last evening delights

1_PanoOcean_GregOverlook to Pingvallavatn on the Golden Circle to Laugarvatn

When I booked the Héraðsskólinn Boutique Hostel for our last night’s stay, I almost passed it over because of the “boutique” label.  The building was designed by the famous Icelandic architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, in 1928 as a school for education and culture. What makes it truly delightful is the historic architecture and the range of artifacts saved from the last century and arranged as both practical furniture and décor. Science anatomy charts frame the computer table. A carved wooden couch highlights the sitting room. Walls of books serve as handy little reference library sections in most rooms and even along the hallways. A typewriter and trundle sewing machine are artfully arranged on school desks from different eras. Class photos of students from swim teams, clubs, or graduations are a patchwork of faded gray tones across the dormitory walls.

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We check into our sparse and cozy dorm room, then walk around the few buildings surrounding the school. Dinner at the gourmet Lindin Restaurant is a delicious meal of reindeer and Arctic char and dessert of chocolate mousse with black currants from their own garden.

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After dinner we browse the shoreline of the shallow inland lake (vatn) and come upon an historic pool that we’ve read about from the Saga stories. Vigdalaug Og Likasteinar is a small consecrated pool and bier stones from the year 1550. Bishop Jon Arason and his two sons defied the Danish order that Catholicism be abandoned and only Lutheranism be practiced. All three were declared outlaws and beheaded. Their bodies were washed at this spring on the banks of Laugarvatn. The placard explains that the pool is believed to have healing powers. Greg and I both bend down to wash our hands in the pool and hope for healing powers, me for my carpal tunnel, and Greg for a recent hand injury. It is a lovely spot. The miracle is in the landscape.

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The Fontana Geothermal Baths is open for another hour so we relax in the silky hot springs until closing. The view across Laugarvatn is meditative as gray clouds settle in to signal night with a somewhat darker sky.

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We return to Héraðsskólinn for an easy sleep even as the sun illuminates the clouds in pink and red all through the ever-sunset night. In the morning we’re impressed with the breakfast buffet where we make our own waffles. They are so delicious that when we return home, the first thing I order from Amazon is an Icelandic style waffle maker, to relive that delectable morning over and over again. Various fruits and homemade jams make the memories even sweeter.

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The dining room is luminous in sunshine glistening off vivid greens of grass and copses beneath the piercing blue of summer sky. We scan our guidebooks at breakfast, anticipating our last day’s itinerary, a visit to Geysir and Gullfoss before we head home. We linger through breakfast hours and take our coffee and tea into the sunny living room as the dining room closes to savor this unique hotel and its myriad cultural delights.

snaefellsnes peninsula

1_SNCoastPanoVolcanic Mountains on the Coast Road of Snaefellsnes

The circuit of ocean road around the Snaefellsnes Pennisula expands into marshlands and sea to the right with mountains of varying volcanic geology rising to the left. It mirrors the spectacular folds of ocean and mountains on our home peninsula of the Point Reyes National Seashore.

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Only here the mountains are three times the size of our modest Vision Peak. It reminds us how fortunate we are to live in one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, enthralling us with a sweet mix of mountains, ocean, and marine geology. The coast road is sunny and lovely – our best day yet for pleasant weather. we have specifically chosen this route to travel through the national parks on the eastern shores; lava field harbors, black sand beaches, volcanic tuff mountains. The scenery dazzles around ever turn.

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We stop beside a lovely inlet with an expanse of waterfalls on the far side. Clouds foam above in billowing torrents but sun prevails. We stop again along a series of marshy pastures to photograph Icelandic horses grazing and then cavorting in the wetlands, splashing in chase. Such a pleasure to watch horses everywhere running wild and free, enjoying the world as much as we do.

