“Have you ever held a camera before?” The threat of mansplaining hovers like a sulfur cloud over a rumbling volcano. Ellen wastes few words on it. “I’m a photographer,” she says laconically. She picks up the camera – a phone – and snaps a shot of the American and his rowdy party in the water. In his defense: everyone here is in bathing suits and you can hardly see more than a few meters ahead because of the fumes hanging over the water. Just try to identify who is the photographer. Not possible!
We are at The Blue Lagoon at the end of our fall vacation. Our travel guide states that ‘the Blue Lagoon is to Iceland what the Eiffel Tower is to France’, and that’s more or less the truth. Anyone with a little time to spare between Europe and America is considering a visit. On our previous Iceland endeavor, eight years ago, we skipped it. We thought it was terribly touristy. And way too expensive. And highly inconvenient when traveling with a baby and toddler, although at the time that didn’t stop us from engaging in even more inappropriate travel activities, but that’s another story. Now, with two (pre) adolescents – who are still allowed to enter for free – we take the plunge into the hot milky water.
And we find our preconceptions confirmed. Iceland’s best-known thermal pool is huge and slick. It seems more like an Oktoberfest than a wholesome natural phenomenon. Employees with the energy of American cheerleaders are handing out towels to guests. Many guests are in the water, half-drunk, drinking beer from plastic cups purchased at a pool bar. You can also get a mask, a blob of mud to smear on your face. And girls in bikinis that are way too small are endlessly taking pictures of themselves. It’s all so mighty instagrammable.
The creation of the Blue Lagoon is a fine example of serendipity, an accidental discovery. In the late nineteen seventies, a geothermal power plant was built in this area to generate energy from superheated ground water. The hot water that was left over after power generation and city heating was dumped into a small pool that would eventually become The Lagoon. The minerals provided a soil retaining the water. And a pioneering psoriasis patient discovered he benefited from the mineral-rich water. He paved the way for more than a million paying visitors a year. And now we are among them.
“Can we please go to the hotel now?” our teenage son asks after a few hours of bathing, “because I don’t feel like doing anything anymore.” Only to add, in a fit of disarming honesty, “as far as I felt like doing anything at all during this vacation anyway”. The childlike enthusiasm of eight years ago has given way to a somewhat less engaged view of reality. “Look Daddy, another ketchup!” has been replaced by “Oh no, not another glacier”.
The part of me that confuses parenthood with schoolteacherhood is troubled by this. You don’t fly all the way to a spectacular crack in the earth’s crust just to search for a wifi signal all day, do you?
On the other hand, our son just managed to sum up the vacation very concisely, at least from his perspective. His father can certainly learn a thing or two from that. And he is secretly exaggerating, because there are still quite a few vacation activities that our son is excited about. Anything to do with food, for example. And swimming, despite the strict Icelandic hygiene regime that demands you to shower naked and clean yourself thoroughly before jumping into the water. The latter seems to be a life-size obstacle, but apparently you get used to it quickly. On his third visit to the swimming pool, our son forgot that he didn’t have his swimming trunks on yet, and managed to walk into the pool area completely naked.
Our trip started a week ago with an afternoon flight to Keflavik, the airport near Reykjavik. Although we have no big plans in the capital, it is nice to get a taste of the city atmosphere. In search of food, we walk around the city and see bits of the centre – many restaurants are fully booked on this Saturday night. After pizza and snacks, we spend the night in an impersonal but very comfortable IKEA-style apartment.
The next morning we manage to strike the Icelandic chord more successfully. In café Loki, right next to the eye-catching Hallgrímskirkja, we breakfast on local delicacies like smoked trout and rye bread ice cream. Ellen and Teun prepared for this event thoroughly. You’re a foodie or you’re not! When the last crumbs have been eaten we are ready for our road trip. A small loop around southern Iceland, that’s the plan for the coming seven days.
To be more precise: we are going to follow the Hringvegur – the ring road around Iceland – to Höfn, and then back again. One week unfortunately is too short for a whole circuit. That would mean we would spend almost all of our time in the car. We drove the whole circle during our last visit in 2013, when we had just over two weeks of free time. Fortunately there is plenty to see and do in the southeastern part of Iceland.
