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Moments of Authenticity: Iceland

Posted by on July 10, 2014

There were two things that I just “had” to see in Iceland. A puffin and a traditional turfhouse. Surf and Turf, according to Jeff.

They both became a bit of a quest by the end of the trip.

Happily for me, I saw both by trips end. But more importantly than that, these two quests provided my two most authentic memories of Iceland. And neither of them had anything to do with puffins or a turfhouse.

The memories etched in my mind are of the connections made to three unique Icelanders (Anna, Laufey, and Helgi) who we met during the quest. And for me, that’s what traveling is all about. Not just seeing different places, but making connections with people, and gaining insight into local culture.

Moments of authenticity. I live for them.

Can I get a turfhouse? (whoop, whoop!)

Ok, so my quest for a turfhouse began on Day 1. Always looking for them, thinking we saw one in South Iceland only to realize it was a cave instead. Thwarted.

The yearning grew. To such an extent that on Day 5 we drove ~20 minutes on a slow, gravel road through pea soup-type weather to find the turfhouse in Sænautasel, only to be greeted by a closed sign (invoking flashbacks of our non-tour of the national parks during last year’s government shutdown). Errgh.

DSC_2618Turns out that Route 907 has been newly classified as Route F907 (without updating the maps, mind you). And our rental car wasn’t insured for the rough F-roads, not to mention the chain blocking our path. Strike two.

I can’t decide if I was more peeved by my thwarted turfhouse search or more secretly delighted that we found an enigmatic F-road. The only humans in sight were a band of motorcyclists who passed us by…[Tehe. Yup, we’re tough!]

As you’d expect, this only fueled my desire to find a turfhouse. Must. Find. One. Now.

Enter–Nathan. He pipes up from the backseat, “Hey, there’s one in Bustarfell, only a half an hour off our route.” Brilliant.

And off we went through ashen lands, on a moody, dreary day. At home on a day like this, I would have been napping. In Iceland, I was bound and determined to find a house with sod on its roof. Go figure.

Welcome to Bustarfell, a folk museum outside of Vopnafjörður in northeast Iceland. This turfhouse is one of the oldest and best preserved in all of Iceland. Score!

DSC_2629Not having a clue what we were in for, we headed carefully up the drive, accidentally parking in the family homestead rather than the museum parking lot. Oops.

The view from the start of the drive was idyllic—-turf covered house, old farm machinery. Quest accomplished! I felt a bit like a Smurf heading to my mushroom house.

house from roadWhile the turf roof was impressive, the red gables were even more picturesque…I’m giddy!

Stitched PanoramaNot a soul in sight, we took it in quietly, appreciating every morsel. The reindeer horns, layers of turf, and colorful flowers included.

Turf HouseAnd as we rounded the corner, we realized there was a cafe, and it was open. That’s when the magic started.

We were greeted by a college-age girl, home from school for the summer. Her family has owned this property since 1532. 1532! Her presence instantly brought back memories of the young girl in small town New Zealand with big dreams.

She served us up a mean cup of coffee (hot chocolate for me–no decaf coffee in Iceland), while explaining that the museum had just opened for the year yesterday, so we were some of the first visitors.

Her family has lived in the turfhouse up until 1966, when they moved into a nearby homestead. The house is now owned by the preservation society, and is a local source of pride.

She told us that the locals have a stake in the museum’s future and success, since many of the furnishings are donated from local families in Vopnafjörður, with the rest being original. They are hoping the new road to this area provides more tourism in years to come.

The museum/turfhouse was one of the most authentic “tourist” places we saw. In fact, to call it a “tourist attraction” would be to belittle it–it was more like a walk back in time. Folk museum is a good name for it.

Finishing our coffee, she asked if we wanted a tour and indicated that two local girls were in the house and happy to show us around. “They are young,” she said,  “but they know a lot about this place.” So true.

And with that, we were greeted by two tween girls. One dressed in a neon-green Aeropostale hoodie and cow-patterned pants and the other in a traditional dark-colored Icelandic wool sweater that she had received for her confirmation. They couldn’t have been more simultaneously alike and different.

