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Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland, Jon Gunnar Arnason, Kalfafellstadur, Reykjavik, Ring Road, Sjellandfoss, Travel, WOW Airlines

Ice Driving to Kalfafellstadur & When Not to Hike Behind a Waterfall


Frosty window panes


Our morning drive back to Reykjavik

I wake rested, with no signs of jet lag (thankfully), have a long overdue shower and pack up. Laura has brought breakfast over to our apartment – a spread of breads, jams, meats, cereal, yogurt, coffee and juice. It’s nice to not have to go outside just yet, seeing as the wind and rain have picked up again, and a frost has gathered on the outside window panes.

Over breakfast, we decide to head to the easternmost point on our itinerary, Jokulsarlon, and we will spend the rest of our time this week making our way back to Reykjavik. So, today, we have some driving to do. We decide to break the drive in Reykjavik, tour the city a bit and then head on.


Wild Icelandic horses



The weather forecast calls for 100% precipitation again today, and we leave Arnarstapi around 10:30 a.m. and begin a snowy drive to the capital city. The sunrise is taking its time and a beautiful scene unfolds. Fjords are glowing pink ahead – the early morning sunlight illuminating the snow that covers them. To our right are fields of wild horses. Needless to say, there are quite a few photo stops.

We arrive in Reykjavik around 1pm and find free street parking behind Hallgrimskirkja, which is a perfect place to begin our city tour.

Hallgrimskirkja is a Lutheran Church and one of the tallest structures in Iceland. Construction on the church began in 1945, but it would take over 40 years to complete it. It is truly one of the most unique structures I have ever seen. The outside columns, which grow in height as they reach the main tower, remind me of the basalt rock formations found around many of Iceland’s waterfalls, and the inside is starkly beautiful, just like Iceland itself. It’s simple and puritan in style, but still stunning.


The view from Hallgrímskirkja’s tower

We take the lift up 240 feet to the top of the tower for panoramic views of Reykjavik. Clouds are parting, providing us with perfect afternoon light.


Jon Gunnar Arnason’s ‘Sun Voyager’

From here, we walk down the main street, grabbing a hot chocolate to go from one of the many cafes, and head to the harbor area. The Sun Voyager, a stainless steel structure, resembling a viking ship, sits on Reykjavik’s waterfront. Constructed by Jon Gunnar Arnason in 1990, he calls it an ‘ode to the sun.’ On a plaque nearby, he offers his own interpretation of the structure: “We all have our fantasy boats, vessels that we dream of sailing away in, into the dream. In my ships, I unite my own fantasy, precision and the knowledge that boat builders have developed throughout the ages. The sun ship gives us a promise of a primeval land.”


Harpa, Reykjavik’s Fine Art’s Center


Goofing off at Harpa

From here, we walk along the waterfront to Harpa, Reykjavik’s fine art center. This beautiful structure looks like a combination of various colored panes of glass – highlights of green, blue and purple catch my eye, depending on how the light is hitting the building. The inside is even more interesting, and we spend about 30 minutes taking pictures (and thawing out).

Time is marching on though, and we’re aware of a long drive to Jokulsarlon, so we decide to head back to the car and begin the journey. We pick up S1 – Iceland’s ring road, and immediately notice that conditions have worsened throughout the day. A strip of ice lines the middle of our lane, and our tires are positioned either side of it. At any time we ascend, the conditions worsen, and at one point while trying to change lanes, we hit ice and skid out. Bill is driving and fortunately rights the car and we continue on…. very carefully!



Conditions improve briefly and just outside of Hella, we see a waterfall lit up in the distance. As we get closer, we learn that this is Sjellandsfoss, the waterfall I’ve been wanting to photograph since my last visit here four years ago. The neat thing is, you can actually hike behind the falls and photograph from a completely unique viewpoint. We decide to pull off and do some night shooting, and we’re getting some pretty good shots, but we debate hiking up behind the falls. Another guy has just returned and told us the spray isn’t too bad, despite the high winds, so we decide to give it a try.

Moments before we reach the first set of stairs, we realize this is a terrible mistake! It’s as if someone is standing in front of us with a hose, spraying us down. Half way up, and we are drenched, but we keep going hoping to clear the spray. The path has turned muddy now and I look up to see Bill turning around, his camera tripod coming inches from my face as he does.


Evidence of a waterfall hike fail

As we make a quick descent, I realize that the tops of my legs are burning from the cold. We hightail it to the car and see two public restrooms in the parking lot. We grab our backpacks, pray that the bathrooms are open and head in to change into dry clothes, hoping that our jackets and boots will dry overnight. We get back in the car and check our gear. Not surprising, my camera is acting up from the cold and damp. I try not to think about this as we drive the last three hours to Kalfafellstadur. Conditions have improved, but only slightly, and Bill has a death grip on the wheel.

We arrive at Kalfafellstadur B&B by 11pm, and Thora has waited up to greet us. She shows us to our room downstairs, which she says is warmer and asks when we’d like breakfast. We settle in and hang our wet clothes over the radiator and read the note she has left in the room. It advises us to sleep like Icelanders, with the radiator off and the windows cracked, to prevent them from “crying.” We leave the radiator on in hopes our clothes will dry, but we crack the window and crawl into bed. Despite the long day, we’re wired from the drive and excited for sunrise at Jokulsarlon… sleep feels a long ways away.


