Stories from Iceland
A Father & his Son
This is the story of Iceland, a lightly traveled father, and his world traveler son.
Iceland is 1 of the 72 countries I’ve visited on parts of 7 continents, and it served as the hop-off point for my 2014-2015 year-long honeymoon. Unlike that summer trip, this visit was an adventure born of my desire to witness the Northern lights. In its infancy, the trip was intended to be a solo scavenger hunt, but lessons learned from prior travels taught me that travel memories are more meaningful when made with loved ones.
So I invited my dad. Never have the 2 of us gone on an adventure together. Numerous family vacations across 2 continents, yes, but never just the 2 of us. Weeks of anticipation and immense excitement at the prospect of his company turned to crushing disappointment when, after careful consideration, he decided not to come.
It was always a long shot. He’s a man who enjoys the comforts of home, and travel creates uncomfortable anxieties. Hindering my plans, airports, language barriers, cold temperatures, treacherous precipitation, limited daylight, and sleeping in a camper van didn’t exactly whet his Icelandic travel appetite. But I wanted him to come, and was prepared to give the hard sell. Not that Iceland needs selling, but assuaging those anxieties would be no easy task. After convincing him that his attendance would make the trip more enjoyable and meaningful, one by one, we addressed the remaining anxieties, and he finally agreed to come.
Flying into Iceland, following a weekend in London catching up with travel friends, revealed a country blanketed in snow and ice.
After picking up the rental camper, I drove into Reykjavik to meet my dad, who’d landed earlier in the day and done a walking tour while awaiting my arrival. I’d made dinner reservations at Lækjarbrekka, where my wife and I dined 3 years ago, and again, it didn’t disappoint. My dad’s Arctic char and my fish stew with chocolate dessert was the perfect Icelandic meal, and a delicious way to start the trip.
And then, the nightly ritual began: Find a dark location without light pollution, turn off the car, turn on the amazing backup heater, continuously monitor internet/apps for cloud cover and Northern lights kp strength, sleep a few hours when the forecast became unfavorable for viewing, and wake up early to see if the forecast had become more favorable.
Reykjavik’s Grótta Lighthouse was our first night’s location. While the skies were clear, the kp strength was minimal, and those of us in the parking lot slowly started to retreat to our overnight accommodation. GPS directions to our in town campsite were grossly inaccurate, and 2 hours later into what should’ve been a 15 min drive from the lighthouse, we found our campsite, and turned our vehicle into a bedroom. It was below freezing that first night, but we were toasty as could be.
Eager to take another crack at Northern lights viewing, we woke up a few hours later and headed back to the lighthouse. Again, no lights, but a chilly walk about the coastline did yield some picturesque nighttime lighthouse views.
Our goal for drive day 1 was to get from Reykjavik to Hali Hotel by the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon since we had an early morning ice cave tour the following day. Along the way we visited the main attractions of the Golden Circle, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, and managed to get to the black sand beaches of Vik for sunset.
Sunrise at Þingvellir was magical. With golden sky of a forever sunrise as a backdrop, our peaceful early morning hike in the rift valley was a great way to stretch jet-lagged legs and imagine what it must’ve been like centuries ago when this land was still home to Iceland’s Parliament.
Stops at Geysir and Selfoss were brief. Unlike the summer, when hiking and exploration can be done at each stop, ice curtails winter sightseeing. We spent enough time at Geysir to witness two eruptions, and while Gullfoss was still thundering, its’ summer ferocity was dampened by wintry icicles. Stops at Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, left the same impression.
With daylight rapidly vanishing, sunset and moonrise in view,
we hurriedly drove to Vik to witness Reynisfjara black sand beach and to marvel at Reynisfjall Mountain atop Garðar basalt cliffs. With a full day of sightseeing now behind us, we continued our drive to Hali Hotel.
While completely satisfied with the comfort of the sleeping arrangements in our van, we were both more than happy to spend our 2nd night in a cozy hotel room and not have to brave the cold in order to access bathroom and hot shower. After another arctic char dinner, my dad decided to relax while I went out to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Once again the forecast for Northern Lights viewing was bleak, but the skies were clear, the winds were down, and the stars were out. Perfect conditions for nighttime photography.
Outside of witnessing Northern Lights, the Vatnajökull Glacier Ice Cave tour was the activity my dad and I were most eagerly anticipating. To say it ended up being a disappointment wouldn’t be fair, but when multiple companies are shoving dozens of tourists into a small cave in a short amount of time, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the surroundings. The cave was definitely the beautiful glacial blue we were expecting, but it was only after the masses had departed did we wholly enjoy the cave. Truth be told, the drive to and from the cave was more spectacular than the cave itself.
