North Atlantic adventure — Iceland, Greenland, & the Faroe Islands


by Jack Ogg, Photos by Connie Ogg, Houston, TX

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Dobbs, told us that Iceland was greener than Greenland and Greenland icier than Iceland. I chuckled over that remembered phrase as my wife, Connie, and I planned our North Atlantic trip. One of our guidebooks included the Faroe Islands, so we incorporated them into our itinerary as well. Why not?

Iceland facts

The size of Ohio, Iceland has a population of only 280,000. With more horses than cows and twice as many sheep as people, Iceland is almost 100% import dependent, making it one of the world’s most expensive countries. Despite a conversion rate of 70 kronur to one dollar — and a sinking dollar at that — there is still a way to enjoy Iceland: don’t mentally convert to dollars!

Our flight, like all international flights to Iceland, arrived at Keflavik, 25 miles south of the capital, Reykjavik. A 40-minute bus ride whisked us into the spotless capital city, which sits atop geothermal springs.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik is a walking city, with its 25-acre Lake Tjörn flanked by the National Gallery, Parliament, City Hall and the cathedral.

The primary shopping area is on two streets, Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur, which run north from Reykjavik’s center uphill to its dominant landmark, Hallgrímskirkja Church. Fronted by an enormous statue of Leifur Eiriksson, the church has a 300-foot spire, from atop which (reached by stairs or lift) there is a magnificent view of the city and countryside. The shopping streets boast boutiques, bookstores, furriers, knit shops, cafés and coffeehouses, and café life and nightlife pulsate here, especially on weekends.

Restaurants in Reykjavik

We quartered at Hotel Óðinsvé (phone +354 511 6200 or visit www.hotelodinsve.is), located near the Hallgrímskirkja. What a pleasant find — a “homey” lobby, an energetic staff, one of Condé Nast’s top 100 restaurants in the world, a gregarious owner and a room to die for. Our top-floor room had all the 4-star amenities plus a wraparound balcony and a breathtaking view of the city and harbor.

The Siggi Hall restaurant specializes in bacalao (salt cod) and lamb. We had both and they each were perfect. Dinner, with wine, was $60 per person with the 10% hotel residency discount. Our room cost $275.

This was a real gem-box find and I highly recommend it.

We also dined at Lækjarbrekka (Bankastræti 2), a restored 1834 house with a cozy upstairs bar and an extensive menu. Our lobster and fish, salad starters and dessert mousse ($100 without wine) were in portions as enormous as the service was pathetically slow.

Our other evening meal was at the world-class Perlan (+354 562 0200 or www.perlan.is), a revolving, pearl-shaped restaurant sitting high on a hill atop geothermal water storage tanks. The sunset view was exceeded only by the food.

I ordered the chef’s table d’hôte menu of three courses: salmon terrine, grilled lobster and Icelandic skyr (a dessert mousse). From the à la carte menu, my wife had prawns and scallops, an orange duck breast (meatier than Peking duck) and a Grand Marnier chocolate mousse. With cocktails and the recommended Tokaji wine, the tariff was $110 per person.

Out and about

Excursions near Reykjavik abound. Whale-watching or puffin-spotting can be done with half-day trips. Caution: the puffins generally migrate around Aug. 22. We were there three days early, but the puffins apparently have their own calendar — they had gone to sea en masse on Aug. 15.

Other available trips nearby are to Þingvellir National Park, honoring the thousand years of Iceland’s democracy; the Blue Lagoon, with its curative waters for skin and joint problems, and Gullfoss (Golden Falls), Iceland’s best-known natural wonder.

Iceland’s coast-hugging ring road, Highway 1, circles the island. It is paved and perfect for the independent traveler. Although narrow at times, it has minimal traffic. Unlike in the isolated interior, where 4-wheel-drive vehicles are a necessity, regular cars are fine for the ring road. It runs past numerous country hotels, farmhouses and a few 3-star hotels.

We covered the west, north and northeast, 60% of the ring road. We began by going northwest, through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, dominated by Snæfellsjökull’s majestic glacier.

We stayed at Brekkubær Country Hotel (+354 435 6820 or e-mail brekkubaer@hellnar.is) in Hellnar, on the coast, with nearby caves and a marvelous deck view. Our room cost $115, with VAT and breakfast included. Dinner, with wine, meat or fish, vegetables, salad and cobbler, prepared home-style by owner Gudrun Bergmann, was $75 for two.

The Western Fjords

We then went north through the Western Fjords, with their beautiful green valleys, vistas and settlements. The area is rife with birds of all sorts, and none is prettier than the eider duck, which now partners with man in nesting eider colonies to evade predators. After migration, farmers gather the down, which can sell for $600 per kilo. We also spotted a rare goldeneye and a rarer gyrfalcon.

We stayed at Arinbjörn Jóhannsson’s Brekkulækur Farmhouse (+354 451 2938 or visit www. geysir.com/brekkulaekur) for a taste of Icelandic farmhouse living and a marvelous horseback ride the next morning.

Don’t refer to the Icelandic horse as a “pony.” It’s akin to calling a man “boy.” It is smaller and has its own gait, but it is a pure breed.

Our stay ran $185 for two with breakfast and VAT included. Dinner, with salad, vegetables and meat or fish, cost $60 for two. The ride was extra.

Akureyri

In the far north lies Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city. Arguably Iceland’s prettiest, quaintest town, it is eye-popping when viewed from the bluff looking north up the Eyjafjörður (fjord).

We stayed at the 4-star Hotel Kea (Hafnarstræti 87-89; www. hotelkea. is) for $250, including breakfast and VAT. We ate at the local favorite, Bautinn Restaurant (Hafnarstræti 92), and tried their specialties, whale and guillemot. Let’s just say each is an acquired taste.