Some of the places we remember from last time. Like Kerið, the crater lake where we take a short walk along the rim of the crater. And Gulfoss, the famous waterfall that escaped being destroyed by project developers thanks to an heroic activist. And of course Geysir, The Mother Of All Geysers. There is something very addictive about staring into a pool of water and waiting for it to explode.
It is raining for a good part of this Sunday. That may sound worse than it is, for three reasons. Firstly, it is a drizzle of the lightest kind. So light that at a certain point you don’t notice it anymore, provided you are wearing raingear. And then I arrive at reason number two: we are wearing rain gear. Rain coats of course, but also rain pants. Just like in the old days when we rode our bikes to school. The only difference is that back then you would get all damp on the inside because you were sweating like a pig underneath your plastic layer, whereas nowadays this gear is made of semi-permeable ultra-breathable aerospace material. Or we just don’t sweat anymore, that’s also a possibility, because it’s only a vacation and we’re taking it very easy. The third reason is a bit of a lame one, but it’s the most important one: this type of weather is factored into our holiday expectations. You don’t go to Iceland to get a sun-tanned skin. It’s that simple. For stories about beach holidays, you’ll have to turn to someone else anyway. We are not a tropical beach family. But you might have already figured that out.
All that said: it seems like a brilliant plan to end this drizzly day with a nice hot bath in a natural hot spring located in a river. However, after careful consideration we have to abandon this idea. It is still a bit of a drive to Reykjadalur, followed by a hike through the mountains. And because it is the end of October, the sun is about to set soon. We do not want to be forced to hike back in the dark. So we decide to drive up to our accommodation in Eyrarbakki, a tiny town on the south coast. Again we spend the night in an IKEA showroom: universal comfort on the inside combined with the charisma of a garage box on the outside. Located right on the beach, which is a plus.
The next morning, the natural river spa gets a second chance. We drive to Reykjadalur and put on our rain gear and hiking boots. The “half hour hike” from the description seems a bit optimistic. The trail keeps ascending. There is no sign of running or steaming water anywhere. Are we hiking in the right direction? We decide to keep going, but with each step the doubt intensifies. After an hour Ellen gives up. For months she has been having spinal problems and needs to be careful with her back. One step too far and she’s in pain for the rest of the week. We turn around. With great regret in our hearts, because nothing is more frustrating than aimlessly climbing half a mountain. And yes, the drizzly weather has been factored in, and yes we have rain gear. But it has gradually become a conditio sine qua non that a hot bath is required as compensation A requirement that is not fulfilled today. Or is it? After a descent of barely twenty meters, Ellen hits the brakes again. Her inner struggle is palpable. This hike was planned months ago, we’re not going to let it happen to us! We will proceed! And we do find the river, after an extra half hour. And hey, it’s not like we haven’t done (much) longer mountain hikes than this. But I know what I am talking about. With this kind of physical family exercise it is extremely important that expectations meet reality, in terms of planning. But we must say: all the difficulties we have encountered on the way to the river dissolve very quickly in the soothing warm water.
We continue along the ring road to Vík í Mýrdal, the southernmost village in Iceland. On the way we make a stop at Seljalandsfoss, an epic waterfall. This splashy spectacle is an old acquaintance of ours. As we continue driving the first glacier appears on our left. On the right side of the road a vast plain opens up, that stretches all the way to the coast. We´re loving it! It´s pure landscape porn.
Ideally, we would stay overnight in downtown Vík, but that’s well above our budget. Instead, we sleep at a hostel called The Barn, just outside town. You may translate hostel here as youth hostel, but it’s a very luxurious and modern one. With a beautiful communal kitchen, bunk beds as wide as a queen-size bed, and – the ultimate winner for our kids – an electrical outlet next to each bed. And speaking of luxury: at the state liquor store we are able to buy a few quality beers. With the low interest rates these days, that’s perfectly financeable.