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Their range of coloring delights me: buff with dark mane, dappled gray, tawny with coat and mane exactly matching, chestnut with black mane, black with light mane, black coat and mane, the combinations are dazzling. The peninsula is punctuated by the extremes of volcanic mountains, craggy cliffs, green fields and wetlands draining towards the ocean: marshes, sloughs, streams, creeks slipping out to sea. Another stop for lunch of hot chocolate, fish stew with homemade flatbreads provides a stunning book with photo-essays on the geology of Iceland.

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We wind along the circular route to the scenic town of Stykkishólmur, dramatically coming in from above with the town below the cliffs, an amazing perspective of colorful harbor and boats. The rows of lovely houses and buildings slide down the cliffs to sea level with an arc of white clouds and blue sky as celestial arbor.

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The quaint profile of town is highlighted by the stunning curved lines of Stykkishólmskirkja Church, perched upon the highest point. We drive up to walk around the white-washed concrete church.

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Disappointed that the Volcano Museum is closed, we press on along a dirt track that looks as if it will save us some time getting back to the main road to our inland destination of Laugarvatn. It is a grand choice as the dirt road winds around inlet after outlet of ocean with spectacular views and switchback roads rising along each set of cliffs.

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We stop at a farm for ice cream, savoring the ambiance as much as the homemade ice cream or chilled skyr (a richer version of frozen yogurt) and sit outside with the farm dogs and children.Once again we are lost in time, chasing the landscape as the sun bounces along the horizon line giving us the illusion of never-ending days.

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Clouds darken slightly to hint at us that it might be getting later than we think, and once again we also pull into our evening destination of Laugarvatn, just before restaurant closing time at 11pm, grateful for how well the locals have timed things to anticipate the time warped tourists.

luxury suite

1_BorganesBBviewMidnight View from Borganes, Iceland

Late evening approaches in the ever-present light, as once again we have packed our day full driving along this surreal landscape of towering mountains and ubiquitous winds and clouds. As always it is windy and chill as we stop for a dinner of specialty pasta on a mountain pass, 1933 Hredavatnsskali, just north of Borganes, our evening destination. Sparse tables and chairs on timber flooring surrounded by shelves of specialty pastas is a welcome respite at the end of the day. Our host shows us his weather app displaying wind speeds and regals us with somber stories of tourist vans and campers blown over on the pass in the regular high winds. We are glad to have a low profile Nissan as we leave with lemon pasta and a goatskin as souvenirs. The Borganes B&B is a symphony in luxury. We have a small suite with bedroom, sitting room, and patio with two wrought iron chairs overlooking the sea. Silky soft bamboo sheets and woven wool blankets atop downy comforters keep us snug and warm. A walk around the designer house unfolds in architectural beauty; gorgeous gray slate bathroom floors and countertops, teak wood walls and doors, cedar floors, expansive hallways with exquisite bathrooms.

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A kitchen out of the pages of Architectural Digest has a tea nook with specialty teas and a magnificent collection of cups as we pour a bedtime brew at midnight. A sewing and crafts area with antique storage chests and cabinets lining the dining room features a long farmhouse table. An expansive archway adjoining the living area with an array of wrap around couches that face spectacular all-night-always-sunset framed in the wall of windows overlooking the ocean and coastline silhouette of this maritime town. Greg sits at the living room window framed by the pink of the on-going sunset as I make our tea. Icelandic sweaters and crafts are artfully displayed along hooks in the dining area wall as yarns and needles rest on the crafts table awaiting the next rows of knit-purl patterns. There are four guestrooms, along with the hostess quarters, in this demure mansion by the sea and we bask in all of its charms and elegance. After tea on our private balcony we sink into luxury sheets and fall fast asleep.

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Breakfast the next morning is a gourmet feast of frittata, pancakes, meats, and pastries. On the drive through town we stop at the delightful coffee shop, Kaffi Kyrd with rooms for relaxing and unique gift shop nooks scattered amid the couches, tables, and outdoor deck. The Icelandic Settlement Center in Borganes is tempting, but we are anxious to explore the ocean roads and national parks areas of this warmer peninsula.

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We make one stop before leaving town and savor the expansive Borganes Bay view.

