Monday, October 31, 2016

Iceland 2016: Höfn to Egilsstaðir

Today was a long day with lots of driving and lots of miles.

The goal was to make it to Egilsstaðir right after sundown, from there I’d head into the northern part of the country and make my way west. I was lucky this morning to catch the sunrise at around 8am, rising over the bay at Höfn. It was spectacular-reflecting off the water and damp black-sand topped with puffy white clouds in a golden sky above the mountains off on the horizon. 
It was ridiculously windy last night and into the morning, but the mid-40s (already) temperatures were hinting at what would be a winning weather day. I walked into the campground’s lounge/cafeteria and Ivan the Spaniard I met the night before over beers excitedly told me the hot water was free. Yes! Finally, I can take a hot shower after about five mornings. Others rejoiced too, as it would normally cost about $4 USD to take a 5-minute hot shower.

Before leaving Höfn, I wanted to drive down to the harbor and see first-hand what keeps this town alive: lobster fishing and processing. At the harbor, I spotted many fishing trawlers docked up alongshore. Turning a corner, I started driving through the quiet neighborhood of Höfn. Gotta admit, European and in this case, Iceland’s houses are adorable. Höfn is such a sweet little town. Definitely worth a stop at as you’re traveling Route 1, the Ring Road.

With my coffee full and Jimny gassed up, I hit the road. This leg of Route 1, the Ring Road follows the North Atlantic coastline for a few hours as you dip in and out of the East Fjords. The scenery was jaw-dropping. Big open shorelines, tall rocky jagged mountains on the north side of the road, waterfalls appearing out of just about every crack in the higher rock…and the weather was perfect. I didn’t even bother wearing my down puffy jacket. I’d guess the temps were in the high 40s maybe low 50s and the sun was shining bright. 
There weren’t many stops along the way unlike the previous three days, but the stellar driving ambiance made up for it. I’m a sucker for good driving roads. It’s why I did a road trip down America’s Route 66 a few years back and why I’d go back to Vietnam just to again drive the infamous Hải Vân Pass outside of Da Nang in the country's central highlands. Give me a fun car, a good road, and I’m a happy camper. Route 1, the Ring Road humbled me today with its scenery. Around nearly every corner, I’d just sigh in pure awestruck, shaking my head and smiling. Iceland is that incredible. I’m still trying to fathom the terrain here, understand this island shaken up by volcanic eruptions and melted away by massive glaciers.

About an hour into the drive, I pulled into the quiet town of Djúpivogur, another small fishing town that runs a ferry to a nearby island called Papey. It’s filled with unique historic buildings from times past, like the red, A-framed log house called "Langobuo" built in 1790 and once served as the village’s main site of trade and a place for social gatherings. There’s also a pier, jutting out into the Berufjörður bay with 34 large sculptures of bird eggs.

One of the many benefits of having your own rental car and not being trapped on a tour bus is you can go explore where you want to go. I can’t stress this enough: if you get to Iceland only use Route 1, the Ring Road as a basic course to follow. Deviate as often and as far as possible from it on many side roads that carve deeper into the country. It’s so worth the extra gas. 
For example, earlier in the day after stopping at Djúpivogur, I pulled off onto a steep, gravel road that led to a stunning waterfall again still in Vatnajökull National Park (told you it's big). That freedom to just go explore if you see something off in the distance is the very best. 
At Breiðdalsvík, the road splits and I decided to turn-off from Route 1, the Ring Road and continue on Route 96 which goes in and out of many of Iceland's East Fjords. When I got to Stöðvarfjörður, another gorgeous harbor town on the edge of one of the fjords, I read in my Lonely Planet guide book that there’s a mineral collection worth visiting. Curious, I did, and whoa! Steinasafn Petru or "Petra's Stone Collection" was wonderful. Visit the home of Petra Sveinsdottir who over the course of her life gathered thousands, and thousands, and thousands, of precious gemstones from all over east Iceland. It’s mind-boggling how intricate and pretty some of the minerals are on display. 
I met Petra’s granddaughter, who runs the museum based out of Petra’s home. She herself even goes and collects stones to bring back. She explained to me how Petra would carry in a rucksack up to 40 kilos of gems and minerals down from the hillsides. Petra also collected vintage playing cards and matchbooks from hotels and destinations all over the world. I totally geeked out over all the vintage travel memorabilia.

Carrying on Route 96, it transitioned from pavement to crushed bumpy gravel around a bend at the foot of a 743-meter craggy mountain called Sandfell. On the right side of the car, a treacherous 200 plus foot drop down into the cold waters of the North Atlantic. A bittttttt scary. But oh the drive was so epic and kept getting more jaw-dropping as the road weaved its way into around more of the large fjords. 

It was pitch black a few minutes before 6pm and I made the drive to Egilsstaðir, where I set up my tent in a chilly grassy field in town and saw the Northern Lights for the very first time in my life. Another great day in Iceland in the books. Maybe I’ll just stay here. Honestly, I could write pages about how these landscapes were drool-worthy and today provided me with easily some of the best driving I’ve ever done, but I’ll let the other pictures below from today do the talking.