Travel

Iceland and Scotland

I am visiting Iceland and Scotland with my friend, Brad Marten.

Actually, we’ve already been to the land of ice and fire.  Now we are in Scotland, the land of clouds and rain.   I will catch up and post highlights of our amazing trip to Iceland.

Travel

first day in Reykjavik

We arrived in Reykjavik at 6:30AM and resolved that we would stay awake all day to get synchronized with the day time cycle in our new time zone. So, we walked around Reykjavik like zombies.  The otherwise extremely polite Icelanders wondered if all Americans were such idiots.

It was so bad we slept through the Icelandic Sagas wax museum.  But, we were so startled by the witch being burned at the stake we woke up.  The guy who refused to submit to Danish authority had his head chopped off—that was also very realistic.  The Irish wenches whom the Vikings captured on the way to Iceland, who brought some red hair to an otherwise blond nation and who merged Celtic traditions with Norse traditions, were also very life-like.

Unfortunately, it was too dark in the wax museum for photos.  But, it was very cool that the Icelanders built a dome over the city’s massive water towers and put the wax museum under the dome.  The views were spectacular.

Reykjavik is a modern metropolis in a startling settling. (click for larger version)

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Iceland is a very Lutheran nation with plenty of tolerance.  Ninety percent of Icelanders believe that they cannot deny the existence of hidden people who also inhabit Iceland. More children are born out of wedlock, as a percentage of the population, in Iceland than in any other country in Europe.  And their parents and grandparents dote over them.

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Brad, with his likeness, enjoys outstanding coffee at the oldest coffeehouse in Reykjavik, which emphasized American breakfast and American rock and roll from the seventies.

DSC02491 Sophisticated coffeehouse

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An advanced consumer society with its own brands for a nation of 300,000

Travel

Isafjordur

Isafjordur (issa-fyor-thur) is a remote city in the Western Fjords region of Iceland.

We flew into the precarious airport that requires the pilot to execute a 180 degree turn with one wingtip within 100 yards of a steep mountainside.  The pilot had practiced the maneuver prior to our arrival and we landed safely.

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..don’t miss that turn..
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…ah, safely arrived at last..

Within an hour of arriving in Isafjordur we went kayaking under the able guidance of Runnar (like Gunnar, but with an ‘r’) of Borea Expeditions.  Runnar has seemingly cornered the market on outdoor recreational activities in western Iceland along with his ‘silent’ partner from Belgium. One can only wish most of the western world was under Runnar’s able command.  His coffee shop and bakery is outstanding and he treated us royally.

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“downtown” Isafjordur
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time to launch the kayaks near the Arctic Sea
Travel

the road to Latrabjarg

After a hearty breakfast of cold salami and pancakes, we headed out of town in the mighty Grand Vitarra, fishtailing down the road toward Latrabjarg, the westernmost point in Iceland and all of Europe.  We drove through an underground tunnel that must have been at least ten miles long, the Icelandic equivalent of the NORAD command under Cheyenne Mountain.  It was the only tunnel either of us had ever seen with an intersection (no stoplight), but we managed to stay on the right path, finally emerging the other end and racing past a bicyclist who had probably been inside the tunnel since 1972. 

DSC02534  the mighty Grand Vitarra

On we drove, across the peninsula, with stunning scenery and a proliferation of hay bails packaged in white plastic that we nicknamed “marshmallows.”  We stopped for a snack in a small fishing village, where Lewis (in a hurry to get to our next destination) attempted to order Belgian waffles “to go.” The bewildered waffle maker lacked anything other than china to put the waffles on, but was finally  able to convince Lewis  that we were not in America, and that this charming café was not a roadside Waffle House in Cleveland.  So,  we had a proper meal, and exchanged stories and pictures of Seattle with our pleasant hostess (who was soon headed on her own vacation, to the Pacific Northwest).  We were invited  to stay in town for the Viking festival later that afternoon, but we had birds to see in Latrabjarg, and we pressed on.

Along the way, we stopped at the falls at Dynjandi, a stunning torrent of water pouring over a cliff several hundred meters high.  Lewis perched himself over a slippery rocky promontory to get pictures for our fans back home.

