8 Off-the-beaten-path Adventures to Have in Iceland

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If you’re a human living in the world today, you’ve probably heard about how awesome Iceland is. Well I’m here to tell you that everything you’ve heard is true. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve probably watched Game of Thrones (or James Bond, or Tomb Raider, or Beowulf…), but I’ll also tell you that none of these really prepares you for what you’re going to see. In brilliant 3D color, with the wind whipping past you through the sweeping mountain slopes and over the vast volcanic floodplains, the variety and scale of what you’re looking at is overwhelming. In four days and five nights, we managed to make it around the whole of the country and, while there were certainly places and experiences that didn’t fit into our timeframe, armed with just a 4WD and an adventurous spirit, we managed to have some remarkably unique experiences. And these are all IN ADDITION to all the top tourist attractions we also visited – the Blue Lagoon, geysers, waterfalls, etc.

  1. Get up close and personal with a glacier

Glaciers, like waterfalls, are everywhere in Iceland, and the best ones (and the most easily accessible by car) are tongues of the vast Vatnajokull ice cap found in Skaftafell National Park. Now there are a plethora of guided tours, glacier walks, and cave excursions – definitely DON’T go onto a glacier without a guide. But we, being fans of the more impromptu “let’s see where that twisty-looking road goes” method of adventuring, found ourselves practically (but safely) on top of several awesome glaciers. The first was Skeidararjokull, which we found by accident by turning onto a dirt track and following it until the road stopped. After a bumpy ride which took us into the bounds of Skaftafell national park, the road terminated before a vast floodplain of dark grey gravel with the glacier tongue massive and wide in the distance. A quick scramble up the flood barrier (in place because massive glaciers tend to also cause massive flash-floods) gave us a panoramic 360-degree view of the countryside.

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The second, even awesomer one we found next, was Svinafellsjokul, which we came upon by following potholey but paved road branching off from the Skaftafell turnoff. A small trail leading from a parking lot leads past an iceberg-choked lagoon and along the northern side of the glacier, where you can look down (from relative safety) into the crevasses and, as you keep walking, get a sense of the superhuman scale of the thing. Among the deep blue ice, you might get a glimpse of an ice-climber no bigger than a gnat, and you’ll understand how enormous even a relatively small glacier is.

To get to Skeidararjokull: Heading east along the Ring Road (1), exactly twenty miles east of Hof (not to be confused with Hofn, which is elsewhere), there is a turnoff to the left. It’s marked on Google maps as Haoldukvisl (so you can plug it for directions) but in reality the only marker is a picnic bench by the side of the road. The road is gravel and mostly good, though if you’re not in a 4WD I’d go quite carefully. It terminates after about a mile and a half.

To get to Svinasfellsjokul: Continuing east along the Ring Road, with the titanic mound of Vatnajokull looming ever closer, there will be a well-marked left turn for the 998 toward Skaftafell. Don’t turn here, but continue another half mile until you see a dirt road turn off to the left. Take this and bear to the right until you come to a small parking lot, with a trail leading off through a gate and along the glacier.

2. Chase the Northern Lights

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No winter visit to Iceland would be complete without a view of this spectacular phenomenon. There are tour companies that offer “Northern Lights tours,” which promise to take you out nightly until you’ve sighted the lights. I’m skeptical of these, as they keep you tied to Reykjavik, obligate you to someone else’s schedule, and cost money with no guarantee of success! I’d use apps such as Aurora Watch or Aurora Notifier which will alert you when activity reaches a certain threshold – meaning the lights are more likely to be visible. If it’s a clear night just get in your car, park yourself in some wide open place with a view of the sky, and spend some quality time staring upwards. Worst-case scenario, you’ll spend a night bonding with the breathtaking northern sky, resplendent without the light-interference you’d likely get back home. Best case scenario, what begins as a faint glow, like moonlight without the moon, might blossom into undulating cathedrals of flickering green light. It’s not as vivid in real life, the colors you see in photos come from long exposures which have time to gather the light and make it look brighter. If you have any kind of camera that will hold the shutter open for a few seconds, have some fun playing around capturing the effect. You’ll want a tripod to hold the phone/camera absolutely still (or just balance it on the hood of the car like I did).

