After a lovely night’s sleep in the nuns’ guest room, I joined them for Sunday morning coffee and conversation. Since my mom was still at the guesthouse, we all spoke Icelandic together, and at one point American Nun said to Brazilian Nun, “Talar hún ekki rosa góða íslensku?” Brazilian Nun agreed, and then American Nun turned to me and said something like, “Þú hljómaðir svoooooo bandarísk þegar þú varst nýkomin” (“You sounded so American when you first came to Iceland!”) Uhhhhh takk, I guess?
I said goodbye to the nuns and met back up with my mom, who hadn’t slept so well – the midnight sun reflected on all the white walls and bedding in her room, she said, but more importantly, her c-pap machine (which helps her breathe and not snore at night) had broken. I was suddenly ten times more thankful that I’d accepted the nuns’ offer because I knew that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have slept either.
We checked out of the guesthouse and had a few hours to kill before boarding the ferry that would take us to the Westfjords. Hint for travelers: there’s pretty much nothing to do in Stykkishólmur on a Sunday morning, so take that into consideration in your planning. We went to Bónus as soon as it opened, either because we actually needed something or just to kill time, I’m not sure. We had another parking lot picnic. We photographed the harbour:
And the weird spaceship church:
Mom learned a little bit about just how windy Iceland can be:
And we went to what might be Iceland’s cutest little café and ate what is most definitely Iceland’s most unbelievably delicious hjónabandssæla (a traditional Icelandic treat made of rhubarb jam sandwiched between layers of buttery oatmeal crust). Seriously, if you pass through Stykkishólmur, do yourself a favor and go to Sælkerahúsið for hjónabandssæla.
After we parked in the ferry line, I left my mom with the car and went exploring.
From my perch atop this viewpoint, I watched the ferry come in to the harbour, and soon it was time to board the boat (Ferjan Baldur, which runs from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur, stopping briefly at the island Flatey). Now, boarding this ferry was not like boarding a Washington State Ferries vessel. For one, all car passengers must board the vessel on foot, which means I had to drive solo into the belly of the boat. I was actually one of the very first to board, which sounds great, but meant that I had to maneuver the car into a very tight little corner. I survived, though, as did the rental car, thank goodness.
The crossing takes about two and a half hours. We started the voyage up on the main deck enjoying the good weather and scenery, then headed down below deck where my mom read and I took a nap. When the ferry docked at Flatey, we headed back up to try and snag some seats on the upper deck, and of course we ran into a relative – Ástrós, granddaughter of my Patreksfjörður host parents, who, ironically enough, had accompanied us on a trip to Flatey in 2012.
Somehow I managed to extract the car from the ferry without incident, and Mom and I headed to Hótel Flókalundur for dinner before starting the drive west along the Barðaströnd coast. I knew our two family farms were somewhere along this stretch and hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult to find them again, and it wasn’t.
The pink-orange glow of the late night summer sun guided us to Patreksfjörður and we arrived around 10.00. Our guesthouse was lovely but overrun with German tourists with whom we had to fight for the shower, but such is life.
We went to bed with no particular agenda in mind for the following day. (Notice I said “went to bed,” though, and not “went to sleep,” because neither of us got much of any sleep that night due to my mother’s malfunctioning machine, my inability to sleep through snoring, and a sad lack of nuns offering guest rooms.)
Anyway, the failure to prepare any sort of real plan for the next day was very Icelandic of us and happened to work out swimmingly, as you, dear reader, will learn in our next installment.
After my mom bought her ticket to Iceland, I started thinking about how we should spend the two weeks she’d be here. We would spend half the time in Reykjavík, I figured, and the other half traveling, but I was torn between two options: the Westfjords or the Eastfjords, the two regions where our family has roots. On the one hand, I thought, it would be fun to see the Eastfjords since I haven’t yet been out there, but on the other hand, it would be nice to visit the Westfjords for exactly the opposite reason – because I have been there so it would be familiar. In the end, I decided that someone who spent 28 years of her life with the last name Westford had to see the Westfjords, so I planned a six-day road trip from Reykjavík around the Snæfellsnes peninsula and through a good portion of the Westfjords. This was 110% the right decision. Choosing this route meant that I was familiar with the majority of the places we visited and also meant that we got to meet up with relatives. It also meant white-knuckle driving over unpaved mountain passes with sheer drop-offs on both sides of the road, but luckily the weather couldn’t have been better and the wild beauty of the region more than made up for the heart palpitations.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We began our journey by walking a few blocks from the house to a rental car office downtown. Now, here’s the thing about downtown Reykjavík: I know my way around quite well – on foot. But when I’m on foot, I pay minimal attention to things that don’t apply to pedestrians, like one-way streets and dead ends. This meant that traveling from the rental car office back to the house (a straight shot up Laugavegur on foot) was decidedly more challenging as a driver. Not to mention, I had only ever driven once in Iceland before this – from Patreksfjörður to Tálknafjörður with my host pabbi in 2012 – so encountering different road signs and having to think in kilometers was a bit disorienting. Anyway, we managed to get back to the house and after an hour or so of disorganized packing, we finally left the city behind.