DSC02558  Dynjandi or Fyallfoss

Approaching Latrbjarg, we found beautiful golden beaches, blue water, and a narrow road wide enough for one and a half cars.  After a tight squeeze, Lewis maneuvered the trusty Grand Vitarra down the road until we found a small museum, where we could stop so that Brad could get his 9th cup of bad coffee.  The museum housed the collected detritris of the life of the town’s most prominent citizen, including a broken down WWII vintage Navy troop carrier probably used to drop paratroopers during the Great War. Other than that, it was dull, so we pressed on to Latrabjarg, where we checked in to the rather unremarkable Latrabjarg Hotel. Not letting any moss grow under our REI boots, we immediately left for the cliffs of Latrabjarg, which we found (as promised) teeming with bird life.  Lewis finally was able to vindicate his decision to schlep 30 pounds of camera equipment, which he pulled out to document our birding adventure.  It was truly remarkable.  Untold thousands of gulls and guillemots perched on the cliffs, squawking and squabbling, and sometimes protecting their young.  We laid on our bellies, hoping to capture an iconic puffin, which we managed and Lewis was able to document with professional quality photo shooting.

DSC02592  on the road to Latrabjarg

DSC02581  inexplicable sculpture in inexplicable location

IMG_4323  bird cliff at Latrabjarg – condominium accommodations for millions…

Puffins!  IMG_4334       IMG_4336

We like puffins much more ‘on the rocks’ than on the menu.  Icelanders may love their naturally wondrous surroundings but they also eat things that are not politically correct.

After a couple of hours, we headed back to the Hotel Latrabjarg, where we had what quite possibly was the worst meal of our lives, consisting of some type of mystery meat, soupy potatoes and a gelatinous mound of purple goo that was the specialty of the house.  Hungry, we wolfed it all down, and (it being near 11 and still light), headed down to the beach to look for whales. It had been a long day, and an even longer dinner, and Brad began to complain about the quality of cuisine.  This clearly was a mistake, because he was overheard by a guillemot, who began swooping down in a full blown aerial attack made in defense of the hotelier.  It was a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock, as Brad beat a hasty retreat, finally reaching the safety of the hotel, which he promised to say nicer things about, until the fire alarm in his room began beeping at 2 in the morning.  Getting up, and finding no one to fix the alarm, Brad got up on a chair and dismantled it, sure that he would soon face a fiery death, all because he had complained about the soupy potatoes. Fortunately, we made it through the rest of a fitful night, had another fabulous Icelandic breakfast of cold ham and yogurt, and set off for the Snaefellsness Peninsula.

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Snaefellsnesjokull (achoo!)

A quick trip in the Grand Vitarra took us from Latrabjarg to the ferry terminal, where we boarded for our trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the central of the three major peninsulas in western Iceland. Lewis was hungry enough to try the “Captain’s sandwich,” a mistake, but not as bad as the soupy potatoes of the night before.  Having been on the move nearly non-stop, Lewis promptly fell asleep on his chin, as Brad enjoyed the view from the deck of the  ferry.  Arriving after a three hour crossing, we found ourselves in Stykkisholmur, a lovely seaside town where even the food in the gas station seemed to outshine the cuisine of Latrabjarg.  Pressing on, we reached the Hotel Framnes in Grundarfjordur, dropped our bags, and headed out once again. 

This time, our destination was Snaefellsness National Park, and the highest glacier in Iceland—the Snaefellsnesjokull.  The jokull is believed by some to be one of the seven major psychic energy centers on earth, situated on a straight line from the pyramids of Giza to the North Pole.  We were in need of some energy ourselves, but not feeling the psychic kind, we resorted to more coffee in the small fishing town of Raz, then continued on to the park.  The terrain turned from scrub to volcanic, something like the Big Island of Hawaii without the palm trees or the shaved ice and umbrella drinks.  Heading to the farthest point west, we hiked over volcanic rock, hung over the cliff and searched for birds.  We were not disappointed.  Although fewer in number than Latrabjarg, we again saw thousands of seabirds perched on the craggy cliffs and “hay” stacks (rock spires) rising out of the water.

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Orange lighthouses in Iceland.  Not just for style—they’re easier to see.

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Brad participates in modern art unknowingly.

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Dramatic eroded opening in the face of the bird cliff.

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Gull affectionately tending its babies.  This is where baby gulls come from.  And they care for their own.

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Brad by sign for falki—or falcon.  We saw no falcons but we did see the very elusive Arctic Fox in his summer coat!

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Lewis weighted down by camera equipment.

By now, it was 8:30 pm  and still broad daylight, but we were hoping for a good meal.  We found one at the Fimm Fiskar (Five Fish) in Stykkisholmur. Compared to anything else we had eaten in Iceland, it was a Michelin 4 star, and we wolfed down fish soup and pan sautéed fish.  After dinner, and although it was now nearing midnight, we walked around the harbour so that Lewis could inspect the boats (Pass!), and then headed back to the Frammnes and bed.

stykkisholmur boats Stykkisholmur boats

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Did I say that the lighthouses are orange?

