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Klaustur to Höfn

My guy let me sleep in a little while he looked into driving conditions, doing research on the internet first and then consulting with the concierge at Icelandair Hotel Klaustur. We had no good options, only poor ones in varying degrees of risk and expense. He came to the conclusion on his own that we should stay our course, and that we should leave Kirkjubæjarklaustur immediately. He woke me up and gently, but firmly, asked me to shower and pack. He was loading the car before I’d even brushed my teeth.

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Art at Icelandair Hotel Klaustur.

He’d learned that we had been extremely lucky the day before. We’d driven more than an hour across a glacial flood plain in winds that easily surpassed 50 meters per second. We thought we were fortunate to have the paint on our car; several cars in the hotel’s parking lot in the morning were missing windows on the driver’s side, and paint was visibly eroded on one or two. He learned from one of the drivers with a shattered window that it happened on the exact same stretch of road we’d traversed the day before, at about the same time — maybe an hour after us. We stopped at a small grocery store for yogurt and coffee on our way out of town, and the clerk said her friend’s nearby guesthouse had lost some windows as well.

We needed all the luck we could get to make it to our next overnight destination, Höfn. We would drive along the southeastern edge of Skaftafell, Europe’s largest national park and host to Europe’s largest icecap, the Vatnajökull glacier. We’d then pass Jökulsárlón, an otherworldly lagoon filled with bright blue icebergs the size of hotel rooms — an area not known for mild weather. Höfn, the langoustine capital of Iceland, would be our easternmost overnight stop. Assuming all went as planned. It did and didn’t.

Tip: Unlock your smart phone by calling your service provider before your trip. Then, on arrival, purchase a $15 international SIM card at one of Iceland’s many Eymundsson bookstores. For each week you’re in Iceland, you’ll need to purchase about $20 of data and phone usage. The entire country uses the same area code, so all calls are local. Apparently, there’s a good market for unlocked smart phones in Russia, so consider selling yours for almost full price afterwards on eBay.

Because my guy had been so adamant about leaving early, I assumed he meant for us to drive straight to Höfn to avoid some impending storm. Not quite. He just wanted us to have the time to stop at Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón, and any other scenic waterfalls we might come across, and he was hoping the easterly winds would die down throughout the day. I didn’t argue; we weren’t on the phone canceling my meticulously researched hotel reservations over the weather forecast and losing money at every turn.

Skaftafell was only a half hour from the hotel, which was part of why I’d chosen it. Unlike our other brief glacier stop, we enjoyed well marked signage and the reassurance of a full parking lot — with one of every five cars missing a window. When we were planning the trip, we’d hoped to do a snowmobile tour up in the highlands, but we learned the tour companies weren’t running in the windy conditions. Instead, there were a number of hiking trails available to us, the most popular of which would bring us to an attractive waterfall. My guy seemed interested, but I mentioned that we’d seen an awful lot of attractive waterfalls from the comfort of our SUV, and it was still only a few days into the trip. So I suggested we take the longer hike to the glacier. This caught him by surprise. He knew I was terrified — and I knew I’d regret it if I passed up the chance.

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The glacier from afar.

Our proximity to the glacier was hard to gauge. It looked like a kilometer hike at most, with the glacial tongue being maybe half that in width. It was all very gray, too, with subtle lines separating the sky, mountains, and volcanic earth from each other. In reality, we walked for more than half an hour along a crest (host to a number of attractive waterfalls, no less), and we realized when we arrived to the glacial tongue that it was kilometers wide. There was also a monstrous but shallow lake of glacial runoff at its foot, which we hadn’t been able to see at a distance. Lacking anything that could provide a frame of reference for scale, we just had no way of knowing how large or distant everything was.

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Getting closer.

There was no one else in sight when we arrived to a lookout over the glacial beach, and we enjoyed our pristine, if flat, view. We weren’t sure if we should go further, though. Our guidebooks warned against hiking onto glaciers without a professional guide, as holes and thin ice are ever-present hazards. The beach didn’t seem much safer. The only posted sign warned about quicksand, instructing visitors not to walk over areas of sand without pebbles resting on it, which didn’t outright forbid it, but it didn’t exactly endorse it, either.

But we were in Iceland, at the foot of a glacier. We’d be crazy to pass up the adventure.

