The South Shore of Iceland

Despite the fact that I grew up in the Midwest and have driven through some white-knuckle weather in my time, it’s been two years since I last grappled with winter driving conditions and I might have lost my edge, so when I went to Iceland in early February I decided to go on tours rather than rent a car. This was absolutely the right choice, given how much I stared out the window and snapped blurry photos during the drive, and also the fact that I saw two cars in a ditch within a mile of each other.

iceland south shore

10am sunrise

iceland south shore

Iceland landscape

iceland south shore

Hekla, the most active volcano on Iceland (about six years overdue for an eruption)

My first tour was to the south shore of the island (Icelanders always refer to it as “the island,” not “Iceland” or “the country” or anything–fair enough, it is half the size of the isle of Great Britain, which is itself the size of the state of Michigan; it’s not big, is what I mean). I went on a Reykjavik Excursions bus with about 50 other tourists, our driver, and our guide, whose name in Icelandic means “Raven Battle,” but we could just call her Raven. Iceland: where your tour guide is definitely descended from Vikings.

iceland south shore


Sunrise in Iceland in February is around 10am, which means that we had some great views from the bus as we headed south and east. Our first stop was a quick one, at the entrance to the farm that sits at the bottom of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and stranded travelers for days because of all the ash it threw into the atmosphere. It was dozing peacefully when I saw it.

iceland south shore


Next came the part of the tour that reminded me I was on a guided tour for 50 people. We disembarked in the parking lot of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and Raven told us to be back in a strict thirty minutes because we had a schedule to keep to. If I hadn’t had my friend’s Yaktrax strapped to my boots, I wouldn’t have made it more than a few hundred yards in that whole time. But with those, I was able to walk on the ice rather than slip-slide along it tentatively. Still, with only a few breaks for photos, I didn’t make it to the viewing point. I got just around the corner so I could see that particular shade of glacial blue, and then I had to rush back. Even so, I was the last one on the bus. Worth it.

As we drove to our next destination, Reynisfjara, Raven warned us at length and in some detail about the extreme dangers of the riptides at this beach. I started to wonder if she was giving us safety tips or just describing our impending doom. But I didn’t touch the water’s edge even once, and I made it through okay. The black sand of the beach here is a dramatic contrast to the whitecapped blue of the ocean, and some stepping stone-type rocks near a cave on the southeastern edge are a big attraction.

After lunch in the town of Vík, we went to the Skógar Museum and listened to an excellent introduction to how Icelanders lived for centuries. In sum: it was really difficult. The only mammal native to the island is the Arctic fox, so the original settlers brought over cows, horses, sheep, etc. Then there was a “little Ice Age” that started in the 14th century, during which time many people and animals died, and the settlers were no longer able to grow most of the crops they’d grown before. All because temperatures had dropped by a couple degrees Celsius. People built turf houses, which are literally blocks of earth cut out of the ground and piled up like bricks to make a small house. Then they’d search the beaches for driftwood to use as roofing material. Seeing as how the original settlers chopped down anything resembling a tree in a very short period of time, there was no wood or other fuel on the island, so they just didn’t have heat. They used the geothermal hot spots when they could for cooking and such, but they didn’t really master that til the 20th century.

The original settlers came from Norway and Ireland; basically Vikings stopped by Ireland and stole a bunch of women for wives on their way to Iceland, a horrible but effective method of diversifying your gene pool. Some think the fact that Iceland has sagas while other Nordic countries aren’t well-known for them is because of the strong storytelling tradition of the Celts.

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Unsurprisingly, the Skógafoss waterfall is next to the Skóga Museum. (The suffix “foss” means “falls” so I guess “the Skógafoss waterfall” is redundant in the way of “the ATM machine” but anyway.) Despite the freezing temperatures, the river rushed down the cliff impressively. I was surprised by the grey color of the water as it fell, especially as the snow on the banks of the river was a clean white and the sky was a bright blue. That’s probably due to the sediment that was in the river, I suppose. Whatever color it was, it was a sight to behold, and I liked the fairly unusual angle we got to approach the falls from–I walked along the riverside right up to the base of the falls, with no barriers or anything in the way, and no forest to walk like you usually have to when getting to a waterfall.

