Hvalfjörður: first drive into Icelandic countryside

On Friday, after more than a month in Iceland, we finally rented a car so we could see the country beyond Reykjavík. The sky was heavily clouded, with rain predicted for the afternoon, so we decided to stay closeish to home. We started at point D on the map below, driving in the direction of B and then around the water (which is Hvalfjörður, “whale-fjörd”), stopping in Akranes (point C) for lunch, and then taking an underground tunnel back to the city. Without stops the whole trip takes about 2 hours.

Google Satellite view of the route we took

{as always, click on photos to enlarge, or mouse over for description}

I’d read again and again on travel forums that Iceland’s landscape changes dramatically once you leave Reykjavík, but I was still stunned to see it. We drove past gas stations, outlet stores, a big home-and-garden center (like Home Depot in the US), and then it was like a whole other world. (We had the car for three days and every day it felt like this, no matter which direction we went in.) We were at the base of the mountain Esja, our familiar view from the north side of the Reykjavík harbor, with the sea at our left, and lots of grass and little streams and ponds to our right.

Highway with a cloud-topped mountain nearby

Water and clouded mountain

We saw occasional sheep, and lots of horses. Iceland has only one breed of sheep and one of horses. The horses are small but they look very hardy, and they have stylish hipster bangs. 🙂

Farm buildings at the base of the mountain

Horses at the base of the mountain

Soon the highway branched: we had the option of continuing on 1 (the Ring Road) via the tunnel under the ocean, or taking the much longer scenic route around the fjörd. We chose the latter and were rewarded with gorgeous fjörd and mountain views for the next hour and a half. The road was good, if a little narrow (so Erik tells me), and fortunately it wasn’t yet raining.

Highway around the fjörd

At one point we crossed a one-lane bridge over a river and found a parking area on the other side. We got out and shivered our way down to the water, where we found a sign telling us this was a prime spot for salmon fishing. Maybe not at this time of year? We didn’t see any fishermen, only a carful of other tourists who looked as cold as my fingers felt.

River and bridge

Rushing river

Sign indicating that this is a salmon river

River flowing over an uneven place in the stone

Groundcover with pointed leaves in a starry shape

It was a gorgeous spot, but I was only too happy to get back in the car (which had seat warmers… ahhh). As I crossed the highway I saw that the road underfoot was made of stone. I think it’s basalt.

Highway made of bits of stone

We continued on.

Highway forking

After about 15 minutes there was another parking turnout, this time right on the fjörd. As we were parking the car a few birds shot in our direction; I couldn’t make out what happened but Erik was gasping, “Did you see that?!” I looked out his window and saw an exquisite little bird of prey (a kestrel?) hovering next to us, closer than I’ve ever seen one. He went on, “It was chasing another bird and that bird went under our car!” The kestrel flapped furiously (thwarted!) and then swooped back across the street to perch on a rock and watch for its meal. It didn’t get it, though; as we got out of the car, the smaller bird darted out and flitted away, and the kestrel (perhaps distracted by us) didn’t see it. Erik said, “I think we just saved a bird!” (Although, as I was rather hungry myself, I felt some sympathy for the kestrel!)*

There was a sign that said “The view from Hvítanes” but I don’t think we were in a town (and anyway the map shows Hvítanes west of where we were, nearer Akranes), so I’m not sure what that means. We saw a couple of buildings — possibly abandoned — and several sheep, but mostly we seemed to be alone; when I looked again, even the kestrel had flown off. (The tourists who’d been at the salmon river pulled into the parking lot shortly after we did, and then left, I don’t know why!)

Picnic table and benches next to the fjörd

Three white Icelandic sheep

From the parking area we could walk down toward the fjörd, but the water was far below us. “I think we’re on a cliff,” Erik said, and we picked our way carefully toward the edge, but stopped well before we got there. This is a land with earthquakes, after all, and it was a long drop to where we could see birds resting on the water.



Instead, we followed the highway along the hilly, rocky earth. The ground was mostly dry, and though I had to be careful where I stepped (sheep poop), it was very interesting to look at, covered in plants and mosses and lichens. We’ve grown extremely fond of the plant life because besides being beautiful, it is so SQUISHY to walk on!!!

Mountain plants

Green plants with cloud-shaped brown fungi underneath

Circular markings (lichen?) on a rock

I was thinking as I walked that I am so glad to be traveling with Erik, because although he is also naturally cautious, he is much more discerning about real danger versus perceived scariness. Walking along here, with no trail and the freezing fjörd so far below, made me really nervous. If I’d been alone I might not have done it. But it wasn’t really unsafe; we stayed far from the edge and it would have taken far more than a mere trip or stumble to bring us to any grief. It’s just that I’m instinctively a big scaredy-cat about these things! But thanks to Erik, I’ve taken so many lovely walks I would not have dared try on my own.