3. Drink champagne in a geothermal hottub

12963565_10206771317497575_1088245128966900349_n.jpgHottubbing is the national pastime of Icelanders. Any hotel worth its salt will have at least one little pool sunk into the hillside, probably fed by natural hot springs, where strangers or lovers can hang out and keep their bodies warm while their ears freeze off. Because it was a special occasion, we requested a bottle of champagne from our hotel, but you can pick one up more cheaply at the airport dutyfree. The magic of Iceland is grounded in its nature, so there’s no better way to spend an evening than out of doors. And the freezing temperatures will keep your drinkypoo chilled, although you might want to hang onto your glass in case the wind takes it away. Oh, and don’t let the cold daunt you. You really haven’t lived until you’ve run out of your hotel room into sub-zero temperatures in your bikini, and getting back out is even worse – you might just need to linger all night before you get up the courage to dash back to your room…

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How can a place be so cold, yet so hot at the same time?

(Hot tip: The Icelanders use their volcanic resources in all sorts of cool ways. Besides heating their houses, and their saunas and spas for romantic sexytimes, our hotel let us cook our eggs in a volcanic steam vent. No lies – it took eight minutes, and it was totally legit!)

4. Spend the night in your car

I can’t recommend this way of traveling enough. The experience itself is a cozier version of camping. We used cheap duvets in addition to our sleeping bags to make a snug nest in the back of our Suzuki (but you don’t need an SUV to be comfy – any car will do as long as you can put down the back seats!). It’s not that you can lie in the warm comfort of your car and watch the landscape as the sounds of nature lull you to sleep. For one thing, the condensation of your breathing will quickly block the windows, and without the heater running the inside temperature of the car will soon match the outside temp (but don’t worry, with a duvet or a sleeping bag you certainly won’t freeze, particularly if you have somebody to snuggle with!). No, the magic of car-camping is picking your perfect spot to spend the night, whether it’s looking over a beautiful valley, by the seashore, or, as we didit, by the shore of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. It’s getting your bedding and luggage

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Our view the next morning – and we had it all to ourselves!

all sorted out, and passing back and forth a bottle of wine as the sun sets. It’s wondering what strange sounds are in the night, or waking your partner up at 3 am because your phone just sent a Northern Lights alert and stumbling out into the crackling blackness to try and spot them. Then it’s waking up with the dawn and washing your hair with a bottle of water, then brushing your teeth while you contemplate the misty landscape, none of which you would have done if you’d slept in a boring old hotel room.

5. Find the Solheimsandur Plane Wreck

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The wreckage of a US plane that made an emergency crash-landing on the southern coast of Iceland in 1973 (nobody died – yay!), makes a weird and unique tourist site. The burned-out shell of the plane, a decaying sort of ruin, rests in the strange landscape of a black-sand beach surrounded on one side by a bowl of impressive mountains, and on the other by the powerful motion of North Atlantic waves. There are companies (or individuals!) based in Vik that will drive you out to the wreckage, but the most popular – and definitely the best – way to access the site is by walking. (Note: you used to be able to drive up to the site but now the owner has closed the road to private vehicles). Here is a great description of how to get there – you’re really just walking south in a straight line, but the sand dunes and contours of the land make it slightly disorienting. The walk is about 2 miles each way, and as it’s flat and not too difficult, it makes a great and low-risk way to get yourself out of the car, off the road, and into the Icelandic countryside. The plane and its setting are a Disneyland for photographers (some of whom have damaged the wreck by lighting fireworks inside to get cool exposure shots – naughty!), but after you’ve posed for a Biggles photo, I’d urge that you take the extra few minutes and continue down to the beach itself. We spent as much time hypnotized by the crashing waves – that amazing contrast of the white sea foam on the black sand – as we did poking around the plane wreck.