 

turf & tack

1_GaumberStone Pathway Leading Through Glaumbaer

We follow the charming hand-drawn map on the back of an advertisement card tucked into the front entry of The Mikligarður Guesthouse. I’m captivated by the stylized sheep and horse inviting us to explore the agrarian regions. Our goal is horseback riding, but marked thoughtfully on the map is Glaumbaer, the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum, a radiant green expanse in the summer sun.

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We are under its spell for several hours exploring the yawning, narrow hallways and specialty rooms of the homesteads built from herringbone pieced turf dug from the ground and framed by earth all around. Rows of turf houses have been built on this site for the last 900 years. We buy tickets at Gilsstofa, the yellow 19th C. timber house and meander the stone path through the series of houses, rooms comprising a wide array of activities from forge, storage, barn, to communal spaces.

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One turf house is the tack and sheltering rooms for the Icelandic horses that made it possible for people to settle this cold, barren landscape. Guides dressed in historic garb greet us at various points of interest and souvenirs opportunities. The community of houses was in disrepair when benefactor Sir Mark Watson first saw them in 1947. He was so fascinated by their originality, he funded the restoration and the site was designated a national landmark to preserve the heritage of turf-making and the lifestyle that it framed.

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Across the road is the actual working farm that operates today. I am drawn to the church adjacent to the village to photograph the iconic paintings of saints that frame the surrounding countryside within its tidy wooden window frames.

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The gray clapboard house, Áshús, houses exhibitions and a lovely Tea Room called Áskaffi which serves traditional Icelandic fare. After our tour we order tea and sandwiches so delicious that we quickly order a second serving. The rooms are decorated with vintage family photographs, antique utensils, and historic documents. Each gives a sweet slice of perspective on the lives and times of Icelandic country life. We savor these sweet slices of Icelandic life along with the pastries and pates served on antique porcelain.

port city tannery

Margo_mountainsCar.JPGMountains along Boreal Forest south of Sauðárkrókur

We head north to the fjords again after a site-intensive day around Myvatn. Each day I ask how could there be more? And always the answer simply is so much more. It’s midnight and we fumble around the town of Sauðárkrókur to find Mikligarður Guesthouse. GPS can be a challenge and names of streets and guesthouses are not always evident as we wander around town and eventually are pointed in the right direction. A sturdy white 3-story clapboard guesthouse is located a block from the main road that is lined with restaurants and a bakery.

MilkaGset2Church and businesses lining Aðalgata

We enjoy a lovely dinner of fish soup, followed by deep sleep at the guesthouse. Morning takes us directly to the local bakery to sample the best of Icelandic pastries as we refuel on many levels. The guesthouse has a brochure of farms to the south and we decide to go south for my first opportunity to ride Icelandic horses. Another handy guesthouse brochure informs us a traditional turf house village along the road to the farms.

MilkaGset3bakerySauðárkróks Bakari – the best in town

On the way out of Sauðárkrókur we look for a pharmacy to pick up throat lozenges and happen upon Sútarinn, the last remaining Icelandic tannery and now econo-museum. We walk through the main room of Icelandic crafts and into the display rooms of skins: goat, sheep, horse, Arctic fox, and fox. The most interesting skins are fish dyed in a rainbow of colors. Exquisite shades and tints highlighting the pattern of scales. This experimentation with fish skins and the development of Atlantic leather in 1989 allowed Sútarinn to stay in business as other tanneries closed their doors. They created a fish leather with the softness of high quality cowhide. They are readily supplied with fish skins processed at a factory nearby in Dalvik. One of my regrets will be that I did not buy a few of those visually delicious fish skins, especially the ones in the subtle and luscious hues of turquoise, mauve, and butterscotch. We wave goodbye to the northern fjords.