For the next two hours, they showed us room by room through the 24-room turf house. Watching their interactions reminded me that tween girls are tween girls, no matter the location. Equal parts confident and shy, knowledgeable and curious.

They answered our many questions patiently and enthusiastically. It was fun to interact with them.

Their knowledge of their culture, the history of this house, and the local area, as well as their willingness to devote hours of their day sharing it left quite an impression on me. How many teenagers do you know who would be willing to teach some turfhouse-obsessed tourists about local history? My answer: not many.

Here is our quick pictorial tour. Suffice it to say that this turfhouse was much larger than I ever expected. Who knew?

insideI was drawn in after the first room. It instantly reminded me of Jeff’s family’s old bach/holiday house in Waitahuna – the history, the age, the stuff. Good memories.

Umm, and a loom? The tour essentially included a step back in time through 200+ years–from before power and running water to refrigeration and modern times. There was even a still-working well in the house.

loomOh, and did I mention that it was 2 stories? The phone was located in this hallway, along with a phone book from 1965. Icelandic phone books are alphabetized by first name. Can you imagine?

They kindly explained to us that Icelandic surnames are based on their father’s name. If a dad’s name is Olaf, his son’s surname is Olafsson and his daughter’s surname is Olafsdóttir.

Voila! Instant geneaology.

two storiesAnd here is the washroom, with the turf walls, and the washtub. This is where the girls informed us that the women did the laundry while churning butter, and holding one baby while rocking the other with her feet. We shared a knowing chuckle…

Thank god I wasn’t born in this era. I’m fairly certain I would have been voted off the island.

washing roomHere is a closer look at the turf walls in the process of being “formed.” Layers upon layers of turf providing the insulation that these houses are known for.


If you are ever in this area, definitely come visit this turfhouse. Meet these girls, hear the house’s story. Hear the town’s story. Experience Iceland over time, while simultaneously witnessing the young girls of modern Iceland.

Laufey and Anna–thank you for the excellent tour! We enjoyed our time with you immensely. Good luck with your studies, your travels, and this year’s festival to celebrate the turfhouse’s history.

And thank you for providing us with our first of two moments of authenticity in Iceland.

The quest for puffins provided the second.

Puff-, puff-, puffins. (I’m still puffin’…)

Who doesn’t want to see a puffin? That sort of tropical-looking penguin that is just too friggin’ cute to be real? Well I do.

Much like the turfhouse snafus, we missed ’em in Dyrhólaey and we missed ’em again in East Iceland. But on our way out of Akureyri on Day 7 (cutting it close!), a morning stop in the visitor’s center provided us with a 4:30 appointment for a tour of Drangey Island to see puffins.


We knew absolutely nothing about what this tour entailed. If we had, honestly, we might not have done it. Ignorance is bliss.

But I will tell you that the sign below (that we chuckled at as we saw it upon arrival in the Keflavik airport) turned out to be true.

IMG_3098I’ll admit that the long winding road through the middle of nowhere to get to Reykir, a “town” small enough that it barely registers on a map, made me momentarily second guess our decision to take a tour I knew nothing about.

But this cutie was too much to pass up, and we’re not the type to back out on a commitment.

So off to Reykir it was, where we could launch on our boat trip to Drangey Island. Or wait, were we launching from Grettislaug? To this day, I’m still not sure of the difference between Grettislaug and Reykir. Are they towns? Buildings? I don’t know.

We arrived to find out that we were the only three people on this afternoon’s tour. Normally they don’t take less than 16 people (16!) but they didn’t know how to reach us, so instead of cancelling, they took just the three of us. Solid.

Can you believe it? A personal tour! We certainly couldn’t back out. And who would want to?

The older man took us out on the boat, indicating that he’d pick up the people on Drangey Island, bring them back to Grettislaug, and then he’d come back for us. I’ll admit, in that moment, I thought we were just being dropped off to explore on our own.  What were we paying for?

But then when we saw Drangey Island for the first time, I thought being dropped off might not be a bad deal. If you think it looks steep from afar on a boat, just think how steep it looks close up. I envisioned several hours at the bottom eating some snacks while watching cute birds.