We descended to the beach slowly, taking pictures and marveling at the enormity of it all. We also noted that it was getting colder and windier with every step. Arctic winds generally blow from the northwest of the island to the southeast, and glacial tongues channel wind through breaks in the mountains at great speeds — they’re wind tunnels. But it wasn’t raining or even overcast, and the wind wasn’t hurling sand at our faces, so we thought the weather was great.

After five minutes, we’d traveled at least the length of an athletic field, but we felt no closer to the glacier. A small group of young Europeans eventually arrived and, before long, passed us. It was lucky that they were the first to set an example for us, because some of the later hikers to arrive turned back at the lookout, and I might not have had the courage to press on if we were the only ones out there. We followed the Europeans at a distance, traversing small streams and mounds of sand, and walking around craters, moving closer and closer to the glacier, until twenty minutes later, we were finally stepping on it.

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Really close.

I was petrified — the smooth glacier I’d observed from afar was a craggy, dense composite of ice and dirt, and long crevasses and loose boulders seemingly threatened to crush me. It was not pretty white ice like I’d always imagined. That can be found — just not at the edge of a glacier, where frozen water mixes violently with volcanic rock and meets a sandy flood plain. But the young Europeans were unfazed. I watched the guy in the foursome venture out really far, from my safe-ish perch maybe three meters in. (But it counts!)

And from there, we looked back toward the entrance to the beach, and we were shocked to see that the travelers just arriving to the lookout looked like little colorful specks in a sea of gray. We’d completely miscalculated the scale of it all. Epic proportions.

With the wind at our backs, our return hike to our car was much quicker. The car parked next to us had a sheet of plastic duct-taped over a gaping hole where a window should have been.

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Spectacular views in southeast Iceland.

We made our way up the coast and stopped to take pictures whenever needed — there were some interesting rock formations off the coast that clearly deserved our time, and some waterfalls as well. I grimaced every time my guy pulled our SUV off the Ring Road and into some dusty turn-around to get a good shot. It didn’t sound good, the sand splaying out under the tires. I drive a Volkswagen Beetle, a convertible no less, and to call me prissy about it would be an understatement. I fret over the tiniest of potholes; I’ve twice brought my car in to my mechanic sensing engine problems only to find out nothing was wrong. I had told my guy a few times on the trip that I worried about the wear on the car from our brief off-road excursions, and he had every reason to roll his eyes. We were on roads approved by the rental car company, and in an SUV designed for the occasional pebble, and I’m an obnoxious car hypochondriac.

But our car actually broke down. I smelled it first, and smoke soon followed. My guy parked us in front of a spectacularly beautiful waterfall, threw open the hood, and got on the phone with the Rekyjavik based rental car company. I flipped through the manual. We were at least six hours from Reykjavik in good weather, and more than sleeping in a cold car while our guesthouse room went unused or paying an expensive fee for a tow service, I worried about missing the opportunity to dine in the langoustine capital of Iceland. (My guy did not quite share my concern.)

Tip: Photo opportunities along the Ring Road abound — almost too often. Happily, you’ll find a gravel turn-off every few kilometers where you can park and take pictures. Just be careful and approach slowly. Some are very small, with steep drop-offs to the ocean, and the gravel won’t help you slow down.

I eventually found the particular icon matching up to the warning light illuminated on the dashboard in the manual, simply an indication that we had engine problems and needed to seek out a mechanic at our earliest opportunity for maintenance. “No shit,” I said huffily after reading the manual to my guy. He remembered passing a gas station five minutes before, so we told the rental car company we would drive there, slowly, and seek service. On the road, he confided in me that he’d found duct tape on the engine — nice souvenir from a crap repair job.

We were crestfallen to find the gas station was recently abandoned, but we had made it there without odors, smoke, or even a warning light. We called the rental car company again and obtained their hesitant permission to try to drive the rest of the way to Höfn, slowly, and they reluctantly let the call end. I then took a return call from them expressing yet more concern, and promised we’d stop if there was any indication of a problem. They also promised to send a replacement SUV right away — it would either arrive late that night or the following morning to our hotel in Höfn. If we had to have a rental car engine fail, we were lucky to have had it happen in Iceland.

We were about 45 kilometers from Höfn, and we hadn’t even passed Jökulsárlón yet — one of the most impressive sights in Iceland. Tourists often spend the entire day there, taking cruises around the icebergs on small boats, and we would have to miss it.

