Sunday, August 23, 2015

Iceland Part V: A Day in Kulusuk, Greenland & some time in Reykjavik

We went back and forth numerous times trying to decide whether we should spend one of our days in Greenland. The cons were that we only had seven days in Iceland so we weren't sure if we wanted to lose one of them, and two, it was VERY expensive! The pros were that we'd get to go to Greenland and have an amazing experience... and who gets to do that?!

The trip only lasted eight hours total and because of the long sunlit days we still had a lot of time to do what we pleased afterward. We arrived at Reykjavik airport for our 10:15 flight and right away we knew this was a different experience. This airport only serves domestic flights in Iceland, summer flights to Greenland, and flights to the Faroe Islands. There are only two gates (little did we know we would be seeing a much smaller airport on the other end). After checking in and going through the small security line, we settled onto the AirIceland plane for our 1.5 hour flight to Kulusuk.

Definitely didn't need to take the jacket with me! It ended up being sunny and in the 60s! 

Flying into Kulusuk was a very different experience than what we're used to! First, this...

A million pieces of ice as we approach Greenland 

And second, we flew into the smallest airport I have ever seen in my entire life. The airport was actually built by the U.S. Air Force in 1956 as part of an early warning defense system. I started to get a little nervous when it looked like we were only about 100 feet away from the mountains on the left as we were landing, but then we landed on a dirt runway and we started to seriously wonder where we were! This airport is so tiny that when we were leaving Kulusuk they simply opened a back door to the one room we were in (which was more like a souvenir shop) and went around to everyone telling them that the flight to Reykjavik was leaving. This airport is so small that they didn't ask anyone for their passports and the security line would have our TSA agents having heart attacks. Just a totally different experience all around!

This is the entrance and exit to the airport!
This is the whole airport - it's basically one room! 

View from the airport

We met our tour guide who would be taking us around the town for four hours. The tour was originally supposed to include a 45 minute boat ride through the icy water to get a closer look at the glaciers, but because their winter lasted longer than usual the water was still icy and impassable. We left the airport and walked three kilometers towards the town while making some stops along the way to hear about the daily life and history of the people here.

Kulusuk is an island town of about 250 people and is part of the least populated part of the country. Our guide gave us a lot of information on this very small and somewhat disconnected place. The only flushing toilets they have are at the hotel about two kilometers from the rest of the town. They have a grocery store that has a regular supply of food and items (although supplies dwindle in the winter as the ice blocks a lot of shipments to East Greenland), a school house, a church, and a large room where they hold parties. There are no doctors or hospitals, but they do have two nurses if the need arises. If they want to go shopping for anything besides groceries they have to take a boat to Tasiilaq (about an hour ride in the summer, or a ten minute helicopter ride). The winters can be really depressing here (as with all of Greenland) as the sun is only out for about 2-3 hours a day and no boats can leave the area (though helicopters are still able to get out if there's an emergency).

The cemetery - they don't put names on the graves since they'll use that name for the next baby born and believe the person will live on in that name. Some people have 6 or 7 middle names due to this tradition! The flowers are not real and are made in China :/

The grocery store


Our group took the scenic route down...

A really interesting tidbit that our guide told us was that the color of the houses are designed to show what the occupation is of the person living there. There are four main colors used: red signifies government establishments like the school, blue signifies transportation, yellow signifies medical personnel, and green signifies telecommunication. This was to ensure that people could see the houses in a snowstorm if they needed to find the appropriate person. If it's painted a different color then you're not part of these occupations. These days you're allowed to change the color of your house, but almost everybody keeps to the tradition.

 During our time here we also went to the museum where the guide showed us artifacts from the old days, some of which they actually use today! 

We ended the day with a stop at the church, a nice walk along icy water, and a three kilometer walk back to the airport.

This was such a great experience and we're so glad that we decided to do it! We would love to see the western side of Greenland and see the city of Nuuk, and maybe spend some overnight time there coupled with hiking and some boating adventures. Although, it's not quite at the top of our list right now! But you can't beat this stunning view from the airplane ...

We arrived back in Reykjavik at 6pm and went right into the city to Hallgrimskirkja - The Church of Hallgrimur. It's dedicated to the most renowned sacred poet of Iceland, Hallgrimmur Petursson, and it towers over the center of Reykjavik. It has a 73 meter tower, which gives a beautiful view of the city and surrounding area.

After the church we went to a sculpture called the Sun Voyager (Solfar in Icelandic), which sits right on the sea in Reykjavik. They say that the Sun Voyager is a dream boat, an ode to the sun. It's an imaginative view of a classic Viking ship and it's a really beautiful sculpture. With the mountains in the background and the sun hitting just the right way off of the metal, it almost looked like it was on fire (although the picture doesn't show it).

We walked around the city a little bit more and found a restaurant that I had wanted to eat at. It was an Icelandic tapas bar, which I thought would be perfect since it would give us the opportunity to try a variety of food as opposed to a couple of entrees. This was by far our favorite restaurant during our whole trip! We had some Icelandic favorites like puffin, shark, and whale, while also eating bacon wrapped dates, scallops, and so much more! We left very full.

