Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Vik and the East Glacier

Iceland Day 2

Driving to Vik was like slicing through darkness. We couldn’t distinguish mountain from ocean anymore and only occasional gas stations lit our way. When we pulled into Vik the town surprised us with its smallness. At first we thought we missed it and soon realized that the church and handful of houses with a sports equipment store were the town. By the time we pulled into our hotel a few miles East of Vik we were ready to make up for the Easyjet morning flight in some sleep dipped in pure Icelandic silence. When I closed my eyes I could still see flashes of the Golden Circle.

The next day we got up at an early bird 10am when it was still dark and jumped at the traditional breakfast at the hotel. M was way too excited about the super salty anchovies while I settled on some lamb pate spread with bread and tiny cucumbers and tomatoes – compact vegetables from their lives in geothermic greenhouses.

When we started driving the sun was finally lighting our way and we started squealing at every farm animal we found. Just like the tomatoes at breakfast, the sheep and horses looked smaller as if the winds and storms had hammered them down, legs a little shorter but their bodies strong and steady. The birch and juniper trees too looked like defiant dwarves. We soon passed through miles of volcanic fields. I had never seen a plain so flat, so uninterrupted, except for the occasional mangled lava rock deposited by melting glacier. Then the waterfalls started showing up, one after the other, there were so many we lost count. Thread after thread of white water cutting through sudden mountains who wore clouds like veils. Once we got close to the Glacier Lagoon, the blue ice started filling in the mountains.

The Ice Caves

As soon as we met our tour group at the Glacier Lagoon Jokursarlon in Eastern Iceland, we realized we were severely under-camerad. Almost every person had a professional camera with massive lenses and a tripod tucked under the arm. My iPhone seemed like the smallest kid at the playground. We piled into the massive truck with chunky, oversized wheels that would take us across rocky terrain to the mouth of the cave.

What surprised me at first was all the dirt: sandy, dark, volcanic dirt that coated the glacier where you couldn’t see where earth ended and the ice began. But as we drew closer, we started seeing more of that brilliant blue. They say the bluer the ice the older it is, as the color is formed from snow that has been compressed into the glacier, crushing away water and air bubbles to make room for blue-reflecting crystals.

The guide was more like a babysitter. He made sure we kept our helmets on and stayed away from the risky areas of overhanging ice that might collapse. He led us into the cave, dark at first then giving away to palatial arches of sapphire. It seemed impossible that these ice crystals could be so bright when lit by nothing but sunlight, so complex in their facets when cut only by nature.

On the other side of the cave there was a large clearing in the glacier which led to other caves off-limits to us. Some holes in the ice spouted water, others took on recognizable shapes like cartoon hearts. We were able to scramble on top of one lump of ice and watch the small dark birds circle above. As we left, I was startled to find the remnants of a bird that must have slipped, fallen – a pancake of feathers and bones flattened by ice.

Swimming with the Icebergs

“I’m going to swim to that iceberg,” said M.

“I’ll hold your socks,” I said.

We had been circling around the beaches and the glacial lagoon, walking through the chunks of ice shed by the glacier. By the entrance to the glacier, there was a big blue iceberg with some ice ledges floating near the shore. I knew M was serious when he picked out one of these ledges to swim to, and I only made a half-hearted attempt to talk him out of it. A few years ago we had participated in the Coney Island Polar Bear Swim. I couldn’t feel my feet for the next two weeks; he was as warm as a bear.

We waited until most of the other tourists had left, then M stripped off his clothes, handed me his socks and splashed into the ice water. Just watching him made me shiver as if I could feel the water on my own skin. He quickly splashed to the flat piece of ice, lounged on it like an 18th century French boudoir painting, I took the photographic evidence, and he splashed his way back.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he said.

A few meters down, a couple laughed and shook their heads.

Even though I only watched the insanity of swimming of icebergs, I was dying for some warm, homey dinner by the time we got back to Vik. Luckily we found the Halldorskaffi restaurant, with its string lights, fireplace, menu of grilled fish and burgers, was like eating at your Icelandic-American grandmother’s house.

Travel tips
For the complete 4-day Iceland itinerary and map, click here.
  • How to get there – Vik is in Southern Iceland, a 2hr15min drive from Reykjavik. Don’t underestimate the distance! The East Glacier ended up being much farther from Vik than we thought, a 2hr30min drive further East.
  • Tours - When booking tours, note that several companies simply repackage the same tour, you ultimately attend the same tour as others but might be paying a premium. The Ice Cave Tour seemed more geared for photographers. If you’re looking for something more active, try one of the ice climbing tours.
  • Where to Eat – in Vik have a hearty meal in the sweet and homey Halldorskaffi.
  • Where to Stay – The Country Hotel Katla is located slightly outside of Vik. It offers basic but clean rooms that are generously heated for an affordable price. They also have a great Icelandic breakfast which starts off your day with a full stomach.