The rest of the sunlight hours were spent enjoying the seals and beautiful iceberg reflections of Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, a sparkling golden hued Diamond Beach, and a twilight trip to Breiðárlón Lagoon where the sun and moon once again shared the same sky. An amazing day, which only got more exciting once darkness arrived.
Prior to the ice cave tour, we decided to stay another night at the Hali Hotel as the evening forecast was very conducive to northern lights viewing. Following our full day of sightseeing, and a modest dinner, we decided to head back to Diamond beach. Located across the street from Jökulsárlón Lagoon, we chose the location so that we’d give ourselves a better chance of seeing the lights being a bit further away from the mountains that surrounded the lagoon. We were also completely alone since everyone was across the street at the lagoon. Sitting and waiting in the car, we played Uno, a game we used to play as a family throughout my youth.
…an experience we’d remember until the end of days….
Hand after hand, the sky remained full of stars and free of clouds. And then the clouds rolled in. Except they didn’t look like clouds. They looked like hazy arcs which eventually turned into complete arches spanning the horizon. And then the arches started to move, as if writing a signature across the sky. We were actually witnessing the Northern lights. To the naked eye, the sky remained colorless, but timed exposures on the camera revealed the greens of the Northern lights. For at least an hour, the colorless lights danced across the sky, giving us at least a glimpse of what we came to Iceland to witness. We finished the viewing across the street at the Lagoon, with everyone else who’d come out that night, and as we returned to the hotel for the night, I think we both realized we’d just shared an experience we’d remember until the end of days.
The following morning we had a decision to make. Backtrack towards Reykjavik for the remainder of our trip or continue on towards Reykjavik via the Eastfjords and Northern Iceland. We chose the latter. Again, the decision was driven by cloud cover forecasts, but it’s a decision we’re glad we made. Having not seen that portion of the country with my wife, the last couple days of the trip would now be spent completing the ring road and making memories shared only by me and my father.
The Eastfjords were stunning. Driving towards the sunrise revealed breathtaking views of mountains to our left and the ocean to our right. We had the open road nearly all to ourselves, save for the reindeer, horses, and sheep which were grazing in the early morning warmth. As we rounded the east coast cliffs, clear skies and calm winds meant stunning snow-kissed mountain reflections at every plunging fjord.
After making it to our home for the night, Egilsstaðir, we decided to spend our last bit of daylight making the drive to Seyðisfjörður. Having spent all day experiencing the fjords at sea level, as we reached the summit between the two towns, it was nice to experience the majesty of the fjords from high above. The small fishing village of Seyðisfjörður was mostly closed for the season, but Christmas lights lined the narrow streets, and instead of service in one of the bars, children were singing and dancing as they learned of an Icelandic Christmas story. An idyllic way to usher in the Christmas season.
Unexpected cloud cover dashed any hopes of northern lights viewing that night, but we did manage to play Milles Borne, another card game from my youth, while also enjoying Bjólfur, a Christmas beer brewed with spruce and pine needles, before settling in for our 2nd night in the van.
As the sun rose on our final long drive day, majestic fjords gave way to a desolate lunar landscape. The main attraction of the day was a sunrise hike at Dettifoss and Selfoss. For most of the morning, it was us and the landscape. Not a human around. Peaceful. Exhilarating. Perfect. As we walked towards what seemed like the end of the Earth, we felt small. Legs weary and wet from the snow covered hike, and surrounded by jaw dropping 360 degree panoramas, the waterfalls finally appeared as the sun peaked above the horizon. Unlike past waterfalls, no amount of cold could freeze Dettifoss as a pristine moment in time. As the falls thundered into the gorge below, we stood silent, mesmerized.
Once back to the van, we continued on towards Krafla (which we never did see), Mývatn Lake, Goðafoss, and Akureyri by sunset. At every turn, there seemed to be volcanoes, mountains, lakes, fjords, and pristine snow blanketed valleys, each with a view more beautiful than the last. It’s one of the most picturesque drives we’ve ever experienced. As day turned to night, the skies opened, and we saw our first rain. Sadly, our last chance at viewing Northern lights was not to be, but neither of us cared, still giddy from the drive that was.
It was difficult getting out of bed that final morning. Months of sightseeing anticipation, condensed into 5 days and 2500 miles, was now a recent memory. A return to work, and not jaw dropping scenery, was now on the horizon. It was deflating, a travel hangover. We spent the morning meandering through the Phallological Museum (perfect father-son activity), and the streets of Reykjavik. As our departure drew near, we ended our trip, as my first trip began, with a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Though only for a hike, and not a soak, it was still the perfect ending to our father- son adventure.
Read more: The Ring road in a VW Caddy Camper
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