Day 3, July 8
Only four hours of sleep this time – needless to say, it was nice to sleep in.
Today there will be no long drives or busy schedules. Only one hour to Mývatn and one hour back. Today will be our spa day.
We have another full breakfast at around 10 am. This time, I double up on the coffee.
An hour east of Akureyri, the volcanic lake of Mývatn sits surrounded by craters, waterfalls and of course, nature baths. It’s time to experience Iceland’s aquatic curiosities.
We pass Akureyri briefly before heading to the pools. The city lies at the very tip of the bay, where the two sides of Eyjafjörður meet.
We cross highway 1 through the bay onto the other side and unknowingly approach a 7 km long tunnel. My mom realizes there was a sign displaying a camera hanging above the entrance, signifying a toll route.
The fjord turns into vast lowlands, with soft hills and a valley in between. Our road meanders through the heart of the valley.
Of course, one thing we haven’t checked off our list yet was a waterfall – at least a bigger one than Ólafsvik. We considered seeing Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall of Western Europe. But it was another hour east of the nature baths, cutting into our essential relaxation time. Therefore, we stop along the way at a significantly smaller but equally mesmerizing one – Goðafoss.
In the year 1000, Þorgeir, chieftain of the Ljósavatn district was faced with a choice – should Icelanders adopt Christianity as their religion? Once he decided, he threw his pagan statues into this waterfall. Thus, Goðafoss supposedly derives its name from this event – Waterfall of the Gods.
Once we are parked, my mom pays for the tunnel toll, vowing to take a more economical route on our way back. We follow the pathway to take photos and mutter about the dimwitted tourists who are jumping the fence and along the rocks to the edge.
Overall, the constant sound of rushing water soothes my overtired nerves.
I also practice some close-up shots of floral foliage clinging to the sides with the water below.
We are now 10 minutes away from Mývatn, and the landscape alters in shape. At one point, we drive around a tiny lake – in fact small enough to be a pond. The water is so still it could have been a mirror. It’s like those Shutterstock images of hills and mountains reflected upside down by a crystal clear lake. Except this time, it’s real. Sadly, there are no turn offs to snap a picture.
The terrain starts to resemble Mars, with streaks of copper and orange splashing the hills and rocks made of lava piled up along the roadside.
Scattered among the hills in front of us are tufts of geothermal smoke billowing outwards like miniature clouds. Although a big one up ahead looks like it’s emulating right from the road.
We don’t see the spa until we are only 500 metres away after turning the bend. At first, all we could see was a driveway leading towards a mine – where the big smoke was coming from.
Upon parking, we bring only our swimsuits, sandals, phones, money and towels. The admission fee is hefty – but guarantees a unique experience you can’t pass up. And admittedly, it’s much cheaper and less crowded than the Blue Lagoon.
We make a cold dash from the facilities through the crisp Arctic air. Our bodies welcome the soothing heat of 38° Celsius. Our arms and legs feel smooth submerged beneath the water. We can’t see anything past our arms. It’s one of the few places where the water is both cloudy and clean.
On the spa’s slightly cooler side, we basically have the entire area to ourselves to hang out and view the breathtaking landscape. It’s enjoyable enough to distract us from the sulfuric scent of rotten eggs.
The best part is sitting on a bench (despite it feeling slimy), and relinquishing all control of my arms, allowing them to float. Then I close my eyes. I become hyper-aware of my respiratory functions. Therefore, I breathe only through my mouth, or I’d be gasping for air. It’s like meditative breathing – a full-body experience. It mutes all other voices around us. I nearly fall asleep.
We decide an hour is enough for our bodies and circulation. We grab a delicious lunch at the café, feeling like we could sit for hours on end. Once again, I indulge in the most Icelandic fashion of culinary endeavours: smoked trout on a thin slice of lava-baked bread with mixed berry Skyr and the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve had in ages. My mom has another bottle of soda – anticipating the need to combat spa-induced fatigue while driving.