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Our last stop was another waterfall–Seljalandsfoss. Just as at Skógafoss, you walk along the river right up to the base of the falls. I love waterfalls in any setting, but I really enjoyed the unusual approach of an empty landscape, the magnificence of the snow-covered plains, the craggy cliff, the waterfall rushing down. There’s even another, smaller waterfall a little way down the cliff, so I got a bonus waterfall. I was very happy.

iceland south shore

iceland south shore

The beginning of sunset

iceland south shore

Misty reflections

iceland south shore

We drove back along the coast, mountains climbing up out of farmland on the right, the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean to my left. Even in dark winter, I don’t usually see sunrise and sunset in the same day, so kudos to the latitudinal position of this lovely island for allowing that.

iceland south shore

Sunset on the ride home

Big Times on the Big Island, Part 2

Before arriving at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, I thought the park’s name was misspelled. Surely they meant volcano, singular? But as we learned in Part 1, the island of Hawaii is made up of five volcanoes—one is extinct, one is dormant, and three are active. “Active” apparently means it’s erupted in the last 200 years, which seems like a long time to sit around doing nothing while still getting credit for being active, but who I am I to quibble logic with a force of nature.

There are so many photos like this from our childhood. This one’s for you, Dad!

One of the volcanoes is serious about its active status, though. Kilauea has erupted in the last 20 years (taking out most of the town of Kalapana), and now a part of it is constantly erupting, spewing smoke into the air in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. You can take a helicopter ride to see lava flowing, or you can do a night walk to try and spot lava as it enters the ocean. These were both expensive options, and heavily dependent on the mood of the weather, so Heather and I skipped them. Instead, we paid our $10 national park entrance fee and got more than our money’s worth with a full day of natural wonders.


We had good luck from the start—a ranger-led tour started just 15 minutes after we arrived at the visitor center. So we joined up and learned about various plants on the walk out to Waldron Ledge. We were struck by the alarming statistic that 90% of the island’s flora and fauna is not indigenous, and we learned about the efforts to contain the spread of some of the more pernicious plants. Our guide pointed out two plants that look very similar; one is an invasive, and one is a rare native. This is why visitors are not encouraged to weed out any invasives on their own time. More likely than not, they’d pick out the wrong plant. The park does sponsor days where volunteers weed out invasives under the watchful eye of a park ranger, though, so you can contribute to the effort. (This is what my friend Matthew does in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula—invasives are found all over the world.)

A koa tree – not an invasive

Lehua blossom on the ohia tree; this has a tragic love story myth behind it

The path out to Waldron Ledge is actually the old road that used to circumnavigate the volcano. The park realized that the road was in a dangerous spot, and they built the current road, which takes a wider path. Sure enough, in 1983, the old road buckled in an eruption and much of it crumbled away into the giant mouth of the volcano. Now it’s overgrown with plants and part of it intersects with the path out to the lookout.

We didn’t quite get up to 25 MPH on our walking tour

Once we were there, we saw just how vast the volcano is. It goes on for miles, and at the other end is the a vent, huffing and puffing into the air while the crater around it sits silent and nearly barren. I say nearly because plants are unstoppable; they will grow anywhere. There are plants dotting the floor of the crater, pushing their way up through the volcanic rubble and stubbornly holding on in that alien landscape. Those plants impressed me almost as much as the crater they’re growing in, actually.

Vast, I tell you

Stubborn little plants

We drove over to the vent and gazed at it while munching on lunch. The Jaggar Museum there has a few good displays on the volcanoes, and also a seimograph that draws a shaky zig zag if you jump up and down near it. After lunch, we went for facials at the steam vents. These aren’t sulfuric vents, so there was no smell of rotten eggs, just warm water soaking our faces and fogging up our glasses.

Hot ‘n’ steamy

Next we went to the lava tube. It sounds like an amusement park ride, doesn’t it? “Shoot down the lava tube from 50 feet off the ground! You’ll be positively glowing from all the excitement!” It wasn’t quite like that, but it was pretty cool. A lava tube is formed by lava running down a hill, and part of it cooling into rock before the rest of it does, so that lava flows through the hardened lava rock. What’s left behind is a cave made up of lava, tunneling through the tropical plants.

A cave that isn’t a cave

After walking through the lava tube, we got back in the car and went off to see more evidence of what these volcanoes can do. We drove along the Chain of Craters Road, a phrase both literally descriptive and wonderfully poetic. I’m not sure exactly how many craters are found along this road, but we saw many. Most of them look like rock quarries that have been used up and abandoned—uniformly gray rock, a steep wall down to the bottom of a pit, empty of life and machinery. Soon enough, we were in sight of the ocean, and the views got more dramatic from there. We took hairpin turns down the side of the mountain, losing elevation rapidly, and ended up on an eerie plain of misshapen volcanic rock stretching out to sea.

