Iceland Day 5 – Thursday, September 11, 2014
Eastfjords, Lake Lagarfljót, and the Highlands



It was nice to have breakfast at the hotel this morning instead of another PB&J sandwich. That way, we can save our PB&Js for lunch! Arnanes Country Hotel offered what we found to be the typical Iceland breakfast spread, not expansive, but definitely adequate: cereal, milk and “sour milk” (don't know, didn't try it), coffee, juice, limited fresh fruit (very ripe banana, watermelon) and a few vegetables (cucumber slices, tomatoes, red bell pepper), cheese slices, cold cuts, a selection of breads, and boiled eggs. Oh, yeah, also caviar in what looked like a toothpaste tube and a bowl of what was probably herring (didn't try these either).

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Glacier view from Árnanes Country Hotel

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Icelandic horses

The hotel also offers horseback riding, and I took some pics of the Icelandic horses hanging out behind our room prior to checkout. Before leaving the area, we returned to Hofn for some clearer views than we had last night.

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Langoustine art

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Höfn

A few kilometers east of Hofn, we passed through a tunnel and officially entered East Iceland, just south of the Eastfjords. This is a desolate place, far, far from anything, on a rocky coast by a frigid sea. We stopped for 10 minutes at a lighthouse beside the Ring Road, the only major highway in the country, linking everywhere to everywhere, and not a single car passed by during this time in either direction!

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The lonely coast

As I've said, the Ring Road is the only major highway in the country. Even so, portions of the highway in the east are actually gravel, and one-lane bridges (and one-way tunnels) are common throughout Iceland. Whoever gets to the bridge first has the right of way. There's just not enough traffic to justify building a second lane.

It was over 100 kilometers from Hofn to the next town, the little fishing village of Djupivogur, population 460. Djupivogur has a cute harbor with colorful boats, and artistic displays abound throughout the town. Icelanders are apparently very creative during the long winter months. We found sculptures and murals all over the country, in even the tiniest of towns.

Interesting Factoid: Teigarhorn, just outside of Djupivogur, is the site of the highest temperature ever recorded in Iceland, in 1939, 30.5 degrees celsius (87F).

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Djúpivogur

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Eggin í Gleðivík (Eggs of Merry Bay)

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Troll landscaping

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Mt. Búlandstindur at Teigarhorn

We left the Ring Road at Breiddalsvik to continue up the coast along some more fjords. We almost passed through Stodvarfjordur without stopping when I spotted some interesting graffiti and had to turn around. The artist was clearly making either an anti-whaling or pro-whaling statement. I think probably the former, but I can't be sure. Iceland is one of only three countries that still permits commercial whaling. (The others are Japan and Norway.) Honestly, I think it's more of a “you can't tell us what to do” thing than anything else.

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Streitishvarf lighthouse

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Whale graffiti in Stöðvarfjörður

Reydarfjordur is home to a big ALCOA smelter. We viewed it from across the fjord but didn't drive into town. If I want to look at an ALCOA plant, I can do that at home.

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Reyðarfjörður - Pretty place for a smelter

Leaving the fjords for the time being, we drove to the most major city in this region, Egilsstadir, population 2,270. The whole town wreaked of manure. Really, you've got to put your pig farm or whatever right in town? You don't have enough land to place it elsewhere? I'm glad we didn't plan to spend the night here.

Egilsstadir was the first place we'd had a chance to stop at a Vinbudin, Iceland's government-run liquor store. The Vinbudins are sparsely located and have limited hours, so it took us until day five to find one during opening hours, or what I took to calling “the golden hour.” Due to Iceland's abusive tax rate on alcohol, it is extremely expensive. A 6-pack of domestic beer will set you back about $30, which is still way cheaper than at a bar or restaurant, where a 500-milliliter (pint) draft starts at $8-12 and goes up from there! A 700-milliliter bottle of the “cheap” local liquor is about $50, and if you want a bottle of Jack Daniel's, you're gonna have to sell a kidney. Still, we made a couple of purchases...