I was wrong.

Puff-puff-puffin. You may be the death of me.

Drangey Island from boatUpon arrival, we got dropped off with all of our stuff and quickly learned that the boat driver’s son was on the island ready to give us a tour. Say what?! Turns out, this is a family run business. Awesome! And simultaneously overwhelming. Aaaack!

Ummm, did I mention that I don’t hike? I don’t. And with two bum feet, I have a really good excuse not to right now.

Too bad. The only way anywhere on this island is up, up, up.

So up we went.

starting upThankfully, I was accompanied by three of the kindest, most chill people I’ve ever met (my hubby Jeff, college bestie Nathan, and my new Icelandic friend Helgi) and some really sturdy ropes. Oh, please let them be sturdy.

I quietly thanked myself for shedding my fear of heights before now. Came in handy.

And many thanks to Helgi for being so patient as we made our way to the top. This was his third trip up for the day, so he was in no hurry. Perfect.

We had time to learn a bit about each other–basketball-playing Icelander, cricket-playing Kiwi, tennis-playing American. Oh, and a girl who pinched herself for getting to hang out with these three catches for the day. Sweet.

The views were amazing.Climbing viewOh, and don’t worry about waivers. Only Americans ask about those silly things. There are none. Use common sense, and don’t fall. Capisce?

climbing view 2See Jeff and Nathan (in orange) along the path? Eeek.

the pathAlmost to the top!

from topOh but wait, just this last little bit before you can get to the top! Ha. Yep, that’s a ladder. Steep one!

climb to topI don’t think I have ever been prouder (or more relieved!) than the moment my last foot went over that ladder edge. Safe. At the top. Bliss.

Now you may have noticed that there hasn’t been a mention of puffins yet, on this puffin quest. Needless to say, they (and various and sundry other birds) were flying all around, living their lives. Me. I was focused on the top. Now I can think about birds.

And once we crossed the threshold at the top, all of the bird noise stopped, and it went completely silent. Eerie! For lack of a better word, we had just crossed into a sound break. So cool.

And then all of a sudden there, with a look to my right, was a turfhouse. Was I dreaming? Had the altitude gone to my head? Nope, must have just been living right–puffins and a turfhouse at the same time! Double score.

drangey turf house This small house had room to sleep up to 10, I believe, (super snugly) but required that all water be brought up from below. Aye, aye, aye.

Helgi and his friends use this as a base when they are puffin hunting. They hunt them with poles and nets–quite intricately, really. He claims they are quite tasty since they feed on both land (grass) and sea. I’ll take his word for it. They are way too cute to eat.

drangey turf

a man and his shackAnd if you’re still with me in this long-winded blog (sorry about that!), then you’ve finally gotten to the moment of authenticity. For it is now when Helgi started walking us around the top of the island telling stories of its history.

My hands down favorite was the story he told from the view below. Ok, picture it. Imagine yourself on top of the world, breeze flowing through your hair, sitting with 2 of your favorite men in the world alongside a proud, virile Icelandic man (his Viking ancestors would be proud), as he tells the story of Grettir the Strong.

Stitched PanoramaAs you view the fjord in all of its glory, listen to how outlawed Grettir the strongest man was exiled here, while a myriad of wily characters tried to take him down. It was quite a convoluted story (not ending well for Grettir) and there is absolutely no way I could do justice to it. To this day I am not certain if it was history, mythology, or a bit of both.

But as I sat there listening to him, I knew in that instant that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Moment of authenticity.


And to think it came about from a last minute, uninformed trip to a visitor’s center. Serendipitous.

Helgi brought me out of my reverie by asking if we knew about heo-case-ink. Say what now? You know, heo-case-ink? When people search for things using their GPS? Ah, geocaching! (albeit with an Icelandic accent…) As it turns out, there is a geocaching site up here. Clever.

And with that, we went off to walk around the island. There are puffins to see, people, puffins! Let’s start with a couple on the cliff.puffins on cliffAnd a little closer…check out those orange feet! Adorable.