It was serendipitous that I went on a 24-hour Snæfellsnes road trip with the girls a few weeks ago, because that meant that I actually sort of knew what I was doing and where I was going. More importantly, it meant that I knew which places along the way were worth a stop and which ones were more accessible for my mother (who is not a fan of long distances, steep trails, etc.).
We stopped at an N1 station somewhere along the way for a parking-lot picnic, then chased the glacier clockwise around the peninsula, stopping at a church here, a beach there, Mom squealing delightedly every time we saw sheep.
tailgating in the N1 parking lot
Anyway, here are some of the highlights from our trip around Snæfellsnes:
Arnarstapi is an old fishing village that sits along the southern coast of the peninsula in the shadow of Stapafell (which apparently has been greatly diminished due to quarrying and some of it lies under the runways at Keflavík Airport – thanks, visitreykjanes.is). We didn’t make it to Arnarstapi on the last trip because a car accident closed the road, so it was nice to get a second chance. Apparently there’s a lovely trail that runs along the cliffs between Arnarstapi and Hellnar, but we didn’t have time for that long of a walk. Instead, we just admired Gatklettur (the large stone arch in the photo below) and the lovely views.
We also admired this odd and intriguing work of art, which I later learned depicts the saga character Bárður Snæfellsás AKA Bárður Dumbsson, a name which makes me giggle immaturely every time I see it.
The black sands at Djúpalónssandur and Dritvík are expansive and beautiful. Mom didn’t want to walk down to the beach, so we admired the views from the nice even wooden walkways above, which was fine with me since the girls and I spent a couple hours exploring the beach and basalt columns and cliffs just a few weeks ago.
Built in 1903, Ingjaldshólskirkja is the oldest concrete church in Iceland. According to kirkjukort.net (a nifty website that provides location, photos, and historical information for every church in Iceland), Christopher Columbus once spent a winter at Ingjaldshóll and there exists a painting of him poring over a map with the priest, with the church and the glacier in the background.
In any case, this was one of mom’s favorite stops around Snæfellsnes, and I understand why. The church stands on a hill (hence the name Ingjaldur’s Hill), fields of lupine billowing in a breeze that comes off the ocean and across ancient lava fields, Snæfellsjökull looming above.
If you drive clockwise around Snæfellsnes, Grundarfjörður is the last town you’ll see before you arrive in Stykkishólmur. The distinctive, imposing peak Kirkjufell stands majestically over the town, and across from her is a charming waterfall named after the mountain (Kirkjufellsfoss). The girls and I didn’t take time to see the waterfall on our trip, so it was nice to have another chance.
Around dinnertime, we arrived in Stykkishólmur, our home for the night. I’d booked a guesthouse and figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to find in a town so tiny. Well, I was wrong. Using directions from the website, the map app on my phone, our eyeballs, brains, and common sense, we still spent about thirty minutes driving in circles not finding the guesthouse. Stykkishólmur is tiny, yes, but it also has a very odd layout with dead ends and weird little alleys. My mom and I were both tired and hungry and I was getting irritated when all of a sudden I saw something blue out of the corner of my eye. I know that blue, I thought. “Mom, I think that’s my nun!” I exclaimed, pointing across the street. Sure enough, there on the front porch stood “my nun,” an American classmate from HÍ who just so happens to be a nun and live in Stykkishólmur. I had hoped to meet up with her while we were in town, but I didn’t expect to run into her like that (although I really should have, because Iceland). Anyway, she appeared in all her blue-nun glory at just the right moment. We explained our embarrassing inability to locate our guesthouse, and she asked us for the address. When we told her, she pointed behind us to a house about two doors down and said, “That’s it right there!” Yes, I managed to book a guesthouse with a view of the nuns’ home.
this may have been one reason it was so difficult to find the guesthouse
American Nun kindly invited us over for dinner, and I think I may have said yes without even consulting my mother, because when a nun invites you to dinner, you say yes, you just have to.