We tried to be grateful to be moving at all, with a new rental car being personally delivered, no less, but the drive was depressing. Iceland is really big, and it’s easy to feel like you’re not getting very far even at 80 kilometers per hour — and we were going half that. My guy was more upset about not being able to stop and take pictures of every waterfall. (I was a little relieved. Have I mentioned that there are a lot of attractive waterfalls in Iceland?)

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Jökulsárlón. It doesn’t look like it, but each of these icebergs is at least as big as a motorboat.

We eventually approached Jökulsárlón, inland from the road to the north, and after our first glimpse, the idea of just passing by was unbearable. The lagoon and its ice floes were much bigger than we’d thought, and we were surprised to find the icebergs as blue in real life as they appeared in glossy travel guide photos. “Should we stop?” I asked, and that was all the permission my guy needed to swerve into the next gravel access road. He threw the car in park, turned off the ignition, and started reaching for his camera equipment. “You stopped the engine?!” I barked, worried our good progress would end there. Pretty, but no mechanic, public transportation, or guesthouse in sight. In so many words, my guy told me to deal with it.

The lagoon was bordered to the south by a long and low ridge, and it was obvious that we would need to go over it at the nearest of several low points. While we gathered our hats and gloves, we saw a group of German tourists come over the crest holding hands, each faltering at every step. We knew to expect the 50 meters per second wind.

Once over the dune, bracing myself against the wind, I couldn’t enjoy my first view of Jökulsárlón for long. My eyes were immediately wet, blurring my vision, in spite of the protection of my sunglasses. I turned my back to the lagoon to pull my hood tight around my sunglasses frames and let my eyes dry, lunging my legs to support myself. When I turned around to try to walk toward the lagoon, my hood was immediately blown back from my head. The surface area of my body posed too much resistance, and I had to shimmy sideways like a football player running drills, in slow motion. I couldn’t look toward the lagoon for more than a second or two. My hands shook as I tried to steady my camera. I urged my guy not to get too close to the ledge that dropped down to the icy water.

I only have a couple of passable photos from the stop — some were blurry, all were crooked — but my memory of seeing this thing that I couldn’t look at is so strong. Funny how that works.

Tip: Höfn isn’t pronounced Hoff-en. It’s much more fun to say. If you’ve ever heard jugglers or acrobats say, “hup, hup, ho!” to start their routine, it’s the “hup!” sound. Say it fast and raise your voice, and enjoy the praise from locals for your great accent.

We made it to Höfn. Not only that, we made it in time to do a little driving tour around the fishing piers, buy a box of wine from the Vinbudin, relax in our adorable room at the Höfn Inn, clean up, drink some box wine, research restaurants, and do some other things I can and can’t think of.

Höfn is a small fishing town on an oddly protruding peninsula just south of the East Fjords, known as the “lobster” capital of Iceland, but langoustine is more accurate. We ate dinner at Humarhöfnin, a restaurant near the water specializing in, none other than, langoustines. According to TripAdvisor, there was another, more expensive seafood restaurant in Höfn, but given the lavish praise bestowed upon both by savvy international travelers, we felt it was the better choice.

The sun was setting when we sat down at our window table, and we enjoyed the quirky maritime accents around us. Admittedly, our first course was only okay. It was a langoustine bisque, and it was strangely nutty in taste and texture and even color. I could taste the shellfish, but it lacked the sweetness and butteriness I’m accustomed to in lobster stocks, and the pleasing coral tint.

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Langoustine pizza.

But it got better quickly. For our second course, we ordered their langoustine pizza. We’d seen a lot of pizza on menus in Iceland so far and thought that it, like the hot dog, might be an important part of their cuisine, and this was reasonably priced and sounded uniquely appealing. My only frame of reference for a dish like this was truffled lobster macaroni and cheese, which was popular at nightclubs and hotel lounges a few years ago, and rarely offered much in the way of truffle or lobster. This was no such pageantry. Topped with mild cheese, tomatoes, and big langoustine chunks, and bordered by a soft crust, it was unctuous and garlicky and harmonious, and we loved it.

My favorite course, though, was the order of langoustines themselves, at least two dozen of them, served in the pot they were cooked in and doused with the restaurant’s signature “black magic” balsamic glaze. The meat was sweet and salty, and I sucked the juices out of each head for good measure. We skipped dessert. We didn’t want to stay at the restaurant too long, lest the new rental car arrive to our hotel without us. We’d driven to the restaurant.

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