Reykjavik really impressed us. Honestly, I really believe that it could be a city that we would enjoy living in!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Iceland Part IV: The Golden Circle, and some great stops along the way!

We woke up to a very windy and rainy morning. Vik is the rainiest place in all of Iceland and we were pretty fortunate to have sunny skies here the past two days... and that we were leaving that morning!

We were about two minutes into our rainy drive back towards the west when we saw a woman on the side of the road with a huge backpack and a sign that said, "Reykjavik". Now before anybody says anything like "I hope they didn't pick her up", Iceland is hugely known for it's hitchhiking tourists and it's actually encouraged! All along Ring Road you will see men and women with signs asking for rides to various places. There are no crimes associated with this and people from all over the country help each other out, though Americans usually don't since it's illegal here and we have some crazies in our country that makes us jaded. Given the bad weather and excitement we had that we could do something that is pretty normal in Iceland, we asked her where she needed to go. She needed to get to Keflavik airport, but since we weren't going all the way there we told her we'd drop her off in Sulfoss, which got her pretty close and was about 1.5 hours away from Vik. She was so grateful to get out of the cold and we felt pretty good about ourselves helping out a fellow tourist. She was from Estonia and left her daughter and husband to travel around Iceland for a week (solely on the use of hitchhiking!) She actually had been to the base in Naples, Italy and in Hawaii since she her best friend is married to a guy in the Navy- what a small world!

We stopped for a nice picture

Well, sorry to disturb you! 
After we dropped off our hitchhiker we started our drive on the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a really popular tourist route in Iceland and can be done in a day trip. There are three main sights that people see: Gulfoss Waterfall, Geysir Hot Springs, and Thingvellir National Park. We knew this day was going to be our "crowded" day with hundreds of people in tour buses flooding the sights, and while we were looking forward to seeing some cool stuff, we were not looking forward to the hoards of people. The good thing was that we were going around the Circle in the opposite direction, we were getting a later start due to coming from Vik, and we were stopping at other places in between that were off the beaten path.

Our first stop was to Kerid Crater, which is a volcanic crater lake. Surprisingly, this was the ONLY outdoor place in all of the stops we went to that charged an entrance fee (and it was only around $3). Every national park, waterfall, and geysir area has free entrance, which was hard to get used to, but very welcomed!

The crater lake is very colorful and unique! Bjork actually held a concert in the middle of the lake a few years back.

We drove a little bit north and went to Gulfoss Waterfall. The waterfall is on the Hvita River, which is fed by Iceland's second biggest glacier, Langjokull. It was pretty crowded when we arrived here, but we could easily see why. The falls are very powerful and were rampaging over the sides.

We went out to different view points, all in an attempt to try to get away from the mobs of people, but it was hard to do. It's a great stop to have on the tour bus route, but if you're like us you much prefer the quieter tour bus free areas. But just like the Colosseum in Rome, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, this is one of Iceland's top sights to see so it's a necessary evil. We did very much enjoy looking the intense waterfall though!

The next stop was only five minutes away, the Geysir Hot Spring Area. Because we went to the waterfall first (we passed the hot spring area on the way) we were able to park in a small empty parking lot across from the tour bus area. The Hot Spring Area is a large open area that has more than a dozen hot water blow holes and has been active for more than 1,000 years.


Beyond boiling water

Geysir is the original hot water-spout after which all other geysirs are named. Unfortunately the original geysir no longer spews water into the air, but Strokkur is a very reliable geysir within the same area that shoots water 50-100 feet every 5-10 minutes. We watched Strokkur blast some hot water into the air a few times in order to get the perfect picture!

We continued counter-clockwise on the Golden Circle and made a planned stop in Laugarvatn. The small town of Laugarvatn is known for it's geothermal baths (Fontana) and we wanted to experience them. We stopped off for a quick bite to eat and then headed to the baths. The Fontana is a small and intimate area consisting of several choices of shallow and deeper baths, each marked with a temperature rating. You can also go into the lake (with a sign that says, "Dangerous Nature!"). And if you've had enough of the baths you can go into the sauna that's fed by a naturally occurring geyser-like vent below. This was a really nice place to go and unwind after our long day of driving and sightseeing. The temperature outside was in the 50s and it was nice to sit outside in the hot water and check out the scenery. We also ventured into the lake a little bit, though we didn't get too far since the bottom was a bit rocky and it was pretty cold!

Moving on from Laugarvatn, we drove to our last stop of the day, Thingvellir National Park. Because we arrived later in the day and due to the park's size, we were able to avoid the masses and explore this park in peace. The park has a lot of historical significance as the Vikings established the world's first democratic parliament here in 930 (Thingvellir means "Parliament Plains). Now it is a protected national shrine. The national park is also located on the two tectonic plates of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and it's possible to stand (and snorkel) in between the two plates.

There was so much beauty in this park! There were a lot of trails, paths and other walkable areas for us to explore, as well as a beautiful lookout area that had a stunning view of the park and surrounding area.

What a tiring, but great day we had! We still needed to drive an hour to our house that would be our home for the next three nights, but more on the amazing house in the next post! Next up, a day in Greenland and some time in Reykjavik!