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Mývatn to Akureyri

Rarely had I seen a bluer sky or whiter snow than the landscape I woke up to. We got our first view of Mývatn that morning in daylight, no snowstorm or winds, and we observed that the lake itself is only part of the draw of the region — huge volcanoes with deep snow-filled craters circle the lake at a distance, making for a dramatic landscape in the winter and, inevitably, an inviting hiking destination in the summer.

The complimentary breakfast at Vogafjós Guesthouse was the best of our trip. We helped ourselves to smoked trout, creamy fish spreads, smoked lamb, cold cuts, a half dozen cheeses, flavored cream cheese spreads, fresh fruit, and a number of breads, including the rugbrauð we’d tried at dinner (a local brown bread cooked underground by geothermal heat). Vogafjós’s restaurant doubles as a dairy farm, and the cows in the next room over were all awake and livelier than they’d been the evening before, tails swinging gaily.

Before we left, I asked an attendant if any of the cheeses were local, as they tasted so fresh and unlike the continental European imports I’m accustomed to, and she said they were not. I saw one of the same cheeses at a grocery store the next day and looked at the label, and it was actually manufactured in Akureyri, a curvy one hour, 90 kilometer drive from Mývatn. It seemed local enough to me.

Tip: What appears to be smoked salmon at your breakfast buffet might actually be local smoked trout, and it’s worth asking to find out. But instead of asking if it’s “local,” ask if it’s “Icelandic.” Icelanders have much higher standards than we Americans do for what counts as “local.”

My guy and I spent the rest of the morning exploring the Mývatn area. Our first stop was Dimmuborgir, a recreational area for hiking around unusual lava formations. It’s also the beloved mythical home of the Yule Lads, a troublemaking lot of Santa-like figures who visit Icelandic children’s homes each night leading up to Christmas to leave gifts (or rotten potatoes) in their shoes and generally wreak havoc. Starting on December 12, the lads arrive one by one, with names that translate to things like Door Slammer, Gully Gawk, and Sausage Swiper, and stay for 13 days, with the gang all together to steal, lick, scrape, sniff, and gobble as much as they can on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

As outlandish as it sounds, once you actually visit Dimmuborgir, it’s easy to want to believe the folklore. The lava formations include chimney columns, archways, caves, craters, and mounds, and the hiking trails pass up and over and all around them. Before long, we were each pointing into caves and noting, “Troll den,” and responding agreeably.

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We’d opted to take a trail that was less popular, due to the longer distance and time commitment — three or four kilometers, and about an hour and a half with time for photos. We only saw three other people on the trail, which, we noted, would never happen at an equally celebrated national park at home. And the trail was gently used, with a narrow path of maybe a dozen footprints imprinting the shin-deep snow in advance of our hike. The only footprints that strayed from the path were those belonging to a small hoofed animal. Tracks crossed every which-way around the sparkling, pristine snow. It was spectacularly beautiful and serene.

From Dimmuborgir, on the east side of the lake, we drove to the south side to the tiny village of Skútustaðir to see the Skútustaðagígar pseudocraters. They’re not technically volcanic craters, but they’re shaped like craters, and that was reason enough for us. But they weren’t great. In the summer, they’re supposed to be very lush and green, filled with plush grass and ground cover. Covered with snow, we’d seen one and seen them all. (We still walked around a half dozen of them, just to be sure.)

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Volcano along Mývatn’s southern shore.

We had parked across the street from Hotel Sel in Skútustaðir, and I recognized the name from reading in our Lonely Planet that the hotel had successfully transplanted several marimo balls from the lake to an aquarium. Marimo balls are the product of a rare species of algae (occurring in nature in only four locations in the world), and they look like mossy green balls. We were cold and a bit tired after hiking through so much snow all morning, so we thought, why not stop in for hot tea or coffee and try to see these very special Icelandic moss balls?

The maturely furnished lobby was staffed by two lovely middle-aged women and otherwise empty. It had the feeling of a space where you should keep your voice down. We became exceedingly polite, requesting to purchase some hot beverages and maybe a snack from their restaurant, and oh, we read about your marimo balls, and if it’s not too much of an inconvenience, and we hate to trouble you, and we’re so grateful for your time, and — they didn’t mind at all. The dining room was closed, but there was a little cafe and market just next-door where we could get drinks. And they were very happy to show us to the aquarium, which was in the dining room. Apparently, the domesticated marimo balls were doing so well that their small colony was growing. Our pictures came out poorly due to natural light coming in from the windows and glass reflections, but if you can imagine what an algae ball might look like, you’re probably right.

