Destination: the Fjallsárlón Lagoon
After a night’s rest back in Reykjavik, Holly and I were off on our next Ring Road tour of Iceland. This time, we would drive Iceland’s Southeast Coast. We needed to check into the remote Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon to be prepared for a morning iceberg boat tour at Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Iceland lava field

The view was ever-changing, the lava field never-ending.

Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss Waterfalls. Along the way, we never tired of the view because the landscape was always changing. Of course, we had to visit more waterfalls! Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, reportedly the most visited in Iceland, with a 200-foot (60-meter) drop. Tourists climbed the steep hill to go to behind the falls. We contented ourselves with a view from the bottom. The river Seljalandsá originates underneath the glacier Eyjafjallajökull. The volcano beneath this ice cap was the one that erupted in 2010 and caused havoc at airports across Europe.

Our next waterfall stop was Skógafoss, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in Iceland. The river Skoga, fed by two glaciers, runs through a canyon, then descends from the edge of a moor in a 45-foot-wide (15-meter), 186-foot-high (62-meter) waterfall. According to legend, a settler called Þrasi hid his chest of gold behind the falls. For a long time, the chest was visible through the waterfall, giving it a golden sheen. The ring to that chest can be found in the Skógar folk museum. The following verse has been passed down through generations:

The chest in Þrasi’s secret lair
Under the Skógar waterfall
Rewards the one who ventures there
With endless riches, great and small.

Dyrhólaey nature reserve was our next stop. Formerly known by seamen as Cape Portland, this reserve occupies a small promontory located on the south coast of Iceland. From the glittering black sand beach, we could view the arch near the end of the promontory. We would have loved to hike for hours, but we had to move on. We passed by Vik, a charming village of about 300 souls nestled below the cliffs, but stopped at an IceWear outlet for deals on Icelandic wool outerwear.

Laufskálavarða is a lava ridge surrounded by hundreds of small cairns. Travelers believed that making a cairn would bring luck and fortune before starting their journey across Mýrdalssandur. A farm located here was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 894 BC.

Laufskálavarða

Lois waves from behind a cairn in Laufskálavarða.

Kirkjubæjarklaustur. After driving through miles and miles of lava fields covered with every type of moss and lichen one can imagine, Holly and I decided to make a detour to the road less traveled. We ended up in the quaint town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a tongue-twister that translates into church-farm-cloister. The town is even small by Icelandic standards: a petrol station, convenience store, and a few houses and farms scattered over a vast green oasis—brilliant after all those lava fields. We searched for a waterfall tumbling down through a man-made forest from high cliffs, thought to be the dwelling place of some of Iceland’s “hidden people.” We found Foss a Sidu but saw no little people—only this sign:

Sign along the walk to the falls

Sign along the walk to the falls.

We were surprised to discover hidden falls that reminded us similar ones from ancient glacial traprock in Wisconsin! Back in the nearly-deserted town, we explored the peaceful church and graveyard and delved into its colorful past. “Cloister” was first settled by Irish monks who fled the Vikings but left a curse on any pagans who would venture to live there. A Christian Norseman lived there happily for many years, but when a second Viking decided to move in, he surveyed his future farm and immediately dropped dead!

The site continued to have problems. A cloister set up by Benedictine nuns closed during the 16th century Reformation because two nuns were burned at stake for sleeping with the devil. A third was punished for maligning the Pope. And then, during the 1783 Laki eruptions, a wall of lava came close to wiping out the settlement. The local curate herded everyone into the old wooden church and delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon while great chunks of ash crashed outside the windows. When the commotion stopped, the congregation stumbled out to find that they were miraculously saved. A marvelous new church commemorates this divine intervention. Laki, however, had devastated Iceland and is still considered to be one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history.

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Touching Icebergs: Vatnajökull Glacier and the Fjallsárlón Iceberg Boat Tour. Before long, we were into glacier country. We stopped to photograph the massive Vatnajökull icecap, the largest in the world (except for the polar cap). The average thickness of the ice is 1,300 feet, but it is 3,300 feet thick in some places. Excursions on the icecap were possible; we’d planned a tour by boat instead. The anticipation built as we check into Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. In the morning, we would be touching icebergs!

