Journey to the West (of Iceland)
During my extensive research for this epic road trip of ours, it struck me how most of the Icelandic road trips shared online preferred to explore the Golden Circle in an anticlockwise fashion. Have to admit that I became a little apprehensive about my clockwise (direction) itinerary and even thought of reworking it to conform to the norm, hence spending some more time researching for the reason why most did it the other way. My main worry was that doing it the usual way guarantees an easier and/or more scenic drive, yet nothing online suggested it was the case. With some trepidation, we discussed and decided to stick with the initial plan which I thought was far safer: we were driving during a time when Iceland was transiting into winter and I wanted to get the more rugged terrain (i.e. the north) out of the way first.
After a night in Reykjavik where we ensured that I (read: the sole driver) had ample rest after a long flight from home, we headed for the first destination of our clockwise-styled itinerary – Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the western tip of Iceland where Snæfellsjökull National Park is located. And our first stop for the day? Trolls’ Falls of Fossatún in Grímsá river, purported to be one of the best salmon rivers in Iceland. In season, one was even able to see salmon jumping in the river (but of course, we couldn’t sight any since it was too cold).
We were quite alone, standing by the river as we admired the series of rapids while silently shivering in the crisp, cold morning air. Such tranquility was a preview of what the rest of the road trip was generally going to be like. Even when we ended up at the really touristy spots, it was never shoulder-to-shoulder crowded unlike the more popular tourist destinations in Europe. In retrospect, I do wonder how long Iceland can keep up with this peace and calm. As it is, we have seen signs in the country’s capital that the hotels and lodgings available can’t keep up with the increasing demand, what with the numerous hotel constructions we saw.
Trolls are featured prominently in Icelandic folklore and the signs couldn’t be more visible at Troll’s Falls. Amongst other manifestations, there is a prominent erected stand narrating a local folklore, which content I can’t seem to recall. There are also several stone statues of benign and friendly-looking trolls, quite unlike the menacing one we saw in the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone movie. 😆
After bidding farewell to Trolls’ Falls, we headed out to another set of falls located nearby – Hraunfossar and Baranafoss. Hraunfossar, aka Lava Falls, was situated directly by the car park and was the first of the two falls that we first sighted. Alas, we happened to arrive at the same time a tour group of spirited Asian tourists did, and promptly decided to follow a well-marked path in search of Barnafoss first, leaving the crowd behind.
Barnafoss, otherwise known as Children’s Falls, has a very tragic story linked to it. Legend has it that two young children were left alone at home while their parents went to church. When the parents returned home, the children were nowhere in sight. Apparently they got bored at home and went out. So the parents followed the children’s tracks and traced them to the natural stone arch by the Barnafoss, where it ended. The children had fallen into the water. To avoid history repeating itself, the children’s mother supposedly destroyed the arch.
As we proceeded back to Hraunfossar, I lingered and took a closer look at the series of tiny rapids flowing over a small lava field into Hvita River. What really caught my attention was the colour of the water that was a strangely bright hue of turquoise-blue. It was a cloudy day, by the way, so no way it was caused by reflection of the sky.
With most of the visitors to the area gone, we stood there in companionable silence, admiring the splendour of nature for a few minutes. I could continue standing there a few hours if time permitted, but we were running on a tight schedule and wanted to avoid being on the roads when the sun has set. With a longing last look, I allowed the mister to lead me back to our car.
After driving through various flat and hilly terrain, we finally arrived at Snæfellsjökull National Park. We planned our road trip with Google Maps and I think the guys over at Google are a tad too conservative when it comes to estimating travel time. We didn’t plan to do much at the national park thinking there wouldn’t be much time left before nightfall, so the mister deduced that we shall wing it on the day we arrive at location. Turns out that we arrived in good time, and then some.
Completely caught offguard with the excess time we earned, we drove around looking for a good location to stop the car so we could explore the national park that is frequently touted as the Jewel of West Iceland. And voila! A large parking space appeared as we were navigating round a turn.
Being right next to the coastline meant that it was windy beyond crazy. Windy and so, so cold! Thankfully we had good sunny weather with some low clouds or it could have been even more frigid than it already was. I shudder to imagine that. Walking on the path, we first sighted the Londrangar Basalt sea cliffs as we were walking towards the coast, then turned back to realise that Snæfellsjökull Glacier was right behind us. 😯
While Snæfellsjökull National Park is the smallest national park of the several in Iceland, it is certainly not in the least insignificant. In particular, anyone who has read the classic Journey into the Centre of the Earth would be familiar with Snæfellsjökull since that was where the protagonists found the entrance to a passage that led them to the centre of the earth. Very cool nugget of information, eh?
We chose to spend the night at Arnarstapi, a small town that was once a bustling and important trading post before its decline. And since the mister is most particular about having a private bathroom (instead of sharing), most accommodation in the area were out of the question with the exception of Arnarstapi Hotel. It also has a restaurant where we could settle dinner (take note that from 1 Nov each year, dinner seating is on reservation basis, and they only offer a small selection of set menu – and yes, we had to arrive on the day they start this) and have breakfast the following morning. We decided to have a simple dinner in the room instead. I think mine consisted of bread and bak kwa (barbecued pork) we brought from home.
Arnarstapi Hotel’s rooms are furnished simply, nothing to shout about but it serves the purpose (of having a good night’s rest). I have a strong hunch they come this way so that the housekeeping stuff can turn the rooms over in a quicker time. But like I’ve said, they come clean and provided us a quiet place for a good night’s rest so no complaints at all.
Confession time: the rooms in Arnarstapi all come with floor to ceiling windows, and that was really the main reason why I wanted to stay there. I naively thought that we could sight the Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights) from our bed which would give us the cue to dash out of our room to catch the spectacular phenomenon. For the record, I was wrong on two counts: one, I didn’t count on bad weather i.e. rained the whole time we were in our room that night and two, the Northern Lights are really not that easy to spot with our naked eye, even in complete darkness.
After settling in, we decided to explore the surroundings. A short walk away from our hotel we saw an interesting stone statue. Further research told us that it represents Bárður Snæfellsás, the half-troll half-man who is known as the Protector of Snæfellsnes Peninsula. And behind it Mt. Stapafell, apparently much diminished in size since the beginning due to extensive quarrying. Another interesting nugget of information: some of its rocks now lay beneath Keflavik Airport.
Again, we met no more than 5 persons as we explored the area. I was beginning to really relax and get used to the unharried life in Iceland, even if it would only last for two weeks. We took one last wefie for the day before proceeding back to our hotel room, full of excitement for our first night of proper Northern-Lights-stalking. Except that, well, it didn’t happen the way we planned it to – it rained through the whole night. 😦