Hofn to Husavik: Iceland’s Arctic

Glimpsing the Northern Lights recharged our batteries – and kept us up until the wee hours of the morning. Groggy from wine and lack of sleep, we awoke at dawn to make the drive to Hofn, a relatively quick ride up the ring road but decorated with lots of delicious detours.

Our first stop: Vatnajokull National Park, where Europe’s largest glacier bumps up against Iceland’s grassy hills. We hiked along a trail until we reached the snowy ice cap, snapped a few photographs, and enjoyed the silent view for a little while before heading back to the car and driving north to Jokulsarlon lagoon.

This was a place I’d been anticipating since our arrival in Reykjavik. A placid lagoon with mirror smooth water, Jokulsarlon (translation: glacial river lagoon) is bursting with blue as chunks of glacier break off and stud the surface of the water. Apparently the icebergs journey slowly out to sea, but any movement went unnoticed by me; the lagoon seemed clogged with snow-covered ice, with the occasional wayward chunk stranded on the shore. Even in the snow, the bands of color were striking in their bright blues and ash grays. It was worth a trek up the nearby hill for a higher view of the crowded lagoon.

Grass, glacier, mountain. All in one shot. Very Iceland.

Grass, glacier, mountain. All in one shot. Very Iceland.

Icebergs drift at a glacial pace in Jokulsarlon.

Icebergs drift at a glacial pace in Jokulsarlon.

Hungry, we clambered down the hill to the parking lot cafe, a small, five-table affair steamy with the aroma of soup and coffee. Snow melted on the floor, dragged in on the wet bootsoles of shivering travelers. We managed to squeeze into a small table against the wall, where I finally sampled Iceland’s fish soup and Jamie had a sandwich. It was evident then that we were both stunned and sleepy, impressed by the view but still reeling from last night’s Northern Lights festivities.

With a cappuccino for the road, we resolved to reach Hofn shortly and spend the evening exploring the town. It was already late afternoon as we left Jokulsarlon and wound our way down rainy roads toward our next destination.

The dreary weather did little for our depleted energy. Driving in Iceland can be a drowsy experience if you’re running low on sleep. Towns are few and very far between, meaning no radio stations to break up the silence. We spent many an hour conversing en route to Hofn, which was not so much a town as a colorful harbor and a few roads of restaurants, homes, and shopping centers.

As it turned out, we were not staying in town, but in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. We pulled up in the rain as a woman hung clothes out on the line. Snuggled between the sea and the mountains, Dynjandi offered a small farmhouse and a pasture populated by shaggy Icelandic ponies grazing, oblivious to the rain. We were immediately welcomed by the friendly owners, Inga and Step, who showed us a tiny, cozy room.

“Let us know what time you want breakfast,” Inga told us, “and if you want to wash up, there is a bath house out back.”

We decided to put the bath house on hold – though Jamie did tolerate a lengthy photography session with the ponies – and headed into Hofn for dinner. Langosta capital of Iceland, Hofn’s many restaurants offer creative lobster dishes. Unfortunately, we discovered that many of them were strangely closed, so we settled on LP-recommended Kaffi Hornid, where I ate rich langostine pasta and Jamie opted for the reindeer burger, which was juicy and flavored with sweet caramelized onions and cinnamon. (A strange combination, but super tasty!) We’d hoped to sample Vatnajokull beer, brewed with ancient glacier water, but they were all out, serving us Boli instead.

PONIES!!

PONIES!!

Mmm. Langostine pasta and a reindeer burger with Boli. Mouth is watering.

Mmm. Langostine pasta and a reindeer burger with Boli. Mouth is watering.

With nothing open, we headed back to the farmhouse to find a note on the door: “Gone riding!” The place was quiet and empty, so at 7:30, with the wind picking up outside, we fell asleep and slept uninterrupted until the morning, when I awoke to this:

Sunrise in Dynjandi

Sunrise in Dynjandi

Breakfast, homemade and served in the room.

Breakfast, homemade and served in the room.

Breakfast was homemade and served in our room: a hard-boiled egg, toast and jam, orange juice, Skyr (thick Icelandic yogurt), and coffee in a thermos. Jamie braved the bath house and showered while I gathered the things together. Refreshed, we packed up the car and chatted about ponies with Inga.

“You know, you can pet them. They are very calm,” she told us. Then, she led us out to the pasture, where a ginger horse (roan might be the appropriate term) seemed happy enough to have us pet him. After returning from the bath house, Jamie had gazed in the mirror and said, “I’m getting old. Look at these white hairs.” I’d requested that he not shave on the trip in order to look more Icelandic and he’d kindly obliged, but was unhappy with what he found.