It was only a 20-minute drive from our hotel to the majestic Fjallsárlón iceberg lagoon at the south end of the glacier Vatnajökull. We couldn’t miss it; it was right off the Ring Road with a huge parking lot and facilities. We walked into the cabin-like office to present our tickets. A rack of foul-weather jackets in all sizes—with built-in life preservers—lined the entire wall. “You won’t be needing your sailing jacket,” the clerk said. “You’ll be plenty warm in one of these. Let’s check your size.” Soon we were suited up and ready to go. Our group filled two 8-person zodiacs. Seating was on the rim; each position had safety holds. During the safety briefing, our guide told us that our preservers would inflate immediately upon hitting water. Then he warned, “Do not fall in. If you do, you have about two minutes in this frigid water before hypothermia sets in. You could die.” Even though I’m quite used to a dinghy, I made sure I kept “one hand on the boat.” For a short time, that is. How can one take great photos with only one hand? We learned a lot about how and why glaciers “calve,” why icebergs are blue, and how the glacier expands into the lagoon during the summers and recedes during the winter. Our guide broke off a few pieces of icebergs and passed them around for us to feel and taste.

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We couldn’t get enough of the gorgeous lagoon. After we returned our jackets and donned our own, we walked around taking one photo after another. We were about to drive back when we encountered a tourist who insisted, “You must see the larger glacier lagoon. It’s only a little farther along the Ring Road.” So, we continued on.

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon did not disappoint. This lagoon is Iceland’s deepest and most spectacular glacial lake. The entire lake was full of icebergs, streaked blue and back, floating with the tide, occasionally crashing into each other and breaking apart. In less than a century, this vast frozen landscape has collapsed into a mess of shattered ice and liquid. A river soon formed, and found its way to the sea, pulling broken icebergs into the North Atlantic and sculpting unearthly shapes along its black-sand banks. Every year, this fledgling glacier lagoon is made larger as icebergs break off Vatnajökull glacier, float around in the lagoon, and eventually drift out to sea during the summer months.

What a photographer’s paradise! Holly and I were in heaven. No wonder this site was used in the opening scenes of Roger Moore’s A View to Kill (1985). Some of the icebergs were glassy teal; others, a deep, luminous blue. These shades of blue contrasted with the white background of the glacier and the black sand beach to make awesome compositions.

We had been blessed with optimum weather (for Iceland), but finally, during our return trip to Reykjavik, the rain began. We didn’t mind. We held sunshine in our hearts.

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke And Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Iceland was far down on my bucket list. But I had promised to take my granddaughter Holly there, and in July of 2018 I made good on that promise. This country far surpassed my expectations. It is indeed “the land of fire and ice.” Volcanoes spew fire and glaciers spawn ice floes. Eventually though, this country will explode your senses; it will grab you and pull you in. But only if you dare to venture out of Reykjavik and its touristy Golden Circle to explore the hinterlands along the Ring Road. My advice: Drive around the entire Snaefellsnes Peninsula for starters. You won’t be disappointed.

Iceland

The word Snæfellsnes might seem like a bit of a mouthful, but it’s less so when it is broken down. It translates to Snow Mount’s Peninsula, a fitting name for a long peninsula tipped with a glacier on top of volcano. “Snæ” means snow; “fells” meaning mountain, and “nes” means peninsula.

Borgarnes. We had reservations for Fosshotel in the town of Stykkishólmur and our guidebook, Iceland’s Ring Road, said the trip would take three hours nonstop from Reykjavik. No problem; we would sleep in. It was still light at midnight, but we pulled the light-blocking curtains in our hotel room and tried to catch some zzzs. Still, the light came through! We decided to set out early for the second day in a row. We’d beat the traffic out of the city and buy coffee along the way. Famous last words. We could not get coffee anywhere so early. Finally, driving through the foggy fishing village of Borgarnes at the end of a rock-strewn peninsula, we discovered Café Braka. The sign said “OPEN 9 A.M.” So, we wandered through this quaint town of 2000 souls and fell in love with it. Men with metal lunchboxes trudged toward the wharf and its fish factories. Other workers bicycled to work. Storekeepers opened shuttered doors. A narrow road into the Snæfellsnes National Park led to the town’s backdrop, brooding Hafnarfjall mountain–blackened with volcanic ash. When the café opened, Holly and I savored the egg dishes and sipped cappuccinos. “This was worth it,” we exclaimed in unison. Fueled with caffeine, we continued our drive around the peninsula.

