Good Reasons to go to Icelandby Mary Hartman
A couple of years ago a friend asked me if I’d ever been to Iceland. "No," I told her, " I’ve never had the chance."
But, last summer my husband, Barrie and I, got that chance, when we boarded Holland America’s ship, "The Maasdam." And, if I had the chance again, I’d jump at it. Our cruise left from Boston, from where we visited the Isle de Madeline at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, then Newfoundland, Labrador and Greenland, after which we sailed through the majestic Prince Christian Sund..
Then came Iceland – four wonderful stops in Iceland. Just about the only places we didn’t visit were the capitol city of Reykjavik and Eyjafjallajokun Volcano, which later erupted and stopped air traffic between Europe and the rest of the world for more than a week.
But we didn’t miss Isafjordur, Akureyri, Husavik and Seydisfjordur, nor the incredible scenery that greeted us each day as we sailed deep into Iceland’s northern fjords to reach our day’s destination. And, arriving at those destinations, we took advantage of four unique side trips – excursions deeper into the wonders of Iceland.
Our first stop, Isafjordur, is more remote than even we knew. When we got home we had to look hard at an enlarged map of Iceland before finally finding it, tucked against the mountains at the base of a peninsula in far western Iceland. As with all the stops, we could choose between birding expeditions, kayaking or exploring the local culture. Maybe it’s the gardener in me, but I cajoled Barrie into a bus trip deep into the countryside at the end of which we would disembark at the Skurdur test garden, where a hundred years ago an intrepid couple went to the trouble to see just what would grow in this harsh climate. Some might say not much and in one respect they would be right. Such a far northern location won’t support rhododendrons, azaeleas or even most of the bedding plants that westerners set out each spring. Indeed, this is a cold climate garden. About the most familiar plants were Canterbury bells, yarrow and ajuga, along with bleeding heart and purple coneflower. Certain lilies also grew there, along with trees, some familiar, some not. Truthfully, this isn’t a trip for just anyone, – just for we nut-cases who wanted to see how far avid gardeners could "push the envelope." As a further reward was the ever-so-green mountainous countryside along the way and the absolutely gorgeous peaks, that popped above the gardens themselves.
Our disappointment came, not in the garden, which we considered an almost beyond-belief endeavor that has been carried on for more than 100 years by folks, who continue to experiment and to try species that just might take hold there and grow. The guide, however, needed some personal growth. His mantra – all the way to the garden and all the way back to the ship – was, "Wait ‘til you get to Akureyri – there you’ll see real gardens." But that wasn’t the point. Akureyri lies in a much more forgiving climate than Isafjordur, and we didn’t appreciate the guidance this guy gave, which was none. So, win a few, lose a few, but the garden was a piece of work if one just stopped to realize the odds under which it was growing. And, those beautiful craggy peaks staring down at us were another piece of work, this one by Mother Nature.
For the second day, we cruised past green pastures leading from the North Sea through Eyjafjordhur Fjord toward Akureyri, known as the most urban of Iceland’s cities. And, as with every stop on the trip, there was something – no, several "somethings" to explore. How tempting, for example, would be an eight-hour excursion on Lake Myvatn, where travelers were promised good views of the thundering Godafoss (falls of the Gods), miles and miles of shimmering lake, a labyrinth of lava formations and then a hotel where lunch would be served.
That’s one of the things that surprised us about Iceland. Just when you think you are somewhere just shy of the end of the world, up popped a little community, a church, a string of boats and boathouses or a school. That’s what we discovered with our chosen side trip from one end to other of Hrisey Island.
This four-and-a-half-hour excursion involved a 15-minute ferry ride from Iceland’s mainland to a small village and from there a good old-fashioned tractor-drawn wagon ride over a (yes) bumpy trail that wove its way through a seemingly endless pasture of tall, waving grass. Surrounded all the while by the fjord’s bright-blue waters in the near distance, we also followed a string of snow-capped mountains that seemed far away yet, at the same time, felt as if they were almost close enough to touch. Thirty minutes of bump-bump-bump and the island came to an end, where out from the sea of grass popped a tiny Lutheran church. Presumably, the folks living at the east end of the island, made the Sunday trek to the west end for services. But by tractor-drawn wagon (bump-bump-bump), we wondered.
Hrisey Island proved an old axiom that no matter where in the world one goes, there’s always a chance you’ll bump into someone you know. Riding on the hay wagon, my husband and I exchanged greetings with the guy sitting next to us. "Where you from?" I asked in the usual Q & A. "San Matao, California," came his reply. "Oh, I have a cousin who lives there – Stan Kansas is his name."
"Stan Kansas," the guy shouted above the tractor’s rumble. Everyone knows Kansas. He just gave a bunch of money to our Rotary club for one of our overseas projects." I knew that cousin Stan had done well in the world, but here was living proof that he’d done very well, and I had to travel to Hrisey Island, Iceland, to discover this.