Iceland, Reykjavik

Iceland – The Beginning

Iceland – the land of Bjork and Sigur Ros, Puffins and Minke whales, never-ending sunlight in the summers, and only 2 hours of light total in the dead of winter. Many people asked me “Why go to Iceland?” I thought, why not?? An island that sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, directly between New York City and Moscow is bound to have a culture different to any I’ve experienced before, and one I hoped would posses parts that have remained untouched and unspoiled by western influence.

So, I order Lonely Planet Iceland and began planning. After looking up a few places online and checking out some photos, I am sold. I visit IcelandAirlines webiste and see very reasonably priced tickets from Boston and NYC to Reykjavik. Unfortunately, I wait too long to book my ticket and those fares go up, but as part of a “stopover promotion,” I manage to get an Economy Comfort ticket from NYC to Reykjavik and then a ticket onto London at the end of my stay in Iceland.

Ok- I have to spend a bit more than I want, but the ticket enables me use of the BA lounge at JFK and a seat in the first row behind First Class with extra leg room, an empty middle seat, a meal and free wine. Oh and did I mention I sit next to the lead guitarist from Anthrax, who I must say might be one of the nicest guys ever! I’d say the trip is off to a good start.

After a bite to eat and a few hours kip, I land in Reykjavik, a bit bleary-eyed and in need of more sleep. I take an airport express bus to town and arrive at REX hostel, the nicest and cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Unfortunately I can’t get into the room until 2, so I get my camera out and venture out to see Reykjavik.

First impressions- it’s 8am and the sun is just rising, but the city is clean, colorful and beautifully set, surrounded by snowcapped fjords in the background. The city is orderly too, typical of the surrounding Scandinavian countries. This makes it easy for me to get my bearings. I walk close to the harbor, passing a steel statue of a viking ship and then head into the center of the city to make my way to Hallgrimskirkja, one of Reykjavik’s most recognizable structures. Completed in 1984, this structure looks more like something out of Star Wars than a church, but the inside is plainly beautiful and an elevator up the tower affords panoramic views of all of Reykjavik. Thankfully, the unpredictable weather is on my side today. It’s a clear morning, but it IS cold, and the sun still hasn’t risen.

A few steps from the church, we stumble upon a sculpture garden. I find out that these bizarrely beautiful works of art were created by Einar Jonsson , and his work can be found randomly placed throughout downtown Reykjavik.

In need of a coffee, I head to Te & Kaffi, a chain of coffee shops throughout Reykjavik. The caffeine powers me through Reykjavik 871 +/- 2, a museum built on historic remains from 930 AD that were just discovered in 2001. I learn about the development of Iceland, from the Nordic settlers who farmed the land, to how Reykjavik became the capital it is today.

Then, I head to the National Gallery, which is a bit disappointing to say the least. Either the art is sub-par, or the caffeine is wearing off. Sadly, I think it’s the first. I head back to REX for a well-needed nap.

I wake up hungry and decide to venture out for something that has had me nervous since the idea of this trip came about… Food! From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure I’m going to be a fan of Iceland’s cuisine. Rumors of smelly fermented shark, herring and puffin have me sure I’m going to lose weight while here. But as a true believer in the fact that food is one of the most important parts of a country’s culture, I decide to throw caution to the wind and get adventurous. I head with a friend to The Icelandic Bar, a place we’re told serves  very “authentic” food “just like your mother would cook.” After stomaching the fact that meals on average are going to cost about $20, I look more closely at the menu choices. Minke whale and puffin soup, herring, fermented shark, reindeer burgers…it’s all there.

I settle on a sampler basket, which is full of various delicacies, some I know are safe and others I decide I should try while here. The basket consists of smoked salmon on a scone (safe), lamb terrine (pate = safe), mustard marinated herring (not sure), smoked lamb (not sure), fish jerky (really not sure) and fermented shark (totally not sure)

Fish jerky (left) and fermented shark (right)
Smoked salmon, smoked lamb, herring and lamb terrine.

The fact that the fish jerky and fermented shark come out in sealed jars leads me to believe that the rumors are true- these things are pungent. And after a quick whif, which causes a gag-like reaction, I’m not even sure I will be able to taste either of them. I seal the jars and venture back to the basket. I start with what I know I will like because I am indeed hungry. The smoked salmon is delicious and the lamb terrine with red onion and blackcurrant jam is a treat, a really nice combination of flavors. The herring is fishy, but is covered in enough mustard and mayonnaise that the taste is somewhat covered. It is indeed a meaty fish though. The smoked lamb is ok, but at this point in time, I am thankfully getting quite full.

I do have to try the two sealed delicacies. It wouldn’t be right not to. So I remove the lids again and try to convince myself that they may taste differently to how they smell. The fish jerky doesn’t smell that bad, but it doesn’t smell good either. On the other hand, the shark smells like the stinkiest brie cheese has been dipped in formaldehyde. I take my fork and tear off the tiniest of pieces… and I bite down into a gelatinous substance that does indeed taste as bad as it smells. It leaves an almost spicy aftertaste in my mouth. I decide I can not sample the fish jerky. My Icelandic food journey has finished. I wash down the last of my water, pay my bill and head to a local cafe for a hot chocolate. I need to get this taste out of my mouth.

The hot chocolate is delicious, maybe one of the best I’ve ever had, and slowly Iceland is redeeming itself in the food and beverage department. I decide to try not to be such a tough critic. I have plenty of other opportunities to sample some less eccentric dishes while here. And after all, the country is known for pizza and hot dogs, funnily enough. At least I know there is a solid backup plan in place. TBC…