MilkaGset1Sauðárkrókur Harbor and the surrounding mountains that carve out the fjord

sapphire goddess

1_GodafossPanoGoðafoss on the Skjálfandafljót

Gray skies layer in deeper lines of darkening clouds until rain swathes the roadways north to Sauðárkrókur on the western fjords. We pull on scarves, gloves, Icelandic hats and zip up our winter coats to ward off the windswept chill. Halfway along the Ring Road we approach the epic Goðafoss, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland that falls 12 meters over a width of 30 meters in a stunning arc on the river Skjálfandafljót. Slightly more than half the height of Niagra Falls, but the same impressive horseshoe arc encompassing viewers astounded along her banks. Both grand horseshoe falls have similar surging river above and below. Lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði made Christianity the official religion of Iceland by throwing his statues of Nordic gods into the raging waters of Goðafoss in the year 1000.

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The water gods of Iceland live on regardless of mere human pronouncements, and a steady stream of worshipping tourists attest to the fact of her divine beauty. The color of cerulean glacial melt waters never loses its ability to impress with the most magnificent splendor. Rain abates for the short time we walk along the riverside trail and snap selfies and various profiles of this sapphire goddess. The magnificent Sapphire in much of folklore and religion is associated with celestial beauty, considered a stone of wisdom and royalty, of prophecy and divine favor, often held as a sacred artifact and considered the gem of gems. The azure radiance of Goðafoss is indeed a gem of gems.

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myvatn nature baths

1_MyvatnNatureBathsPanoMyvatn Nature Baths outside Reykjalid

Myvatn Nature Baths lives up to its expectations, an exquisitely cerulean blue. The turnout to the parking lot is just outside Reykjalid. Clouds lay an overcast to the day as white steam rises to meet white clouds suspended above. Gray layers of altocumulus allow us to float without fear of sunburn for several hours in this majestic sand-bottomed lagoon with built in benches to simply sit and wallow in comfort. It is the ultimate spa day. The $40 day entry fee includes a towel and locker key. I float in my long-sleeved California style rashguard with my glasses on – UV rays turn my transition lenses to sunglasses quickly. I savor the rippled horizon punctuated by the mountains and craters of the Highland landscape with the snow-capped cape of Queen Herðubreið most notable, situated at center view in the lagoon. There are several water vents in the pool as well as a bathing waterfall with 36-40°C hot water flowing constantly that makes the use of chemicals or chlorine unnecessary due to the chemical composition of minerals that prohibit the growth of bacteria and vegetation.

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When you tire of floating in hot spring bliss, you can sit in the steam baths on the patio with geothermal steam rising from cedar slats. The water in the geothermal vents is 130°C and the steam vents are much higher in temperature than the lagoon. Signs warn not to stay too long in the steam rooms due to this excessive, yet therapeutic heat. One of the best things about traveling in Iceland in June is that most places are open until midnight – Myvatn Nature Baths welcomes bathers from 9am – midnight. We float and sauna about until 6pm, then head north again to Sauðárkrókur on the western fjords. Our day on Myvatn feels like three, with all of the amazing natural wonders of geology, bird migration, and lava landscapes receding now behind us.

lava fields abound

1_Lava Fields_DimmuborgirDimmuborgir Lava Fields on Myvatn

We leave the bird museum, located on a farm in the hollow of a small peninsula on the northwest side of Myvatn, and drive back onto the main road circling Myvatn and head to Reykjalid where our destination of the hot springs baths are located. Myvatn has more surprises for us aside from the main attraction of hot springs. This is one of the most fascinating geological and ecological regions in the country. The otherworldly hot springs fjalls of Hverfjall and Namafjall are both nearby (see post “middle earth @ the surface”) roiling with the power of geology burbling beneath one of the thinnest areas the earth’s crust. The small hamlet of Reykjalid on the eastern shore has a post office for mailing off souvenirs to family and friends, along with several lovely cafes and gift stores with handmade knits, jams, chocolates, and breads. I buy a pair of knit slippers, some smoked fish, and the most delicious bread I have ever tasted in my life. It is a brown bread steamed underground in this area. Later I wish I had purchased a case of that bread. After topping off petrol, post office stop, and gift store purchases, we travel a bit further south to Kafi Borgir, a family owned restaurant and gift store on their farm perched atop one of the most beautiful lava formations on the planet – Dimmuborgir.