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Marimo balls at Hotel Sel.

We stayed and chatted with our hosts a bit longer, and conversation inevitably turned to the snow. My guy asked if the blizzard was typical for September, and they both responded with firm nos. They said that in the past, the first snow wouldn’t come until November or December, but in recent years, their autumn has shortened from months to mere weeks as the winter weather sets in earlier and earlier.

I had to ask — was it climate change? Well, what else could it be. (Not a question.) Their close proximity to the Arctic Circle meant that the effects of climate change on their already extreme weather patterns were yet more pronounced. Green Iceland, I told them, with the cleanest energy in the world, deserved better.

Tip: Your guidebook will include suggestions for quirky sites or attractions that may or may not be worth seeing, but see them anyway. They may not be what you remember most about the experience of pursuing them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

We bought our tea and coffee across the driveway and piled back into the car to continue our drive around the lake. Based on the recommendation of staff at Vogafjós, we’d planned to hike up a volcano on the western shore. It had looked very doable at a distance in the morning, but up close, steeply graded and covered in snow and ice, it look a lot more like the kind of mountain professional climbers scale with ropes and crampons. Admittedly, there was a less steep ridge that was probably okay for hiking in better weather, but even it was bordered by steep drop-offs on either side. (We then looked for a smaller volcano behind it, hoping we’d just misunderstood which volcano to hike. There was not.)

We continued in our clockwise drive around the lake and went back out to the Ring Road, where we’d entered in the blizzard the night before. Here, to the northeast of the lake, we would see Krafla and Hverir, and stop for a soak at the Mývatn Nature Baths, all of which are touted as the region’s best attractions.

Krafla certainly earns its reputation. It is a 10 kilometer wide caldera and one of the most active volcanic areas in the entire country. It last fissured between 1975 and 1984, and a recent drilling project found a magma chamber as shallow as 2 kilometers below the earth’s surface. So, Mývatn — great place to visit, maybe not such a great place to live.

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The view from the Krafla overlook.

We turned off the Ring Road and drove north on a narrow access road, past a huge geothermal power plant and uphill to the caldera. A plow truck was hard at work clearing the area for the tourism traffic, and we were grateful. Some cars were really struggling with the climb. Once we reached an overlook where about a dozen other cars were parked, we stopped and got out, and it wasn’t immediately clear to us what we were supposed to see. The guidebook suggested there was a lot to see in the way of volcanic terrain, but in two feet of snow, not so much. The overlook was vast and impressive, and it gave us some of our best photos from the whole trip, but my fiance remained convinced that he was somehow missing out. (I took several photos of my fiance doing the “McKayla is not impressed” pose in front of the view, and I am being kind by not posting any of them.)

We also hiked further up a slope and found a deep crater filled with a glistening lake. Much like when we were at Geysir and my feet felt warm while my body was cold, I could tell the earth beneath me was warmer along the edge of the crater than elsewhere because the snow along the path was half-melted. We spent most of the return hike stomping and shaking our hiking boots, because the melted snow had mixed with warm dirt, and the resulting mud was thick and sticky.

From Krafla, we crossed over to the opposite side of the Ring Road to see the volcano Námafjall and Hverir, the steaming mud pits at its base. I made it maybe 10 meters from the car and announced to my fiance that he could stay as long as he wanted, but I was going to wait in the car.

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Hverir. I now regret framing this photo to make it look as pristine as possible. It was disgusting. I don’t regret staying in the car.

Hverir is a steaming pile of shit. That’s the only way I can put it. It smelled worse than the worst baby or dog poo I’ve ever had the misfortune of whiffing, and the smell was many times heavier, and completely unavoidable. Further, the steam had melted most of the snow around the parking lot and paths, and all that remained were sticky mud patches and massive red mud puddles. An aquatic military vehicle was parked not far off, and I thought they had the right idea for protection. When my guy eventually returned, a gust of poop smell greeted me through his open car door. His hair was wet, and there was reddish brownish mud all over his hiking boots. He said it was great, and yet he couldn’t tell me what was so great about it. “You know, steam,” he persisted.