We encircle the lake’s southern portion, meeting back to the same spot as before. On either side of us are small water-filled craters with rocks poking out. The land often grooves into several layers forming pits and jagged walls.
At one pullover, there is a photo spot as well as a guide for hiking trails. We hoped to squeeze in a hiking trek, but the flies drive us back to the vehicle. My mom had packed some mesh fly masks in her luggage – so us city folk could be bandwagon forest dwellers for a day – but sadly forgot to bring them on this drive.
On our return journey, we re-adjust our map to avoid tolls. The alternate route takes us slightly north, circling around the same fjord that my mom paid to drive through. In fact, our ETA is still the same.
And because it’s Iceland, new routes and familiar ones from opposite ways never cease to amaze us.
The clouds are high enough for us to clearly see the hilly eastern border of Eyjafjörður. As my mom slows the car around a bend, I roll down the window and stick out my camera. Luckily, I adjusted to proper shutter speed to snap from a moving vehicle.
We pull into Akureyri around 5 pm, unload our bags and check into our next stop. Instead of a guesthouse, our lodging is a modest apartment with a kitchen and to our pleasant surprise – a washing machine. Time to diffuse the smell of rotten eggs from our clothes. We clean up and walk around town.
If Reykjavik is Iceland’s “Toronto” or “New York”, then Akureyri is the country’s “Montreal” or “San Francisco” (except north). The nucleus of Iceland’s north, the city is a lesser version of its capital, with a quieter downtown core – except perhaps when no cruise ships dock its harbour. The emphasis here is on restaurants, cafés, and bars.
But similar to Reykjavik, its church, Landakotskirkja, sits atop a hill above everything else. Travelers and locals familiar with Hallgrímskirkja would notice some identical features with Landakotskirkja. Both were designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, one of Iceland’s greatest architects.
We spend an hour browsing the shops, looking for tacky trinkets and woolly sweaters. One place, in particular, is an Icelandic version of Indigo or Coles. A bookshop with a quiet café tucked in the corner, selling various short stories, myths, and poems that epitomize Iceland’s literate reputation. My mom once heard that about 10 percent of Iceland’s population are published authors.
Dinnertime approaches, and our saga of finding a good hot dog continues. We spot a tiny stand during our stroll. But first, thirstiness prevails, and we cannot truly cap off our day of tranquility without a beer or two.
We check out a quiet place on the street corner called R5 Micro Bar. There are only three to four other guests inside, and the bar is just a small nook. The place is filled with different colours and a myriad of furniture styles and textures. It looks like a coffee shop, but with beer instead and resembles the culture houses I’ve seen in Oslo and Berlin on a much smaller scale. This would be my new watering hole should I ever move here.
We both order a fruity Saison. Hunger and exhaustion lead to tipsiness after only one pint. My eyelids feel heavy, and I keep myself positioned upright to prevent sudden sleepiness.
My mom is inclined to some bar hopping. We relocate to a busier place, with a video game corner below and a private brewery atop. I try and wake up and hold myself over by sampling some Icelandic nachos. Hint – they’re pretty much the same as here, except imported of course.
Here, we discover a rather unfortunate reality: Einstök ale is not quite the same on tap. We couldn’t even finish it.
It’s finally time for hot dogs. Now, I’m more awake, sober and half-full, with just enough room left in my stomach. But sadly, these hot dogs taste the same as they did in Blönduós. Our search prevails.
We call it a day and finish off the evening reading our books, writing journal entries and watching whatever TV channels we could find. Our bathing suits are hanging to dry, and we get our warm clothes prepared for some not-so-warm water tomorrow. While reading, I set my book down to close my eyes, not realizing that I briefly fall asleep. My mom snatches at the opportunity for an embarrassing picture.
We shut the blinds and I turn on white noise through my phone. The church bells chime their last tune by 11, bidding us goodnight.