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As we approach the meadows, shoreline, fields afar are populated by a surreal array of lava formations from rising columns to flat expanse of crackled gray. Sheep meander amid the giants. Myvatn’s shores (pdf map opens very slowly but is well worth the wait) are rife with gray boulders of lava everywhere. Kafi Borgir has a simple wood architecture not to compete with the showcase of snow-capped mountains on the horizon or the fluid fields of Dimmuborgir below. In the gift store before the restaurant, I purchase a lava necklace crafted locally with matching earrings in addition to several semi-polished lava stones. I invite any local elves to hop aboard these stones destined for our elf garden back home in Inverness.We enjoy a delicious salmon salad and sit outside on the roped off patio overlooking small groups of tourists weaving in and out along the trail of rough, rising and falling, rippling edges of Dimmuborgir that look much like a massive dragon’s back fossilized upon the earth. Game of Thrones fans will recognize several of these geological features as the film backdrop of the darker settings beyond The Wall.

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When Dimmuborgir erupted over 2000 years ago lava flows met the shocking wet of marshlands and this wild, waffling ridgeline of lava was formed. The intersection of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, slowly drifting away from each other, causes intense seismic activity in the region, resulting in features like Dimmuborgir and the nearby crater of Hverfjall, the largest crater on the planet at a diameter of 1 kilometer. We are grateful for guidebooks that take us to most of these travel gems, but it’s not until researching the area for this blog that I realize that we could have driven a few kilometers east and walked up the formidable flanks of Hverfjall. A spectacular sidetrip missed. Next time Greg replies when I mention this to him. There will definitely be a next time to Iceland. My idea is to teach for a year in Iceland when I retire, and possibly plan a year in a different countries – a retirement of teaching abroad. Seismic shift in thinking about work and travel.

a day for the birds

1_Myvatn_MuseumFuglasafn Sigurgeirs Entry on the Shores of Myvatn

The next morning as we plan our day, we discover that Myvatn, the mineral spring lake in the Golden Circle, is also one of the finest bird-watching spots in the world, especially in summer. The local listings at Guesthouse Stong recommend a visit to Fuglasafn Sigurgeirs, a famous bird museum on the shores of Myvatn. We GPS our way to the bird museum, thrilled to suddenly see the other side of the Queen of the Mountains, Herðubreið, and her court of various table mountains viewed from the south this time. She is a beauty even from the warm side of the region, but I must admit that travelling across the arctic expanse of fierce weather in the Highlands, seeing Herðubreið from the north in her frigid glory, was a highpoint of the tour so far.

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It was the finest moment of Iceland feeling like the Land of Ice. Then, as with California and the High Sierras where winter temperatures are ever-present, we drive to lower altitudes and spring temperatures. I often tell friends that California has “optional winter,” with the ability to shift from winter to summer temperatures within a few hours up or down the Sierras. The snow-capped peaks of the North Central Highlands delight us all around Myvatn with stunning vistas in every direction. Billowing layers of clouds overlay what begins as a sunny morning in true Icelandic style.

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The museum is a wonder of modern architecture and a vast collection of species packed into a small and elegant space. Visitors walk across a glass bridge with an active creek flowing beneath, emphasizing the importance of ecological balance in this fragile environment, assaulted with an explosion of tourism. We spend easily two hours talking with the docent about birds, environment, the challenges facing Iceland, and migrating birds. We are drawn to cases of raptors, swans, and puffins.

