December 7, 2012

Iceland and Four Generations of Schappis

Shown here are three of the four generations of my family that ventured to Iceland the week after Thanksgiving. At left we see Jessie, then her father (and my son) Todd, and her brother Colin. Cuddled in the middle is six-year-old Kaylee. Those not shown are Kensie (Jessie's one-year-old daughter and my other great-grandaughter), Jessie's husband Dan, Todd's companion Jill, and yours truly. My daughter Ann and my granddaughter Emily weren't able to join us.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the idea for the trip suddenly popped up during one of my early morning mindfulness meditation sessions in late October. The eight of us arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, on Sunday morning, November 25. 

What follows is basically a photo journal of our week in Iceland. Next week, I'll describe our discoveries in this beautiful and interesting country.

Sunday in Reykjavik
Definitely the low point of the trip, at least for me. Soon after we checked into our center-city hotel, the Plaza, I went out to buy some snacks and diet sodas. A few blocks from the hotel, I found a 7-11-type store and purchased my provisions. Shortly after leaving, I realized I didn't have my wallet. I hurried back to the store, where the helpful staff helped me search. No luck. I retraced my steps without success, and had to acknowledge that the wallet was missing.

Back at the hotel, I called Chase and Citibank to cancel my credit card and ATM card. I glanced at my laptop and saw that I had an email message. Someone at a local gift shop reported that the wallet had been turned in there. I spent an hour in an increasing panic, trying to locate the gift shop. Finally, I was reunited with my wallet -- minus the cash, but with the credit and ATM cards and everything else.

Back to the Plaza. I tried unsuccessfully to cancel the "stop" orders on the cards. 

By 5pm, darkness had fallen on the city . . . and on me. Jet-lagged John had the weird feeling that dementia was setting in, and that I no longer could handle travel like this. Nonsense, of course. I'm familiar with these crazy spells, and I recovered quickly. 

In spite of my unfortunate start, we had a terrific first night in Iceland. A hotel staffer recommended "The Laundromat," a restaurant just blocks away and suitable for our jet-lagged, multi-generational gang. When we arrived, the staff said it would be difficult to arrange a table for eight in the main dining room. They asked if they could set us up a table in the "basement room." Not knowing what to expect, we said OK.

Fortune smiled. We had the whole downstairs to ourselves -- one large table for our meal, a huge kids' playroom AND a functioning laundromat! A few people came down to the room to wash their clothes; otherwise, the large space was all ours.  

Here are Kensie and Kaylee, making good use of the playroom:

Out Into the Countryside -- Day One
The next morning we left Reykjavik to explore the magnificent landscape along Iceland's southern coast. We had signed on with Iceland Tours for a 6-day, 5-night self-drive package. The first car held driver Todd, Jill, Colin and me. Dan drove the other car, chaufering Jessie, Kaylee and Kensie. We had the recommended 4-wheel-drive vehicles with studded tires and -- surprisingly -- automatic transmission. We had expected stick shifts. We were on "The Northern Lights Tour." More about that later. 

Our first stop was the spectacular Skogarfoss waterfall. Note the rainbow on the left.

Next up was the black lava beach Reynisfjara (I didn't try to pronounce these Icelandic names) with its oft-photographed basalt sea stacks rising from the ocean. After a late start, we lucked out and got there at sunset.

Earlier at the beach, we got this nice shot of Jessie and Dan with Kaylee and Kensie:

As we left the black beach with the sunset behind us, the full moon appeared dead ahead! Jessie cleverly captured this photo of the full moon with the sunset in the rear view mirror:

After Iceland's early nightfall, we worried that our GPS instructed us to leave the main road and head five miles out into an uninhabited countryside searching for the Laki Hotel. What we found was unbelievable: an elegantly appointed 40-room hotel with a large dining room and an adjoining lounge with a pool table. They served up a terrific gourmet buffet supper. Once again, we had the whole place to ourselves.

Day Two in the Countryside 
This day was the highlight of the trip for me. Each day featured a spectacular waterfall.

Only rarely in my travels have I been moved to tears by what I was seeing. Last year, my first sight of Crater Lake in Oregon did it. This time, it was the Svinafell glacier tongue, which reaches out to the ocean. We walked along its edge. Then, thanks to our intrepid explorer Colin, we crossed a ridge and saw the massive glacier heading back toward its mountain birthplace.

Here I am, stunned by what I'm seeing:

70km down the road, we saw another spectacular sight -- the Jokulsarion glacial lagoon. Enormous icebergs regularly break from the glacier into the lagoon, melting as they drift into the sea.

Here we ran into a group of strange young men in odd attire, clamoring around the lagoon and ice-covered hillsides with large pieces of fabric:

We found out they were Brits. (I could have guessed!) They were working on a project for their London college, something about designing new tents. These guys were testing their tents by spending the night sleeping in them on the glacier. Rule Britannia!

Here's a much more sensible group:

Then, back to the lovely Laki Hotel.

Day Three 
Another day, another waterfall. Today Iceland's most famous waterfall -- Gullfoss. It was also our coldest and windiest day. The walks were icy, leading to the staircase down to the overview, but that was as far as we could go because of the  ice. Even from a distance, these falls were impressive:

Nearby was the geothermal area of Geysir, where the Strokkur hot spring throws a water column high into the air every 5-10 minutes, as many small springs boil and bubble.  

The Last Day in the Countryside
We headed back to Reykjavik by way of the Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the world's geological wonders. Here, we could actually look down into the cracks opened where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates collide.

At the end of  the day, we drove back to our hotel in the capital. 

Reykjavik and the Northern Lights
The tour itinerary called for flying home the next day (Friday), but there were no direct flights back to Washington that day. So I'd booked us for an additional day and night in Reykjavik. I'm glad it worked out this way, since there's plenty to see and do in Reykjavik, including devouring "the best hot dog in the world."

Kelsey and Kenzie got a chance to visit the zoo and pet one  of the famous Iceland horses:

It also gave us another night to play the Northern Lights game. At each of our hotels, staffers told us when we checked in that we could sign up to be awakened if and when the Northern Lights appeared. The Northern Lights are triggered by sun spot activity, which is on an 11-year cycle that peaked this year. November and December are usually the best months to see the Northern Lights.

I think this claim is all a hoax devised by the Iceland Tourist Bureau. My friends Bill and Nancy Montweiller did the same tour two weeks before we did. They think they MAY have seen a faint flicker. We saw nothing.

I found a website where each afternoon the Icelandic Meteorological Office posts the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights that evening. The prospects are rated from 0 to 9. I checked each day we were in Iceland and the chance was always 1. Just for the heck of it, I just checked the chances for tonight -- 2.

But the Montweillers and the Schappis and all who joined them in the tours agree that Iceland is spectacular, regardless of the Northern Lights.

More on Reykjavik and its hot dogs and Iceland in general next week.


sidbanerjee said...

Iceland is gorgeous. I had the opportunity to spend time there about 10 years ago. We took a tour around the island and drove up onto a 400 meter glacier - it was like nothing else I've ever seen. The drive passed beautiful wooded areas, rocky, almost lunar landscapes, and then frigid, dangerous ice cliffs.

We also went to the "Blue Lagoon" near Reykjavik-a touristy but still fun hot springs with fluorescent blue water.

Sounds like you had a fantastic time!


Madeline said...

Thanks so much for sharing your trip, John. You've given me a window into the natural wonders and the beauty of Iceland. I'm sorry to hear that the Northern Lights proved elusive. Oh well. A glacier tongue seems equally amazing.

John said...

Sid, I suspect you'll like my follow-up report on how Iceland's dealt with the 2008 recession