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Volcanoes, Lava Fields, Waterfalls, and Moss. What amazed me about Iceland was that no two views were the same; in one photo stop, we could see moss sprawling and oozing over lava rocks, backed by a volcanic mountain, and to the side, snow-capped peaks! Ten minutes later, we would stop again to photograph a ridge with three different waterfalls. The drive was never boring. But after the 25th waterfall, we decided we needed to limit our stops. We’d already gone 8 hours into a supposed 3-hour drive and our destination was still far away. With light until midnight, we weren’t worried about having to drive in the dark; however, the hotel restaurant might not be open late and places to eat along this part of the Ring Road were few and far between.

Hellnar. Seeing a turf-roofed Fish & Chips restaurant and a little settlement—all painted black with white trim, caused us to stop again. Later, we stopped to view the famous pitch-black Búðir Black Church.

Rauðfeldsgjá is a deep gorge that cuts into Botnsfjall, an unusual mountain. In the summertime, it is possible to hike into the crack in the mountain wall, which cleaves all the way down to the root of the mountain.

auðfeldsgjá Gorge Snaefellnoss Penninsula Iceland

Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge Snaefellnoss Penninsula.

Lóndrangar Basalt Cliffs are uniquely-formed remnants of ancient basalt volcanic dikes sticking out from the sea. Both Lóndrangar and the hill Svalthufa are the remains of a crater eroded by the sea. Legend has it that farmers in the area never made hay on the hill because it belongs to the elves living in the area. Below the hill, the poet Kolbeinn Joklaskald reportedly had an encounter with the Devil. Younger lava fields surround the old crater ruin.

lóndrangar cliffs iceland

Lóndrangar cliffs.

Skarðsvík Beach was another must-stop. Surrounded by harsh, pitch-black lava, the soft orange-yellow beach and shallow baby-blue Atlantic Ocean provided a surprising contrast. Fortunately, we visited at low tide! An intact Viking grave was found here in 1962; the skeleton and his belongings are now preserved at the National Museum of Iceland.

skarðsvík-beach

Skarðsvík Beach.

After one final waterfall stop that we couldn’t resist, we were on our way to our destination.

Waterfalls Snaefellnes Penninsula

Waterfalls everywhere in the Snaefellnes Penninsula.

Stykkishólmur. After a day of country landscapes, we were treated to this charming town, the gateway to the numerous islands dotting Breiðafjörður Bay. With all its renovated, historical buildings, this town of 1200 souls felt like a place lost in time. What once was a library is now an art installation; a fish packing house is now a restaurant; an old recreation center is now a volcano museum. The architectural structure of church in Stykkishólmur fascinated us and the view from the church over the bay took our breath away. We arrived at Fosshotel Stykkishólmur in time to change quickly for dinner. Wow! That first sip of wine was lovely!

Stykkishólmur Iceland.

Stykkishólmur Iceland.

The Long Way Back to Reykjavik. Because we didn’t want to go back the way we came, we were forced to choose 40-50 miles of gravel road. Our SUV was a four-wheel drive and the roads were well-maintained; however, there were some challenging moments. Some of the roads were quite narrow—with steep overlooks and no guardrails. Was it worth it? Yes!

Skallagrimsgardur in Borgarnes. After that exhilarating drive, we needed a rest. We ended up back in Borgarnes at Café Braka for cappuccinos and muffins. On the way back to the Ring Road, we noted a sign for a public flower garden called Skallagrimsgardur. We’re both flower-lovers, so we had to stop. We were surprised to see such an abundance of blooms. We met a colorful display around every bend in the gravel path.

We realized that—although the growing season is short—the days are extraordinarily long.

