Monday, July 22, 2019

ICELAND, THE GOLDEN CIRCLE PART I: Craters,Thingvallavatn Lake, and Thingvellir National Park

June 12, 2019 (I've decided to start putting the date of the trip on each post. Sometimes it takes me months to get around to posting about a trip, and so when I come back to the post, it's hard to remember what season of the year, or even what year, we were somewhere.)

On our third day in Iceland, the ten of us went on a tour to what is called "The Golden Circle," a 186-mile scenic loop on the southwest side of the island. Here is what it looks like for most tourists:

Our savvy guide took us on a slightly different route, which meant we missed most of the crowds in the beginning AND had a better view of a volcanic basin and a lake. We began in Reykjavik and went clockwise:

And here is a map of Iceland for reference:

The initial part of the drive was pristine in its beauty and completely devoid of other tourists, although the Golden Circle is the most popular tourist drive in the country. We did see lots of tourists later in the day.

The road leaving Reykjavik was lined with lupine and yellow flowers:

After some time, we passed through three consecutive craters created by volcanoes--rugged lava rock splattered with lichen:

The area appears to be a popular place for hiking:

Umm, does that look like someone wearing a dress to hike in? Really?

See the well-groomed hiking trail in this photo:

Moving from one crater to another . . .

Many of the hiking trail distances are relatively short:

I'd love to go hiking here!

The pipe in the lower left corner carries warm water from natural hot springs to Reykjavik:

Bob, a lone man in the wilderness. Well, not quite lone . . .

There were nine friends and a driver nearby, but there was not another car in sight:

A bit further down the road we got out of the car at Thingvallavatn Lake, the largest natural lake in Iceland.  The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet at the bottom of the lake, and divers can actually straddle the two plates. However, the lake is 375 feet deep at its deepest point and is known for its frigid water, so I don't imagine a lot of divers do it.


Lupine were in full bloom around the edges of the lake:

Esme and Susan trying to get the best angle for their photos:

Happy travelers:


Our next stop, on the other side of the lake, was Thingvellir National Park, the first national park in Iceland (created in 1930) and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apparently this is a place Game of Thrones aficionados, which we are not, would recognize. (Did you know there are Game of Thrones tours in Iceland?)

The colors, patterns, and textures of lava rock, forests, marshland, water, mountains, and sky were breathtaking:

The park is in a rift valley created by the drifting apart of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which has created some interesting crevasses. (Imagine standing on this spot when the earth rumbled apart.)


A hole in the trail suddenly appeared on March 31st, 2011. Geologists discovered a fault 10 meters under the trail. An earthquake far away had caused some of the rocks to shift, exposing the rift in that section. They left the trail where it was and built a bridge over the chasm.

A wide trail leads tourists past the craggy, vertical rocks that provided the backdrop for the first official meeting of the Icelandic parliament, the "Althing," in 930 AD. Iceland has the oldest still-existing governing body in the world, so it was really quite exciting to be standing in this spot:

At the end of June each year, the leading chieftain and priest of the Old Norse religion would stand here to declare the annual session of parliament open. The sessions lasted two weeks, and during that time one-third of all the laws were read out loud (a different third each year). Legal actions were taken, speeches were made, and the podium was open to anyone who wished to address the assembly.
A drawing of an Althing gathering (from displays at the site)

On June 17, 1944, Icelanders came to this same symbolic spot to declare their independence from Denmark.

The massive rock walls create a tangible sense of power.




The Iceland flag with the two points is used in government sites, and this was the original government site!


The wide rift valley below the rock wall has fingers of water reaching through its edges:

Thingvellir National Park is indescribably beautiful and quite unlike any place I've seen before:

Look how pure and transparent the water is:

No wonder kings and presidents liked--and still like--to hang out here.

Friday, July 19, 2019

ICELAND, REYKJAVIK: PUFFIN AND WHALE-WATCHING TOURS

We planned two boat tours out of the Reykjavik Harbor, one to look for puffins and one to look for whales. On previous trips, we had good success seeing puffins and whales in Alaska and whales in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick. We were sure Iceland would provide an even better viewing experience.

Wrong.

Let's start with the puffin cruise. We went with one other couple from our group, and the best part (just a bit of foreshadowing here) was that we got to put on these cherry-red moon-landing suits:

Riding in the rubber boat was like riding a horse; we straddled a padded seat and hung on to the bars in front of us. The boat was completely open, and yes, the suits did indeed keep us warm out on the water, as promised:

Our friendly guide pointed out landmarks along the way, such as the beautiful and very distinct Harpa Concert Hall:

When we asked our guide what this big green half-orb is, she shrugged and said, "Some kind of art."  I've learned that the 26-foot-tall mound of earth and grass is indeed meant to be art. It was created in 2014 by a local woman named Ólöf Nordal (who has an MFA in sculpture from Yale), who says it is "a place for inner peace and meditation." On top of the hill, which supposedly offers great views of the city, is a fish-drying shed. I have no idea if it gets used. Interesting.

It was fun to look back at the Reykjavik skyline from out in the harbor. As usual, it's not hard to find the Hallgrimskirkja:

We pulled up alongside a few rocky/grassy islands, the perfect place for puffins, and we looked and looked for the cute little birds:

The flora was great but the fauna was conspicuously absent.

Wait! I think I see something!

Yes, it is a single lonely puffin!

Wait! There's another one!


And another!


Yeah, completely underwhelming.

We also saw what I thought were nesting gulls, but Bob says they are fulmars, cousins of petrels:

Here is my close-up:

And here is Bob's much better one:

We did see a few puffins in the water:

They are fun to watch taking off. It's not a particularly graceful process:

We did see one grey seal, although from rather far away. Isn't he cute?

And that's it for wildlife sightings. On our way back into port, the skipper of our boat hit the gas pedal and went full speed around the harbor, doing a few moderately thrilling curves and loop-de-loops. I think he was either trying to launch us out of the boat or make us so seasick that we wouldn't ask for a refund.

The next morning we got picked up at 8:30 and transported to the docks to join a whale-watching expedition. Unfortunately, I left my camera in our hotel room, but no worries, there really wasn't much to take a picture of.

We went further out to sea on this trip, and the water was glassy calm, which meant I didn't need the scopolamine patch and the Dramamine pill I had take as a pre-emptive measure. (I was thinking of a gnarly experience I had in the Kenai fjords in 2016 and wasn't going to take any chances.)

We were also a bigger boat with a cabin area, and it was a warmer day, so no need for the moon suits.

We didn't see much--a few minke whale fins and some porpoises--but it was a relaxing morning.

With only my cell phone for picture-taking, I really missed the zoom lens on my camera. There are whales out there:

Or are they porpoises?

Yeah, porpoises.

I suppose there are worse ways to spend a morning than floating around the Reykjavik Harbor and the Greenland Sea on a beautiful summer day. It's just a matter of changing one's expectations.
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