yduJ and family visit Iceland

Ken had a conference in Iceland, and we all decided to join him at the end of it for a vacation, including the kids. This was kind of too many trips in a row, as it followed closely on the heels of two other trips, but all of the trips were associated with some prescheduled event that we didn't have much control over. Maybe next year we will try not to have three vacations! Anyway, the kids were less interested and helpful in the pretrip packing process then they had been for earlier trips in the year, probably because they were not really looking forward to the airplane. They did fine on it, and were very cooperative during check-in and security and such, but I think they are tired of trips and especially of airplanes.

We arrived in Iceland at 11:30 p.m., just as the sun was setting. We were met at the airport by our guest house proprietor, and it was really an awesome situation, as it had a kitchen fully stocked with snack and breakfast foods, so we didn't have to figure out about money until after we had eaten in the morning. Keflavik, which is where the airport is, is a small town, but they managed to make it a complicated town with construction projects, and we managed to get lost despite having a map. But finally we acquired money and set off for Reykjavik where we met Ken at the end of his conference. The apartment we had rented was not yet ready for us, so we wandered around the area surrounding a huge church at the top of a hill in the city center (including a statue of Leif Eriksson) and admired the beautiful organ inside the church.

This apartment had a kitchen. Although it was not prestocked with food, in our earlier wanderings we had discovered a grocery store, so we were all set. Our apartment was expensive, but it was very nice. A great location, two bedrooms, and a nice couch in the living room. Parking was a bit of a pain -- there was free on street parking in some places, but sometimes hard to get a spot, and pay parking that we never figured out the rules for due to not knowing the names of the days of the week and so forth.

Perry is still obsessed with maps and directions, and so he always wanted to go on a walk, especially if he could make a turn at every block. Jocelyn was interested in swimming. There was a public pool only about three blocks from our apartment. So often, and in particular this first afternoon, we would have one adult go with Jocelyn to the pool, while another adult went on a "random walk" with Perry. Jocelyn particularly liked the fact that there was a separate shallow pool so there was no danger of getting into the deep end of the pool by mistake. She can dogpaddle, but not very effectively, and is not yet confident in her ability to swim. Perry was very excited by the strange names of the streets, and could tell you accurately which ones intersected which other ones, and remember the long names better than I could. (It wasn't nearly as bad as it seemed; Icelandic is a Germanic language, and uses endings of words rather than separate words, so once you learned a few of the endings that mean "street", such as "gata" and "stigur", the rest of the name was often short enough to remember.)

Our second full day in Iceland was our driving around the countryside day. We did the typical tourist one-day drive, which includes Thingvellir, Gullfoss, and Geysir. There was a certain amount of "are we there yet" from the kids, as these places are a couple of hours apart on not very good roads. Interestingly, the Icelandic speed limit is pretty much always 90km/h, whether it is a four-lane highway (two lanes each way -- they don't have any superhighways like we do), or a 1.5 lane paved track. Unpaved tracks are 80km/h!

Thingvellir is the original site of the Althingi, which is the oldest parliamentary body known, created in 930 (although not continuously in operation). Unfortunately, it didn't have any permanent buildings associated with it, but was rather a meeting of clans every summer, and so there's just "we think that people put their tents here" historical markers amongst the rocks. However, the rocks themselves are absolutely fascinating. Iceland is situated at the far northern end of the mid-Atlantic rift, where the American continental plate and the European continental plate are separating at a rate of 1 inch per year. This doesn't seem like much, but when it's rocks that are being torn apart, it gets pretty interesting. There is a valley which is about four miles across, which is the major rift, and at the edges of this valley there are cliffs and cracks representing more recent activity. The cliffs on the western (American plate) side seem newer, less worn down, then the eastern side. I don't know why this is. Thingvellir is located on the western side, with a natural amphitheater made by these cliffs. Perry of course wanted to take a walk, and this was met with great approval by various adults, who wanted to see the countryside. A river runs through the valley, opening out into a lake further south. (We didn't stop at the lake.) I loved the way there were cracks that were one foot wide, and cracks that were 10 feet wide, and cracks that were 100 feet wide. Kind of fractal.

