We woke and had breakfast at the hotel again. The breakfast buffet is one of the larger buffets at any hotel I've stayed at. They had American breakfast- different kinds of cereal with milk, pancakes, bread with various sugary substances to put on it, eggs, potatoes, breakfast meat- but they also had international-style items as well: cookies, baked beans, baked tomatoes, shrimp cream cheese, and all sorts of meats, cheeses and fish. As previously mentioned, the raw veggies didn't really have much flavor to them, but the other food was good. The Icelandic cheeses they had were like solidified cream cheese blocks with exciting coatings. They had Skyr, which is like a creamy yogurt and is a very Icelandic dish. We had the Icelandic butter, but it really just tasted like regular butter. Overall, the food was good due to the variety, but there was no individual item that stood out as fabulous.
We got on the bus to our Golden Circle tour that was included with our package. Yesterday, we had asked about making sure we were on the right list as we had switched hotels. A bunch of people didn't and so they weren't on the list. The bus driver didn't let that bother him though. They just welcomed everybody aboard and took us to their office to make sure we were all good. After that 10 minute stop, we were on our way to the edge of the world*.
It was snowing during the first part of our drive. It was still windy as well. The tour guide said that the winds were 10-18 m/s, which converts to 20-40 mph, but they felt faster. Of course, it also meant that it was completely white out the windows. There was little to no visibility, so I took a nap. The bus driver knew where to go though, as the roads have little yellow posts on the side at regular intervals. Apparently, the roads get snowed out a lot, so the Icelanders are well-prepared with their road markers.
At some point the snow cleared up and we had a great view. That was also due to the first settlers. When they arrived, the island was covered in trees. Within a few hundred years, ALL of the trees were cut down. Now, the island is eroding out into the sea. The government is trying to plant trees and eliminate some of the erosion, but they haven't planted any yet where we were. As a result, you have a pretty unobstructed view of whatever you're looking at. A lot of the scenery consisted of brush and of these uber-short horses. Don't say ponies, as people will get offended. They're just short horses.
When the bus stopped, we were looking at the edge of the North American tectonic plate. We walked off the edge of the continent. (*Ok, so it's not really the edge of the whole world, but it's still pretty cool.) In between the tectonic plates is a valley of hardened lava. From the valley, you can look up and see the edge of the continents. Very cool. Also, we saw an old government building, Alþingi. The government used to be here, but due to the activity of the earth, it got moved. We took the bus up onto the Eurasian continent and were on our way.
After the outdoor hike, we stopped briefly at a small coffee shop to get something hot to drink. I got hot chocolate and some sort of Icelandic cinnamon rolls. They were definitely not as sugary as the kind we get here, plus they had no icing. It's not what I'm used to, but good nonetheless.
The next stop was a waterfall (Gullfoss) and lunch. The lunch building had a nice view of the waterfall, but we wanted to get closer. The path to the waterfall wasn't very steep, but it was smooth and covered in a sheet of ice. We were using the hand rope to climb down, and it was a good thing. I slipped and fell. If I hadn't been holding the rope, I probably would have fallen over the edge. Eventually, I figured out that the trick was to not walk and pick up my feet, but to just skate down the ice. It was well worth the "hike." The waterfall was very neat. The water that it was spraying was landing on the grass nearby and growing into a field of little icy stalagmites. Of course, getting back up the hill was also a challenge.
For lunch, we again had a choice of cold cut and veggie sandwiches- pretty boring. I did get some sort of rhubarb dessert that was, like the rolls from the morning, very low on sugar.
The next stop on the Golden triangle was the geysers. In Icelandic, the word geysir means going fast, as in how the water comes out of the ground. There is a specific geyser called Geysir though. Geysir, the geyser that the general English word comes from, does not erupt on a regular basis any more. However, just a few feet away are other geysers that erupt every few minutes. Additionally, there are hot (as in boiling even though the temperature was low) springs, and other natural steam-making holes in the ground. I think that I decided that at least this part of Iceland is what New Zealand would be if it was frozen.