American Nun lives in a home right by the church with Brazilian Nun, who had just the night before made a huge amount of homemade pizza, which we gladly helped them eat. The nuns told us about life in Stykkishólmur and there was never a dull moment in the conversation. I particularly enjoyed when American Nun told us about an Icelandic friend of hers who uses the expression, “I stone forgot!” (which is a literal translation of the Icelandic verb “að steingleyma,” to completely forget, and now that I’ve taken so long to explain this, anyone who didn’t laugh immediately definitely won’t find this funny).
blá nunna, grænn ís
pistasíubragðefni – það er lygi! it tasted like lime!
Anyway, after pizza, we enjoyed Icelandic ice cream bars and American candy (in honor of July 4, of course). The guesthouse had screwed up our reservation and given us a room with one bed instead of two, so the nuns kindly invited me to sleep in their guest room. I didn’t want to impose, but I also really wanted to sleep well, so I accepted, and slept in their basement guest room next to their basement chapel.
Takk fyrir okkur, nunnurnar mínar! Það var ógleymanleg heimsókn til ykkar!
Warning: The following post is chock-full of photos. If you like photos, you will be happy. If you are on a slow internet connection, you will probably be angry. If you are not in Iceland right now, you may experience jealousy. Consider yourselves warned.
Sometimes I let my fears and my dislike of spontaneity ruin opportunities for me. This was almost one of those times. My friend Steffi wanted to take a road trip to Snæfellsnes, a beautiful peninsula not too far from the Reykjavík area, and she invited four of us to come along. We met Thursday evening at a coffee shop to plan the trip. We would be gone for twenty-four hours. We would camp somewhere even though we only had one three-person tent for up to five people. We would send an inquiry to the rental car company that night and count on them having a car for us the next day. We would all get our stuff together by 5 pm on Friday, even though most of us were working that day. It would all work out. Þetta reddast.
The “þetta reddast” mindset does not come naturally to me. Spontaneity makes me nervous. I left the coffee shop unsure if I would join on the trip or not.
On the way home, I ran into my friend Elliott (for the second time that evening, actually). He asked what I was up to and I told him about the maybe-trip. “Well why wouldn’t you go?” he asked. “Well, because it’s tomorrow. And I don’t know if I have the right clothes and shoes. And I don’t have a warm enough sleeping bag. And there might not be enough room in the tent. And I just don’t know.” “Excuses excuses,” he said. “You live in a city the size of a postage stamp. You need to get out of it sometimes. Stop making excuses and just go. You won’t regret it. Trust me.”
I needed that pep talk. I listened to Elliott and went, and he was right. I didn’t regret it for a second.
It was a magical 24 hours where even the things that seemingly went wrong ended up turning out right, starting at the very beginning. When we picked up our teeny tiny rental car, for instance, we could hear a noise that definitely didn’t sound right. We were frustrated to lose time going back to the rental office and waiting for them to decide what to do, but when we ended up with a huge 4×4, we were nothing but gleeful.
After stopping for provisions at Krónan, we hit the road and within minutes were in the middle of Iceland’s beautiful nowhere. Continuing the theme of things that could have gone wrong turning out right, we also ended up taking a wrong turn somewhere on the way, but that detour ended up being a beautiful road through the mountains.
Steffi, armed with her Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland, was the tour master. Dörthe and Hanna were our fearless drivers (although if the rental company asks, Hanna never sat behind the wheel. Never.). Flor’s stuffed dragon was our mascot. And I was along for the ride.
We set up camp under the midnight sun in Grundarfjörður (that is, after asking a drunk man how to get to the campground. To his credit, he gave good directions even in his inebriated state). Grundarfjörður is a tiny town west of Stykkishólmur with a glorious view of Kirkjufell, this striking peak:
With Steffi giving the orders, we managed to pitch the tent pretty quickly. Three of us squished into the tent and two slept in the car. Usually it takes me hours to fall asleep in a new place, but once we stopped taking awkward selfies and laughing, I fell asleep almost immediately and woke six hours later when the bright morning sun had heated up the tent so much that I was actually hot.
We wandered over to a little waterfall next to the campground to fill our water bottles, took the tent down, packed up, and headed west to Ólafsvík. We stopped at the gas station for coffee, ice cream (Flor’s breakfast), and wifi, then got back on the road. For the rest of the day, we basically just drove the ring around the peninsula, stopping whenever the Lonely Planet guide told us there was something to see or whenever we felt like it.
Among our stops were:
A classic red-roofed Icelandic church under the glacier. Steffi and Flor may have sort of broken into the church and allowed two other tourists to enter as well. Maybe.