Gullfoss is a huge waterfall on a river that leads down from the Langjokull glacier. The water in the river is opaque, because glaciers are dirty, and a lot of silt comes with the meltwater. The river did not carve all of its own path, but is along one of the cracks associated with the rift, and so in some ways it doesn't quite look normal. The way it falls into the crack and then makes a sharp left turn is just weird. We were able to walk out onto some rocks that were very close to the actual falls. I'd been told that there would be lots of dangerous places like this that you would never see in the States, and had been a little worried, but they roped off a safe area, so we just stayed within it, and neither of the kids seemed to to be at all interested in testing that limit.

While we were at Gullfoss, we got to see some people on an Icelandic pony trek. They had stopped to see the waterfall, leaving their ponies in a corral provided for the purpose, and we got to see them catching the ponies and saddling up. They go with a lot more ponies than people, switching off periodically. People do pony trekking for up to three weeks. I don't think I'd be up for it, myself.

We could see the glacier (in the background above), but to actually visit it would have taken several hours. Ken got to visit the glacier on the tour day of his conference, but he said the logistics of the trip and the extra travel time weren't really worth the time actually spent on the glacier. Bus tours tend to be that way.

Our final stop was Geysir, which as you might guess is a geyser, and is in fact where the English word "geyser" comes from. The original Geysir is no longer erupting, unfortunately, however, only a hundred feet away is another geyser named Strokkur which is doing a bang-up job of it. It erupts approximately every five minutes, although sometimes you'll get a long delay and a big eruption or you'll get two in a row with the second one smaller. Before it actually goes off, there is about a minute of bubbling and swirling and little waves of water washing out of the hole. On one of the blows that we watched we got to see a mound of water about two feet high pulsating for a few seconds right before it exploded high in the sky, which was really cool. The first blow that we watched was a little scary, because the wind was such that the water looked like it was about to land on us. I grabbed Perry and rushed a few feet away. Fortunately nobody actually got covered in boiling water -- I think it was just an illusion that the water was going to land on us, but it was kind of scary anyway. After that we decided to stand upwind! In addition to Strokkur, there are dozens of holes in the ground filled with boiling hot water, bubbling to themselves, sometimes quite noisily. I believe that most of these were active geysers at one point or another.

We stopped for dinner in what looked like a medium-sized town on the map, Hveragerdi, but really it turned out to be quite small. However, the restaurant we ended up in, Kjot & Kunst, was very interesting. The place didn't look like much, but the food was quite good, and the fascinating thing about it is that it was cooked with steam from the earth. They use direct geothermal heat in their ovens. They also had some conventional cooking equipment, but they'd let you know which dishes (and even breads) were made with steam heat. We got to have some traditional Icelandic dishes, including pony! They don't actually eat very much horsemeat, which is actually kind of strange, considering how many extra ponies they have. It turns out that there are 100,000 Icelandic ponies in Iceland, of which only about 10% are used for riding, and 1% are exported. The rest just hang around in the summer, and get fed over the winter. Seems kind of nutty to me. But, a few do get eaten! It was okay; kind of gamey.

All through the rest of our drive back to Reykjavik we saw steam vents all over the hills, and in some places big metal pipes taking water or steam from one place to another.

The next morning we had our usual swimming and walking. We didn't have time for a whole pony trek, but Valerie wanted to try out these ponies, so she arranged to have a shorter ride in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the rest of us went to The Pearl, which is a sort of strange tourist attraction. Its real purpose is a holding tank for hot water. In Reykjavik, in addition to utilities like electricity and gas, there is hot water, which is separate from cold water. It comes straight out of the ground! I had heard about this too, and was concerned about how smelly it might be, especially since Jocelyn particularly dislikes smells. It turns out not to be a problem. The smell is faint, and while you don't really want to drink the hot water, it doesn't taste horrible. I've had worse from metropolitan water systems in the U.S. In fact, even at Geysir, I didn't think the sulfurous smell of the geothermal activity was very strong, and it was right there. I remember from my childhood going to Mount Lassen in California, where there was much stinkier bubbling mud.

