Bainbridge High School freshman Ryan Powers recently traveled to Iceland with his grandfather, Andrew Ulitsky, also of Bainbridge. A budding photographer, he took many photos and subsequently wrote about the trip for an English class assignment. According to his grandmother, Helen Ulitsky, he got an A+.
This is the first installment of a planned semi-regular series of travel-themed testimonials. Islanders wishing to write about and share their own adventures on the road, both domestic and abroad, should contact the editor via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication will be done as available space permits and submissions may be edited for length and content.
“Hey Papa, do you want to go to Iceland?”
Not surprisingly, he answered, “Of course!”
A year ago, I asked my grandfather if he and I could go on an adventure to Iceland. The reason I thought of Iceland was that my grandfather and I had gone to Port Townsend to see John Steinbeck’s boat, the Western Flyer. While eating at the Blue Moose Cafe, across the street, we met a man named Bruce who told us about his trip to Iceland. That night I decided to research Iceland and list the reasons why Bruce would want to go. As soon as I began reading, looking at photography, and watching videos about the country, I knew I wanted to go.
For the next few months, Papa and I looked at maps, atlases, travel books, and searched the internet, to plan out every last detail of our trip to Iceland.
The first thing we had to decide was if we were going to stay in one hotel and explore around that area, or would we travel all the way around the country and stay at different hotels. The more we looked at Iceland, the more we realized how amazing the country was, and that it was larger than we expected. Therefore, we decided to move daily and looked at different areas that would appeal to us.
For example, we decided that the first full day we would snorkel in the freshwater percolating between the two tectonic plates. Snorkeling at Silfra was an out-of-body experience: 36-degree water, 400 feet of crystal-clear visibility, no fish, but incredible views of volcanic basalt. Even the hotel we stayed at was interesting, as it sat above a sulphuric hot spot, with white vapor wafting up all around us … and lots of sheep.
Each successive day started with a challenge.
For example, on our second day, our rental car flashed every single warning light you can have on a dashboard. Low oil, low tire pressure, low windshield washer fluid, engine failure, check engine immediately, volcanoes erupting ahead and so on.
Not surprisingly, we were in the middle of nowhere.
But each day we solved our problems with the helpful locals, like Veronica and Magdalena at Hotel Budir in Snaefellsbaer. It was while at Hotel Budir that we saw our first glacier and interesting geologic features. My grandfather and I are both photographers, and it was the sight of the glaciers that inspired him and I to begin taking what would end up being a total of over 3,000 pictures.
The next day, we had our car fixed by a mechanic in an extremely small village, Olafsvik, right before we took an ocean-going ferry bound for our next stop on the trip. On the ferry from Stykkisholmur (yeah, we soon gave up trying to pronounce all the cities), we chatted up a deckhand who ended up also being the captain. He invited us to the bridge, and let me drive the ferry, with a stop at tiny Flatley island!
When we landed on a remote peninsula in the northwest corner of Iceland, we realized that our next challenge was on the horizon. As night was falling, I entered the coordinates for our hotel that we were planning to stay at, but, surprise – it was 212 miles away and night had already fallen.
In a bit of a panic, we went to the only hotel we saw. Expecting to spend the night in the car, the owner, Gloria, took pity on us and gave the number one room. She prepared our dinner and afterward, sat with us for dessert. She relayed to us the story about the Raven Floki that came with the Vikings many years ago to settle in Iceland. Many sort of creepy stuffed ravens decorated the hotel.
Iceland is known for its waterfalls, with over 10,000 in the country. The first one we went to, Dynjandi, was on such a rutted road that we passed a number of cars with broken axles and wheels on the side of the road. From the waterfalls 20 miles from our Hotel Flokandur, we headed east and inland, driving by seven majestic fjords and along squiggly roads.
That next night, we stayed in a small cottage in Hvammstangi, where we needed to help other foreigners, who didn’t speak any languages we knew to get their code to their cottages. The next day, our fifth day in Iceland, we needed to get to Husavik, which was more than three hours away. We needed to get there by nine o’clock to get on the old Norwegian schooner for a whale-watching excursion. Papa was driving a little fast (to be specific, 140 KPH) and noted that we had yet to see a police car in Iceland. Just at that moment, flashing blue lights caught our attention, as a police car pulled over the car that had passed us earlier. Phew! Another challenge overcome.
We spent several hours on the old wooden schooner (which this captain also let me drive), just below the Arctic Circle, which made it incredibly cold. We were pleasantly distracted by the first of several Minke and Humpback whale breechings. What a wonderful experience to see so many of these amazing creatures up so close.
Off the boat, we headed south to our next hotel at Myvtan (pronounced mee-vat) which sits at the southern end of a spectacularly large blue lake and circled by old craters and hot springs. What a sight. White swans and flocks of ducks flew overhead or relaxed on the water. By now we had sampled many different local food specialties, though not fermented shark or whale testicles.
The next day was the longest drive of our trip, totaling over nine hours, but not until we drove offroad to see another waterfall, Dettifoss, the most powerful in all of Europe.
The long drive to the famous but overcrowded Vatnajokull National Park included many gravel roads with large potholes, rain squalls, mud, scary curves, no guard rails, and at one point, a nearly 45-degree, seemingly straight-down drop – but also no traffic at all.
Eventually we got back onto the Ring Road. By now, after more than a week, Papa had driven over 1,000 miles with me as the navigator. The one thing I hadn’t planned was what we were going to do with all the time in the car. But between navigating, being a hearing assistive human, stops at more waterfalls, my grandfather told me all of his amazing life stories and how his life happened in many other places around the world.
In the remaining days of our circumnavigation of Iceland, we met even more wonderful local families and finally saw hundreds of puffins returning from their dusk ocean feedings with up to a dozen mackerel in their expanding beaks. Among many curious facts, puffins drink both ocean and fresh water and fly in a large circle to avoid predator birds.
The last days of our adventure we wandered along Black Beach in Vik; hiked several miles to see an old abandoned plane wreck; watched long-maned Icelandic horses and thousands of lambs on steep mountainsides; and finished our stay in the capital, Reykjavik.