Erik walking on a hill with a mountain behind

In a while we returned to the car and I decided it was time for a snack. We’d stopped at a bakery on our way out and bought some treats at random. I am still a long way from trying everything that Icelandic bakeries have to offer! This bun was basically a bread roll with icing and custard.

Holding up what looks like a pink-frosted donut, topped with coconut and with custard in the center

We drove along some more and then spotted a waterfall ahead, with another parking area next to it. I suspect this account makes it sound like there were parking spots everywhere along this road, but that was definitely not the case. Icelandic scenery is so breathtaking that everything looks like a picture, and I constantly wanted to stop but there was generally no place to do so. The shoulder was narrow and the road curved so often that to stop without a turnout would have been courting collisions. Fortunately, though, there seemed to always be parking spots at the most picturesque or significant attractions — like this waterfall, which the sign called Fossárrétt. I don’t know what the story is behind the stone ruins, but they were very cool to walk among.

Waterfall and old stone foundations

Erik standing on old stone foundations

One of the many crazy things about this waterfall is after a very short walk from the road, you can get right next to it. Well, really, you could get right into it if you wanted to, but that would be crazy indeed!

Standing next to the waterfall and holding out my arms

Another crazy thing is that you can clamber easily up the rocks next to the fall, and get above it.

Waterfall from above

And the third crazy thing is that once you’re above it, when you chance to look up, you realize that the fall comes from a little river which makes its way down via a number of smaller waterfalls.

River flowing down rocks

It was starting to rain now so we retreated to the car, but first I couldn’t resist taking some pictures of the rocks.

Mosses and lichens on rock

Pattern of tiny circular dots on a rock (lichens?)

Once the rain started we were much less willing to make stops, even though there was still a lot to see. We passed some towns and turnoffs for other waterfalls (including a famous one), but we just stuck to the road. Near the towns, things got a little more industrial-looking, with power lines and buildings.

Little river next to the highway

Dramatic mountain with some kind of holding containers (?) next to itPower linesBuildings for some kind of industry (?)

The weather was dreary, we were getting hungrier (and starting to sugar crash, after eating another treat from the bakery — dumb of me not to get sammiches), and for whatever reason we didn’t want to stop in the small towns. The last 20 minutes around the fjörd felt verrrrry long. Finally we came back to the main road, and from there we went to the larger town of Akranes, in search of lunch. The view now was of the ocean.

Seaside near Akranes

We had lunch at the first restaurant we saw in Akranes, which turned out to be a place called Thai Asia. Not bad at all, and the people were very nice.

Noodles with chicken

We drove around the town for a little while after, but lunch had made us sleepy and it was still raining, so after about 10 minutes we headed back to Reykjavík, this time under the tunnel. I read that before the tunnel was built in 1998, everyone driving between Reykjavík and the fjörd area had to take that same long scenic route we’d just driven. They must have been really, really excited about the tunnel. And it’s a cool tunnel, the longest I’ve ever been in: 5,762 meters, or about 3.5 miles, enough to make me feel claustrophobic!

Inside the tunnel, with "70" on the ground

Lights inside the tunnel

We got back home, rested a bit, and then went to the supermarket and got things for dinner. I think we had breaded haddock — it shows my tiredness, that I can’t remember exactly what we ate! If it was the haddock it was good. They sell it pre-breaded and seasoned here and it’s always very fresh and delicious. At least twice while we’ve been eating in Iceland, I’ve looked up to see Erik beaming happily, saying, “I like fish!” We both do, but Erik likes it better than I (if I’m not in the mood I can’t stand the thought of fish), and on gastronomic grounds (waters?) alone, he has been very, very happy in Scotland and Iceland!

The day’s outing was a nice introduction to Iceland outside of Reykjavík, and the next two days were even more amazing. We took longer day trips then, with hikes and geothermal hot springs and national parks and everything.

Tomorrow: boiling an egg in a spring, and bathing in a hot river!

*EDIT. Erik did a little online research and found that it wasn’t a kestrel, since there aren’t any in Iceland. Instead he thinks we saw a merlin — yes, like the wizard — chasing a passerine. And apparently I needn’t have felt bad for the merlin; it’s such a scary hunter that some passerines have been known to have heart attacks just at the prospect of being chased by one! !!! Go back up.