6. Drive through a mountain pass in a blizzard

I suppose this isn’t something you can exactly plan to do, and I wouldn’t *quite* recommend doing it if you can help it, but it’s definitely an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s not exactly surprising that if you travel to Iceland at the end of March, some of the roads will still be closed from the winter snow, and even those that aren’t can get pretty bloody cold. We’d had a bit of a scare two days previously as we were driving into Vik, which you reach by going up over a short, but not inconsiderable pass between two mountains. It was snowing slightly, which made us nervous about ice, but the real bogeyman was the wind. During the day I’d felt it trying to blow me across the road while I drove, and when we parked it rocked the car back and forth. In this pass, with the snow and the day getting dark into night, it was extra scary. The worst moment was when we passed an RV that had actually been blown off the road, and was blocking one lane, while another car seemed likely to get blown into the blown-away RV. Morty was driving, so naturally I was filming.

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We spent our last day on a driving marathon: we woke up (in our car) at Jokulsarlon, and our goal was to make it around the whole of the island and back to Rejkjavik in time to catch our flight at 7 the following morning. It would appear that we, too, like to live dangerously. We probably should have been tipped off by the two road closures we encountered before noon. But we took the detours and kept going. We probably should have been tipped off by the mountain pass out of Reydarfjordur which, even though it wasn’t closed, was so snow-covered that the only thing visible was the road itself.

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And this was before the storm even began – complete whiteout!

The entire world, hills and sky, was a perfect, impenetrable white – a very disconcerting experience. But we made it to Egilsstadir without incident, got petrol and hotdogs at the gas station, and set out on the next leg with a full tank and plenty of coffee. Half an hour later found us two inches deep in new-fallen snow (read: unplowed) and visibility almost zero in spots.

7. Go bond with some horses

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One of the strange things about Iceland is that there are horses everywhere. You would think with such a harsh and mountainous climate the main livestock would be sheep, but apparently not. And they’re not just regular old horses, but these wonderful shaggy ponies that seem perfectly adapted to the frigid cold. Some of them are skittish when you approach them, almost wild-seeming, whereas others come right up to the fence and are quite friendly. Perhaps too friendly for my taste… I had the weird impression that this girl was trying to steal my man!

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8. Watch the waves crash at the Dyrholaey cliffs and lighthouse

One of the most beautiful sights we saw on our trip was the view around Dyrholaey point, about half an hour west of Vik. You get there by following a tiny single-track road branching off to the right/south of the main road. At the end of it is a parking lot just at the edge of the cliff, with the most spectacular 360-degree views: the ocean to the south, the cliffs and black sand beaches to the east and west, and the mountains disappearing off to the distance to the north. You can walk up to the top of the cliff and get a panoramic view across Reynisfjara, Iceland’s most famous stretch of black sand, with the black basalt sea-stacks of Vik in the distance. You can watch the waves crash spectacularly against the rocks and through naturally-formed blowholes, forming rainbows against the sun:

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Honestly, the waves and the scenery were so mesmerizing, we actually spent almost two hours just at this one spot:

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Then, when you can finally tear yourself away from watching the waves smash against the rocks, you can take another short road (definitely recommend 4WD for this road, otherwise it’s only about a 15-minute walk) up to the lighthouse that towers over the point, and this was the point at which I wasn’t even sure what world I was in anymore – Middle Earth? Narnia? Asgard? – because the view was so spectacular I still have trouble believing I really saw it, even when I look at the pictures.

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These are just a few of the non-typical adventures we had in Iceland. We had a lot of the more traditional tourist experiences as well: the Blue Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park, geysers like Strokkur, and waterfalls like Skogafoss. But I figured there are probably a million blog posts out there on those things – I thought I’d write one on some of the more special things we did that didn’t come from a guidebook, but that made our trip even much more magical. Hopefully they can make your trip wonderful too 🙂

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From Switzerland With Love

After a few days in Grindelwald and the trip to Jungfraujoch, both of which were pretty touristy, I treated myself (again, I’m just always “treating myself,” aren’t I?) to a sojourn in the teeny tiniest village I could possibly find that still qualified as a “village.”

This was Gimmelwald. But it’s nothing like Grindelwald. The tiny town is situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley (the village on the valley floor is called Lauterbrunnen and is big enough to have a train station, at least). Gimmelwald is only accessible by funicular, in true Swissalpen style. There are only about 20 houses in the whole place and, according to Rick Steves, almost everyone in the town has the same last name of Brunner (and yes, the lady with whom I booked my accommodation was indeed named Brunner).