The next morning it is no longer drizzling, it is downright ferocious outside. It would be completely irresponsible to drive on the ring road in these weather conditions. Fortunately we don’t have to do a lot of driving today, we’ll be staying here for two nights. We limit ourselves to short drives in and around the town. And we teach ourselves to park the car facing the wind, to only open one car door at a time, and to never take your hands off the door when doing so. Although that does carry the risk of being ejected from the car with a jolt. We brave the storm and take a windy walk to Reynisfjara – Black Sand Beach, the famous beach with the basalt “organ pipes”. And we visit the shipwreck museum, a large barn housing a hundred-year-old wreck and a lot of stories about the numerous ships that sank here off the coast.
In the afternoon we check in at the Sundlaug, the public swimming pool. Where our city Nijmegen (180,000 inhabitants) has been debating for years about the right of existence of its open air swimming pool, Vík (750 inhabitants) simply has one, just like almost every other tiny hamlet in Iceland. Of course, it does help that Mother Earth provides the Icelandic communities with plenty of hot water. And obviously, we’re not talking about an Olympic-sized competition pool, in size it´s more like a pool at a Mediterranean villa.
Once inside, the cashier explains to us that he has to open the pool especially for us – there are no other guests. And in an hour he will have to close it up again, “because bad weather is on the way.” (“No,” he says with a casual glance out the window, “this is nothing yet.”) Instead of apologizing that he can’t possibly open his pool for an hour for four lost Dutchies, he asks us if we think it’s worth it for an hour, where “of course” we don’t have to pay the full amount. Anyway, I already wrote about this eight years ago: Icelandic swimming pools are truly awesome. And I haven’t even mentioned the magnificent swimming trunk centrifuge. And no, I don’t have any shares in the Sundlaug business, although I am considering becoming an influencer.
The wind has died down when we continue on our journey the next morning. The sun is shining brightly. Wonderful weather to see the many glaciers. One by one they sneak into our field of vision. That is good news you would say. But my wife is visibly stressed. She grimly stares out of the window and does not tolerate any questions from her fellow travelers. The reason is that she is a photographer as well as a driver, a double function that does not work out well. (For those who know us less well: she wants to be the driver. Not “want” as in “possibly be willing to” but “want” as in “demand”. Let´s be clear about that). She constantly wishes to pull over to take a picture, and there isn’t always a convenient place to do so along this road. There are small places to stop here and there, but they are sparse. And when you consider that this ring road is the main traffic artery of Iceland, you understand that a poorly positioned photo shoot could bring the entire country to a standstill. The stakes are really high today.
Fjallsárlón, Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach
Fortunately, there is ample parking at the main attractions for today, two glacial lakes named Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón. Fjallsárlón is not as well-known as its big brother, but it is perhaps even more photogenic than Jökulsárlón. It´s so quiet and serene here. There is no one in sight, apart from two men playing James Bond in a speedboat among the ice floes. In contrast, at the Jökulsárlón – where several films have been shot with the real 007 – tourists are ferried in by busloads. But then again, it is a spectacular sight. The lake is full of icebergs that have separated from the glacier. As soon as these huge chunks have sufficiently melted, they drift via the estuary to the beach, where they end up on Diamond Beach, or choose the wide waters.
Before we head to our hotel at the end of the day, we drive by the gas station to eat hamburgers. Ellen had gathered from a long and confusing email from our hotel that they could not serve dinner, because of the pandemic. And this petrol station is about the only catering possibility in the whole wide area, apart from another really expensive hotel and two stores one hundred kilometers away. That’s how vast Iceland is… and how difficult communication can be sometimes. When we arrive at the Adventure Hotel in Hof it turns out that there is a large dining room where one after the other guests take their seats. We just had to make a reservation, that was the message in the mail.