And my favorite…Is he not puffin-tacular? Those eyes and that beak…I’m in love!


For those of you who are thinking of visiting, this was taken with a Nikon ED AF-Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 IF. [Jeff says to tell you that a longer lens might have gotten better pix, but would have been too bulky to carry. So there you go.]

To us mere mortals, this means we didn’t get this close to any one puffin, but we certainly got close enough to see them well and watch (many of) them in their natural habitat.

Now for a slightly harder one. Can you find Waldo puffin?

meet Waldo puffinOk, so not so hard, he’s obviously in the middle. As we climbed the cliffs, we constantly saw them flying in and out of their nests (never quite being able to see the nest itself). We learned a lot about puffins that day.

The males build a nest into the cliff, up to 1 meter each year. After 3 years, he finds a lifelong mate, and he can dig up to a 5-meter long nest. Puffins only nest here in the summer, and Drangey Island has a 92% return rate of puffins each year. Their body temperature is super hot (42degC), so they can survive the cold Icelandic winters, which means they often stay in the water during summer to cool down.

Here is a gathering (not a gaggle) of puffins. Super cool.

a gaggle? of puffins

As we walked around, we noticed this ridiculous ladder. It’s ridiculous because it’s still used. Helgi and his friends use it to get to bird eggs. Not puffin eggs, though, since they only lay one egg at a time.

ladderCheck out this view. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!

coveUm, did we climb that? You bet your sweet bippy we did!!!!

And as with all good things, they must come to an end. So we started our descent, in time for Helgi’s dad (and his son) to pick us up in the boat. It’s a family affair!

On the way down, here is a view from the ropes along one of the skinniest sections. Nathan marches on. Gulp.


And as we boated back to the mainland, we finally took some pictures of the other most prevalent bird on Drangey Island, the guillemot. No match for the adorable puffin.


And when we arrived back on terra firma and flat(ish) lands, our launching point was a sight for sore eyes. back on landWe parted ways with our wonderful tour guides, but not without profusely thanking them for (1) taking out only three people–they certainly didn’t have to and (2) for providing us with one of the biggest highlights of our trip. We will never forget it!

Helgi–it was wonderful to meet you and we hope to see you again someday. We highly recommend this tour to anyone**!!!

[**Ok, anyone with sure footing and/or hiking boots and without vertigo. Yep, that’s about right!]

And after all of that wonderfulness was done, there was no better way to end the day than to soak our muscles in the geothermal pools at Grettislaug. Be warned, though, there is no regulating natural geothermal temps and these bad boys are H-O-T!!! (38-42degC to be exact. Woah!)

We stayed in for as long as we could (while making friends with the Swiss, South African, Danish, and German friends in our mini-UN hot tub) before crying U-N-C-L-E and heading home. These Icelanders have thicker skin than I!

hotter than hot poolsAnd on our way from Grettislaug to Bakkaflöt for the next night’s accommodation, low and behold, what did we see?



The end of a damn near perfect day was topped off by a gorgeous (or should I say magical?!?!) white horse running free on a backdrop of paradise. You just can’t make this stuff up.


I really hope you enjoyed these moments of authenticity with us.

If you are ever in Iceland, please consider visiting the Bustarfell turfhouse or taking the Drangey Island tour from Grettislaug. We don’t usually review the places we visit, but these both get 10 stars (out of 5) from us.

We also realize that we were incredibly lucky to get personal tours in both of these places. Chalk this up as one of the benefits of coming early in tourist season.

What about you? Have you ever had a moment of authenticity abroad? Or have you ever beamed with pride after completing an unexpectedly physical task? If so, do tell! [And if you are still reading to the bitter end of this post, you must be my mom!!! (wink, wink)]

2 Responses to Moments of Authenticity: Iceland

  1. DSG

    What an incredible experience!! I read every single word and lived vicariously through you guys. What an amazing journey. Wow.

    • Jen

      Thanks, DSG! It was amazing indeed. Maybe you can add Iceland to your bucket list!! June is the perfect time to go…

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