Thursday, October 06, 2016

Iceland Day 2 - Viðey Island

For my second day in Iceland, I had a mini-excursion planned to Viðey Island, which is a twenty-minute boat ride from the Reykjavik Old Harbor. I really wanted to do some hiking on this trip and my original plan was to hike Mt. Esja, an imposing mountain that dominates the Reykjavik skyline and whose trailhead can be reached by public transportation. But then I wasn't so sure that I wanted to hike a big mountain by myself. The weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable and I didn't want to be stuck, alone, on an unfamiliar trail, in a sudden storm.

Mt. Esja as seen from the Viðey Island Ferry

The free ferry ticket that came with my city card was another pull in favor of Viðey Island, which is uninhabited and criss crossed with hiking trails. There's a deserted fishing village at one end of the Island, and Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace tower near the other end, plus the oldest stone house in Iceland, an old stone church, a series of sculptures by Richard Serra, and abundant bird and plant life.

The weather was pretty discouraging with rain and a freezing wind. I didn't mind the thought of hiking in the rain. Iceland's climate being what it is, I figured that if you postpone your outdoor plans because of rain, you wouldn't get to do very much, so I was mentally prepared and dressed for wet weather.

It was only a five minute walk from my house to the old harbor, where the ferry picks you up. You can also catch it from Skarfabakki from where there are more frequent departures and a shorter boat ride. There is some twaddle on Tripadvisor saying that it's easier to get a spot on the ferry from Skarfabakki, but actually, they're the same boat. It comes to Old Harbor first and then stops at Skarfabakki to pick up more passengers. So I'm really glad I didn't walk all the way to Skarfabakki, which I seriously considered doing.

At the appointed time, I was waiting at the harbor. There was no one else around, except for the owner of the bike rental shop, who was wearing a threadbare Icleandic sweater and leaned against his doorway, gazing out at the bay. I'd been told to catch the ferry from the floating dock, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to just walk out to there, or if I had to wait for a summons from the ferry captain. The last thing I wanted was to get told off by an Icelandic port authority. I felt like an idiot, standing there alone in the rain and got some curious stares from a few cars that passed. The ferry arrived and the captain and his mate made no move to summon me onto the dock so I had to gather some courage and ask the bike shop man if I was allowed to walk out on the dock. "Of course!" he said.

My new worry was that they wouldn't make the journey for just one passenger, but they simply took my ticket and I sat in the cabin, out of the rain, and soon we were underway. And then, halfway across the harbor, we stopped. I thought they'd decided to cancel the trip after all, when suddenly two additional passengers boarded, seemingly as if they'd been walking on water. I stood up to get a better view out the cabin window and saw that another dock was built out from the opposite side of the harbor. Then we were really underway and after about a fifteen minute journey across Kollafjörður bay, we turned in to Skarfabakki to pick up an additional passenger, an older lady arrestingly costumed in a Pucci print polyester jumpsuit, a full length orange wool sweater coat, a black hat topped with black lace, and a black and white striped handbag adorned with a large pink bow. She spoke in Icelandic with the crew and I assumed she was acquainted with them. When we landed on the island a few minutes later, she walked up the hill and disappeared. She wasn't a tourist, but what in the world was she doing? I'm truly not making fun, I just really wonder what her story was. 

I was keen to explore the island and headed east, toward the abandoned fishing village, eventually making my way to the north shore of the island, where a sign announced that the trail to the east was the most difficult and least frequented one on the island. Check and check. I followed it and experienced what it is like to have an entire island to yourself. 

Climbing to the top of the "women's walking hills" where fairies are said to live.

The path wasn't really very difficult, just narrow and overgrown. A few times I thought I'd lost it altogether. You couldn't get seriously lost on an island of this size, but I didn't want to strike out across country and break my ankle in a hole. I was always able to find it eventually. I loved the solitary hike and by the time I got back to the landing it was almost time for the ferry. I had just enough time to run west to see Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace tower, but I didn't see any of the sculptures.