Talking about adventure: we are going on an ice cave tour! The next morning at ten o’clock we are at the parking lot at the Jökulsárlón, packed and ready to go. Unlike yesterday, the sun doesn’t show itself today. The sky is gray and it’s raining again. Various tour guides are lined up with their imposing big-wheeled vehicles to drive passengers to the glacier. However, there is no sign of our guide Vikfus. A friendly colleague tries to call him but gets no answer. When he manages to contact Vikfus a little later on, he finds out that he has problems with his car: he has turned around to get a new one. We kill time and take shelter in the bar. When Vikfus arrives almost an hour and a half later, he meekly admits that he had made a booking error. There is no tour at all today at this time. The “car trouble” was just an excuse to buy time. As compensation however, Vikfus has arranged a private tour for us, with a colleague named Borrki.
And Borrki is a very enjoyable, true Icelandic style character. He tells us that after a dramatic event in his life he decided to never be grumpy again, a promise he manages to keep convincingly, at least during this trip. Subsequently, in five minutes, his views on climate change, gender roles and political populism are outlined. As we bump along in his monster truck 4WD towards the ice caves, Borrki passes on one life lesson after another. And he succeeds in convincing both our children that he is 96 years old because he only drinks Icelandic water – we estimate him to be in his late fifties. After about a half-hour drive he parks the car, hands out helmets with headlamps, and speeds ahead of us toward the glacier rim. After a short hike, we enter the ice caves. For an hour we marvel at the beauty of the colors. Somehow it comes across even better through a camera lens than it does with the naked eye. While Ellen indulges herself with her SLR, Borrki has one tip after another for doing photographic tricks with a mobile phone. He is mansplaining away, but does this with so much charm, that it’s no problem at all.
After an excellent fish ’n chips in the Jökulsárlón parking lot, we proceed on our way to Höfn, the easternmost point of our road trip. Höfn is a fishing town located on a peninsula. On paper it sounds nice, but our review is a little conservative. This stop was not really necessary. The hotel is so-so and the old town resembles an industrial area. Outside of town lies a beautiful mountain area – Stokksnes and Vestrahorn. The Viking café at the entrance has little to offer, but asks a shitload of money for a view of the mountains. We decide to skip this. The Sundlaug offers comfort. We switch between the hot (38˚) and cold (6˚) baths like accomplished ice(wo)men.
The next day we drive back to Vík. It´s a wonderful drive. We get the best of both worlds: the sun shines regularly but it also rains, which results in a series of stunning (double) rainbows. And all of this right above the glaciers. Also very impressive are the views from the hills along the road over the marshy plain. After a short hike to the Skaftafell glacier we take a satisfying dip in the Sundlaug in Kirkjubaerklaustur. We finish the day in a very comfy cabin on a farm in Hvammur.
On Saturday, a long but sunny drive back to the Reykjanes Peninsula awaits us. Iceland is so so wonderful when the sun is out in force. Before we leave, we cast a glance over the spectacular coastline at the lighthouse atop the cliff of Reynisfjara. All along the way we are treated to more rainbows. We pass up the chance to see hot lava flow from an active Fagradalsfjall volcano, otherwise we’ll be too late to reach the Blue Lagoon. Wise choice? Well, at least we made it to Blue Lagoon, as you read before.
Because of a tremendously early return flight, we spend our last night in a hotel in Keflavik, near the airport. These are usually not the most exciting nights. If you are unlucky, you pay way too much for a bunker, with zero time to lie in your bed and no time for breakfast. We sleep at the Lighthouse Inn however, a modern Scandinavian hotel at the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula. It has enormous suites and great breakfast-to-go service. But the real icing on the cake is outside, hovering over our heads. Ellen had gradually lost interest in the Aurora Forecast apps (standard notification: “due to cloud cover, 0.03% chance of northern lights in the coming days”). And I myself, somewhat perplexed, had read on a news site that the Netherlands of-all-places had a chance of seeing aurora borealis this evening. A fellow traveler in the hotel is more on top of things and tips us that it could happen here this very evening. And when the receptionist informs us that it is said on national television that the chances of northern lights are estimated to be very high, all eyes are turned upwards. As the evening progresses we see how the sky turns more and more green. An amazing way to end an Icelandic vacation! Even our adolescent son wouldn’t have wanted to miss this.