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Several outbuildings house a series of museum collections of local history, agricultural artifacts, regional folklore, and a sweet collection of handmade dories, used for ferrying locals across Myvatn back in the day before roads were carved everywhere. We stop along the roadside and photograph migrating birds feeding in the estuary pools. It’s easy to see the overlay of habitat for the natural world in Iceland, water for migrating birds. We must come to re-cognize that every inch of this planet, whether urban mall or Icelandic plain, is shared habitat for all the living things relying on earth, air, wind,  water. We’re the ones with the responsibility to keep it clean, to respect equity of access for all. It’s good to live in California where the awareness of land impact is becoming a norm in planning for development. Today, more than ever, we need an expanding Environmental Protection  agency as well as mindset. It is the protection of us all.

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Icelandic design

1_Stong FarmstayGuesthouse Stong above Myvatn

After whale-watching in Husavik we drive south toward the Myvatn region. Guidebooks recommended skipping the Blue Lagoon because of crowds advocating hot springs further from Reykjavik like the Myvatn Baths as a better travel experience if you have the travel time. We have time. This next farmstay was chosen to be near Myvatn and spend an entire day around the famous hot spring. We drive through a mild rain along the dirt road leading to Guesthouse Stong. Along one section near the farmhouse we spot a lamb in a gully, separated from its twin and mum, trying desperately to get back over the fence to them. As we walk in to the reception area, I mention it to the woman at the counter and she makes a quick call on the phone and thanks me, as a farmhand is dispatched for rescue. We check into our room on the third floor of the old house, built in 1929, then put on our suits to take a dip in the outdoor hot tubs. Like most buildings in Iceland, wells drilled for hot water at 60-degrees Celsius provide an underground heating system for house & cottages as well as lovely mineral water for the hot tubs.

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Before dinner, on the recommendation of the receptionist, we drive up across the gravel track to the vista point on highlands overlooking the mountains that loom above Myvatn. These upper pastures are covered with the grazing lands for the many sheep, horses, and a few cattle that are the staple of Icelandic farms. Myvatn below is breathtakingly beautiful punctuated by the rise of volcanic deposits and mountains all around.

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Dinner at Stong Guesthouse is truly an Icelandic delight. On the farm they make their own skyr, cheeses, meats, and pastries. I never tire of the amazing range of delicious when ordering my usual in Iceland, rack of lamb. Each restaurant or farmhouse kitchen has their own version of combination rubs & sauces that are epicurean ecstasy. Breakfast the next morning will be another dream meal with the leftover sliced meats, smoked fish, and cheeses from the dinner spread with the addition of fresh breads. Dinner is followed by a sweater selection from the dining room gift shop. A small corner holds a rack of beautifully handknit Icelandic sweaters. I pick out an ivory sweater with grey-black yarns woven in traditional lopapeysa pattern that matches my lucky Icelandic cap, bought in a bookstore in Husavik. Since my birthday is approaching, I select a second sweater in deep charcoal with cream-color zig-zag patterned yarns in a floral motif, thigh-length and a zip-up cardigan. The hostess squeals with delight, explaining that it was knit by her grandmother, Audur, and her boyfriend, Hermann, just this past winter. I’m honored to have it, thinking of the time my mother spent knitting sweaters and scarves for all eight of us children year in and year out, new ones as we grew or passed on, outgrown by siblings. I appreciate how important it is to buy souvenirs from local residents like this rather than from larger outlet stores. From the moment I walked through Keflavik Airport, surrounded by luscious patterns and wools of Icelandic designs, I’ve been yearning for the perfect traditional sweater. The shops and sweaters at the airport were very tempting, and I did check prices for comparison. I’m so glad that I waited to find authentic sweaters, knit by local farmers who depend on tourist dollars for their income, where 100% of the profits go directly to them to sustain this way of life.

 

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Sustainable tourism supports the best of regional families and environments. It’s a double win because these farms farther away from Reykjavik have substantially reduced prices and better quality knits. We bring our day to a close with another long soak in the outdoor hot tub; brisk cold, steaming with underground hot springs feeding the tank. The stars are spectacular for the brief period when clouds disperse across the landscape, prefacing a sunny day tomorrow to explore Myvatn and finally savor epic hot springs up close and personal. Our spa bags are packed before we go to sleep.