The Incredibly Intrepid Icelandic Expedition: Day 2
Friday, 7:03 a.m. — After seven-ish hours of sleep, my body decides it’s not letting me get any more. I lay awake in my less-than-twin-size Airbnb bed for another hour and a half anyway.
9:28 a.m. — We hop in the car in search of breakfast. Breakfast, for me, comes in the form of two gas station hot dogs sitting on beds of fried onions and a tiny cup of coffee. Ryan and Israel sit down next to me holding hot dogs wrapped in bacon. I begin to question my life decisions.
I don’t think it was our intention initially, but Day 2 in Iceland wound up being the longest day of the trip by far. The plan was to explore the country’s southern coast, traveling at least as far as Vík, a seafront village which exists in the shadow of a glacier called Mýrdalsjökull (I’d refer you to this YouTube video for the pronunciation of that). The village is approximately two and a half hours east of Reykjavík, about the midway point between the capital city and Vatnajökull National Park.
We would drive all the way to Vík, see what the village had to offer, and then make our way back along the coastline, stopping at other sightseeing destinations. That was the plan, yes, it sure was, but how often do things go according to plan? The reality is that we made two stops prior to Vík — or three, if you count an overlook of the town of Hveragerði on Þjóðvegur 1 (Route 1, or the Ring Road), only 35 minutes outside Reykjavík. Discounting that brief stop, though, our first tangential excursion was to a rather rocky hillside leading up to a mountain near Steinahellir Cave and Holtsós lagoon.
There was no real reason we chose to pull off on the side of the road at that spot out of all the others we’d driven by. We had passed horses and sheep and mountains and rivers and rinky-dink towns and all manner of things, and yet this was the one, this was the rocky hillside we needed (but not the one we deserved). So we climbed upon its rocky surface, took myriad photos, and tried not to think about the locals who were probably cringing at us tourist-ing up their magnificent landscapes as they drove by in their Toyotas and Subarus and Dacia Dusters.
1:02 p.m. — We pull up to Reynisfjara Beach with the intention of beholding (and photographing) its world-famous black sand. Many tourists, adorned in wintry gear much like ourselves, populate the shoreline. iPhone camera shutters chirp like birds up and down the beach. Annoyed with the number of visitors crowding up it shores, the Atlantic Ocean attacks with a frigid, quick-moving wave. Ryan and I avoid the onslaught; Kelsey is not so lucky.
1:36 p.m. — After getting our fill of the beach and Hálsanefshellir Cave and its aesthetically-pleasing basalt columns, we peruse the menu at the Black Beach Restaurant. Discovering very quickly that the Black Beach Restaurant is more a deli than a restaurant, we swipe left.
Following our visit to the beach, we drove slightly north to get around the mountain and then headed another few minutes to the south on the other side until arriving in Vík. Bearing the full name Vík í Mýrdal, the village is home to a population of only 300 people or so, and yet it is the largest settlement for miles around. Other than its shoreline along the Atlantic and the mountains rising all around, Vík’s most iconic symbol is probably the church with the bright red roof that sits on a hill overlooking the village. Though it isn’t very large, the building is impossible to miss sitting on its perch on the northeastern side of town.
Our stop in Vík lasted only long enough for us to drive up to the church, take in the view of the village from above, and then to drive down into town to the supermarket for some cheap-ish foods (a note on that: the bacon, ham, and cheese sandwich that you will find at almost any supermarket or gas station in Iceland is to die for — and typically under 600 krona (!), which is about $5).
We didn’t want to spend too much time in the village because we were looking at a 5:31 p.m. sunset and there were still three more stops to be made. Next up was Sólheimasandur, the site of a crashed U.S. Navy plane which went down in 1973 thanks largely to pilot error. After switching to the wrong fuel tank while flying across the area, the pilot determined he needed to make a crash landing. Thankfully, no one was injured in the crash.
Nowadays, the plane serves as a strange, metallic ornament adorning the otherwise barren-looking lands of Sólheimasandur, a glacial outwash plain which is occasionally visited by the floodwaters of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. While the sign says it is a 3- to 4-hour hike, it took roughly an hour and a half to walk from the parking lot off the main road to the site of the plane crash and back. Honestly, though, unless you’re super into hiking/walking/exposing yourself to the sometimes-harsh Icelandic winds, I’d suggest you skip the plane altogether and simply enjoy the photo provided below.
4:47 p.m. — Iceland’s ever-low-hanging sun sinking toward the western horizon, we pull into the parking lot at Skógafoss. Thanks to the adjacent mountains, the waterfall is almost completely shrouded in shadow already. However, knowing the Insta pics are vital to our survival, we press forward.
5:05 p.m. — On the way up the stairs to the observation deck, I pass a woman who comments on my University of Michigan winter hat. She informs me that she used to spend her summers in Kalamazoo as a youth. Out of nowhere, the sound of “It’s a Small World After All” begins playing over the rush of the waterfall. (Okay, I made that up.)
Something you should not skip is the chance to see one of the numerous waterfalls dotting the Icelandic landscape. Two of the island nation’s larger falls were on our itinerary Friday, beginning with the aforementioned Skògafoss, which is pictured at the top of this post. If you took a look at that photo, I don’t think you really need me to convince you that Skógafoss is a sight worth seeing. I mean, just look at it.
Unfortunately, the second waterfall we visited that day was not as picturesque — perhaps because it was already getting relatively dark by the time we got there, perhaps because the water wasn’t flowing at full force. That seemed to be the case, anyway, when, some 30 minutes after stopping at Skógafoss, we made our way over to Seljalandsfoss, which is also situated just off the Ring Road on a road called þórsmerkurvegur. In the photos I’d seen on the Internets prior to our trip, Seljalandsfoss looked amazing. I’m guessing it was a little less amazing because of the time of year and the particular time of day — just after sunset — that we visited.
Normally, you are able to walk on a path that leads behind the falls, but either because of the built-up ice or simply the late hour, the path was closed. On top of that, less light meant less quality photos — not to mention the temperature had probably dropped some 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Visit in the summertime at an earlier hour of the day and I’m sure you won’t encounter these issues and that Seljalandsfoss will be everything that Google Images promises.
Then, after you’re done taking in the view, head over to the tiny gift shop where the man behind the counter who has been freezing his buns off since 9 a.m. will give you 10 percent off an astronomically-priced but authentically Icelandic blanket if you can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, the name of the volcano that famously erupted in 2010, causing severe disruption to European flights over the course of a few weeks.
8:17 p.m. — Being the adventurous and daring tourists that we are, we sit down at Taco Bell for dinner, munching on highly-overpriced quesadillas. A chance to use free WiFi does not go to waste.
Saturday, 12:16 a.m. — We head out for a night of shenanigans that will see us to three bars/clubs, including Austur, Paloma, and American Bar (because ‘Murica). No one is too worried that we left the Airbnb so late — the bars are open until 4:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, after all. The following morning will hit me hard.