A big day of driving. Leaving Akureyri, we travelled west then south through Blönduós, Stađur and Borganes to our final destination of Grundarfjörđur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The trip took us through so many different types of landscapes, the rocky coastal area around Blönduós and steep mountains that rise suddenly out of the land. This is the area that Agnes Magnusdottir of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites lives her life and final days. It is easy to imagine the bleakness of winter here and how hard life would have been for the farming families. Wanting to explore the story’s surroundings and one of the area’s most photographed landmarks, Hvitserkur, we begin driving the unsealed road to the coast. Unfortunately, it becomes clear that the road will be rough and so driving time will be over and hour there and back. With at least five hours of driving to do for the day, I reluctantly turn the car around before we get too far and return to our scheduled route.
Inland we pass farmlands and small towns, hundreds of horses, and grassy hills. We stop for food in Borganes before heading across to Grundarfjörđur. In the peninsula we are surrounded by the rich volcanic history (and present) of the area. Craters and ancient lava fields covered in moss line the road, the colours ranging from rich greens of grass and moss, to blacks and reds of the soil and lava, with patches of snow and ice.
We arrive in Grundarfjörđur, a very small and sleepy fishing town. Our accommodation is Hótel Framnes, a converted fisherman’s hostel. We take a walk around town, which doesn’t take long, and have a beer at the local pizza shop. We head back to the hotel to take advantage of the sauna and spa. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a hot, steamy spa while the frigid wind swirls around you and whips up the dark ocean just beside the hotel.
The hotel’s bar and restaurant isn’t open because it’s the low season (April) and there aren’t enough guests. We ask for a recommendation for dinner and are directed to the one other restaurant in town, Bjargarsteinn Mathús. This turned out to be one of the best dining experiences of the trip, and indeed, my life. This beautiful restaurant is full of farmhouse kitsch – mismatching crockery and furniture, vintage pieces – but presented in a neat and modern way. Our friendly waiter talks us through the menu and when I hesitate at the lack of vegetarian options, he takes me to see the chef who says he can whip up a vegetarian dish no problem, asking me what I like and talking through what he will prepare. We sit and enjoy the early evening sunlight (it’s about seven p.m. but the light looks like four or five p.m. and the days have been getting longer as our trip progresses). The golden light fills the restaurant beautifully and we have an excellent view of Kirkjufell. Dinner arrives and in generous fashion. Pete has ordered a fish dish accompanied by vegetables. I’ve received a Caesar salad, pasta served in a crêpe-like bowl, barley risotto, roasted vegetables, and delicious vegetable purees and jams. It’s too much food but all of it is delicious. Pete orders a decadent chocolate tart for dessert then we make our way back to the hotel for the night.
Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Reykjavik
We set off early knowing that we have a lot to explore and a long drive ahead. We first pass Kirkjufell and stop atop a windy carpark and lookout to take a picture with the stunning surroundings. The green grass and moss on Kirkjufell and the surrounding mountains is beautiful in the morning light. Our path takes us through Ólafsvik and Helissandur, two small but beautiful towns on the coast. We try to spot whales but have no luck. We enter Snæfellsjökull National Park and stop to view and climb Saxhólar crater.
We continue along to Djúpalónssandur beach where there are incredible rock formations and the famous lifting stones. The lifting stones are a series of four rocks, each increasing in weight – Fullsterkur (‘full strength’) weighing 154kg, Hálfsterkur (‘half strength’) at 100kg, Hálfdrættingur (‘weakling’) at 54kg, and Amlóði (‘Useless’) at 23kg. Fisherman were required to lift at least the 54kg ‘weakling’ stone to hip height to be eligible to work on the fishing boats. Pete and I try the lifting stones, he manages the 23kg ‘useless’ stone, and I manage to lift the additional stone that has been placed there, which I judge to be around 15kg. It’s more difficult than it looks trying to lift a heavy stone from the shifting, pebbly beach. We chat to a lone American traveller who manages to show us up by lifting the 100kg ‘half strength’ stone. On the beach there are the rusty remains of a shipwreck and amazing rocky formations that look like trolls.
As we head further east we stop to view the beautiful cliffs and basalt formations at Lóndrangar. To our left as we drive is the incredible Snæfellsjökull glacier and lava fields which stretch either side of the road. We stop at Hellnar, where the cove features incredible rock formations and even some friendly seals. We visit the local cafe for coffee and Icelandic happy marriage cake – Hjónabandssaela – enjoying the sunshine and peaceful views.
Our drive back to Reykjavik takes us past stunning scenery. The mountains east of Arnarstapi are multi-coloured with volcanic soils, grass and snow. Horses trot calmly along the side of the road. The southern coast is serene and the water gently reflects the winter sunshine.
We pass through Borganes again and finally through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, 3,750 m of which are beneath the seabed with the lowest point of the tunnel at 165m below sea level. Approaching Reykjavik from the west changes your perspective of the city and your perception of Mt. Esja, which can be seen from the northern shoreline of the city, and especially in winter all covered with snow, is rather imposing. Driving past it, entering the city from the west, it is less imposing, perhaps because some of the snow has melted since we were last in town, or perhaps because we have seen bigger mountains in previous days.
We drive past Reykjavik, further into the Reykjanes Peninsula to Blue Lagoon. I had been eager to visit this place since I first started researching our trip. The complex features a number of man-made pools featuring cloudy blue water – a result of the minerals present in the water – heated by geothermal sources. It is a large complex, with a range of ticket options depending on how ‘luxe’ an experience you want. We select the ‘Comfort’ package which includes entry, an algae mask, a bathrobe, and a complimentary drink each. We enter the building and move into our respective change rooms to change and shower before entering the lagoon. We hang our bathrobes on the communal hooks and enter the lagoon. It is a lot busier than the pool at Mývatn so we head to the swim-up bar for our first drink – prosecco for me, beer for Pete – and swim to a shallow section to wallow and drink. As expected, the experience is excellent, enjoying warm water in a cool climate while sipping prosecco. We move to the mask bar for our first face mask, the white one that is included with all entry tickets. We later follow this up with the algae mask, though I don’t think either of them actually did much for my skin. We explore different areas of the pool, including some deeper parts where I have to hold on to Pete so I don’t lose my footing. We then grab a second drink and head back to our shallow spot to lay and relax. After about two and a half hours we exit the pool and make our way back to Reykjavik.