Travel

Hot day in Iceland

After breakfast at the Framnes, we were off once again for the drive back to the international airport, where we would leave the next day for  Scotland.  We drove straight through, arriving in Reyjavik in a rainstorm.  Parking, we headed out on a shopping trip, purchased some gifts and had a terrific lunch at Solon, where we found out that there really is good food in Iceland, if you are either lucky or know where to look. 

We still had time for one more adventure in Iceland, and so we headed out for the hot springs at Hveragerdi.  It was overcast, with rain again threatening, but we set out to find the “hot pots” we had read about in the tour guide.  After a muddy hour and a half walk up the mountain, we saw the steam rising from a series of geothermal springs, and headed that way, until we came upon a group of young German ladies who had set up camp in a 100 degree stream.  At an appropriate distance, we somewhat modestly changed into our swimsuits  and dropped into the river, where we had a good soak of the restorative waters.  As evening approached, we walked back down the mountain, stopping to inspect the bubbling mud pots, then back to the car for our the final leg of our Icelandic adventure, the drive to Keflavik.  We checked into a hotel near the airport run by Icelandic Air, had a quick fish and chip dinner, and fell into our beds at midnight for a 4:30 am wakeup call.

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Geothermal vents behind.  Heat lovingly directed to a natural stream to create pools of the perfect temperature for soaking.  A well-earned reward at the end of the hike.  Ah!!

mud pot Bubbling mud!
Travel

the hop to Glasgow

With no time to waste, we awoke at 4:30 am and bade a fond adieu to Iceland, first stopping to exchange our krona for British pounds. Given the high prices we paid in Iceland, Lewis was determined to get our VAT refund, and took us on a tour of the Reykjavik airport, until we found the proper officials, who gladly refunded the onerous Icelandic tax and exchanged our currency, after taking a generous fee for the good people of Iceland.  We boarded the plane from a stairway.  As we stepped into our 757, Lewis smiled, waved, and bid  farewell to the Island of Fire and Ice, as the bemused flight attendants looked on. 

Arriving in Glasgow, we gathered our bags and headed for the  taxi. Overhearing a cab driver announce that a colleague could “go Fook himself,” we knew that we had arrived in a quite different culture.  No matter, we could adjust, and headed into Glasgow to drop our bags.

Glasgow is a gritty, industrial town, which has its charms. They were not, however, immediately apparent to road-weary Americans who had been up since 4:30 am.  We did find a Starbucks, to Brad’s great relief, and stayed for an hour of so, before setting off on a shopping spree to find a European plug, which we were able to locate in a local hardware store.  Wandering about some more, we finally stopped at a Holiday Inn, where we had a lunch that would have pleased Chef Boy-ar-dee, but no one else above the age of seven. The only good news was that the hotel was able to call a car service to take us back to the Glasgow airport, where we boarded a prop plane for the Island of Islay (eye-la) and the start of our “whiskey tour” of Scotland.  We flew on the ominously named “Flybe Airlines,” an economy carrier operated by Logan Air. Brad had read in the local paper that a safety investigation of Flybe had been started after reports that one Flybe pilot had inappropriately referred the co-pilot  as “his bitch,” an apparent violation of the Flybe code of conduct.  We soon learned, however, that our craft was piloted by two female pilots and settled down for the short 30 minute flight.

Just before landing, Brad realized that he had forgotten his computer bag in the Glasgow airport, which contained a netbook and an iPad.  This may have been due to a lack of sleep, or quite possibly the realization that it was a rather crummy laptop, but it was gone all the same, setting off later adventures at the British equivalent of Best Buy, which I shall report on later.

Arriving in Islay, Lewis took possession of our car and we headed toward Port Charlotte, a lovely inn on the water in a town of white washed buildings and small boats.  It was the perfect antidote for Brad to the Hotel Latrabjarg.  We had an outstanding dinner, celebrated with an expensive bottle of wine, and concluded another long day of adventure.

Port Charlotte Hotel

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Travel

Islay – land of peat and whiskey

Port Charlotte was a good place to catch up on sleep, which we did and, after breakfast, headed out in search of the perfect dram of whiskey. First stop was Bruichladdich (“Bruch-laddie”).  Bruichladdie is an old distillery that was closed in the 1990s.  It was purchased in 2001 and “reborn.” The story we were told is that a young British bicyclist stopped by the gate, peered inside and decided on the spot to buy the place.  This version of the story may have been part of what we came to learn was  21st century quality marketing of the distillery, which (to be fair) competes with the likes of multinational food conglomerates who have bought up most of the other distilleries in Scotland.  We were given a rather good, private tour and were able to see how the whiskey is made.  It is a process that combines some rather straightforward fermentation with the mysterious addition of malted barleys and barrelling in oak for 10 to 18 or more years, yielding a nectar that cures whatever “might ail ya.” We moved on to the seaside town of Bowmore, home of the distillery of the same name, and then to a quick lunch at Ardmore, and on to tour Lagavulin. 