For sale at the “Honesty Shop,” one franc per egg!

I stayed at the  “mountain hostel” and met some really nice American girls to hang out with. Within fifteen minutes of my arrival, one of them gave me the following instructions regarding dinner: “Walk straight down the dirt road, about five minutes. You’ll pass cows on your right, but if you go past the goat hutch you’ve gone too far. When you see a little wooden house with purple flowers in the windows, ring the bell. A woman named Helga will sell you sausage and cheese.” I couldn’t resist, but did exactly that. Helga Brunner wasn’t at home, but her cousin, Rolf Brunner was, and he showed me their cheese-curing room.

The cheese he had to sell me was one and two years old – this year’s cheese was still too young (you can see it on the shelves!). He let me taste each, the “Jungkase” or “young cheese” and the old. The old was much stronger, and the young already hard and crumbly but still smooth-tasting. I opted for the jungkase.

The rind of each wheel of cheese is stamped with a number, according to the order of its production.

He also sold me some beef sausage, and together that made a perfect dinner. Thanks, friend Rolf!

You’re welcome, Steffibunny!

After this, a couple of us took the cablecar up to the next town (Mürren) for a “Volksabend” or “Folkloric Evening,” which turned out to be a free concert featuring traditional dancing, yodeling, playing of the traditional alphorn, and twirling of the Swiss flag. This was particularly enjoyable because, unlike the tourist traps in Salzburg and Innsbruck, the people performing at this evening were part of real societies preserving their historic culture. For instance, we saw the “yodeling choir” and several traditional dance troupes. These are all locals who participate in these clubs in their spare time just for their own enjoyment, not as a gag for rich tourists.

But the reason most people go to tiny, picturesque Gimmelwald, is as a stepping stone to the local summit, the Schilthorn. The Schilthorn itself is nothing much to look at, kind of bald and barren-looking actually, but it’s the view from the top that make it one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. I would come back here before I went back to Jungfraujoch, in a heartbeat. One of the biggest attractions up there is the Piz Gloria, a 360-degree rotating restaurant. It. Was. Incredible.

Apparently, part of From Russia With Love was filmed here, and they offer a James Bond Breakfast Special: The biggest breakfast buffet you’ve ever seen (in true Swiss style – coldcuts, cheeses, breads, butter, soft-boiled eggs, muesli, and some scrambled eggs and sausage) at the center of the circular restaurant, and also bottomless coffee, AND a glass of champagne, just to make you feel completely glamorous. So two Americans from Ohio and I opted WAY in, and sat for almost two hours just sipping, eating, chatting, and watching the mountains from eye-level. It might be the best breakfast I’ll ever eat.

After that, we all hiked back down to Gimmelwald! Well actually, I let them get about a 20 mintues head start, because I really prefer hiking alone. I’m not antisocial or misanthropic, just that when I hike I tend to be a follower, not a leader, and I go into “horse-mode,” and just follow the butt of the person in front of me without making my own way. So I said, “no offense!” and waved the other two girls on their way, and spent a few extra minutes hanging out on the observation deck.

Needless to say, the views were unbelievable. The day was almost cloudless, so you could see as far as Italy in one direction, to Germany in another, and to France in another.

The Schilthorn boasts “the best views of Jungfrau,” and I think they’re right. You can see them perfectly lined up here: Eiger, Münch, and Jungfrau.

The hike down is not too long, 1600 m difference in altitude from top to bottom (that’s about 4,800 feet!), and it took me about 5 hours total (with a lot of breaks though, and at a leisurely pace). That sounds like an awful lot to me, but this chart on the Schilthorn says it’s true! It didn’t feel that hard, but my glutes were feeling it for days afterward haha.

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Here’s the view from the top down:

You can see part of my trail, that teeny thing at the bottom!

I can’t think of a better way to spend 5 hours. The top of the trail was still snowed-in, so the first half hour was spent slipping and sliding over snow-slash-glaciers, but after I descended a little, the trail was clear.

I told you the Schilthorn itself wasn’t that pretty…

One of the best things I found on the way down was a glacial lake. It was completely clear, and had this subtle blue tinge. Half of it was still frozen as snow, and it was SO clear that I actually filled my waterbottle from it.