Next on our agenda: the circumnavigation of Lagarfljot, Iceland's largest lake. At 20 square miles, it's big enough for its own lake monster, the Lagarfljot Worm. I kept my eyes open but unfortunately didn't spot it. Shoot!

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Sunny day at Lagarfljót

The biggest forest in Iceland, Hallormsstadaskogur, is on the east side of Lagarfljot. We were relieved to see trees after days of seeing so few. It's truly a proper forest, even though the trees are kind of skinny. At one point we stumbled upon a logging operation, and the logs were about as big around as my arm. As they say, “If you're lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up.”

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Hallormsstaðaskógur logging

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Lagarfljót

I'd planned for us to hike to Hengifoss waterfall today, but last night we decided to skip it to save time. The hike would take at least a couple of hours, and we had other places to explore. So I was thrilled to spot Hengifoss from Rt. 931. I didn't know it was visible from the road! It was pretty far away – we were on the east side of the lake and the fall was on the west – but I'll take it!

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Hengifoss

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Route 931

At Rt. 910 Tom turned on what our map showed as an “F” road (4WD only), but it turns out it's now paved. The road rose steeply from the lake, reaching an elevation of over 700 meters. Yeah, that's only 2,700 feet, but believe me, it's a whole different weather system up in the Icelandic highlands. There it was extremely windy and 45 degrees, whereas by the lake it had been sunny and approaching 60. The landscape was stark, and we had great views of Vatnajokull, the third-largest ice cap in the world, and Snaefell, the highest mountain in Iceland outside the glacial regions, at 1,833 meters (6,014 feet).

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Vatnajökull ice cap

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Snæfell

We followed Rt. 910 for 57.5 kilometers to where the road ended at the dam for the Karahnjukar Hydropower Plant, built to power ALCOA's smelter that we saw earlier today at Reydarfjordur. At the dam, we were as close as you were allowed to get to the ongoing volcanic eruption at Holuhraun, about 24 miles away, and the sulfur dioxide in the air made our eyes burn. The ash cloud was obvious to the west, and it made for a spectacular sunset later on!

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Kárahnjúkastífla Dam - Note the ash cloud

It was getting toward evening, so we hightailed it out of the highlands, filled up with gas in Egilsstadir, and then headed back to the Eastfjords and the town of Seydisfjordur, where our room for the night awaited.

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Extra-red sunset

Rt. 63 between Egilsstadir and Seydisfjordur is breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly frightening. We paused at the top of the highest non-tunneled mountain pass in Iceland to look back at the lake, then drove past crystal high-altitude lakes formed from the still-melting snow hanging on from last winter, and then descended into a valley of uncountable waterfalls. The descent was hair-raising, down switchback after steep switchback on a narrow two-lane road with no shoulders, but it led to one of the prettiest places we've ever been. There was nowhere to pull over for photos, so I'll just have to keep it in my memory forever.

Our room for the night was at Nord Marina Guesthouse in the little fishing village of Seydisfjordur, population 675. When we drove up, I thought we had found the Beirut of Iceland, but the inside of the place was actually nice. We got a large room with a private bath and a shared kitchen for $103. We learned from the old man with missing fingers that runs the place that our guesthouse was a former herring-processing facility, but when the area became overfished, they still had to make money somehow, so they turned to tourism. The place has character! It was right on the dock, like take-a-wrong-step, fall-in-the-fjord close. Awesome!

I made some spaghetti with speck (salami) for dinner and we had a couple of decent beers we'd bought at the Vinbudin, Kaldi Dokkur, 389 ISK each. I'd also bought a bottle of Brennivin, an Icelandic liquor, which translates to “burning wine.” I kind of liked it. It's a clear, unsweetened schnapps flavored with some kind of herbs.

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Nord Marina Guesthouse

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Lacks curb appeal

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Better inside



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