If ever there were a fairy-tale village cut out of the north, it’s Husavik, Iceland. Cruise ships dock at the head of the fjord, in a body of water dubbed Skjafandi Bay. If you never disembarked but simply spent the day on deck staring at snow-covered peaks, you’d have more than got your money’s worth. Temps in July and August seldom exceed 65 degrees, but winter temperatures don’t drop into the sub-zero categories of other Icelandic cities.
While the Husavik area is rich for fishermen, it’s equally rich for whale watchers, bringing visitors from throughout the world to the deep, cold waters in which these beautiful creatures thrive. Early each day, sight-seeing boats chug out of the harbor carrying loads of travelers who can’t resist the possibility of seeing up close one – hopefully more – of these marine giants. And, if they don’t board a sight-seeing ship, they may find themselves at the whale museum near the port. Here whale biology, as well as the evolution and behavioral habits are on display for all to see. When I was there, the museum was crawling with visitors and why not? "Mom, look at this," a 10-year-old shouted at his mother, who was equally engrossed in her own whaling interests. Just down the way, a family of kids was posing against a photo of one of Mother Nature’s largest and most beautiful creatures. And, downtown, along an enormous wall hugging the port, colorful paintings depict whales in all their glory. Sitting at an outdoor café, a cup of the world’s best coffee in hand, I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful setting: the colorful wall that stretched halfway through the city and showcased whales, ___, puffins, ___and snow-capped mountains behind. Then floating in the azure blue waters just before me was our ship, Holland America’s Maasdam. It was almost painful when 5:00 came and we had to be aboard. Of course, the long days of summer near the Arctic Circle made the trip out of the bay and fjord one of beauty and the experience of spending 12 hours in Husavik gave this traveler something to remember for as long as she lives.
But one more thing to remember: Early in the day, we slipped away from Husavik for two hours to visit Grenjaoarstadur (Pronounce that one three times running). This impossible-to-recant place is out of the 1800s, a series of grass-roofed homes made from sod and furnished – at least the home we saw – to house the area’s elderly. It was lived in until 1949 and was opened as a museum in 1958. Visitors could climb narrow stairs and walk through the attic and loft. Below is a kitchen with an enormous fireplace and hearth. (It was easy to imagine roasting a whole hog in that place.) The house held several sitting rooms and bedrooms. A priest lived there; in his case, he could be married and could (and did) father a brood of children. But, back to the elderly. It was heartwarming to us that the place was a care center for older people. Not surprising, the front yard is given over to a cemetery. Once there, residents pretty well knew where they could spend eternity. The entire setting was calm and beautiful.
Our last day in Iceland, and we’ll never forget it! After giving it a little more thought than we attached to most of our excursions, we decided on a seven-hour tour of fishing villages and the geology of Iceland. The beauty of this trip was excursions into the valleys of northeastern Iceland. Looking out the bus window, we could, at times, count a dozen waterfalls draining from the mountain tops, bubbling and racing toward the valley floor, where they joined the Fjoroara River, which itself was racing toward the waters of the fjord on which Seydisfjordur is located.
When one thinks of WWII, Iceland doesn’t often fit into the picture, but the war reached there, too, and the Iceland War Museum stands in mute testimony to it. Then, at its innermost reaches of this beautiful island – at least for us on that day – came a display of the rocks and the minerals of which Iceland is made.
The collection we visited was housed in an anteroom of a private home. The owner was away "south for the summer" (though it seemed more logical that an Icelander would go south for the winter); nonetheless the tour guide had the door key, and upon opening it, it was as if he unlocked the geological history of Iceland. There before us was a variety of gemstones unimaginable to the untrained eye. Most of the agates and petrified wood had been hidden beneath a coating of grey sediment and had lain on lake bottoms and on the underbelly of stream beds. Most of the rocks were large – far too large for a kid to pick up and "skip" across the water. The collectors of these gems, however, knew when a rock was "more than that which met the eye" and off to a cutting and polishing machine it would go. The result was an eye-popping collection of everything Iceland was made of. It gave new respect for every step you took. Beneath the surface of this land, you knew you likely were walking on something beautiful.
But no matter how beautiful the display before us, tummies have a way of calling, and we were a heck of a long way from a McDonalds. "Hurry on down to the dock house now," the tour guide said. "The what?" But like lemmings to the sea, we followed the crowd out of the rock museum and across the street to a rough-hewn building with pilings that extended over the water of a local lake. It may have looked different from any eatery we’d ever seen, but once inside the door, the smell of clam chowder spoke louder than the building’s outside appearance. So, there we sat on plank benches with bowls of chowder and platters of fish, salad and potatoes. Heavenly – that’s what it was, and what a way to end a wonderful excursion into Iceland. Now I’ll tell my friend, "Yes, I’ve been to Iceland and I can hardly wait to go again.
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