This beautiful little red-sand beach reminded me very much of Rauðasandur, just in miniature.
On Snæfellsnes blocky yellow-orange lighthouses seem to be all the rage. Öndverðarnes is at the westernmost point of the peninsula and was apparently populated until 1945.
I mean, does this lighthouse not look like a loaf of Tillamook cheddar cheese?
There are bird cliffs at Vatnsborg and everyone was excitedly searching for puffins, but alas, the cliff seemed to mostly house seagulls.
It was a short but rocky walk up to the crest of this ancient crater, which offers a 360-degree of the surrounding lava fields (Neshraun) and of course ubiquitous beauty Snæfellsjökull.
Djúpaslónssandur was our longest stop. We took our time wandering around the beach, climbing around the lava columns, mustering our strength to heave the lifting stones and see which of us is seaworthy, and resting on a grassy knoll in the sunshine. Everything about it was blissful.
Our planned route back was disrupted by a serious car accident which completely shut down the road that runs along the southern coast of the peninsula. So instead of taking that route, we had to turn around and take a road that cut across the peninsula somewhere east of Snæfellsjökull. It was a minor kink in our plans. For the most part we were just grateful to have had a marvelous day and to be safe, knowing that there were two children and two adults who were not. But our one big concern was getting the car back to the rental before they closed at 7 pm.
We arrived in town about 6.45 but still had to fill the gas tank, so while we were stopped at a light on Sæbraut, the other girls basically pushed me out of the car (okay, a bit of exaggeration) and told me to run ahead to the car rental place and explain (in Icelandic, because they thought it would go over better) that they were on their way. So I arrived at the car rental all out of breath, only to find out that they close not at 7 but at 8 and are completely unconcerned about us being a few minutes late. Of course. Við búum á Íslandi.
Twenty-four hours of sunshine (really, since it’s almost summer solstice). Twenty-four hours of friends old and new. Twenty-four hours of gas station coffee and pylsur. Twenty-four hours of spontaneous exploring. Twenty-four hours of wonder and awe and thankfulness.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, thank you, Elliott. And thank you, Iceland. ❤
I already wrote about most of our Flatey trip, but there are a few more pictures and stories about that day that I want to share.
First of all, when we boarded the ferry, Hrafnhildur asked me if I was going to get seasick. I assured her that I am quite used to ferry rides (in the summer anyway) and would be just fine. It was a clear, calm day and I was indeed just fine. Apparently in the winter they often have to cancel the crossing due to bad weather. It’s a fairly small boat… not sure about the vehicle capacity, but there’s a little galley with ridiculously overpriced food, plus a nifty little theater where they show movies (there was some oldie on starring Mel Gibson). Kind of a nice idea for winter crossings, or for people who ride the ferry all the time, but I wasn’t about to waste my time watching Mel Gibson when I could be enjoying the scenery.
Skipping ahead to Flatey, let’s recap: we perused the fish-factory-turned-giftshop by the dock, walked into Þorpið (the village), said ‘góðan daginn’ to all the summer residents who were out painting their houses, listened in on choir practice at the church, had kaffi at Hotel Flatey, and enjoyed the constantly beautiful view. Eventually we ran out of things to do, so we lingered by the hotel for awhile and watched kids jumping into the water, then meandered back to the dock and sat in the sun while we waited for the ferry to return.
On the ride back, I once again stayed above deck the whole time. This time Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur joined me, and Sæmundur tried to locate Skáleyar, the islands where some of my ancestors lived.
We ate pizza at a little restaurant back on the mainland, and I eavesdropped on the conversation of some English-speaking tourists sitting behind us.
On the drive home, Sæmundur suddenly pulled over. He wanted to show me the area where my great-great-grandfather’s farm was. First he showed me Neðri-Arnórsstaðir, but then right across the street we discovered a sign for Miðhlíð, the actual name of the actual farm where my great-grandfather was born (and I think where he lived until he left for America at the age of 9 or 10). I don’t know if the land boundaries are the same as they used to be, but in any case, he was born in this area and enjoyed this incredible view of Snæfellsness. Impossible to really wrap my head around, but incredible nonetheless. I would have loved to be able to talk to the people who live on the farm now and see what they know about its history.
This morning Hrafnhildur and Sæmundur showed me a book with information about farms and towns in the area and the people who lived there in the past century.
Here’s the page about Miðhlíð:
I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I am walking on the same land as my ancestors did, seeing the same views of the same impossibly beautiful land, but it’s true. Hey Mom, have I convinced you that you need to come yet? 🙂