Imagine Peace tower

The tower is a bit underwhelming, I admit, but when it's lit (between October and December) it's impressive. Click here for a picture of the illuminated tower.

I waited for the ferry with the two people I'd arrived with (but not the lady with the eccentric dress) and when it came into view, a large crowd of middle-aged German women came charging down the hill toward us. This was somewhat surprising, as I hadn't seen a soul on the island. They must have all been looking at the sculptures on the west end. It seemed there wouldn't be room for all of us, as the boat is pretty small. So the three of us sat up on the top deck and let the German ladies have the cabin. It had stopped raining by this time. The ferry crew consisted of a young man with dark hair and piercing blue eyes and his even younger assistant, who now climbed the ladder a few times and regarded us with a worried facial expression. I think he wanted to suggest that we move down to the lower deck, but was too shy. It was pretty windy.

All the German ladies got off at Skarfabakki and we headed across the bay back to the old harbor. The wind picked up and the boat heeled alarmingly from side to side. I had to cling to the rail and the young assistant popped his head up, looking even more worried than before, but we gave him a thumbs up to show we were OK and once the worst was over, I was able to take some video footage of our progress. Still, I was glad when we reached the calmer waters of the harbor.

Reykjavik from the water

Back on land, it was nearly 3:00 pm and I hadn't eaten lunch, but I decided to explore the Harpa concert hall, a stunning glass building on the waterfront. I learned on the walking tour that you can wander around inside for free, so I did and it was worth it. (On the way, I stopped to view a sad exhibit about all the shipwrecks in Iceland since the 1800s--so many that each decade needs it's own large display.)

Harpa was stunning. The building looks dark green from the outside, but inside the glass is clear and it's a really beautiful place to explore. My pictures really don't do it justice.

Harpa from the outside

Harpa from the inside

I was also stymied by this toilet stall door (see?? door handicap) because I couldn't figure out how to turn the latch. I spent about a full minute trying to turn it by sticking a fingernail into the slit and then discovered it pushes inward. Architecture is hard.

After Harpa, I went to a cafe and had the hottest, most delicious bowl of tomato soup the world has ever known. It was so late that this meal counted for lunch and dinner. Then I went to the Icelandic Hand Knitting Association. Icelandic sweaters are serious. The wool is thick enough to stop even the coldest wind. I didn't buy one - it is never cold enough in Virginia to need one and I wouldn't have been able to fit it in my bag. And they're expensive. I did see lots of Icelanders wearing them. It seems the thing is to buy one and wear it until it is spent. I saw one man wearing a sweater that was almost completely shredded, but with a nice shirt and tie underneath.

I spent the late afternoon exploring the shops. I didn't intend to buy souvenirs, but I couldn't resist picking out some small gifts for my family. Also, I had been alarmed on the flight over to see that many passengers had my exact backpack, and when I had to stow my own several rows ahead of my own seat, I was seriously worried that someone would take it off the plane by mistake. So I bought myself this puffin luggage tag - handmade in Iceland. (I didn't see any puffins on this trip. I think I missed their season.)

Altogether, this was a very satisfying day.


  1. The lady in question sounds like a character and I'd probably have spent the rest of the day wondering about her too(Actually, I would have made up an entire back story for her in my head). That concert hall is spectacular.

  2. This post is a wonderful antidote to some ludicrous blogs where I've been slumming. I need one of those sweaters and I need to know more about the mysterious woman. I love the landscape and the clouds and the architecture. And now I sound like a third grade book report.

  3. Holy smokes! I didn't know you took this trip alone. You brave, inspiring voyager!
    The idea of hiking all alone on an island charms me. I read "Island of the Blue Dolphins" only a zillion times as a kid, so you might imagine. The entire day sounds jam-packed with cool experiences. And you used the word "twaddle" which added yet another layer of wonderful to this post.
    That woman on the boat. That boat ride. That weather! The crew! All of it reads like a novel to me.