Several excursions are available around Akureyri. The whale-watching capital, Húsavík, is an hour east; Goðafoss (cascade) is 30 minutes southeast, and Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall, is 100 miles away in Jökulsárgljufur National Park.

Grimsey Island, the only part of Iceland that is crossed by the Arctic Circle (66°33' north), is a mere 20 minutes away by commercial flight. On our chosen day, however, the flight was full. We couldn’t fathom why a whole planeload of passengers would be intent on going to a 2½-square-mile island with a population of 120 people, its main distinction being a bequest of $12,000 and numerous chess sets left to the islanders by 1857 U.S. Chess Champion Daniel Fiske.

We temporarily gave up, until the next day at Lake Mývatn when Connie discovered that Mýflug Air could fly us to this dot on the ocean.

On arrival, after a quick island tour by the owner of the lone B&B, we discovered the reason for the full flight. Twenty Swiss and German PhDs were due that afternoon to hunt “gremlins,” as they had done the year before. Our host said the group claimed to have discovered them in 2003, but he quickly reminded the locals that “you must believe in them to see them.”

After our obligatory pictures standing astride the Arctic Circle line, we flew back to Lake Mývatn via Dettifoss, where Connie got some outstanding photos.

Lake Mývatn

Our 2-day stay at Lake Mývatn was at Hotel Reynihlíð (+354 464 4170 or www.reynihlid.is — $185 per day for a double, with breakfast and VAT), a 3-star hotel with an adjoining bistro, the Gamli.

The food during our stay here was unremarkable except for dinner the second night at the soundalike Hótel Reykjahlíð (+354 464 4142 or www.reykjahlid.is), where deliciously prepared meat or fish with trimmings cost $75 for two with wine.

Lake Mývatn is Iceland’s number-one tourist area. It is a combination of nature’s wonders: a 17-square-mile lake surrounded by moonlike wastelands where astronauts once trained, geysers, lava pools and mud-pots plus volcanoes, active and inactive. The wildlife here is abundant, the scenery, spectacular, and photo ops are endless. Warning — midge flies are active in swarms in June and late August. All area shops stock head nets. Don’t skimp; buy one.

After the drive back to Akureyri, we flew back to Reykjavik. It was a great opportunity to see and photograph the isolated interior highlands with their massive glaciers.

Greenland

The next morning, we took a 2-hour flight to Kulusuk in eastern Greenland. The oceans and bays were filled with icebergs. We landed, walked the two kilometers to Hotel Kulusuk (Kulusuk Airport; phone +299 98 69 93), changed to warmer clothes and trekked the five kilometers to the village.

A steep hill led past an Inuit cemetery. The weather here is so cold and the landscape so windswept that only plastic flowers are hardy enough to adorn the graves.

At the village, the locals demonstrated traditional dances as well as the use of the kayak and whaling harpoons. We then visited their church, which was constructed of the wood of a whaling ship that had stayed too long in the harbor and was crushed by an early freeze.

We opted to boat back to the hotel amongst stunning icebergs with their aqua hue visible beneath the waterline. The hotel was spartan but immaculate. Its restaurant served three good buffet meals a day and the bar was surprisingly well stocked.

Ammassalik

The following morning, we braved the weather in an outbound boat on the one-hour journey to Ammassalik (Tasiilaq), east Greenland’s administrative capital. A town of over 1,000 with a quaint harbor and numerous fishing companies, it has a museum, a church and a mercantile store. We even saw a taxi, although only about three miles of roads exist.

Connie got some outstanding photos of the harbor, with mountains in the background jutting through the fog.

The highlight of the journey was spotting a minke whale on our return. It circled our craft three times and seemed as curious about us as we were about it. The photo ops for Connie were sensational, especially when the whale came up to within three feet of the boat.

That afternoon, we reluctantly headed back to the airport and checked in for our flight back to Reyjavik. The pilot announced that all 50 passengers had checked in, so the scheduled commercial flight left 30 minutes early. (Take that, Delta.)

Our trip to Greenland was a package deal including air, board and meals. Drinks and side trips were extra. The cost was $750 per person and worth every penny. If adventure is your name, Greenland is your game.

The Faroe Islands

The next evening, we flew to the Faroe Islands — another surprise. The valleys were as green as those in Ireland but deeper. The coastline is a jigsaw of sheer cliffs inhabited by birds, sheep and more birds.

The 18-island archipelago lies within the triangle formed by Iceland, Scotland and Norway. The countryside is immaculately groomed, and paved (sometimes narrow) roads abound.

Fewer than 50,000 people live here, mostly on four principal islands connected by tunnel, ferry or bridge. The bridge between the two main islands is referred to as “the only bridge over the Atlantic.”

The picturesque capital, Tórshavn, is the country’s heartbeat. We stayed at Hotel Hafnia (Aarvegur 4-10; phone +298 313 233 or visit www.hafnia.fo) at $185 for a double, with breakfast and VAT included. It was the nicest lodgings in the country, a 3-star by our standards.

We enjoyed a superb dinner at the Merlot (Magnus Heinasonargøta 20). For $100 for two, one of us had salad, veal tips with béarnaise sauce, grilled vegetables and mousse, and the other had venison with garlic mashers, squash and profiteroles, all with a pleasant merlot wine and all perfectly prepared.

We toured the islands, the little villages with their sod-roofed houses, the deep valleys, numerous waterfalls and the beautiful countryside. A 2-hour boat ride along the stern cliffs, darting amidst limestone caves, brought us close to the teeming birds and shaggy, cliff-hanging sheep.

Then it was time to return home to real life. After looking at Connie’s photos, we dreamt of again stepping back in time, breathing in the pure air and listening to the silence of these lands less traveled.

Oh, by the way, Mrs. Dobbs was correct.