On July 16 we sailed down the Eyjafjordur fjord to Akureyri in the north central part of Iceland. Founded in the 9th Century, this is the second largest city in Iceland but still a small town by American standards with some 30,000 people (we think). Akureyri is pronounced ack-you-RAY-ree. .Just before leaving home we learned that we know someone who lives here during the summer: Rosemary Shaw, who is Rita Reimer’s sister. Rita told us she was drawn here as a bridge player & we were told on the ship that Iceland has some of the best bridge players anywhere. Unfortunately we did not have a chance to meet up with Rosemary because we had signed up for a land excursion that took up our entire time in port, so we had no opportunity to visit the town. It looked nice from the ship though. Particularly noticeable on the skyline is the cathedral, with a distinctive modern style.
We were half an hour later than advertised in docking at Akureyri, and our departure turned out to be a little earlier. This put a squeeze on our land tour, which was expected to fill all the time available. Then it turned out that our group of 14 had 1 too many to fit in the large 4 wheel drive vehicle used for the tour (it might have fit 14 with some being children or very skinny people, but not our group of older folks). So one couple had to forgo the trip. It was also pretty foggy in the morning, so the trip started out pretty poorly. Luckily the weather got much better as we neared noon.
Our guide/driver Giesli had the sensible approach of driving to the furthest sights first, then working our way back, to avoid as much as possible the big bus tours from the ships (there were two in town). Giesli spoke perfect English with a strong British accent and we assumed at first he was British, but it turned out he was a native Icelander. Icelanders learn several foreign languages from an early age & these days English is almost always the first.
So we started out by driving for about 2 hours, over the mountain passes that see deep snow in winter past sheep, horses & cattle grazing in the fields. Icelanders often leave their horses out to fend for themselves in winter because the Icelandic breed is particularly tough. But sheep left outside will often suffocate in the deep snow, so they are brought indoors in winter. But in summer the sheep are allowed to roam free and are gathered back again in the fall. On our way we passed Lake Myvatn (which means “midge”), which we would see again later.
Our first destination was Dettifoss (pronounced like “dental floss”), the largest waterfall in Europe measured by water flow. But first we travelled down a gravel road downriver to see a smaller (but arguably more beautiful) waterfall called Hafragilsfoss. This was a short walk over stark volcanic terrain & the waterfall was in an impressive canyon.
We drove over to Dettifoss, which was a half mile walk each way from the parking lot over a terrain of large boulders & rocks. It was huge & very powerful. I walked down the steep steps to get a closer view & Giesli came down too, probably to make sure the old guy in the red hat could make it back up. While down there he also took my picture in front of the falls. Mary stayed on top.
Hverir is.s a field of steam vents and boiling mud pots. Iceland was formed mostly by volcanoes & there is still a great deal of heat and pressure under the ground. Some of it is released through these formations. You can see this stuff at Yellowstone National Park & really that is more interesting than here, but these were pretty good ones (much better than what we saw on the island of St. Lucia in March). The distant mountain background gave it a beautiful setting.
Iceland uses this thermal heat as its primary power supply. The bulk of Iceland’s power comes from thermal and hydro sources. Some of the thermal power plants are pretty impressive sights in themselves.
The North American and European tectonic plates meet in the middle of Iceland. That means that, geologically rather than politically, Iceland is half in North America & half in Europe. These two plates are moving apart (very slowly) which causes a rift between them. We visited a spot where the two plates meet. The land rises on each side and there is a deep but narrow gorge marking the rift between them.
We visited an unusual lava formation called Dimmulborgir (“Dark Castles‘). It was explained to us that the lava had formed a lake here. After it began hardening in places the edge broke open and the lava that was still liquid flowed away, leaving the parts that had already cooled & hardened as freestanding sculptural formations. There are peaks & valleys, tunnels & caves, and all of it is very rough and dark.
As I mentioned, Iceland was mostly formed by volcanoes & most of its mountains were once volcanoes. Some do not look like volcanoes because they are wide and flat. We were told that this was the result of a volcano erupting under a glacier so that the lava could not build up in the air but instead flowed to the side. Another unusual volcanic feature we saw was a group of pseudo craters. These look like very small volcanoes, with the ground raised and broken at the top, but in fact (we were told) these were caused by hot lava flowing onto thick ice. Iceland is apparently the only place on Earth where these occur (some have been found on Mars). Unfortunately it was starting to get late so we didn’t stop & it was hard to get photos from a moving vehicle. But below is a picture of what I think is a pseudo crater (complete with reflections from the car window).
As you can imagine, we came across a wide variety of flowers on this excursion, many of them tiny plants eking out a living in the rocky volcanic soil. As usual, I haven’t a clue what they are called but I found them interesting.
So we passed Lake Mytavn a final time (its a big lake) & headed for the ship. There was one more feature on our itinerary, a waterfall called Godafoss. It is famous more for its history than its beauty (nowhere near as big as Dettifoss). It seems that when Iceland adopted Christianity, the local leader (law reader, Giesli called him) took all the wooden idols of the old Norse gods & threw them over this falls. Thus the name, which means Falls of the Gods. Anyway, it was getting late and all the passengers on the tour were beginning to get a little antsy about making it back to the ship before the gangway was pulled in. So we declined Giesli’s offer to stop at Godafoss and contented ourselves with seeing it as we drove past.
The drive back to the ship took us past several stunning mountain views, and then gave us a different perspective on Akureyri from across the fjord.
Well, we made it back to the ship with a whole 15 minutes to spare before the “all aboard” deadline. It turned out there were other excursions later than we were, but we were glad to be safely back. We sailed out through the fjord on a beautiful evening that set off the mountainous scenery dramatically. And later that night we crossed the Arctic Circle for the second and last time.