaefellsnes: Hellnar.

In short, we had a great time, saw some incredible scenery, stayed in nice warm hotels, and ate like champions. There are several very good restaurants in the downtown 101 area of Reykjavik: our favorite was Fish Company. I like actual food and will admit skepticism towards foams and vapors and freeze-dried who-knows-what à la Ferran Adrià -- but leaving aside how good all the hormone-free, fresh-caught meat and seafood tasted, my deconstructed tiramisu was phenomenal. Twice.

1 comment:

Dale Hernden said...

Thanks for a fascinating post. BUT, I think I'll go in warmer weather.