Even in my bottle, the water was spotless, and tasted great!

All the publicity for the region claims that the hiking around the Schilthorn features some of “the most beautiful alpine scenery most people will see in their entire lives.” And I absolutely have to agree.

This is like The Lion King, if The Lion King happened in Switzerland instead of Africa.

Yes, my camera really took this picture. Yes, this is a real place.

My leg muscles may have remembered this hike for a few days, but I’m pretty sure I will remember it forever.

The Cablecars of Switzerland

After four days in Venice, I took off for not just the next city on my list, but the next country!

Unlike Italy, which is all about the art, the museums, and the cities, Switzerland is all about the the outdoors, the hiking, and the breathtaking views around almost every corner.

Through my whole time in Switzerland, I didn’t spend more than an hour or so in anything that could be considered a “city” (like Lugano, Zurich, Bern, Geneva), so unlike my blog posts through Italy, which each focused on one city, we will have to try a different approach to blogging Switzerland. Because, after all, one adorable small town in the mountains is much like another.

But here’s one thing all Swiss towns (and cities!) have in common: the funicular. It is almost impossible to get anywhere worth going without making at least one part of your trip in a cablecar or gondola.

These can be as cheap as 2.50 round trip, or as expensive as 85.00. But whatever I paid, I pretty much never regretted going – the higher you go, the better the scenery gets, no?

I took my first one in Bergamo (which is technically in Italy, but… whatever), when Steven and I took a daytrip there from Milan:

We took it from the citta bassa to the citta alta (those higher buildings in the picture), and the view was pretty fabulous:

A few days later, in Lugano (an Italian-speaking town just over the Swiss border), I took a cable car up to the tiny church of San Salvatore.

Up, up we go…!

And the views from the top were fabulous:

On June 20, I took a cablecar-cum-gondola from Lake Thun to the top of the Niederhorn, about 1900m up (this amazing spot, where I spent my birthday, will have its own post later).

It was a dizzying ride. About halfway up you stop in the village of Beatenburg, where you have to transfer from your lovely, rail-bound cable car, to an unsupported, wind-buffeted gondola.

My beautiful backpack, he/she still needs a name! Any suggestions? Giacomo, Wolfgang, Grendel…?

It was amazing to watch the lake I’d just traversed by boat gradually shrink as I went higher and higher!

And the views from the top were some of my absolute favorite (evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to leave, so I spent three un-planned-for nights in the hotel at the top!)

Across the lake in Grindelwald, I took another gondola up to something called “First” which is apparently another summit. I say apparently because the day was rainy and so fogged in that I couldn’t see anything beyond the walls of my little gondola (it was wonderful actually, like traveling through blank white space). And when I got to the top, I couldn’t see a thing (I had planned on hiking back down, but by then it was raining just a little too hard). So at the top I ate some hot soup and drank a hot toddy and went back down through the same white mist.

According to Google, this is the view I was missing… Bummer. :-/

And finally, after staying in Grindelwald for a couple days (again, more details on this in another post), I took a several trains and a gondola up to a teeny-tiny, confusingly-similarly-named village called Gimmelwald, which is only accessible via gondola. From this little hamlet perched on the edge of a cliff, the cable car continues to the most spectacular summit yet, the Schilthorn (2900 meters, 9800 feet). Even though this was not the highest place I went in Switzerland, it’s view of those higher places was the best. Aka, when you’re on the Jungfrau (a famous mountain we’ll revisit later), you can’t actually see the Jungfrau.

(Actually that reminds me of a great anecdote about Harkness Tower in New Haven: Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright once said that if he could live one place in the world, it would be on the top of Harkness Tower, so he would never have to look at it, it is so ugly. Lulz.)

But anyway, the Schilthorn was absolutely magnificent:

I swear my camera actually took this picture. This is not just some postcard that I scanned in. The highest peak on the left is the Jungfrau. Please please please do click on the picture to make it bigger – it’s so pretty!

And that, my friends, concludes my cable-car tour of Switzerland. Actually, I think that made a nice overview of all the places I visited, some of which now I will blog about separately.

Auf wiedersehen!