At the gift shop, everybody was trying on the Viking helmets. I definitely wanted one, but souvenirs in Iceland were expensive! We were looking at cheap (quality) lava earrings for a friend, and they were in the $40 range. Post cards were in the $1 range, and even fridge magnets were in the $10 range. While we got our bearings price-wise, we were definitely hoping that we would find some place less expensive to buy stuff.
After the "big waterfall" and the water spouting from the ground, we did a quick stop at the "little waterfall," which wasn't particularly little. After snapping some pictures we moved on.
On the way to our next stop, a church, we got a talk on religion. Originally, the settlers were pagan, but at one point a king wanted to convert everybody to Catholic. The whole country gave the decision to some wise man who basically came back and said that everybody had to outwardly act Catholic, but that anybody who wanted to still be pagan could do so in the privacy of their own homes. So, overnight, an entire nation converted religions peacefully. Since then, most people have become Lutheran, although the guide said that there are still thousands of pagans, 400 Muslims, and 50 Jews in the country. He also added that people were leaving the Catholic church in droves due to some abuse scandals.
The church that we stopped at was the seat of the southern Icelandic see, whatever that means. I think some important bishop works out of the church. The church itself had an ancient book and some underground tourist attraction, but everybody was distracted. A choir from another tour bus had decided to practice in the church, so we walked in to the sounds of Kumbaya. At some point, they got up and performed some Phil Collins song as well. It was quite entertaining, and really demonstrated how good the acoustics in the chapel were.
Between there and the next stop, we got a lecture on the Icelandic language. Apparently, it has not changed much in the past hundreds of years, so Icelandic people can easily read old books, unlike how many modern English speakers struggle with Shakespeare. The secret is that they try not to borrow words from other languages. The guide used the word "computer" as an example. The Icelandic word for computer technically means "psychic calculator," which I found a tad hilarious.
The final stop of the day was a tourist trap, and the guide was very open about it. The town itself was neat in that it was built on hot springs. They took advantage of those and had greenhouses all over. Pretty much everybody seemed to have at least a small one attached to the back of the their houses. Due to the greenhouses, Iceland can grow a lot of plants that other European countries can't typically grow. For example, Iceland is Europe's number one banana producing country. Of course, there are some down sides to putting a town on hot springs. The guide showed us a building that suddenly collapsed one day as a new hot spring opened up right beneath it.
With the golden circle tour complete, and a northern lights tour booked for the same evening, we decided to splurge on dinner at the hotel. Besides, we were sick of cafeteria food and wanted real Icelandic food.
The appetizer was made with Skyr or some other sort of super thick cream and was actually pretty good. For dinner, I had some sort of carrot patties that were also good. Dessert was definitely different though. The "whip" was basically a milkshake made with Skyr. In the milkshake seemed to be "halloween leftover surprise." There were berries, the fruit cake fruits, crushed peppermints, gumdrops, whoppers, licorice, and pretty much any other random candies that don't freeze or chew well in a milkshake. It tasted good though, and every bite was an adventure.
After that adventure, we headed out for the northern lights. On the way, we passed some rocks that our guide said contained elves. Apparently, most of the country believes in elves. At some point I wondered if the northern lights were like elves, where you have to believe to see. We spent the first half hour at the site where there was supposedly a lot of activity, and I wasn't seeing anything. I felt like I was in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Finally, I asked the guide what exactly I was looking at. Basically, there was a haze in the sky that was the northern lights. He hoped that the activity would pick up and that we would get to see more, but really 2013 is supposed to be a peak, and this year was nearer to the low point.
It was worth the tour though. I saw several shooting stars, and I don't think I had ever really seen one before in my life. I was able to pick out a dipper and see a ton of stars. Not as many as Uluru, but plenty. Also, I didn't have to stand in the cold to do it. There was a nice, warm bus so we weren't uncomfortable as we sat there for hours, waiting for the sky to do something. Ultimately, all we saw was a colorful haze in the sky. I'd like to go try again somewhere in a few years.
Walking off the continent
path to the waterfall