DSC02610 ye old delivery truck

DSC02620 Brad with large cask of “wort”

DSC02622 the stills of distilling

DSC02629 Brad samples the “wine” before it goes into kegs…

DSC02635 kegs and kegs and more kegs…

We were anxious to see Lagavulin, because we had experienced its fine whiskey the evening before, at the bar at Port Charlotte.  We were not disappointed. After a short tour, we were led into the tasting room, where our guide provided generous drams of the Lagavulin10, 16 and “double matured” whiskey they make.  After being sure not to insult the distillery by leaving anything in our glasses, we agreed that we favoured the “double matured,” which became the standard by which to judge all otter whiskeys (until we came upon the Bowmore 16, but more of that later).  At this point, driving a stick shift car on the wrong side of the road was becoming more of a challenge, but Lewis ably maneuvered our Ford Focus to the Laphroaig distillery, set in a beautiful bay.  Laphroaig is a somewhat larger distiller than Lagavulin(and much larger than Bruichladdich), and the only one commissioned by Prince Charles, who has visited twice.  The first time, in 1994, Charles insisted on taking control of his jet aircraft, which (landing too far down the runway), he managed to plow into a peat bog at the end of the runway.  It is an event still celebrated on Islay, a place where not a lot of news is made.

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By this point, we had been sipping whiskey for seven hours, and the sensible thing to do was to leave.  So we returned to the airport for our short flight back to Glasgow, checked in at the Radisson Blue (which was quite serviceable),  found a decent Italian restaurant at which to have dinner and headed to bed. We needed our strength, because we were headed to hike the Scottish Highlands.

Travel

Massacre my knee at Glen Coe

Glen Coe is certainly the most beautiful river valley in the west highlands of Scotland or possibly all of Scotland.  And it is where the most notorious massacre in all of Scottish history occurred.  A less notorious massacre afflicted Lewis’ knee after Brad and he scaled and descended 1600 feet in the Glen Coe Pass on a ‘moderate’ ‘walk.’  Were we to say strenuous hike no quotation marks would be needed.  Still, it was a glorious ‘walk.’

The mountains of Scotland may not be—in fact, are not—the highest in the world with Ben Nevis, the highest, at 1344 meters (about 4400 feet).  But, they could be among the most beautiful and dramatic mountains, rising steeply from narrow valleys that meet at gnarled intersections.  Mingling gentle green and exposed craggy granite, the Highlands mountains and valleys provided the perfect haven for the wily Highlands clansman (such as MacDonald, MacIain, Campbell, MacGregor, MacLeod, and many more) to elude the centralizing and civilizing forces of both the lowlands Scots of Edinburgh and Glasgow and the imperialist English to the south.  This long, complex, bloody, and thoroughly told and retold history is far too intricate for a mere blog authored by two whiskey besotted travelers. 

glen coe view

The short version is that the Campbells had allied themselves with the Scottish Parliament, which supported the oath of allegiance demanded by the English King William III (a good guy as English kings go especially considering he was from Holland). The Campbell clan was asked by members of the Edinburgh government to arrest Alastair MacIain—leader of the Glencoe MacDonalds—whose oath was considered irregular.  If that seems a bit murky, you need to realize that the officials in Edinburgh were encouraged by the Campbells who really wanted official sanction for their revenge against the MacDonalds who had been stealing the Campbell’s cattle for years. But, then the MacDonalds believed they had good reasons for exacting a price in cattle.  You would have to go way back to figure out who started it, but you never would.

lewis at glen coe Lewis with living knee.

So, the Campbells got the job.  They went as emissaries of Parliament and were treated as welcome guests—honoring the Highlands tradition—by the MacDonalds.  But, within days the Campbells and other soldiers killed Alastair MacIain and 31 other members of the MacDonald clan.  Forty more clan members, including women and children, died in the wintry wilderness after their homes were burned.  That was the real massacre in February 1692.

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As a result, if you ever go to the Clachaig Inn in the Glen Coe you’re not welcome if you are a Campbell or even admit to knowing one.  We heartily recommend a visit to the Clachaig Inn, so remember—you’re a MacDonald, at least for a night.

Travel

Castles!

cawdor Cawdor Castle
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How about this one?  (Inverlochy Castle)

lewis at cawdor This one’s nice. (Cawdor Castle)
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This one has a lovely water feature.. (Castle Stalker)

urqhart 1 This one needs a little work but could be lovely… (Castle Urquhart)