Anyway, they need big storage tanks for the hot water up on top of the highest hill in the city. And for reasons which escape me, they have put some interesting architecture on top: this reflective dome visible for miles (blindingly so when the sun glints on it). There's also an observation deck, from which you can see pretty far. Unfortunately it was very windy and cold, so we didn't really want to stay outside all that long. Inside they had a four-story high atrium with a fountain which was a fake geyser. It erupted every five minutes or so, and it prefaced its eruption with some bubbling and wave stirring in a moderately accurate representation of what Strokkur actually does. I thought this was mildly amusing, and worth watching once or perhaps twice, but Jocelyn thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and demanded to stay and watch many times. Perry, of course, wanted to go for a walk, and the grounds had various trails and roads, so off we went. In addition to the indoor fake geyser, there's an outdoor fake geyser, which actually has hot water, and I'm not sure how much of its eruption mechanics are actually mechanical like the fountain vs. just having the superheated water "naturally" create the geyser. There was an information panel about it, but it wasn't really very informative.

We had hoped to go to the geothermal beach, which is a constructed beach with geothermally heated water piped in, and swimming pools and such, but we spent so much time at the Pearl that we had to go get Valerie from her ride. It was so cold and windy, though, that it's possible the beach would not have been a good choice for that particular day. I think the kids would have liked it, because Jocelyn loves any kind of swimming, and Perry loves any kind of digging in the sand, but we think they made an informed choice when we explained we couldn't go to the beach if they spent too much time at the Pearl, and they didn't seem at all sad about it. I was slightly disappointed, but I got over it.

After picking up Valerie, we had a couple of hours before dinner time, so we drove off northward towards some of the mountains, just to see what we can see. The mountains around Reykjavik are unusual, because they were formed by lava pushing up against glaciers, and thus they are not the regular shape of a volcanic mountain, but have cut off tops. Shortly, we came to a trailhead. We didn't walk very far up the steep hill, but got somewhat of a view of the bay to the north of Reykjavik. We had been kind of looking at these mountains wondering about visiting them the entire trip, and just got a little taste here.

Our flight was at 5pm the next day, which meant we had part of the day available for an activity. The obvious one was the Blue Lagoon, which is the world's largest hot tub, created from the wastewater output of the geothermal electricity generating plant. Conveniently, it is on the way to the airport. Probably 90 percent of visitors to go on either their first or last day in Iceland for that reason.

One interesting thing is that it has silica mud mixed in with the water, making it entirely opaque. I'm not sure where this mud comes from; the water itself comes from far below the earth before going through the powerplant, so it's possible that the silica also comes from deep down. Outside of the bathing area, the water is a very bright blue; inside the bathing area it is a pale green because of some algae. There is some idea that this silica mud is beneficial for your skin, and an entire line of skin care products have been created out of this theory. We declined to purchase any.

Another interesting thing is that the entire area surrounding the blue lagoon is created from a very large lava flow only a few hundred years ago, which is still very desolate, and kind of looks like the moon. In combination with the bright blue opaque water, it doesn't look like it belongs on this planet! (It was much bluer than is shown in these pictures. It was really amazing.)

Once in the pond, there are hot spots in the water near the actual output jets, so you can control your temperature by moving around in the pond. There's one waterfall which you can stand under and have a shoulder massage; unfortunately it's not wide enough for the demand, so you have to wait in line and then you ought not to stay there very long. It felt good while I was doing it. Because the water is opaque, and the floor is uneven, it's a bit tricky to walk around without falling down. Also, some places are shallow enough for the kids to stand but others are not. They had water wings, but still preferred to be in places they could stand. So there was a lot of "can I stand where you are? How about over there?" So there was some towing, which they are happy to do even in deep water.

Finally, we showered and headed off to fill the tank of the rental car (I have no idea about gas prices: it was in Kroner per liter) and get in the airplane. On the flight home we were treated to a beautiful view of Greenland, complete with icebergs floating in the ocean, and incredibly craggy glacier and snow-covered cliffs. Greenland looks like it doesn't ever get any erosion: probably it never rains. Perhaps after the glaciers all melt with global warming we will discover that under the glaciers it's all smoothed out and completely different from the mountains that stick up above them.

This mural was on the street on which we usually parked. The kids liked it (and so did I.) Many houses in Iceland are colorful.

Stone piles like this were made by travelers for good luck -- a traveler would add a stone to the pile when crossing dangerous lands (and there are a lot in Iceland!) There were a lot of them. They seem similar to Inukchuk made by the Inuit which we had seen in our Churchill trip.