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The Tunnel Detour and the War and Peace Museum. Again, Holly and I chose the road less traveled. Instead of returning through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, (3.6 miles long and 541 feet below sea level), we took the tunnel detour. Thank God Holly is an excellent driver! The detour curving above the peninsula was scarier than the tunnel. “Just don’t look down,” I warned Holly. In addition to the view, an unexpected benefit was touring the War and Peace Museum. I never realized what a large part Iceland played for the Allies during World War II. The entire island was turned into a defensive bulwark. Farther down the road, we stretched our legs by walking to a pretty little waterfall called Fossárrétt on the grounds of an ancient Viking encampment. It was a refreshing end to tour of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke And Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

I recently took an eight-day trip to Iceland, the land of fire and ice and loads of surprises.

My granddaughter Holly and I had been intrigued about Iceland for some time. Others in our family wondered whether we had lost our minds—giving up a gorgeous summer week in Wisconsin to don warm clothes, tromp through tundra, and touch glaciers.

The joke’s on them! We came back raving about spectacular waterfalls, faithful geysers, steaming mineral baths, volcanic mountains, mysterious landscapes, turf roofs, and gorgeous flowers (yes, flowers—only the interior quarter of the country was frozen.)

Holly offered to rent a car to drive Iceland’s Ring Road. That eliminated the need to backpack our Canon Rebel cameras and bring layers of clothing on daytrips. Fortunately, we received a free upgrade to a four-wheel drive SUV Subaru Forrester, which we loaded down to “live on the road.” No group tours for us! Now we’re convinced that self-drive tours are the only way to go (during the summer). We used Reykjavik, the capital, as our home base and stayed right downtown at the Alda Hotel. That allowed us to acclimate during our arrival day and to beat the traffic to tourist sites the following days.

Thingvellir Park and Oxararfoss. The next day we awakened at 4 a.m., too excited to sleep. We opened the black light-blocking curtains. The sun was already up! By 5 a.m., we hit the road for the Golden Circle. We were surprised to have the road to ourselves. Our first stop was Thingvellir Park, which sits on a rift valley caused by the separation of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This stop overlooks the picturesque Thingvellir church alongside a meandering river. This is Iceland’s most historic site as well as a place of vivid beauty. Here, the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi, in 930AD. The meetings were convened annually, outdoors.

Our second stop, a waterfall called Oxararfoss, was our favorite of the day. We meandered through a canyon flanked with rocky cliffs and fissures and filled with gorgeous wildflowers. After an hour, we reached a spectacular falls. We had it all to ourselves! We sat for a while, immersed in the sounds of nature: the roar of the falls contrasting with the gurgling river below.

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During our walk back along this natural amphitheater of Pingvellir, we stopped at Law Rock, where judgements were handed down by the Alþingi, the national assembly. This grand experiment in democracy occurred at a time when the rest of Europe wallowed in rigid feudal monarchies. I was amazed to learn that this Viking system lasted, despite lapses back into chaos, for three centuries. We continued to drive round Lake Pingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake at 84 sq. km.

Map of Lake Pingvallavatn Iceland's largest lake.

Map of Lake Pingvallavatn Iceland’s largest lake.

Geysir. Stop three was the site of Geysir, which has lent its name to all water such water spouts around the world. We had soup for lunch—lamb stew for me and cream of mushroom for Holly. Afterward, we walked along a trail called “the land of boiling waters.” We passed steaming vents, bubbling turquoise pools, and multicolor mud formations—all the way hearing the loud belch and burst of the big one. We finally reached Strokkur (the churn), which shoots upwards every five minutes or so to about 20 meters (66 feet). By the second belch, our cameras were poised for action!

Gullfoss, the Greatest Waterfall. Nine kilometers (six miles) further along Route 35, we reached Iceland’s best-known natural wonder: Gullfoss (Golden Falls). We followed a path from the upper parking area, overrun with busses and vans, leading down to the deafening falls, where the River Hvita (White River) tumbles 32 meters (l05 feet) into a 2.5km (1.5-mile) ravine. One can take another trail to get within an arm’s length of the awesome flow. No way! I felt the wind rushing from above and tugging me toward the waterfall. I saw tripods tip like toothpicks. That was close enough for me. I pulled my sailing jacket close around me and tightened my scarf around my neck. Every so often, clouds of spray descended in wind gusts, forcing me to turn my back to the falls. What a spectacular view of raw nature combined with stunning beauty!

After this thrilling experience, we were ready to return to Reykjavik to rest up for another day of touring.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.