“White hairs are a sign of wisdom,” I offered.

In the pasture, Inga explained that the roan pony, named Aura, was changing coats; ginger now, she was slowly turning white for the summer.

“She’ll never be completely one color,” Inga explained, “but she does change. It’s very rare.”

Adorably, the pony took an obvious liking to Jamie. Inga told us about tolt, the unique gait of Icelandic ponies that has been bred out of all other horses. Lonely Planet praises tolt for its easy grace: riders can easily drink a beer, the book says, without spilling a drop.

Back in the farmhouse, Inga asked where we were headed. When I told her Husavik, a hip city in the north, she frowned.

“A storm is moving in from the west,” she informed us. “We should make sure the roads are open.”

Step took his laptop into the office and made a phone call to Iceland’s handy traffic hotline and discovered that Route 1 was closed due to snowstorms in the mountains. Step generously mapped out an alternate route, 917 to 85, a longer but more coastal drive. While he penned out directions, another group of travelers who had apparently stayed at the farmhouse that night eagerly chatted with us about our route.

Traveling the ring road clockwise, they’d just arrived from Husavik the previous night.

“It took forever,” said one of the men, a German. “We could barely get down the road! There were so many reindeer along the way and they don’t move out of the road.”

This excited me immensely. I had only seen reindeer in Christmas films – and on a bun in the restaurant the previous night – and fervently wished to see herds of them in the road. I was also insatiably excited about our drive to Husavik because Step’s new route took us right through Borgarfjordur Eystri, a town in the northeast of Iceland famous for its huldufolk, or hidden people. Perhaps we would spot both reindeer and elves on the journey!

An hour onto the road, there was no sign of either. Step and Inga had suggested we stop in Egilsstadir to recheck the traffic conditions, so we popped into an N1 where a helpful cashier let me use her phone to dial. An equally friendly woman on the other end informed me that our alternate route was now closed and our original choice, Route 1, was currently being cleared and should be drivable within the hour.

Happy with the prospect of a more direct route – though saddened about not stopping in Borgarfjordur (Jamie didn’t seem too bothered) – we settled in Salt, a small cafe, and passed our time sipping caffeinated drinks and checking in with the real world. (WiFi is also quite spotty in Iceland, even at hotels that claim to have it.)

An hour later, the traffic woman confirmed that Route 1 was open and crews would be working on the mountain until 7, so if we could make it to Myvatn by then, we’d be fine. Jamie graciously drove the whole way, anticipating ice and snow. I navigated and ate pistachios.

Much to my chagrin, we saw zero reindeer. The German travelers had raved about herds – HERDS! – of Santa’s pets strolling across the road and we saw zero.

The landscape was arctic. For two hours, we drove down a vacant, dark road ribboning through miles and miles of white mountains, white hills, white plains. Untouched snow covered everything around us; it was as close to the arctic as we could get.

Arctic road. This was all we saw for miles.

Arctic road. This was all we saw for miles.

We finally arrived in Husavik to find that the town was closed for Easter. Our hotel – a whale-themed joint with a bar christened Moby Dick – was right on the harbor, a perfect location for walking to restaurants and, we hoped, to whale watching tours.

“Any restaurant recommendations?” I asked the man at reception, whose half-shaved/half-bun look was quite curious.

“No, everything is closed,” he responded, regarding me quizzically. “Don’t you know it’s Easter weekend?”

My heart sank, but Jamie was undeterred. He insisted we go walk down to the harbor anyway and see what we could find. Everything LP-recommended was closed, but we did find a tasty joint called Salka, a Star of David hanging over the door. (Jamie does not think it was a Jewish restaurant, as we could find no proof, but it was the only place that was open.)

Inside, we sipped beers and ate, contemplating our ill-timed visit. A group of teenagers drifted in and sat at the table beside us, eventually striking up conversation and inviting us out to some midnight clubbing session on a yacht. It was a kind proposal, but I thought about how much we’d driven and how far we’d come and how badly I wanted to whale-watch at 8 the following morning and remembered Jamie’s white hairs and decided that we were too old to be partying with eyeliner-ed teenagers on a cold yacht.

Instead, we enjoyed our $7 pints of Boli and went to bed early.

Sunset in Husavik. Glorious way to end the day.

Sunset in Husavik. Glorious way to end the day.

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