These names!

There were several signs warning to slow down for nene, a rare native bird that inhabits the park.

The road was pretty scary to drive on.

At the end of the road, you hop out and you can walk farther down the road to see what Kalapana might have looked like, or go across the road and scramble down a few rocks to the cliff’s edge. Here, you can see where the rocks cut off abruptly into space, dropping down in a cliff to the ocean. Holei Sea Arch connects a little bridge to nowhere, and the surf crashes underneath it.

Toilet at the end of the world

Holei Sea Arch

After wending our way back up that mountain and through the chain of craters, we went to Volcano Village for a little rest. We treated ourselves to a milkshake and fries at the Lava Rock Café (haha, yes), and Heather caught glimpses of football games on the TV while I retraced our route on the national park map.

It was raining when we arrived back at the Jaggar Museum but we were prepared. I zipped up my raincoat and Heather donned her yellow poncho, and we waited for the sun to set. Lots of other people were there for the same thing, so we chatted with a couple from California and watched the smoke rising from the vent grow brighter as the sky grew darker.

At first, Heather wanted to know how much longer we needed to stay, and to be fair, it was cold and rainy. But after a while, she wasn’t asking that anymore, because she, like the rest of us, was mesmerized by the glow. This was one of my favorite parts of our time in Hawaii, watching the glow of an active volcano as it breathed smoke and fire into the night air.

Life goal!

Finally, we left the park about 10 hours after we’d first arrived, and headed back to our rental house, which was an hour and a half away. It was a scary drive, in the near total dark and at times torrential rain, but we made it back safely, and that night I slept with visions of secret caves and lava glowing in my head.

Big Times on the Big Island, Part 1

We went to the island of Hawaii because our parents told us to. Not that we were given strict instructions to follow, but the people who showed me how to travel have a good idea of what I like to see and do, and having themselves visited years ago, they knew I’d like this. In the maddening manner of good parents, they were, of course, totally right.

Beaming in the Puna district of the Big Island

The island of Hawaii is often called “the big island” because people get easily confused when you say you’re going to Hawaii, in Hawaii. It’s the biggest island by far, and the youngest. It’s made up of active volcanoes that are still playing around with geography, knocking out a village here, adding miles of black coastline there. Its 4,000 square miles contain 4 of the world’s 5 major climate zones, which didn’t mean much to me until we drove from the east side of the island to the west, and saw tropical rainforest give way to lush farmland, which turned into bone-dry desert, all in just a few hours’ drive.

A palette of blues and greens

We flew into Hilo from Honolulu, and after some car rental shenanigans, we set off to see a couple waterfalls. The area around Hilo has many waterfalls, and if you go further northwest in the Waimea region, there are even more, although those require more of a hike to see. We went to two: Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls. Rainbow involved parking the car and walking 10 yards down a concrete path to a lookout. Voila! Instant gratification waterfall, as my guidebook put it.

The grin of a waterfall enthusiast

I don’t care how little effort it required; I was just happy to see the water rushing down the rocky face of the hill. Waterfalls are about my favorite thing in the world, and I could have looked at that one for a good hour, but we had a more impressive one to visit while the sun was still bright.

on the approach to Akaka Falls

By the time we’d parked near Akaka Falls, it had started raining, but that only lasted a few minutes. Heather and I split up to take different paths to the falls. I took the longer loop, which gave me a glimpse of Kahuna Falls in the distance and plenty of green canopy to gawp at before I arrived at Akaka. The sound of water rushing over a cliff and plunging into a river below is thrilling and soothing all at once, and again, I could have just stared at it all day. I’m glad we started with a short hike in the rainforest. This, more than anything else I’d seen so far, impressed upon me that I really was far from home and well on my way to new and exciting places.

Bamboo canopy on the trail to the falls

We went on to our house rental, which was one of my best finds on Airbnb. It’s in the Puna district of the island, right off what is sometimes known as Red Road, named for the color of the pavement years back. Heather and I toasted our drinks on one of the two porches and watched the sun set with the ocean visible in the distance.