I do know steam, and that wasn’t the kind I came to Iceland for. But I got it soon thereafter at the Mývatn Nature Baths, a pool built around a natural hot spring just northeast of the lake. Admission was considerably less expensive than at the Blue Lagoon, but still substantial at about $25 for entry and a towel rental. The hot spring was a little bigger than a neighborhood recreational pool, but much of the edges weren’t usable because the water was too hot. My fiance had remembered to bring his waterproof GoPro camera into the pool, and we made little time lapse and splash videos. There was only one other couple there, Americans, and a local besides. It was so serene. We each drank a beer at the restaurant afterwards, all part of the spa experience. And I’d remembered to bring in a hairbrush and conditioner this time, so I looked as improved as I felt. (And nary an ion of Hverir to be found anywhere near me.)

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View toward the eastern shore of Mývatn.

Our drive to Akureyri, the capital of the north, was short and uneventful — a few scenic waterfalls. It was almost dark when we arrived to Icelandair Hotel Akureyri, perched just uphill from the bustling downtown area on the fjord. Icelandair Hotels are known for their modern design and amenities — they’re boutique hotels — and we loved the rustic-chic lobby with animal furs and oversized prints of old photos. We’d stayed at the Icelandair Hotel Klaustur a few days before, and this was noticeably more stylized. Our room was gorgeous, too, and we enjoyed huge windows looking down into the town and out over the water.

Romantic though it was, we didn’t linger in the room with our box wine for long. It was getting late and we were really hungry. Our research into restaurants for dinner had led us to Noa, a design gallery and seafood restaurant on the water’s edge, and we were unusually excited about it. Being the second largest city in Iceland, Akureyri has a competitive dining scene, and we were thrilled to turn our attention to local fish for the first time.

Tip: If you find yourself in Akureyri, dine at Noa. I refuse to believe there is a better seafood restaurant in the entire city.

Noa’s dining room felt like both a restaurant and design store, and indeed, it was. Just beyond our masterfully carved, polished wood slab of a dinner table, hand crafted tables, chairs, and couches were available for sale, draped with animal furs and accented with Icelandic wares. Huge panels of modern art adorned the walls. It was dark and interesting and sexy.

The menu listed only fish — cod, catfish, and trout, and various parts thereof. We had basically decided on the cod tongues and catfish cheeks, and the table next to us could hear our discussion. The gentleman decided to speak up to endorse our selection, and as soon as he did, we recognized each other from the Mývatn Nature Baths — they were the other American couple. They were the same age as us, and in Iceland for the same reasons, and had barely made it this far in their trip due to the bad weather, too. It was reassuring and exciting to have the shared experience for a few minutes, and then we all quietly resumed our unique experiences in this otherworld, adrift between continents.

The cod tongues and catfish cheeks were perfect. Soft, flaky, buttery, sweet, salty, a little fatty-feeling in the mouth, not a hint of fishiness — we’ll probably never have better fish in our lives, because I can’t imagine better fish in the world. But so be it. We got to have it once.

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Furniture and art at Noa. The photos of the best fish of our lives were too dark, but I’m glad to have any photos at all from the experience.

A small crowd was gathered outside the front of our hotel when we returned, and we didn’t think much of it at first. But as my fiance parked the car, I realized what it meant. This was it. The Northern Lights.

A pale green wisp of light stretched across the sky from north to south and moved like a thread in the wind, at times slowly, and others quickly. If I looked to the south for a few seconds, the northern filament might change dramatically, or disappear altogether. If I looked to the north, the south might intensify, or lighten. The entire display lasted only a few minutes. My fiance and I raced to our room and changed from our dinner clothes into warmer attire and returned to the car, fully expecting them to reappear. It was only about 9:30 p.m. and the Northern Lights are known to peak between 9:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Earlier, we’d discussed good vantage points for viewing the Northern Lights should we get the opportunity, and we both knew the spot — a gravel parking area on the other side of the fjord. The light pollution from Akureyri might affect the intensity, but we’d at least be out of the city.

I watched out the passenger window for the lights vigilantly, but nothing. And once at the parking lot, nothing. Other cars had gathered there as well, so we were hopeful. We waited five minutes, ten, fifteen, and nothing. After twenty minutes of staring up at a starry sky — beautiful under any other circumstances — we decided to thank those lucky stars for the first viewing at the hotel and call it a night. I half-joked that the lights would resume as soon as we started driving back, and I squished my cheek against the passenger window to look up at the night sky in case I was right.

And I was right. “Pull over,” I said. He knew I was serious. We were crossing a bridge on a sandbar across the fjord, so there was a sliver of land on which to park. And there, in the middle of the fjord, completely alone, we enjoyed another show, more spectacular than the first.

It happened.