Sunset from the balcony

The next day, we drove down Red Road in an exploratory mission. We discovered it is harrowing driving. It’s a super narrow road that twists and turns, as well as goes up and down in dozens of little blind hills, and of course natives drive it like it ain’t no thing, so just as you’re starting to feel confident about a stretch of road, a 4WD comes barreling down from the other direction, and you’re swerving and hoping you don’t put the rental car into a tree, especially as you declined the damage coverage. Or at least that was my experience.

Red Road

Roadside gravesite, looks like for one family

It’s a beautiful road, though. We stopped for lunch on a volcanic rock beach, watched surfers at Isaac Hale Park, walked around Lava Tree Monument, and cruised through downtown Pahoa.

Isaac Hale Beach Park

Lava Tree State Monument

Our final full day in Puna, we went to the tidal pools out at Kapoho. These apparently are great for snorkeling, but we didn’t have any equipment, so we just got in the water and paddled about. Heather and I are both water babies, so we don’t really mind where we are, as long as we get to float and play around. The tidal pools were pretty enough, but they were painful to get in and out of, since there’s no real entrance point and you just find a rock that seems less sharp than the others and creep down that into the water, then repeat the process on the way back out. I was so worried about slipping on our way in that I had Heath and I sit down and scooch in on our butts. We both tore up our hands and knees crawling back out again. Not really what I’m looking for in a relaxing swimming experience.

The treacherous tide pools of Kapoho

We had an ice cream at what used to be Kalapana. In 1986, the Kilauea volcano erupted and wiped out almost the whole town. We saw a few dilapidated structures and a sign explaining about the eruption, then just black rock far out into the ocean. It was eerie to see a reminder of how unpredictable and powerful the island remains.

Okay, that’s it for the Big Island, Part 1. Part 2 will cover our time at Volcanoes National Park, and Part 3 will be the drive to the Kona side of the island, and the luau we went to there. You’ve already seen the snorkeling we did over there, which was another amazing part of our time on the Big Island.

I’m off to tour Uluru and Kings Canyon tomorrow (so exciting!), so I’ll be away from internet for a few days. Please comment as usual, but if your comment gets caught in moderation for some reason, that’s why I can’t get to it right away. Have a wonderful week, y’all.

ACAM: Hawaii — Where to Go

Now that I’ve included Hawaii on my itinerary, I should do a little research into figuring out where to go and what to see. I told Heather (my sister and traveling companion on this leg of the trip) that we’re flying straight to paradise. But what do you do in paradise? Other than beaches. Lots of them.

Akaka Falls, Hawaii

Anyone up for a swim?

Take a hike
Heath and I aren’t the heartiest of hikers, but we are both excited to explore the many natural wonders of the islands. The Akaka Falls on the Big Island sound beautiful, and at less than half a mile, definitely a hike we can handle. On Oahu, the ocean views on the (paved, mile-long) Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail sound enticing. Some other hikes found on this site look good, too.

Hawaii volcano

One of the few NON-surfing spots in Hawaii

Walk into a volcano
Yes. You can walk into the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes on the Big Island. These are active volcanoes, which means rising steam, flowing lava, and the ever-present (if slight) possibility of eruptions. Exciting stuff. It’d be cool to see the lava flowing at night, but everything seems to indicate that you have to hike in pretty far, over rocky terrain, to do that, which sounds outside the range of possibility for Heather and me. So we’ll probably do one of the easy or moderate walks mentioned here.


The coolest look

Such a Seussian word, snorkel, like the Snorkels of Pampozzle wear sneeds (a sneed being, as we all know, a thing that most everyone needs). Anyway, it looks like you can rent snorkel gear from just about everywhere, or even buy it if you’re going to be there for more than a week. You can go out and find fish on your own, or you can join a tour and they’ll take you out on a boat to their favorite snorkeling spots. Either way sounds okay to me. Now how do I wear my glasses under those goggles?

Lisa hulus in Dirty Dancing

Any excuse for a "Dirty Dancing" reference

Attend a luau
I’m a little wary of luaus for tourists; they seem to be an overpriced show of razzmatazz. (After all, you can see free hula shows elsewhere, like at the Volcano Art Center on the Big Island.) But Heather is excited about the idea, and I’m not trying to pretend that I don’t like a good show. (See how accommodating I am of my traveling partner’s needs? Join me on the trip and this could be you!) Also, at some luaus, there’s a hands-on arts and crafts portion before the meal and show starts, so you can get a slightly bigger picture of Hawaiian culture before gorging on pork and mai tais.

What am I missing, dearest fellow travelers?

Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Image 4 from my personal movie collection.